Rage Against the Machine

Usually when indie filmmakers get a little street cred, they head for Hollywood or start scouting a bigger distribution deal. Not Phoenix film writer/director Craig McMahon, who's made a name for himself in independent horror film circles with straight-to-DVD movies like Creep and Laws of Deception. Despite a defiantly snarky attitude about Arizona, McMahon — whose just-released serial killer drama, Machined, is generating all kinds of insider buzz — plans to stay put and keep making movies.

Robrt L. Pela: You shot Machined in Phoenix. Why? And please don't talk to me about the beauty of the desert, or I'll hork.

Craig McMahon: You're right, the desert blows. I have been here way too long. I'm one of those people who doesn't have a pool in his yard — just shoot me. No, I shot Machined here for budgetary reasons — I'm a cheap-ass filmmaker.

Pela: You've been pretty vocal about the advantages of shooting low-budget films.

McMahon: If you want to learn to direct films, use cheaper cameras at first. Yeah, you'll make some real crap, but then you get better and better at it. Then when someone hands you a large chunk of money to make a film, you turn a profit for them because you have experience.

Pela: So if Spielberg called tomorrow and offered you a zillion-dollar budget to shoot a remake of Bride of the Gorilla, you'd do it. Right?

McMahon: Ah . . . yeah. I hear they have great chicken wings on the DreamWorks sets. The studios always ask new directors to do remakes 'cause the big directors turn them down. Fuck that! Where do I sign?

Pela: Your films are shot on video, but they look great. Does that mean you shove your whole budget into lighting?

McMahon: Lighting is everything. But color-correction and proper editing is what makes the film pop. You know, back in the day, I would take pictures with my film camera, stroll over to the local Walgreens, and have them developed. I'd open them up and say, "What the hell am I doing wrong?" But with digital, I see what I'm doing wrong right there on the spot.

Pela: It's pretty great that you got a distribution deal with Lions Gate. I mean, they did the Leonard Cohen film, and Saw III. Not to mention the last Care Bears movie!

McMahon: Lions Gate is who we wanted, because they know what audiences love. They asked me to direct Care Bears Revenge II, but I said, "Only if we can shoot it here in the beautiful deserts of Arizona."

Pela: You're funny. Machined is about a guy who's so into serial killers that he builds one. Which isn't so implausible. I mean, serial killers usually have big fan followings.

McMahon: Oh, I know. Freaky shit. The girl who married Richard Ramirez in San Quentin's waiting room was a fan of his. Motor Man Dan actually never kills anyone in the movie; he's just a fanboy.

Pela: David Hayes is so amazing in Machined. Where do you find these people?

McMahon: Wait 'til you see his performance in our next film, Sportkill. There is great acting talent here in Arizona. The problem is keeping them from moving to L.A. They go to Hollywood and become a drop in a big bucket. There is a real acting community happening here. When I'm casting, I call up a few people that know actors, and so on. I haven't done open auditions in quite some time.

Pela: I'm worried that his portrayal of Motor Man Dan will give collectors a bad name. I mean, I own enough dishware to serve 120 people, plus I have all 11 Partridge Family albums. Not every collector is a killer, you know what I mean?

McMahon: There are 11 Partridge Family albums? I got ripped off! And I'm telling you, Motor Man is innocent!

Pela: I read an interview where you said that you watch horror films to escape, and that romantic comedies depress you. Huh?

McMahon: I am a kid from a dysfunctional family that always had crap happening all around me. Romantic comedies tend to show perfect people in their perfect little lives. They make me realize how fucked up my world is, which is a downer. When I watch a horror flick, I watch this person being chased by this crazy bastard and I think, "My life is great!"

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela