Courtney Vastine Muses on Curses & Wereclowns

It’s time for project number two, and our SAFTA group is on a high from seeing the premier of Man Overboard, our first film, at the Knoxville Film Festival. After the screening, our group sits gleefully at Bucket Head Tavern already trying to decide who wants to die and who wants to kill in the upcoming Knoxville Horror Festival’s Grindhouse Challenge.

As we walk to our cars, Erin Elizabeth Smith, our fearless leader, turns to me and says, “Oh, can we kill you?”

“Yes!”  I say with way too much excitement. (Well, we had been celebrating.) My writing skills tend to go to the comedic and I’m a wuss who can’t watch horror films without accompanying nightmares. (Remember the scene in Thirteen Ghosts with a dead girl in the bathtub? Yeah, so do I, and it affects my visiting the bathroom at night without very bright lights.) So I’m happy to get my chance to act it up in this one. When you see behind the scenes, it’s not so scary (at least, this is my theory).

“Awesomeness,” she smiles.

We’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with Jamison and Tiffany Stalsworth, the brainiacs behind the previous year’s winner, Cannibal Santa. Jamison had been our main character in Man Overboard, and we’d already gotten a glimpse of his genius. To describe Jamison, I will paraphrase a friend: he’s like working with Knoxville’s own version of Tim Burton. Tiffany is Jamison’s wife and shares his love of twisting the macabre into a comedic reinvention. She’s the producer, and as our team found out, she crosses the t’s and dots the i’s, all with a smile and fabulous attention to detail, often with three adorable little boys in tow. Tiffany keeps the ship on course, and we all ride happily in the boat doing whatever she asks. We’re elated to be a part of the action, and seeing as how none of us have done a horror trailer before, we’re eager to follow directions and see what happens.

1384242_253288404818331_680067521_nTiffany Stalsworth pre-launch.

We review other past winners of the Grindhouse Challenge and find delightfully campy movie trailers making fun of all those rotten and simultaneously fun horror movies from the past that just didn’t quite get it right: gratuitous nudity that doesn’t help the storyline, alien costumes with visible zippers, bad camera angles that reveal visibility of the hand dangling a ghost from fishing line, and cheesy dialogue that makes one well up with laughter instead of screams. It’s Grindhouse delight and we’re ready for that bloody dessert, because, as we discover, fake blood tastes and smells like Reese’s Cups and makes a fabulous shot when mixed with alcohol.

The meet-up downtown is relatively low key. They’ve chosen to have the genre lottery in a small coffee shop in the Old City. Tiffany talks to Jamison on her cell, figuring out which exploitations are his top picks. Members of our team laugh and make up story lines for the fifty plus options listed on the posterboard. We get a pretty good storyline going about a killer Easter bunny, start fracturing some fairy tales, and before we know it, it’s time to pick.

We are blessed as none of the twenty teams before us pick clown exploitation. Jamison had an idea for over a year about a clown/werewolf that goes on a killing rampage. Again we’re happy. The team goes to dinner, and I leave for Oak Ridge to attend rehearsals for Annie, which is about as far away from horror as you can get (Okay, for me it is. Perhaps not for anyone who doesn’t love musical theatre–it might be a different kind of horror for you). The rest of the week is filled with secret communications on our members-only Facebook page as we gather materials, make arrangements and figure out our assignments.

Our killer wereclown is Austin Webb of Cannibal Santa fame. Now, instead of a blood-stained Santa suit, he is a man metamorphosing into a clown. My first scene with Austin is shot at Cool Beans near UT, and they are super chill about having us there (Patronize this place! They rock!). I’m cast as the girlfriend who first notices something is awry. Jamison is a very patient director, and I’m quite amazed to see he’s taking himself out of the story so he can manage the process. So few people are willing to do that, and it speaks volumes to his character that he cares more about the story than he does furthering his acting career. He goes through the scene with us and tells us exactly what he’s looking for but giving us our own room to improv. Rule of film: always shoot more than you need. This is the pie in the my face scene. Having never been slapped with a shaving cream pie before, I can tell you there’s nothing quite like that creamy foam suddenly engulfing your entire face. My hair had that masculine Old Spice aroma for the rest of the day. I laughed that the boys felt so bad about hitting me with it. I could think of a few people in my life that would have probably loved to take on that job, namely my six-year-old son.


Jamison and Austin on the first day of filming.

Jamison shoots all the moments he needs and the team travels to their next stop while  Kristi Larkins and I hit a Halloween store to purchase some fog juice, clown balloons, and other incidentals. It’s nice that in October you can purchase odd things without the questioning lift of an eyebrow from your cashier.

Our team is so on schedule, we break for one of our member’s birthday party. A fun time is had by all, and we’re up and at it at 8am the next morning, playing with rubber chickens in the shower and creating deranged balloon animals. I shoot my next scene, playing homage to Psycho, although instead of a skeletal mother, a fully transformed wereclown Austin holds a balloon twisted to look like a flower. I scream like I’ve seen Mrs. Bates and we’re off to downtown Knoxville.

As we walk around Market Square with a clown-riding a tricycle, blood splattered cast members, and video equipment, most passersby barely glance over and a few kids come up to get pictures. Austin and I go in one of the local restaurants to get cokes and other than a few smiles, people stay involved in their own worlds. It seems we have our own mini Times Square here in town and maybe Knoxville is getting pretty comfortable being home to so many filmmakers and artists in outlandish costumes.

We shoot the scenes with Erin and plastic snakes. (Don’t tell Tiffany, but Erin and I sighed with relief that the lady who owned a real snake had been unable to bring him.) But if you ask me, the plastic adds to the cheesiness and I love that in the final cut you can see my hand wiggling a green one while Erin screams. Floating fake snakes=Grindhouse cinema magic.

Before we head to our final destination, Firefly Farms, future home of SAFTA’s artist community, we stop to take a picture of Austin with the following sign. It’s amazing how many of these perfect pairings we keep running into during our filmmaking journey. While filming Man Overboard, a lady just happened to be walking by with her pet cockatoo. Our team is feeling lucky!


As usual, we find time to eat (because our team does this really well), and we watch Joe Minarick create an explosion; adorable Bonnie Elizabeth play the helpless, scantily clad lady that, of course, stumbles and falls and gets blown up by dynamite; hamburger insides soaked with our yummy blood covers slam-poet Lyric Dunagan; and SAFTA friend Jason Marino is recruited to show our Ninja mimes, including Rhonda Loft (who also doubles as the initial wereclown that infects Austin), some self-defense maneuvers to defeat the evil clown and we go ahead and kill him off too, much to his amusement.

Model/Photographer/Actress Chryseis Dawn Patterson comes on to do the deed none of the rest of us females are able to bring ourselves to do. She plays the topless lead kick-ass mime. (Hey, we’ve hit every exploitation this far, why not go for the gold?) I appreciate that Jamison only wanted the topless if he could put our female in a place of empowerment. The Go Pink campaign has nothing on our symbolic, feisty breasts of feminine ninja-mime power.

It’s a wrap by ten p.m., and we’re all exhausted, but satisfied with the no-drama weekend we’ve experienced. Things have run smoothly and we again congratulate ourselves on another excellent experience and eagerly await to hear from Jamison on how the editing process goes.

The drama doesn’t start until Wednesday. Jamison has been hard at work. He’s made his final cuts and is ready to render it, burn it, and drive it to Old City Java. I’m just beginning to teach tap when I see the first message from Tiffany, “Oh no., we have a problem. We can’t turn in the film and it’s due in two hours.”

922425_256093131204525_1119994844_oCourtney, about to get pied.

Jamison’s computer has chosen this moment to lose it’s mind. Distracted by my job, I reluctantly put away the phone and start teaching kids to tap. I finish up at 8 p.m. and go back to read the saga of our entire team wondering what they can do to help. The reading is more riveting than watching an episode of The Walking Dead.  Will he make it? No, that didn’t work. Kristi’s on her way! How can this happen? What can we do? Then Erin suggests he make a video of the video from the screen and explain to the powers-that-be what happened.

Score! It works! We now love the owners of the Knoxville Horror Festival as they understand our plight, accept the low grade quality, and allow us to turn in the better copy when Jamison’s computer is rebooted, spends time with a therapist, and once again does the job it’s done a thousand times appropriately and quickly.

We all once again become distracted with normal life until two weeks pass and it’s Grindhouse night. We meet up and our team sees the film for the first time. We laugh along with the audience and celebrate again. The following night of awards hands us not only Audience Favorite but also Best Trailer. We can’t believe we’ve managed to have yet another totally awesome experience, and we all begin to realize the specialness of the team we’ve assembled and how greatness really can come out of brilliant ideas, can-do attitudes, low budgets, and fake blood vodka shots. Our after awards conversation immediately goes to work. What’s next?

Courtney Vastine first became involved with SAFTA as a writer with the group’s 2013 Seven Day Shoot Out team for the Knoxville Film Festival. Vastine has degrees in both English with Creative Writing emphasis and Dance from Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. She’s been working as a choreographer and dance teacher for over a decade and recently began acting and has appeared in several television shows, independent films and community theatre. Before dancing full time, Vastine gained skills in marketing and creative services at a successful firm in Cincinnati, Ohio.


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