Interview with Mandao of the Dead writer-director Scott Dunn

Mandao of the Dead is a new horror-comedy from the multifaceted writer, director and lead actor Scott Dunn. Written in 10 days on a budget of $13k, it may not be the biggest film of the year, but when it comes to independent film making it is one of the best.

I got an importunity to as Scott a few questions about the making Mandao of the Dead and what people can expect from the film.

Q. How did you first get into film making?

I’ve been interested in filmmaking since I was a young kid. Like 6 or 7 years old. My parents used to set up a tripod and camera for my friends and I to act in front of. I played Batman once. Bet you didn’t know that.

I don’t know if it’s because my parents were sitting really close to a TV while I was in the womb, but something rubbed off on me. When other people were talking about their favourite sports team’s scores, I was talking about how much my favourite movie grossed at the box office. I love making movies. It’s always fascinated me.

I’ve been doing a version of what I did on Mandao of the Dead for a long time (writing/directing/acting). When I decided to move to LA and pursue a career out here… I was ashamed that I made my own movies. I had this notion that I had to focus on one thing only. So, I chose acting. I did a Disney show. Had no input obviously. It wasn’t until I decided to get back to my first love, making my own movies, that things started to click again. My fire returned after having dimmed while on the audition route. I’m very blessed that I’ve been able to make two feature films to date.

Q. Your latest feature Mandao of the Dead is a horror comedy. Why did you decide to write it as a horror comedy and not a straight forward horror?

Some of the other astral projection movies I’ve seen lean more heavily in the direction of horror. I enjoy horror comedies. It’s a balance thing. No light without dark. No darkness without light. Plus, I think there’s a lot of potential for funny things to happen when you’ve got weird characters doing weird things in the astral realm. Also, I see the astral realm as a place that I WANT to hang out in.

Q. How did you come up with the original concept for Mandao of the Dead?

I’ve wanted to do a time travel movie for a while now. I love Back to the Future (1985). Seen it TOO many times. Just ask my wife. When you’re making time travel movies, I think the first thing you ask yourself is what’s the time machine? HOW are the characters going to go back and forth in time? Astral projection seemed like a very underused way of doing that. It felt fresh. It started from there and grew.

Q. One of the main themes in the film is the Mandao Cereal. Why did you choose to use a cereal as part of the main story? (And where can we buy a box?)

Nostalgic reasons. When I think about being a little kid, I remember early mornings eating cereal. There was always something colourful and fun on the back of the box like a maze or something. I needed something that would have nostalgic meaning for the character of Jay Mandao. In this case it’s a box of cereal left over from his father’s cereal company, Mandao’s.

You’re not the only one to ask where you can get a box of it. Be on the lookout for that in the future!

Q. The film deals with several themes relating to astral projection, did you do much research for the film?

Astral projection is a fascinating subject. I’ve been in and out of study with it for a few years now. I’ve noticed that it’s been in the ether for a lot longer than one might expect. Movies like Insidious (2010) and Doctor Strange (2016) deal with it. Chris Farley used it in Beverly Hills Ninja (1997). Remember that one?

I think it’s a seriously untapped subgenre. Astral Projection movies! I mean it’s based in reality. That’s what’s attractive about using it as a device for time travel. It’s conceivable on a realistic level. Sort of.

Q. What were your influences for the look and style of the film?

I watched the Insidious movies, Doctor Strange, Ghost (1990), Poltergeist (1982) Bill and Ted (1989). Suspiria (1977), Back to the Future. What I focused on was tone. We only had two locations, so I wanted to make those locations somewhere audiences wouldn’t mind chilling for a whole movie. The beauty of time travel is that one location can become multiple due to the time shifts. Plus, it takes place on Halloween. Very fun!

Q. In addition to writing and directing you also play the lead in the film Jay Mandao. Did you find it difficult both directing and playing a main character in the film?

I’ve directed myself before. It’s a risky proposition because you’re not just directing yourself, you’re directing an entire cast and crew.

I don’t want to neglect my cast. So here are some things I did to make sure I was present for everyone: I rehearsed as much as possible with the cast. We would workshop it at Gina and I’s apartment. Try new things and explore. I did camera tests to make sure that the in-camera stuff I planned could be pulled off.

When we’re on set, that’s when we can push PAST what we’ve already rehearsed. The important thing is to do all the sweaty discovering stuff back in rehearsals. We shoot at a break-neck pace and if you don’t at least have some idea of what’s going down, you’ll sink.

I want my set to be a place where people can shine and bring new ideas forward. I can’t credit my cast and crew enough for how GREAT they did on this movie. I think audiences are going to love them!

Q. Did you experience any issues during the filming?

Besides the fact that we were shooting at least 10 pages a day, we got through everything pretty well. It’s kind of amazing.

I started putting the movie together right after filming wrapped. I had an assembly edit together and it’s always a mess at first. I mean it looked okay but it’s before it all gets tightened up and stuff. It can be a little nerve racking. I noticed that a couple scenes were in need of energy. I ended up going in for re-shoots a month after we wrapped. I ended up adding a character, cousin Andy. The actor Sean Liang stood out when he came in to audition for the role of Darth. So, I wrote a new character with him in mind.

Q. It is impressive what you managed to achieve with Mandao of the Dead considering it was filmed in 10 days on a limited budget of $13k, but were there any elements in the finish which were different to the original script?

The re-shoots are what ended up being different from the original script. Different and better. I’m not afraid to add or change up what I’ve written.

Q. What was one of your favourite moments during filming?

I really enjoyed shooting anything in the astral realm. I got real geeky about doing anything with time travel. People might wonder why I put myself in my own movies… Well this movie is something I would’ve killed to be in. I get to pretend I have the power of astral projection and time travel. I get to act with these wonderful actors. Work with this talented crew. I’ve got a producing partner that I trust deeply. She’s also my wife. I mean, this is a dream come true! That’s how I felt on set every day.

Q. If someone who is interesting in watching the film, what can they expect from Mandao of the Dead?

Expect to be sucked in more than you thought. When you hear it had a production budget of just $13k, it can bring about a lot of thoughts… like this is gonna suck. I think we’re changing people’s minds. I’m thankful that people have been open to this movie. We really feel the support. There’s more to come!

Q. Do you have any other projects which you are working on?

I’m writing the sequel to Mandao of the Dead right now. Putting a lot of pressure on myself to make that one the best it can be. The plan is to shoot that in April of 2019 for a 2020 release.

I’m also working on some non-Mandao related projects. Always something cooking. The plan right now, though is to develop this indie franchise. When you think about what each movie needs on an indie level, it almost seems insane to move on to a completely different project right away. We’ve built our social media around the first one. Might as well keep it going and growing. There’s more stories to tell in the Mandao-verse and that’s what we are moving forward on right now.

Q. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to write and direct their own movie?

Research indie movies. What did you like? What could be done better? First and foremost, make a script that you personally LIKE reading. If you can do that, you’re a big step closer to your dream. It’s a great time to be a filmmaker. We have things at our fingertips that filmmakers in the past could only dream of. Let’s use it well.

You can see my original review on Mandoa of the Dead here

Philip Rogers

Philip Rogers

Published in various websites, Philip is a reviewer who is best known for his interviews and media coverage of independent projects including; films, books, theatre and live events. Always on the lookout for something different to cover!