The Mary Sue Interview: Elijah Wood Talks Genre Movies, Women in Film, and Having Cooties
"I think there's something artful about genre cinema." - Elijah Wood
Every experienced teacher, no matter how much they love their students or their job, at some point has the strong urge to whack their students in their faces with blunt objects. Well now, there’s a horror comedy that caters to that impulse. It’s called Cooties, and it stars Elijah Wood. In it, a group of hapless teachers are trapped in a school with zombie children.
Here is the official synopsis from Lionsgate Premiere:
From the twisted minds of Leigh Whannell (co-writer of Saw and the writer of Insidious) and Ian Brennan (co-creator of Glee), Cooties is a horror comedy with unexpected laughs and unapologetic thrills. When a cafeteria food virus turns elementary school children into little killer savages, a group of misfit teachers must band together to escape the playground carnage. The film stars Elijah Wood (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Rainn Wilson (The Office), and Alison Pill (The Newsroom) as teachers who fight to survive the mayhem while hilariously bickering in an uncomfortable love triangle on the worst Monday of their lives. The Sundance hit Cooties will be one of the debut releases of the newly-launched Lionsgate Premiere label, which will release the film on September 18th in select theaters and On Demand.
In an exclusive interview, TMS had the chance to sit down with Wood to talk about the new film (on which he’s also a producer): why he wanted to help make it, why genre film is important, awesome women in genre film, and even some tidbits about the upcoming The Last Witch Hunter!
Teresa Jusino (TMS): Cooties is really fun, and I have a lot of friends who are teachers and nannies, and I used to babysit and work children’s parties, so…I feel like this movie is gonna be cathartic for a lot of people. Just to watch kids get bashed in the face.
Elijah Wood: (laughs) Oh, that’s awesome! We were hoping that would be an element of the experience for people.
TMS: You’re starring in it and you’re a producer as well – what drew you to this role, and what drew you to making this film happen?
Wood: The initial draw – it was an internal idea, one of my producing partners, Josh Waller, had this idea about a zombie-like virus that affects kids pre-puberty. And he was like, It’s gotta be called Cooties. And I thought, That’s totally brilliant. The idea that no one has ever made that is crazy to me. And we looked feverishly for it, like there had to have been something in the 70s or 80s, some cheesy exploitation film…and there wasn’t! So [the idea] got communicated to Leigh Whannell – who wrote Saw and Insidious, obviously – he fell in love with the idea, met with us, pitched it as a comedy – and for some reason we were thinking of it as a serious horror movie, which…it actually makes me laugh now, because I don’t know how we thought that. We were so obsessed with Who Can Kill a Child?, which is this really great Spanish horror film about killer children, and I think we were just so on that tip that we didn’t think of any comedic version of this.
But he communicated this idea of it being a comedy, and we fell in love with it. So it kind of went from there! He specced the script for us with Ian Brennan, who co-created Glee, and they wrote this incredible, deeply funny script for us. At that point, I was only involved as a producer from its inception through the creation of the scripts, and then trying to get it made. And never along that road did I ever intend to play a character in the film, until they asked me to, and I was really reticent. ‘Cause mainly, it was relatively in our infancy at our company, and I really wanted to establish a clear line between my work as an actor and my work as a producer with the company and not wanting to blur those lines, and not wanting the company to seem like a vanity project for my own work as an actor.
Ultimately, I relented. Clearly. And I’m glad I did! It was one of those things where I kinda couldn’t deny it. The script was so great, the cast that we were getting was so wonderful, and they were all people that I really wanted to work with, and I knew I’d have a lot of fun. So, that’s how that came together.
TMS: It seems like it must have been a really fun set.
Wood: We had too much fun. It was awesome. The movie takes place in one location – so, we were at this school for about 3-4 weeks, every day during the summer, and it felt like summer camp. And everybody got along so well. And the material was so great. We just had a blast!
We actually had the luxury – because we were at this one location – we had the luxury of almost shooting the movie in sequence, which never happens! Typically it’s always location-dependent, and you shoot way out of sequence, but we got to do it in time with the film, which was really helpful to us as actors.
TMS: What was it like working with the kids specifically? Usually kids’ time on sets is really limited – did they have a chance to bond with the adults at all?
Wood: They were around us a bunch. Our whole production was set up in the school, so different classrooms were for different departments. So we had different rooms for hanging out, and it always felt very communal. We were always sharing the same space. The kids were great! They were really wonderful. And I think they had a blast being these little monsters. And getting to live out the fantasies of horror films. They got it, and had fun with it.
TMS: You’ve obviously done a lot of genre stuff – fantasy, sci-fi, and now comedic horror – what does that stuff bring to storytelling, and why is genre film important? What does it have to offer?
Wood: Good question! Not an easy one to answer! I’m very drawn to genre, and I always have been. I’ve loved horror since I was young, really young. Initially, I think it’s that taboo – you’re not supposed to see it when you’re a kid, so I was always wanting to see Freddy Kreuger and all of these monsters in horror movies that I knew wasn’t supposed to see, so there’s that part of it. As I’ve gotten older, I think there’s something artful about genre cinema. Some of the great – I think all the great filmmakers – start in genre. Steven Spielberg started in genre, Tarantino to a certain degree. Genre is where you cut your teeth a little bit. But it’s also a conduit for really interesting storytelling. It deals with people’s fears, it deals with the darker expression of the human experience. Stepping away from strictly horror to sci-fi and other elements of genre – there’s a little bit more freedom for storytelling. The bounds are a little bit open. It feels like there’s more possibility. It’s not an easy question to answer.
There’s actually a documentary called Why Horror? wherein everyone in the film is asked that very question. And everyone has different reasons. And it’s not an easy question to answer – why you’re drawn to that kind of darkness. But I love it on an aesthetic level, I love it tonally, I love that it elicits a strong response – be it fear, or discomfort – it’s aim is always to move you on some level. I like that about it.
TMS: Even something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [Note: in which Wood had a supporting role], which is a drama, but nobody ever talks about it as a sci-fi film….
Wood: It totally is! It’s totally a genre film. It’s a romantic comedy set within the confines of science fiction and genre. Totally. That’s interesting.
TMS: A couple of themes kept popping up. Like, Teachers don’t get paid enough…
Wood: Yup. That was Ian Brennan, for sure. His mom’s a teacher, so….
TMS: There you go! And also some stuff about the fact that parents don’t have enough time for their kids – like the mom who gets eaten because she’s on her phone and isn’t paying attention – what would you see as the main takeaway from this film? In addition to it being silly, zombie, comedy fun.
Wood: They were really smart to include a lot of those things, and it’s all within the fabric of the film. The over-medication of kids is addressed, poor quality of lunch food and cafeteria food in schools…there are all these little things that are dotted throughout. But I think it’s all there as subtle ways to address these things, and to address them in a way that’s really comedic…but I don’t know that the intention was to take away these themes and think about them on a deeper level. If you do, I think it’s great, because these are all genuine issues that should be addressed. But it was really just allowing for there to be some depth to the environment of the film.
TMS: And hitting kids in the face with baseballs.
Wood: And then there’s that!
TMS: Now, TMS does tend to look at things from a female perspective, and I looked up the statistic that 76% of public school teachers are women, but I notice that in this film there are only two – Alison Pill and Nasim Pedrad – and we’re always looking for more films with more women in them, or with female protagonists. Since you are a producer, and you’ve been in the industry so long, what do think it might take, or where do you think we need to start as far as getting more women involved in film – both in front of the camera and behind it?
Wood: Great question. I feel like, for people who are conscious of that, I think there’s a real effort to increase the female presence in film, whether it’s filmmakers, or actors, or roles that are not marginalizing the female experience, or having them only exist in a confined space for the male gaze, which is a lot of what we have to deal with in cinema. But I feel like that’s increasingly less so. I feel that female voices are stronger and stronger, and in genre, I feel like there’s a lot of really strong, incredible females – from Mette Marie Katz at XYZ Films, who’s in foreign sales and production and doing amazing things, and is a real champion of genre cinema; to Roxanne Benjamin, whose a great producer in her own right, she produced the V/H/S films, and is gonna start directing – in fact, her directorial debut just got into TIFF. I feel like I’m surrounded by a lot of strong female voices.
There’s a film that some friends are making – I can’t talk about it, because it hasn’t been announced yet – but there was a character, the lead character of this film, which is basically an action film, the lead character was male, and halfway through developing it, they said Wait a minute. Let’s make her female, and not change anything. And that was terribly exciting. And it wasn’t this thing of coming at it from the outside and saying Let’s put a female in there, but it actually changed the movie, it changed how you view the character, it made the character more interesting…and what was so exciting was not addressing it. She’s still into the same things that the guy was into. And not overly-feminizing it, just making it what it was, and then taking it at face value.
From where I stand, I see a lot of that thought process happening, and I feel like that’s something that we often consider as well as we progress with the films we’re producing, that we are considerate of that.
I don’t get the difference, or why that has to exist. I find it ridiculous that we have to have this conversation. It’s sort of silly. But in genre, I don’t see that as much. I see a lot of really strong voices doing really interesting things.
TMS: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about it – The Last Witch Hunter – what can we expect from that film and from you?
Wood: I guess it’s a fantasy action movie with horror elements? (laughs) It’s all about witches, which I love – I love witches – so it’s basically set in a world where there are witches living among us, and it’s centered around a character named Calder, played by Vin Diesel, who’s an immortal witch hunter. He’s been hunting evil witches for centuries, keeping evil magic at bay and allowing for white magic to be amongst us, but sort of controlled.
I play a character called Dolan the 37th. I’m a priest in a long line of priests that have been serving Calder in his efforts – almost doing the research and the assisting work to his more physical efforts to keep this evil at bay.
I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m already loving the trailer.
The Last Witch Hunter isn’t out until next month. Thankfully, you don’t have to wait that long for your next Elijah Wood fix. Cooties opens tomorrow in select theaters, and will be available On Demand. Having seen a screening of the film, I can tell you that Cooties is hilarious, and should appeal to fans of horror and comedy alike.
And also to teachers who’d love nothing more than to wallop kids in the face.
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