Studio 666 Dave Grohl Foo Fighters

In Studio 666, the Foo Fighters get possessed

Director B.J. McDonnell talks rock music, gore and Cardi B.

Dave Grohl is no stranger to moviemaking, having undertaken several successful documentary screen projects over the last few years, including Sonic Highways, Sound City and What Drives Us. What Grohl really wanted to do, though, was make a horror film. Paying homage to the great comedy horrors of the 1980s, Studio 666 takes the Foo Fighters on a gory supernatural adventure, an imagined horror backstory for their latest studio album, Medicine at Midnight. Enter B.J. McDonnell.

B.J. McDonnell started working as a camera/steadicam operator (a gig he still does on occasion) for some of the best horror films of the past two decades. His long, wide-ranging resume touches on all genres, but there’s no mistaking his interest in the macabre. His filmography includes long-term collaborations with Rob Zombie, in the Conjuring Universe and American Horror Story. His non-horror work is just as colourful, including camera operation jobs on The Disaster Artist, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Avengers: Age of Ultron — work that has informed his work as a director. “The best film school in the world is a film set,” he explained. 

McDonnell co-directed a three-part epic music video for Slayer, as well as Hatchet III. He’s ready to flex his horror wings and set off. He never seems far from his two passions: horror and music, and both come together with Studio 666. While often funny and silly, the movie has an unmistakably dark streak and features some of the best gore effects in mainstream horror in years.

B.J. McDonell spoke to Cult MTL on Zoom.

Justine Smith: How did you get involved in this film?

B.J. McDonell: Dave always wanted to make a horror film, and he had an idea of what he wanted to do. He talked to his two producers, Jim Rhota and John Ramsay. I’ve worked with them in the past, and they’re good friends of mine. They said, “Hey, you should check B.J.” They sent me the pitch, and I took Dave’s pitch and did a lookbook. I gave an idea of what I’d like to add to the story, giving it more depth and backstory to what he wanted.

We set up a meeting. I met Dave at the house where they were recording Medicine at Midnight. We sat with the lookbook and talked about movies. We loved the vibe of what we wanted to do, and that was it. I was friends with Jim and John, and I grew up with (Foo Fighters) tour manager Gus Brandt — but that’s another story. Dave liked the fact that we all knew each other. It was one of those things where we could just trust each other and we knew we were in good hands.

JS: You mentioned that you and Dave Grohl talked a lot about horror movies. What were some of those films?

BM: We were throwing around ideas about our inspirations — The Exorcist (was one). I’m a huge John Carpenter fan, and Dave is also. We really vibed on the old Carpenter style. We talked about the Evil Dead movies. Evil Dead is hilarious. I remember renting it as a kid and not knowing what it was. I just got it because of the cover art. I remember popping it in, and it became one of my favourite movies I’ve ever seen. We spoke about the vibe and the comedy of those kinds of films. We wanted to keep that ’80s “funny,” like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. Maybe they’re not obviously comedies, but you can still laugh at them. 

Studio 666 Dave Grohl Foo Fighters
Dave Grohl in Studio 666

JS: Why do rock ’n’ roll and horror go so well together?

BM: When you look at the artwork and album covers, it’s clear rock stuff can be a little dark and scary. They have an edgier vibe; that’s why horror goes so well with rock ’n’ roll or metal. Lyrics can also be a thing, depending on what band you’re listening to. If you listen to Cannibal Corpse, it’s super gnarly, and it’s definitely horror. Or even the Misfits, they’re all horror-based, even their imagery. 

You go back to the 1980s with all the satanic panic stuff, when people would say, “Well, my kid played this record backwards, and I can hear the devil.” It’s obvious that rock and horror always have this relationship in the wider world. You don’t really see a Cardi B horror film — it just seems wrong. You know what, though, I’d be so down if she did one (laughs).

JS: The movie is focused on the Foo Fighters and has this fantastic comic cast. Do you want to talk about the casting process?

BM: Honestly, it was a lot of friends that we all just brought in from other jobs. Will Forte, for instance, I worked with him on MacGruber, and we became friends. When I was talking with the Foo Fighters, I told them not to worry too much about what was on the page of the script. It’s better if they improv what they’d say, to be closer to the “real.” It would work as long as they stay on route and topic. 

We got a lot of comedians who are good at improv. We wanted people who were good at riffing and would make everything comfortable. That’s where a lot of the comedy came out. I felt like I brought more of the horror elements, and I could rely on the cast riffing off each other to get some real gold.

Dave Grohl in Studio 666 B.J. McDonnell
Dave Grohl in Studio 666

JS: Can you talk about your experience as a camera operator and how it’s informed your work?

BM: (When I’m working as a camera operator), the next person talking to the actors the most after the director is me. (The director) will usually go back to their monitor, then I’m standing right there on set, face to face with the actors. I’m very comfortable talking with actors. Often, actors will come to me and say, “What am I doing B.J.?” And I’m the one to go over and explain. I learned how to really talk with actors and explain what’s happening. It’s also given me space to step back and watch how directors direct. The best film school in the world is a film set and learning from every other director you’ve worked with. I’m watching them create, watching them succeed and sometimes watching them fail at certain things. That makes me feel like a better director because I’ve learned from the best and the worst.

A lot of the time, people get very comfortable in their careers. It’s scary to take that step towards progress because once you’ve started making a living doing a certain job, it throws things off the wheels when you jump in and try to do another. It’s not the same unions, and it’s not the same as what you’re used to. You have to readjust everything in your life. You’re more committed to a job for a longer time frame with directing. As a camera operator, I get a job, I go to work, I do my day, I go home and I forget about it until the next day. When I’m a director, I take things home, and I’m constantly working until this thing is out. Even after it’s out, I’m still working on it. I came to LA to direct, and I got sidetracked with being an operator because I loved it and was earning so much.

JS: What were some of the highlights of making Studio 666?

BM: It’s usually when we’re about to do some gore effect. You’re always worried because they usually don’t go right, and you never know how it’s going to go. Sometimes you’ll get pure gold, and sometimes it doesn’t. Now we’ve got to figure out how to make that work. The moments that were the best for me are when the gags went really well. And for this one, almost every gag that we did, because we planned so hard to do this movie, went well. 

JS: The movie was also made during COVID. How did that impact the film?

BM: We started the movie before COVID, and we got shut down when the world shut down. There were about six months in between, not knowing if we would be able to come back and finish the movie, but we did. We were one of the first films to come back and were basically the guinea pigs of how people would wear PPE on set, testing, interacting between different groups. It was a learning experience. It was scary. How was this going to work? Are we going to have enough time? And you know what, we did it. We powered through. Everybody was stoked to come back because they had such a good time working on the movie. Regardless of all the stuff we had to wear and the testing, we had a blast and loved what we were doing.

Studio 666 opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 25.

Studio 666, directed by B.J. McDonnell

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