[Interview] ‘STUDIO 666’ director BJ McDonnell Crafts a Rockin’ Feature

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Camera operator-turned-director BJ McDonnell has crafted one hard rockin’ picture with STUDIO 666. His badass, bitchin’ horror-comedy shows a heightened iteration of the Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Pat Smear, Chris Shiflett, Nate Mendel and Rami Jaffee) recording their 10th album while sequestered in a spooky haunted mansion in the Valley. And while a case of writer’s block initially plagues the band, demons and ghouls actually arise to haunt them, causing mayhem to ensue.

Obviously, we’ve gotten to know the Foos through their music videos and interviews over the years. Was it obvious to you how you were going to best utilize each of their personalities?

McDonnell: “When we were doing the script, and with Dave’s idea, and we were getting together with the writers, we gave them a [list] of the different characteristics of the band. So we incorporated that in the script. That was also the way I approached to directing them was just to say, ‘Be who you guys are. Don’t try to make a character out of this. Yes, it’s a scripted thing and there’s dialogue, but be yourselves. If there’s something you wouldn’t say to your buddy, then say it [your way].’ It’s more impressive, because then you get to see their personalities. You actually get to see each of their personalities in the band.”

Did the location pose any problems? How was the house you shot in?

“That was where they were recording ‘Medicine At Midnight’ – their actual 10th album. That’s where Dave got the idea to make the haunted house thing. It’s a very strange house. It’s on this weird hill. It had all these weird sculptures and strange things all over it. It was not an easy house to shoot at, especially for crew and people who had to go up and down stairs and different locations in the house. Just to get to different areas, it was always a bit of a task. It does make for a good set piece.”

You’re dealing with gallons of blood and water, where it’s not just the logistical challenges that would arise from the Before Times. It’s compounded shooting during COVID protocols. How was negotiating that? I would imagine it was a nightmare.

“Yeah and we were all the guinea pigs learning what we had to do when we were doing this. We were all the people learning how to test 3 times a week and figure out how long it was going to take people to and from set. That was the hardest thing to figure out. We did a trial run while we were back in pre-production and worked it out that way. We added a couple days to make sure – and we had to shorten our days because no one wanted to do 12 hours. We wanted to keep it to a 10 hour day. We had to change things in the script. All sorts of stuff. It was tough too, because you also didn’t know what people looked like anymore. It was a whole learning curve. But now we’re used to it. Even to this day, we’re still doing the same stuff we had set up.”

I saw a lot of commentary in the film about the artistic process and how rock stars are deal with demons and being haunted by songs they can’t finish, granted all in a broad comedic context. Was that something intentional, or am I reading too much into this?

“Making the song stuff, it’s funny because no one really says, is like Dave just kinda steals the song. When he’s having his writer’s block, he found this thing from an old band that had troubles in the past and literally steals the song. I think that’s a great part of the story. The narrative, as far as how this thing got made, I wanted to make sure that in dialogue and camera movements and through the shot choices also told a story. As a filmmaker and a cameraman, I always find that it’s really important for the camera to tell a story, even if dialogue isn’t happening.”

Was it always Lionel Richie as the cameo in Dave’s dream? And how much of a pinch me moment for you to have him swear?

“He was written in the script and we were always like, ‘Are we going to get Lionel?’ He’s such a cool dude to work with. He read it and thought it was great. For me, to get him to say what he says in the movie, when I knew we were about to be done, I just said, ‘Hey Lionel. On this take do you mind if you just say this? I think it’d be really cool.’ It was one of those things where, and I don’t know him personally, but you go ahead and just see. He goes, ‘I thought you’d never ask!’ He was super into that. It’s fun to see. I’ve been on other sets where you ask certain people to do things sometimes and they’re like, ‘That’s not… I don’t want to do that.’”

Director BJ McDonnell’s STUDIO 666, an Open Road Films release. Credit : Courtesy of Open Road Films

There are a bunch Easter Egg references and homages to other horror films included here. I caught A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and EVIL DEAD. What were some others?

“You’ve hit those references. There’s scenes where, like the delivery man comes to the house, we replicated THE EXORCIST. There’s other EXORCIST references in there, flashes of things. There’s references to THE BURNING. Even down to certain characters in the movie you see were basically an homage to THE FOG. It’s always fun to pepper in certain things to let horror fans grasp onto that – not force feeding, but the visual of it alone, is always good.”

You’ve worked on many sets previously as a camera operator with lots of directors and other badass bands, like Slayer. Are there things you’ve picked up and learned working on their sets that you bring to yours?

“I actually really use my experience as a camera operator as the best film school you can possibly have. Being on a set and being able to work so closely with certain directors is super vital. If the younger me would’ve told me, ‘Skip film school and go start working on sets’ as the craft that I do, I would’ve done that. For me, personally, the learning experience and coming together of ideas on a set is vital. I’ve taken the good things and taken the bad things. I’ve watched what certain directors do and how they talk to an actor and assess the scene and even their personality on set. If i see something, I’m like, ‘I’m going to lean more into being like that.’ And not that I’m a copycat. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t and that’s my film school. That’s what’s gotten me to where I’m at.

As a camera operator, the other thing I do, I’ve taken lessons from the director, directors of photography, even down to the make-up, seeing what people’s make-up worked, what practical effects work, what doesn’t work, or how things are set up. It’s vital.”

One of my favorite credits of yours is HOME AGAIN.

“Oh my gosh! [laughs]”

There was a bit of an online kerfuffle, a year or so ago, when it somehow got called into question whether it was Hallie Meyers-Shyer who directed (and is credited to doing so) or Nancy Meyers. Would you like to set the record straight?

“I don’t want to get involved in that. I was there and I love them both. Those are the kind of debates I don’t like to be involved with.”

What was it like on the set?

“I had a great time on that job. What I thought was great, and the reason why I took the job, was because it was Dean Cundey shooting it. When I got the call, it wasn’t my type of movie I would usually gravitate to, but when I found out who the director of photography was, because he’s shot so many of the movies I grew up loving, I had to do it. When you get to meet these people, you don’t know if you’ll ever meet them again, or work with them again. He was a hero of mine who shot some of the best horror films and movies that shaped my film likes. That was the reason I did HOME AGAIN.”

You’ve worked with Jason Trost consistently. Is he your good luck charm?

“He is 100% my good luck charm. I love Jason. Jason Trost is a talent that no one’s really given the chance…If that guy got a huge budget, it would be amazing to watch what that guy could do. He’s such a talent, from directing to acting to writing to visual effects. Any time I have something, I always call Jason. I know it’s going to be great. It’s like having your brother on set.”

You seemed to have nabbed Jenna Ortega at just the right time. She’s the scream queen of the moment. How was working with her?

“That was amazing. I wanted this film to open up a certain way. People will already expect it to be fun and funny, because it’s a Foo Fighters movie. I wanted this to open dark and emotional. I needed a very strong actress to do this opening bit. So me and my wife we sat and watched a bunch of auditions and Jenna popped up in a scene from YOU. It was a very emotional scene and I went, ‘She is perfect.’ We were lucky to have her. Super easy to work with and loved having her on set. I hope I get to do another movie with her again. I’m very fortunate that we had her.”

What did you learn about yourself making this movie?

“A thing I’m always learning is trusting your crew and the people you hire. From the get go, I wanted to control certain things and what I realized, and am still realizing, is that if I surround myself with the right people and people who I trust and love, I know that I’m going to be a better director and can focus more on what it is that I’m trying to do in the film and not being so precious and overwhelming myself with, ‘Oh I should also operate the camera,’ and then forgetting about what’s happening with the characters’ emotions or the performance. I’m only looking at framing. That’s just one example. Over all these years, it’s still a learning process for me. I’ve gotten way better at it [laughs], I hope.”

STUDIO 666 opens in theaters on February 25.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.