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Austin Jennings Is Directing A Mutant Family And He Couldn’t Be Happier

The Last Drive-In’s director is using his own cinephile status and a few new tricks to make the show a horror fan’s dream come true.

If you love The Last Drive-In, then you owe a big debt of gratitude to Austin Jennings. From Prom Queens to film reviews with a Texas Twang, he’s the guiding force that’s helping Joe Bob Briggs and friends deliver the best(and worst) of genre cinema to adoring fans. It’s a job he doesn’t take lightly, with a love of cinema firmly guiding the action.


VT: Where did the idea for The Last Drive-In come from? Why was 2018 the right time for it?

AJ: Ever since the last episode of MonsterVision, there have been calls from fans to get Joe Bob back on the air. While The Last Drive-In is the most successful attempt at resurrecting the World’s Foremost Drive-In Movie Critic to his rightful glory, it was far from the first try.

For us, I assume it began like most of the failed attempts. I was throwing around ideas with Matt Manjourides, one of the show’s producers, about what we could pitch to Shudder that would play to its strengths as a growing, niche streaming platform. Matt was in talks with them about another project at the time, so it felt like a good opportunity to pitch something wild. We’d both longed to see Joe Bob back so that instantly became our focus.

The idea to make it an iron-man movie marathon was based on a similar event I put on every year. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve personally hosted these extremely elaborate 50+ hour horror marathons. I’m sure there are hundreds of hobbyist curators like me, but I definitely let it get way out of hand. It became a second job.

My apartment was overflowing with people at all hours, and folks would schedule their weekends to catch specific films. I would spend months creating these elaborate, custom interstitials and promos so it felt like a forgotten 90’s cable marathon, and would pay absurd prices for bootlegs of films without proper releases so that I could include them. It was expensive, exhausting, and absolutely worthwhile.

Ultimately I was spending a lot of energy recreating the MonsterVision all-night marathons of my childhood- except this time in a party setting so that I could share the fun with others. That energy is contagious, and every year, more people join in.

I hoped to chase that feeling on a much bigger scale, with Joe Bob Briggs as the rightful master of ceremonies. So Matt and I conceived of The Last Drive-In as a streaming live event, one that would last over 48 hours straight. (For budget reasons this was pared down to 13 films clocking in around 27 hours.)

We scheduled lunch with Joe Bob to discuss at length what we wanted to pitch to Shudder. He was all in but warned us that many had traveled down that road and failed to get anything going. Luckily for us, Shudder was interested, and we started developing the creative with Joe Bob for his triumphant (and thankfully, not final) return to horror hosting.

The Last Drive-In was conceived as a continuation of what Joe Bob had been doing his whole career: celebrating the weird and the wonderful of exploitation cinema, oscillating between the low-brow and high in his signature style. 2018 was the perfect time for his return for several reasons.
First, horror is simply mainstream again. Modern horror consistently commands huge box office returns, and at the same time forgotten horror films of the past are getting the releases and reception they deserve.  Whether you’re a die-hard video-hound womb-to-tomb, or you’ve just recently rediscovered a love of the macabre by way of a big horror blockbuster—it’s just a great time to be a horror fan.

Second is that our love affair with social media has slipped out of adolescence and into maturity. These collective, national conversations on social platforms during live events are now well- established parts of the entertainment landscape. I think we already take it for granted, and it’s all established vernacular now.

So suddenly you have this venue for what amounts to a digital sleepover – where strangers gather and riff on, suffer through, and cheer about the same film together – with Joe Bob watching right along with you.The Last Drive-In is somehow simultaneously a nostalgic throwback AND a show that could only exist now.

Director Austin Jennings works with The Last Drive-In DP Kevin Quigley.
Courtesy Of Justin Martell

VT: Sounds like a great viewing party. When I spoke to Joe Bob, we talked about choosing C.H.U.D. for the first ep. Why did you suggest the film? Were you expecting it to be potentially polarizing when you advocated for it?

AJ: We should expect more from our exploitation cinema, even as we revel in its trashiness.

Joe Bob has always been adept at showcasing films he doesn’t particularly like, but somehow transforming the experience of watching it with him into lemonade. We thought it’d be interesting to start the series by issuing a takedown of an 80’s flick that we felt had fallen victim to nostalgia-blindness. I expected that to be pretty polarizing.

I thought C.H.U.D. was the perfect candidate, especially since so many fans had been calling for Joe Bob to feature it. It’s misremembered as this sleazy, grimy, New-York-as-it-was mutant flick, but there’s so little meat actually on the bone. Worst of all, it breaks the Drive-In cardinal rule: it’s boring.

Or as Joe Bob so eloquently put it: “Where’s the C.H.U.D?”

VT: Budget is always a concern. How did that play a role in how you approached the series?

AJ: The summer marathon was conceived to be twice as long (we had originally chosen 30 films for it) which would have lasted the whole weekend and then some. Ultimately that was sliced in half for budgetary reasons—which in retrospect probably made for a better event. Even mutants need their beauty sleep, and I know many struggled to soldier through the 27+ hour version.

For the weekly series, I don’t think the show would be appreciably different with a bigger budget. With more resources, we’d likely invite more guests, buy our crew monogrammed union suits with Joe Bob’s smiling face on the butt flap, and maybe we would have ponied up the coin for that Ricky Nelson cover for Prom Night 2. Ultimately though, we’re already making the show we want.

The original MonsterVision felt tied together with shoelaces and bubblegum underneath a layer of dry-ice fog. It was a labor of love for all involved. When a cameraman would laugh, you’d see a slight shake in his camera. All the small creases in the margins connect Joe Bob with the viewer and remind them that he really IS dropping all this wisdom in a single, live-to-camera take.

It’d be easy to give the show a manicure, buff out all the imperfections and create soft, twinkling bokeh behind Joe Bob with longer, faster lenses. But that’s not what we wanted. Our mission was to recreate the informal, authentic feel of cable broadcast shows of a certain era. Luckily for us that doesn’t require too many expensive toys to get just right—just a lot of enthusiasm and elbow grease, which also happened to be the active ingredients of the original show. 

VT: It seems like you’re dealing with a fairly small set, does that enhance the viewer’s connection to the host? Was that a technical challenge as you planned out shots? 

AJ: I think it does, especially with the interior set when the cameras play closer to him. The original marathon set was especially small because of the limited studio space we had to work with, and the tight quarters posed some problems for camera. Joe Bob is roughly 1000 feet tall, and as soon as he and Darcy walked on, we realized that we could see clear over our set walls, and had to adjust our coverage.

VT: How much of the film choices are yours, and how much was Joe Bob’s idea? For that matter, did you try to expand past the Shudder catalog for titles? Do you find you’re getting more suggestions since people found out you’re directing The Last Drive-In

AJ: Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t stuff a film in my suggestion box… and nine times out of ten, it’s Halloween 3. We probably have Tom Atkins’ sexed-up animal magnetism to thank for that.

Joe Bob and I finalize the list of films together, though getting to that point is a very involved process.

Sam Zimmerman, the curator from Shudder, prepares a long list of everything in their catalog that’s up for grabs, including titles coming to the service in the future. The show’s producers, Matt Manjourides and Justin Martell, are also experts of the genre. The three of us rifle through Shudder’s list for the films that we feel are ripe for rediscovery deserve a larger audience, and could lend themselves to guests or unique creative. We also reach out to other studios about specific titles outside of the Shudder catalog that we’re jazzed about. I expect we’ll have some real surprises and discoveries for folks in Season 2.

I then take our (still very large) list of possibilities into my dungeon in Brooklyn and sit for many candlelit hours inside a pentagram traced in rock salt. There, Ernie the lizard and I summon the jolly spirits of the Lumière Brothers by hand-cranking their films in reverse, and I map out an optimal configuration for the season that strikes a good balance between schlock and shock.

I bring all of this to Joe Bob. We talk over every possible title at great length—often several hours per film. He is exactly as joyously enthusiastic about the films as he appears, and usually has a personal story or on-set anecdote for the older titles. My initial list will give him fresh ideas as well, and we’ll go back and forth until we’re happy with the line-up. 

VT: Some of the first season’s pairings could play across the emotional scale. For example, showing Wolf Cop and then Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer felt like a gut punch after one hell of a party. What was the thought behind this? Or any of the pairings for that matter?

AJ: Henry is so brutally honest and bleak that it’d be a gut punch following anything! It’s my favorite of the films we’ve shown this season, though not one I can revisit too often.

For me, the best double feature is one that plays between two poles a galaxy apart. Fire and Ice. Comedy and Tragedy. Groucho and Karl. As a group, horror fanatics are finicky cats who can’t decide if we’re cool with wet food or the dry, scientific blend stuff that keeps us regular. Sometimes, we’re in the mood to eat our own hairballs. I want Friday night at the Drive-In to be an oasis for mutants of all tastes. We aim to offer up variety each week so that if one film isn’t your cup of tea, the second feature might hit you square in your Goldilocks zone.

Sometimes the canyon between the two is planned as a means to start a conversation—such as pairing the metal head; dildo fueled joys of Deathgasm with the slow-burn classic The Changeling. Other weeks, we’ll settle on a specific thesis or commonality that still provides the right level of variety for a solid double, such as with The Stuff and Street Trash.

We also try to strike a balance for the season as a whole, to make sure we’re celebrating the breadth of what exploitation cinema is all about. We wouldn’t want to play cheapazoid ripoffs of Zombi 2 three weeks in a row. (Or would we? I’d still watch it.)

VT: The last episode of the season was a very cool nod to the mutant fam as well as the films featured along the way. Did you always plan on ending the season with the prom or did the idea come about as the season unfolded? 

AJ: We had bounced around a lot of ideas for how best to stick the landing. All of us were beyond excited about bringing fresh eyeballs to Prom Night 2—especially Darcy, whose obsessive love for the film cannot be exaggerated. Ending with that film, throwing a prom for our crew and getting to crown our very own Prom Queen just felt like the right note to go out on.

Joe Bob came up with the idea for that final segment pretty close to the shoot, but it was too good not to run with. We try to keep things loose and really collaborative on set, and everyone on the crew pitched in ideas for little moments and touches. It really was a party. John Brennan (our music supervisor) actually wrote and recorded “Come On Mary Lou (It’s Prom Night 2)” at breakneck speed. I pitched it to him in the afternoon, and hours later he had a demo that’s 98% what you hear on the show. He’s a genius. I want him to write a song for me every day.

VT: Darcy made the perfect Prom Queen, and she’s a fan favorite. How did Diana Prince aka Darcy find her way to The Last Drive-In? Was it always the plan to have her live tweet during each episode? 

AJ: Diana is the best! We knew when developing the original summer marathon that we would continue the storied tradition of Drive-In Mailgirls. Joe Bob immediately suggested her for the role. I believe they’d met a few times at conventions, and he thought her positive energy, genuine love for horror, and cosplay and social media prowess made her the perfect fit.

The plan was to always have her live tweet along with the show, but we had no idea how huge that part of the experience would become. Since the first marathon, she’s become the show’s biggest cheerleader and works tirelessly to rally and connect with our fans across Twitter. Darcy is irreplaceable.

The addition of the cosplay element was 100% her, by the way. It was an idea she pitched to us in the run-up to the first marathon, and we’ve had a ton of fun with it.

VT: Social media is playing a key role in the series’ popularity. It was constantly at the top of trends during each episode premiere. Did you and the team anticipate the level of online success the show would have? Furthermore, did you ever craft any strategies during filming that would help build the brand or make a connection through social media? 

AJ: Honestly? My expectation was that we’d get a few dozen folks tweeting or hanging out in a twitch or slack chat somewhere. The fact that we were trending on Twitter worldwide during the finale is mind-blowing. It is especially heartening when the film titles, filmmakers, and actors trend. I knew we were doing the Lord’s work when Herschell Gordon Lewis’s name was trending briefly during the first marathon when we showed Blood Feast.

We always planned for a social media element from the start – with Darcy as the centerpiece—but that has escalated beyond our wildest hopes. Watching these movies with thousands of strangers actively commenting every Friday has been the unexpected prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jacks. It’s a blast.

The Last Drive In logo

VT: What can viewers expect going forward? Have you even thought about Season 2 yet?

AJ: We’ve been daydreaming about Season 2 since our first fleeting C.H.U.D. sighting, and we’re excited to dig into it. We’re close to locking in the films, and Joe Bob is already knee-deep in additional research for the ones we’re sure about. That process is INTENSE. Even though he’s a walking, talking, beer-drinking horror-wiki, he always does a fresh deep dive no matter how familiar he is with a film—just to make sure he doesn’t miss any hidden pearls. His commitment to that is absolute.

For the most part, our fellow mutants can expect more of the same fun. I think we’ve hit a good stride, and aren’t looking to fix what ain’t broke. I do think we’ve earned enough of our audience’s trust with the first season to veer off-road into weirder territory with the titles we’re picking.

VT: You mentioned this was the right time for a horror renaissance. Do you feel like The Last Drive-In is competing with “elevated” horror titles or working with them to increase popularity? 

AJ: I don’t think our show competes with the huge, elevated horror tentpoles. The Last Drive-In serves a significantly different role in the horror entertainment stratum.

We celebrate the experience of watching horror together, and the reckless thrill of leaping headfirst into the bottomless sea of exploitation to dive for titles you might not watch otherwise. I think the philosophy of our show swims in a lane parallel to this bigger, watershed moment for the horror genre, but doesn’t necessarily compete with it.

VT: Enough about Joe Bob, let’s talk about you. What brought you to directing and more importantly, horror in general? Were you always a fan of the genre? What films and filmmakers inspired you or continue to inspire your work? 

AJ: I’ve been stuck on horror from a young age. My first memories are watching and worshiping Ghostbusters, and like so many other mutants, the defining moments of my upbringing all involve a good scare. MonsterVision definitely helped lead my curiosities to films further off the beaten path.

Hard to say what films and filmmakers inspire me since my obsessions tend to be intense but short-lived. A few films I often return to are Altman’s Nashville, Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Argento’s Suspiria, and Cox’s Repo Man. I also have a long-standing fascination with the films of Wong Kar-wai, Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, and just about any movie featuring Wings Hauser.

Oh, and of course, Pieces. Pieces forever and ever. Amen.

VT: You mentioned your own movie marathons. Which films would you choose if you were hosting a series like The Last Drive-In? Want to recommend some titles we may never get to see on the series? 

AJ: As soon as I mention a title, we’ll suddenly get the ability to show it. Never say never!

There are definitely titles that I love that wouldn’t lend themselves well to our format or audience. I’d love to show off Todd Haynes’ SAFE which I think is a deeply unsettling film, any of Jan Svankmajer’s films and shorts, or maybe something like Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre—but I don’t see those working on The Last Drive-In, even as we stretch the definition of “Drive-In movie”.

The imagery in Murnau’s Faust and Dreyer’s Vampyr are both required reading for anyone who loves the genre but doubt we’ll be doing a silent film in the coming season.

There are also several films that are unlikely due to the realities of licensing them. I’m a huge fan of the BBC production Ghostwatch, which I think succeeds on so many levels, but we’re not likely to jump through the hoops to show it. I would also really love to feature some older stuff like Night of the Hunter (which I think would make for a GREAT episode), The Innocents, or Les Diaboliques. Would also love to see some animation on the show someday—Heavy Metal, Ralph Bashki’s Wizards or Cool World, or Japanese animation like Vampire Hunter D, Lily C.A.T., or maybe Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue—but not sure how the logistics would work.

VT: If you’re a cinephile, you must have your own collection of special titles. Which one stands out to you or has an interesting story about how you acquired it? Will steaming end that part of cinephile lore or only enhance the quest? 

AJ: I’ve definitely had to drop stupid amounts of money over the years on films that have since had wide home video releases. I have fond memories of digging around online for VHS or DVD copies of films like Burst City, Acción Mutante, Deathdream, and Ghost Story. All of those have since been released properly—the last of those is actually on Shudder now, which blows my mind.

There was a particular vendor in Union Square that I’ve always just dubbed “The Guy.” Haven’t seen him in a couple of years, but he’d just set up shop on the corner of the park and sit behind these dark sunglasses and crates of burnt DVDs and mutter to himself about the good, gone days. He sold these badly compressed rips of forgotten and unreleased horror films, kung fu flicks, commercials, French cartoons – the works, for a few bucks a pop. Just stuff that had fallen through the cracks, as if they never existed at all. I have no idea how his business model worked or how he collected his wares, but he’s one the closest things our nation has to a superhero.

The best score he ever gave me was a DVD of Zacherley segments, which he threw in for free. I have no idea how he got them. God bless The Guy.

In a way, I expect that tricky IP law will likely keep the cinephile hunt alive well into the age of streaming. Titles pop on and off of different services so infrequently, and some of the REALLY weird stuff is seen as bad value propositions for services, because well, they are. I mean, is anyone going to stream Ed Wood’s Necromania anytime soon? Will Trent Harris’s Rubin and Ed ever get its day in the sun?

VT: Outside of the series, are you working on anything else? Any plans for projects not tied to the drive-in? Any dream projects out there that you would love to work with?

AJ: The Last Drive-In IS my dream project. Outside of focusing on that, I’m developing a few other film and television projects alongside Joe Bob, but nothing I’m ready to talk about.


The Drive-In never dies at 25YL! Follow us to get all of the latest updates and news about The Last Drive-In. You can catch up with Season 1 of The Last Drive-In as well as 2018’s marathons on Shudder. 


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Written by Valerie Thompson

Former staff member

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