We asked Nick Spooner, former President of Harvard Lampoon, DGA Commercial Director of many funny commercials you’ve seen on TV (and then some) why he would choose a short starring H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu as his first foray into horror filmmaking for fun and the festival circuit.
He teamed with friends Guy Benoit and John Simpson to write the story, and the amazing Michael Cudahy (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Four Rooms) to compose the score. You can catch “The Call Of Charlie” at the Other Worlds Austin Film Festival at Flix Brewhouse December 2, 2016 at 10:10 p.m.
Interview by Christine Thompson
AMFM: I watched you sing “Chac Mool” at the Brooklyn Bowl for a reunion of the band Hevy Floe, what fun that was. Your band was made up of people who now own restaurants, Tequila companies, and the Brooklyn Bowl itself as well as successful filmmakers… I imagine that at the time your band formed you all were a little gang of creatives where the sky was the limit.
NICK: In New York it was kind of like that, but I’ve always gravitated towards people who were creative in one way or another, and I always make sure that I’m friends with people who are more creative than me. You know, where you go home and beat yourself up and say “Argh! I have to work harder!”
AMFM: You’re competitive.
NICK: Yes, I’m competitive, but I just enjoy being around those kinds of people. Our circles in New York, if they weren’t musicians they were filmmakers, or people in advertising – because I make television commercials mostly.
AMFM: So what was the lead in to the world of making commercials?
NICK: Actually, I’ve done that my whole life. When I was a little kid, I acted in commercials. I was into animation, and making little movies myself. I studied in high school and college, I took a year and a half off and got into production as a teenager. By the time I got out of college, I knew what I wanted to do, I just had to get there. I worked for an ad agency, and eventually wound up at Comedy Central, and that was where I finally was able to write, produce and direct all in one place.
AMFM: What was it like there in those early days?
NICK: They were pretty new, about a year and half before I got there, there were two comedy networks, HA and The Comedy Channel. They were both owned by Viacom and they combined. At the time it was just Benny Hill and The Young Ones, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. They needed on air promotions people, so we started by cutting these clip-based spots with a concept to promote these shows. As they started to get original content and forge an identity (me being the opportunist that I am) I told them that I wrote a campaign to promote their network. They said “Oh great! Now go direct that.” So I did.
And that’s how it started. There were no rules, not that many people were watching it, you could make mistakes. That’s important for every artist. You have to be allowed to suck, and then go suck some more. Then suck less, and learn from the sucking. It’s true for commercials, it’s especially true for musicians. You build up a callous, but you learn it’s okay, you’ll suck less.
AMFM: That’s epic. So now we’re getting into you being the President of The Harvard Lampoon.
NICK: I grew up in the Boston area, and when you’re from there, you become aware…my Dad would take us into Cambridge and I said “Hey Dad, what is that castle?.” He said “That’s the Lampoon, it’s a mock Flemish Castle built by William Randolph Hearst…he paid for it, and the architect of Boston Edmund March Wheelwright, who was also on the Lampoon, designed it.” It’s a pretty significant structure, and I was fascinated by it. My Dad let me know I couldn’t go in there unless I was a member. So from the time I was a little kid, it was “fetishized,” and I vowed that I would get in that thing, whatever it was. As I became older, The National Lampoon became probably the most important molding piece of molding literature available. National Lampoon had sprung out of the Harvard Lampoon, graduates Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Rob Hoffman. It became this thing, my whole life, and I knew that is what I had to do. Luckily I got in. You get in based on how you contribute to the magazine…art, literature or business (selling ads to support the magazine.) I got on fall of freshman year, and that’s mostly what I did for the five years I was there.
AMFM: Well how do you get to be president?
NICK: Oh, you just have to sleep with enough people.
AMFM: So where did the interest in H.P. Lovecraft come from?
NICK: I’m from New England, and if you live up here you’re aware of H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve always loved horror. I subscribed to Eerie, Creepy, Monsters, Fangoria.
Stephen King’s first compilation of stories “Nightshift” came out when I was in the 6th grade. “Jerusalem’s Lot” was derived directly from “The Call of Cthulhu” by Lovecraft. As soon as I realized that, a light went on. I was always aware of Lovecraft but I wasn’t a fanatic like some of the horror guys you encounter, who are all about it.
So after a decade of working in New York, my wife and I moved to Providence, Rhode Island. I missed New England and our New York was done. We bought a 150 year old creepy Victorian rectory, a house that Lovecraft might have been in at one time or another. We have lots of friends there who say they have evidence that Lovecraft wrote about their house, or was there.
The city is steeped in a Lovecraft vibe, and I got more and more into it. It made me aware that I had to do a short film, because all I’ve done for twenty years is commercials. I had to do something that isn’t a commercial that’s longer than 30 or 60 seconds.
I was with the two writers who are friends of mine on a dark and stormy night at a bar where Lovecraft surely used to go and smoke hash. I said “you’ve got to help me write this.” They said “ok what do you want to write about?” I said “I don’t know, Cthulhu goes on a blind date.” They just started cracking up.
It was one of those things where you wake up the next day and say “you know what? I’m going to pursue this.” Those guys whipped up a script, and we had a it for months before everything finally converged and we could make it.
AMFM: So how many festivals have you gotten “The Call of Charlie” into?
Thirty so far. But this is my first short film and my first foray into the festival circuit. Not only did I not know what I was doing when I made the short. I just figured it was like 15 commercials strung together. I had no clue about the strategy and the gamesmanship that can be a part of the festival circuit.
First I was like “ok submit to this and this and that and that” – then I realized there were, like, 6000 festivals, you have to have a plan. So then we started to hone in on the genre festivals. Now we’ve been getting into both and getting a favorable response. We’ve gotten into almost 45% of what we’ve applied for.
AMFM: What’s your next passion project?
I’m working on something with the writers right now. But when I was a kid, I was really into monster makeup. I thought I was going to go work for Rick Baker or Dick Smith. I really thought “this is the thing for me, this is what I love to do.” I was a sculptor, and was heavily into art. Then I just got sidetracked. I don’t think I’m anywhere near as good enough artist as I need to be to do that kind of stuff, but I always loved it.
This got me back into it.
AMFM: Just being nosy, but why are you talking to me from Bangkok?
Well, I did this commercial for Tide about four and a half years ago, and it’s one of the highest scoring commercials they’ve ever done, about a dad and his daughter. Saatchi & Saatchi in Shanghai wanted me to come and do another Proctor & Gamble product, with the same aesthetic. So Bangkok is really good at production, and we cast out of Shanghai…it was a totally surreal, lost in translation experience but it was fun.