Interview with Michael and Sonny Mahal: Brothers Team Up for Indie Horror

The brother filmmaking duo, Michael and Sonny Mahal, first appeared on my radar upon unleashing their comedic horror film, Party Bus to Hell, which made me an instant fan. Beginning their career in film by exploring the comedy genre, the brothers shifted gears into full party mode with their breakout cult hit featuring Tara Reid (American Pie, Sharknado) and Sadie Katz (Wrong Turn 6). We recently caught up with Michael and Sonny to speak about how they entered the film industry, Party Bus to Hell and their upcoming feature, Art of the Dead.

PopHorror: Hi, guys! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

Michael Mahal: Of course! Thank you for having us.

PopHorror: To start, have you two always wanted to become filmmakers?

Michael Mahal: It’s actually kind of crazy. About 14 or so years ago, we took the Universal Studios tour in the back lots of Universal Studios, and we actually saw a bunch of filmmakers from New York Film Academy shooting in the back lots on the Back to the Future sets. We just kind of looked at each other and said, “Dude, this is really cool. We should get into making movies!” And I think it was at that point when we both decided it was time to go into filmmaking.

From left to right: Troma Entertainment President Lloyd Kaufman, Sonny Mahal and Michael Mahal

Sonny Mahal: We grew up watching Troma films, and that was a big influence, too. It made filmmaking seem like anyone could do it. It helped to set in the reality that you don’t need to work for a studio to become a filmmaker.

Michael Mahal: Along with Troma, there were a lot of others. We basically grew up watching a ton of movies. We would watch two or three new movies every day. We just loved them and always wanted to make our own.

PopHorror: That’s very cool! Troma is definitely a very big influence for low-budget films in general. So, Michael, you started out in commercial production with big names like ABC, Fox, Time Warner Cable and CBS, where you saw quite a bit of success. What made you decide to make the jump from television commercial production to film?

Michael Mahal: It’s kind of funny how that all started. I actually moved to Hollywood when I was just 17 years old, having graduated high school a year early. I went to a one-year filmmaking program in the back lots of Universal Studios. My brother actually went out with me, and we attended New York Film Academy. And right when I got out of the program, I got offered a producer job with Time Warner Cable. I actually had interviewed for a PA position, but they ended up giving me the producer position.

PopHorror: Oh, wow!

Michael Mahal: I made a career of it for over 8 years. I went from Time Warner Cable to CBS where I stayed for 5 years, and then I worked for an ABC affiliate, followed by a Fox affiliate. Now, I’m working for a law firm doing creative services as well.

Michael Mahal

PopHorror: That’s great experience at such a young age! Were you involved with the commercial production as well, Sonny?

Sonny Mahal: I would help on projects that Michael did outside of the company, but I wasn’t really a part of the commercial aspect of what he did. But there just came a point to where we needed to start making movies.

Michael Mahal: Making films is what we moved out there to do. It just so happened that I got into commercials and saw some success in it. And then about 10 years later, we decided that we needed to make our first movie, and we finally made our first feature film.

Sonny Mahal: Basically, when Michael started at New York Film Academy, I had already been at college for some years. So, we just moved together so we could both attend film school. It took awhile for us to get to the point to where we’re making movies. But who’s to say that making movies is easy, right? (laughs)

Sonny Mahal

PopHorror: That’s very true. Your first couple of features, 30 Girls 30 Days and Sin City Player, were definitely comedy. Is this your preferred genre to work in?

Michael Mahal: We basically started off in comedy, and we quickly realized that there is just no money to be had with comedies in independent films, a big reason being what’s funny in America isn’t necessarily funny in India or China. There are just too many cultural differences. So, your market is very limited. And, if you don’t have famous people in your movie on top of that, you literally have no chance of making any money.

So, we learned that horror is where all the success is for independent films. We had heard this every year at AFM, and when we spoke to distributors. We were told that we should make horror movies and always have a big name actor. My brother and I were in our kitchen one day having some drinks, and we came up with Party Bus to Hell, also known as Bus Party to Hell. We just came up with this crazy idea to make a story about a group of partiers who are on their way to Burning Man when their bus breaks down and a satanic cult tries to kill them all.

Sonny Mahal: And, I mean, horror has always been my favorite genre. I’ve been into it since my teens! I’m really glad we switched over, and I hope we stay in the horror genre. (laughs)

Michael Mahal: We ended up getting Tara Reid involved with Party Bus to Hell, and she is literally only in the first four to five minutes of the movie. Everybody thought we were crazy for giving her top billing, but Redbox purchased copies for 20,000 locations out of their 38,000 locations, and they put Tara Reid on the front cover of the movie. So, it worked out. (laughs)

Tara Reid in poster artwork for Party Bus to Hell

PopHorror: It served its purpose, and although she isn’t in the film for too long, the part that she did was great! And it created attention for the film, which ended up being tons of fun!

Sonny Mahal: She’s down to come back for a sequel if we decide to do one. She really loves the film.

PopHorror: What would you say was your favorite part of production for Party Bus to Hell?

Michael Mahal: The part where it was all done. (laughs) Every day, it was just going so over budget. I mean, holy shit, we were barely surviving each day, you know?

Sonny Mahal: And we never get to sleep during production. (laughs)

Michael Mahal: We ran into so many weather issues, like wind storms and freezing temperatures, that forced us to reschedule and delay shooting. We had the awning of an RV rip off, and we had to pay for all these crazy damages. We were at a gun range filming at one point, and we were getting shot at by somebody. (laughs)

PopHorror: Wait, you were shot at!?

Michael Mahal: Yeah, that was the day Tara Reid was filming, and we were just starting the day. The crew was setting up for the shot, and all of the sudden, bullets start ricocheting everywhere. We had to drive to the range and call a ceasefire to the guy who was shooting where he should not have been shooting, (laughs)

PopHorror: Bad weather and bullet dodging aside, what else were some big challenges during production?

Michael Mahal: I guess just the long, grilling days. We were literally shooting 14 to 16 hour days. The crew was on edge, and it was just nonstop. There was never a day to rest. We had put a couple days of rest and recuperation in the schedule, but we just ended up going over days and, because of weather issues, we ended up having to shoot way longer than anyone really wanted to.

Sonny Mahal: There is nothing easy about making a film at all. (laughs) It’s a very tough thing to do, but once it’s done, there is no greater feeling in the world.

Director Rolfe Kanefsky

Michael Mahal: The best part is being at the premiere with all the cast and crew that worked so hard and just watching and experiencing the film together. Just knowing that you shared all those crazy hardships in making it… that’s what filmmaking is about. It’s about the experience of making something from nothing and sharing that experience with other people.

PopHorror: Very enlightening and very true! Along with some great indie actors and Tara Reid, you also managed to cast Sadie Katz, who many horror fans know from films like Wrong Turn 6. How did you manage to get all these great actors together for your film?

Michael Mahal: It’s kind of a funny story. We originally offered Sadie the role that Tara ended up getting. But she insisted on playing Joan the bus driver. I explained to her that she would be here all 10 days for that role. But she decided to take the same pay I was offering her for the one day role and stayed for the 10 day role because that is what she felt like she wanted to do for her career. And, I mean, that was probably one of the best decisions for the movie. She rocked that role!

Sadie Katz

PopHorror: Oh, absolutely!

Michael Mahal: And we just had a really great crowdfunding campaign where we raised much more than we thought we were going to have. So we used some of that money to bring Tara on for two days of filming.

PopHorror: What was it like working with Tara and Sadie?

Michael Mahal: It was great working with both of them! Tara is very down to earth. You would think that from working on all those Hollywood movies that she would be tough to work with, but she was quite the opposite. She liked hanging out with everyone and having dinner, even when we weren’t filming. She goes above and beyond. She gets paid to be in the movie, but even when she’s not being paid, she’s promoting the movie on Twitter and she’s also plugging the film in interviews. She’s one of those people who is committed to a project from start to finish.

Sonny Mahal: Yeah, it was great working with both of them! After such a bonding experience, I think we’re all good friends.

PopHorror: So, am I correct when saying that Party Bus to Hell was your first dive into horror?

Michael Mahal: Yeah, that was our first dive into making horror films. We had directed our previous projects, but we decided to get someone who is more experienced in the horror genre for this one. So, we partnered up with Rolfe Kanefsky. We gave him the story, and he wrote it into a screenplay. Rolfe has over 30 years of experience in making horror films, and he has seen some success with films like Nightmare Man. So, we decided to produce, raise the money and hire Rolfe, who flew out to Vegas where we shot the movie. We made the film in 13 days, which is crazy. (laughs)

Sonny Mahal: We loved working with Rolfe and Michael Su, who served as the director of photography, so much that we went ahead and made another movie with basically the same crew from Bus Party to Hell, except this is a completely different subgenre of horror. It’s not going to be a bloodbath cult type of film like Bus Party to Hell. It’s going to be more of a mainstream movie called Art of the Dead.

Poster artwork for Art of the Dead

Michael Mahal: We actually wrapped principal photography for Art of the Dead back in May. This film is a horror story about a family who purchases a collection of seven paintings. Each painting represents the seven deadly sins. The family becomes affected by these paintings and the dark forces that surround them. They have to survive this experience. It’s a great horror film. While Bus Party to Hell was a cult hit, I think Art of the Dead is more of the mainstream type of horror film that will be appreciated by a larger audience.

PopHorror: And if I’m not mistaken, Tara Reid makes an appearance in Art of the Dead as well?

Michael Mahal: Yeah! She’s actually in this one longer this time. We also have Richard Grieco from the TV series, 21 Jump Street.

Sonny Mahal: And we also cast Lukas Hassel, who is just a very good actor, to play the main character. He is in Rolfe Kanefsky’s The Black Room, which we loved enough that we really wanted to work with Lukas, and he turned out to be a great, amazing actor!

PopHorror: That’s awesome! When and where do you think Art of the Dead will become available for public viewing?

Michael Mahal: There’s quite a bit of CGI work going into this one, so we’re expecting post-production to be done at the end of December, and we would like to do a premiere the first or second week in January. That could all change depending on how things go, but it will probably be before the end of the year when the product is fully completed, and then we’ll sign with a distributor that will probably release it in June or July of 2019.

Sonny Mahal: If we do it like last year, as soon as we’re done editing, we’ll probably have a premiere with the cast and crew sometime in January. Then we will sign the movie, and it usually takes about six months before it gets released through a distributor.

PopHorror: This sounds like a great film, and I look forward to seeing it! Do you have any other projects in the works?

Michael Mahal: Yes, we are going to announce one soon. We have partnered up with a different writing and directing team to create a sci-fi horror film, which will be our next project, and we are going to start pushing that right away. It’s going to be very unique and details will be released very soon.

PopHorror: I look forward to hearing more! Thank you, Michael and Sonny, for your time!

Michael Mahal and Sonny Mahal: Thank you for your time as well!

With Party Bus to Hell at 20,000 Redbox locations nationwide, fans of comedic horror need to check out this must-see acid trip from hell. Meanwhile, we wait with great anticipation for their next upcoming feature, Art of the Dead. Tackling one project after another, Michael and Sonny are expected to make their big sci-fi horror announcement the day of this article being published and we look forward to bringing you the breaking news!

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