Aaron B Koontz is the kind of filmmaker whose next move is entirely unpredictable. From his well-regarded horror shorts and breakout debut feature, Camera Obscura, right up to Shudder’s fan favorite comedy-horror anthology Scare Package, which he co-created and to which he contributed two terrific shorts, it’s impossible to know what his next move is going to be, or where those creative juices will lead him. Koontz has his fingers in plenty of different pies too, from directing, writing, producing, casting, and doing everything in between.
His latest offering, the horror-western hybrid The Pale Door, brings together one of the finest casts in genre history for a tale of witchcraft and brotherhood that’s loaded with just as much heart as it is blood. Wicked Horror chatted to Koontz about assembling the Avengers of horror, working through personal issues via fantastical material, and plenty more besides.
WICKED HORROR: We’re here to talk about your new movie, The Pale Door, which is an interesting prospect in and o itself because it’s this sort of weird mix of horror and classic western movie. So, first off, I want to know, what was the genesis of this movie? Where did this idea come from?
AARON B KOONTZ: I had wanted to make a western for a while, and I’d written a core story that I wasn’t too happy with, about this group of cowboys who rob a stagecoach and then have to hold up in this ghost town overnight. I couldn’t really figure out the right way to take that idea and then make the last two thirds of the movie work in a way that I was happy with, but I had some characters in there that I liked. So then I was asked to write a witch movie, or rather to pitch a witch movie to Universal a few years back, and I decided, you know, this could be fun so I figured I’d just write this witchy western instead. But then they just wanted normal witches and they didn’t understand why there were cowboys involved [laughs]. But I kept it on the back-burner for a long time. And then, I was part of a screenwriting panel with [co-writers of The Pale Door] Joe and Keith Lansdale and I told that story about Universal rejecting my movie. Joe literally turned to me on the panel and just looks at me in the way that only Joe can and says, in his big, thick Texas accent, “That’s a good idea. You should do that. You should make that!” He went into the crowd and started asking everybody “Would y’all watch that?” and everybody was like “Yeah, I’d watch that!” It was pretty crazy. I still have audio from that night actually; it’s fun to go back and look at that, and know that people really liked the idea. I was originally going to make a sci-fi film so I put it on the back-burner and decided to do this movie instead. Joe and Keith came on to write it with me, Joe was helping us with some character stuff but he couldn’t be a full on writer so we made him an EP and then Keith joined me and Cameron [Burns, the other co-writer on the project] and we were off and running.
WICKED HORROR: The core of the story is the relationship between these two brothers [played by Devin Druid and Zachary Knighton]. We see them at the start and they’re very young, then they go through this trauma together, and then we skip to the future and see where they’ve both turned up. Was that element always a part of it or did that come during the development of the story with the other guys?
AARON B KOONTZ: That was always a part of it. It’s a very personal story with my brother, actually, who is a recovering addict and has had a lot of stuff going on in his life and I’ve had to take care of him and we’ve had some very difficult situations with our father that were…tough. I’ve had to explain some home truths about our father that were tough for him to realize, and so I really wanted to talk about some personal issues in the script. This movie is my way of dealing with myself, my brother, and my father, and a lot that we were all trying to wrestle with. I knew that was going to be the central story, about a younger brother who wants to be more but he’s struggling with some things and then the older brother who just wants to protect him and keep him away from the world in every way. There was something there that manifested out of my own personal life. So, yes, the brothers were always the central piece. We wanted it to be a brothers story first and then it became about the western and the witches and how their backstory started too.
WICKED HORROR: It does actually feel very personal when you’re watching it. The brothers are really the heart of the story, even with all of the other fantastical stuff that’s going on.
AARON B KOONTZ: Thank you. It was, and it’s a very vulnerable thing for me so I’m glad to hear you say that.
WICKED HORROR: Have you watched the movie with your brother and your Dad?
AARON B KOONTZ: My brother has watched it. He cried, pretty hard, and that was a wonderful moment. It was very emotional but it meant a lot. I haven’t talked to my father in a while, we’re estranged, so he doesn’t know about it. And my mother…can’t watch my movies [laughs] because she’s a Christian. Not that Christians can’t watch horror movies but for my Mom in particular it’d be kind of difficult. I recommended that she doesn’t watch it but I’ve told her, you know, it’s very personal and she knows the story. It’s me working my life out through a movie so it’s very special to me and she gets that.
WICKED HORROR: There’s a pretty pivotal scene in a church. She could just watch that part.
AARON B KOONTZ: I probably will send her that scene, because it’s probably my favorite scene in the whole movie. Of all the crazy stuff that happens, and it was so much fun to do overall, but that scene has to work for the movie to work. It’s the cold open, that scene, and then the ending. Those three core pieces really drive the story. I think people will be surprised when they see the movie. We didn’t get to do a festival run even though we got into a bunch of festivals. We didn’t get to do this with a group of people. So, I’ll be curious to see how the sentimentality, and how the movie really slows down at certain moments, plays at home. It brings up certain issues too, with the witches and the cowboys and the parallels between hate and violence breeding more hate and violence and how the choices you make in life affect you later on, and how you can decide to be a better person and make the most of your situation in life, all these things are big talking points. For a lot of people, it’s just like “oh, cowboys and witches, that’s cool!” and I want it to be that too, that’s a big part of it, but it there are deeper things going on at the same time.
WICKED HORROR: These are certainly strange times. But, as hard as I’m sure it is not to get to do the festivals and watch the movie with an audience, at least when people watch it at home there’s more of an opportunity to pay attention and really appreciate it than there is when you’re with a big, loud festival crowd.
AARON B KOONTZ: That would be great, I would hope so. There’s a lot of opportunities in VOD now and a lot of people are looking for stuff to escape with, so hopefully that can be the case too.
WICKED HORROR: It’s weird because so many of these huge, blockbuster movies are being pushed back but horror movies are being released the same way they always have been and, in many ways, horror is flourishing because more people are stuck at home desperately searching for new stuff to watch.
AARON B KOONTZ: It really is. Drive-ins, too, we’re going to play a bunch of drive-ins with this movie and that’s such a cool thing. We are playing some theaters and, although I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go to movie theaters right now, if you’re going to go anyway, then please see The Pale Door! [laughs] But this drive-in resurgence is so wonderful. I mean, any movies that I make are going to be made for the drive-in anyway. It’s exciting to see where that resurgence is going to lead, too.
WICKED HORROR: Where did you guys shoot? ‘Cause it looks like one of those old-timey re-enactment towns. Is that what it is or did you guys build all those sets from scratch?
AARON B KOONTZ: It was in Oklahoma. We built a number of sets for it, including the church because, shockingly, they don’t like the idea of doing the things we did in that church to a real church so we had to build that, plus there were things done within that environment that required some trickery, so to speak. It was about twenty minutes north of Oklahoma City, it’s an old west town where people do destination weddings. They shoot old west style weddings. It was kind of fun, being in this place where people go to show off their affection and love and doing all of these horrible things there, my cynicism made it fun and entertaining. But also, because it’s where people go for destination weddings, it’s also where they stay during those weddings. So we lived in this town for the entire shoot, with the whole crew. The cast got slightly nicer hotels but the rest of us lived there, even in the brothel where it all takes place, those were rooms that people were staying in. While we shot, they moved out, but after we were done, they moved back in, which kind of added to the experience of making this movie. It’s a western, it’s a period piece, and we immersed ourselves in it by staying there.
WICKED HORROR: The cast, particularly from a horror fan’s perspective, is just a who’s who of favorites. How did you go about finding such an impressive cast of brilliant character actors?
AARON B KOONTZ: Thank you so much. I joked with my casting director, I was like, I want kind of the Avengers of indie horror/genre people. Look, at first, we thought we had to go with all these huge names, and a lot of big names circled the film, but I always had these other guys in mind. Zachary Knighton was originally going to play the Dodd character, because of his comedic timing in Happy Endings, one of my favorite shows.
WICKED HORROR: Ugh, the best. Love that show so much.
AARON B KOONTZ: Right? He’s so funny in that, but I knew he could do serious stuff, too, because I’d seen him in The Hitcher remake and I was just like “this guy’s got something.” When we cast Devin Druid, we searched everywhere to find our Jake and then Devin just blew us away, he just became the guy as soon as I saw him I knew. Him and Zach actually look alike, too, they have these similarly beautiful blue eyes and similar ears and noses so they could totally be brothers. I talked to Zach, I told him I was going to switch him to Duncan if he was okay with it, and then I got Bill Sage for Dodd, so that worked out perfectly. But yeah, Stan Shaw is so great in everything, I’ve wanted to work with him forever. It was just a really wonderful group of people. And then on the witches side, Natasha Bassett, as Pearl. She’s incredible, I fell in love with her because of her eyes. I wanted someone who could do this sort of deer in headlights look and that could play the innocent but also do this subtle, insipid, and a little unhinged, too and Natasha just did that so well. Melora Walters is my muse. Paul Thomas Anderson is my film-making muse, I decided to go to film school after watching Magnolia. Her look in the last frame in that movie, I was crying, and even though it’s three hours and seven minutes long, when I walked out of the theater my friends were like “are you okay?” and I was like “I have to watch this movie again. I have to do it.” And I did, and I decided to go to film school right after that. So I wrote the part for Melora, I never thought I could actually get her, I wrote her a personal letter to get her to do it and she’s now, I’m so proud to say it, a good friend. For that all to come full circle is so special for me, it means the world. This cast is so special. I feel so lucky that I can hire the core, indie people and not have to check this box and hire these things. Even Tina Parker, I love her in Better Call Saul, and in these other small roles, she’s just got so much character. There were just so many wonderful opportunities and I’m obsessed with our cast, so thank you for noticing and for bringing it up.
WICKED HORROR: As a horror fan, it’s just great to see so many of these guys getting work. It’s so gratifying seeing what they can do once they’re actually given the space to do it. I mean, Pat Healy, for instance. I’ll watch anything that Pat Healy is in. Once I see his name on the cast-list, I’m down.
AARON B KOONTZ: Pat is so talented. I don’t think people realize just how talented he is. For the character of Wylie, we wanted to build this guy from the ground up. We built this accent, this dialect, so we knew the way that he talked, the way that he walked. The gang is loosely based on the real-life Dalton gang, and within that gang there was one brother – they were actually all brothers, but we just made it two brothers for the purposes of our story – who never actually got involved in the fighting. He was the strategic guy, a former banker, who we just found incredibly interesting. We just knew Pat could do this pensive, thoughtful, meticulous person. And we reflected that in the way he talked, the way he walked, the pocket-watch he carries, the little notebook, his hat, every little detail of him was very precise. It was really fun to create all this stuff too, and the Lansdales really helped fleshing out these characters to make them more unique, because in a lot of these old western movies, the gangs are just a bunch of white dudes. The reality wasn’t like that, gangs were actually very diverse. Even James Whitecloud, he’s an homage to Will Sampson, an amazing actor who was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one of my favorite movies. He plays Chief Bromden, this silent Native American character who I wanted to pay homage to in this movie, with the character of Chief. Funnily enough, Will Sampson is actually James Whitecloud’s great uncle, which is a total coincidence, he actually found that out during the audition process, so it was great for him to get to pay homage to his ancestor like that. The way Chief looks is very similar to the way Bromden looks, too. But it was just great to put all these people together. It’s challenging to do an ensemble like that but it was amazing. When you get people like that, on that level, working at that creative peak that they do, you’re just so lucky as a director to just get out of the way and just let them do their thing.
WICKED HORROR: I can’t let you go without mentioning Scare Package, not just one of my favorite horror releases of the year, but also one of the biggest success stories. How did that come about? And are you just thrilled with the response, because horror fans have just loved it?
AARON B KOONTZ: Thank you so much! We made the film because I was frustrated after my first feature, it was a very difficult experience and the movie didn’t turn out to be what I wanted it to be, for a variety of reasons, so I just wanted to get back together with my friends and the people we all loved from film festivals, and just make some fun shorts and get back to why we wanted to make movies in the first place. We made Scare Package 100 percent independently, I hired my friends, hired the people that I love, so we could do something diverse again with a community group of people because the reason I make movies is I want people to have an escape. That’s it. The Pale Door and Scare Package allow people, whatever they’re dealing with and whatever they’re going through, to put on a movie and for this 90 minutes I’m no longer dealing with whatever I’m dealing with in my daily life. I think Scare Package hit at the right time, too. We just wanted to do this completely silly, goofy, over the top movie and it warms my heart with so much joy to see everybody responding so positively to it. I can’t believe we made this super-small movie with our friends and now we have…I can’t even say all the things that are coming our way because of Scare Package but, let’s just say, there’s a lot more coming because the response has been great. It’s just been wonderful and thank you so much, too, because I remember seeing your review at the time too, and all of that stuff matters. It’s really ignited why we make movies. And then The Pale Door is the complete opposite!
WICKED HORROR: Well, that’s what’s so great about The Pale Door, because it’s not what I was expecting to see from you after watching Scare Package.
AARON B KOONTZ: We never intended for these movies to be released at the same time, it just kind of happened that way. The Pale Door came out faster without all the festivals, and then Scare Package was delayed, so they just ended up colliding. It’s a weird summer for the world but it’s a very special summer for us. With everything going on, with Black Lives Matter and with trying to support these causes in any way we can, it’s a tough time to be promoting a movie. But, if it can provide an escape, then that’s all I could ever ask for.
WICKED HORROR: And that’s hugely important too, particularly right now.
AARON B KOONTZ: That’s great, because really that’s all I want.
Catch The Pale Door in theaters, On Demand and on Digital from August 21, 2020
Scare Package is streaming on Shudder now and will be available
On Demand, Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray from October 20, 2020
** This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity purposes.