Married to Horror: An Interview with Mycho’s Anna and MJ Dixon
Mycho Entertainment has gone from a small indie start-up of horror fans to the international acclaimed, low budget – high quality Production Company it is today. Producer Anna Dixon and Director MJ Dixon talk to us about life as a married couple working in the film industry, what’s to come from the Mycho productions and about the upcoming release of their most recent feature film; ‘Mask of Thorn’.
Where will you be talking to us today from?
MJ Dixon: We’re sat here in lovely sunny Milton Keynes. The home of the infamous concrete cows.
Anna Dixon: Full disclosure, the weather is intermittently sunny, although the cows are eternal!
Mask of Thorn (prequel to Legacy of Thorn) is now finished! How are you both holding up?
MJ: I’m holding up ok, it was a few months back now and it was a really great experience. The film before had been tough so it was really nice to be on such an easy going set. The cast and crew were amazing and I’m still basking in the glow of how awesome the whole experience was.
AD: I’m honestly really sad it’s over! It was such a tight team and we made some definite friends for life on that set. The ‘there’s always one’ rule really didn’t apply to Mask and I’m very proud of what we achieved. This is all said now that I’m fully caught up on sleep!
Your first feature length film together was Slasher House, was it love across a bloody prison cell?
MJ: Well when I first started Slasher House, I’m not even sure we knew each other. The film took about 2 years to finish due to other commitments from our lead and it wasn’t until after the first block of shooting that we started seeing each other, we were friends for quite a long time first and then after we got together, eventually Anna came on board to help produce the last couple of pick-ups and then took care of trying to get the movie released.
AD: My first experience of Slasher House was lying in a bath of blood having just been killed by Nathan (Adam Williams) in his flashback. I was so impressed with what MJ could do and how talented he is, and I definitely caught the filmmaking (and MJ) bug. I sought of learned the process in reverse, doing post producer work on the original Slasher House and then moving into pre-production on Legacy of Thorn.
MJ, was directing something you always wanted to do or was it a slower progression?
MJ: I think it was always something I was interested inn since I can remember. When I was a kid I would draw fake video covers for movies and put them in my parent’s videos cases, much to their annoyance. Growing up in the 90’s actually making film seemed like a thing that was too far out of reach for a kid from Sunderland, so in my teens I started writing instead, it sort of progressed from there. The second I got hold of a camera I started turning my little short stories into films and I just never really stopped doing that. I enjoyed directing early on and so just really stuck with that.
Working on films with a lot of strong female characters, is any of that influence of Anna?
MJ: I’ve always been interested in strong female characters, they were characters that I enjoyed in cartoons in comic books. Like Sally Acorn (Sonic the Hedgehog) and Rogue (X-Men), I really liked those characters and always found their strength fascinating. When shows like Buffy came along I really invested in those kinds of characters and I found them so much fun to write. Meeting Anna really solidified my approach to female characters, she’s one of the smartest, strongest people I know and that really goes back into the characters I write, but also in my approach to filmmaking, she’s really been the foundation for us to keep making the movies, helping me find a way to constantly make what we do better and also helping me learn from my mistakes which is vastly important.
Anna, could you tell us a little more how you got into film and becoming a producer?
AD: As I said, it was watching MJ do what he does that inspired me to get involved. I’ve always had an interest in that kind of thing, but I’m definitely not an ‘in front of the camera’ person, and he gave me the confidence to realise that I could do it. It’s so great to be able to produce these things together, they’re like our little weird film children.
What parts of filmmaking do you enjoy doing the most, is there anything you would like to explore more of?
MJ: I always say that pre-production is the last time you get to enjoy the possibilities of your film, after that you’re really just having to make decisions that eventually lock you in one direction or the other, but it the most fun part, it’s the part with the least problems. I’ve always been a very practical effects guys, and it’s something we always work to include in what we do. I am, however, looking at focusing more attention on digital effects, there were some digital fx in Mask of Thorn and Slasher House 2 (Stuff we just couldn’t do for real) and I felt that they really helped the practical’s come to life. So, I’m hoping to integrate that with what we’ve been doing with makeup and models in the future.
AD: Casting is a really exciting part of the process, when you have an idea of the characters in your head and then discover who is going to bring them to life. I enjoy most things about it to be honest, but I’d like to learn more about the cinematography and editing side.
Mycho prides itself on quality feature length films for next to no budget. What sort of problems do you find the most challenging working this way?
MJ: For me, the biggest challenge is getting people to understand that we’re a no budget operation. After we made a handful of films, a lot of people suddenly think we’re rich and so start trying to add costs to things. When in reality we’re in exactly the same position we were in when we started, in today’s market its really very hard to make any money from making low budget movies even with the advances in distribution technologies we’re still finding it impossible to cover costs. But a lot of people don’t see that, they just see 5 or 6 released movies and think we’re rolling in it. If only they knew (laughs).
AD: Money holds us back in all sorts of ways; locations, SFX, time, props etc. I do think that not having it does make us find ways to do things more creatively and the team really pulls together to make things work under difficult circumstances. It would help us immensely to have a budget to pay everyone and hire additional people to help, for many reasons – mostly because the talented people we work with deserve it and also because time wasters would be weeded out much more quickly.
Having raised just over £2,400 from your indigo crowdfunding page. Do you find there is a certain charm and community that comes with lower budget films?
MJ: I definitely do, I think there’s something special about your friends, family and community coming together and making a movie happen, it feels like everyone is part of the project and there’s a huge sense of pride and appreciation that comes with that. For us it really means a lot, because if we had to start from scratch after every film it would take us years between projects to get them off the ground, but thanks to the support of the community it means we can keep making movies and making them at a faster rate. It hard work to run campaign like that, but the people you meet and the support network that it builds makes it worth it,
AD: Particularly in the horror world, there is such a strong sense of community and we’ve so grateful to be supported by people who put their faith and hard-earned cash into what we do. Some of our most consistent and loyal supporters are the people who watched MJ create Slasher House in sunny Preston all those years ago and have shown their support ever since. It’s something that really picks us up when things get tough.
How would you tackle a film with say a low Hollywood budget (£300,000)? Are there any characters or ideas you would explore with a bigger budget?
MJ: I think eventually, we’d like to be in a place where we can that kind of thing. Our interest is really building to that point where we can make much more outlandish stuff and be able to compensate those involved for their time as well. We have to be careful at the time, we been offered larger budgets in the past, but it often comes with conditions that we’re not willing take on. The most important thing, for me at least, is that we carry on making movies in our own way on our own terms. I have dozens of big budget ideas, I think if we can in the future I’d love to explore some cool concepts like Thorn in Space. It’s something we have on the cards and it makes sense for a character that is an immortal killing machine that we take him into the future and explore what that’s like and how he came to be there. We also have a HUGE ending planned to the current Mycho universe story which a £300,000 budget would just about cover (laughs). So, at some point soon, we’re going to have to look at raising something like that kind of budget.
AD: I’d love to see an Avengers style mash up film in the Mycho universe with a bigger budget to do it justice. There are so many different storylines and characters we could build on and crossover if we had the time and resources.
Your characters inhabit the same universe, like that of the old universal horror monsters and comic books. Tell us more about how this crossover style came about?
MJ: It’s a weird one, because I often have people compare us to what Marvel are doing in films these days, but the Mycho Universe (Before Mycho was a company) predates that by quite a way. I was always excited by the prospect of kind of combining Slasher Movies with the way Comic books and the Marvel Cartoons of the 90s’ would crossover. So that was the basis for it. I really wanted to see characters like Michael Myers and Pinhead and Leatherface battling each other across movies and because I didn’t have the rights to those guys I just started designing my own. Thorn was the first one and over time I just kept adding ideas and over the years it kind of grew. In the late 2000s we started looking at getting low budget movies of characters like Thorn, Cleaver and Nathan in Blockbuster as bottom shelf titles with the idea of them all coming together in Slasher House (Which was my favourite idea). Then we found out that a film that sounded similar to what we were doing with Red and Slasher House was in development in Hollywood and decided to jump straight to that beat it to market and work it out afterwards. That film never went into production and Blockbuster went out of business, but I kind of still had this whole interconnected story idea that was connected to the Slasher House characters, so it kind of just went from there.
(Image: Slasher house 2)
Do you think you will progress away from the Slasher House universe or do you feel it will grow more into a Mycho Universe?
MJ: At first, I was just writing movies and not really thinking about them as pieces of the Mycho Universe, but over time I realised that just building something like this was so much work that working on stuff outside of that as well would make it so much harder. There came a point where I just decided “I have to just commit to it” and it was a huge weight off my shoulders. Not only that but it opened up a lot of cool ideas, I wanted to do a road movie that was kind of a homage to The Hitcher movies like that and suddenly I realised it was a great place to set a Cleaver story and suddenly it also had a very unique spin because it was set in the Mycho Universe and too lots of ideas I had for cool movies, dropped into a world inhabited by serial Slasher villains suddenly started to feel more interesting and I knew I’d made the right choice. I currently have a 16(ish) film plan that has an end and all comes together in a big finale. CleaverS is film 8 I think, so we’re about halfway there. Then after that, I don’t know, I guess I’ll look into making interesting stuff with the characters that we have outside of that, whoever survives at least. I might also look at doing more stuff set outside the Universe, but who knows?
Each of your films seem to have specific colour palette for each killer/monster. What was the thought process behind this?
MJ: I’ve been obsessed with colour since I was a child and it was always an area that I put a lot of thought into when it camera to art, design and eventually it moved over into my filmmaking. Because all these characters existed in the same world I wanted to give each one their own style and palette to make them feel unique in their own world. It’s all designed to fit the tone and themes of each character. It’s getting tricky though, we’re on 8 films now and we’re gradually running out of colours (laughs). But that’s another interesting challenge is finding a way to add a colour palette to these films without repeating what we’ve done. Even with sequels we try to change it up and evolve it slightly.
(Image:On set on Mask of Thorn)
Working together in one of the more stressful industries around, what do you find the pros and cons to be being a couple on set?
MJ: I think at first it was a bit of shock for both of us, the first big film we worked on together was Legacy of Thorn and it was a bit of strange transition going from a couple to a Producer and Director in charge of so many people and that suddenly changes the dynamic between you as partners. It was rocky I think, but eventually we found the swing of it and it’s worked out wonderfully.
AD: Legacy was definitely a shock to my system – but we’ve definitely got to a point now where we can separate the onset filmmaking dynamic to the ‘you haven’t put the bins out’ married couple stuff. I joke that MJ is the boss on set, when I kindly allow him to be. I’m so lucky to be able to hang out in these amazing situations with my best friend, and I try to keep that in mind when it’s stressful.
‘Mask of Thorn’ has a balance of sci-fi and slasher with a small-town cult conspiracy thrown in. How was making this film compare to Legacy of Thorn?
MJ: It was, in some ways, a much simpler film to make. Legacy was a huge cast and a huge scope and scale. Plus, it was only my third proper feature and my first working with the current team and I felt way out of my depth a lot of the time. Mask in comparison, was a much easier shoot, the script was much more stripped down and it was kind of back to the classic slasher set up, just with a bunch of new elements thrown in. It was less but done better I’d like to think.
AD: I think we both felt more in control with Mask, having made Cleaver, Hollower and Slasher House II, the last being one of the most difficult experiences of our lives. We tried to face the problems head on and just find a solution rather than worrying ourselves to death and we had an absolute ball. There are still the sci-fi elements to Thorn as a character and the cult is alive and well.
You seem to have explored softer tones and blur more in this film (compared to some of the harsher tones in the Slasher House series), was this a reflection of when the film is set or more of a progression of your own style?
MJ: The idea of the look of this film was to try and kind of combined what we’ve been doing over the last few years with a very 80’s sensibility and style. I studied shot set ups and movement from some my favourite films of the era and tried to amalgamate the two. Very little camera movement, longer takes, focal lengths of those films etc. It’s something I actually really enjoyed and it’s kind of worked its way into our work since.
There will also be an 80s brand, SD VHS version of Mask of Thorn. How did this idea form?
MJ: The initial idea with Mask was actually to shoot it on video, as the film was set in 88, we originally looked at shooting it on an old school camera from that year. As we spent more money on preproduction and started casting we realised that our cast were very strong and we MIGHT be shooting ourselves in the foot shooting it on outdated SD tech. So, we decided that instead we’d make two version of the film. A classic 4:3 SD VHS version and a ‘Remastered’ 16:9 Widescreen one. We’d done a limited VHS edition of Cleaver and it had been crazy popular and so we knew people would dig it. It just meant making two version of the film, so on set every shot had to be designed for Widescreen and Old TV ratio which was a crazy challenge, but it worked out pretty well. In fact, the VHS version just feels a lot more fun for some reason.
What is next for Mycho?
MJ: We just wrapped on a tiny feature called Bannister Doll House, which is based on one of the new slashers from Slasher House 2, we’re hoping to release that early next year. Obviously, we have CleaverS in production at the moment, it’s a Killer Clown Road Movie and a follow up to the first Cleaver movie. We’re also in preproduction on a new Slasher based on another SH2 character Jacob The Pandaman which we’re hoping to have in the can by the end of the year. Aside from that we’re also making short film stuff with the Mycho Patreon (.com) is set up to make sort form content. We currently produce 2 short films a year through it, with the idea of raising the frequency with more people donating a little every month. We also developing a TV/Web series based on characters from Thorn’s fictional town Avondale which we’re really excited about.
(Image: slasher house 2 team at Horror Film Festival 2016)
Figure of 8 – Quick Fire Questions
In your home you will always find…
MJ: Halloween Masks AD: Our furry children
Your best quality is…
MJ: My Wife AD: Last minute essay writing
As a child, you wanted to be…
MJ: A Dinosaur Hunter AD: A vet or a tornado chaser
The last thing to make you laugh was…
MJ: The trailer for Venom AD: The Avengers (and cry!)
Your pet peeves are…
MJ: Ironically the phrase ‘Pet Peeve’ (laughs) AD: human statutes (shudder)
Something that may surprise us about you…
MJ: For the last decade I’ve only read books by Richard Laymon AD: I’m a conveyancer in my last year of a law degree