Writer/director Victor Salva is a lifelong, passionate connoisseur of horror films. As he recalls, "My brother and I would watch "Creature Features" with Bob Wilkens as our host -- we'd watch CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and DRACULA (1931) and FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and all the old Universal monster movies, whose power laid in suspense and shadows on the wall. Even though JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001) has a few graphic moments, I tried not to predicate it on gore but rather on suspense and on images that would be hard to forget, not because they're graphic but because they're sort of unnerving and indelible. "
The film was written in 1999, says Salva, "after a summer of watching Blair Witch Project, The (1999) and Sixth Sense, The (1999), and remembering that these were the kinds of movies that I joyously made in high school, never thinking of making any other kind of film. I thought now was the perfect time for me to write my monster movie. I had heard a true story about a traveling couple who were brave enough to investigate something mysterious that they drove by and it turned out to be something quite horrendous. I added the supernatural elements, changed their ages, and thought, 'this would be a good ride that I would like to take. ' It's a really good roller coaster ride that you think could actually be happening to you. Horror movies are visceral, they're about affecting your conscious and your subconscious. I didn't want the characters to be Hollywood clichés like so many horror movies open up with. .. here's the idyllic situation and now here comes the horror. I want their lives to be bumpy and crappy like all our lives, and so we can kind of get into the reality of it, and then have this big force come in and up the stakes. "
In crafting JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001), which has some of the most startling and terrifying images seen on screen in years, Salva was convinced that the film needed to have peaks and valleys so the audience, like the characters, could catch their breath and process what they've just experienced. Says Salva, "JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001) is full of ordinary moments with the brother and sister, and then this thing kind of whams them and then they get a moment of breathing and reassembling and then we wham them again. And we keep taking them to place after place which we think might be their safe haven, but this creature is so unstoppable that he takes every place they go to and turns it just into another place where they're reminded that they're being pursued. "
Salva wrote the screenplay very quickly and was surprised by how quickly it attracted attention. Recalls Salva, "Within a day of sending it out, I had three people interested in making it, which I'd never had happen with a script. Two studios and an independent, which had never happened to me before. I was ready to jump on the first one but my manager said that it would probably be a faux pas not to show it to Francis Ford Coppola, who had produced my very first feature. He has always been my great supporter and I can't say enough about him, but I was almost embarrassed to send it to Francis -- it felt to me like it was way too commercial for Francis. But I wound up sending it to him and he surprised everybody by saying that not only did he want to make the picture with me but that he wanted it to be his first picture for his slate of pictures for MGM-UA, which totally flabbergasted me. "
For Salva, having his mentor Coppola and American Zoetrope behind the project was a dream come true. He was given great freedom to create the movie he wanted to create. As Zoetrope producer Tom Luse recalls, "When Francis visited us here on set in Florida, he talked about how Victor was the perfect person to begin this new slate of films for American Zoetrope. He is a creative force unto himself. He is a writer, he is a director, he has his own special vision of the world. And that's what American Zoetrope is all about, working with creative people, giving them the freedom to make a show within the bounds of budget and schedule, but giving them room to breathe and not feel like there's somebody watching them all the time. And that's certainly been my marching orders from Francis, to allow Victor to create his movie, which is a great thing and certainly not the case with many studios. Victor is allowed the ability to surround himself with other creative people so he can create this kind of very personal vision of terror. "
One of the most important areas that Salva was given control over was casting. He wanted to cast fresh faces, not teen stars -- actors who could create believable characters that audiences would come to without a lot of preconceptions. Says Salva, "JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001) is a great example of a situation where you've got people who really inhabit the characters and come up with really good suggestions that are still on the same page as what I'd written. They help it grow and change into something even more authentic. Gina Philips, who plays Trish, came in and she wasn't going to let me get away with any false moments. She became Trish and said, no, Trish really wouldn't do this, wouldn't do that. She's not a person who would stand by and watch this happen, she'd be more active in this, she'd be more assertive here. And she was absolutely right. "
Gina Philips, who has appeared on "Ally McBeal" and films including LIVING OUT LOUD (1998), did a great deal of preparation for the part. Says Philips, "It was very important for me to know what happened to her, not just five minutes before, the week before, but I actually went back as far as when she was five years old and, and just wrote about it, and what I thought her relationship was with her brother and with her parents. And that way, everything I'm talking about has a little more weight to me, I know what I'm saying. In the scene when I'm on the phone with my parents, I understand that history and that relationship. I actually wrote hundreds of pages, for about six weeks, about everything from what she likes to eat to her favorite music and I feel like I know who she is, I'm confident of who she is. No matter what's thrown at me, I don't have to think about what would Trish do in this situation. I know what Trish would do. I know how she'd react. "
One of the things that attracted Gina to the project was the relationship Salva had written between Trish and Darry, which was partly inspired by Salva's memories of his own relationship with his sister when they were Trish and Darry's ages. Says Philips, "I loved that their relationship was so real. It wasn't your TV or movie brother and sister, where they're saying sweet things to each other all the time. They show their affection in a way most real people do when they're this age. They don't show it by saying 'I love you. ' They show it by hitting each other on the shoulder or saying something sarcastic. And I think that's so real and, and in a way it's more touching. "
Finding the right actor for the all-important role of Darry was crucial. Recalls Salva, "The only thing I'd seen Justin in was GALAXY QUEST (2000). And he really does quite an amazing job in that film, especially when you meet Justin and see that he is not this kid from GALAXY QUEST (2000). We were pressured to take bigger names, of lesser skill in my opinion, but, thanks to Francis, we had the autonomy to hire whoever we wanted, which is rare. And we went with Gina and Justin -- I love the idea that these kids are just breaking. I was thrilled that we got fresh faces, and really, really gifted ones. "
Continues Salva, "When we finally screened-tested them together it was perfect because, quite frankly, Justin is, as Gina describes him, such a boy. And she's very sharp and looking around at things. And Justin is more just experiencing things as they happen to him. Their personalities were so perfectly aligned to their characters that when they did finally get together it was like, yes. They're both sweet but they can really get on each other's nerves; that's great fun to watch. But as this film becomes more and more serious, the one thing the movie doesn't do is let you off the hook emotionally. This movie really shows you the toll that this stuff takes on these kids, because they really start to fall to pieces. They go through stages of trauma and I think it's great for two reasons -- it doesn't diminish the impact that horror has in our lives and ups the stakes because the more you're invested in the characters and the more authentic they feel, the more you're going to care about them and the more you're going to be concerned for them. "
Says Gina, "I auditioned with a few different young men, and when Justin walked in it was like an immediate spark. Right away we felt like brother and sister and everything came off the pages, and it was wonderful immediately. Right away there was that kind of brother-sister thing and as we've gotten to know each other, it's become more and more. In fact, I think he was ready to kill me every time I was in the car with him, it's awful. I have big sistered him to death!"
For newcomer Justin Long, a graduate of Vassar College, getting the lead in Jeepers Creepers (2001) was a tremendous surprise. Says Long, "I loved the script but when I read it, I figured they'd go with someone more well-known, like Freddie Prinze Jr. or another name guy. So I went into the audition feeling super confident because I didn't think there was any chance in hell I'd get the part. But I loved the script and I'm just so glad that it worked out. "
Like Gina, Justin felt that the relationship between his character and Trish was what set the film apart from the recent spate of teen horror films. Says Long, "It's so important that we have that human element because if people don't care about us as brother and sister, the movie won't matter. As great as the special effects are, it's crucial that people care about us and believe that we're real people. And that's been a challenge, making fear real. Having people identify with you going through this traumatic experience has been a huge challenge. "
Salva was thrilled to get one of his favorite actresses, Eileen Brennan, to play the Cat Lady, a role which he wrote with her in mind. "I never thought she would do it because I didn't know what her attitude would be about the material. It is so rare for a writer to actually get someone they've written the part for because it's always the chaos theory as far as getting a cast together at the right time at the right place. "
Brennan, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as an irascible Army sergeant in the hit PRIVATE BENJAMIN (1980), was impressed by the script but was unfamiliar with Salva's work. "So," she recalls, "I asked to see something and they sent me POWDER (1995). It was wonderful, and my sons both watched it and were just thrilled that I was going to be working with the man who had that film in him. "
As someone with three cats of her own, Brennan really identified with the Cat Lady. She readily admits, "I could very well end up that way. No, I really mean that because I just couldn't live without cats. I could not and would not want to. They are the most interesting animals. Cats are something to watch and learn from. And they're very comforting -- like a baked potato. I'm having fun, doing this role which is a bit outrageous. But real, it's real. I love the life of this person. "
According to Salva, one of the "the most complex and most interesting characters in the film is Jezelle, the psychic. " Continues Salva, "Jezelle is based on about a hundred and fifty different women I've seen on this TV program called "Sightings," which is all about supernatural phenomenon, and I watch it addictively. Invariably, in every half-hour, there's some woman sitting in a trailer park eating her Dove bars who can track down missing people for the police. So I decided I wanted a real ordinary woman in my movie who suddenly has this dream and realizes these kids are in danger. She's got pieces missing but she decides to go find these kids and see if she can alter their destiny. She is completely unsure whether her presence there will be able to change anything or not -- and she knows what these kids have ahead of them. And we found a wonderful actress, Patricia Belcher, to play her. "
Casting the actor who would play the terrifying creature who pursues Trish and Darry was a formidable task. Although the creature has only one line in the film, he is a constant presence -- sometimes human-like and other times completely transformed into an eerily otherworldly creature. As written by Salva, one of the creature's most unnerving habits is to sniff his victims to determine their desirability, like a wine connoisseur sniffing the cork of a rare merlot. So, explains Salva, "It was the most bizarre auditioning ritual ever -- we felt that we needed to audition men to come in and sniff us and try and eek out something delicious in one of us. I'd love to edit a tape together of all these auditions because some of them were hysterical and others were truly chilling. But Jonathan Breck, a well-known theatre actor in Los Angeles, shaved his head for the audition, so he walked in completely bald-headed and his eyes just kind of burned out at you and he was very intimidating. And when he came in and did the "sniff test" as we called it, we were scared. Really scared. And we were intimidated. He did this audition and went immediately to the top of the list. He's done a fantastic job. Not only did he have the physical look for the creature but the mindset as well. "
Recalls Breck, "My agent called one day and said they want you to come and read for this character. And I said 'send me the sides,' and they said 'well, there's not really any sides -- we just have a character description for you. ' And so they sent me a couple pages of character description and I had a little bit of time to think about how I wanted to play him. It was really, really intriguing because he has some animal qualities and some human qualities. It was a lot of fun to, to fill in the pieces and put the character together. "
Filming for Breck was a challenge on two levels. First, he was under a cumbersome costume and heavy makeup in the sweltering central Florida heat. Secondly, Salva thought that it would be best if Breck didn't associate with the actors playing Trish and Darry - he wanted their encounters to have a true ring of terror and was afraid that familiarity might soften that dynamic. Explains Breck, "I think it was a great idea because if they got to know me as a person they would see somebody behind the creature, and we really didn't want them to do that. So we didn't have really any rapport personally, and professionally, when we were on set, I was in character, they were in character, and we kept it that way. I think it really created good tension on screen. "
Says producer Luse, "Jonathan is dedicated. We shot in late summer around Ocala, Florida and it was humid, with temperatures often in the nineties. And the costume he wore covered his entire body and could be very, very uncomfortable. I never heard Jonathan complain. He was more than willing to do it -- he spent up to six hours putting it on, and an hour to get it off each day, without complaint. "
Breck credits the special effects crew with getting him through the ordeal. Says Breck, "They've done enough of this kind of work that they know there's a human in there. They need to keep fluids in you, keep a fan on you. I mean, any break that I ever had they had a fan on me, they had liquids in me, and that saved the day, really, because if I didn't have a crew that was so conscious of what was going on, I would have been in trouble. But they're pros. "
The entire cast and crew were unanimous about how much they enjoyed working with writer/director Salva, a process they all described as a true collaboration. Says producer Luse, "Francis is a big believer in giving the creative forces on a film space to work in an environment that allows them to take full advantage of their creativity. Victor prepared this movie on a level that I've never seen a director prepare a movie on. He story-boarded every shot. He critically went through each word in the script. Working with Victor was a joy because he was really deeply committed to every aspect of the film and yet willing to make it work for the movie. I've worked with several writer-directors in the past and what Victor brought to the mix was this spontaneous creativity. Often when you work with writer-directors, they're very married to their work and it's like the Bible, it does not change. But Victor was more than willing to make something work for a scene, take what he could from the actors and the crew. That's quite an unusual mindset for a writer-director. "
Salva's openness to fresh ideas allowed the actors to feel that they could truly have a hand in shaping their characters. Says Gina Philips, "Victor gave me such a gift because he wrote one of the strongest female characters I've ever read. .. she reads like a typical male character. And it was such a luxury to have the director be the writer and someone who's as adaptable as Victor. It amazed me because he has no ego. He wanted our opinions, he wanted our input. If I had an idea, he was always open. You knew he wanted whatever was best for the movie, whatever was best for the characters. It was a great experience. "
Recalls Breck, "Victor and I had a great deal of fun bouncing things off each other and it was a real gift to have the writer on the set. It helped me so much in my development of the character. The first time I read the script, and I don't get easily terrified by stuff, I was sitting in my office, by myself, looking around after I'd turn the page and the hairs on the back of my neck started to go. I knew it was going to be a ball to make it, just because it's just written so well. "
Horror films have been one of the most popular and explored genres throughout the history of film; Georges Mèliès is actually credited with directing the first excursion into horror in 1896, with Manoir Du Diable, Le (1896). For writer/director Salva, JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001) was a return to a genre that had always fascinated him. He recalls one of his inspirations: "In 1971, I must have been twelve or thirteen, Steven Spielberg's DUEL was the movie of the week. No one knew Spielberg at the time but for me, DUEL was one of those movies that just changed your life as someone who loved movies. The film follows some very simple and wonderful kind of suspense guidelines. It's about one man's journey and he is threatened by this big unknowable, unstoppable, force. I don't think I was consciously thinking of DUEL but once I saw the dailies of this big old truck going back and forth, I thought DUEL. For me, it is a loving remembrance of what first excited me about movie making. In fact, our creature is a truck for the first third of the film. He has three forms -- his automotive form, then he has his kind of scarecrow form, and then he has his Harryhausen beast form. They're all three nods to all the things I loved about fantasy and horror movies when I was a boy. I got to do all three monster movies in one. "
The late 1990's was a prolific era of new horror movies, mostly starring teens like the SCREAM (1996) films and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997). For Salva, it was important that his characters seem to live in the real world, which means that they would be familiar with these films. Says Salva, "My brother and sister in JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001) have seen all the SCREAM movies, they've seen all the HALLOWEEN movies, they've seen all the Jason and Freddy movies. They've completely aware of the horror universe but they don't for a minute think that they could actually be part of it. "
Adds Gina, "There's been a lot of horror movies out in last few years but this isn't just a horror movie. The heart of the movie isn't about slashing -- the heart of the movie is this relationship between the brother and sister. The thought of something bad happening to my character is awful but what's much worse for her is when she sees Darry losing it and she sees that he's about to have a breakdown. It's something bad happening to your brother and we watch her dealing with these painful feelings about him. "
"I've always wanted to be in a horror movie," says Justin. "What I love most about this story is the fact that the creature is never really completely explained. And that's what I've been missing. I used to love horror movies and I think that in the best horror movies, the evil thing, the bad guy, is always so mysterious and never really explained. We learn certain things about him, but it's ultimately just this evil sort of entity. We've talked a lot about the nature of evil and if evil exists, and if it does, this would be the personification of it. I think there is a lot of evil, I think people are capable of doing evil things, but I don't believe that man is inherently evil. But I think this thing is. "
For Breck, bringing the horrific creature to life on screen was "a great learning experience, because without words to rely on, you have to paint this picture just by the way you're moving, by the way you're reacting, by the way you're looking. It's been fun because this character is such a primal character. His motivations are really the core of his being. He's a connoisseur and his sense of smell is everything. It's how he decides what he wants to eat -- from just a smell, he is able to discern whether or not someone has something inside of them that he wants. But sometimes it's more difficult so he uses fear to scare them, and it's the pheromones that they let off from their fear that actually lets him smell whether or not he wants a snack or not. I'm very discerning about who I kill and why I kill them. That's why I don't just rush right in there and wipe everybody out and leave. So I really want to make sure that this is the one I want and this is the part of them I want. So I've got to really terrify them. "
Imagining and creating the creature was a creative challenge for Salva, Brad Parker, who did the illustrations and makeup special effects designer Brian Penikas. Says Salva, "Brad came in the first day and he had three or four pictures of the creature based on the script and they were so fantastic. In fact, the first one we saw was just so awesome that we immediately e-mailed it to Francis, who e-mailed us back and said, 'this is great. ' So, Brad played a big role in this because he and Brian know more about monsters than I do. I consider myself a monster movie nut, but these guys could write encyclopedias. The creature is steeped in gothic mythology and symbolism. It was my idea to create a man who wasn't a man, who could dress in such a way that you would think he was until he got right up close to you and you saw that he was not a man at all. I can take credit for the idea of this creature but Brad and then Brian are the guys that really delivered a truly original and indelible creature to the movie, and for that I am forever grateful. "
Recalls Penikas, whose many credits include RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (2000), Austin Powers - The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), and MAN ON THE MOON (2000), "Victor and Brad Parker had been working on designs for about eight months. They knew what they wanted and it was our job to take the design and make changes so that it was practical to do on a human being. The creature is unique because he's fairly humanoid, with the exception of these talons that wrap around from the back of his head to his face, make him look pretty scary.
Penikas was involved in the decision to cast Jonathan Breck as the creature. Says Penikas, "He had a lot of charisma and I thought he had a great look. I knew his facial structure would certainly give the creature an interesting look. Once Jonathan signed on, the producers sent him to our lab in L. A. , and we did a series of body casts and head casts and hand casts and foot casts. We pretty much took molds of every part of Jonathan that we knew would be covered with creature suits or creature makeup pieces. From those casts, we created sculptures that were custom fit to Jonathan. And once the sculptures were approved, we then had to go through a series of mold-making processes to give us our production molds to start fabricating all the parts for the makeup and the suits. For the creature, we built five complete suits and then about ten masks, both stunt masks and masks that Breck wears, as well as numerous prosthetic appliances that we used for the days when we shot close-ups. " Brian, who arrived on the Florida set with a crew of five says, "We brought almost our entire facility from L. A. to Florida so we had the capability of continuing to manufacture pieces and parts as we needed them. Because shooting and locations and weather patterns often require that we change the initial shooting schedule, which can put us into shorter supply. So we brought the whole lab with us and we were manufacturing while we were also making the movie as well. "
Despite the sophisticated effects, at its heart JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001) is a character-driven film that takes the audience on a terrifying emotional journey. Says producer Luse, "I think that this is a movie that will hit an emotional chord with audiences and resonate inside them. Some movies are just kind of like an amusement park ride, a roller coaster or a Ferris wheel. This movie is deeper, it takes us to a place inside ourselves that is primitive and where primal fear exists. "