Closed For The Season Production Notes
The question the movie asks is. Are Kristy and James just characters from the various urban legends themselves? Closed for the Season is a supernatural and psychological mystery, in the tradition of TWILIGHT ZONE featuring supernatural elements driven by the personalities of the characters. It’s a “rubber reality” film where normal reality no longer exists inside the park. The film is intentionally as far away from what you’d expect from an amusement park horror film as I could make it.
CHIPPEWA LAKE PARK is/was a real 130 year old park that had been closed since 1978. It was completely torn down immediately after filming was completed.
I found out about the park while in a bookstore one day. I picked up a book about abandoned architecture in America. One chapter was about amusement parks and two of those covered in the book were in Ohio. I’d always wanted to go back to Ohio to do a feature. Could this be the chance? I thought I must know someone who knows about one of these parks. Turns out I did. A former student of mine from Bowling Green University in Ohio, named Jay Ellison, had grown up near Chippewa Lake and said, “If you’re going to make a movie there I have to be involved.” I said, “Be careful what you wish for.”
The park had recently been sold to new owners who were willing to let us film there and postponed tearing it down for good to redevelop the area. The previous owners had refused all such previous offers and left the park to fall into ruin. The new owners allowed us to film there for free and without this the film would have never been made. Also let me point out that Jay Ellison was, by this point, running a RED camera rental house and had wanted to use his company to line produce what would be their first feature. They had a project recently fall through, so the timing of all this was right if we moved fast.
We went to the park to see what it was really like first hand and I started to develop a story to take place there partly through a process of elimination; I knew I was not going to remake CARNIVAL OF SOULS though I guess I knew I wasn’t going to pretend it didn’t exist either. The fact that we meet our main character inside a wrecked car is almost exactly the way we leave our main character in CARNIVAL OF SOULS. One thing I also wanted to do, that that classic film had not done, was tie the whole story more directly to the abandoned park. I wanted to tell the park’s story through the characters.
There were lots of stories about Chippewa Lake Park and lots of stories that everyone has about amusement parks in general. A lot of these seem to somehow involve first love or at least first interest in girls/boys. One of my first dates was going to Cedar Point in Ohio—a park that helped put Chippewa out of business. So I got the girl lead from CARNIVAL OF SOULS and the idea of first love, which means there’s got to be a boy there too. The park itself needs a spokesman/character and that’d be a multi-purpose Carney. He’s/The Park, is glad you’re there, but part of what he seems to like to do is tease and torment you, anything he can do to keep you there? And why is he doing that? What does the park want?
So I asked pretty much anyone I met what their memories of parks were. There started to be common experiences to work into the story. Damian Maffei, who plays James, told me several stories that pretty much went into the film word for word the way he told them to me. The thing that struck me was that all these stories were still alive at Chippewa since the ruins were still there. The stories still had a reality element because that Ferris wheel was still there now, though it had a tree growing through the middle of it. It was a victim of and defied time all at once. So the idea came to me of a kid falling through a small tree in the park and the tree and the kid growing up together into adulthood came to me early on. The physical elements in the park demanded to be shown. The movie, for the characters, is a voyage through the park to try to escape. If you’re into the movie, discovering the rides and hearing all the stories is the fun of it. One early review said the movie was Alice in Wonderland goes to hell. That’s pretty much dead on correct.
For my Alice, I wrote the part for Aimee Brooks who has acted since a very young age and been in many horror films as well as TV series, in fact she was co-lead in a series with Jennifer Aniston. I knew Aimee from a film project that had fallen apart at the last moment called THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS. So I wanted to make a film for her, so to speak. I wanted to give Damian Maffei a lead role in a film and wrote his part for him specifically as well, as he had played a small part in my film GHOST LAKE.
Also I finally got to work with Joe Unger. Who was in A Nightmare on Elm Street and LEATHERFACE and was in but was cut out of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. I had been an editor on a film Joe was a lead in and I had tried to get Joe into my film IRON THUNDER in 1997. One thing you have to learn as a director is that you have to direct. You get these actors you admire from other work and there is a temptation to just sit there and enjoy and respect their performance, like you are watching a movie they are in. This is not what you must do. You are making a movie with them. So I find myself on the first day we worked together asking Joe to “wiggle his butt” in the putt putt golf scene as he lines up a shot. This is a rather personal thing to ask someone you just met to do on camera. Joe did it and it was funny and totally right. He said, “I can’t believe you got me to do that.” At the end of that first long uneven day (all first days shoots are long and uneven or sometimes a totally waste) Joe came up to me and said how much he enjoyed working with me. That was a great thing for him to do, not because it was a compliment but that it was a sort of debriefing for us both to know how to work together.
All the actors on this film were very good but very different to work with and let me say that Aimee and Damian I knew very well and those parts were written with them in mind, with their type of phrasing etc. Joe’s part was not written specifically for him, but as it turns out, his father was a Carney and could have actually worked at Chippewa Lake Park when it was open. So it was either all meant to be, or that’s just the way it worked out. Worked out well in this case.
Also something what worked out was the man who shot the film Jose Cardenas, was the first DP I had ever worked with back in film school, and a former teacher of Jay Ellison’s at Bowling Green as well. This was the first feature we had done together.
This film is meant to put you in the park, all that’s nostalgic and horrible about the way it was when we filmed there. A key thing to making the film was that we were, to a large degree, living the movie. This was also true of my previous film GHOST LAKE. That film also used many real stories about the location we shot and lived in.
In this case, we, the cast and crew, were exploring and trapped in the park along with the characters. It was immersive there weren’t a ton of distractions we all stayed very near the park so it was our whole world for the time of shooting. There was no power, we borrowed golf carts to help get around the 100 acres inside. Most days we shot at 2 different locations in the park, so when we broke for lunch ideally we’d eat and be sort of moving to locale number 2 for the second half of the day. We also frequently shot both day and night scenes on the same day. So it was a lot of work setting up and tearing down almost everything twice a day. There were still vandals at the park so we couldn’t leave much there, we did have a painting done for the film stolen from the funhouse before we got to shoot it. Local support was terrific, we had people working on all sides of the park at once, cutting down trees, building sets, and shooting all in different corners at certain times. It was a rather cold and rainy August, which led to us going about 2 days over schedule, but I’ll take that over what can be brutal heat back there. We heard some strange things in the woods, saw some enormous insects, the house the actors stayed in was the source of strange noises and our own ghost stories.
We tried hard to do justice to the place, but being there with us is the only way to really know that place. It was fun to breathe life into the ruins but it was a lot of work. Regardless it was a fun shoot by and large; everyone knew this was a once in a lifetime adventure. Having the actors live together in their own house was valuable. They rehearsed together and got to know and like each other in ways that doesn’t happen when you have your own separate trailers and can go home to your “normal” life each day. I think a lot of the movie, for them, seemed like real experience, they could use their imagination to lead to the fantasy elements of the story, rather than have to pretend they were in an old park, they were in an old park. Aimee actually refused to see any part of the park until we were actually shooting in that section.
I also enjoyed walking my way out of the park at the end of each day’s shooting, usually in the darkness, frequently carrying the wooden clown prop Marischa Slusarski made for the film. I’d get lost sometimes and find myself on the wrong end of things and turn around to come across other lost crew members or refuse a ride from someone, I wanted to be there too, it was Chippewa’s last fun summer.
Also along for the ride that summer was my, now wife, Kristy. We dated long distance for three years before getting married. She, at the time, lived about 90 minutes from where we were shooting in Ohio. So she ended up being an extra and being an enormous help to me as well.
Near the end of a long post production process, and for the first time in my career, we showed a work-in-progress version of the film at the Monster Mania Convention in New Jersey. Monstermania had premiered a previous film of mine GHOST LAKE and it had sold out crowd just as this screening did. I highly recommend the convention. The fans there really show up to see the films screened and this is not the case at many other conventions, and many film festivals that I’ve been to over the years.
The feedback I got there helped me refine the movie and make it shorter and better with some re-editing.
Due to the productions inability to get us shooting permits on or near an intact rollercoaster, that part of the film had to be rewritten on the spot to be a dream scene. I felt this would help in case the CGI didn’t turn out to be totally convincing. Which, don’t hold your breath, it turned out not to be. The sequence took months and months and stopped all other post production. It was never really finished, being delivered at the last possible moment. So the sequence was then color timed to be “obviously” not real. I think in general, regardless of budget, CGI doesn’t look real all, or even, most of the time, instead it has its own unreal reality that audiences accept or even expect now.
The whole movie is full of unreality, so I think it fits in and works in Closed for the Season’s case.
CLOSED FOR THE SEASON was sold, in many markets, as being exactly what it is not: A Killer Carney film. That’s the nature of selling a film.
So finally let me send all good thoughts for those fans who continue to be interested in going on the type of rides that CLOSED FOR THE SEASON takes you on. I hope you won’t know what to expect as it goes along, but if you are into it, it does hang together and attempts to scare and amuse and arouse curiosity in things I don’t see every film doing. I’ve said before horror movies are real movies and can be about all kinds of things, that’s what I like about them, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to make a few more of.