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Cleveland filmmaker Roger Conners’ story is familiar to most Midwest scary movie fans. Inspired at a young age by iconic Midwest horror masters like George Romero and Sam Raimi, Conners couldn’t wait to make movies of his own.
“Romero made a name for himself from the bottom up,” Conners says, underscoring Romero’s iconic contribution to the modern-day zombie genre. “I would love to have that kind of impact and influence at some point, but right now, I’ll settle for just getting my films completed and out there to the public.”
Conners’ latest project is MEAT: The Movie, a horror slasher with a bit of a twist.
“MEAT follows the classic, tried and true, old-school slasher formula while incorporating a cast of unique and diverse individuals who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Conners explains. “If you like horror movies, chances are you’re going to find a lot to love here. And if you love and support the queer community as a whole, you’ll probably be in the same boat!”
We sat down (by email) to chat with Conners about his filmmaking journey and to find out just how hardcore horror MEAT truly is.
Midwest Movie Maker (MMM): Share a bit about your filmmaking journey. What initially sparked your interest in movie-making?
Roger Conners (RC): I grew up performing on stage all around the greater Cleveland area, so acting was something I naturally developed a great passion for at an early age. My mother passed away from cancer when I was 18, so I was seeking a means to vent those feelings and frustrations. Acting in film, especially within the horror genre, proved to be extremely cathartic and a great tool to help me get through that experience and deal with the emotions that stemmed from it.
MMM: Your filmography includes a diverse range of projects. Could you highlight a few key moments or experiences that have shaped your filmmaking style and perspective over the years?
RC: My first film, Hellementary: An Education in Death, premiered on Chiller back when that was a thing. Sadly, it never saw a physical release, but that definitely kickstarted my career within the genre.
The first time I was assistant director on a project was on the set of Chill: The Killing Games, a film I still hold close to my heart despite our lack of experience at the time. You’ve gotta start somewhere, right?
My directorial debut was a film inspired by the works of George A. Romero entitled Rebirth which can be streamed on Amazon Prime and Tubi. Filming Rebirth was a long and trying experience, and I’m proud that we saw it through to completion.
My sophomore effort MEAT is certainly going to be the first film I’ve released that feels like a fair and complete representation of my abilities as a director.
MMM: Were there any filmmakers, mentors, or films that have significantly influenced your creative journey and your approach to filmmaking?
RC: Romero was the first filmmaker to inspire me to create cinema of my own. He started a grassroots production company and built a career and a name for himself from the bottom up. His works went on to define the modern-day zombie genre and the rules that apply to it.
I would love to have that kind of impact and influence at some point, but right now, I’ll settle for just getting my films completed and out there to the public. Other directors who inspire and influence me include John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, and Dario Argento.
MMM: Can you elaborate on your creative process, from the inception of an idea to the final stages of production? How do you ensure your creative vision is translated effectively onto the screen?
RC: Luckily, I work alongside an amazing team of fellow creatives whom I comfortably and confidentially bounce ideas off of and turn to for advice. My sets are extremely collaborative, and I operate with the mindset that no film set can be properly and confidently operated by just one person.
My team on MEAT includes Zach Shildwachter (AD, co-writer, executive producer), Michael Kunz (director of cinematography), and Shannon Marullo Ahlstrand (executive producer). We oversee a beautiful and diverse team of literally hundreds of people who have helped us bring MEAT to life.
MMM: You’ve acted in nearly 40 films. How has your experience as an actor informed your decisions and choices when directing?
RC: Oh, it has such an impact, especially when working directly with my talent. I’m an actor's director, first and foremost.
I try to really take time with my talent to help nurture their character and the journey they’re on throughout the film. I try to inspire my actors to delve deeper within themselves to find connectivity with the character they’re portraying. I also know that, as an actor, I’ve had plenty of sour experiences on film sets in which my time has been wasted or I’ve simply felt unappreciated. My goal is to ensure that nobody, cast or crew or otherwise, ever feels underutilized or taken for granted.
MMM: Beyond filmmaking, what other creative interests or hobbies do you enjoy that might contribute to your unique perspective as a storyteller?
RC: I really love costuming and creature design. I do really well with limited supplies and a strong vision. I can normally throw something together in the moment and ensure it looks pretty legitimate. I love to draw in general, so storyboarding is also really enjoyable for me. I love knowing my vision translates to the screen exactly as I pictured it in my mind.
MMM: What are some of the most valuable lessons you've learned that you would like to share with aspiring filmmakers?
RC: The power of pre-production! Planning, planning, planning, and more planning! You simply cannot be prepared enough because inevitably something is going to go wrong, and you need to be ready to pivot at a moment's notice.
And make sure you take the time to work on other filmmakers' sets. Even if you don’t learn anything new or constructive to take away from it, chances are you’ll learn something NOT to do, and that’s often just as important if not more so!
MMM: Tell me about MEAT.
RC: MEAT follows the classic, tried and true, old-school slasher formula while incorporating a cast of unique and diverse individuals who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. If you like horror movies, chances are you’re going to find a lot to love here. And if you love and support the queer community as a whole, you’ll probably be in the same boat!
MMM: On your IndieGoGo page, you describe MEAT as a passion project. Can you share any personal anecdotes or moments that solidified your determination to bring this particular story to life?
RC: Well, for years I wanted to pursue this endeavor but was simply too scared to do it. I was afraid of the pushback I might get from mainstream horror fans.
Nowadays, I frankly just don’t give a crap. I’m queer. The people in my life are predominantly queer. I’m going to write material based upon and inspired by my own experiences, and if someone doesn’t like that it’s simply not a film that they need to see. It’s as simple as that.
Accepting and embracing this newfound lack of concern regarding others' opinions about my lifestyle - and my art that’s directly influenced by it - was necessary and hugely developmental for me as both a filmmaker and as a self-identifying gay man in general.
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RC: I really wanted to lean into the drama with MEAT. I think a lot of queer cinema as a whole tends to veer into camp territory, especially within the horror genre. That’s all fine and great but it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.
I wanted to explore the lives of characters who feel real and authentic and are going through truly relatable life struggles. They also happen to be the focus of a masked killer's vengeful obsession while they’re doing it.
MMM: Can you talk a little bit about how you approached MEAT as a genre film
RC: I think one of the things that really needs to be acknowledged is that MEAT very much leans into the cliché stereotypes the horror genre often places on female characters and completely flips the script.
It instead objectifies men through the highly over-sexualized lens that is the male gaze. The only difference here is that this gaze specifically belongs to that of a gay male.
There’s not a single moment of female nudity featured over the course of MEAT, and we’ve certainly made it a point to avoid it. We very much intentionally wanted to depict the female characters in this film as strong, confident, self-assured, and, above all, respected.
But the men in this film are often sexualized, objectified, and made to be treated like meat. And now the title makes that much more sense, am I right? When considering the story we’re attempting to tell, and the hyper-sexualized stereotypes and clichés that have become an all too familiar fixture within this genre, it’s only fitting.
MMM: How do your personal values and experiences shape your commitment to this film?
RC: My goal is and always has been to focus on themes of inclusion and diversity. I was lucky to grow up performing in a beautiful, multicultural, inner-city theatre that instilled in me a strong appreciation and desire for inclusivity and proper representation. The LGBTQ+ community is so diverse and encompasses so many unique individuals and their self-defined personalities, it would be painfully inaccurate and downright offensive to whitewash any project that claims to be actively “pro-queer”.
MMM: Creating a film that is both entertaining and thought-provoking can be challenging. How do you see MEAT contributing to broader conversations about queer representation and visibility in the film industry?
RC: While it is very much a pro-queer film at heart, MEAT is still a violent slasher at its core. We certainly acknowledge that, when categorizing your title as a specific sub-genre with such a massive pre-established following, there comes a high level of expectation.
To put it simply, we need to ensure that the slasher fans have their bloodlust satisfied to keep butts in seats. We hope that this becomes a film that fans of the genre seek out regardless of context, and once they start watching it they ideally become invested enough in the characters and their experiences that they want to root for them regardless of their lifestyles or personal preferences.
I’ve always said that pop culture is the first major stepping stone to introducing a new movement or ideal to the mainstream and opening the minds of those who simply may not have a solid understanding of it. So if my slasher movie also happens to help just one person gain a greater understanding and appreciation for LGBTQ+ culture, I’ll consider this whole experience a great success.
MMM: Could you share a particularly impactful moment or scene that resonates strongly with your vision for the film?
RC: I think it wasn’t until we got to the actual horror material, the meat of the movie if you will, that I realized just how intense this movie really is. Like, the dramatic sequences have been truly beautiful and the talent consistently blows me away with their performances.
But filming those first couple kills was just so hardcore. Like, this is not going to be a PG-13 slasher. This movie is violent and it is scary and it’s both unabashedly gay but also very gritty and gory and raw. That’s always been the goal.
Also, we briefly had RuPaul's Drag Race fan favorite Pandora Boxx on set, and that was one of those surreal moments where I realized “Holy cow, we’re actually doing this and we’re giving it all we’ve got.” It was an amazing shoot day and really cemented for all of us, the whole team, that we mean business and we’re giving everything we’ve got to this project!
MMM: Have you encountered any particularly memorable moments of positive reception or impact from audiences, especially from within the LGBTQ+ community?
RC: My first attempt at including prominent LGBTQ+ themes in any of my work was with Rebirth, which follows the basic structure of the zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, but replaces the female lead with a gay man.
It was a ballsy move and many fans didn’t respond well to it. We got a lot of hate and our IMDb was hit with a lot of homophobic commentary and poor reviews.
But those who truly understand and celebrate the works of Romero are familiar with his talent for incorporating timely social commentary in his films. They understood exactly what my intentions were with my film. Fans showed up in droves to support us, and it definitely felt as though Rebirth reached a significantly larger viewership because of it.
Butts in Seats! Where Can You Watch 'MEAT'?
: How and when can people watch MEAT?
RC: MEAT will hit film festivals spring of 2024. I’m hoping we will have some exciting news regarding our inevitable release prior to that, but we’re realistic and we acknowledge that these things take time. Fingers crossed it will be much sooner than later!
MMM: Anything I missed?
RC: The third and final phase of our Indiegogo campaign is now live. We secured 40% of our goal within the first 24 hours of its launch, and we have until October 31 to not only reach our goal but outdo it and secure the necessary budget that will allow us to finish our film.