The Horror Honeys: PEEK-A-BOO! We See You, Mark Lawson!

PEEK-A-BOO! We See You, Mark Lawson!

A Monster Honey Q&A by Jennica

One of the first scare tactics a child learns is the friendly game of peek-a-boo. It's the G-rated equivalent of putting on a scary mask, jumping out of a closet, and yelling "boo!" But for a working parent alone with their spawn twenty four hours a day, the repetitive child's play can become exhausting as the parent is pushed to juggle being their child's friend as well as their guardian all the while tending to adult world responsibilities. This is the struggle that One Life to Live star turned horror writer/director Mark Lawson illustrates in his debut short film Peek-A-Boo (2015). 

I first laid eyes on the film in October at the Shriekfest Horror Film Festival in Los Angeles, CA and this past Thursday morning, I had the pleasure of speaking with Lawson about his transition from daytime soap opera heartthrob to horror writer/director, his longtime fascination with the horror genre, and his advice to parents and aspiring filmmakers.

MH: What was the transition like for you going from a daytime soap opera actor to a horror writer and director? You were on One Life to Live for a really long time. That's got to be a big change.

ML: Well, it was and it wasn't. I've always been a horror freak [laughing]. I've always, always been that way. When I was a little kid, on my Christmas list every year, I would always ask for the scariest mask in the world. That's how I would phrase it. And, you know, I ended up with a pretty big mask collection and then I started to accumulate makeup books and started working on makeup. And then I started working on organizing haunted houses and writing scripts for my own haunted houses, and putting them together and designing them myself, and all that kind of stuff. So, it wasn't until I was on One Life though. I had always been writing through college, writing more short stories. And then once I moved to Los Angeles, then I started writing screenplays more, almost as a way to give myself material to work on as an actor in between jobs... or waiting for my first job, actually. Then I started to realize, "Oh, I've always written." It's one of those weird things where you realize-- and I've had this realization probably four or five times in my life-- "Oh, I've always written. I've always done this, I've always done that." So, I was writing while I was on One Life, which is how I met my producer John [Estrada]. I was writing my first full horror feature and John and I met through my wife, and he kind of became my mentor and kind of shepherded the script through four years of revisions. You know, finishing the first draft and revisions. And it ended up being, so far, too expensive for what we have. And then I wrote this little short [Peek-A-Boo] in like one writing session and said "You know, let's just make something." And he said "This is awesome! Let's do this." He said "I have two caveats," and I said "What's that?" He said "One, you have to direct it." I was like "Okay... that's pretty major. I've never considered myself a director." And he said "Two, you have to lead it." I was like "Ugh! Really? I got to act in it as well? If I'm going to direct, I'd rather let somebody else do it." But he was adamant and I started to think "Okay, I haven't had a lot to do on camera since [One Life to Live]." [My wife and I] started having kids and I've just been really in the dad world. I just decided, well shit, he's right. It's something very different than what I was doing on the show. And I wrote it, I know this guy [the lead character], it's almost completely autobiographical except there's no boogeyman in my closet. So, we just decided to go for it and we started going into pre-produciton and low and behold, John found the money. We just went for it.

MH: That's very cool. And that was actually my next question. I know you're a father of two and I was curious how you came up with the idea for Peek-A-Boo. I assumed there was probably quite a bit of your actual life within it.

ML: Yeah, well, my wife travels for work a lot and, so-- especially with our first child, my oldest daughter-- there was one point when my wife was gone for sixteen days and I was alone with this little girl. And I sort of felt like "Oh my god, I don't know what I'm doing." I remember I put her down for the night and I was washing dishes, and I had this really weird vivid image of old hag over my shoulder about to take a bite out of my neck [laughing]. It really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and I was thinking about it the next day when I was doing my writing, and I just kind of turned that feeling into the short. Originally, in the short, it wasn't this owl thing that we went with. We wanted something that was more of a traditional demon. But then we started getting into its performance and it was really more of a fight between the dad and the monster in the end. It was John's idea to maybe go more primitive with it so it's more ambiguous with just the idea of a mask. And it got me thinking "So, what exactly is going on at the end of this movie?" I decided that the dad is dying of fright. He sees something that is so terrifying-- that we as the audience don't see-- and it terrifies him and scares him to death.

MH: Oh, interesting. Yeah, I've watched it a few times and I've been trying to wrap my head around the ending. It's bizarre.

ML: Well, I like bizarre. That's one of the things that is compelling me to write and direct is that I look a certain way so I get put in a certain category, more like blonde-hair-blue-eyed all-American guy. But the fact is I'm weird. I think weird, I have a weird sense of humor, I like off-kilter stuff-- particularly with my horror-- and I want to carve that out for myself. But I also wanted to do something that was a bit more of a traditional ghost story and less of a gore fest. Because this is our first thing and my first time as a director. I wanted to try to simplify the challenges at hand and see if I could still make a creepy flick. And I feel like we did that. I'm very happy with it.

MH: I definitely think weird is an important ingredient for doing anything in horror. So, what was it like directing and acting alongside a child actor? Do you have any special techniques that you have developed specifically for working with children?

ML: The best techniques I have are all from my own experience as a dad. And also, when I was on One Life, I had a lot of time working with kids. It was kind of a running joke with me that my character  was always obsessed with kids. Soap fans have a term for it. They say a character has baby rabies, when all they want is a baby, and I definitely had baby rabies. And Josie [child actor in Peek-A-Boo] was just amazing. She was the only person we saw for [the role]. I found her through a friend of mine, we auditioned her, she came in, she new all the lines. I gave her adjustments in the reading room to see if she could take direction and understand what I was talking about, and she knew what she was doing. And the fact that she could pass as my kid was a bonus. On set, she just liked being at my house and being the center of attention, which was really cool. Her parents are really amazing, her mom composed the score, her dad was on set with her and coaching her through these two long days of shooting. So, it really became a family project for them, and I really think that affected her performance and the cohesiveness of the whole thing. It made it a safe environment for her.

MH: That's really great. So, since you have two young girls, how do you feel about exposing young children to horror movies? I know a lot of us horror fans started at a young age and there's been a divided opinion on it.

ML: When I was old enough to understand that I had been exposed at a young age, I asked my dad what was the first horror movie I ever watched. And he said that he thinks he brought home X-tro when I was like four and I watched part of it with my dad on the couch. And I have still to this day not seen that movie as an adult. So, for my own kids, when my oldest was born... so at seven months old, I had her on the couch with me and Frightfest AMC was on and we watched everything because I was home with her. And now she loves Halloween and both my girls are into the Big Bad Wolf from the old school Disney Three Little Pigs cartoon. We go on walks to look for creepy ghosts [at Halloween] because there's a lot of cool decorations in the neighborhood. So, I expose them more that way, not so much with the films at this point. I'm careful not to scare them too much because I want them to learn the fun of it. 

MH: Smart kids. That's pretty awesome. So, I saw Peek-A-Boo ealier this year at Shriekfest and I know it's made its festival rounds, and I was wondering what the next steps might be for the short.

ML: John and I are always kicking around ideas on how it could be expanded. We're both interested in the idea of an anthology of parental horror shorts. So, horror films that focus on the things that scare you as a parent. I haven't really seen that and hopefully I'm not giving too much away, but that's an idea for that. So, we're really just writing scripts and going back and forth, and just trying to see what sticks and what really fires us up.

MH: Oh, I like that concept of the parental horror. Well, I know that you have a background in musical theater. Have you ever considered writing or directing your own musical?

ML: I do love musical theater and do have some ideas for that. Frankly, I've always wanted to direct a black and white, down and dirty film version of Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical. But I also have some ideas based on small pulp fiction characters from the thirties that I think could make a cool rock 'em sock 'em stage show that feature a lot of fight choreography. But we're talking way above my pay grade now [laughing]. What I do love are some of the more modern horror musical films. I LOVE Repo! The Genetic Opera. I love the performances in it, I love the music in it. I drove around listening to that soundtrack a lot. In fact, some of the songs are now on my warm-up playlist in the car. If I have to go to a singing audition or something, I warm up with some of the songs. I think horror is a cool avenue for musicals because it's got a real presence in musical theater. You've got Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera, all this stuff. So, why couldn't we have like a stage show of Penny Dreadful as a musical? 

MH: I can see that being like Sweeney Todd, but with a woman. 

ML: Yeah, I mean, it's freaking operatic to begin with.

MH: Oh, definitely. So, as a first-time writer and director, what is some advice that you would give to today's aspiring filmmakers?

ML: I would say-- and this is something that I talk about with John a lot-- don't try to make perfection out of the gates, just try to start creating. And I think when you do that, when you shift the mindset from needing perfection to just wanting to create and get started and know that you need to accrue skills, I think that takes some pressure out and releases the bowels. Like "Oh my god, this is going to make me or break me." It's probably not going to make you or break you. We can make things a lot more efficiently now that we could when I was growing up. Like where I grew up and when I grew up, it would have been way more expensive to make short films. So take those risks of just starting to create and also write what you love. Don't write what you think is going to sell or what you think people want to see. Write what you love. You have to get fired up and you have to find the people that resonate with your interests.

MH: That's actually really great advice, especially for someone like me as a perfectionist. 

ML: Yeah, I'm a perfectionist too.

MH: So, you totally get it. I'm always expecting to create a masterpiece on the first try. One final question that we ask all of our prey at The Horror Honeys: What are some of your favorite horror movies and why?

ML: Oh my god, I'm going to have to open my cabinets. For me, it's always like a sliding scale. I would say The Exorcist is in my top because, to me, it's still the most perfectly made, and executed, and terrifying one. I've also found that as I've gotten a little older that I'm a little bit more sensitive to the ultra-violence. So, some of that s harder for me to watch now. But I'm lookng right now and I've got The Descent and I think that's... I love action horror films and I think Neil Marshall is amazing at that. I also, for some reason, really love The Wolfman. I've always identified with The Wolfman, but I don't even really look at that movie as a horror film. I sympathize with him [the Wolfman] so much that none of it scares me. I just feel bad for the guy. What else has scared me? I think High Tension was one of the scariest films I've seen. Oh, it was just so good. And Alexandre Aja just knows how to get to us and he got me with that one. I'm sorry these are all more contemporary and not the ones that I grew up with.

MH: But it's a really impressive list.

ML: These are the ones that are affecting me now. And James Wan's got this ability with scary old women. That's something that has terrified me my whole life. [Leigh] Whannell and Wan have this fixation with the scary old women and it just scares the crap out of me. I was at Halloween Horror Nights earlier this year and I was in the Insidious maze, and I had chills for three days because at one point, the scary old woman beelined right behind me before I knew she was there and my wife put me right in her face... and, man, the hair on my arms is standing up just thinking about it. So, those are a few that scare me. I'm sure I'll be kicking myself shortly. Oh, how could I forget my favorite!? Cronenberg! Two of my all time favorite films are The Brood and Scanners.

MH: That's really a great list! 

For a first shot at the horror genre, Mark Lawson proves that he is indeed one of us freaks. Peek-A-Boo takes a simple story of a children's game and a parent's genuine desperation to be everything they need to be and adds a surreal nightmarish twist. Sleep with one eye open, monsters! Lawson seems to have more scares up his sleeve.

Horror parents! What's your worst nightmare? 
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