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Director Jay Cheel Talks Making of Horror Documentary CURSED FILMS [Interview]

By Marina Antunes [08.17.20]


Writer/director Jay Cheel's love for the strange has been on display in pretty much all of his work, including his two feature documentaries Beauty Day and How to Build a Time Machine. And so his venture into TV feels like it was perfectly suited for the director, especially on the heels of his short film Twisted in which he explored a bizarre 1996 event in which a drive-in theatre playing the movie Twister was destroyed by a tornado.


Written and directed by Cheel, "Cursed Films," currently streaming on Shudder, is a five-part documentary series, exploring the myths and legends behind some of Hollywood's doomed productions, often thought to be cursed. Over the course of the series, Cheel takes a deep-dive into The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Omen, The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie, exploring known stories and uncovering new ones. He speaks with production crew, directors, and outsiders in an attempt to understand what actually took place and how the stories behind the movies are often as popular as the movies themselves.


We recently had the opportunity to chat with Cheel leading up to the series' release on digital, DVD and Blu-ray on August 18. For our conversation, including some minor details about the recently announced second season of "Cursed Films," read on.





Quiet Earth: How did you become involved with the project?

Jay Cheel: It was actually brought to me Shudder. I'm friends with Owen Shiflett, who's no longer with them, but he was with Shudder at the time. I think he thought I would be a great fit for it. Not just because of the fact that I am a documentary filmmaker and a horror fan, but I had just done Twisted, which is a short documentary about a tornado that hit a drive-in nearby and supposedly tore down the screen while the movie Twister was playing.

It's kind of like a local urban legend that I ended up exploring. It felt like a weird proof of concept for what "Cursed Films" could be. That kind of gave me the foot in the door and then I pitched to them what my version of a show would look like and they liked it and it kinda went from there.

When you pitched the show, was it always going to be 5 episodes and did you already have an idea of the projects that you wanted to approach?

When it was first pitched, I knew I wanted to do this sort of more analytical look at why we're fascinated by these stories and not necessarily something that debunks them, but simply offers the opportunity to look at things like coincidence and pattern-seeking and magical thinking. And so that was the angle.

It actually started as three episodes with two films per episode. And then we did our first big block of shooting and realized that there was so much great stuff that we're coming back with, that we switched it to five episodes where we were going to shoot or focus on one film per episode. And then we dropped the other film. I kind of cut that one. It was kind of an interesting pivot in the middle of the production that opened us up to be able to explore some other things that we definitely wouldn't have had time to explore in 15 minutes if we had gone with the previous idea of two films per episode.



How do you start preparing for the interviews that you're hoping to do? Did you start with a wish list and as you do these interviews, other potential interviews come up? How does that look for you the back end?

Yeah, we would start with a wish list of people involved in the productions and then people we want to get, the production guys will reach out to all them, the main people involved [in the films] and, and depending on who agrees and who doesn't, then we go from there. But with this series, especially with it being our first season, it was a tough sell to reach out to someone who worked on a film 30 plus years ago, and maybe had this sort of not bad experience, but, you know, if there was some tragedy connected to it, asking them to revisit that 30 plus years later, especially when maybe they've talked about it before and are sick of talking about it.

So that's definitely a challenge. And then them seeing that it's a request by a show called "Cursed Films" where they want you to talk about all of the crazy stuff that happened on that film that you always get asked about... it really was a little bit of an uphill battle convincing people that this wasn't just another sort of "E! True Hollywood Story" take on things and that we were trying to be a little more mindful and considerate of the memories of people involved.

And also I'm trying to elevate it beyond just like an internet listicle. So there were challenges in that regard, but then we ended up getting a lot of great people in the end and I think they were all very happy to be able to talk honestly and openly about how they feel about the stories connected to those productions, rather than kind of speaking about it with the sort of agenda, trying to retain some sort of supernatural spookiness or, having to act like maybe they believe. I just wanted them to be completely honest.

And if they think a curse is bullshit, then say it's bullshit on camera. I think that was kind of a refreshing thing for some of these folks.



Where there any stories that came up in the interviews that came as a surprise to you?

I think the Paul Bates and story from The Exorcist, about the radiologist who went on to go to prison for murder, that one was... I didn't see that pop up on too many lists about the cursed Exorcist production. So that was one that was kind of a surprise to me. Especially the fact that Paul Batesent to prison and William Friedkin actually went and visited him and interviewed him as research for Cruising. It's kind of a weird connection to another one of his films. That was definitely one that was kind of new to me that we discovered through research.

And I think The Omen. I mean, I had heard a lot of those stories before, but just hearing them all back to back to back with some of the, whether or not you would call them embellishments or however you would want to put it, coming directly from Richard Donner and Mace Neufeld, just the way in which they laid out all of those crazy events.

It really, out of all of them, is the one film where it makes even the most skeptical person think "Wow, there were a lot of crazy things that happened during the making of that film." And how much of this is, sort of the telephone game like Richard Donner is this amazing storyteller and over the years has been just crafting this into more and more of a compelling narrative. Is it that, or is it that just a lot of crazy coincidence has happened? And we're recognizing that because of the subject matter of the film... that's kind of what made this whole project interesting. That one definitely, it's just one too many weird things that occurred during that production.

Congratulations on the renewal for a second season. Are you able to share any details about that? Is the film that you dropped from season one going to appear in season 2?

I can't say anything about the actual films and I can't say which film was dropped either. So I'm giving you a big nothing on that. But I can say that I think it's an eclectic group of films that we're looking at and I'm excited by it because there's one film in particular on the list that I think will be kind of new to a lot of people, especially in the horror world, but still has connections to horror. It's horror adjacent kind of like The Crow in a way.

The stories connected to the production are just so interesting that I think even for people who maybe don't have some nostalgic connection to the film, they'll be pulled in by the story itself. But there are also a lot of movies on the list and the second season will have horror fans in particular, very excited. I'm kind of looking at it as five definitive documentaries on the making of these productions and being able to go outside of North America and widen the scope is exciting as well.

Have you been working on any personal projects during this time?

Yeah. We've been trying to get this John Teeter time traveler documentary off the ground for some time. It's about a man who called himself John Teeter who posted online in the 2000s claiming to be from the year 2036. It's this hybrid documentary that mixes science fiction and nonfiction. We're making some good progress with that in terms of funding and some exciting things are happening there. Then there's another project that I've been developing that I hope to be able to talk about soon, another documentary series. It's definitely been challenging during the whole COVID thing, but thankfully I've been keeping pretty busy in the meantime.


“Cursed Films” will be available on digital, DVD and Blu-ray on August 18.



Recommended Release: Cursed Films



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