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First Person: ‘Frozen’ Director Adam Green Explains How He Made a Sitcom for Horror Fans With ‘Holliston’

First Person: 'Frozen' Director Adam Green Explains How He Made a Sitcom for Horror Fans With 'Holliston'

Filmmaker and actor Adam Green is best known for his work in the horror realm. He wrote and directed 2006’s “Hatchet,” which won both the audience and jury awards at Fantastic Fest and went on to spawn two sequels, the second of which opens in theaters on June 14th. His 2010 “Frozen,” which stranded a trio of unlucky friends on a ski lift after the resort closed, premiered at Sundance and received a theatrical release from Anchor Bay shortly after, while his upcoming documentary “Digging Up the Marrow” will explore genre-based monster art. But his television show “Holliston,” set to start its second season on FEARnet on Tuesday, June 4, is something different — it’s a sitcom (laugh track and all), albeit a highly personal one about and for horror film fans. Green explains how he ended up reimagining the traditional sitcom for an unexpected audience — lovers of genre fare.

When I first graduated college with my degree in TV and film production from Hofstra University, I was ready to storm Hollywood, take a meeting with my directing idol Steven Spielberg and throw my hat into the ring as a candidate for helming either the next “Jurassic Park” or “Harry Potter” installment. Instead, I found myself back in my hometown of Boston making extremely low budget cable commercials for such prestigious clientele as Castle Creek Miniature Golf in Salem, MA and Mike’s Gym 3 in Medford, MA (not to be confused with Mike’s Gym or Mike’s Gym 2).

Not exactly my dream job or what I envisioned I’d be doing upon graduating college, but hey, everyone has to start somewhere, right? One of the perks was that I was able to “borrow” the company’s equipment and make my own projects, one of which included a feature-length comedy called “Coffee & Donuts” that I somehow managed to pull off for a meager $400 total budget.

They say “write what you know,” and that’s what I did. “Coffee & Donuts” was an autobiographical story about “Adam,” his pursuit of a career in entertainment against all odds and his struggle to get over his high school girlfriend, the odds of which were even worse. Having no access to a professional crew, I enlisted friends and co-workers to help me make the movie, which I not only wrote and directed but also produced, shot (a lot of), edited, scored and starred in.

The only other actual filmmaker I had with me was my fellow cable commercial producer (and now my business partner in ArieScope Pictures and cinematographer of 15 years) Will Barratt. Back then (in 1998), there was no easy access to an AVID or other consumer quality computer editing system, so the movie was cut tape-to-tape (it was shot on BetaSP — remember that format?) and was made as “old school” as it gets. Low and behold, the movie turned out to be something special — the genuine heart and comedy of it were enough to win “Best Picture” at the Smoky Mountain Film Festival, which is kind of like Sundance, only no one has ever heard of it and I don’t think it exists anymore. I headed to Hollywood in 2000 armed with a feature film that I just knew the studio executives would be fist fighting in the streets over.

Over the next three very painful years, the only fist fighting I saw were the bar fights at the Rainbow Bar and Grill on the Sunset Strip, where I worked as a DJ trying to make ends meet. The Rainbow is a legendary heavy metal hangout where the patrons still party like it’s 1989 and come out to play every weekend in the same spandex, glitter, and offensively hairspray molested hair that they wore 30 years ago.

You haven’t truly seen a bar fight until you’ve seen two 50-year-old men in women’s clothing throw down over which Dangerous Toys album was the best. (And I know what you’re thinking… “Dangerous Toys had more than one album?” Yes. They had four studio albums and a live record, to be exact. File that under “Smoky Mountain Film Festival” in your cabinet of useless knowledge.) Point is, nothing was happening with “Coffee & Donuts,” and the closest I came to working in the industry was dancing in a JLo video. (Before you ask — no, I am not a dancer. Dangerous Toys was my first concert — see above.) The music video production offered free pizza, and back then, that was like striking gold, so in many regards, I had “made it.” I didn’t have to eat leftover food out of the trash at the Rainbow… at least not that night.

With perseverance and a little luck, I was eventually able to get “Coffee & Donuts” in front of the right people, and together we re-developed the project to be a multi-camera sitcom. Something I could never admit up until now is that having my own sitcom to write, direct, show-run, produce and star in was actually my secret fantasy. How do you admit that to another sane human being, though? You don’t.

Once it was made clear to me that I’d only be serving as the writer on the pilot (I wouldn’t even be considered to direct or star in the project), I had made my first sale and I had finally “arrived” in the Hollywood machine. Touchstone was the studio, Tom Shadyac’s Shady Acres were the producers, and UPN was the network — after all, what says “suburban New England white boy chasing his dreams and living through situational romantic follies” like UPN? I got paid a whopping $50,000 to write the pilot, with which (after taking out commissions for my agent, my manager, my lawyer and taxes for my country) I bought myself my very own pizza. No dumpster diving for me that night!

But “Coffee & Donuts” was not meant to be. After telling me that the show was not really “urban” enough (no joke, I was the only one who didn’t see that coming), UPN merged with the WB to form the CW and all development was lost. It would be five long years before my life’s story rights would revert back to me. But every cloud has a silver lining…

During the development period for “Coffee & Donuts” I’d find myself unable to sleep as I anxiously awaited notes on each draft of the pilot script. It was during this time that I wrote “Hatchet,” a slasher movie that I’d been conjuring up in my young brain since first attending summer camp at the tender age of eight. “Hatchet” (which told the tale of deformed swamp monster maniac “Victor Crowley”) was very reminiscent of the ’80s slasher films on which I grew up.

As a lifelong horror fan, it was essentially my answer to the current state of a genre that had lost its sense of fun and had become all about remakes and torture porn. I proudly showed the script to my agents, who were confused by the fact that “Hatchet” was both a comedy and one of the most violent and gruesome things they had ever read. They didn’t get it.

If there is one constant to my life, it is that you cannot tell me “no.” So as soon as they said “no,” I was off and running on a mission to get “Hatchet” made independently by any means necessary. I had to prove that horror and comedy could indeed mix (if done right) and that there were legions of other genre fans out there just like me who wanted a taste of the good ol’ days again. We didn’t become horror fans because we wanted to watch women get raped on screen or someone get strapped to a chair and tortured. We didn’t want to see every single movie we grew up with get remade with major studio polish. We wanted entertainment, fun, fantasy and a good time at the movies. Two years later, “Hatchet” was made with private equity of about $1.5 million and unleashed at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006.

The film turned out to be quite a success, and it lead to me getting the chance to make more films like “Spiral,” “Grace” and “Frozen.” I had a career, a fanbase and a name within the horror genre. Naturally, it was time to dust off my original passion of passion projects and try yet again to get my sitcom made. Enter FEARnet, a brand new cable network catering to horror fans but (at the time) only showing old movies and re-runs of other licensed genre series.

In my effort to always fit a square peg into a round hole, I brought them my idea for “Coffee & Donuts.” Only now, I had a track record and a following. I had shown how horror and comedy could work together if handled correctly. I even had the chutzpah (that’s Yiddish for “chutzpah”) to admit that I didn’t want to only write and direct the show, I wanted to play the lead character, produce it and show-run it. Somehow, perhaps by accident, they said yes.

The horror audience is misunderstood. Execs tend to think that all we want are stories with blood and guts, disturbing imagery, jump scares and bone-chilling horror. They forget that we are people, too. But FEARnet “got it” and even more importantly, they had the balls to think outside the box and come out swinging with the most unexpected of shows… a horror/comedy sitcom. (Or maybe I was just willing to do it cheaply enough and there were no better options on the table at the time.) Now re-developed to be even closer to my life, starring my real best friends as versions of themselves (we even keep our real first names on the show), and re-titled “Holliston” (after the town in which I grew up, where the show is set), you can imagine the collective head-scratching online when this endeavor was announced as my next project and FEARnet’s first original series. 13 years later… my dream project came true.

“Holliston” is about “Adam” (played by me) and “Joe” (played by fellow genre filmmaker Joe Lynch), two best friends living in a small New England town and aspiring to become famous horror directors, all while working at a local cable advertising station and learning how to deal with life, career and the opposite sex.

“Adam” is still trying to come to terms with his break-up with his childhood sweetheart “Corri” (played by Corri English), while “Joe” is madly in love with his adorable yet artistically morbid Colombian girlfriend “Laura” (played by Laura Ortiz). Their boss at the cable station is a cross-dressing glam rock-loving aging rocker in a Van Halen tribute band named “Lance Rockett” (played with ninja-kicking, pitch-perfect perfection by none other than Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider) and “Adam” even has an imaginary alien monster living in his closet (played by GWAR’s “Oderus Urungus”) who is his horrible guardian angle of sorts, dishing out the worst advice possible whenever “Adam” needs it most. It’s just like “Big Bang Theory,” “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” only not at all.

It’s a traditional multi-camera sitcom performed with earnestness — it relishes in being a sitcom, right down to the set design, classic (albeit twisted) story lines (in season two “Adam” dates an 11-year-old girl whom he believes to be of legal age) and a studio audience laugh track. Featuring cartoonish violence, frequent fourth wall breaks and using some of horror and comedy’s biggest names as guest stars (John Landis, Seth Green, Kane Hodder, Brian Posehn, Tony Todd and Danielle Harris, just to name a few), “Holliston” aimed to be like nothing anyone had seen before, yet exactly like any major network sitcom in terms of familiarity and playability. We didn’t know what to expect the initial reaction to be, as typically horror and sitcoms just don’t mix. Would horror fans even give a sitcom a shot? Would mainstream audiences watch a sitcom that frequently interrupted sweet and heartfelt moments with an exploding head or two? You never know until you try.

The morning after our second episode aired, we were greenlit for a second season. It was surreal — and the reactions both among critics and fans were astoundingly positive and passionate. I was receiving full-on “thank you” letters. What was most interesting in the feedback was that “Holliston” fans weren’t writing about their favorite horror references or gore moments in the show, they were writing in with their own stories of struggles to chase a dream, their personal tales of heartbreak over a relationship and how grateful they were to see horror fans portrayed as real, funny characters. Horror fans were no longer the punch line or the sight gag. We were finally front, center and, most of all, relatable.

I wish I could say that the series has struck a nerve simply because of my genius writing, brilliant directing or the cast’s Emmy Award-worthy acting, but the truth is that “Holliston” is purely and simply a sitcom made for a very large and un-catered to demographic that’s been waiting for a show like this for a long time.

Best of all, when we do appearances or live readings at various horror conventions, we now find that a good portion of the fans who come to see or meet us don’t even consider themselves horror fans. When asked what other shows they watch, they answer “Big Bang Theory” or “How I Met Your Mother” — major network sitcoms. And that (to me) is the greatest compliment we could get.

Hollywood is well aware of the money to be made at the box office with genre films, and with the success of horror-themed hour-long dramas like “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story,” the industry can clearly see that horror has a loyal and rabid audience. So maybe it’s just time for horror and comedy to mix in a traditional half-hour multi-camera format, I don’t know. But a sitcom’s success is built on its identifiable and enjoyable characters, and if anyone in the TV audience knows what it’s like to have their dreams crushed, to be rejected, to not get the girl/guy, or to feel like an outsider… it’s us. That’s why horror is a community. You don’t see romantic comedy conventions. But you do see horror conventions all year round all over the world.

Could “Holliston” exist on a major network? Absolutely. Would it have survived the development process intact and had the impact it’s having now? I don’t know. But the show is just getting started, and what we’ve created so far is only a sample of what the series can and will be regardless of where it is seen or how large or small the network is that carries it. This past March, the cast and I did a live performance of an episode at a horror convention in Cincinnati. It was the largest all-horror convention ever held, with about 17,000 fans in attendance.

Being up against “The Walking Dead” (a series I adore and whose cast was also appearing at the very same convention), we didn’t know if anyone would bother to attend our panel. However, when we finished our performance and looked up at the crowd that had packed the enormous panel hall… well, this photo that we snapped from the stage says it all:

The journey, the rejections, the setbacks, the starvation, and the poverty… it was all worth it for a moment like that. Season two premieres on FEARnet on June 4th, and while the future of any television series is always unknown, I can only hope that the industry starts to take notice of not only how special this show is, but also how insanely loyal an audience can be when you take a chance and give them something new every now and then. Keep taking chances — some will miss, some will hit, and some may take 13 years to get their shot. But (much like the central theme of “Holliston”) you can’t give up and let anyone else’s negativity disenchant your spirit or change you.

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