Even if Doug Aarniokoski’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, I’m confident you’ve seen (or are at least aware of) The Day, one of the best horror films from 2011. In addition, his directorial work can be seen on episodes of various TV shows, including: Arrow, Sleepy Hollow and Criminal Minds. We spoke with Mr. Aarniokoski earlier this week about how he got his start in the film business, the influence of his mentor, Robert Rodriquez, and the genesis of his new movie, Nurse 3-D
Diabolique: You have a really deep filmography. Lots of productions that you’ve worked on as the first assistant director and second assistant director. We’d love to talk to you about any of those films at length, but my question here is, do you think that that experience, from a crew member’s standpoint, informs your directorial work now?
DOUG AARNIOKOSKI: Absolutely. I think that the job of an assistant director, who is really like a foreman, if I can relate the film set to a construction site, is that he’s there to make sure everything happens right on the film set. He’s there to help facilitate the vision of the architect of the story, which is usually the director.
In fact, I think knowing how the set functions as a director is paramount to being creative throughout the day, because you are on the clock. I mean, let’s face it, there is always a ticking clock for the director, and you have a certain amount of work to get done within the time period that you’re allotted. So you have to know the ins and outs.
Diabolique: To me, on-set experience is invaluable experience, whether you’re there as a crew member, an actor, or even as an extra. You get to see how the process works, even just by being a fly on the wall.
AARNIOKOSKI: I couldn’t agree more. I never wanted to be the director who stood there and said, “Why aren’t we moving on here, why aren’t we shooting?” There are always plenty of guys who do that. All you have to do is look to your right and see that the crew over there is changing the lens on the camera. You know, it’s those guys who don’t really understand what it takes to make a film, to make a TV show, or to be on the set that are really doing a disservice to themselves, because the funneling all that energy in the direction that it doesn’t need to be harnessed is useless. I mean, understand what’s going on, and then focus on being a storyteller.
What I tell people when they ask: What are the important things I need to know to be a director? How do I it? What do I focus on? What I tell them is: Focus on being a storyteller and just go out there and shoot. Whatever your subject is, shoot it anywhere with any camera you can get your hand on. Shoot it in your apartment; on your friend’s phone. Just go out and do something, but focus on being a storyteller. Don’t focus on cool shots. Don’t focus on anything except the performance and the story – do that and everything else will come to light. Because if you’ve got a great story, and you’ve got a great performance, the camera will find its way to the proper position you need; where the audience needs to have that experience, whether it’s objective or subjective. It’ll find its way if you’re a good storyteller.
Diabolique: Do you think that a lot of people who take these second assistant and first assistant jobs end-up usually staying there for their career?
AARNIOKOSKI: A lot of times those guys who do that job, do it really well for so long.They don’t always go up into directing. It’s really more of a job that’s based around producing and production. So a lot of those guys become very famous producers. For example, James Skotchdopole now is a huge producer.
Diabolique: Come to think of it, I believe I recently saw his name on Django Unchained.
AARNIOKOSKI: Exactly. There’s countless guys who do this for many years. First, they’re successful unit production managers or line producers. I worked with Harry Bring, who was an A.D. for many years.
Diabolique: Oh man! You won’t believe this. Harry Bring was my boss. He was my second assistant director on Little Monsters twenty five-years ago. We’re talking about Harry Bring, right?
AARNIOKOSKI: Absolutely. He [produced] seasons of The X-Files, I believe.
Diabolique: I worked as a production assistant and an assistant cameraman for a while on other films. But [Harry] came in a couple weeks into filming Little Monsters. This all was in North Carolina in 1988. Now that’s a name-blast from the past.
AARNIOKOSKI: He’s a very successful television producer. I think that that’s just for those sort of people: go in quick. And frankly, that’s where I was headed. That’s where I would’ve gone very happily. My path was never to be a director. I loved being assistant director. I just was fortunate enough to know and work with this crazy guy who was a sort of Jack-of-all-trades. He did everything. And his philosophy was: If you want to do what you want to do, do it. His name is Robert Rodriguez.
Diabolique: You’d worked with him on From Dusk Til Dawn.
AARNIOKOSKI: Yes. Actually, I’ve done probably eight films with Robert. I was working with him on Four Rooms up until Spy Kids.
Robert basically needed a Second Unit Director one show, which was called The Faculty. He said, “Would you go out and shoot second unit for me?” And I said, “Absolutely! Who’s my cameramen, my cinematographer?” He said, “You are!” I told him I’d never operated a camera before. And to Robert’s credit, because this is who he is, he said, “Nobody has until they’ve done it, so go out and do it. You’re gonna learn how to do it on the job. That’s how I learned and that’s how you’ll learn.”
Diabolique: So basically that’s your film school? You didn’t go to college to learn film, you did it on the job.
AARNIOKOSKI: I graduated high school and moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco I started working as a P.A. [production assistant]. My first job was Rambo 3. And I moved my way up to Assistant Director.
From Four Rooms [Robert] literally became my film school. He taught me how to operate a camera, how everything works, how to direct, how he directs and his style of directing. He let me sit in on every meeting, every rehearsal, every sit-down with actors. He was just literally my film school. It was amazing. And Tarantino was always around, so I learned from him. It was really … it was a dream. I’m very blessed in the sense that I got to learn from Robert.
Diabolique: Was Nurse 3-D always, fundamentally, intended to be a 3-D film? Was that how it was conceived?
AARNIOKOSKI: Always. From the first day.
Diabolique: What was the genesis of it? How did you all get it together with Lionsgate to go ahead and make this movie?
AARNIOKOSKI: The idea actually stems from the brilliance of the Lionsgate marketing department. Tim Palin, specifically, who drew all of the marketing for one of the Saw movies. I think it was Saw 7. One of the marketing campaigns, or one of the marketing ideas, was they had these blood drives where you went and gave blood, how funny is that? All of the nurses were dressed in these sort of 1940s, Mugleresque-type costumes. And Tim said, “Wouldn’t this be a great backdrop for a horror movie?” So, we basically just took that idea and ran with it.
That’s why in the movie the nurses wear these sort of 1940s-style dresses, which are intermixed with some contemporary wardrobe as well. It was really to sort of set a tone and tell the audience that the moment you watch these women walk down the hall in high heels and white platform nurse shoes and really really short dresses with their cleavage out that this is a movie. That’s it. Like, before the movie even starts, if you don’t understand that that’s the movie, from frame one when you see them walking down the hall, then yes, you’re taking the movie way too seriously, right then and there.
Diabolique: I imagine you had a pretty clear idea as to the tone you were going for. I mean, it’s not strictly a horror movie. It has its strange sense of humor.
AARNIOKOSKI: The reason we made it was for sheer pleasure and entertainment and nothing else. The tone we were going for was very much a grindhouse, sexsploitation throwback kind of genre of a horror movie if you will. Really, that’s exactly what we went out searching to create.
Diabolique: I hope people get the film’s humor. I often think people are many times predisposed to taking most movies too seriously. And maybe, to sort of head-off that expectation, a movie needs to do something very early on to say: do not take this seriously.
AARNIOKOSKI: Critics have kind of gotten it, and people have really kind of gotten the movie. I think our Rotten Tomatoes score is like sixty eight-percent, which is crazy good. I think they understand sort of what it is, what it was made for, who it was made for, the tongue-in-cheek aspect of it all – that you can sort of sit back, have some popcorn, have a drink, have a good time, and just enjoy the film. I mean, it is what it is. It’s a fun movie. It’s an hour and forty-four minutes that you should just have fun with.
Diabolique: In the movie, the nurses themselves seem to be just a step above reality. It’s like they’re sort of existing in the world of average people. Anyone in real life would do a double-take and think, “My God! How could any of the hospital staff not notice this? What was the human resource department at this place thinking?”
AARNIOKOSKI: Exactly right. But yet, I think when you’re in movie world, when you’re sort of brought into a story that you’ve never seen before … I’m amazed sometimes at how people get confused by the make-believe versus reality. Or, you try to create reality through make-believe, and I think they take it sometimes a little too seriously.
This is Part One of a Two-Part Interview, please check back shortly for Part Two.