The Cheerleaders Must Die Interview With The Director

August 29, 2011 3:36 pm 1 comment ,

One of my favorite things about LA is meeting people with similar film interests as my own. It’s not everywhere in the world where you show up at any old party and talk about obscure Kung Fu movies for three hours with someone AND have that be a normal evening. But that’s essentially what happened when I met Zeke Penheiro (director of The Cheerleaders Must Die) a couple years ago. Since then, at almost every one of the numerous parties and movie nights we’ve attended, Zeke and I end up off in some corner chatting and dissecting exploitation and horror flicks with the same fervor as a gaggle of teenage girls ooohing over Taylor Lautner’s abs in the latest Tiger Beat. Zeke knows his stuff.

Which is why I was excited to hear that he was making a feature horror film that has a strict no CGI policy and promises solid characters and gory practical kills. As a reviewer of many films (both low and high budget) I’m often left wondering if the filmmakers had any sort of pride or concern for their work. With Zeke and his team I know that a whole bunch of competent and very discerning individuals are working on the film. These are exactly the kind of people that I would personally want to make a film with.

Also of note is that the team behind Cheerleaders Must Die is producing a “How to web series” on special makeup effects for aspiring filmmakers by Myke Michaels (Academy Award Nominated and Emmy Winner SFX artist). Something that I was able to take part in a couple weeks ago. You can check out me getting a massive gunshot wound to the head by clicking here. This was an awesome experience and these tutorials will absolutely help anyone on their own sets. Hell, I’m gonna use some of the techniques on a short I’m working on.

And I also asked Zeke some questions about the upcoming film. Check out the interview below and catch how you can help and/or follow the movie’s progress.

Tell me about your horror influences, specifically the slasher genre?

I think when the film is complete you will find a lot of the same DNA in our film as The Burning, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Scream. Scream for the mystery component rather than its self-referential perspective. While developing Cheerleaders, I found influences in other films; Jaws, and Jack Hill’s The Swinging Cheerleaders, but also Dazed and Confused, and Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. I love the sardonic look at the fashion industry in Bava’s early gialli and kind of took cues from that in the way I want to explore the main theme of our film, which is the dangers of high school nostalgia.

What is going to make your antagonist memorable (one of the keys of a great slasher)?

I don’t want to give too much away by describing our killer, but something I feel makes ours unique is their motivations. In most films the killer’s rampage is one of revenge or hate; ours in a twisted way is acting out of love. I think we have also designed a cool look for our killer. A striking visual is almost as important as motivation in creating a proper slasher villain. It has to be something grounded in reality enough to be scary and also functional.

At the end of the day, you’re working in a genre that has been done many times before. Fans are so used the formula (a bunch of people getting killed in isolated places) that it takes something special (story, kills, etc). How do you go about making it interesting from a story point of view? What prep have you done?

The slasher genre is a well-worn genre. Just about every holiday and location imaginable has had a killer stabbing horny drunken teens during or in it. When I started this project I decided very quickly that my main focus would be on the characters. I wanted to make sure that these weren’t the same generic group of obnoxious teens you’ve seen in a hundred other slasher films (this is where the “Dazed and Confused” influence really came in). I wanted to make sure we took the time to develop a group of three-dimensional characters. People who are likeable but also flawed and relatable. Our survivor girl isn’t the virginal beacon of Pollyanna-ish purity and our “bitchy” girl isn’t someone the audience can’t feel for. Being a horror fan I have seen just about every possible way a person can die on screen and I figure the only sure fire way to create suspense and terror in a film is by putting people the audience likes and identifies with in peril.

As far as how we are going to compete with other films, I try not to think about that. I was a fat kid in school so I was never very good at the whole competition thing. All I can do is focus on making my movie the best it can be.

In Slashers, kills are paramount. Tell me about how a indie film like yours is going to stand out? Are planning anything that will make your audience cringe or jump for bloody joy?

Now, that’s not to say our film will be lacking in creative kills. When going about creating the kills in the film I tried to keep them thematically relevant. You know how the kills were in the first “Terminator,” where most of the deaths occurred because of the characters’ overreliance on technology? It made the violence part of the storytelling. In Cheerleaders I hope to do the same with our theme of getting lost in high school nostalgia, so I’ll have that in mind when approaching the deaths in the film.

As for how visceral our kills will be…

We’re lucky enough to have Myke Michaels designing our FX. He’s an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning make-up artist who has done everything from the severed toe in The Big Lebowski to all the carnage on the decks of Master and Commander. I spoke about seeing every way a person can die on screen; if you just look at his imdb you can tell he’s created just about every way a person can die on screen. So when designing the kills I wanted to make sure to give him a challenge. Stuff we hadn’t seen before. He’s also an old school practical effects guy which is brilliant because I have a no CG policy on this film. There will be no Mortal Kombat blood on our screen.

You mention that you are going to have strong, well-rounded characters – specifically female characters. Talk a little about your thoughts on how you are creating interesting characters that audiences can connect with.

I think I answered this in question #3 but just to elaborate a little further… how you create a strong character and more specifically a strong female character is not by simply putting gun/sword/chainsaw/whatever in their hand and having them fight back. It’s about making them people. When writing the cheerleaders in this film I made sure they all had distinct personalities and flaws. Things that make them relatable and real. And I didn’t want to follow the formula of “give this character one specific trait and repeat in every scene till they die.”

Tell me about the pre-production, and when we can expect to check out the flick?

We are expecting to have this film out in late 2012. We’ve had a lot of great responses, including some from investors and a studio, but it’s a tough time for financing, obviously. So instead of waiting around for someone to finally pull the trigger we decided to develop it ourselves. Hence the kickstarter campaign. If we make our goal, we can officially bring on a fantastic casting director who’ll be able to bring us excellent actors and a storyboard artist and we can start bringing Cheerleaders to life.

Link to Kickstarter Page:

Movie Home Page:


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  • Jason Kioke

    Sounds interesting