By Clark Collis
March 08, 2013 at 05:04 PM EST

One of the first things future Snowfort Pictures founder Travis Stevens did after arriving in Los Angeles was hit Tom Cruise in the head. “I moved to L.A. with a degree in filmmaking and I thought I would be hired to make films,” he recalls. “Within a couple of months I realized ‘No’. So I started doing work as an extra just to be on a set.” One of the movies Stevens worked on was 1996’s Cruise-starring Jerry Maguire. “There’s this scene where Tom Cruise gets out of a limo and there’s all these reporters,” continues Stevens. “For some reason they gave me this big telephoto lense on my camera and in one of the early takes I smacked him him right in the head. I almost crapped my pants. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve just killed my career.'”

As it happens, Stevens’ career would turn out just fine. In 2010, the now seasoned film exec founded Snowfort Pictures, a boutique production company specializing in smarter-than-average — or so-called “elevated” — genre movies, and immediately impressed horror fans with A Horrible Way To Die from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (the pair responsible for this summer’s much-tipped You’re Next). Stevens now has two films debuting at this month’s SXSW — the rather self-explanatory Big Ass Spider and the black comedy-thriller Cheap Thrills — and a number of other projects in the pipeline, including the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune and the revenge movie American Muscle.

We asked Travis to walk us through his upcoming slate of movie mayhem.

BIG ASS SPIDER

This Mike Mendez-directed tale of an outsized arachnid stars JJ Abrams favorite Greg Grunberg and has its world premiere at SXSW on March 11.

TRAVIS STEVENS: [Laughs] Isn’t it nice to just be direct? Patrick Ewald and Shaked Berenson at Epic Pictures Group had a script called Dino Spider. It was a monster movie and it followed the TV movie structure and format. To their credit, they said, “We want to do something cooler than this.”  I liked that challenge.  I was like, “Why hasn’t there been a cool monster movie?”  Not to be cynical, but the majority of those movies are being made because there’s a financial model there. Nobody cares about what people will think of that movie in 10 years, 20 years. It’s, “Hey, if we make it for this price we can sell it to this channel for X amount and all make a profit and move on to the next.” So we started a 9 month development process to take that monster movie template and have it be cool, have it be fun. The result ended up being this goofy adventure in the vein of Tremors.

CHEAP THRILLS

The directorial debut of E.L. Katz, stars Innkeepers lead actors Pat Healy and Sara Paxton, David Koechner (Anchorman), Ethan Embry (Can’t Hardly Wait) and Amanda Fuller (Last Man Standing) and was produced by Stevens with Gabriel Cowan and John Suits of New Artists Alliance. It plays at SXSW tonight.

TS: It’s about two down-on-their luck guys who meet a wealthy couple and over the course of one night they start playing a game. We spent two years really working on the script so that when the real dark stuff starts happening, the audience are playing along themselves and understand a bit more why the character is doing what he’s doing.

I think audiences are going to flip out because we’ve got David Koechner, who‘s mostly known for these big mainstream comedies, and he’s hilarious in this movie, but he’s playing this darker character. Ethan Embry, that everybody remembers from these mid’-90s movies where he’s this cute, adorable little kid, he plays a bad ass. He’s f—ing phenomenal. People are going to watch him and be like, “Where’s this guy been for the last ten years?” And then Pat Healy, who’s the lead, he’s just a great actor who now has a part that he’s going to shine in. And Sara Paxton and Amanda Fuller are in it and they are different sides of the same coin: Amanda Fuller plays Pat Healy’s wife and she’s sort of the heart of the movie and Sara plays [a character who’s] almost like a sociopath, who’s so rich and so numb to life that the only thing she can do to feel anything is to set up this dark game.

Next: “It has everything that I love in the world: Naked tattooed chicks riding motor cycles with Uzis and a bad a– guy who doesn’t really speak too much.”

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE

Documentary which details how director and cult icon Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) gathered together a goup of talented artists — including Alien designer H.R. Giger and late Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon —  for his ultimately unsuccessful mid-’70s attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune for the big screen.

TS: That’s an interesting subject because it’s “What if?” What would that movie have been like? And when you start seeing the production designs that were being created for it and the storyboards you start noticing that, “Oh, wow — some of that imagery ended up showing up in Star Wars and Prometheus.” It takes on mythical proportions.

Jodorowsky brought together this group of talented artists who had been spread out all  over the world  for almost two years they worked together. So when opportunities came up after Dune fell apart, they stuck together and they worked on stuff together. Alien is what it is and they created new stuff for Alien, but that relationship never would have happened had it not been for Dune.

For us, it was just exciting to sit down with Jodorowsky — who’s this filmmaker who is so mysterious and out-there — and to have him walk us through that story. We took a lot of the storyboards and we’ve animated them and really brought his vision to life. H.R. Giger is in the film. The French producer, Michel Seydoux, is in the film. Everybody’s in the film except for Dan O’Bannon and Moebius. They both recently passed. We have Dan O’Bannon’s wife in the film and she’s been really gracious in helping us with letters from Dan during that period. So we tried to have their voice in the film even if they are not in it. We’re finishing it up right now. The goal is to premiere at Cannes.

AMERICAN MUSCLE

Bananas-sounding revenge fantasy directed by Ravi Dhar and produced in conjunction with Jeffrey Giles and Michael Lurie of Paradise City Pictures.

TS: I feel it’s my most personal film because it has everything that I love in the world: Naked tattooed chicks riding motor cycles with Uzis and a bad a– guy who doesn’t really speak too much. We drew upon all of the iconography from movies that we loved, whether it’s Mad Max or Bronson and we just put it together in a simple revenge story. The movie’s about a guy, who’s been in prison for ten years, gets released, and over the next 24 hours kills every single person who had a hand in him going to jail. He’s just a shark moving straight forward — just chewing through everybody in front of him.

We shot it out in the desert — friends, families, grabbed some genre actors who are friends. Hopefully it’ll be done in the next month or so and we aim to premiere in the early fall.

STARRY EYES

Chuck Palahniuk-supported tale of Hollywood Satanists from writer-directors Dennis Widmyer & Kevin Kölsch.

TS: It’s about a struggling actress in LA who finally gets her big break, gets offered a part in a movie, and it turns out the production company are a bunch of Satanists. In order to get the part she has to perform a sexual act on the producer and he basically impregnates her with this demon. The idea to do this take on Hollywood was very appealing and we’ve just launched a Kickstarter campaign to explore how crowdfunding works. On that project we [have been] blessed to have the generosity of Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club. He’s a big supporter and [as one of the Kickstarer  prizes] you can get thanked in his next novel.

I’ve seen two movies over the last year that friends did that were fully financed from crowdfunding. When you have that freedom to make choices based on creative freedoms and not financing reasons—like, you don’t need to put this actor in it because he’ll get you an extra five grand from Germany—that’s liberating. I’m curious to see if that becomes a viable way to go about making these lower budget genre films.

Read more:

SXSW: Rose Byrne, Rafe Spall and an awful first year of marriage — EXCLUSIVE

SXSW 2013: Nikki Reed, Jake Hoffman explore dubstep’s underbelly in ‘Snap’ — VIDEO

SXSW: First look at Ken Marino in the comedy-horror movie ‘Milo’ — EXCLUSIVE

SXSW: Check out the shlock-tastic poster for home video documentary ‘Rewind This!’ — EXCLUSIVE IMAGE

‘Big A** Spider!’ trailer features a big a** spider — VIDEO

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