Horror fans will recognize Adam Marcus as the director of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday and the co-writer of Texas Chainsaw 3D, two divisive but oft-discussed entries in their respective franchises. He recently returned to the genre to helm Secret Santa, a holiday horror-comedy streaming exclusively on SCREAMBOX.
The final installment in our three-part interview with the raconteur focuses on Secret Santa and the trials and tribulations of independent filmmaking. He also teases several projects that are in the works, including a monstrous collaboration with special effects legend Robert Kurtzman.
Secret Santa was born out of Marcus and his writing partner/wife Debra Sullivan’s frustration with the lack of creative control they had on their two previously produced screenplays, 2013’s Texas Chainsaw and 2015’s Momentum. “Artistically, it just started to feel really hollow. I was like, ‘Did I get into this to make money, or did I get into this to make things that I believe in and love?’”
The couple teamed up with Bryan S. Sexton, an associate producer on Marcus’ 2008 film Conspiracy (which he describes as “the nightmare of my life”) who was similarly fed up with the system, to form the production company Skeleton Crew. Recognizing a desire for the genre at the American Film Market, Sexton asked his partners for a horror script. The writers pooled together personal experiences and the resources available to them to craft Secret Santa.
“Secret Santa is what happens when you allow people who want desperately to tell stories they believe in to tell those stories without interference. You just have a group of people coming together to make something magical. I think the feeling that we had on set translates in the actual movie. Even though the movie’s about a family that hates each other, there’s a certain love and passion and joy that comes out of the movie that I think is present because of the way we made it.”
An actor in Skeleton Crew’s troupe owns a picturesque house in Big Bear, California. “Foolishly, she had told me at one point I could use it as a location if I wanted to,” Marcus chuckles. He secured the house for the first two weeks of January 2016. With the owner’s help, he was also able to rent the two next-door houses for cast and crew lodging, and the surrounding neighbors agreed to leave up their Christmas decorations for the production.
This all came together on Halloween 2015 — before a single word the script had been written. Thankfully, the rest of the pieces fell into place uncommonly fast. Marcus and Sullivan delivered the first draft of Secret Santa 20 days later. “It poured out of us. It’s very autobiographical.” After two hours of rewrites following a table read with the cast, they had their shooting script.
Marcus explains that, despite being Jewish, his parents were married on Christmas Eve and would throw an elaborate holiday party every year to celebrate. “Literally, there was like a Menorah, and then the whole place was decked in Christmas regalia.” They separated when Marcus was six but continued to host the annual bash. “Everybody was really nice to each other on the outside, horrible to one another on the inside. It kind of cemented this weird dichotomy for me about Christmastime in general.”
The scribes wrote the ensemble with friends in mind. Marcus knew how to kill the character played by Michael Rady (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) due to the actor’s resemblance to his brother, Kipp Marcus, who appeared in Jason Goes to Hell. “We did horrible things to Kipp. I have all of his makeup to this day, so I knew exactly how Michael Rady was going to die. I was like, ‘I’ve got a $10,000 makeup effect sitting in a box in my garage. I’m just bringing that to set. We’ll redress it and make it work.’”
Marcus also cast Sullivan. “There’s a lot of directors that hire their wives, and I always go, ‘God, I hope I don’t get Rob Zombie-d. I hope no one makes comments like that.’ But I stand by her work. I’m not hiring her because she’s my wife, I’m hiring her because she’s the best. She just won Best Actress at a festival a couple months ago. I’m happy to hire my wife, nepotism and all!”
Kurtzman, whose friendship with Marcus dates back to Jason Goes to Hell, handled the special effects in addition to shooting second camera and earning an executive producer credit. Marcus was taken aback when Kurtzman thanked him during the shoot. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding? I should be thanking you! I’m blessed to have you here.’ He goes, ‘No, thanks for actually making me feel what it’s like to be a real filmmaker. I haven’t had this feeling in a long time. Doing what we’re doing here, this is filmmaking.’”
Armed with 13 actors and a five-person crew, production moved swiftly. “We pre-produced the movie from November 25 to the first week of January, and then we shot the movie over 11 nights and one day in the first two weeks of January. If you’re keeping count, that’s 10 weeks from coming up with the idea to being in the can. It was remarkable.”
That’s not to say it was without its challenges, as Big Bear was hit with record snowfall. “The day before we started shooting, all the power went out. We were setting up with people’s cell phone flashlights. We were sequestered in that space for the first five days of shooting. It was like this weird winter camp. There’s 20 of us up there in these three houses and no one can go anywhere. It really focused everybody. It was kind of amazing, actually.
“Honestly, it was the best shoot of my life. It’s the happiest 11 days I’ve ever had on set, because it was all people that I know and love. The reason the script was written in such a short period of time, beyond the fact that I really knew the characters, was that I knew the actors’ voices. When you have the luxury of knowing your actors and then getting the opportunity to let them read a couple times before you shoot, it’s extraordinary.”
Although Secret Santa premiered in 2018, it never received a proper release in the US prior to its SCREAMBOX debut. “There is no way, in our industry right now, for independent movies to make money. We had a ton of people who wanted Secret Santa. The problem is they didn’t want to pay any minimum guarantee, which is a non-starter.” Another common predatory tactic is offering a 50/50 split that only takes effect after the distributors recoup their costs, resulting in producers struggling to break even.
Unfortunately, the film was uploaded to torrent sites shortly after it was released internationally. “Secret Santa has been seen by millions of people, and we made not one dollar from that.” While the crew was paid up front, the cast’s pay was deferred, and Marcus, Sullivan, and Sexton have never made any money from the film. “We made the movie for $30,000, and we weren’t getting our money back. That’s insane!”
Since they retained the domestic rights, Marcus was able to work directly with SCREAMBOX, who offered a reasonable minimum guarantee and a 50/50 partnership. “When those things come into place, you feel respected. They also understood the movie. If I’m not going to make money, I want people who are going to treat the movie with a modicum of respect and joy. It’s why we said yes.
“The relationship thus far with SCREAMBOX has been extraordinary. We feel as though the company has our back, and that makes us excited to talk about it. I feel like SCREAMBOX is treating people the right way and putting really cool material out there and discovering voices. They’re trying to give a platform to all of those filmmakers I see at all the festivals that don’t have anywhere to go.”
A Roger Corman-inspired ethic keeps Marcus going. For Skeleton Crew to develop a project, Marcus, Sullivan, and Sexton have to unanimously agree to move forward. They’re currently in pre-production on a political thriller that Marcus will direct in early 2024. “It’s gonna piss some people off. I’ll probably have to move,” he smirks. “It’s definitely saying something, that’s for sure.”
Other projects in the pipeline include Hunting Season, a “Bigfoot meets Predator” story from Marcus and Sullivan to be directed by Kurtzman, and Fat Camp Massacre, a “really special” horror-comedy written by actress Lindsay Hollister that “does for people of size what Get Out did for people of color.” They’re also developing material with John Esposito, who adapted Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift and has written and directed several episodes of Creepshow.
“I’m all about promoting really cool stories in the George Romero sense. Anyone who thinks Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are just about zombies is missing the point. George Romero never said a thing that wasn’t true or didn’t come true. This is where we come from, as an entity,” notes Marcus.
“Let’s be honest: when it comes to the horror genre, if we’re not the ones moving the culture forward, then we have lost everything. Horror movies are where everything gets questioned. We are the only people who have the right to do it, because we give you this giant scoop of ice cream on your vegetables.”
He continues, “More importantly, we want to find new voices. We’re promoting a bunch of young filmmakers who have just come out of school who have great visions. I want to give people a chance to make things that might not get a chance to make them, who don’t have access to the studio system. That’s where Secret Santa was born from; it was a proof-of-concept that we could make a movie for nothing and find an audience.”
Marcus considers the realization of Secret Santa to be a gift. “Secret Santa‘s fucking awesome! I have no compunction. If someone wants to hate on that, that’s fine. There’s always going to be people who hate stuff. For the love of God, I made Jason Goes to Hell! I’m Teflon. You cannot insult me!”