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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 wri