Filmmaker E.L. Katz is best known for directing the violent, noir-ish dramas Cheap Thrills and Small Crimes. But he began his career working on the scripts for Home Sick and Pop Skull, two early horror movies directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest). Now Katz has returned to the horror genre by directing all six episodes of Channel Zero: The Dream Door, the fourth installment in Syfy’s creepy anthology show, which was created by Hannibal co-producer Nick Antosca.
On Wednesday’s Dream Door finale, Jillian (Maria Sten) and Tom (Brandon Scott) teamed up with Jillian’s not-so-imaginary childhood friend Pretzel Jack (Troy James) to defeat Ian (Steven Robertson) and his pet monster, Tall Boy. The episode also introduced — and horribly dispatched — a fake Tom summoned into existence by Ian in the hope of becoming intimate with Jillian (who, it is definitely worth pointing out, is his half-sister).
“That was one of my favorite, freakiest parts of the season,” Katz tells EW. “I was like, this is going to be a joy for Brandon to play. This is really disturbing, and I love that he just gets pulped at the end.”
Below, Katz reflects on making The Dream Door and whether viewers might see more of Pretzel Jack.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved in Channel Zero: The Dream Door?
E.L. KATZ: I was looking for a horror writer to collaborate with; I really wanted to do something in the genre, after Small Crimes and Cheap Thrills. I do love noir, but I was a horror journalist, I have a Fulci tattoo, I love horror movies. I had an executive send me one of Nick’s feature scripts. It was just really freaky and weird. It was kind of the same thing as Channel Zero in its own way. I thought, “Wow, okay, this guy is a great voice in the genre, I want to talk to him.” We started an email correspondence and then ended up meeting to get breakfast tacos. He’s just a cool dude, and we talked about all sorts of weird, obscure horror movies. We just stayed in touch.
At one point, we found a short story we tried to collaborate on and turn into a movie feature. I started working on a treatment for it and at one point I was like, “Oh, man, I’m taking forever to turn this in.” I was texting him saying, “Hey, dude, I’m sorry that I’m f—ing up here.” And he was like, “Hey, we’ll get on that, but are you interested in directing a season of Channel Zero?” I was like, “Are you f—ing kidding me? Of course!”
The pilot was just so good, and it was so clear what I’d be latching onto visually, and what the themes were, and the ending with Pretzel Jack, the first kill. It was so vivid. I pitched [directing] it, and before I knew it I as on a plane to Winnipeg. That’s where I was for most of this year.
Pretzel Jack is a homicidal contortionist clown with a very distinctive look. How did you come up with that design, and what was it like working with Troy James?
Okay, so in the script, he pops up and he makes a real impact. But the costume wasn’t really clear, his face wasn’t really [clear]. It was a little bit more mysterious and gave us a lot of room to find him, which really is the funnest part of this stuff. Designing a monster is just so f—ing crazy and cool, and it’s such a dream. But it’s hard. So it was a long process.
We were working with a lot of different concept artists. We started off with Sam Wolfe Connelly, who’s really gifted, and the one thing that he started to capture, which was really nice, was like, okay, this is something that a little girl created. Like, she’s not trying to create Freddy Krueger for herself. She’s not going to create something intentionally scary. It’s just the fact that sometimes this kid draws a picture, if that picture walked out of the page, there’s certain things about it that are kind of wrong. They’re just odd, and they’re threatening in a different context. So it was like, how do you make something that a kid would find comforting but nobody else would? It needs to not be obviously malevolent. And Sam added just this cuteness to the eyes. It was almost like there was something broken about the clown features, but there was just something adorable about the eyes. It was like, okay, well, that’s a start.
When I was looking up contortionists after reading the script, I think I typed in, like, “best contortionist,” and Troy popped up. I was like, “Oh my God, this guy’s incredible.” I sent it to Nick, who said, “Yeah, we’ve worked with Troy [on Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block], he is definitely on our radar.” But we still went ahead and had a casting call. Basically, the audition is, “You’ve just murdered somebody for your best friend, and now you’re going to do a dance to cheer them up and make them not afraid of what’s happening.” We got all these really weird videos. Most of it was wrong in the wrong way. What Troy can do with his body is just insane, and there was no other contortionist that sent their stuff in that was as good. He was the best. There’s something about Troy where he does love horror and he’s well versed in it, but he’s just a sweet guy. He’s really sweet, he’s really innocent, he’s really playful. So even though he can move his body around in this way that maybe can freak people out, there’s just such joy in him. I was like, “Okay, he’s obviously Pretzel Jack.” Because as you get to know [the character] better, eventually he does become that little kid’s best friend character in a genuine way. It was just clear that Troy was able to do that.
Pretzel Jack does become an oddly lovable character. When he’s fighting Tall Boy in the finale, you root for him in the same way you root for Godzilla when he’s fighting some other monster.
Definitely, yeah. You love him. He’s a hero!
What was it like staging those fight scenes?
Well, you’re like, “What is this going to be?” We don’t have the budget to do Underworld. So you have to scale it down. At the end of the day, it is two dudes in a suit, so you have to lean into that. It’s not going to feel magical; it’s going to feel very physical. We had Sean Skene, who’s a great fight choreographer. Basically, every single fight in the whole thing, we tried to crack before we got on set, because you don’t have time on set at this kind of pace to pull it out of your a—.
The room with all the doors created by Ian was such a startling, memorable image. How did you come up with that?
To me, Channel Zero is this mixture of ’80s weird cult horror and direct-to video stuff and foreign films. It’s like a mixture of high-low, which is what I really like. One of the things we wanted to play with this season was weird installation art, where it’s this weird contemporary art approach, instead of more of a gothic one. We were always looking at like, okay, how do you turn this room into this weird piece that you would find at MOCA or something?
We were working with a production designer, Réjean Labrie, and there was a lot of iterations of it. First, it was like, okay, is it more of the schizophrenic doors all over the place, just more topsy-turvy, Tim Burton-like? But Ian was just focusing on perfection in this weird way. The whole thing with Ian is, he’s basically saying, “Hey, you can control your trauma and all your s—, and you can turn it in a superpower.” And, sure, in some ways you can in life, but you can’t really. So it was just showing a little bit of his insane focus on perfecting his issues. But when you look at it, you kind of go, “That doesn’t look like this guy has got his s— under control. He’s so f—ing crazy. He has not mastered anything with his emotions or his life. He hasn’t solved a goddamn thing!”
In the story, was it a complete accident when Tall Boy kills Ian? Or did Ian want to die on some level?
I don’t think he was suicidal. I don’t think he was thinking about that. I think he was pure need. He was drawn to his sister in a way that goes beyond practical or logical — obviously, because it’s his sister. I don’t think he was thinking about much else besides this addiction. I don’t think Tall Boy’s trying to kill him. Tall Boy’s just a car that drives through the door that can’t stop. I think Ian finds it pretty unfortunate that it happens in those last moments. I don’t think he’s stoked.
Do you think we will ever see Pretzel Jack on screen again?
Oh, man, I hope so. I don’t know how it would happen unless there’s a shared universe season of Channel Zero where Nick gets to bring all these guys back. The thing is, Nick has such a great world now, I would love to see all these guys. But maybe he should do comic book stuff. I don’t know. But Pretzel Jack lives on in people’s hearts. That’s really where he lives.