In “Cooties,” Elijah Wood stars as an aspiring horror novelist and bumbling substitute teacher at a school abruptly infected by the titular disease, which turns its students into flesh-craving zombies intent on devouring the entire faculty. The movie — which opened the Stanley Film Festival last Friday in a new cut a year after its Sundance premiere and ahead of Lionsgate’s September release date — marks one of several genre titles in which Wood has starred in recent years. It’s also the second one, after 2013’s “Open Windows,” that he’s co-produced through his production company Spectrevision, the genre-friendly effort he runs with filmmakers Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller.
At the Stanley, Wood spoke to Indiewire about the root of his ongoing involvement in genre films, and how he’s managed to work around expectations since his “Lord of the Rings” days.
Over the last few years you’ve been involved in a lot of genre films — not only as a producer with Spectrevision, but as an actor: You starred in “Maniac,” “Grand Piano,” “Open Windows” and now “Cooties.” Prior to that — discounting the “Lord of the Rings” franchise — the only real genre movie you did was “The Faculty.” How do you explain the uptick?
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Some of that is aligned with my own autonomy and growth as a human being. I was 16 when I did “The Faculty.” So I would say the last five or six years of my life feel like a galvanization of my own identity, the things I’m interested in. I’ve always watched horror movies. For a while, the horror genre in the U.S. — at least, from “The Faculty” on — was really a much-maligned genre. It was in dire straights. It came at the end of the Kevin Williamson explosion, when everyone was trying to make a lot of these teen horror films. It carried on for years after that to middling-to-poor results. Then it was fraught with not-great examples of the genre, with the occasional good film.
I barely wanted to do “The Faculty.” The only reason I wanted to do it was because [Robert] Rodriguez was doing it and I knew he’d do something interesting. But that was really coming at the tail-end of that horror film scene. Going into my twenties, I hadn’t come across any good horror films. I feel a bit like I’m on the inside looking out now.
When did you start discovering this community of indie genre filmmakers with whom you now associate?
A lot of it happened out of Fantastic Fest. My first time there was 2010 just as an attendant. I had always wanted to go. My brother had lived in Austin for five years. He started going in 2007 or 2008. He kept telling me about it. I kept missing it. Year after year, he was like, “Dude, you have to go to this festival, it’s the greatest festival in the world.” So I just kept hearing about it. My first experience at Fantastic Fest was that they’d occasionally screen some of the best of the festival afterward. That’s how I saw “Let the Right One In” for the first time. The next year I went to the festival.
How did it affect you?
I don’t think I realized that first year the impact it was going to have on my life. But there’s a real coming together of a community at that festival that’s so unlike any other. It’s not really a buyers market — even though they’ve got a marketplace going now. It’s really a place to commune in one space over film. I was struck by the lack of separation between civilian attendees and the filmmakers. The fact that you could go see a Ben Wheatley movie and tell him that the movie was incredible afterward. There wasn’t this sort of anxiety or tension between the fans and the people bringing their films there. It’s all under this wonderful roof with Tim League as the circus leader.
Now you’ve worked with two filmmakers who are regulars at the festival — Eugenio Mira on “Grand Piano” and Nacho Vigalondo on “Open Windows” — and as a producer of genre films you have other reasons to be there as well. What do you find liberating about working in this scene versus other kinds of projects?
It feels to me like they’re all doing interesting things and I’m just drawn to them. I really approach what I do as an actor from a filmmaking standpoint. It’s not roles that draw me in; it’s filmmakers — unique perspectives and unique approaches from people whose films I love. That’s ultimately what makes me want to work with them. Nacho’s a great example of that. I saw “Timecrimes” and immediately wanted to meet and work with him. Eugenio was someone I met socially at Fantastic Fest when “Agnosia” premiered. Then it was a year later that I got a script he was attached to direct and I thought, “This is incredible.” So were already friends socially.
And you find that process for picking up projects better than, say, going through your agent.
There’s something about the autonomy of it that’s kind of amazing — that you can just have genuine conversations and connect about things, and a creative relationship can spawn from that in a really organic way. That’s an extraordinary thing. It extends to what I’m doing with Josh Waller and Daniel Noah with Spectrevision. There is something about the community — not just as Fantastic Fest, but here at Stanley, too, and the scene at Sitges — it’s a really supportive community. A lot of the people know each other, from producers to filmmakers to writers on down. There’s this sense of friends wanting to work with friends. You see that with Adam Wingard and Simon Barret’s films as well [the team behind “You’re Next” and “The Guest”]. They literally put their friends in their films. That’s the atmosphere for the creative energy coming out of these festivals.
Does this feel like a rare situation for you? It’s not often that you see actors who have reached a certain level of visibility just hanging out on the scene like this.
I don’t think of it that way. It feels very pure to me, because these are the movies that I love to see. These are the kind of movies I want to make and be a part of making. I think I hear what you’re saying, though.
You’re diversifying in other ways. You’ve done TV. You recently voiced the video game “Broken Age.”
Well, that was such a dream for me because I grew up playing Tim Schafer’s games, like “Day of the Tentacle,” “Curse of Monkey Island,” “Grim Fandango,” “Full Throttle.” I think I just have so many interests. That whole thing happened over Twitter. They’d already earned like $4 million, but I was like, “Fuck it, I just want to support it” because I just love those games. I love that style. I retweeted something about it and he sent me a direct message about it. He said, “Dude, thanks. Would you want to do a voice for it?” I was like, “What? Tim Schafer wants me to do a voice for his game? That’s so awesome!”
And now you’re also doing DJ sets. You did a great one on the opening night at the Stanley Film Festival.
It’s something I’ve done for years. Initially, I started with a CD mixer back in New Zealand. That was the first time I’d put two CD’s in and done a cross-fade. I thought it was awesome. I love music, so the idea of playing music I love in a space for which people can hear it loud…I was like, “I’m in.” So I would do it at friends’ bars with iPods for years. Ultimately I moved to vinyl. I recently saw an interview with someone where they were talking about the notion of legitimacy. The first time that came into my head was around the time someone told me that I was good at deejaying. Up until then I was just doing it myself for fun. You don’t take anything seriously until somebody legitimizes you. It was just one of those things where someone — a guy named Chris Holmes, a deejay who’s got a little collective in L.A. — said, “Actually, you do that well.” That made me go, “Oh fuck, maybe I should take it more seriously.”
So you’re doing all kinds of different things. But there’s a line in “Cooties” where Rainn Wilson calls your character — a weak-willed writer — “a hobbit.” How much of that self-awareness do you carry with you?
I don’t. Not really. That’s the nice thing about Austin. It’s such a relaxed vibe. I feel like I’ve always been treated like a local there. I certainly have that awareness of perception, but it’s completely diminished in that world. I don’t feel like it has any cache or that it separates me in a way that’s uncomfortable.
When the first “Lord of the Rings” movies took off as a cultural phenomenon, it must have impacted your expectations for yourself.
Totally. After “Rings,” I had two feelings: One, I immediately didn’t want to work on anything on a large scale. I wanted to work on something really small after I was finished filming the first three. But the other thing was that I had a continuing interest in working on things that were really different. So I guess I didn’t have expectations in terms of where to go next in my career. I don’t often think that way. I lack an intellectual perspective because I operate on such a gut level. So I can only respond to something emotionally — I’m not thinking about it in terms of what expectations for my career could be after “Lord of the Rings.” My only interest was to continue to do different things so that one does not overly associate me with that particular role. That was the only strategy that I had.
But the baggage is still there. The throwaway line in “Cooties” testifies to that.
It is. That line in particular I didn’t want in the movie. I fought it really hard. I thought, “It’s a weird wink operating on a meta level outside the context of the film.” But they were like, “It gets a laugh!” And I was like, “Fuck, it does.” But as far as baggage goes, I’ve never felt hindered by it. I’ve never felt like I couldn’t move forward creatively because of the enormity of what that was. It’s something I accepted a long time ago that I would have with me for the rest of my life, and not with any regret. It’s honestly representative of one of the best experiences of my life.
Still, your current roles do seem to work against the bigger shadow of that franchise.
It’s not calculated. But it does do that, which is a fringe benefit. It couldn’t be more organic. “Grand Piano” literally came about when I got the script and saw his name attached. I just thought it was awesome and I loved his vision for it. We hadn’t been talking about a collaboration. Nacho emailed me as I was going to meet with Eugenio to say, “We’re moving forward on this thing ‘Open Windows’ and we’d loved to have you read it.” So he said, “Maybe we should take a break on ‘Open Windows’ while you’re doing ‘Grand Piano.'” With those examples, it’s a reflection of just how uncalculated it is. I just want to work on things that move me.