Q&A: Directors Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion On Their Flesh Chomp-a-thon ‘COOTIES’


IMG_0737Cole Clay // Film Critic

COOTIES‘ infectiously entertaining story centers on a mysterious virus taking over an elementary school, transforming its kids into murderous, flesh-eating crazies– and it’s a slice of genre film heaven.

The film’s trailer for dropped in May and it took the level of excitement from regional quarantine to worldwide pandemic. Well, maybe that’s a bit too much, but the film directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion is riddled with screeches, screams, and laughs.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to chat with the filmmaking-duo about the art of murderous children, blending comedy with horror, and what more we can expect from them.

Elijah Wood getting trounced by an infected student. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Elijah Wood getting trounced by an infected student. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

COOTIES first came to my attention while I was at Fantastic Fest back in 2014. A colleague of mine was interviewing Elijah Wood there and the excitement carried over into the Midnight Premiere that took place at Sundance this year. I know for a fact that people are excited for this movie, so what has taken so long for us to just now be getting a trailer?

Cary Murnion: “It was after Sundance Lionsgate bought the distribution, which we were very happy about. They gave us the opportunity to shoot the ending that we really wanted. Because of timing and budget constraints we couldn’t get the some of the coverage that we were hoping. But when Lionsgate came on-board they gave us both the time and the funds to pull that off. So we shot the new ending in the Spring right after Sundance and then it took us a while to get all that edited. And, of course, it all comes down to timing, and they thought that a Fall release would be best. So now it’s just about waiting, and we certainly wouldn’t want to rush the process.”

So did you guys go to the Overlook Hotel for the Stanley Film Fest?  

Murnion: “Yeah, it’s a cool hotel and you’ve heard the tale that that’s where Stephen King was inspired to write THE SHINING. Another side note is DUMB & DUMBER was shot there. But as far as creepy is concerned, I’ve never had an experience with a ghost before, so it’s not something I’m in touch with, but those feelings. Elijah, though, he said went the past two years and had some real experiences in some of the rooms, which are documented as being haunted. But yeah, the audience grasped the movie and it played really well there.”

Now, did it worry you at all to vilifying of the kids, but I am assuming it’s all in good fun. What kind of notes did the studio have for you as filmmakers about this?

Murnion: “It’s definitely something to think about, but the way we really approached it is that it wasn’t kids. They are monsters; it’s the same thing as watching THE WALKING DEAD, the body count on that show is insane. You’re not really killing kids; you’re killing monsters, and for us that’s what it comes down to mainly. And it’s also important to be respectful of the school. We didn’t have any guns and all the weapons that the teachers end up using are kind of cobbled together. We just have to be sensitive to the crazy events that we’ve had in this country. And even when they kill their first kid it’s a very big deal. I mean, these people are teachers; they are the ones who have been protecting these kids.”

Can you talk about the comedic tone of the film? It really seems like the casting department pulled an eclectic mix of comedic talents to really hone in on the comedy.

Murnion: “Well, it all comes down to the script written by Leigh Whannel, who kept the flow going and it just depended one what the mood called for that day. We brought in a mix of the pre-written script and improv. But it really comes down to the actors; we just had an amazing group of actors. So I think you’ll really feel the energy.”

Jonathan Milott: “Also, I want to add that we are getting the chance to work with a group of actors we have seen in things for years. But, we always stayed vigilant to stay in that work mode of we need to move onto the next shot, or do something else. It’s just staying true to that goal and move in the right direction.”

A student in COOTIES just looking to eat your brain.

A student in COOTIES just looking to eat your brain. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Are you guys paying homage to any films that you may admire?

Murnion: “I think the characters do have some bits of self-referential humor. The way we imagined it is these characters live in our world, the kind of the world where we relate our lives to movies. We weren’t doing any direct homages in the film. We just let our influences come through naturally.”

Milott: “We definitely wanted to stay away from parody, or that type of horror where the horror-comedy comes from the parody. We purposefully push away from that as far away as possible.”

The cast and crew of COOTIES.

The cast and crew of COOTIES.

Are there plans for a sequel, or even a graphic novel perhaps? I bring up the latter because I read that both of you have a background in animation.  

Murnion: “Yeah, both John and I have a background in animation, but it would have to be up to Leigh what he would want the sequel to be, or whoever would be developing the story. I do know that they have some ideas on how they want to expand the story. There’s definitely room to allow this to grow to a world-wide epidemic.”

But back to the design style, a lot of horror has obviously developed some innovative techniques visually, but not so much with comedy. We wanted to bring the kinetic styles of horror films to the comedy. We wanted to do something along the lines of what Edgar Wright does: he mashes up these genres and creates something really cool visually. We thought we could do that too with this project.”

To close things out, I’m curious do either of you have plans to collaborate again?

Murnion: “Yes, we are working on a film called BUSHWICK. The premise, which you’ll find amusing given where you’re from, is that Texas wants to secede from the United States– and to force that to happen, they hire their own blackwater army to invade some of the bigger cities in the Union in order to obtain ratification. And the movie takes that story and follows a girl in Bushwick, Brooklyn, as she tries to get home five blocks in the middle of this invasion.”

COOTIES hits theaters and VOD on September 18th.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.