Women in Horror Interview with Clarissa Jacobson, the talented writer behind the quirky, darkly comedic, and extremely hilarious horror short Lunch Ladies
Whether you called it a cafeteria or barfeteria, we all got some kind of lunch served to us in school by lunch ladies. The under-appreciated and often verbally abused souls, whose only crime is to serve what they are given by the school district; low budget, unappetizing, globs of mystery meat.
In my new favorite dark comedy, writer/producer Clarissa Jacobson serves up her incredibly funny version of the ladies in hair nets, simply titled: Lunch Ladies!
Synopsis: “For the past twenty years, obsessed Johnny Depp fans and fraternal twin sisters, Seretta (Donna Pieroni) and LouAnne Burr (Mary Manofsky), have shared a miserable existence as high school lunch ladies. Serving up rubbery chicken parts, ammonia-treated government meat and whatever else the cash-strapped national lunch program sends their way. This year is going to be different: The twin’s Cheesy Burger Bites recipe is the Grand Prize Winner of Johnny Depp’s Cook for Kid’s Charity Event. Convinced this is their ticket out of high school hell town and that “The Depper” will hire them to be his very own Personal Chefs, their dreams are shattered after a snotty head cheerleader pushes them one step too far. This forces the Lunch Ladies to ask themselves – WWJD? What would Johnny do?”
This hilarious fast-paced ride into the dark side, is so full of driving music, surreal scenes and quirky characters that you can’t help but fall in love with the film! I haven’t had this much fun watching anything in a long time. (Remember the TV show Pushing Daisies? Lunch Ladies reminds me so much of that show, with a little Fried Green Tomatoes and Sweeney Todd mixed in!)
I love the music, the superb practical SFX, and was blown away at the chemistry and comic timing of the leading ladies Donna Pieroni and Mary Manofsky! So, I was excited that I got a chance to talk to the writer/producer Clarissa Jacobson, to find out more about this little dark comedy gem.
INTERVIEW WITH LUNCH LADIES WRITER/PRODUCER CLARISSA JACOBSON
Los Angeles Zombie Girl: Hi Clarissa, thanks so much for sharing Lunch Ladies with me! This is one of the most funny and upbeat horror shorts I have seen in a long time and it brightened my day so much!
Clarissa Jacobson: “Thank you Vicki! That is the best compliment ever that you laughed and had a good time – that’s exactly how I want people to feel when they see it. Thank you for the interview!“
LAZG: What made you decide to do a horror film? Is this your first one? What is your background?
CJ: “I started as an actress – I’d wanted to be an actress since I was seven, so yeah I was a theatre nerd. I had a theatre degree, did Off-Broadway, had an agent… did all of that. But, when I found Twin Bridges Writing Salon, I realized I was a screenwriter. I never looked back. I love it!
When I started screenwriting, I thought I could only write comedy or dramedy because that’s what I excelled at as an actress. Luckily, Joe Bratcher who runs Twin Bridges (he is also the choreographer and a producer on Lunch Ladies) pushed me to spread my wings.
For my fourth script (which was when I took the leap into horror), I had a lot of ideas and I couldn’t decide which I was going to commit to. One was the fascinating true story of Elizabeth Bathory who is the world’s most prolific serial killer and lived in the 1600s in Hungary. We read all my concepts aloud in class. Well, guess what? EVERYONE wanted me to write Bathory.
I was terrified – it had blood, gore, lesbian sex and was a period piece (RESEARCH!). I didn’t want to do it. Joe told me I had to because I was afraid and overcoming it would help me grow as an artist. I don’t like to be afraid of anything. LOL. So, I wrote it. AND LOVED IT. Bathory turned out great. Once I went to the dark side… it was hard to come back. It’s such a creative place to be because it pushes you to parts of your mind that you never explored. That’s how Lunch Ladies came about – I just couldn’t stop writing dark because it’s exciting.
This is my first film. I wrote the feature for Lunch Ladies first – that took 18 months. Then I decided to do a proof of concept to get interest in the feature.”
LAZG: I went to a school where we ate out of machines and never got the Lunch Lady experience. Why Lunch Ladies? Are they really that abused? Because you really make us, as the audience, feel for them!
CJ: “The concept for the film came from a conversation I had with the lead actress, Donna Pieroni. We had met a long time ago when were in a play together at The Odyssey in Los Angeles. She was telling me about how she and another actress liked one another but it sucked because they were the same type. They would go to all the same auditions and one of them would always lose the job to the other. Donna said, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a movie with two Lunch Ladies? Then we’d both get called into audition and we’d BOTH get cast.” BAM! There it was – a movie about Lunch Ladies.
And yes, I feel for Lunch Ladies. They are abused – they’re expected to make delicious dishes with substandard ingredients – thanks to the government nickel and diming the public school system. When Lunch Ladies’ meals aren’t good they’re blamed. Imagine slaving all day over a stove, serving it up and all you hear is insensitive kids badmouthing it, dumping whole uneaten trays into the garbage and even worse, throwing it – FOOD FIGHT!
Educators and Lunch Ladies have the hardest jobs and yet they constantly get zero respect. I know this because I’m the daughter of a high school teacher. In some ways, this was an ode to my dad – he in fact named the leads and I would often pick his brain – does this sound right, is this how it would happen, is this realistic?”
LAZG: Tell me about the director that dropped out, saying they wouldn’t want to see two middle-aged female leads. (Dummy!)
CJ: “I look back now, and it was the best thing that ever happened. At the time, it was devastating when he dropped out, but if he hadn’t I wouldn’t have found JM (Josh) Logan. Who was the BEST director, ever.
The litany of things the old director told me I couldn’t do was a mile long. But it ended with, “You can do Lunch Ladies, but it won’t go anywhere because no one wants to see two middle-aged female leads.”
After that I found Josh. Josh LOVED Lunch Ladies and was confident he could direct the hell out of it. He said, “Clarissa, everyone wants to see female leads, and I know horror fans. Horror fans will lose their shit for this.”
LAZG: What do you want the audience to take home after watching Lunch Ladies? Is there a moral, or is it just a laugh fest?
CJ: “I love to laugh and make people laugh. But, it’s more than that. I believe all great comedy comes from pain and that’s what grounds characters and gives them heart and realism. So, there isn’t a moral, but there’s a truth that I think and hope people can relate to – these women have a lot of pain. They’re the classic underdogs. We’ve all been treated badly and we’ve had to suck it up, so here’s a story about two ladies done wrong who WIN, who beat the system. And that’s a satisfying feeling.”
“That’s what I want the audience to take home. Satisfaction. A little smile because someone who got shit on their whole lives, finally won. The other thing I want them to take home is the idea to never stop dreaming and to aim high. The Lunch Ladies have a ridiculous dream – to be Johnny Depp’s personal chefs – and if they can dream that big, anyone can… so… dream the impossible dream – Go Johnny!”
LAZG: How did you find your leading ladies? They were fabulous!
CJ: “I’ve known Donna Pieroni for years. As mentioned earlier, we met in a play – we were both cast in Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” and I’ve always loved Donna’s work. I had actually written the feature Lunch Ladies for Donna, so for me – no one could play that part but her; I wouldn’t even consider anyone else. Mary Manofsky – Josh found. Josh takes a class at Stuart Rogers Studio where directors practice working with actors (another reason why the acting was so great – Josh knows how to direct actors to get the best out of them!). Mary was one of the actresses there. He liked her work so much, he cast her in the film he did right before Lunch Ladies – THE GARAGE SALE (coming out September 19). He didn’t know Donna’s work and I didn’t know Mary’s. We trusted one another’s choices. They showed up at my apartment, read together (it was brilliant), and we never auditioned anyone else.”
LAZG: I know you have some funny stories from the filming. Can you share them with me?
CJ: “Yes! I love reliving those moments, there was so many, so I’ll narrow it down to two:
1) I had called at least 100 schools. I had been turned down or ignored by all – the superintendent at a school in Lancaster was especially nasty after he read the script – he basically acted like I had written a rated X porno. Anyhow, we were freaking out because we needed a school, nothing else would work and it was looking like we weren’t going to get one. Luckily, Josh’s friend recommended two Catholic Schools. BOTH were willing to let us film! All these uptight schools afraid for us to shoot a tame comedy/horror flick (when teens are blowing up people in Grand Theft Auto) and the Catholic schools were like “It’s art and the location fees can fund our summer writing program.” Bravo to the Catholics who let us a film a movie about a kid getting murdered by Lunch Ladies!
2) The last night we filmed was the blood night. We had saved the blood scene for last as it would be messy. We had planned to wrap at midnight… but everything was way behind schedule. So we didn’t get out of there till like 5AM. Why is this funny? Because we had pumped 10 gallons of fake blood through T-Rex The Meat Grinder, there was blood EVERYWHERE, all over the walls, the floors the dishes, US… and we barely finished getting all that blood up by the time kids were to arrive at school on Monday morning.”
LAZG: What were your biggest challenges?
CJ: “The location was the hardest, but after that was the fact that we had to have a lot of extras to play students; but we had no money to pay them, so I went through Backstage to find hungry, excited actors (getting real and preferably trained actors was super important to me coming from an acting background). I talked back and forth with the actors for weeks and knew all their names a month before but we had no idea how many would show up. We had a whole scene that relied on a school looking filled and I was terrified – if we didn’t have enough people show up, what would we do?
THEY ALL SHOWED UP. Not only that, we never had that freak extra looking into the camera making a face while the lead was acting – all of them were so good and so professional and I hope we get to make the feature so we can cast every single one of them again. Also, we had no budget for costumes, so Josh asked them to bring their own clothes and he put them in cliques – the Goths, the Nerds, the Jocks… they all showed up dressed the part. Goes to show you, give people some responsibility and creative license and they will rise to the occasion.
Lastly, the dance sequence in the cafeteria was a huge challenge. Joe Bratcher had come up with a mosh up idea – to mix Hip Hop, Ballet and Tap Dance while kids dump trays – a sort of Fame on crack concept. Joe is one of the most talented people I know so I didn’t even question it, I said, “if it’s in your head, it’s gotta be great, so do whatever you want.” NO ONE knew how it would look because there was no money to do a rehearsal ahead of time. So we prepped. Joe and Rebecca Ruschell (ballet choreographer) and Monika Felice Smith (Hip Hop Choreographer) worked their ideas for months. Meanwhile Josh was prepping like crazy on how to integrate the normal kids who don’t dance and the shots and how it would look and also planning for the fact that we may not have enough extras show up (which we did!). When everyone got there it WORKED. And it was amazing. It could’ve been a huge disaster.”
LAZG: I loved the practical effects — but I am a gore hound! Tell me about your SFX team.
CJ: “I am so lucky to have had Matt Falletta. When Josh came on to do the film, he brought Matt with him because they are good friends and have done a lot of movies together. Both Matt and Josh have a background in SFX and have worked on numerous horror films over the years including The Dentist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Virus to name a few. I remember I had said to Josh when he wanted to do Lunch Ladies “What about the effects, I’m worried about the effects” he said “That’s the least of my worries, that’s easy.” This was a walk in the park for them compared to other things they’ve done.
Matt Falletta is also the co-owner of special effects shop, SOTA F/X which has been in business for over 20 years. I also have to hand it to Susan Boyle, our food stylist, who supplied the disgusting bloody ground meat that T-Rex The Meat Grinder regurgitated. BTW that meat REALLY smelled bad.”
LAZG: Do you want to try to make this a full-length feature? If so- what is your plan?
CJ: “Yes! As mentioned, I wrote the full Lunch Ladies screenplay first. The short is a proof of concept. My dream is to get interest from a producer to make the feature when they see how many people love the short. I’m working hard to connect with our audience and hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear from someone on our social media. They reach out, tell me how much they want to see the film or ask me where they can see it. The ones that do get to see it consistently tell me they love it and that the film is too short, that they wish there was more. They also consistently share it on their own social media and tell others about it. This means there’s an audience for this film and if I can create enough buzz, I know someone will want to make it.”
“This film IS commercial – the people who love us are horror and cult film lovers, TEENS and middle-aged women, young guys, all races… It’s a cool mix of people and a wide market. SO I’m working to get that buzz and I’m thankful you are giving us some publicity to keep the ball rolling!”
LAZG: Tell me about some of the other people that made this film happen.
CJ: “I had so many amazing, talented people I don’t even know where to begin. We can start with Joe Bratcher, which you’ve heard a lot about. My writing mentor – who helped me work the script till it squeaked then came onto the film and choreographed the incredible dance sequence. Then there’s Shayna Weber, another producer and good friend who helped me with so many things I can’t even count. Krystopher Sapp – the amazing artist who created T-Rex The Meat Grinder. I saw his work at La Luz De Jesus gallery in Los Angeles and asked him if he would do it. That was a huge hurdle – finding someone to make T-Rex, which is inanimate but is very much its own character.”
“Amelia Allwarden, the editor – who had the perfect sense of humor and eye to cut this incredibly difficult film, Chris Ekstein, the cinematographer who did such great work and found the whole crew when there wasn’t very much money to pay them, Patrick Giraudi who did the sound on this tiny short when he works on big films because it reminded him of Tales From The Crypt and he loved it, Antoni M. March who composed the incredible score, Federico Jusid the music producer who found him… I’m missing so many people. I could go on for a few more hours. But I truly had the best people ever.”
LAZG: How will people be able to watch Lunch Ladies?
CJ: “Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or go to our website: lunchladiesmovie.com and sign up for updates. That way you will know whatever film fests we get in so you can come see us. When our film fest run is over I will be making the film available online and we will have a trailer up soon, so watch for it!”
LAZG: Anything else you want to share?
CJ: “This has been the most amazing experience of my life. Making a film was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it has been so joyful. I’m meeting so many generous, cool people – it can seem like the world is a cold place, but the fans I’ve met have shown me the opposite – maybe that’s just how the horror community is – supportive – but it’s a super positive place.”
“I also want to share that I love the film exactly as it is. I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s true to my voice and every single person that worked on it, gave an honest, real part of themselves – which isn’t always easy in a world where you are constantly being asked to compromise to sell art. We didn’t compromise – so I’m proud of it!”
Lunch Ladies is currently slated for viewing at the Tulsa Film Festival. Follow all their social media to find out where to see it next! You may be revolted, but you will not be disappointed by Lunch Ladies!