Interview With Award-Winning Filmmaker Jonathan JJ Perez

Making its round on the independent festival circuit is Jonathan JJ Perez’s Beneath: A Cave Horror. Most recently featured during the Houston Horror Film Festival Virtual Weekend earlier this month and now on to the ninth annual Phoenix FearCON (October 16th – December 31st) which will also be held virtually, Beneath has continued on its impressive trek across the map.

Beneath’s synopsis:

When a group of cavern tour guides hear an old tale of a sacrificial cult performing rituals in the cave, they sneak down into the restricted areas to find out more. Skeptical about the legend, they end up summoning a demonic presence that refuses to let them leave.
Utilizing a coveted, cavernous filming location, low budget equipment, a few of his friends and a lot of heart, Perez ended up making a film that folks have applauded.
We got to chat with JJ and ask him about his heroes, his journey as a rookie filmmaker, and what’s next for him.

PopHorror: JJ, you and I have actually met before. Despite the fact we were both in serious fan mode at the time, we sat near each other, connected and chatted during a most auspicious occasion for us both – when Adam Green visited the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. Even then, I remember you being fiercely determined to become a filmmaker. You have accomplished a great deal since then. Could you describe what this journey has been like for you?

JJ Perez: I remember that day very well and remember us geeking out back and forth before the show started. During the podcast recording, there was one point where Adam pointed the mic at me and asked a question, and I just immediately froze. I was so nervous, but it all worked out. You ended up hearing me not just one, but two times on their podcast. For the longest time, I was bragging to everybody that I got to be on The Movie Crypt Podcast!

At that time, I still had dreams of being a filmmaker, and Adam has always been an inspiration, but I just didn’t have that push to do it just yet. It wasn’t until Adam toured his most recent chapter in the Hatchet series, Victor Crowley, where I got the biggest push of inspiration to actually get out there and do it. I was blown away by Victor Crowley and thought it was the best of the sequels, if not the best of the series.

After the film, Adam did a meet and greet, and I got to talk to him about the film. He ended up telling me that the film was the hardest film he has ever made, with the lowest budget, and just 11 days of shooting. That’s what really hit me. To me, the film looked like it was the biggest budget of the series. The fact he pulled off the stuff he did with such a small amount of money was incredible. I then told him that I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of 7 but had lost a little of that passion because I just felt I couldn’t do it. Without going too much into what he said, he basically told me, “You know this business isn’t easy, and we’re all insane for being a part of it. There’s gonna be speed bumps along the way, but if you really want it, you can do it. Just get out there and do it.”

A week later, I started writing Beneath. If you would’ve told me right then where the film was gonna take me, no way would I have believed you. The film has made it to 25 film festivals across 14 states. I’ve gotten to meet an insane amount of my heroes at these things, like Kane Hodder, Felissa Rose, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, and Dee Snider, just to name a few. We have received over 15 awards, including Best Texas Film, Best Horror Film, Best Music, Best Director, and Best Acting Ensemble. I’ve met some amazing filmmakers along this crazy journey and have developed amazing friendships that I know will create some wicked collaborations in the future. All of that is because of Mr. Adam Green. Without him, none of this would’ve happened.

PopHorror: What were the challenges faced while shooting as well as in post production for Beneath?

JJ Perez: The fact we were shooting in a cave. I definitely picked a hell of a challenging location to shoot in for my first film. We’re talking skinny, tight rooms and hallways with low ceilings. Rugged, wet and muddy walkways that nobody in their right mind should be running through, but of course, that’s what a good chunk of the movie called for. I can’t tell you how many times we injured ourselves down there. I think everybody in the main cast got hurt at least once. Tripping and falling on the ground to hitting our heads on the ceiling.

There’s an outtake where my lead is walking toward the camera, saying his lines, not focusing on the ceiling in front of him and he just straight up whacks his head so hard, he said he saw stars. The sound was like when you go knock on a watermelon at the grocery store to test it. We ended up having to call it a night after that.

I was my own DP, and I was filming a shot that involved a character running down a narrow hallway with a low ceiling. So in order to get this shot, I had to run backwards, while the actress was running toward me. In order to light up the shot, I had my two crew members running backwards behind as well, in tandem. One was holding the light, the other was holding the 30 lb camping generator to power the light, since we had no power in the cave. So there we were three people running backwards at the same time through this small space, and we misjudged where the passage veered to the right, and we just went crashing into the wall. I ended up scraping the entire side of my body. Best part was the camera was okay. I wasn’t gonna let that thing hit the wall. I just held it straight up in front of me. I always compare it to not spilling the beer.

Believe me, there are so many stories to tell about the challenges we faced. Another big one was the lighting. Being a rookie, I already didn’t know a whole lot, but it’s a cave. How do you light a cave? It’s supposed to be dark. Where do you draw the line where the lighting doesn’t make sense and it’s too bright and when there’s not enough and it’s too dark. We ended up just using one light and different shades of blue gels to match the mag lights that the characters used throughout the film. We did our best for what we had.

As far as post production, that’s my favorite part. I had a lot of fun learning editing techniques as I was going and didn’t have too many issues with that really. It was way more relaxing.

JJ Perez (center) with Beneath’s cast.

PopHorror: I really love the fact that your co-workers sincerely embraced this endeavor of yours. Did it take much to ask your fellow Inner Space Cavern team members to not only participate, but to be actors and crew, within Beneath?

JJ Perez: You know, not really. Everyone was basically on board from the get go. Actually, the film wouldn’t have been able to happen if my co-workers didn’t want to participate. Usually, film productions aren’t allowed in the cave due to its protection. The great Robert Rodriquez wanted to make a film there, and it was denied. So I thought, “Well, if I get people that they trust down there, maybe it will be possible,” and it was.

So I went up to the people I had in mind, one by one, and asked them if I wrote a part, would you want to be involved, and almost everyone said, “Yes,” and were super excited about it. So none of them had ever acted before, which worried me slightly, but then I thought about it. All of us give tours through this cavern to hundreds of people each day. During the tours, we don’t just give them information, we throw in lots of entertainment aspects and comedy. We kind of make it a performance, and it’s kind of acting in a way. So what I did was I went and wrote these characters specifically for the people I had in mind and basically made these characters a parody of themselves, where they could just be them, but times 10, while also incorporating some of their tour guide skills into their acting. It worked. It damn well worked, and I’m extremely proud of all of them. They have been nominated for Best Actor/Actress against some known people like Vivica A. Fox, Adam Brody, and Barbara Crampton. That’s a hell of an accomplishment in my eyes for just a bunch of tour guides.

PopHorror: If you could sit down and have a beer with any filmmaker – living or deceased – and pick their brain to gain some of their knowledge, who would it be?

JJ Perez: Well, that’s easy … Adam Green, of course. He created a huge cult following for himself on his first studio film. He got a small team together, a small budget and some pretty well-known actors and created the amazing ’80s throwback gore fest that is Hatchet. I would love to pick his brain on those films. If not Adam Green, then I would say Ari Aster or Jordan Peele.

PopHorror: Do you have another creation you would like to come to cinematic fruition? Have you found time or inspiration to begin more original ideas?

JJ Perez: Well, I had an idea for a sequel, but that’s kind of dead in the water now. I have a couple of ideas for some short films, with one being a more of a family-friendly film about an imaginary friend. Horror, however, is my love and passion, and I will mostly stick with that.

Like I said before, I made a lot of filmmaker friends while going to film festivals, and I’m gonna be helping out with some of their films, hopefully, once this stupid pandemic is over. The big one I’m really excited for is a film I’m helping with called Bury A Lover. It’s written and directed by my friend, Will Boothman, and it’s kind of a thriller/comedy/road trip gone wrong movie. He’s got some amazing locations all over Texas he’s shooting in. We’re actually filming up in the panhandle at Caprock Canyons at the end of this month.

What’s really fun is the fact that this film actually incorporates a couple of my characters from Beneath playing themselves before they were tour guides. Kind of same universe, you know. Will is actually a fan of my film and ended up asking me if it was cool to bring some of the characters in. So, my tour guide friends get to reprise their roles and have fun again with some cameos.

PopHorror: What would you like people to come away with after watching Beneath?

JJ Perez: We all know it’s not the greatest movie ever and it has its flaws, but it was a labor of love for all of us. So much hard work and dedication went into this. Nobody got paid, except for dinner every night we shot. I always fed everybody every night, no matter what. These guys were down there for 23 nights spread out across 3 months on no pay, and they were getting hurt left and right. So, we are all very proud of it because of what we went through to make it, and we can’t believe how well it’s done and how many people have seen it now. We just thought our friends and family were gonna be the only people to see it, but look at it now.

As for future filmmakers who are looking to try to create their own project, like Adam said, just get out there and do it. I mean, look at what I did. I had no idea what I was doing. I just winged it and learned as I was going, and it was the cheapest film school I could’ve ever gotten. I learned so much that I know my next film will be ten times better. If an amateur filmmaker like myself with no experience can create a film that travels the country, so can you. Don’t give up and just go for it. It’ll be the best decision you’ve ever made, and I say good luck to you.

PopHorror: Thank you so much, JJ, for your time!

Beneath: A Cave Horror will be screening during this year’s virtual edition of the ninth annual Phoenix FearCON as well as on Amazon Prime.

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