Interview with Terror Tales writer-director Jimmy Lee Combs

Terror Tales (2019)

Director: Jimmy Lee Combs

Writer:  Jimmy Lee Combs

Stars: Jennifer Runyon, Felissa Rose, Laurene Landon, Helene Udy, Ari Lehman, Lynn Lowry, Yan Birch

When abducted by a psychopath, a husband is taken on a ride from hell where he is subjected to three horrific tales of terror while his family is held captive in an attached cargo trailer.

With the upcoming release of the new horror anthology Terror Tales being released on VOD from 8th January, I got a chance to ask writer-director Jimmy Lee Combs a few questions about what we can expect from the film.

Q. How did you get into film making originally?

Great question! Like most filmmakers my love for cinema started at a very young age. I always loved telling stories so when I was 17; it really started bubbling in me to start telling my own stories through film. I also developed a passion for acting so I began taking acting and screenwriting classes. An L.A. based production company came to Colorado to film a movie starring Alan Thicke and Lindsay Wagner. I was an extra in this film and I learned first-hand what hurry up and wait meant lol.

During all this waiting around, I was absorbing the makings of a movie like a sponge and I knew then and there that I wanted to also make movies rather than just writing and acting in them. So, I started helping behind the camera on projects that I would act in and gained a lot of experience until I felt ready to start my own production company Heart and Fire Productions in 2007 and the rest as they say is history.

You have a new horror anthology film which you wrote and directed called Terror Tales, which is coming to VOD on January 8th.  What can people expect from the film?

Absolutely! So, audiences can expect a little of everything. We have great stories and character development for those who love to get invested in a film’s narrative. We have supernatural elements, demons, Satan and witches for our occult viewers or those who love a scary possession tale. We have a good old-fashioned gore filled slasher/gialllo inspired story that will hit audiences’ right in the feels when they see how accurate we duplicated the 1980s and the video stores of that era.  We of course have the walking dead for our zombie aficionados out there and an overall humour to the stories for viewers who like a few good laughs in between all the blood and gore!

Q. Why did you decide to create an anthology style horror and how did the ideas for the individual stories come about?

First and foremost is my love for the horror anthology genre. I thought if I’m going to make horror films then at some point, I have to do a horror anthology and contribute to the genre that is near and dear to me. As it turned out, I was beginning production on a horror-comedy web series but really wanted to crank out another feature film at the same time, so it was fairly manageable to film the web series while shooting Terror Tales segment by segment. Plus, I’ve always been fascinated with being able to tell multiple stories within a feature film; it adds diversity to a film that’s not found in a conventional feature.

The story for the Wraparound tale came to me first when I was on vacation with my ex-wife and we were in a drive through at Culvers. The truck in front of us had an attached cargo trailer and I turned to my ex and said, “How creepy would that be if that guy had his family locked up in the back of his cargo trailer and was driving them cross country and he’s stopping to feed them?” To my surprise, she indulged the story. As writers, that’s how it can happen for us when we’re struck with inspiration… it just becomes a lot more twisted when you write horror scripts, he he.

By Proxy originated with a story I had in mind a while ago of a character walking in on a loved one who had killed themselves and from there it took on a mystery vibe of the character trying to figure out why their loved one had killed themselves. As Lynn Lowry had reached out to me expressing interest working on a project with me, I started tweaking that story premise to revolve around a mother with Munchausen By Proxy who walks in on her son killing himself – and to give it a more supernatural spin having her killed and brought back to life and guided through the story by a demon, similar in fashion to a ghost of Christmas’s Past, showing Scrooge the errors of his ways. And the rest of the story all fell into place.

For Radical Video the biggest influence was my nostalgia for the 80s and how much I miss the mom and pop video stores of that era. It was quite a surreal experience shooting the Radical Video segment (which takes place in the 80s) because there was a video store here in Colorado called Video One that was iconic. As I was beginning pre-production on the Radical Video segment, I noticed that Video One was going out of business, so I took this opportunity to gather a bunch of props for the segment that the video store was throwing out and had held onto from the 80s. As well as their shelving units.

So anyway, it was sad to see a video store going out of business that held so many memories but, in a way, it was like reviving it and bringing it back to life through the Radical Video segment which will be preserved on video forever; and because I can’t let go of the past lol. I also love 80s action films! So, it was a blast writing the Detective Stevens burnt out cop with an attitude and drinking problem type character that has a big ass magnum! Similar to Dirty Harry (1971) and the show Sledge Hammer (1986-1988).

Radical Video is my love letter to the video store era that we all are sorely missing now that they have gone out of business. I miss the sights, smells, sounds and joy of holding a physical copy that came with the video store experience. You can never get that experience with digital. Also, I’m a huge fan of 80s horror films, giallo, slashers and video nasties of that era so it was great including all those aspects as well into Radical Video.

It’s an interesting aspect to the Radical Video segment because we explore a video store in its prime in the 80s and we also get to see it in the present-day crisis of mom and pop video stores struggling to stay open. I think it’s really going resonate with audiences and that was all a huge inspiration for this segment.

With Epidemic, I was kind of struggling with what the third-story should be for Terror Tales so I asked a buddy of mine for some ideas. And he asked me this question “Jimmy, what scares you the most?” And with that I answered possession stuff. So that gave me the idea to start writing a possession tale for the third segment. It was important to me to try and do something different with this possession tale that hasn’t really been seen before so that’s when I got to thinking how cool would it be if Satan is taking over people’s bodies and using it as a host and body jumping from victim to victim causing an epidemic of possession outbreaks across the world that must be stopped.

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

For the Wraparound Story I always had in my mind that the Driver would be driving his victims deep into the desert to bury them, so it was a natural choice to have a road trip story that takes place in the desert. I wanted the opening image of this film to encompass this with the epic shot of The Driver atop a cliff looking down at his prey road tripping below. We have some really nice wide shots in this segment that really draw the audience in to this desolate environment.

For By Proxy I knew I had wanted this bright white type of lighting especially to signify the light at the end of the tunnel when you die since our lead in this story, Susan McKay, gets killed and comes back from the afterlife. I knew I wanted the Ink Demon to contrast this bright lighting which really makes him pop rather than going with the clichéd lighting choice of sticking to the shadows. It emits a separation between Susan’s world and the Demon’s world which Susan encounters towards the end of this segment.

Radical Video took on a motto that I came up with during the set design and wardrobe phases which is that it had to look authentically 80s! Every frame had to ooze and scream 80s. We couldn’t have one thing out of era in a frame or it would be called out as inaccurate. I also wanted to represent a more grounded and truthful 80s, rather than an exaggerated 80s like in the film The Wedding Singer (1998).

Also, I embodied this wood grain aesthetic for a lot of the set design as you’ll see in the Detective’s office with his wood grain desk. Wood grain was huge back in the day, so I wanted that incorporated in this segment. From there of course we had to nail the big hair, 80s make up and outrageous clothing which we did with spades.

I watched a lot of camcorder footage on YouTube that was recorded in the 80s of people at night clubs dancing. It was hilarious but great inspiration as you’ll see in our dance scene in Radical Video, its exactly how people danced in the 80s to some Wang Chung or insert your 80s band of choice; arms flailing and all.  Also, the 80s was a very health conscious decade so you’ll see we make a nod to that with one of our leads of the Radical Video segment Miranda Byers who plays Tiffany in a spandex workout outfit at the end of the segment complete with head and wrist bands.

For Epidemic I definitely incorporated a lot of catholic mythology, props and locations such as the beautiful Catholic Church we were able to film some scenes in. What I love about the style of Epidemic is that it takes place in anywhere USA with your leave it to beaver type family with a pastor at the head of it that is plagued with a family curse dating back to the Salem Witch Trials. And then you start branching out of this small-town America feel and start going global like to Japan when possession outbreaks are being reported all over the world and it all links to the pastor from his small-town USA. It was interesting and thought provoking to shoot the segment this way.

Q. Terror Tales has an amazing cast. Were you surprised at how many horror icons you were able to bring together in the film and what were they like to work with?

I was definitely surprised and incredibly proud of all the horror icons that came together and believed in this project. Once Lynn Lowry signed on in the beginning, it was even easier pitching the project to the other iconic horror actors involved and signing them on.  

It’s a fantastic experience to have on set so many iconic horror actors of this calibre and stature. I had several actors come to me saying how inspiring it was to work with veteran actors and how much they learned from them. Also, when you have actors who have worked with such iconic directors such as Wes Craven, they bring with them all that amazing experience they learned from the horror masters. This turned in some incredible performances in Terror Tales that I think is going to surprise the audience when they see the calibre of acting in the film. Everyone gave it their 110% best and it shows. As a director, there is nothing more you can ask for at the end of the day.

It’s interesting because originally the film was going to just feature Lynn Lowry but as I thought about it and was writing the stories, it hit me that it would be a fantastic idea to showcase more of horror’s best in each segment, an ‘Expendables of horror’ if you will, which got the ball rolling to cast more iconic horror actors in each segment. It was incredibly important for me to not take that lightly and to give the actors as meaty of a role as possible that serves a purpose to the story rather than just having bragging rights saying I have so and so actor in the film.

Of all the roles, I would have to say that the Susan McKay character was written from the ground up specifically for Lynn Lowry. I had seen a performance of hers in a horror story she performed called The Whole Town’s Sleeping (2014). In fact, I’m including the link here because it must be seen:

from this 11 min performance I knew Lynn could play an emotionally distressed character with range and vibrancy, so it made writing the Susan character incredibly easy knowing that Lynn could pull off this character with an emotionally charged performance.  

As a director, it was very fulfilling to direct such talent in demanding roles like Lynn Lowry and of course Laurene Landon’s unsettling and psychotic role as Miss Tate in the Radical Video segment. To be able to direct performances like those while allowing the actor to bring their experience to the role and to have worked with actors of this calibre from the horror world is an honour!   

Q. The film has a good mixture of both prosthetic and CGI effects to bring the story to life, but were there any elements of the original script which were left out of the final film?

You know the one scene that I didn’t have time to shoot and really regret not getting was a scene I wrote in Epidemic where we see Sister Agnes walking through the insane asylum with the Warden on the way to speak to Pastor James for the first time. During this talk with the warden revealing more about Pastor James’ incarceration, they walk past a recreational room where some patients are walking around kind of socializing and playing board games.

So, we see this one patient getting aroused at the sight of Sister Agnes since she is a female and he starts masturbating in front Sister Agnes to her disgust. The Warden is displeased with this behaviour and throws a book at the patient and yells at him to knock it off. The warden apologies to Sister Agnes and goes on to explain it’s not the first time the patient has done this. I really wanted to shoot this scene because it would have given more scope to the insane asylum in which Pastor James was committed to.

Q. Did you experience any issues during the filming?

One issue that comes to mind was in The Wraparound Story. Up until the day of needing a gas station for the robbery scene, it was looking grim because I couldn’t secure a gas station. But being the charmer and one hell of a good guy that Christopher Showerman is, he and our hair stylist Karen Thomas went wondering around town speaking to gas station owners while I was filming other scenes and as luck would have it, he secured us a gas station to film in. Otherwise I would have had to cut that scene completely!

Q. What was your favourite moments during filming?

Oh man, that is tough. Terror Tales is choke full of so many favourite moments and good times. I would say one of my favourite moments was during Radical Video. We had all the extras in wardrobe and make up. I was keeping the video store set locked off so that I could bring all the extras down when we were ready to roll so that I could capture they natural reaction to them seeing our video store. So, the shots you see in the opening of Radical Video are all legit reactions of the extras interacting with the video store as if it were real. It was awesome to watch the joy everyone had browsing Radical Video like back in the day.  

Another favourite moment was in the form of a prank that we never got to execute. So, me and the actress (Pam Renall) who plays Kristen, the wife in the Wraparound Story were gonna try to pull this off. During the first take in the scene where The Driver (Christopher Showerman) is in bed with the prostitute, our prank was to put a wig on our SFX artist Kevon Ward and have him in bed instead of our actress who was playing the prostitute. So, the gag was to keep Christopher’s eyes closed as part of the performance, slip Kevon in bed and when I called action Christopher would open his eyes to the surprise of a dude with a wig on in bed with him. We were up for hours laughing about this prank but sadly due to time constraints were unable to execute it. But funny as hell in theory!

Q. The film is produced by your production company, Heart and Fire productions. How did the company first come about?

So, I formed Heart and Fire Productions in 2006 and was shooting my first short film Betrayed Heart in 2007. I had gained so much experience as a PA and producer on student films and other film projects that come 2006, I felt ready to start embarking on my own filmmaking journey with my company Heart and Fire Productions. As a diehard fan of the Rocky films, I got the name from Rocky V (1990) when Rocky is coaching Tommy Gunn and he tells him it’s about muscle to beat this guy it’s about Heart and Fire, Heart and Fire! That always resonated with me because I knew I wanted to make films with all my heart and fire in the passion of making them.  

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

A. Boy oh boy am I excited for this one! So, I’m gonna give you a little more of a detailed description with my next project:

When murdered alongside his family by ruthless outlaws, a farmer is brought back to life by an Indian shaman. Trained by a gunfighter and driven by a vengeful passion, he wanders the countryside —skeletal guitar and revolvers at hand.

SPIRIT RECKONING is a high-octane adrenaline rush in the horror western genre that can be best described as having the larger than life bullets flying action scenes of a John Woo film, the rich and vengeful storytelling of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western epic, and the extreme blood and gore of the horror genre. Back that with heart, and characters that you’re invested in from start to finish, and you’ve got the makings for one hell of a fun film!

SPIRIT RECKONING takes place in the Wild West circa 1875. The story follows Sam Conley, a farmer with a wicked gambling addiction trying to make ends meet for his family. One day while Sam is out selling produce, his wife is brutally beaten and raped by three petty outlaws headed by Savage Bill. Sam returns home to this horrific sight and is strung up and killed alongside his wife and child. To return the favour on a good deed Sam did for the Indian people, a Shaman brings Sam’s spirit back from the dead as an avenging skull cowboy. However, this comes with its set of side effects as Sam’s emotions intensify making him feel rage more extreme and sadness more deep than the normal person, which brings humility to Sam much like Frankenstein’s Monster.

It is with these emotional flaws and his training as a gunfighting cowboy that will see Sam through on his journey. And with the help of his best friend Lawson Lovette who is a psychotic gunfighter and Verna Cole, the strong-willed owner of a Saloon, Sam is able to get his revenge by killing Savage Bill. All is not well, though, as Savage Bill is brought back to life by the same Shaman, only much more fierce and animalistic. All hell is about to break loose as Sam and his friends are up against the fight of their life.

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

To spend as much time as possible studying the craft before making your first film. Buy books on the subject, watch lots of movies and read lots of scripts. Still to this day I am constantly reading new books on the craft, reading articles online and watching interviews. Drown yourself in special features like audio commentaries to your favourite films and those of the masters. When you feel confident enough, the best experience you’ll ever get is getting out there and making films. Learning from your mistakes and fixing them on the next project. Also, the more knowledge you learn the more competent you will be speaking film with others in the field.

I like to use The Karate Kid (1984) as an analogy. When Mr. Miyagi is having Daniel-San wax the car, paint the fence and sand the deck for months. Daniel-San does not realize why Mr. Miyagi is slave working him to death until the moment when Mr. Miyagi puts it all to the test. He throws punches and kicks telling Daniel-San to show him wax the car, paint the fence and sand the deck much to Daniel-San’s surprise as he impulsively uses his techniques from working those tasks by blocking every punch and kick. Moral is it may seem like you’re not learning anything new or that it’s boring, when it comes time to step up and apply what you know whether in conversation or on set, it comes out natural like Daniel-San. It shows that you know what you’re doing and talking about which gives you credibility.  

Audio, I can’t stress this enough, no matter if you are just starting out or a veteran. NEVER sacrifice on your audio. You can easily invest in a decent shotgun mic, a Zoom recorder and boom pole to record good quality audio. Learn the basic techniques of audio placement etc. Or hire a professional sound mixer. Okay now for some real talk. This is an industry filled with heart break, people who do nothing but talk the talk and there are let downs around every corner so you must have a thick skin, enjoy the filmmaking journey and at the end of the rainbow perhaps you may reap the rewards that the film industry can offer when you make a name for yourself. Never ever give up. Keep going and keep making films. The more you do the better you will get.

Terror Tales is being released on VOD 01/08/2018. You can see my original review of the film 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!