By SHAWN MACOMBER
It’s not unusual for a writer-director to describe a feature as autobiographical. But when the film in question is a raucous, guts n’ glory coming-of-age tale that builds a viscera-slicked bridge between Night of the Creeps and The Goonies? Well, that’s a revelation that does more than turn your head a couple of clicks; It induces a full-on Exorcist-worthy spin.
Enter KIDS VS ALIENS, writer-director Jason Eisener’s long-awaited feature-length follow-up to 2011’s run-and-gun phenomenon (and, we hope, not also autobiographical) Hobo with a Shotgun, which is to say, much like his imagined young band of camcorder rebels forced to become a ragtag army of bully fighters and alien slayers, Eisener grew up shooting fantastical flicks on tape in his backyard, struggling to coax Oscar-worthy performances out of his siblings and friends.
After all, he thought, “What else was cooking in quiet Dartmouth, Nova Scotia?”
It turns out quite a bit. Eventually, an uncle who had served in the Navy told him about the UFO that had crashed in nearby Shag Harbor back in 1967 and the strange aftermath.
“A bunch of fishermen saw it and, thinking a plane went down, went out looking for survivors,” Eisener told RUE MORGUE in a backroom of the Alamo Drafthouse a couple of hours before the film’s Fantastic Fest premiere back in September.
“When they got to the spot, there was no wreckage, only this glow coming from the depths. Days later, American ships parked over it and set up tarps so no one on shore could see what was going on. And it has never been explained publicly, but my uncle told me divers went down to the ship before the area was closed off and saw…beings inside it. That was so freaky to me, as a kid, to think that happened in my backyard, basically.”
More than half a century later, Eisener remains enthralled, and he’s adding his own dayglo, ultraviolent aesthetic to the tale. It makes sense to tell such a story through the eyes of children because kids, somewhat paradoxically, are better equipped to accept, process, and address the extraordinary: In such situations, lack of lived experience becomes a boon rather than albatross because young minds aren’t chained to the monotony of adult life (or indoctrinated into the standard group-think, if we want to be less charitable) that deadens vital creativity and shits out boring, faux-intellectual skepticism.
“One of the things I preach in my work and real life is to be open to the possibility that the things most people say aren’t possible just might be,” Eisener says.
“Life is just more fun and interesting that way. Like, I’m glad I saw the Fire in the Sky trailer when I was young enough to read ‘Based on a True Story’ at the end of it and spend the next couple weeks thinking, ‘So what am I gonna do if that happens to me?’ I’m glad my uncle told me that UFO story when it could be so magical and real. I have such nostalgia for how powerful sci-fi was for me as a kid – how easy it was to believe. Anything that happens – any idea or story you come across [or] any thought you have, any weird thing that spooks you – you’re gonna talk about it all week at school. It feels just so … big.”
That’s a great macro description of KIDS VS. ALIENS: just so … big. Big monsters, big stakes, big noise, big action, big emotions. But what raises the film above mere viscera-drenched romp status is the microelements. It has a big heart when it comes to little things. Indeed, KIDS VS. ALIENS provided Eisener (and co-scripter John Davies) an opportunity to revisit his childhood family dynamic through the lens of adulthood.
“I’m so lucky to have had such an amazing childhood,” Eisener says. “And I’m always fighting to get back to those feelings – always fighting to protect my inner child in my movies, you know? So I feel like the best ideas I have all stem from my childhood, which is why there are literally scenes in the movie that are lifted directly out of things that my sister and brother and I did with our friends as kids. I hope they see it as kind of a gift to them. That’s definitely how it’s intended. Like, for example, my sister is a year younger than me. We grew up playing He-Man and She-Ra together, but she was always the real hero. Like, every problem we ever had, we’d go to her for guidance and strength. I tried to pour all of that into the character of Samantha.
“Some might see all the craziness in this movie and think these are kind of weird love letters to family,” he continues, laughing, “but that’s the best kind I’m capable of writing.”
If the KIDS VS. ALIENS premise sounds a bit familiar, it has its origins in the short “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” Eisener shot for V/H/S 2 in 2013. He revisited the idea with self-made film producer and Bloody Disgusting founder, Brad Miska, who loved the idea. The pair found a willing partner in RLJ Entertainment Chief Acquisitions Officer Mark Ward, and it was off to the interstellar races.
“The truth is, I’ve been wanting to make this movie since I made the short ten years ago,” Eisener says. “It’s been something that’s stayed with me as a general idea. But, in a way, I’m glad there was a delay that allowed it to brew longer. If I had made it right after V/H/S 2 it would’ve been a much different movie. I don’t think it would’ve been as personal or as important to me. There’s a lot of perspective and skill and inspiration that I brought to KIDS VS. ALIENS that just wasn’t there back then.”
Considering most of the cast was likely in diapers circa V/H/S 2 (if not proverbial twinkles in their parents’ eyes) the delay, at the very least, granted them the time necessary to graduate from “mumma” and “dada” to F-bombs. For his part, Eisener says the old W.C. Fields maxim of “never work with children or animals” is bunk.
“What I like about the kids is it’s very much what you see is what you get,” the director says.
“The personalities in real life are pretty much what’s on screen. So for me, it was all about creating an atmosphere on set that felt safe for the kids so that they could feel free to, like, pitch ideas and participate creatively because the machine of a movie can be just so much about constantly solving problems and dealing with nightmares, you know? I mean, in a fun way.
“[Laughs] Yeah. It was important to keep those vibes away from the kids, so they thought of me as approachable and open rather than that guy who’s stressed about everything. They had to have fun or none of it would work. And they were amazing, riffing on ideas constantly – not just for this movie. They have the first couple of sequels plotted out, I’m pretty sure.
“You know, the best compliment I probably ever got?” he continues. “I overheard someone ask a few of the kids on the movie one day, ‘What’s it like working with Jason?’ And they said, ‘He’s like a big kid!’” Eisener lifts his arms in triumph. “Yeah! That’s awesome. Because I want them to feel like I was just one of them – that we’re big kids making a movie with littler [sic] kids.”
And why not?
When something this big happens, you’re gonna talk about it all week at school.
KIDS VS. ALIENS is now showing in theaters and available on streaming and digital from Shudder and RLJE Films.
“One of the things I preach in my work and real life is to be open to the possibility that the things most people say aren’t possible just might be.”