“Murder In The Woods” Creators On The Making Of A Multicultural Slasher

After winning 9 awards and selling out festival theaters, Murder In The Woods is getting a digital and VOD release on September 18th.

Murder In The Woods is a bloody thrill ride, with an exclusively POC cast that aims to breathe new life into the slasher genre. What begins as a simple teenage birthday party getaway turns into a blood-soaked mystery full of chills, thrills, and the appearance of a mysterious sheriff played by none other than Danny Trejo (Machete, Breaking Bad).

I had the pleasure of speaking with the film’s director, Luis Iga Garza (The Call), and its producer/writer, Yelyna De Leon (Will And Grace, A Better Life) about the making of this exciting new slasher. 

The Geekiary: Without giving too much away, I must say that the film both feels like a loving tribute to horror classics while simultaneously throwing in twists and turns that feel fresh. How did you approach making something new in a classic genre?

Yelyna De Leon: Slashers are my favorite genre of horror because it allows room for comedy. And when things start to get scary, I know I always need some comedic relief. Another favorite genre of mine is the whodunits…I imagined making a fun film that I would have loved to watch while I was growing up, albeit one with Latinx and multicultural actors portraying non-stereotypical, lead roles. The twists and turns are hard to talk about without giving spoilers; however, I will say that since the entire cast are POC, you will have to keep guessing who’s next, because usually it’s the token POC that goes first, but here you just don’t know.

TG: Okay, big question, what was it like working with the legendary Machete AKA, Danny Trejo. How did he get involved?

Luis Iga Garza: Working with Danny Trejo was an amazing experience. Having him on set makes everyone bring their “A” game…Even though he is an “A” list actor, he does not act that way at all. He is always open to helping others. He is a mentor and a springboard for other young talent. When Yelyna and I were developing the story, we made this role for Danny Trejo from the beginning, we had no plan “B”…

I met Michael, his right-hand man at an event. Then he introduced us to Danny’s agent and we finally made an offer. Since Danny is a very busy man, four days before we needed Danny on set, we still had not heard back on a confirmation from his team…By a miracle, Yelyna ran into him at a restaurant and approached him 3 days before we needed him. She spoke to him and 3 hours later, we heard back from his team with the confirmation. Danny is such an inspiration and a true example that hard work and dedication pays off.

TG: One of my favorite things was the incorporation of these characters’ cultural and even religious leanings in the plot. There are even passing allusions to Spanish folklore. Tell me about your own cultural background and how this experience played into the creation of this film?

Leon: Murder in the Woods is a love letter to my grandmother…When I was a kid, we would take a long, and I mean long 36 + hours ride on the Greyhound from Chicago to Mexico, and it was always late at night while crossing the twenty-hour isolated roads of Texas that my grandma would tell me Spanish folklore and horror bedtime stories…What I loved about her stories was that they always had a moral and lesson to be learned. So when writing this film, I really delved into those memories of being hella scared on that bus…

As for the cultural references, I write what I know. As a storyteller and actor who has myself played stereotypes in the past, it was really important for me to write archetypes that were universal but relatable and could be played by Latinx actors. Representation matters and being able to be the writer and casting director in this film really made sure that we could show authentic moments that many POC have commented having which made it even more enjoyable for them.

TG: One of the highlights of the film, for me, is the inclusion of older Latino actors like Danny Trejo and Soledad St. Hilaire. It almost feels like they are passing the torch to these young up and coming actors in this film. What was it like working with this cast of kids?

Garza: I’m super proud of all our Murder In The Woods cast. Everyone brought their “A” game…As a first-time feature-film director/producer it was an amazing learning experience having the opportunity to see the difference in how to direct pros like Danny, Soledad, Kurt, and Rolando in comparison to super talented up-and-coming young actors. Some of our young cast members already had feature film/TV experience and it was very similar working with them than with the veteran cast…I had to show them that I was confident and in control to transmit that confidence to them.

TG: You, like many filmmakers, had to face the challenge of releasing a film during COVID-19. What were some of the struggles you faced, and how did you overcome them?

Leon: Talk about making the impossible, possible. Originally we had about 100 theaters slated nationwide for Murder In The Woods, and then COVID hit, so we thought it was a wrap, for this year at least. But then the opportunity came for us to distribute and screen in drive-in theaters. So we knew it was now or possibly never…Luis and I set out to make the slasher film that we wish we could have watched growing up. So the drive-in offered the perfect setting to have a nostalgic feeling while watching this fun throwback slasher.

We have had, and continue to have, a lot of struggles, mostly regarding theaters being open one minute then closing again. So it’s literally been a day to day type of living and waiting to see if we will be held over in a theater or if the theater is really going to be open. Which has made it extremely hard to market and let people know where we are playing. Because that could change in an hour, literally.

TG: Can you recommend any other Latinx horror films that audiences may have overlooked?

Leon: One of my favorites is a 90’s film by Guillermo Del Toro called Cronos

Garza: There are many great Latino horror films in Spanish made in Mexico, Spain, Central and South America. One of my favorites is El Orfanato (The Orphanage) by J.A. Bayona from 2007.

TG: Tell me about your relationship with the horror genre. Were you always fans? Do you have a favorite horror film?

Leon: A lot of my childhood memories revolve around watching and re-watching scary films…A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Poltergeist, Friday the 13th, The Exorcist, Child’s Play…Battle Royale, and Misery are also in my top favorites.

Garza: From the USA, I grew up watching slashers…I would go watch to theaters on dates as a teen in Mexico and I always developed crushes to some of the actresses, so I have great memories of this genre. In Mexico I loved watching El Santo films, two of my favorites are Santo Contra Las Momias de Guanajuato and Santo contra Las Mujeres Vampiro.

TG: Do you have any new projects you are working on or hope to pursue that you would like to tell us about?

Leon: I was scheduled to direct a film this summer that I wrote called “Bringing Up Julio,” about a “Karen” and a Mexican boy; however, the world shut down and now with the new budget increases of about 25% due to new safety protocols, I am like everyone else, “in hurry up and wait” mode.

Garza: As an independent filmmaker, you always have to have 20 irons on the fire to and see which one goes first. So, I have a multitude of films and TV projects in this and other genres that I’m developing, pitching, and fundraising. One of them is a horror film that happens in Louisiana that is more horror and less slasher.

Look for Murder In The Woods, available digitally and through Video on Demand, September 18th. 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maLRhD8wATw]

Author: Seth Troyer

Seth is a Columbus Ohio based writer, musician and filmmaker. He earned his BA for communications and creative writing at the University Of Akron. He has written for Dread Central, the Maddwolf film site, and has contributed to various writing anthologies such as Between The Lines, and Purpled Palm Press.

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