INTERVIEW: Co-Writer/Producer Shane Dax Taylor

Death Tunnel: Writer/Producer Shane Dax Taylor
By: Elaine Lamkin


Set for release on February 28, 2006, Philip Adrian Booth’s frightening “Death Tunnel” is based on a true place, Waverly Hills Tuberculosis Sanitarium, located in Louisville, Kentucky and the ghosts which haunt the massive structure to this day. Featured a few years ago on FX’s “The World’s Scariest Places”, the massive 5-story, bat-wing designed building is breath taking to behold. Former Louisville resident, Shane Dax Taylor, who had visited the abandoned hospital as a teenager, thought it would make the perfect setting for a horror movie and he was right. In the tradition of Brad Anderson’s amazing “Session 9” as well as Anthony J. Ferrante’s recent “Boo!”, the lure and legend of abandoned buildings seems to becoming an increasingly popular subject for indie horror. And as a Louisville resident myself, who has also visited Waverly Hills, I can vouch for the creepiness of the place. And there really IS a Death Tunnel…

BD: Hi Shane! It’s great to be talking to a fellow Kentuckian about a horror film actually set in Kentucky. Tell us a little of The Shane Dax Taylor Story – I know you were born in Henderson, Kentucky and graduated from Murray State University. Did you always want to make movies or horror movies specifically?

ST: Hey Elaine, thanks for the interview. To get started, I was born in Henderson, Kentucky but moved to the suburbs of Louisville at 13. I later attended Murray State University, but never graduated from there. At 19 I worked my first game for ESPN, and by 20 I was pretty much traveling the country working any and every sport for the station. That was non-stop travel for the next 7 or so years. I still work some events for them. I always knew I was going to be a filmmaker, or more specifically a director. That never wavered. And to me it doesn’t matter what kind of film, as long as there is an interesting story, be it horror or not.

BD: Your first film, “The Grey” was co-written by Mark Boone Junior who I know from his performance in the marvelous but overlooked horror film “Dead Birds”. How did you and Mark hook up and why a film about cockfighting? One doesn’t hear much about that “sport” outside of the South.

ST: Being the first feature film I directed, I wanted to make something original. I think a film involving cockfighting falls in that category. While attending Murray State, I had the opportunity to attend a cockfight and that underground world always stuck with me. Since this wasn’t something I knew much about, I did a lot of research and wrote my first screenplay for what would later become “The Grey.” Boone and I met through mutual friends as I was showing people the script. I knew of him from films like “Memento” and John Carpenter’s “Vampires,” and I wanted him to play the lead. He agreed, but only if we could flesh out the script more. He ended up being a co-writer and producer. I went on to win the Achievement in Direction Award at the prestigious Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Winning the award made me feel like a true filmmaker for the first time.

BD: For anyone who has spent any time in Louisville, Waverly Hills is something they will hear about eventually. I remember, as a very young child, driving down Dixie Highway and seeing this “castle” way up on a hill and asking what it was. And, of course, my dad, not knowing how vivid my imagination was, would tell us it was an “insane asylum”. What memories do you have of Waverly Hills as you grew up in Louisville?

ST: I didn’t know about Waverly Hills until I was in high school in the early 90’s. I had no idea until later that it wasn’t an insane asylum because that’s what everybody I knew believed. However, I did have the opportunity to sneak into the place with a few friends back then on a dare. This was before they had security like they do now. No words can possibly describe how I felt the first time I saw this massive structure. Let’s just say it was a very short visit. I wasn’t inside long enough to witness anything strange, and it seemed like this place was perfect for a movie. Around that time a local magazine ran an article on the place and I kept it. It was that article that I eventually gave to my “Death Tunnel” partners, the twins, Christopher and Philip, that got the ball rolling for us to make this film.

BD: I have tried to describe “Death Tunnel” as being from the “Session 9” school of horror as both institutions were designed by the same man who, for his time, had progressive ideas for the treatment of mental illness as well as tuberculosis, Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. But “Session 9”, which was filmed at The Danvers State Mental Institution is so much more massive than Waverly Hills, though people who visit Waverly might find that hard to believe. Had you seen “Session 9” when the idea for “Death Tunnel” came to you?

ST: Wow, you really do your research. “Session 9” is a film I really like, and definitely one I had seen in theaters long before the idea for “Death Tunnel” came about. Like Danvers, seeing pictures of Waverly doesn’t do the place justice. You have to see both places for yourself, or watch the films to get a better feel for the eeriness. For those who have seen both films, I think the architecture is the only similarity. Philip’s directing style on “Death Tunnel” is much different than Brad Anderson’s, who I greatly admire for not only “Session 9” but also for “The Machinist.”

BD: How much research did you do on Waverly while writing your script? There is a great site on-line for those interested in more information on the sanitarium: http://www.waverlyhillstbsanatorium.com/.

ST: After the previously mentioned article I shared with the twins, that website was the next place we went. For those of you who haven’t checked out this official site, I highly recommend it. Besides our internet research, we also did numerous interviews with the owners, Tina and Charlie Mattingly, as well as other local historians and even Waverly guards, who all had their own unique first hand stories to tell. These interviews and footage can be seen in the upcoming documentary “Spooked.”

BD: How did you manage to get permission to film the entire movie, with the exception of some early scenes, at Waverly as it’s not in the greatest shape? I’ve been there, on one of the many Halloween tours they give, and a guard accompanies every tour group to insure no one wanders off. And as the place has no electricity…

ST: Well, for anyone who has ever had the pleasure of meeting the twins, this should answer your question. For those who haven’t, these British ex rock-n-rollers could sell ice to Eskimos. They came to Louisville for the theatrical premiere of “The Grey,” met my father, Corky Taylor, who would become executive producer of “Death Tunnel,” and left a few short days later with an amazing location and the funding for the film.

BD: There have been some bizarro plans for Waverly over the years including the notorious “World’s Biggest Jesus Statue” until the current owners put a stop to all that and are trying to restore Waverly. Was filming the movie there incentive for the owners to allow you to shoot on site?

ST: People have to realize that the previous owner told kids to tear the place up. He was more interested in the land and the bricks than the history of the hospital. The current owners are different though. I think our filming there was definitely an incentive for them, if nothing else than to promote their annual haunted house than draws thousands. If there was ever a perfect place to scare people, this was it.

BD: How did you come up with the plot of “Death Tunnel”? To my knowledge, there have been no college “initiations” up there as it’s pretty far from the University of Louisville. And how did you get involved with the Booth brothers – Philip directing and co-writing “Death Tunnel” and Christopher another co-writer? Was that difficult with them not knowing anything about Waverly as well as being British or were you all on the same page from Day One?

ST: I met Christopher and Philip through “The Grey.” They did an amazing job creating the website, trailer, and poster for that film. It was then that I told them about Waverly Hills. After getting permission to film there, we spent numerous hours in different Louisville libraries and on the internet researching the facts, and very early on we created our marketing plan. It started with a great location, but to sell the film we knew we would also need beautiful girls and an excellent website. Later on during our research and interviews we also discovered that local universities, including Louisville, actually had initiations at Waverly.

BD: What was the budget for “Death Tunnel” and how many shooting days did you have? If I remember correctly, you shot during the summer of 2003 and it is not a comfortable “heat” here in Louisville

ST: We shot for a little over two weeks and a budget of around a million dollars. Luckily a majority of the crew was from Kentucky, so even though it was hot and humid, they were use to it. But how bad could it be? We had five beautiful, scantily clad girls running around in a very "cool" location.

BD: I know the story of The Hanged Nurse ghost on the 5th floor but are there really more ghosts there? The Body Collector and The Girl with No Eyes were both pretty horrifying. And who did your SFX makeup for the ghosts?

ST: If you spend enough time in Waverly you are bound to see, hear, or feel something. One time I took a group of people that included a writer from Fangoria Magazine on a tour of the upper floors. We were standing in the middle of a long hallway and I was shining a laser pointer down the hallway. It should go until it hits the end, but something kept breaking up the beam. Suddenly, a couple of us in the back started to feel cold. When we turned around, an object I can only describe as being similar to a ball of light flew towards us in the air. The rest of the group felt the cold too, or maybe it was the cussing, and turned around. The ball of light ended up landing on one of the guys in the crew. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. As far as your question about the special effects, all the credit goes to Ron Karkoska. Ron had already worked with the twins before on their first film, “Shadowbox,” and had other credits including “2001 Maniacs.” He loves challenges and I wouldn’t hesitate to use Ron again.

BD: How did you gather the cast you ended up with? There are really no “names” in the cast, although Jilon Ghai (Mason) was in both “Death Tunnel” and Anthony Ferrante’s “Boo!” which has a similar plot, but everyone did a great job. And I have to ask how you pulled off the scene where Richie (Jason Lasater) is trying to get into the asylum and climbs the fire escape on the “damaged” end of the building where a previous owner tried to dig under the foundation and force the building to collapse. I was horrified just watching him climb that rickety, rusting ladder.

ST: The majority of the cast came from an audition in L.A. However, Jilon is a friend who also attended Murray State. He’s a great actor who will also be in my next film. Steffany Huckaby is an actress I met in L.A. but found out she was from Louisville. We pictured her as the lead from the very beginning. Jason, who did an excellent job, did the fire escape stunt himself. However, it was checked out many times by the crew beforehand. No way would we put an actor in danger like that unless we were 100% sure it was safe.

BD: How much of the actual building were you allowed to use as I know quite a bit of it is water-damaged? And were you able to go all the way to the end of the “Death Tunnel” at the bottom of the hill?

ST: The building was ours as far as shooting wherever we wanted. From a safety and logistics standpoint, we pretty much stayed on the bottom floors, especially since the elevators haven’t worked since the early 80’s. Luckily not one person was injured during the entire shoot. As far as the actual death tunnel, we were able to shoot everything, including all the way to the end.

BD: I was very impressed with the use of period film of Waverly as well as what appeared to be period photographs. Did you have much trouble gathering things like that from the Historical Society?

ST: Christopher found all the historical footage, and what he didn’t find, Philip created. I don’t think there are too many more talented people in all facets of digital film production than those two. They are truly a one-stop shop.

BD: Also, the film’s official site, http://www.deathtunnel.com/, is amazing with its use of vintage photos and stories of the sanitarium. Who designed the site and have you had a lot of traffic on it?

ST: Again, the credit goes to my partners, though I’ve countless hours on the internet directing other people to our site. I learned a lot about internet design and marketing in general from the twins. I would put our film’s website up against anyone’s. Since April of 2004, the site has had just under 3.7 million visitors. This isn’t too bad for a small independent horror film.

BD: Your DP, Marcel Cabrera, captured some amazing aerial shots of Waverly that look vintage. Was it your intent to have this “blurring” between the past and the present with the photography, the music, even some of the costumes the actors wear?

ST: Though Marcel, who was also my DP on “The Grey,” did another excellent job on this film, it was actually Philip who shot all of the aerial footage. It was a pilot, Philip, and myself flying over Louisville as he captured not only some of the best shots in “Death Tunnel,” but the documentary “Spooked” as well. The “blurring” was also well thought out. We wanted to play with audience’s minds as far as not knowing when this film actually takes place.

BD: Somewhere I read that once you started shooting “Death Tunnel”, no one left the sanitarium grounds – that the entire cast and crew lived in trailers on the grounds. Is that true and if so, were there any unnerving experiences for anyone? Any personal ghostly experiences?

ST: I think it only felt like we stayed there overnight. Fortunately for everyone, we did put the entire cast and crew from out of state in a very nice local hotel off site. I don’t think anyone was foolish enough to stay out there overnight, and if they did, they’d be doing it alone. I touched on the ghostly experiences in an earlier question, but there were also other stories from people seeing orbs, hearing strange sounds, to Philip and others actually witnessing the little ghost girl running through the hall.

BD: You filmed a documentary about filming “Death Tunnel” called “Spooked”. When will that be released and what will it encompass?

ST: It looks like the documentary will be coming out on TV or DVD in March of this year. It has a lot of archival footage, interviews with former patients and workers, and first hand stories of real hauntings. It is also loaded with facts and present day footage for those who will never get the chance to truly explore this landmark. Similar to the film, it’s also “A Booth Brothers Documentary” and will have their signature style and music.

BD: What projects do you have coming up? More horror movies or are you going for something entirely different this next time?

ST: I’m very excited about “Purgatory, New Mexico,” which I’ll direct next. It’s a genre film that I’m currently writing with a fellow Kentuckian, George Maranville. He and I will also produce. It’s not so much a horror film as it is a murder mystery with supernatural elements that are inspired by true events. We’ll also be filming in the actual locations that these events took place. A lot of very strange things occurred when George and I went to this small New Mexico town to research the project. I’ll give you more information as we get further along, as we’ll be taking the script out to production companies at the end of January. I’m also signed on to produce a supernatural thriller called “The Puritan” that was written by Eric Poppen, a great genre writer who also wrote Lionsgate’s upcoming horror film “Borderland.” Gold Circle Films, the company behind “White Noise,” and the soon to be released “Slither,” is producing.

BD: What are some of your favorite horror movies?

ST: Maybe it’s cliché, but I’m more of an old school horror fan. “The Shining,” the first “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Halloween” and other original John Carpenter films are what I am drawn to. Carpenter especially, since he’s also from Kentucky, and that was inspiring to me growing up. Of late, I’ll have to agree with you Elaine, in that I hope “Wolf Creek” gets us back to making the genuinely scary films of the 70’s and early 80’s.

BD: Do you enjoy horror fiction and if so, what are some of the titles or authors?

ST: I don’t read as many books as I would like, but the last one I read was Creepers by David Morrell. Fast read and I really enjoyed it. It could easily be made into a great horror film. In place of books I read a ton of screenplays of all genres and magazines such as Fangoria and Shivers, and I honestly check out Bloody-Disgusting on a daily basis.

BD: Is there anything you would like to add about “Death Tunnel” that I haven’t asked?

ST: I just want people to know that this is “A Booth Brothers Film.” It is Christopher and Philip’s vision. My father and I brought them the idea and the funding through our company, Dax Productions, but it’s TwinTalk Entertainment’s creativity and passion that made this film possible.

BD: What is one thing about Shane Dax Taylor that no one knows but you think they should?

ST: My wife Robyn plays Leah in Death Tunnel. We were dating at the time of the shoot, and we needed someone to play a small part, so even though she’s not an actress, she did a great job.

January 2006

by: Elaine Lamkin