New Kid in Town
An interview with underground filmmaker Jon Moritsugu
Do-it-all, DIY filmmaker Jon Moritsugu has a body of work that floats somewhere in the artistic ether between the pop art obsessions of Andy Warhol and the trashy aesthetics of John Waters. Shooting often on grungy 16mm film stock to a punk rock soundtrack, Moritsugu has built a résumé that runs the gamut from early experimental shorts (“Der Elvis,” “Sleazy Rider”) to feature-length cult curiosities like 1990’s My Degeneration, 1993’s Terminal USA, 1994’s Mod Fuck Explosion, 1997’s Fame Whore and 2002’s Scumrock. As he bounced between Hawaii (where he was born), San Francisco (where he had his most productive years) and the Seattle area (where he most recently resided), Moritsugu became a key figure in something some journalist dubbed the “West Coast Independent” movement.
Wearying of life in the drizzly Northwest, Moritsugu and his wife (and longtime lead actress) Amy Davis picked up stakes and relocated to the dry environs of Santa Fe earlier this year. Moritsugu is settling in and formalizing plans for his next feature—which will be shot right here in his new home, New Mexico. The Alibi decided to welcome him with an interview.
The most direct question I can ask is, What brings you to New Mexico?
Amy and I were in the Pacific Northwest for about three years and ultimately the gray was too much. We’d come out to New Mexico to visit way back in 1992 and fell in love with the place, so we were like: Well, if we ever get the opportunity to move out there, we’re just gonna go for it. So, we went for it. ... We came out to visit Santa Fe in mid-fall—just came out for a couple weeks to hang out. When we were out here, that’s when we just looked at each other and went, “Life is short, let’s bust a move.” So we went back to Vashon where we were living, a little island off the coast of Seattle, and we basically packed everything up in eight days. It was one of those spur-of-the-moment, really sudden changes in life. But it’s been great.
And you’re getting ready to work on a new film out here?
Yeah, I’ve got a completed script for a punk horror movie. Right now I’m trying to raise the financing, so I’m in meetings with producers. But the script is done and I’m just trying to figure out what’s the best way of making it. I wanna get started within the next six months, if possible. One thing I was thinking is, I could go out and start preproduction. I could start the production tomorrow if I wanted to do a really down-and-dirty, DIY, no-budget movie. But my last movie was a no-budget movie. I’ve made so many of them, it’s not a challenge. For me, the challenge is actually taking the script and instead of shooting it tomorrow, to actually spend a little time laying a groundwork and trying to get support so I can bust it out bigger.
Horror sounds like a departure from your usual noncommercial style. What is drawing you to the genre?
Probably for the last 10 years I’ve wanted to make something from a really established type of genre—whether it was romantic comedy, documentary or horror. Horror was the one that really intrigued me. It’s really been on the back burner for a few years. I’ve watched tons of horror movies—even the stuff that scared me as a kid. And honestly, I still haven’t seen anything that’s been ultimately horrifying. So that’s what I wanted to do, to address that. And to combine horror with comedy. I think there’s a fine line between laughter and screaming. It’s psychological horror. It isn’t a gory slasher movie. It’s sort of like a horror movie combined with a screwball comedy. I think when the audience is laughing, that’s when you can throw really horrifying stuff in their faces and really freak people out.
I wouldn’t call your films parodies, but you tweak the genres you’re playing around with quite a bit. Are you planning on messing with horror films or are you trying to stick within the conventions?
No, it’s definitely not going to be like a Scream-type film: This is the formula and we’re just going to follow it and then joke about it. I’ve studied so many movies for years, and I’m trying to put on screen what to me is scary shit, what to me is funny shit, what to me is ultimately just entertaining stuff I wanna see in a movie.
Using my vocabulary, I could call your films “lo-fi,” “no budget,” “underground,” “indie,” “undependent.” How do you describe your work?
I talk about it in those same phrases. But I also like to mention that it’s stuff that has crossed over into the mainstream, even in the industry. Because sometimes when you say “underground,” people have a certain expectation of what the production values are like. “Oh, because you’re underground, you’ve never played in a theater”—stuff like that. I think, especially these days, everything is so smeared together. But I like those adjectives.
In moving from the West Coast to Santa Fe, did you lose any sort of support network of like-minded filmmakers and actors that you worked with?
Not really. With the Internet you’re in touch with everyone. When I was making movies in San Francisco, some of my cast was living in New York doing theatrical stuff. It’s no problem to fly someone on a plane across the country, have ’em act in your movie and fly ’em home. I haven’t lost touch with anyone. If anything, moving from Seattle to Santa Fe has been really great for me. Seattle definitely has a lot of high-tech and computer stuff going on, but the film scene wasn’t that strong. It was just a lot of techie, posting-on-the-Internet, website-y stuff. Out here, there definitely is a Hollywood interaction going on, and an independent scene, and I like that. ... When you do the right move, things start to click into place. That’s how I feel about Santa Fe. It feels like more has happened in six months in Santa Fe than happened in four years in Seattle. I’m just so happy to be out here.
More of Jon Moritsugu’s film work: jonmoritsugu.com