Mike P. Nelson is the director of the newest instalment of the Wrong Turn franchise, Wrong Turn (2021). The film follows a group of friends as they hike the Appalachian Trail. When they stray from the path, they stumble upon an isolated community who have lived there for hundreds of years and will go to any length to protect their way of life.
In this interview, Mike P. Nelson talks with Aiysha Jebali about his journey breaking into the film industry; from working in a grocery store and filming weddings, to making his first feature film with MGM. The key to his success? No matter what he was doing, he never stopped creating.
Wrong Turn (2021) is available on VOD, Digital, DVD and Blu-ray from 23rd February 2021.
Starring Matthew Modine (Stranger Things (2016 – ), Full Metal Jacket (1987), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)), Adain Bradley (The Bold and The Beautiful (1987 – ) , All American (2018 – )), Bill Sage (Orange Is The New Black (2013 – 2019)) and Charlotte Vega (Warrior Nun 2020 – ).
What did we think of the Mike P. Nelson’s take on the horror franchise we hear you say? Check out our review of Wrong Turn (2021) to find out!
FF: Welcome to Film Forums. My name is Aiysha Jebali and I have a special guest with me today. Would you like to introduce yourself?
MPN: Hey, I’m Mike P. Nelson and I just directed the newest Wrong Turn (2021).
A different direction for the Wrong Turn franchise
FF: Fantastic. Can you tell us a little bit about the story this time around? Obviously, it’s a huge franchise, everyone will know it, or at least everyone my age will definitely know the original one.
MPN: So, what’s interesting about this story is that it takes a little bit of a different path than the first six films. When the script was given to me back in 2017, the writer of the original Wrong Turn (2003), Alan McElroy, really wanted to flip this one on its head and do something different and something bold with this new direction.
So, basically, it’s about these young adults who want to go hiking on the Appalachian Trail and they run into a community of people who have been living on the mountain for hundreds of years. They do something bad to these people because they basically stereotype them as inbred, hillbilly types that would kill them. And ultimately, this sect kidnaps the kids and brings them to their community in which they’re judged in their very brutal court of law. And now they have to escape. Not only that, you have one of the girl’s dads tries to find her, so you have all these storylines that finally intersect. So, it’s a really cool survival horror/thriller that I think will definitely keep you on the edge.
FF: Fantastic. So, it sounds like it’s quite different from the original, obviously keeping the Wrong Turn sort of theme. But it’s really quite different from the original which is exciting, I think, because it’s not just another hash out of the same old thing.
MPN: Well, I think that both me and the writer and even producer from the studio, Robert Kulzer, were all in this mindset where we know that there’s a ton of remakes and reboots being made. And so many of those go into it not really doing anything different. They just kind of, like you said, they do a rehash of what we’ve seen before. And to a certain extent, it satisfies the fans, because they get to see the same thing done again, just in a slightly different way.
We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to do something really unique and bold and challenging. And we knew that that was going to cause a little bit of controversy within the fan base and in the horror community. But we’ve been surprised by the reactions that we’ve gotten. Ultimately, we wanted to make something different, and why not take a chance and not follow the trend of just rebooting or remaking. But how about reinventing?
FF: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that’s really positive and interesting to see. I think, especially in recent years, it’s been hard in the horror genre to do something that is different, so that’s really, really exciting. You’ve directed this project, and obviously the writer is the same original writer that’s done the whole franchise, which I also think is fantastic.
From film loving child to film school
How did you come onto this project? What’s your background, what led you to this point in your career?
MPN: Man, that’s a story. But that’s why we’re here, right? We’re telling stories. So gosh, if we’re gonna start back, I’ll paraphrase some stuff and get into detail on some things. From a young age, my dad showed me movies. I remember being three and four years old and sitting in our first house back in the early 80s, and my dad showing me Indiana Jones and Star Wars. I remember even watching Das Boot (1981), I was probably too young for that one, but I still remember it. I remember that it made me feel really odd and strange, and I liked it. You know what I mean? He brought me up on old sci-fi from the 50s. And then I saw him with a video camera, videotaping Christmas and stuff, the giant thing that you’d put on your shoulder and he had to carry around the VCR box and I wanted to shoot video too.
And so, I got to about seven years old and started making my own little films. And it just kind of kept going and I got together with friends and kept doing that, which is a very familiar story. I think a lot of filmmakers start out that way. They see the dad with the video camera, and they want to do the same thing. And that, of course, led to writing stories, filming stories, and then realising, ‘I think I kind of want to do this as a job. I want a career as a filmmaker, I think this would be great. I love movies. And I want to do what these movie makers do’.
So I just continued to make stuff through high school. Then I applied and went to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for filmmaking and got a BFA four-year degree. Say what you want about film schools, whether you love them or hate them, I think it just depends on who you are as a filmmaker, or somebody who wants to get into filmmaking. Film school definitely helped me. It didn’t give me everything I needed to get to where I’m at, but it gave me a good first kick in the pants. And I think there’s some of us that just need that. There’s some of us that I feel like, we’re out there but we don’t really know what the next step is. And with film school, they just kind of condensed everything into these four years. You could learn equipment, you could learn the art of filmmaking, film history. All this knowledge was just smashed into four years.
Always keep creating, it doesn’t have to be perfect
And then you leave school and that’s when you really start to come into your own, you start to find a style. I think there’s like a seed that starts in college, and maybe in the years prior, but, man, as soon as you leave college, I feel like that’s when you start to explore even more. Of course, a lot of that is on you, though. It’s up to you, once you leave school, because you’re not coddled in school anymore. You have to do a lot of it on your own. And you have to want to explore and find your style, and what you’re interested in, and you just continue doing that.
For me, I graduated school, and that first year I was working in a grocery store, no job in filmmaking. I think I started helping a friend of mine, I would shoot weddings, make a few 100 bucks here and there. But I would still make movies with my buddies. You have to make time for all this. I can’t stress it enough and I’m gonna say it constantly, no matter where you are, whether you’re in college or you’re just trying to figure it out, the main thing is to always keep creating. Always keep making – even if it doesn’t look like it’s gonna turn out good, or your idea’s maybe not perfect, you just have to keep creating.
So that’s what we did. I wasn’t necessarily making money doing storytelling but I went out and did storytelling with my buddies. We went out and, me and a couple of my college friends who were going to be graduating the next year, we shot an anthology horror feature. We just went out with our own money and shot this movie called Summer School (2006); which is about this kid who goes to summer school, falls asleep, and has all these different dreams of different horror sub-genres that all take place within the school. It was a fun little thing, we all got to write our own little section and they all tied together. The producer of it made sure that all the stories sort of intersected somehow and that they all tied up at the end. But it was a lot of fun. It was a huge learning experience. That was a passion project, we all were very excited to do it, and it’s ultimately what got me started in the industry.
The key to breaking into the film industry: find a skill
I was really into sound in college, when I was doing film work, and I noticed, ‘I’m actually kind of good at doing sound’. I felt like I had an ear for it and people would tell me, ‘Wow, Mike, this stuff sounds really great. You should really expand on this, do more with sound with your work’. So, I continued to do sound. And that was another thing that college really taught me, everybody wants to be a director, everybody wants to be a cinematographer, but what about a skill? What’s a skill outside of those, or a trade that you could latch on to that somebody could hire you to do within the industry. And, for me, that was sound.
So, what happened was I did all the sound for the Summer School (2006) movie, and all the sound design, and mixed it the best I could. And we went to a guy to score the movie, he’s a great composer, his name is Tom Hambleton. I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota and he has a sound studio downtown. We went down there and listened to his stuff and he really liked our film. He gave us a great deal and said, ‘I’ll do it’.
And then, I’m trying to find out, ‘How do I break in? What do I do? I’m really good at sound, maybe there’s some sound studios in town’. Not even thinking for a minute about working for this Tom guy. What do you know, I get a call one day from him saying, ‘Mike, how would you like to come work for me?’ I was like, ‘What?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I’m looking for a sound designer, just somebody to cut audio for me. Do you know Pro Tools and stuff?’ I was like, ‘Well, sort of, I’m not great at it’. He goes, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’ll learn it. Summer School impressed me; I thought the sound that you did on that was great. It’s not perfect, but I thought it was really really good for a guy who did not even go to sound school or technical audio school. So how would you like to work for me?’ I was like, ‘Sure’.
So from then on, I went in and started working on TV shows. I did like 60 episodes of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (2006 – ), doing dialogue editing, and music editing, and foley cutting and foley recording and all sorts of stuff. I learned so much about sound. I cut foley and did foley art on five features, did sound design on some smaller projects. And it was just such a great learning experience. But again, as I was doing that, I was still making little movies. And again, this is going to be the theme, I was doing sound and yes, I had broken in sort of, but I was still making my own stuff, still telling my own stories.
Starting to direct
And then I got an opportunity. A buddy of mine from college had started his own company, was doing very well and wanted to start a live action portion of his visual effects and animation studio. He asked me if I wanted to head it up and be the live action in house director and start doing PSAs and live action commercials and I was like, ‘Absolutely, that’s the next step’. And again, so much of that came from the fact that I was making movies, I was doing things and he saw that and said, ‘Wow, Mike, you’re actually doing some interesting stuff’. I wasn’t just sitting there doing sound work. Otherwise, I would have been doing sound for the rest of my life because that’s all I would have been doing for movies. So I worked in sound for about three years, then I jumped over to this company, MAKE in Minneapolis, worked there for three and a half years doing commercials.
And again, while I was doing that, I was still shooting films, making shorts, doing music videos, stuff that I really liked to do. And as I was doing these things, other people started to take notice. I wasn’t very good at getting my stuff into film festivals. I don’t want to say film festivals aren’t worth it. I think that there’s a lot of great films that are found at film festivals. And I think that they can offer a lot of great opportunities for directors that have a certain style and a certain taste. My style and taste were taken here and there, but it just wasn’t the way that I went. I didn’t do the festival circuit so much because my stuff wasn’t really looked at in a way that it was fitting for a lot of festivals.
Put your work out there and make sure it gets seen
So, I just decided, ‘You know what, screw it. I’m just going to post my stuff online. I got to have people watch it, right’. That’s the main thing they tell you is to make sure that your stuff gets seen. If you don’t get into festivals, don’t worry about it. It’s not the end of the world. I thought it was. At one point I thought, ‘Man, if nobody at festivals wants to see my work well then maybe I’m not that great of a filmmaker’. That was a lie. I was lying to myself. So put your work out there. Don’t worry about anybody stealing it. Just put your work out there so people can see it. Because otherwise, you’re gonna have stuff sitting on your hard drive, you’re going to be too precious about it. And nobody cares, really. Nobody cares how precious your work is. They just want to see some cool stuff.
FF: Yeah, I completely agree with you on that. I think that that’s probably the area that young filmmakers fall down the most. They put so much time and energy into making something, and most of the time it’s a fantastic product, but then they’re scared to put it out. They don’t want to be judged, or it’s not quite good enough, or it’s scary, or something has fallen through with the post-production, for example, that’s another area where they can fall down a little bit. And then, it just ends up not going out, which is really sad for everyone involved.
I’m an actress myself and I couldn’t tell you the number of small indies that I’ve done that I’ve never gotten footage from, just because something has gone wrong in the post-production, or someone has chickened out. But I just think that it’s so sad because even if it’s garbage, put it out, you put effort into it. You did it, everyone involved put blood sweat and tears into it. So, personally, I don’t care if it’s amazing, I just want to see it.
MPN: It’s totally true, it’s so true. I think that’s a great thing to move on to, when stuff gets hard with a movie, that’s when you have to go balls to the wall and just say, ‘Okay, now we have to figure out how to finish it’. You don’t give up at that point. Because every project is going to have that moment where something’s not working and it’s the easiest thing to just say, ‘Well, I’ll just cut my losses and move on to the next thing, because this didn’t work’. Just finish it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. This kind of seems like a little bit of a cop out, but man, if you can get somewhere between 70% and 100% with your project, then post it, it’s good. If you can finish it and say this is done, and it feels anywhere between 70 and 100%, put it out into the world. Let people see it, then move on to the next one. Because then you have something out there that people can actually watch.
FF: Yeah, people can see your progression, I think that that’s really cool to see. I used to be part of a film club sort of thing myself. When we started, we were all terrible, I was a terrible actress, they were terrible filmmakers. We don’t mind because we all say the same thing. But then, within two years, we were starting to get into film festivals and winning awards. So, you just don’t know. And I think it’s great to be able to look back on those times when I looked like I was reading off a board, compared to where I’ve gotten to now. So, I think it’s really important to just put it out there. And who cares if it’s Hollywood level or not?
MPN: Yeah, well, that’s the thing, you will get there if you continue to create. So, you have the pre-college years, and you have four years in college, and you have 10 years after college where I was still making stuff but trying to find my footing. I was trying to figure out, ‘How can I get to the point where I get to make a movie?’
And sure enough, I make some shorts, they gained some attention, I get the attention of an agent, I get my work put on Twitch Film back when it was Twitch Film. Todd Brown, bless his heart, loved the short that I did called The Retirement of Joe Corduroy (2012). And he started posting the trailer for it and the posters for it, and suddenly people started noticing and I was like, ‘This is better than a film festival. This ginormous film site, they’re watching my stuff, this is great’.
I start making another thing, while I’m working at MAKE, and suddenly that gets some attention. I show that to Todd and he goes, ‘Did you ever think about making that short into a feature?’ And I didn’t really. So, I started writing a feature of it. And sure enough, a friend of mine – again, so much of it is who you know – a friend who I knew through somebody was like, ‘Mike, I’d love to work with you. We had a great time on this’, we did a commercial shoot together. Suddenly, he’s like, ‘Mike, do you have a script, I’m just looking for content. I know some producers out here in LA’. I did. I wrote that feature script for this short called The Domestics (2018) that was, at that point, sitting on my computer for a couple months going nowhere. I was like, ‘Yeah, I have this script. You know what, just give it to anybody. I don’t care at this point, nothing’s happening with it sitting on my computer’. A couple weeks later, I get a call from a producer, ‘Mike, we read your script. Cameron gave it to us. We love it. Would you like to workshop it with us, develop it over the next few months?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is great. This is an opportunity’.
Making your first feature film and working with MGM
So, we did and I workshopped that script with this company called Hollywood Gang Productions. Hollywood Gang did movies like 300 (2006) and Act of Valour (2012). Gianni Nunnari was one of the producers on Seven (1995) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). So this was huge. I worked with Shannon Gaulding and we got the script to a point where I was like, ‘Okay, this is good’.
Now, there’s another thing that I’d like to touch on, just very briefly, there’s so many little nuggets in here that are so important. When you’re in your first outing like this, don’t be scared to listen to the producer’s insight. They’re not always going to be right. They want to hear your voice, they want to know that you have a strong voice so don’t always just say, ‘Yes, yes, yes’, to them. But don’t always fight them either. I remember hearing so many stories of these young filmmakers that were getting these opportunities, and then the opportunity would vanish and they would be like, ‘The studio system sucks, producers suck, we could just do this on our own. They don’t want to listen, they were ruining my idea’. And they’re still not making anything.
So, when I was listening to Shannon, and hearing what she knew about working with a studio and what they’re looking for, you have to get creative. You have to start listening to those notes and being like, ‘Okay, how can I take this note and still make it my own, so it still has my voice?’ But the producer is going to say, ‘Yeah, the studio will like this. How can we put this all together?’ And that was that kind of tricky balance of working that way. Ultimately, we got the script to a point where we started pitching it. We pitched it to Warner Brothers, we pitched it to MGM, and we were gonna pitch it to even more, but then MGM was like, ‘We want it’.
After that, honestly, there were a few months that went by where we started doing some pre pre-production looking at casting, there’s always that drama. But ultimately, I got to make a feature film with MGM. And that was my first one. And holy crap, it kind of changed everything, I did my first feature. But at the same time, I had so much great experience working in sound, and then working as a director in that in house directing thing, doing a short one year of a sitcom show here in Minnesota, directing that for a year. I was prepping myself for this moment. So then when I launched into this, it was like, ‘I feel at home, I’m ready for this’.
I remember when I left school – I just found this little piece of paper a couple months ago when I was doing some cleaning at our house here – they asked you, ‘In 10 years, where do you want to be?’ I said, ‘I want to make a Hollywood movie in 10 years’. And it was just under 11 years that I was shooting my first movie with MGM. And again, that was just me never stopping, even when it was tough. Even when it didn’t seem like anything was gonna happen. And just to continue to go. And there’s even more stories of that but, ultimately, you get your first feature film. And in my case, I got it.
Starting from the bottom in the Hollywood studio system
I wasn’t shooting my next feature, this Wrong Turn (2021), for another three years. And that was scary. That was another scary piece. Because now, not only did you work yourself up to this level where you’re at the top of your game, but then you join the Hollywood studio system as a brand new director and you immediately go right back down to the bottom. You start all over again, and you start to work yourself back up. There are some directors who break in, they make a film and suddenly boom, everybody wants them. I wasn’t that guy right away. I made this film, it went out, it did okay. And I started to pitch more, got a lot of nos. ‘No, sorry. It’s not what we’re looking for’, ‘That’s a little too weird, no’, ‘Mike, we love you but it’s just not right, right now’. And I remember being like, ‘Oh my gosh’. As an actress, you know, directors and actors have a very similar kind of path, especially when finding financing or finding your job. You have to go into a room and literally pitch yourself, you have to audition. I love pitching. It’s a great experience but it can also be so strenuous and just the no, after no, after no. I mean, you know what I’m talking about. It’s just really really hard.
But these two years went by and finally something came across my desk. It was this new script called Wrong Turn. I was like, ‘Oh my god, Wrong Turn. Are you serious?’ Wrong Turn has a stigma around it, and I wasn’t quite sure about it. But I read the script, I thought it was unique, I thought it was different. It’s the original writer of the first movie, it’s huge! There it is in sort of a nutshell. I know it’s a little long, but that was the path to get to here.
Success doesn’t happen overnight
FF: But I think that that’s really important for people to hear. Because a lot of people they come out of film school or maybe a college course and it’s almost expected to be overnight. And that’s just not how it works in the film industry, for anybody. It doesn’t matter what role you’re playing, it’s very rare that you’re going to be an overnight success. Even the overnight successes, there’s been a huge build up to that. There’s been a catalogue of work, there’s been networking. Networking’s super important for you to even meet the people who are going to give you a job.
A couple of my friends graduated a couple of years ago, they’re filmmakers, and we consult and talk because I’ve been in and around filmmaking for a while, like 10 or 11 years. So, they tend to ask me stuff because I don’t just do acting, I put my fingers in a few pies, as most people do. But I keep just saying to them, pretty much the same as what you’re saying here, narrative filmmaking is the long game, you’ve got to be prepared for the long game. Short game would be things like doing weddings and getting a job that has something to do with the film industry that’s going to pay your bills for now. It’s maybe not the ultimate goal but it is an important part of the journey. I think doing that, rather than working a normal job that’s nothing to do with the film industry, is much better. If you can get into the film industry, in any capacity, then you’re connecting with people. You don’t know who you’re going to meet, you don’t know who’s going to give you a job.
Wrong Turn and what makes a good horror trailer
But when I saw the press release for Wrong Turn (2021), I saw the title and went, ‘Oh, they’ve called another film Wrong Turn’. Because I remembered the original, and I didn’t realise that it was another part in that franchise and I was like, ‘Okay, they’ve kind of just stolen the name there, they just think everyone’s forgotten about it or something’. And then as I was reading the press release, I realised what it actually was and I was like, ‘Oh, cool. That’s awesome’.
I grew up on horror, really. I shouldn’t have, but that was our thing. We would go to Blockbuster and we would get the DVD that was the most recent horror film. And Wrong Turn (2003), people say what they will about it, but I’ll tell you something, it’s a film I’ve never forgotten. So that’s a win.
I thought the trailer for your film looks fantastic. Can you tell us a little bit about what your process was, or if you had any involvement in that? What do you think makes a good horror trailer?
MPN: Gosh, that is the $64,000 question. Trailers are so important. And I think we were very fortunate working with Saban Films and the company that cut this trailer, it was ‘disco something’, they killed it. You see so many trailers that give a lot away or don’t quite create the tension. And this one really did. It just created a really great atmosphere. That’s what our movie has a lot of, it has this really nice daunting, dreadful atmosphere through it and the trailer really grabbed onto that.
I think the key is working with a company that understands your movie and that doesn’t just want to throw it away, that really believes in it. Because they’re the ones that are going to put the effort in and that extra finishing touch into marketing to put your work out there and make it shine. And the trick, I remember when I first saw that trailer I was like, ‘Oh my gosh this is so cool!’ I didn’t have the words. The trailer for the first film that I did, The Domestics (2018), was okay, but it was nowhere near as powerful as this one. Having a good trailer for your film, horror or any genre, I think it’s just such a cool feeling to have that. But not only that, it’s about getting people excited.
FF: Yeah, I agree. And I think that the trailer definitely does a really good job of that. I mean, it’s got over 300,000 views on YouTube. And that was when I checked it when the press release first came out, so who knows what that’s at right now. But it’s obviously doing the job, because people are sharing it. That’s how you get that type of momentum. So that’s really good to see. I think the film is going to be very successful. I know that we’ve got a written review coming out of it as well, so we’ll be sure to pass that on. And I know that it’s positive so that’s good.
So we will wrap up now. Thank you so much for coming on. Whatever you’re doing next, even if you’re in pre-production phases, you could always come on and have a chat about what that was like for you or what your approach is.
MPN: Yeah, absolutely. Anything that I can do to help young filmmakers that are struggling or that have these questions. These are all the things that I wanted to know, getting to this point, and I didn’t always have the answers or somebody to talk to or listen to that had a similar path. Everything kind of felt like, ‘Oh, well, they knew somebody, or they lived out in LA, or their dad was in the movie business, so they were able to just work their way in’. So, yeah, I’m always here to help and would love to listen to anybody else’s stories or help them through anything that they need.
FF: Thank you very much.
Transcription & Edited by: Keren Davies
Second Editor: Richard Williams
Special thanks to Katrina Wan PR
Images courtesy of Saban Films
Scottish Tunisian actress. Yes, that’s a thing. BAME. POC.