As a cinephile in the (far) western suburbs of Chicago, I am always excited to hear about local films and their makers. So when I heard about a film that was poised to do for St. Charles what Lucas did for Glen Ellyn, I was interested.
On September 6, 2011 at a Starbucks in St. Charles, IL, I sat down with Nick Smith to discuss his up coming thriller Munger Road. The film opens at Classic Cinemas’ Charlestowne 18 on September 30; the first showing will be at 12:01 a.m. A week later on October 7, it will expand to other theatres in the Fox Valley area.
ERIC ARIMA: First of all, congratulations on starting and finishing a movie.
NICK SMITH: Thank you.
EA: So you grew up in St. Charles?
NS: Yes. I graduated from St. Charles North in 2003, and I went to middle school, elementary school, the whole 9 yards in district 303.
EA: How did that shape your interest in cinema or filmmaking?
NS: When I was in high school I actually got accepted into the engineering program at U of I, and I wanted to be a structural mechanical engineer, and I ended up…there was a class project in my English class and I decided to use a video camera to create a short movie and I enjoyed the experience so much and then the peoples’ reactions to that movie that it kind of got snow ball effect of that I make movies. I always liked watching movies but I never really had thought about making them before and it was such a positive experience that I decided that rather than going down to study engineering I’d study film at Columbia College and that’s what I did when I graduated. So it was probably a happy accident, I guess.
EA: What was the short film?
NS: It was about my family. The project was to take a risk doing something you normally wouldn’t do. And something I normally wouldn’t do is make something with a video camera. It turned out pretty good so it was a pretty neat experience.
EA: Do you mind if I ask what year that was?
NS: That was probably 2000 or 2001.
EA: So digital filmmaking was still fairly new?
NS: Oh man. I still feel like it was in its ethos, actually. I think, I’ll never forget trying to figure out, you know, how to hook up my camera to my computer and be able to edit digitally and do all this stuff, but I realized back then that there was this power that was kind of being harnessed that being able to manipulate things much easier than, you know, shooting a movie on 16mm and, you know, cutting it by hand and going through all that and what not. There was so much more options to be able to help tell your story with the advent of computers and digital technology. So I’ve always been a very big proponent of digital cinema. Munger Road is shot on the digital Red MX camera system, which was brand new last year actually. It had just come out. […] It’s interesting because the camera system that we did use for the movie was one of the main reasons why we decided we would be able to make the movie was that the technology was there for us to be able to shoot a movie that used very dark places and dark photography and still look very rich. And the same quality if you go and watch Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, anything.
EA: So your interest in in filmmaking came from making films rather than watching cinema?
NS: You know I enjoy a plethora of movies. Anything from Dumb and Dumber, to American Beauty, to Sideways, to Back to the Future. I don’t consider myself a huge film historian/buff. I do enjoy movies that most people generally enjoy. I always approach things from a filmmaking standpoint that I’m not trying to copy style or anything like that but trying to use influences and emotions that I see from different movies. My favorite movie still to this day is Jaws. As a for instance, Jaws had a lot of influence on the making of Munger Road just from a story standpoint and how we went about it and what not.
EA: [Can you say a little bit about your interest in the source material, Munger Road?]
NS: The thing I like about Munger Road is that it’s a very simple story that a lot of people can experience for themselves. It’s not in some remote desolate house that only a few select people can understand or appreciate. It has a little bit of phone tag history that is over 30 years old of people passing down this legend. I think for people like myself that lived around here, it’s something that is a little bit of escapism. In a sometimes mundane suburban life you can go to this place, and it’s very dark, very mysterious, very eerie. I know a lot of people go up there and…don’t cause trouble…but they perhaps do things that aren’t legal. But at the same time I think that it just shows that people still really enjoy a good ghost story. So that was the reason why I thought that Munger Road could be perhaps a good movie if you help tell what that ghost story is. Since there isn’t a concrete legend that this is exactly what happened on Munger Road, I thought well let’s take the simple aspects of the car, the hand prints, the baby powder, and everything, and maybe I could come up with something that helps explain what did in fact happen on Munger Road. So the movie you’re watching…you’re kind of coming to a better understanding of what happened out there. You know I took a few liberties with things creatively, but everything is really grounded in reality.
EA: How geographically cohesive is the movie?
NS: I took great liberties to make sure that everything was geographically correct. The movie takes place on Munger Road; we filmed on Munger Road. We filmed in St. Charles.
EA: [I just noticed on your comment board people, without having seen the movie, were claiming Munger Road for either Bartlett or Wayne.]
NS: I wish that people would read the description of the movie. The movie is about 4 teenagers from St. Charles that go out there. And of course because 4 teenagers go missing from a town usually the town’s police would get involved in that and that exactly what happens. I appreciate that people take ownership saying “This is Bartlett.” I think it’s funny that people continue to say that Munger Road is in Wayne, and I can tell anybody definitively that it is not in Wayne. The section of Munger Road that is haunted is in Bartlett, the absolute southern border of Bartlett.
EA: Is that why you have the Google map displayed on your website?
NS: Yeah. The other funny thing is that St. Charles is technically closer to Munger Road than downtown Bartlett. It’s one of those things where people from Elgin, Hanover Park, Streamwood, all these places we all went out there. It wasn’t just Bartlett kids or any specific group of people. I’m getting kind of a kick out of people taking ownership over it. I think it’s a good thing. I think they should feel strongly about it. Everything’s accurate. We did film out there. They’ll recognize Munger Road when they see it. They’ll also recognize all the places in St. Charles where we shot as well. What people have to understand is that this movie has a lot of influence from John Carpenter’s Halloween. So the cops in the story are acting very similar to the doctor character, Dr. Loomis in the original Halloween where he’s trying to find an escaped killer. So they’re in St. Charles doing the same as well. You’ve got to have some sort of backdrop to tell that half of the story, and it wasn’t going to be Wayne because there is no downtown Wayne and Bartlett I’m not really familiar with; I’m more familiar with St. Charles. So that’s kind of how that all came about.
EA: This looks like a pretty big movie. How did it get made?
NS: Two years ago, I wrote the script. The script came out so well, it was so well received, we were able to raise financing through it, being that we’re an independent company [Insomnia Productions] and this is an independent film. From there we moved into preproduction and started casting and hiring and location scouting and all that stuff. The thing that sets us off a little different than most independent movies is that you never get a chance to see them in theatres. And the reason you’ll be able to see Munger Road in theatres is because this movie came out so well that it got picked up by a major distribution company [Freestyle Releasing]. That was our plan all along. We knew we were going straight to theatres. We knew that we had something good. And that is what ended up happening. We did a test screening of the movie about a month ago up in Minnesota to get people’s opinion that had nothing to do with St. Charles, or Bartlett, or Munger Road or anything, just to see if they liked the movie. People went nuts. Screaming, laughing. It was pretty insane. We’re really excited for people down here to be able to see it. People are going to be able to enjoy it a lot more. They’re going to be able to say, “I know this place” or “I know that place” and what not. And that’s a good feeling. You watch Road to Perdition and you’ll watch the scene that was filmed in Geneva and you’re like “I feel very warm and fuzzy about watching it because I know exactly where that is; I’ve been there.” We as an independent movie company got extremely lucky in this entire process to get to this point, but it was also the script. It was a good story and people really got behind it.
EA: And you wrote it?
NS: I wrote it
EA: Did you form Insomnia Productions?
NS: I did. That’s my company. They’re the producing arm of Munger Road.
EA: How did you get your cast? I guess Bruce Davison is the biggest name? I noticed you have a lot of known actors.
NS: I think we have a lot of good people in the movie. Bruce Davison is obviously an academy award nominee. Everyone we had is just a fantastic actor. Trevor Morgan is really well-known for being in The Sixth Sense, and Jurassic Park 3, and The Patriot. Brooke Peoples, who is the lead in the movie, I always pictured that character, her character’s name is Jo, to be somebody that we kind of introduced to the world and not somebody we’ve seen before, and so I made a conscious decision to cast somebody that was relatively unknown. And Brooke is fantastic in the movie. We had a lot of interest from a lot of well-known actresses that wanted to be in it, but I always felt that we wanted that character to be fresh and somebody we can really get behind. And she just did a great job. We set out to hire really great actors to help us tell the story and not be distractions at the same time. I always said when we were casting this, “How much are you going to believe Nicolas Cage is the chief-of-police in St. Charles walking around this town?” Are you going to believe that? Yeah, I think Nicolas Cage is great, but again I think we were going for people who help embody the story more. When Bruce read the script for instance, he loved it so much that he took a lot of chances, including financial. I don’t know the way to word this but we just couldn’t afford what he would normally make on a movie and loved this project and loved this script so much that he just wanted to do it and he did do it and that was just kind of the story for this entire movie. People always ask me, “How did you get a movie made?” and I say, “You write a good script.” And people read that script and they’re like, “This is good.” It’s interesting that I do see a lot of people now telling me that people are talking about, “How could you make a movie about Munger Road possibly more than 15 minutes long?” If you go see the movie, you’ll see that there’s a lot more meat on the bone. That it’s a full-fledged story. That…I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s definitely heading somewhere as well.
EA: What was behind the decision to keep it local?
NS: I had thought about calling the movie Munger Road and putting it somewhere else. I looked at a town in Wisconsin to do it because I was looking for an interesting place to tell the story. And then somebody just said to me, “Why wouldn’t you just make it in St. Charles?” And I thought about it, and I said “Sometimes the most simple ideas are the best.” St. Charles has got a lot of things going for it; one of which is that it has never been filmed before. It’s an interesting way to introduce this town. It’s got these great things; it’s got the river; it’s got great architecture from the 1920s like the Baker Hotel, the Arcada Theatre, the Municipal Center, all these things. And then it’s got the Scarecrow Fest that is a big plot point in the movie as well. The reason why it’s a big plot point goes back to that Jaws reference. The conflict in the movie Jaws isn’t so much that there’s a shark in the water; it’s the fact that there’s a shark in the water and you’re going to have all these people coming in to this small town for Fourth of July, this big thing. Munger Road is kind of similar. What would happen if four kids went missing the night before the Scarecrow Festival and you had all these people coming in to this big family thing? What would you do? That’s the kind of conflict going on. It’s got a lot of things going on in it. It’s a psychological thriller; it’s not a blood and guts horror movie. It’s an extremely scary movie, but it’s not rip-open-your-rib-cage, rip-your-heart-out.
[UPDATE: On September 25, 2011, I corrected the misspelling of Bruce Davison's name.]