A lot of people suffer from coulrophobia (the fear of clowns), and if you are one of those people, Circus of the Dead is not for you. A sort of Devil’s Rejects covered in greasepaint, Circus of the Dead let’s us into the dark world of Papa Corn. A Lotteria obsessed murder clown with his own gang of equally damaged morbid jokesters, Papa Corn and his crew do what any normal clowns do: entertain folks at a traveling circus, wear goofy big shoes and silly face paint, steal cars, rape and murder innocent people, and forcing good, normal people into acts of unspeakable horror. You know, for kids!
I had a chance to meet the co-writer and director of Circus of the Dead (CotD), “Bloody” Bill Pon, at Texas Frightmare this May, and he agreed to answer some questions about the film, Texas, clowns and a bunch of other horrific things.
A life long Texan, Pon was born in East Texas. He cultivated a love of film and horror early in his life, and remembers the first horror movie that had a real impact on him as a child. “It was The Shining I want to say I was 11ish? It’s when cable TV just started out in homes and they seemed to play the same films over and over. My parents watched it one night but I wasn’t allowed to so I waited till they were asleep and watched it all the way through. Scared the shit out of me!”
In 1998, Pon moved to West Texas to take a job at a local TV station. Intending to learn the craft of film making, he worked behind the camera in various capacities. When he was ready to venture out on his own in 2009, he filmed his first short: Doll Boy. “The following year I submitted to some film festivals.” Pon tells me. “Once we screened the short at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas it really blew up!”
After the success of Doll Boy, Pon and co-writer Lee Ankrum began work on a sequel, which would eventually turn into CotD. I asked Pon what made him take the script down to clown town (sorry). What was it about a traveling circus with murder clowns that drew him in? “I don’t think it’s ever been done right, in my opinion,” he said. “It’s always either cheesy funny or cheesy gory. I wondered what would happen if I made a serious movie about clowns and only let the laughs be organic instead of being forced. They’re fucked up killers who’s day job just so happens to be a clown.” He told me he was reading a book about serial killers and a quote by John Wayne Gacy caught his attention. Gacy, the “Killer Clown of Chicago,” was quoted about his dressing and performing as a clown, saying “You know… A clown can get away with murder.” This quote stuck with Pon, and he decided to make his film about clowns. Pon said, “Lots of people are afraid of clowns. Why? Got me. But maybe it’s their agenda hidden behind their make up.” The traveling circus arose naturally after, Pon saying it made sense as a cover and an explanation as to why they had been able to elude authorities up until this point.
As the script for CotD began to take shape, Pon started looking for an actor to play the lead: Papa Corn.
“When I started writing I started researching online and making a short list of actors I liked. Somewhere Bill [Oberst Jr.] popped up on top 10 indie actors to watch.” Pon said he reached out to Oberst via Facebook and sent him a script. Oberst expressed interest in the project, and came on board as the lead. Oberst is absolutely one of the film’s strongest points, portraying a truly evil character in Papa Corn. Oberst is able to pair the outright violence and disgusting nature of the character with the menacing whimsy one may expect from a remorseless, killer clown. Oberst’s performance plants us firmly in Papa Corn’s world, and keeps us wondering horrible things Papa will do next.
“I’ll say this about Bill,” Pon told me. “I couldn’t have found a better person in the world to bring Papa Corn to life. He’s the real deal. Great actor, great guy, and really, really hard on his talents. I like that in a person. He’ll give the best performance you’ve ever seen and afterward he’ll tell you he can do it better. Pure perfectionist. He’d never take any credit and all of us had an important role with the film being successful but I feel like we all just jumped on Bill’s back and let him show us the way.”
With the lead sorted and the script ready to go, Pon needed a place to film. Naturally, he chose West Texas. “Filming in West Texas is great as far as I’m concerned. I know everyone around town and they’re always willing to lend me a location. I’ve been here so long and made so many friends that everyone kind of knows everyone.”
It wasn’t all piggy back rides from Bill Oberst Jr. and high fives from the locals, however. Film shoots can be grueling as well, as Pon explained. “We filmed CotD in one month’s time. It was hell on Earth. No sleep, no rest and never enough time. But somehow in the midst of all that we made a great little movie with hardly any budget. It brought me, cast and crew very close as it felt we’ve been to war together.”
With CotD under his belt, I asked Pon if he had any advice for filmmakers out there who just getting started. “Quit making excuses and get out there and do it!” Pon said. As basic as that advice may sound, there’s more to it than that. Pon advises that instead of trying to raise money based on a script or an idea, show potential investors your work. Work on a short or trailer, get something out there with your name on it. Be open to criticism as well, and find some honesty among your crew. Your skills can always improve. Pon admits you need to know your weaknesses as well. “[F]ind the people that are better doing what you think you’re great at doing and let them do it. You’re not great at everything regardless to what your Mom says!” He doesn’t diminish the role of history in the process, either. The classic films are classic for a reason, and a novice filmmaker can learn a lot from studying the greats.
Speaking of the greats, I asked Pon what his favorites were. “My favorite horror movies would be Texas Chainsaw Massacre ‘74, Halloween ‘78 and The Exorcist.” Hard to argue with. I also wanted to know his favorite sub-genre in horror. “I’m pretty open to any sub-category of horror as long as it’s a good movie,” he responded. “I think it just needs to be a fun and thrilling ride for me as a viewer.” As the writer and director of CotD, I had to know what his favorite clown movie was. “It’s nothing like CotD but I’d have to say Killer Klowns from Outer Space! Saw it as a kid and it’s something I always watch if it’s on.”
So what’s up next for CotD and “Bloody” Bill Pon? CotD has screened at festivals and conventions since its completion, and is awaiting distribution. Pon is excited for the film to reach a wider audience. “I can’t wait till the world gets hold of it and loves it as much as the fans we’ve made on the festival and convention circuit!” What’s next for Pon personally? “I’ve got something special up my sleeve. Something very near and dear to my heart movie wise. Stay tuned!”
Thanks for the insight Bloody Bill, and we will most assuredly stay tuned!
— Eric Harrelson
Check out the trailer of Circus Of The Dead: