I got the opportunity to sit down with Jay Cheel and Brian Robertson, the creators of Cursed Films, a standout series on Shudder about sets of famous films that have dark events connected to them. Jay writes and directs the series, while Brian produces it. Cursed Films has just begun it’s second season.
PopHorror: Cursed Films is a very unique, meta series that finds the horror inside the horror. What attracted you guys to a project like this in the first place?
Jay Cheel: Cursed Films was brought to me by a friend of mine, Owen Shiflett, who was working at Shudder at the time, and they were internally discussing this concept. And he brought it to me because I think he knew that I was a big horror fan. I had just done a short film called Twisted, which dealt with a movie-related urban legend about a drive-in theater that’s local to me that was hit by a tornado, supposedly when the movie Twister was filmed. So that was kind of a similar approach. I told that story as to what I ultimately ended up pitching back to them, which was really looking at why we want to believe these these legends, how they start, how they’re perpetuated, and how they can grow.
PopHorror: Same question to Brian.
Brian Roberson: It’s just fun to be producing a documentary series. It feels a lot like you’re in a band, traveling North America with three to four people at a time plus all these great legendary film people, and it just seemed like a good opportunity. I’m also a genre fan. I like horror films, and it was a nice chance to get to sit down and just hear about the making of these films in person.
Jay Cheel: I think the last time you answered this question, you said it was because you wanted to work with me. (laughs)
Brian Roberson: Yes, I had seen Jay’s first future, Beauty Day, and it was a great opportunity to work with him.
Jay Cheel: I wanted to work with Brian as well. It’s a mutual love.
PopHorror: It seems like there’s definitely a chemistry between you guys as creators. What would you say was the scariest story that you’ve been told so far in uncovering Cursed Films?
Jay Cheel: As someone who is kind of a skeptic, I don’t know that people really believe that these films were cursed. But the coincidences that people have talked about have been pretty crazy. There’s also the side that is dealing with the real life accidents and tragedies that are scary in a whole other way. That something can happen on a film set that normally ends up in someone being killed is a scary thought. We did this episode on The Crow, and Brandon Lee was killed on that set with a gunshot. Everything that happened with the Alec Baldwin situation being a very similar one. That, to me, is scary. So it’s not as fun an answer as being scared by an urban legend, but it’s it’s definitely a more real fear.
PopHorror: A lot of genre fans enjoy getting the behind the scenes stuff. So whenever you do something like this, but it’s not just your standard extras on a DVD, it’s a really unique way of looking behind the scenes.
Jay Cheel: We wanted to make something that was seen like a true documentary of the things that happen on these sets. And at the same time, you can learn a little bit about the history behind the making of the films, the history of cinema at the time, and why the films are relevant to that period. Also, where they were landing socially and politically at that time. I’m always interested in telling stories that are character-based and interview subject-based. So a big focus is on just finding voices that are compelling and people who are willing to be completely honest to tell their story. We allowed them to be our guide, not only through the story, but also through how the episode feels tonally and how far we want to go in terms of believing that something supernatural happened on a set. If the person that we’re talking to believes it, then we will engage with that. If they don’t, then that will dictate the tone of the episode. So the subjects really are key there.
PopHorror: Are there any movies that have really dark stories that stand out to you guys as being a good future episode of Cursed Films?
Jay Cheel: I’ve been saying Waterworld. Do you have one, Brian, that you’d like to do?
Brian Roberson: Atuk is a good one. It’s not necessarily a horror film, but it’s certainly one that people think has some kind of curse attached to it. It’s a film that was ordered into production or development a number of times, and every lead actor that was attached to the film ended up passing away. It was in different iterations of development and it is always on people’s lists of the top 10 cursed films of all time. And Jay and I had been looking at that film and thinking about it for season one and two. Maybe it’ll work its way into season three.
Jay Cheel: It’s interesting because it’s a cursed item. A lot of people think the script is cursed. It’s a comedy so it would be an interesting one to tackle for sure.
PopHorror: I love that you guys took a bit of a deviation from horror when you did The Wizard of Oz. You’re expanding your horizons to other genres as well, because there’s such haunting stories behind those sets, too.
Jay Cheel: Even if the film that we’re covering isn’t a horror story, sometimes the stories connected to the making of the film are horrific. So it still fits in on Shudder. The Wizard of Oz is horrific for some people with the Wicked Witch and the flying monkeys. A lot of people grew up with that being a lingering memory of their first experience of being scared by something on television or film. So at the very least, it’s horror-adjacent; it has horror elements. It’s known as this fantastic family film, but the stories connected to the making of it are horrific.
PopHorror: It’s so far ahead of its time in terms of the the effects and the sci-fi surrealism. But I’d like to delve into the psychology of this. Do you guys feel like most of these stories are just macabre coincidences, or is there a formula as to why these things happen on set?
Jay Cheel: I don’t know if there’s a formula as to why they happen on set, other than in many cases, it’s just a lack of protocol or a lack of safety concerns.
Brian Roberson: Or the over-working of laborers. I think that’s what it comes down to in a lot of cases. People are just overworked.
Jay Cheel: Then it just gets sloppy. Especially with The Wizard of Oz with Margaret Hamilton being burned. They already got the shot and they wanted to do a take for safety, because they knew they couldn’t bring back all of those extras for Munchkinland. They waited until after lunch to film that additional take. So everyone came back kind of groggy and full and a bit slower than they were before they broke for lunch.
Brian Roberson: I’m often ensuring that Jay almost finishes his day before we break for lunch. Making sure that he gets everything in the can and, and then I let him eat. (laughs)
PopHorror: It’s like the scientific principle, “an object in motion stays in motion.” Once you stop and get that food in your stomach, you’re now at rest. So you just want to sleep and relax, and the quality of your work starts to lag a bit.
Jay Cheel: In terms of the curses, I feel like people working on these films probably recognize things while they’re making them. There’s probably chatter about it and people saying, “Wow, it feels like this thing’s cursed.” When you end up having to promote the film, and when crew members go off on another film, and someone asks what it was like working on the previous movie, they tell the story, and then it spreads. Then every time someone retells it, something is added or changed or heightened, and it just takes off from there.
PopHorror: A lot of these episodes are scary because they channel relatable psychological fear. What do you guys think makes a film—or documentary in this case—truly scary?
Jay Cheel: I can’t speak for Brian, but I have found it very hard to be scared by horror films lately. I think the last time that immediately what comes to mind is The Descent. Seeing The Descent in theaters, and the anxiety of the claustrophobic cave setting, and the way in which that’s utilized… It’s tough to make something scary now, because if it’s too focused on gore and jump-scares, it just feels like I’m seeing the production of that. I appreciate that, but I like that for different reasons. If it’s leaning too much towards the elevated horror side where it’s more of a psychological thing, that works for me as well, but I’m also very aware of them. It’s a weird thing, thinking about how to scare someone in a film. It’s even harder with documentaries outside of just getting into purely horrendous, tragic, real life horror.
Brian Roberson: Jay’s a big fan of videos of people trapped in caves. I think that is horrendous, people documenting themselves in these terrible situations.
Jay Cheel: The fact that they’re choosing to crawl into a space where they have to compress their bodies is terrifying. I’m always watching those. It’s either videos of people cave spelunking or Funko Pop unboxing videos. (laughs)
Brian Roberson: Or the videos where they get a mystery box. Where you spend money on a mystery box, and you open it up, and it’s damaged children’s toys. (laughs)
PopHorror: I found myself last scared by The Strangers (read our review here) because it was claustrophobic. Someone who’s a homeowner can suddenly encounter somebody just because they’re home, and you have really no way to escape in your own place. Taking away a personal comfort can be horrifying.
Jay Cheel: That gets to the whole idea of when people talk about John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the idea of The Shape just being a backgroundless force going through this town and killing people without any reservation. The fear in that, versus what they ended up trying to do with the mythology for Michael Myers and connecting him to having a sister, is a balance. It can’t be banal enough where it’s just another story of something that you see on the news. It has to be slightly heightened and taken advantage of. The things that unsettle people on a primal level. The Strangers was one that I got that feeling from.
PopHorror: You guys did something so unique with this. So what’s next for you guys as filmmakers? How do you do something even more unique and impactful going forward?
Jay Cheel: I would like to make a horror film. We’ve been talking about some ideas for a scripted horror film. So hopefully, that’ll be something that might happen soon. In terms of a documentary, we’re kind of developing a project that has been in Brian’s life for a couple years now. It’s been in my life for 20 years. I don’t even want to talk about how long it’s been. The way time flies by, that’s horror. But it’s a hybrid documentary about a supposed time traveler who posted online in the early 2000s. He had this following of people that interacted with him. And so it’s a documentary about that event, but also telling his story through science fiction. It’s a science fiction film, that’s kind of brushed up against the documentary. So we’re hoping that happens soon.
PopHorror: That sounds very interesting! Brian, is there anything else on the horizon for you as well?
Brian Roberson: We’re going to continue our relationship with Shudder if they’re interested in continuing Cursed Films. I think Jay and I are more than happy to entertain that because we both really love what this is. Jay’s got a few projects on his slate, which are now on my slate, and trying to develop some different properties and see where it goes. I’d love to make a scripted narrative with Jay. I think he would be perfect for it.
PopHorror: Speaking as a creator and a fan, it’s refreshing to see content out there right now from young, inspiring creators. So thank you guys for what you do, and Shudder is a great platform for you guys too.
Brian Roberson: I will say that Jay isn’t necessarily young. (laughs)
Jay Cheel: I’ve heard the term “man-child” before, so I guess that’s kind of young. (laughs) But thanks so much. It was a great interview. And I hope that you enjoy the rest of this series.
I greatly appreciate Jay and Brian taking the time to sit down and talk with me, and I wish them a ton of success on all their future projects!