Don't Go in the Woods : Vincent D'Onofrio on his "Slasher Musical"

First-time feature director Vincent D'Onofrio and screenwriter Joe Vinciguerra on making their B-movie throwback. 

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film / credit: Nathan West

Over the past three decades, Vincent D’Onofrio has amassed a diverse, respected career as a genius character actor in movies such as Full Metal Jacket, Men In Black, Mystic Pizza, and The Player, and many more know him best as the intense Detective Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In 2005, D’Onofrio directed himself as a cinematic legend in the short film Five Minutes, Mr. Welles, and he’s now moved on to a feature project: a low-budget “slasher musical” (in which he does not act) called Don’t Go in the Woods, which debuts today on nationwide VOD. (Find a screen near you here.)

While the story is credited to D’Onofrio, he enlisted two of his buddies to flesh out the screenplay: Joe Vinciguerra and Sam Bisbee, the latter of whom also wrote the songs that serve as the soundtrack for the movie. What exactly is a slasher musical, you might ask? Here’s the gist: a group of guys in an up-and-coming Brooklyn band head to the woods to camp for the weekend, with the disciplined intention of nailing down a group of songs that will land them their big break: no booze, no cell phones, no distractions. Distraction arrives, however, in the form of a group of girlfriends, and the whole gang starts getting killed off one by one… but not before each one gets to sing a swan song.

Don’t Go in the Woods is kind of hard to pin down—there’s not much to compare it too—but it’s a fun ride, with the loose feel of a campy B-horror-movie from decades past (the difference here is that Bisbee’s music is good), with twists and turns and jumps galore. When D’Onofrio and Vinciguerra stopped by the Tribeca offices last week, their conversation went in the same direction—you can just tell they had a great time making this movie.

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film / credit: Nathan West

Kristin McCracken: Whose crazy idea was this? What was the inspiration? Were there other films you had in mind, or did you just want to mash up genres?

Vincent D’Onofrio: I was driving down from upstate with my wife, and Sam, Joe and I had this project in the works [Johnny and Me], but we were waiting for Johnny Cash’s estate to approve it, and I was just getting anxious to shoot something. So I was thinking: What do I have available? What can I do? We have 100 acres of woods upstate, and Joe’s a writer, and Sam’s a composer, so why not make a musical horror movie… don’t use a casting agent, just use [non-actors]. So I called up Sam, and then two months after that, we were shooting. Joe came up with the script pretty quickly…

Joe Vinciguerra: We knew the movie, right? The second he pitched it, we knew we had 5 guys in a band, and they go to the woods, and we’re just going to come up with as many ridiculous ways as we can to kill them. [laughs] We basically did that in a weekend. [To Vincent:] We went to your house, up there, and we goofed around in the woods at night, which scared the s&!% out of us.

We came up with 10 kinds of archetypal characters—the kind who are in all these movies—so that it was very easy to know their storylines and relationships: the smart girl, the stoned rocker, that kind of thing.

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

KMc: And the blind guy! You don’t often see a blind guy in a movie.

JV: We started to think backwards: What’s the scariest thing that could happen? What if you were blind and stuck in the woods, and there’s some kind of killer on the loose…

VD’O: The idea was always that it would be like a B-horror film structure, and that everybody sings, and everybody dies.

KMc: Well, except… [spoiler redacted]

VD’O: [laughs] He’ll die in the next one.

KMc: Can you tell us about your cast? Who are the band members? Do they really play together?

VD’O: Well, three of them, Matt [Sbeglia], Nick [Thorp] and Soomin [Lee], had a band called The Dirty Dirty. I had heard them play before and thought that they were all really talented, and I asked them to come over to my house with Sam, and sing some of Sam’s stuff, and see if they could handle it, and they were just brilliant—really talented guys.

KMc: What about the girls?

VD’O: Two of the girls were extras on Criminal Intent, and the other ones worked at the coffee shop around the corner from my house. The art director worked in the coffee shop, too. We did casting sessions while I was doing the show, and we’d invite people in to my dressing room to sing, and we’d give them a guitar. I really wanted the least experienced actors; that’s what I was really going for.

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

KMc: And so the two girls were extras, but were any of the rest of them actors?

VD’O: No.

KMc: Do they have the bug now?

VD’O: No. I mean, the two actresses still want to be actresses…

KMc: Are they excited about the movie coming out?

VD’O: Yeah, they still don’t believe it’s coming out.

JV: I don’t either!

KMc: It’s for real! Don’t Go in the Woods launches in over 40 million homes on VOD on December 26. That’s kind of a crazy amount of distribution. Indie films are usually just shown in small theaters in 2 cities… Have you ever been in a film that premiered on VOD?

VD’O: No, it’s all brand new to me. I think it’s awesome. I love the whole idea of it. I think it’s the way everything is going; there’s no denying it anymore. When I’m traveling around, which I do a lot, that’s all I see: people watching movies on little screens. They share headphones—you see couples in airports watching on iPads or iPhones or smartphones or whatever. I mean, that’s it.

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

KMc: Does it bother you? You don’t feel precious about your movie being seen on the big screen?

JV: This is not a movie to be precious about. [laughs]

VD’O: This particular movie? No, it doesn’t bother me at all. I think that it depends on what it is, really. Joe and I are not going to sit here and say that Don’t Go in the Woods has to be seen on a big screen. It doesn’t. But if we’re talking about a David Lean movie, or something like that—yeah, you should see it on the big screen, because that’s what it was made for.

JV: There’s a word of mouth now, that has an immediacy—you see it all the time with these kinds of films.

KMc: That’s how this movie is going to spread.

VD’O: Your film can sell a ticket [or a view, a download] while two people are having a conversation, wherever.

KMc: So the shoot was on your property. How long were you out in the woods?

VD’O: About 12 days. I think we had like a Saturday off in the middle.

KMc: Did anything change while you were shooting?

VD’O: We all knew going in that I had a certain style and vision for the film. I had in my mind how it was going to work, and nobody—well, I think Joe and Sam got what I meant, but no one else—understood until we were actually shooting it. And I knew I had to do it economically. We had a huge cast, so you have to be really economic with your coverage. So you just shoot, shoot, shoot and just don’t stop shooting until the 12th day is up.

KMc: Clearly, the audience for the film is young people. You’ve had some screenings on the road. What’s the reaction been?

VD’O: We were surprised a lot of the time, because a lot of audiences weren’t young.

JV: There have been some older people…

KMc: And did they like it?

JV: Yeah! I think there are people over a certain age who grew up seeing 70s, schlocky B-movies and appreciated them, as opposed to the kind of pure product that a lot of the horror movies have become now. So I think a lot of the older people appreciated the looseness of the story—the madness, and the craziness of it—how unique it was.

VD’O: And they really liked the music too. One thing that the film definitely has going for it is Sam Bisbee’s music.

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

KMc: As a first time feature director, what are a few of the biggest things you learned?

VD’O: You know, you get more confidence when you’ve done it. My confidence wasn’t bad when we were doing it, but I feel better now. I just know now that I can just go with my heart and shoot, shoot, shoot, and everything’s going to be fine. If we were ever to make another one, I would go even further. I am confident now that I can go further and people with take that leap with me. As a filmmaker, you really have to be the one with the vision.

With a film like this, people are either going to take the leap or not; they are going to hate it or they are going to love it. We knew that going in. In a way, you have to look at it as kind of an experiment; you don’t really care what people are going to think. Otherwise, why make it?

KMc: What did you bring with you as an actor to the directing role, with these people who were not actors? Did you teach them anything?

VD’O: The one thing is trust. I promised them all during some of the read-throughs we had that I wasn’t going to make them look bad. They had to put their trust in me. I know that, as an actor, once a director gets my trust, I just listen to everything they say. The biggest thing was to instill that trust, and then they just follow you anywhere.

I told them there was a certain style of acting that I wanted: a very flat, slacker—Linklater’s Slacker—feel to it. I would direct them in a very literal way: move there, do that, do that faster, don’t think about it, just say the lines. Speak in your own voice, and be as honest as you can. Just don’t worry about it, don’t get in the way of yourself; that’s the biggest thing.

KMc: Joe, how involved were you with the filming process?

JV: Sam and I were on the set everyday. We had to change some of the script, as disasters would come up. 

KMc: Disasters? 

JV: Well, we couldn’t use the entire opening sequence—there was a whole thing we filmed that explains and sets up the whole movie—and it just didn’t work out: it was raining, the actor didn’t know his lines… So we had to try to figure out ways to get little bits of information across in other scenes.

But otherwise, the production was pretty smooth, I thought. We kept to the schedule, and the script changed a little bit… There was stuff that didn’t make sense anymore when it was 3 am. We didn’t really have a lot of rehearsals, so by the time the camera was rolling, that was when you found out if a sentence didn’t work, or if a line didn’t make sense anymore. We’d just change it.

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

KMc: What makes Don’t Go in the Woods a must-see?

VD’O: It’s a fun little trip to go on. It’s rock n roll….

JV: It’s a musical that’s not cheesy. It’s just not.

KMc: The songs are good!

VD’O: So I think if you want a musical experience and have a lot of fun while you’re watching it, and if you like that horror feel, then you are definitely going to want to watch Don’t Go in the Woods.

JV: And it’s original. You can’t quite say you’ve seen it before.

KMc: It’s true. We were stumped about what other movies it’s like.

JV: The reality is like you’d have to say Easy Rider is more like this than actual horror films. I can’t really explain it, but that’s just the way it feels.

VD’O: The thing that’s different from the other musical horrors is that ours is not an opera.

KMc: Yeah, the other musical horrors we came up with were Sweeney Todd, Rocky Horror, Repo! The Genetic Opera

VD’O: Those are very operatic, with sets.

KMc: They are not the same sensibility.

VD’O: No, they’re not, at all. And except for Rocky Horror, the music is not as good as in ours, I’m sorry to say. Sam’s music is just outstanding.

KMc: Any final advice you can share with those looking to follow in your footsteps?

VD’O: Just do it. Just ride with it. I don’t think that you should try to do something too grandiose to start with. Just approach it as an experiment—that’s how I think about it—don’t put so much weight on it. If you feel like it’s your passion, then most likely, you have a talent. So just try not to do anything that’s too difficult to start with. Do something you know.

JV: Like killing people in the woods. [laughs]

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