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Halloweek #2: Interview - Rick Popko and Dan West

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

WARNING! This interview contains strong language.

When I got hold of a copy of the Monsturd novelization, I thought it would be interesting to talk with the minds behind the film as I was intrigued to speak with the movie's creators after reading the book. Rick Popko and Dan West were kind enough to talk to me aboutMonsturd and what the future holds for them...

Hi, I hope you are doing well!

Let's talk about how you both got into making movies. Where did your inspiration come from? And what advice would you give people who are interested in getting into this industry?

Dan West: We both started making films at a young age, though we were inspired by different sorts of movies.

I started making Super 8 films before I was even in high school and was chiefly inspired by dead comedians I grew up watching on television, such as Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. I’ve had a life-long love of horror films and grew up watching Hammer films and Vincent Price films on Creature Features hosted by the San Francisco legend, Bob Wilkins. Mixing the two types of films seemed like a natural choice. Horror and comedy are a great mix. I think Rick and I were both wired to make movies, and it’s lucky we met up and shared a kind of mutual vision. I also love crappy exploitation films like “Blood Feast” and “Shriek of the Mutilated,” so the fact that we created something as ridiculous as “Monsturd” should surprise absolutely no one.

As far as advice for getting into films, given the technology readily available now to make a

decent-looking movie, any aspiring filmmaker really has no excuse. The sky's the limit and everyone needs to learn their craft from the ground up. When we started making films together, we filmed our first, primitive and crappy little projects on Betamax. We also shot films on Super 8. You learn and get into filmmaking by just becoming a filmmaker. No one is going to roll out a red carpet for you. Your job is to make the best feature films you can with what you have available, and if you do that enough, and do it well, some doors may open up for you. Nothing is guaranteed except that you may improve and learn with every project you create. I might suggest Lloyd Kaufman’s great book, “Make Your Own Damn Movie,” if you want some basic info for what you’re in for. But even that book doesn’t cover shooting digitally very extensively due to the fact that it was written many years ago. Shooting digitally permits you to eliminate the HUGE cost of shooting on film that was once a barrier to entry. Now with 4K and other such technology available, you really have zero excuses for not creating something if you are so inclined. Getting distribution will depend on how well made your film is and how big an audience it might attract.

The other piece of advice is to choose your subject matter with the goal of getting as many eyeballs on it as possible. Exploitation and horror are a great place to start because you are not killed by a limited budget. Filming something in those genres works for someone with a limited budget and, if you are creative, you can make something that might appeal to a wide audience.

Rick Popko: It’s hard to improve on what Dan said. Personally, I was a Star Wars kid… When I saw that flick in the theater back in 1977, it changed my life. I saw it in the theater no less than 13 times… Like Dan, I shot early shorts with my brother and friends on Super-8. Then I migrated to video when my parents bought one of the first consumer Betamax camcorders.

In terms of filmmakers who inspired me, there have been a lot… Peter Jackson (Bad Taste), John Waters (Pink Flamingoes), Sam Raimi (Evil Dead), George Romero (Dawn of the Dead)… But the one filmmaker who got me off my ass to actually make something is Mark Pirro (Polish Vampire in Burbank, Nudist Colony of the Dead, and Curse of the Queerwolf)… I first read about Pirro in Chris Gore’s Film Threat magazine...He was shooting feature films on super-8 film when most people were using the medium to make home movies. I was so inspired after reading about him, I bought $2,500 worth of super-8 to make my own feature.

I got together with Dan and told him, we have the camera and we have the film to make a

feature…let’s do it! So, we put pen to paper on the script and worked on it for several months. when we couldn’t figure out a way to end the thing, the script got drawered… I was stuck with 100 rolls of super 8 film in my basement.

However, we never gave up. Not only was Pirro an inspiration for us to get off our asses and make something, but he’s actually in Monsturd as the police sketch artist. (He also reprises his role in Monsturd’s sequel RetarDEAD).

If I were to give other filmmakers who may be reading this some advice, it would be to be resourceful.

Filming in an actual sewer

Just because your movie doesn’t have a budget doesn’t mean it has to look cheap. While critics of Monsturd have called our movie’s “low-budget,” many were thinking the movie cost between $100K and $1M. In reality, not including the camera, lights and shotgun mic, the movie cost me about $3K. We were fortunate to score some great locations for our flick. My mom has a friend who was building wine caves and allowed us to film in the tunnels after the workers went home. It looked like a million-dollar set. The script also called for a prison break, so Dan and I took our camera out to San Francisco’s Alcatraz, which is open to the public for tours. Dan dressed as a prison guard, I dressed up like a prisoner and the two of us got our big-budget prison footage. For the lab sequence in the flick, my mom worked in a winery. She snuck us into the main building on a Saturday morning when no one was around and allowed us to shoot what we could for a good three hours. We also found a guy in a small town not far from my parent’s place who had a cop car he rented for various local events. For $500, he dropped the car off for us on Saturday morning and picked it up Sunday morning. We shot all the cop car footage used in the movie over the course of five hours.

Another suggestion for filmmakers… When you get stuck, think outside the box. There was a scene in the Monsturd script where a truck full of toxic chemicals was supposed to drive off a cliff and crash, spilling toxic sludge into the city’s sewer system. We bought a fairly expensive realistic-looking Tonka pickup truck and started filming some test footage with it by pushing it down a rocky cliff. No matter what we did, including playing the crash back in slow motion, it looked like a dumb toy.

We racked our brains to figure out a workaround to this problem and ultimately came up with the idea of having a narrator explain what was going on…we thought about having Dan do comic-book-like illustrations like they did in Creepshow to get us through the scene, and then I remembered a friend of mine who had a young daughter, and I said to Dan, “What if we used her as the movie’s narrator?... It would be pretty psychotic if the movie is told from the point of view of a little girl… And then when the crash occurs, we could cut to her continuing the movie’s narration.” Dan liked the idea and we implemented it into the movie.

While you can say that Monsturd is dumb, our attitude at the time was to make the best damn

movie we could with the resources available to us. We were making this movie for ourselves. And if we knowingly cut corners along the way, the only people who would be disappointed watching it would be Dan and me.

The last thing I’ll say to future filmmakers is that the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.

Making a movie is hard. But if you have a dream and perseverance, you can do it.

There was a point when we were shooting Monsturd, where Dan, after eight months of shooting, looked at the script and shot sheet and said, “I think we’re almost done." and when I reviewed his notes, I said, “We’re not close to done.” When I explained what we still needed to shoot, he looked at me like a dejected dog.

The color ran out of his face and I said, “Look, man, it doesn’t matter how long this thing takes to

make, we’re going to make it, and we’ll do it one step at a time.”… And that’s how we ultimately

completed Monsturd.

Tell us about the movie Monsturd, a cult classic. Describe it in your own words.

DW: Monsturd was made because we were thinking in terms of “exploitation.” There was a

definite method to the madness in choosing that as our subject matter.

The method has worked, as shown by the simple fact that we are still talking about the movie in 2021, when it could have simply fallen through the cracks and disappeared. But also, no matter what anyone critical of the movie may think, we did make the best movie we possibly could with the limited resources we had at our disposal.

It was a labor of love for sure, but it was by no means an easy movie to make. It’s low budget and

ridiculous and a lot of the acting is laughable, but we had about $3,000 to make a feature

film with AND actually managed to get a movie about a shit monster into Blockbuster Video, which seemed like winning a goddamn academy award to us at the time.

RP: Monsturd was a labor of love. It took two years to make – a year to shoot and a year to edit. While that sounds like a long time when compared to how long it usually takes Hollywood to produce a typical feature, you have to understand that we weren’t paid to make this. I paid for this movie out of my own savings… Both of us (and our actors) had day jobs and because no one was getting paid, we couldn’t ask people to take time off work to film this. So, we had to plan production shoots around our actor’s availability, which proved difficult.

Where did you get the idea to make this? Who or what inspired you to do it?

DW: It was a combination of Rick becoming furious after viewing the film, “Jack Frost,” and me taking to heart the advice of Herschell Gordon Lewis, the director of “Blood Feast,” and “Two Thousand Maniacs!” This weird combination proved to be a kind of catalyst for us to get off our asses and actually make a feature film. Also, the technology had become available to us. I think Rick can do this question more justice than I can.

RP: As Dan mentioned, the movie that inspired Monsturd was the horror movie Jack Frost,

about a killer snowman. To give you my frame of mind, at the time we rented Jack Frost from the local video store, Dan and I were coming off an excruciating three-year screenplay ordeal. We spent two and a half years writing an epic action/comedy and then I spent another half year trying to get a literary agent to sell it for us. After six months of sending query letters and making phone calls, we got nothing.

We realized that nobody cares. As I watched Jack Frost, I had to wonder to myself… How is it that a movie about a killer snowman can get into video stores, but we can’t get anyone in Hollywood to even look at our script? I guess you can say I was a little jealous.

On my way home from Dan’s house that afternoon, I came up with an idea for a Hollywood prank. Sort of like how Trey Parker and Matt Stone got discovered with their Jesus vs. Santa cartoon Christmas card. I thought Dan and I could write a sarcastic screenplay called “It Came from the Sewer” – about a giant shit monster that terrorizes a small coastal community, and then send copies to every studio and talent agency in the industry. When I got home and shared with Dan my little idea, he said, “Dude, you’re crazy… I know you’re mad, but you need to put that idea in the drawer and let it go.” Which I did. A few months later, when I was an editor at CNET, I got my hands on a Canon GL1 miniDV camcorder for review. The unique thing about this camera is that it had a switch on it called “frame mode.” This basically deinterlaced the video to make it look more like film. When I took it over to Dan’s house to test, and he saw what that feature could do, he shouted, “We can make a movie with that thing!” I finished writing the review, gave it five out of five stars, put the thing back in its box and stuck it under my desk to ship back to Canon. A few weeks after I completed my review of the camera, one evening out of the blue, Dan called me and asked, “Do you still have that camera?” I said, “Yes, why?” And he said, “Because I think we can make a movie with that thing… Now hear me out… You know that shit monster idea you had a few months back?” And I said, “Yeah.” And Dan said, “I think we can do it… Now hear me out… I was reading an article about Herschell Gordon Lewis (Director behind such classics as Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs and The Wizard of Gore) and he said, ‘You have to do what Hollywood cannot and will not do’… and Hollywood’s not going to make a shit monster movie. We can film it with that camera!”

About six months later, the script was in solid enough shape to shoot. We started casting the movie, pulling together friends and family as actors, and scouting locations to use around San Francisco’s Bay Area.

The cost of making Monsturd was what, and how much money did it return to the maker?

Rick Popko building the Monsturd

RP: Not including the camera (Canon GL1 MiniDV camcorder), a good Sennheiser shotgun mic, a few boxes of miniDV tapes, and a handful of yellow hardware store collapsible halogen lighting fixtures, Monsturd cost about $3000. That money went to Paying gas money for a few folks, renting a cop car for a day ($500), buying sheriff and deputy uniforms ($500), materials for making the Monsturd ($500) and the rest were miscellaneous/incidental expenses, a al, buying tickets to Alcatraz, feeding people from time-to-time, etc.

On a side note, when it comes to production values, the score is one of the things that helps take this movie over the top. I met composer Marshall Crutcher at a friend’s birthday party while Dan and I were writing Monsturd. When I met him, Marshall was doing scores for documentaries and video game companies. He’s actually an Emmy award winner. When I met him, he said he always wanted to score feature films, and when I told him about Monsturd, he was intrigued.

We told Marshall we didn’t have any money to pay him for a score, but if he was willing to do it for us anyway, we promised would give him 10% of the profits. Marshall agreed. We sent Marshall ten-minute chunks of the movie at a time for him to score, and he would send back audio files that we could plug into our editing timeline. The good news for us, was that all of the reels we sent to us had him intrigued enough to continue to work on the project. What’s more, Marshall was extremely generous with the score he created for Monsturd and said we could use his same music for the sequel “RetarDEAD”.

Did the script require several drafts? How long did it take to write?

DW: Well, the first rough draft that Rick wrote didn’t get far and was thrown in a drawer after his anger at Jack Frost had cooled a bit. In that draft, the serial killer went to the electric chair and intentionally ate a horrible last meal before he was electrocuted, and he shat himself, and then a prison guard sold his shitty underpants on eBay. For the actual shooting script, the script didn’t take long to write as far as a first draft went. We felt very inspired. But a script is a very pliable part of low-budget filmmaking and can change as things become available and you stumble upon problems during production. One of the big changes we made was to remove most of the shit monster’s dialog. In the original script, the monster was a shit pun-spewing Freddy Kruger type of killer. Rick felt we ought to limit that sort of thing.

RP: The final script for Monsturd was very malleable. It was a framework from which we could start filming. The script was never set in stone. If we or an actor had something we wanted to change at the last second that we thought was funny, then we were all for it.

In the scene, the waitress says, “How ‘bout taking a dozen glazed donuts… I know Rick and Dan like ‘em?” and the sheriff looks at her dead in the eye and says, “How about you sit on my face and make me look like a glazed donut…”… We didn’t write that line. The two actors came up with that and we left it in. - Rick Popko

Were there any difficulties making the movie?

DW: Sometimes there are NOTHING BUT difficulties making a low-budget movie.

RP: We got stopped on Alcatraz. As mentioned earlier, Dan and I bought tickets for the Alcatraz tour in order to get all of our prison shots… On the boat over, Dan dressed up as a prison guard… And when we landed, the two of us made sure we were the first people off the boat, because we wanted to make sure we had a head start on the location before it was flooded with tourists… When we got off the boat, Dan and I started running up the hill to the prison cell blocks… and about halfway up, a loudspeaker announced, “Hey there! You running up the hill, please stop! And come back down until you’ve heard our announcement.”

Reluctantly, Dan and I walked down the hill to join the rest of everyone else who had now exited the boat. Knowing now that our timeline to get the footage we needed was greatly accelerated, I opened up the camera bag, powered on the camera, and queued up the tape so that the minute I pressed the record button we would be good to go. But, as I was doing this, a park ranger noticed me, walked over, looked down into my camera back, and said, “That’s for personal use, right?”

I thought we were done for… And when they finished their intro about the rules on the island, Dan and I sprinted past everyone as fast as we could and ultimately got some pretty good shots as a result.

DW: We were lucky that we were not arrested for driving around in a real police car with the mars light on and a machine gun taped to the dashboard without working seatbelts, etc., and with no permit to do this, or even word to the Saint Helena Police Department. I mean this kind of thing is par for the course. There are a hundred stories of things going wrong during filming. Holy shit … it was a miracle when things went smoothly. The Monsturd costume was impossible to see out of and was hot as a furnace inside due to its being made of spray foam insulation and almost impossible to walk in. I nearly had a panic attack while I was inside of that fucking costume! All I could think of was, “This is what Hell would be if there was such a thing”... I’d be trapped inside that goddamn costume for eternity.

You have to be a little insane to do this kind of thing with any kind of passion. - Dan West

Have you any stories from the set that you can share?

RP: We’ve got stories for days…

Dan West in an actual sewer.

When Jack Schmitt popped up into the sewer in the movie, we didn’t know there would be water in the cement basin we were shooting in. Dan and I had scouted this location weeks prior and the basin was empty… I told Dan that using a bunch of smoke bombs, coupled with water splashing sound FX, we could give the illusion that our villain was popping out of the sewer system. And that’s what we prepared for… But when we got to the location with the actors, there was two feet of muddy water in the basin. Dan and I were over the moon… Now it looked like a million-dollar set… But, we couldn’t allow our actor, Brad Dosland, who was playing the movie’s villain, to ruin his shoes for the shot, so I gave him my shoes for the scene.

Another story I’ll share is that because we weren’t paying any of the actors in the movie, we couldn’t very well expect them to learn their lines when they came to the set… Yes, sometimes they did actually come prepared, which was nice… but more times than not no one knew what they were going to say when they showed up to the set… This was a disadvantage AND an advantage… Because we weren’t shooting on film, (Which is really expensive to shoot and process) but on MiniDV tapes (which holds an hour of footage), we could coach the actors out of camera range while shooting…kind of like a parrot…off-camera Dan would say to an actor, “Say it like this…”… And the actor would parrot the line back. If they got the line wrong, Dan would work with them over and over until the line was said right. In many instances when we were digitizing footage and then reviewing it, we found ourselves looking at many, many takes. There was one shot where the actor said the line more than 15 times before they got it right. So, to reviewers who cap on the movie’s actors, I say… “We actually tried to get the best performances out of everyone in the movie.”

Now, I know that Monsturd and RetarDEAD were part of a trilogy of movies (does this trilogy/series have a name?).  I think I read recently that a third is being made at the moment.  Do you have any news you can share about this at all?

DW: We're currently working on a screenplay that may work for a third movie. Only time will tell as we have had a lot of false starts trying to write a sequel that we’d commit to making. We’ve

simplified the approach and have yielded some good material so far. That’s about all I’d like to say at this stage.

Last year you released the novelization of Monsturd.  What gave you the idea for this?

DW: Basically, Herschell Gordon Lewis’s novelization of the film, “Blood Feast,” which is actually a very funny read. If my memory serves me correctly, he included things like a talking cat. It was really absurd and very funny.

What kind of asshole would novelize the movie, Monsturd? It was too tempting to resist. It was also fun to expand that world and those characters. - Dan West

Monsturd was supposed to get a sequel, but this has never happened.  What would have happened in Number 2 Number 2?  Also, did you ever consider crowdfunding to get the money to make it?

DW: I wrote a sequel script that Rick really did not like. That was the end of “Monsturd Number

Two: Revenge of the Turds.”

Should you have some masochistic desire to read the screenplay it is available on Lulu Publishing under the title: “Monsturd Number Two: Revenge of the Turds: The Unproduced Screenplay by Dan West.”

RP: The reason I didn’t want to do a sequel is because the joke’s been done. It took two years of our lives to make, I didn’t want to spend another two basically trying to retell the joke again.

When we did Monsturd, crowdfunding wasn’t invented yet but we’ll look at crowdfunding should we ever gear up for a third movie.

Have you watched the movie at all with family or friends, and what were your thoughts?

RP: We had a Monsturd 3-day premiere at an actual movie theater where Dan and I introduced the movie and did Q&A sessions after each screening. All of our friends and family came on opening night and had a great time.

Was there anything that surprised you when Monsturd actually got a distribution deal?

Original Cover

RP: Absolutely. When Monsturd was completed, we created VHS screener copies and sent them to a few indie distribution houses. Troma was the first company to get back to us, but when we read their terms, they wanted our movie in perpetuity and one of the things we learned from Mark Pirro was that you never want to sign your movie away for more than 3-5 years so we passed. Then Brain Damaged films stepped up with terms we could agree to… What’s funny is that when we asked them if they could get us into Blockbuster (at one time the nation’s largest video chain in the country) we were told… “We can get you everywhere BUT Blockbuster.” They sent it to Blockbuster anyway…they watched it and said, “We’ll take this movie if you can give us an ‘R’ rating from the MPAA…” On a side note, when you send a movie to the MPAA, you have to send the movie AND artwork that accompanies it… They sent them both and the MPAA said, “The movie passes for an ‘R,’ but the cover box does not.” The issue was that you can’t have a turd hand coming out of a toilet.

Redesigned Cover

The distributor redesigned the cover box, so that the poop hands were coming out of a sewer grate instead…and Blockbuster bought 4,000 copies of our movie and distributed them in stores across the nation!

Not only did we never imagine our movie would end up in the biggest video store chain in the nation, but the movie rights have been licensed to many countries around the world. Monsturd is being watched in countries I’ve never been to. - Rick Popko

Barring the novel, has any Monsturd merch ever been released?  I think I saw somewhere there was a Monsturd mobile app, do you have any details about that?

Rick and Dan wearing Monsturd T-Shirts

DW: Several years ago, a company was selling a great Monsturd t-shirt. I don’t believe they are in business any longer. Hopefully, not because they put out a Monsturd t-shirt.

If there is a Monsturd app, I am not aware of it. I guess Rick better check that out to get his producer’s cut.

Do you get recognized at all?  How do people react?

RP: I’ve never been recognized.

DW: I shudder to think what I would do if that actually happened.

RP: A co-worker of my ex-wife said to her one day, “I was at a Blockbuster Video with my family in Florida and saw your husband’s film on the new release wall.”

I've been trying to track down a copy of this movie on DVD and it appears to be rare as rocking horse shit!  Have you considered releasing it again, maybe even on Blu-Ray?

RP: You can ask our distributor Midnight Releasing to make it available in the UK again.

It wouldn’t make sense to release it on Blu-Ray, because Monsturd was shot in full-screen 720x486. Blu-Ray is, like, twice that resolution.

Ah..makes sense why there would not be a high-definition release.

What's in the future for you guys now?

DW: We have a really good screenplay that Rick was trying to get produced with an actual movie budget, but, so far, no real progress on that. We are also working on our sequel screenplay that we may or may not shoot next year. I have a period/Hammer-style film I plan to shoot next year after I rework the screenplay substantially to make it less esoteric and a bit more manageable.

If all goes well, you just might be seeing something from us in the next year or two go into production. I’m certainly ready to make another movie.

Sounds like you guys are quite busy, good to hear.

Dan West, Rick Popko, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me, good luck in your future projects, and stay safe in these interesting times.

DW: It was our pleasure. Thanks for taking an interest, and stay safe!

RP: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us.

Monsturd is rated 15 and can be watched on YouTube or Tubi for free but is also available on DVD and VHS if you can track down a copy.

The novelization of Monsturd is available as a paperback and as an eBook on Amazon

The unproduced script for Monsturd 2 can be bought HERE


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