The grassroots metamorphosis of tuba player and horror staple AJ Bowen
AJ Bowen is a face every horror aficionado will recognize. He’s worked under indie darlings Ti West, Adam Wingard, and Simon Barret. There is also a slew of lesser-known films where Bowen can be counted on to give a fantastic performance and boost the production value. The multi-hyphenate actor/producer/writer (who is swinging through KC) might not always be the star, but Bowen’s work always means a film is worth catching.
If you have any questions about this claim, check out 2007’s The Signal, wherein Bowen’s performance alone shifts the entire genre/tone of the film, bending it to his will, on a dime. Also, I think we can all agree, he’s just a full-on snack.
He’s appearing at this weekend’s Panic Film Festival at the Screenland Armour, where he’ll appear as part of a live taping of Dr. Rebekah McKendry’s Fangoria podcast, Nightmare University, for an episode on micro-budget horror.
I was lucky enough to speak with Bowen about his career, how he came to be an actor, making movies, and Satan. Of course. You can’t talk to Bowen without playing the hits.
Do you do many conventions?
I used to. I grew up watching horror movies and so, I was always a fan and so, I went to some, but in terms of being there as “the personality,” I went twice. I always kind of avoided them once I was making movies. Not to get up on a soapbox or anything, but I saw people charging money for pictures when people that work all day just wanted to do the sort of thing where they say, “Hi,” and get a picture and an autograph. That element of it seemed counter-intuitive to my ability to perform and create characters. So much of myself was out there. And then, I also just kind of had this—I don’t know—this anti-establishment thing.
Are film festivals different, then?
The difference is its own existence. You’re there to show a piece of original work and then discuss it, and that’s sort of a different relationship, and that’s just that’s also part of the gig.
How did you go from being a fan of horror to being somebody who is now a fairly notable name in the genre?
Accident, I guess. Starting off, I wasn’t going to be an actor at all. It was a dream that I had from my childhood, but growing up in like a very lower middle class, blue-collar working family, it just didn’t seem like it was possible. The other dream that I had at that age was to be an astronaut, and they both seemed as likely because I wasn’t particularly good at math or science.
I fell into playing classical music. I ended up in a place in high school that was very well-known for that and one of the best players in the country, and so I found myself on a track where I was gonna end up being a professional tuba player. I performed in the closing and opening ceremonies of the ’96 Atlanta Olympics because I grew up just outside of Atlanta and I was in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
My senior year of high school, I had some friends that were in the thespian society at my high school, and I had this nagging feeling of “I always wanted to do that,” and I ended up auditioning—which got me in a lot of trouble because I would have been president of my high school band and I’m doing a couple of plays my senior year, competing with my intended path.
Then, I went off to Indiana University with a tuba performance scholarship – which is a thing that you can get, apparently—and studying there I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t good enough to be a professional tuba player. I was good enough to get into a good school, but it just wasn’t gonna happen. There are so few jobs. I kind of got disillusioned with it and reached a ceiling with it.
Where I was performing was very close to the theater at Indiana, and so I would walk over there every day, and then I would walk over to the bookstore and I knew it that I was going to be withdrawing from Indiana and going back home to Georgia, so I started reading tons of plays, and I always watched a ton of movies. I ended up at the University of Georgia in Athens. That school has a liberal arts program, but it wasn’t conservatory-based. I mention it because there were a lot of other people and there wasn’t a ton of structure. There was no one telling us how to use the tech we borrowed from the journalism school, and there was no one telling us that we couldn’t use it.
We’d sort of dip over and start learning how to edit, and we borrowed cameras while we were studying theater. There was a core group of us that sort of found ourselves in the same situation: we didn’t get in other places, but we were really interested in telling stories, so we started making our own college short films. We were good enough to think that we could make a couple of features, and we all kind of learned how to do all of the jobs, but there were obvious areas of focus.
Then we all went our separate ways. Mostly, everybody went to Atlanta. I went to New York and starved for about a year and a half and everybody was going off and trying. Kind of low-grade failing other places, but there were people getting work editing, people breaking out in composition, and people doing local commercials and theater.
I decided to make the move to Los Angeles and try one last time, just so I could say, “Okay, well at least I’ll know if I ever have a midlife crisis, I’ll know that I went to LA.” Then it didn’t happen, because I didn’t know anybody, I don’t have any money, and when I got to LA, I just started – there’s this publication called Backstage and I used to get, and in the back of it, there were open auditions that you could go to. You could go to these open auditions. I went to one and I got cast in a play. During the process of rehearsing that play, one of the people that was in that play was also a casting director. They were casting a movie and they asked me if I would come in and audition for it. I ended up booking it. Three months after moving to LA, I’m a lead actor shooting at Universal Studios.
I found out pretty quickly that it was not a Universal Picture. Actually, it was a pretty rough movie called Creepshow 3, and it had nothing to do with George Romero nor Stephen King. It was one of those janky things where they owned the rights to the title. Still, I had this crazy positive experience making my first big movie. It did suck that I knew something was up when we had to pause every six minutes to stop shooting because where my set was was right alongside the Jaws tourist ride, and I noticed that they were not shutting the ride down for us to shoot. Every six minutes a tram would come through, and it would ruin the sound.
Still. It’s romantic for anyone, when they grew up loving movies, to get to be on a set in a major studio, regardless of the quality of the picture. A few months later, I got a call from friends and they were getting together a super low budget indie movie. In college, I was the genre guy—the guy that was always trying unsuccessfully to get everybody to watch horror movies. To this day, my favorite movie is probably Friday the 13th Part VI. I know that there are other movies. I know that Citizen Kane is out there. I know No Country for Old Men is great, but the movie that I watched the most is Jason Lives because I happened to go to camp where they shot that thing and I was a child there a week after they wrapped picture. There were still props abandoned at that camp, and I was just so enamored of it.
My friends found this investor willing to write a $50k check for an indie film with lead from Creepshow 3. Let’s agree that isn’t enough money to actually make a movie unless you’re all non-union and doing it for yourselves. So, I went back to Georgia a year after moving to LA to shoot this movie and we shot it in ten days and it was—I guess the dirty word now that people seem to be beating to death is elevated genre.
This was 2005, the beginning of 2006, so it was like we were all sort of reeling from the ’04 election and that was right around the time of the rise of opinion news of like. Before, it seemed like cable news was just presenting information, but we really started to notice around ’04 how much it impacted people’s sense of reality. We’ve all found ourselves getting in arguments with our more conservative family members about “that Swift boat stuff is not true!” and arguing back and forth and finding that there were two opposing truths.
Experiences that now echo through time. Experiences we keep repeating.
The directors—of which, there were three—had this idea this was like, “Well, what if there was a signal broadcast through TVs or through any of our media devices, and it turned people absolutely crazy, but they were crazy in the way that they thought they were absolutely justified in their behavior? What they saw was absolute reality?”
It was sort of like a horror satire kind of a thing. We did it in ten days and we sent it off to Sundance, not knowing anybody, not knowing how any of that worked, and it got in somehow. A bunch of nobodies there with a $50k movie that ended up selling and doing really well. The Signal was sort of the thing that got me started. And so many of us.
My movies always seem to play the midnight format at these festivals, so we’re in the midnight slot at Sundance and then we were at the Midnighters at South By Southwest. Then you go to a few of these festivals and find other filmmakers and begin to form relationships. None of you have the money to do the things you’re already doing, but you understand you’d all work together to make art together.
I met my friend Ti West at these festivals. We started hanging out, and then he needed an actor for a small part in a movie. I loved his work and I was like, “Yes, of course, I would love to do that.” That’s how I wound up in House of the Devil.
You look up one day, and you’re in your 40s, like, “Wow, this is what I wanted to do, and I’m getting to do it. It’s great! Money would be nice, but at least this is cool—these cool movies that we’ve gotten to make.”
Speaking of House of the Devil, you’ve done a lot of movies about Satan.
Which is great. As a kid growing up in Georgia in a very conservative Christian family, I loved it. My mom didn’t, but I did.
All of these movies have such interesting takes on Satanism. House of the Devil is definitely very different from I Trapped the Devil which is very different from Satanic Panic.
House of the Devil is a movie that I wouldn’t call it a throwback movie, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it a period film, but what it felt like is a movie that you would have discovered that was made in 1982 that no one had seen before, right? Like, a lost film. Satanic Panic, to me—and I’m good friends with with Chelsea [Stardust], the director and with Ted [Geoghegan], one of the writers –that’s a thing that’s wears on its sleeve USA Up All Night movies from the late ’80s like Sorority Babes In The Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. You can feel the vibe on that where it’s funny where it’s surface state and stuff for entertainment’s sake.
I Trap the Devil is a chamber piece. How that one happened was because Scott [Poythress], who plays my brother in that movie, is my best friend and has been since we went to high school together. He’s my all-time favorite actor. We both love Christmas horror and we always wanted to make Christmas horror film. I like doing movies that are lower budget because that means that creative choices are much more interesting, because you can’t throw anything at it. You can’t hide behind anything. You can’t polish it. You’ve got to really have some choice going on, so what you do have is creativity and freedom to explore stuff, it makes problem-solving a central part of the storytelling process. It always seems like an algorithm that you’re trying to solve.
I don’t tell people that I’m an actor. If they ask me what I do for a living, I say I’m a filmmaker, and it’s not because I look down on the term of acting, but it’s because I’m a writer. I’m a producer. I know how to edit. I directed in college, so I’ll direct a movie at some point, but none of us in that world ever wear just one hat. I crewed almost every movie that I’ve worked on, on the days that I’m not working. Out of the innumerable movies I’ve worked on, at least half of them I’ve been a producer. Whether or not I have the craft down, what draws me to making movies as an adult is that you can’t make one by yourself.
Panic Fest takes place January 24-30 at the Screenland Armour. Nightmare University’s live podcast is Saturday, January 25, at 5pm. Details on the whole festival here.