The director, writer and star of horror film I Am Lisa on how the film came together ahead of Thursday’s Boulevard Drive-In premiere
The new horror movie I Am Lisa is a Kansas City production through and through. Both writer Eric Winkler and director Patrick Rea are based here, and while star Kristen Vaganos might hail from California, she’s become an “honorary” Kansas Citian after her involvement in the picture.
The plot to the film is simple: “A sadistic, small-town sheriff and his cronies brutalize a young woman and leave her for dead in the woods. Bitten by a werewolf and bestowed with supernatural abilities, can she retain her humanity as she exacts revenge?” However, the writer and director both wanted I Am Lisa to subvert horror tropes and offer up something new. As the current coronavirus outbreak has made large indoor gatherings impossible, the premiere of the film required everyone involved to find a new venue, meaning that I Am Lisa will make its big-screen debut this Thursday, July 2 (tonight) at the Boulevard Drive-In.
I spoke with Rea, Vaganos, and Winkler by phone last week to get the story of how I Am Lisa came to be, and how they feel about the drive-in experience.
The Pitch: What was the starting point for I Am Lisa?
Eric Winkler, writer/producer: The first draft was back in 2016. I was 40 years old and I don’t know if it was a midlife crisis, but I used to work for The [Kansas City] Star and I just wanted to do something creative, so I took up screenwriting. I went to the screenwriting groups and basically just worked on it from 2016 to 2019, just bringing myself into the local film community and networking and finding people. My sons are actors, so I’d met some people already.
My father passed away in 2018 and I got some inheritance money and I was like, “Well, I’m 43 and I don’t want to be 63 someday and be like, ‘I wish I would have given it a shot – to do something I truly loved,’” so that’s how it came to be, and how I became the executive producer. My son had worked with Patrick Rea before and I really liked him a lot and that’s how I got going.
Patrick Rea, director: I had a screening of some of my short films as part of Slaughter Movie House, the screening series Jill Sixx does, and [Eric] came and attended. I had some shorts play in front of a feature and he talked to me about it then. It was very much in the early stage at that point.
I don’t think we ended up reconnecting for a year after that and he kind of pitched me on the idea and I thought it was a cool concept and then, probably a year later, I was involved as a producer and ended up taking the reins as director. It’s funny because I forgot that he met with me – came up to me at the bar at Screenland, talking to me about it after that after the screening.
We did some table reads and worked through some of the script and made some changes. Making a revenge film for me has always been kind of appealing. Eric came to me with the script and it was one of those things where I was like, “Okay, this could be cool.” It’s a female-driven horror movie but also a revenge film and it has a touch of the werewolf genre in there.
I felt like it would be a good mix and it hasn’t really been done before, necessarily. I mean, the female werewolf movie has been done quite a few times, but not in the vein of a revenge film. I also saw an opportunity for it to have some light-hearted moments in there. A lot of the film’s roles were men in the movie and we changed the gender to female because I was like, “This could be a lot more interesting.” I wanted to make it more female-driven and I think it just would play better today.
Kristen Vaganos, Lisa actress: Eric had reached out to me with a version of the script, probably like a year before we ever shot it. He had found my work online and at the time the script was, I think we all admit, just not ready to be sent out yet – not, you know, ready to go. I remember at the time I had given him some notes and passed on the opportunity. He ended up casting the role and then that fell through and he reached back out a month or two before shooting with a new script, which was in much better shape. I started to see it coming together and the things that I appreciated from the first draft were elevated, and a lot of my notes were taken.
At that point we just sort of said, “All right, let’s do this thing.” [Eric] said basically that he had always envisioned me in the role and so, we didn’t really overthink it at that point. We just went for it and I think a month later, I was in Kansas City for the special effects makeup fittings and such, which was a hilarious way to meet everybody: me, putting my face and hands in plaster, not being able to move and just sitting and chatting with everybody so they could make nails and fangs and all that stuff for me.
Winkler: We had a different actor—a local actress—who was going to play Lisa. I’ve interviewed people before and I know they say, “Oh, don’t say this,” but we had another actress and she wasn’t able to do it, and we found Kristin. She’s just rocked it and I fully expect her to be a superstar someday.
How did you all decide to approach the film, in terms of influences?
Winkler: I’ve always had an interest in the genre and it is kind of cliche to say that that it’s easy to make but that’s kind of the reason we did it. Shortly after I wrote I Am Lisa, I started on a typical dramedy romance sort of a thing. I went to some of my friends that had industry experience, because I didn’t know which one to try and get made first and they just said, “Horror is a good one to go with.”
I love horror as a genre and that’s why we decided to go that route. When I first started writing it, I wanted it to be where this young woman is sort of like a superhero but like her special power is that she’s a werewolf or a vampire. At first, I was trying to decide werewolf or vampire and I kind of felt like vampires have been overdone a little bit, so I went with werewolf. As soon as everybody knew I had written a female werewolf movie, they asked me if I’d seen Ginger Snaps.
I had not at the time, but I have since and then just I felt like, since we were making a werewolf movie, I should try and really just dig down deep in the genre and I watched all these werewolf movies: Wer, Dog Soldiers, An American Werewolf in London, The Howling
Wer, I really liked because it didn’t really show much of the werewolf. The guy wasn’t overly wolf-y and I kind of wanted our heroine to be that way. Ginger Snaps, I really liked that it kind of uses the werewolf-ism as a metaphor for a young woman’s coming-of-age. You want your heroine – even though they’re committing violent acts – you want them to seem somewhat justified.
Vaganos: Before we started working on this one, I kept requesting homework – movie lists. I wanted to watch as much as I could that they felt was tonally similar or even visually similar to what we were going for because I wouldn’t have considered myself an expert on the genre before shooting this. I’ve been tasked in a bit more for than I might have expected when I got started, I think, because it’s just really heightened drama.
I typically end up playing the victim or the person who escapes or the person who’s fighting the creature. This was fun in a totally new way because I was able to be empowered, with this fantastical element, and was able to feel strong. If you see me, I’m such a small person and not threatening. I actually have some stunt experience, which came out of wanting to be able to at least make it appear that I can kick butt, even if I can’t – at least in movies where I can do whatever I want and be whatever I want. I can learn how to make it look like that. That stuff always interested me and I was so excited to play something with such power and strength – even to the point where it overcomes her and she’s unsure of what she can do and she’s figuring it out, which was really exciting because I felt that way.
The musical tone for I Am Lisa is important to the film, and features music from the likes of local bands such as the Architects, Coalesce, and The Casket Lottery, as well as noted doom metal act, Pallbearer.
Winkler: I want to showcase what we got, you know? I know Pallbearer’s from Arkansas, but I wanted to use a lot of Kansas City musicians. Coalesce is one of my all-time favorite bands.
Vaganos: A lot of this is [Eric’s] personal taste or this us what inspired him in writing it, so it’s built-in. He would send me albums on iTunes, and he would share songs with me or bands with me as they were kind of coming to his mind. I told him, “Send any and all of that, because anything that is enhancing the creation of Lisa, I need to absorb,” and so he did. I had my playlist for her and for the film in general, to kind of get in that headspace.
I think it’s lovely when a film can kind of incorporate those like interdisciplinary mediums and have a soundtrack that has such a personality in the way it sounds, in addition to how it looks. Listening to some music references was part of the homework. It continued on – if I need to get in the headspace for something, I might put that playlist back on while we’re preparing.
Rea: We have a couple songs by bands like Coalesce in the movie. For the actual score, I wanted to go for more of a synthy ’80s vibe without being too retro. I’m a huge John Carpenter fan and I probably would consider him my most influential director. His films are probably my favorite films, so I was like, “All right, I kind of want to go in that vein with the score,” so we hired Natalia Perez out of Los Angeles. She had just worked in the music department on American Horror Story: 1984, so she nailed the tone I was going for.
The shoot took place from July 11-29 of 2019, with a few pick-up shots every couple of months after.
Rea: We shot it in July 2019 and the principal photography was 14 days, which is really a quick time. It was super hot. There were a couple of days where the heat index was 105 and there were heat advisories like, “Don’t be outside.” When you’re making a movie on a micro-budget, it’s hard to move days around because the crew members have other shoots that they have to be on, and actors have to fly in and out, so it was one of those things where we kind of had to stay the course.
Had we moved any of the days around, we would lose locations if that was the case so, basically, we pushed through. In the end, we just had a lot of water on set and we were filming in the shade on those hot days, I spent all of the fall editing. I had a cut of the movie ready by December and then, of course, you’re fine-tuning to the bitter end. I cut 45 seconds out of the movie this week.
In what seems like simpatico timing, with indie horror movies like The Wretched topping the box office charts thanks to drive-in screenings, I Am Lisa will premiere on Thursday, July 2, at the Boulevard Drive-In.
Winkler: We worked so hard on this movie and we want to show it at theaters and stuff but nobody’s going to want to come to the theaters. We’d been completing the sound mix recently, so it was done and we’re entering festivals, and we just kind of thought, “Hey: let’s see if we can premiere this thing at a drive-in,” because just by its nature, it’s social distancing. From the bottom of my heart, I’m so thankful for the Boulevard Drive-In for hosting us. They’re locally owned – just a local family – and it’s just been an absolute blessing.
Vaganos: I’m really excited. I think it’s gonna be really awesome, especially with the fact that we all haven’t been to movie theaters in however long. It’s gonna feel really nice to do that in a stress-free environment, being in your own car and having that huge screen. I’m just really excited to have everybody who worked so hard on it get to finally have that moment of, “Wow, we did it!” that comes with a premiere.
Rea: It’s funny, ’cause the whole time I was filming the movie, I kept thinking, “This would make a great drive-in movie.” I kept calling it this my first drive-in movie and now we’re premiering at a drive-in. While it’s all mostly because of COVID, I think it’s a really cool way to go.
I Am Lisa premieres Thursday, July 2, at the Boulevard Drive-In. Details on that here.