Exclusive Interview: HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN Creators Get Sweet TREEVENGE

An archive interview from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · August 20, 2008, 7:26 PM EDT
Treevenge Cotterill

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on August 20, 2008, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Ah, Christmas…the time of year when people get together to share love and joy. When parents and children gather around to exchange gifts under beautiful Christmas trees…trees that have been viciously hacked and sawed from their roots and dragged away from their own loved ones, bound and sold and carried off to strange dwellings to be roughly thrust into cold metal holders and festooned with tacky decorations!

But don’t worry—this Yuletide, the trees have decided they’re not going to take it anymore. A reckoning for all of humanity—those who celebrate this particular holiday, anyway—is at hand as the trees rebel, lashing out with their branches to streak living rooms and snowy streets with blood and body parts. No one—parents or children, young lovers or babies, or even innocent pets—is safe…

That’s the scenario of Treevenge, an ultragory 15-minute horror/comedy that had the audience screaming with laughter at Montreal’s Fantasia festival, where it took the Audience Award for Best Short. From there, it’s heading to Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, the Boston Underground Film Festival and other showcases. It’s at Fantasia where Fango speaks with producer Rob Cotterill, who also wrote Treevenge with director Jason Eisener.

This isn’t the first time the duo have put an exploitation spin on a Christmas icon; a pervert dressed as Santa Claus appears briefly in Hobo With a Shotgun, the faux trailer with which they won an on-line Grindhouse competition last year. It was during their subsequent development of the forthcoming Hobo feature that Cotterill and Eisener decided to put their killer conifers before the camera—but the idea had been hatched even before that. “We started talking about it during the shooting of Hobo when we had down time, just shooting ideas back and forth,” Cotterill recalls. “When the Hobo stuff ended, we decided to write it, so I sat down at the computer and did the first draft, and then we basically rewrote it together.”

While it would seem that the memorable moniker was one of the first elements they arrived at, Cotterill reveals that wasn’t the case. “The title was something I came up with” during the writing process, Cotterill reveals. “When I first put it on the script and gave it to Jason, I was like, ‘I don’t even like it, it’s a temp title.’ And then after a draft or two, we were like, ‘It’s not really all that bad.’ It was catchy, and it stuck.”

Although the Treevenge shoot on assorted Nova Scotia locations involved a higher budget and longer prep time than the Hobo trailer, it wasn’t that much higher. “The total budget was probably under $5,000,” Cotterill admits, “which was crazy, but we pulled a lot of favors from a lot of people in the industry, and around Halifax. We shot it in 10 days—which for a budget like that was really taking our time—but on some of those it was only like three or four people when we did the location stuff. We shot weekends, whenever we could get people to work together for nothing. The exteriors toward the end with the townhouses are in my neighborhood, and it’s my house where the initial Christmas-tree carnage takes place. Another house is Jason’s, and we used other rooms in different homes.”

The most impressive location appears early in the movie: “The ‘concentration camp’ where all the trees are being cut and processed is an actual, functioning tree-harvesting facility where they move something like three million trees a year,” Cotterill reveals. “We got that with a bottle of rum and some kind words; we went there and said, ‘Hey, can we shoot this?’ and they were totally cool. It was like the end of November, and everyone was leaving; our location manager found it, and we said, ‘We have to get down there!’ So we went down two days later and shot for the day, and then didn’t shoot again until after Christmas.”

Waiting until after the holiday was a necessity, allowing Cotterill and Eisener to save money on their key props, particularly those required by the climactic sequence of pine mayhem on a suburban street. “We shot that at the end of January,” the producer explains, “so in the middle of the month, when everyone got rid of their Christmas trees, the plan was to just take them out of the garbage, because we couldn’t afford $20 each or however much it was, and we needed a good 30 trees. So [actress] Sarah Dunsworth and I went around in her car, taking them from the sides of people’s houses. I’d be hanging out the open door, dragging two Christmas trees up the street as we were driving along, and it was awesome. We did that for about half a day. And they were recycled later; no trees were hurt in the making of this movie!”

Cotterill and Dunsworth first worked together on the Canadian TV series Trailer Park Boys, which is also where the producer and Eisener first met. The filmmakers tapped Trailer Park’s Jonathan Torrens for Treevenge’s cast as well, along with Lex Gigeroff, a writer and actor on the cult science-fiction show Lexx. Also among the ensemble is a remarkable assemblage of nasty-looking tree-cutters seen committing the ax-and-saw violence in the first half. “Jason has a great eye for people,” Cotterill says. “The main, mean lumberjack is this guy from Halifax called ‘Big Mike,’ a musician who does a lot of open-mic stuff and just looks great. He has a terrific personality, he does these crazy songs and we love him; we asked him to do the part, and he turned out great.” Treevenge’s multitudinous splattery makeup FX were created by Henry Townsend, another Hobo veteran, and Lindsay and Scott Thorne.

While the filmmakers were unaware of Michael Plekaitis’ similarly themed low-budget Trees features before embarking on this project, Cotterill does note the influence of a pair of past holiday flight flicks—one fairly obvious, the other less so. “Jason and I are huge genre fans,” he says, “and he would come to my house every couple of nights with a new batch of Christmas horror movies. Our biggest inspiration on Treevenge was Gremlins—it’s got that same kind of feel, it’s fun, crazy and wacky with these creatures rampaging on the streets. Even the soundtrack of our movie [is similar] in that last song that comes into play; it’s like a carnival of chaos. And one of the most vital things for Jason was to recreate that super-wide-angle killer’s point of view in Black Christmas—not the remake, but the Bob Clark masterpiece. So we managed to score this insane wide-angle lens for our film, and decided that would be the Christmas trees’ point of view. Then when we were shooting, Jason was like, ‘Screw it! I want to use it more!’ So you’ll see it throughout the movie.”

The final product, shot on hi-def, looks very slick and sharp, pointing the way to bigger things for Cotterill and Eisener (the latter of whom just started postproduction on his feature debut, the gang actioner Streets of Domination). “It looks great, but like I said before, it never would have been possible without the support of local people in Halifax and the companies that really got our backs,” the producer says. “We’ve submitted Treevenge to a number of other festivals, and we’re just waiting to hear back.” As for the expansion of Hobo With a Shotgun, “We have a script, and we’ve got interest out of Toronto to help us make it. So after all this festival stuff, we’re gonna start focusing on that.”