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Friday, June 25, 2021

Damian Maffei on Becoming the Man in the Mask and Filming That Pool Scene in ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ [Mask of Insanity]

Welcome to Mask of Insanity, a recurring feature which will find the men and women behind some of the most indelible slashers and monsters in the genre chatting about the craziest times they’ve had behind latex or resin. These tales will allow readers insight into the wild world of horror filmmaking, while hopefully providing fans with a few laughs and shudders along the way.

In this entry, we’re chatting with actor Damian Maffei about his time playing the villainous Man in the Mask in Johannes Roberts’ 2018 80s slasher throwback The Strangers: Prey at Night, the sequel to Bryan Bertino’s 2008 original. Here, Mr. Maffei discusses how he got the role and his feelings on the resulting film, while providing some fantastic behind-the-scenes tales of its making – including some fun stories surrounding the film’s iconic swimming pool sequence.

“One of the producers of that movie, Jon D. Wagner, I had worked with years before on a movie called Closed for the Season,” Mr. Maffei begins, describing how he came to be a part of Prey at Night. “That was his first producing job, I think he was right out of college. That was shot in this abandoned amusement park in Ohio, Chippewa Lake Park that had been abandoned for thirty years. So it was overrun, there were trees growing through the rides. It was incredible. So I met John on that movie, we instantly got along, and we tried to work together a few times afterwards.

“He directed a short film called Wildfires and cast me in the lead. He produced Cheap Thrills and Starry Eyes, and then moved from LA back to Cincinnati. He wasn’t there that long, he gave me a call and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing this Strangers sequel!’ I thought, ‘Oh wow, it’s been ten years, right? So that’s great, what do you want?’

“He said, ‘What do you think about playing this guy in the sack?’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s not…you don’t need an actor for that.’ I mean, I love horror movies, you know? Lifelong horror fan, but I don’t know that I … there was a pride thing or something where I was like, ‘I don’t want to be doing that while other people are acting, it’s going to be frustrating.’ But I read the script and I saw some things in there that I really, as a horror fan and as a movie fan, wanted to be a part of and try to help make happen.

“So I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ I met with Johannes Roberts, the director. And that was it, then it was off to Kentucky. We filmed that right on the the Cincinnati border. The opening of that film was shot in Cincinnati, right by the CVG airport. The trailer park in the movie is a large area of land that used to be a town. The airport bought it out and cleared all the houses out, and they built a trailer park there. Really, the only problem with filming there was that we’d have to hold for planes flying overhead.”

Once cast in the role, did Mr. Maffei have any trouble dealing with inhabiting a role previously played by another actor? “Well, I’d seen the original movie in theaters, and I really enjoyed it. Part of what is so effective about that original movie is … there’s the atmosphere, and then there’s the whole thing of – the villains, are they there? Are they not? Are they just in your head? There are just flashes of them in the background, or quickly across the screen. So there really wasn’t much to take from the original movie, just kind of a lot of walking. Bertino, he was masterful. He just kind of utilized them as strategic pieces of set work.

Damian Maffei

“So there really wasn’t much to go on there. It was just kind of, ‘Walk slowly.’ That kind of thing. Then with Prey, obviously it starts out that way, then the circumstances change. The tables get turned. It spills out into the street, into the pool, and all the other stuff.

“I mean initially, as an actor, I was like ‘This is nothing. There’s no character work or emotion to get into here.’ But what was challenging about it were these very fleeting moments where you can kind of make it your own, or bring some behavior to it, or at least help create a menacing moment. The first thing that I read in that script that stood out to me was this scene in the van with Mike, the father [played by Martin Henderson]. As a horror fan, I was like, ‘I need to do this part. I need to do this movie just to do this scene.’ That was a moment I knew I could help control, timing-wise. Help draw it out, make it kind of harrowing. So that’s how I went into it. I wanted to use my body language and create those moments as best as I could. Then there was a bit more of a human element that I had brought into it, which Johannes had just carved down a little bit. Which I get, character-wise.

“But you know, stuff like that at the pool scene with me and Lewis [Pullman, who played teenager Luke]. It builds up, there was a lot of standoff, and huffing and puffing. I mean, originally that scene was a little bit longer and more tense, instead of right into it. But, I completely get why they did it. It’s probably better off for it.

“There were a couple of little funny bits that happened, to kind of juxtapose with the whole ‘silent menacing villain’,” Mr. Maffei notes, responding to being asked which funny or crazy stories from the filming of Prey at Night leap to mind. “In the van scene with the father … every time we’d do something, Johannes would say, ‘Play around, play around.’ So I got into the van, and I would sit there and I would do a little cleanup. I cleaned off all the glass from the windshield when I sat down in the van. That’s not in the finished movie, but we did film it every time. The prop department would go in and sprinkle fake glass around the dashboard for me to wipe off.

“But Martin, he had the wood in his leg there, and it’s going through the windshield. He would move around a little bit. At one point he moved, he must’ve shaved off a sliver of actual glass from the windshield, and it landed in the pile of fake glass. You could tell the difference. There’s a little blue tint to the real glass, but I wasn’t looking for that. So at one point, I got into the van. I sat down and I started very, very delicately cleaning up, wiping the glass off…

“…and my finger managed to find the one shard of glass. It’s very silent scene, just kind of like little whimpers from Martin every now and then. I’m silent. And then you just heard, ‘AHH!’ I stuck my finger on this piece of glass. Little bit of blood comes out. And you just hear Johannes from the walkie, like [puts on English accent] ‘Damian, what the hell is going on in there?!’ ‘I think I’m cut!’

“They came over and, wiped the blood off. I was like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ That was the first thing I filmed on that movie. Wasn’t supposed to, but that wound up being the first scene. I was like, ‘Oh man, this is an intense scene.’ I mean, I’d already been on set. I’d been in on it from the start, but weather kept chasing us out of the first thing I was supposed to film. So that wound up being it. That was my maiden voyage, cutting my finger on a piece of glass. Kind of squealed like a little school boy.”

Are on-set injuries a usual hazard when playing a slasher? “Nope! Just for me. [sighs] Just for me. I don’t think anyone else got injured on that movie. Just me. With the glass.

“After that pool scene, I didn’t want to get up. I was so sore because I had swung that ax at him like eighty times. And then the pool and stuff, I was just sore. I don’t know how much damage I actually did to myself falling.

“But otherwise, Bailee Madison [who played young Kinsey in the film] did as much of her own stunts as she could, so she got scraped and bruised quite a bit. I mean, she didn’t have to. There are other people there in a willing to jump in, but she wanted to do it. She wants to be doing whatever she can, so she definitely got nicked up a lot. She was showing us her bruises and cuts daily as they compiled. But yeah, no. There’s been no big injuries on anything I’ve done so far. Thankfully.”

There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to actors who portray villains in movies such as Prey at Night. On the one hand, you might see some behind-the-scenes pics and notice a performer with their mask off, black makeup giving them raccoon eyes, grinning ear to ear while posing with other actors. On the other hand, there are certain thesps who elect to stay away from their fellow cast members to better stay in character and appear threatening to the other actors.

Damian Maffei as the Man in the Mask in ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ (2018)

So which approach does Mr. Maffei subscribe to? “You have to find out what works best for you. And as long as it’s not affecting other performances, I’m all for it. On Strangers, there were a couple of actors on who did not want to interact or be near the villains because they wanted to keep that mystery and that detachment, and that’s fine.

“I come from doing a lot of theater. I love theater. There aren’t really any stage slashers that I’m aware of, although I’d love for there to be. But with theater, you don’t have really have that luxury because you have to rehearse the scenes.

“You gotta put the play together, then you gotta run through it and make sure it’s functioning properly. So you don’t have that ‘I don’t want to be near any person until the day’, because the day is every day. The whole ‘I only got one take in me of this’, that kind of shit – you can’t do that in theater. Hopefully, you get to do an entire run of something for fifty or a hundred shows. You got to keep making it fresh for yourself.

“So, I mean, I’m not into that whole separating yourself from the villains in it. I’m just more into the whole acting aspect of it. I’ll just say that Lewis and I got along very well. We went out to eat, we went to the movies together. We did a bunch of stuff, and I think that worked to our favor, as far as the pool stuff and whatever else we did. Because we trusted each other. We were working very well with one another, and I think that whole pool sequence benefited from it.

“I tend to just go for more kind of getting those relationships going. Get kind of a chemistry going. You still get to act. You just act the part, whatever it calls for. And you don’t have to like everybody. I’ve certainly done plenty of theater where I didn’t like some of the actors. Or even movies, but you just do it.”

“There was no music playing,” Mr. Maffei reveals, recounting the filming of Prey at Night’s most impressive setpiece. “We got there, we show up, we couldn’t start filming that movie until about 9pm. Every night, because the whole thing takes place at night. Prey at Night! So Friday night, we showed up in the afternoon sometime. You report to base camp, they cart you over in your regular clothes … Lewis and I worked with Cal Johnson, the stunt coordinator, and we just kinda ran through it. Very slow, then half speed, and then we started picking it up.

“The pool was ten times the size of what I thought it was going be. I think that everyone thought it was going to be. I was like, ‘This is neat.’ People were setting up, but it was daylight.

“So Lewis and I, we’re really feeling good about it. So we left. You know, you go get into costume and then wait for night to fall. Then we came back, and I remember coming back there and walking into the thing. There were all the palm trees. I was like, ‘Oh my god, look at these palm trees! This is crazy, the colors.’ There were three cameras set up. They were setting up a camera under water, the crane camera, then one on the ground that was kind of handheld, following us. It was pretty wild. It was definitely a moment where I stood there. ‘Ah, I can’t believe I’m a part of this.’ It was really cool.

“Well, in that whole sequence … I’ll not forget. I used to play baseball, in high school and such. I was a good power hitter. Struck out a lot. I never got cheated with my swinging. Every now and then, I would swing so hard that I would just spin my entire body around and fall. It’s a bit goofy, bit comedic.

“And I brought that back at one point, during that pool scene where I took a swing at Lewis so hard … I mean, there was a good distance. We had worked out that choreography quite a bit, and Lewis is great. So we were really in tune, but one time I took a cut at him so hard that I just spun my body around and fell ass down on the concrete. And…I was embarrassed. So I just kinda laid there. I didn’t move. I was just like, ‘Ah geez, god…’ But I had the mask on my head and I wasn’t moving, so everyone thought I’d knocked myself out.

“So they all ran over to me, the medic and the stunt team. And I was like, ‘Ah, geez. To add to it, they think I’ve knocked myself out.’ So I was like, ‘I’m fine! Get the hell out of here, get out! They wanted to check on me, that was okay. But because I was embarrassed, I was like ‘Get outta here!’ So that’s a memorable moment for me.”

Damian Maffei and Lewis Pullman in ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ (2018)

And what of the sequence in the water, once the Man in the Mask and Luke tumble into the water and struggle over a knife? Surely that was difficult to film? “We did most of that in one night, that pool scene. I remember being in the water there, chasing Lewis. He and I pop up out of the water, and he has a blood bag on his back. I was told to make sure I’m ready to pop it, because as soon as I touch it, it’s going to burst open and blood’s going to fall out. ‘So be careful!’ So, we pop up out of the water and I get going…and Lewis would already be gone. He’d already be out of the pool. Won the game! Beat the boss! Over and over again. And Johannes was like, ‘Damian! You’ve got to catch him!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m fuckin’ trying!’

“So I was like, ‘Lewis. You gotta slow down, man. My boots are filled with water, they’re like anvils. My pockets are filled with water. I’m wearing a fuckin’ corduroy suit! Could you just have a little tougher time? Please?’ So I caught him! Finally! Wrap my arm around him, and I tap the blood bag on his back…and there’s nothing.

“And I hit it again. Nothing. Again, a little harder. Nothing. I’m just like hitting him in the back, and all anyone can see is me punching Lewis in the back, over and over again. They’re like, “Oh my god! Damian stop! Lewis, are you okay?!’ I’m like, ‘I’m not a frickin’ monster here. Your bag is in perfect condition still, by the way.’

“They reset. They’re like ‘Alright, it’s ready. All you have to do is hit it now.’ So we do it again. I catch him, I hit the bag. Nothing!

“I still had that knife on me, which was a fake knife but it had that little point. I flipped it around in my hand, and I was just like – boop! The bag burst open, and that’s what you see in the movie.

“So that was fun. But that was tense, because we were chasing daylight. Or daylight was chasing us. It was getting on six in the morning by the time we pulled that off. A lot of fun, definitely pretty great to be part of.

Given that Prey at Night appeared to be, at a glance, as much of a series reboot as a sequel, one could be forgiven for staring slack-jawed at the screen as each of the titular baddies are taken out onscreen. Was the fact that the killers didn’t make it to the end credits as much of a surprise to its cast as it was to its viewers? “As far as I’m concerned, the Man in the Mask is not dead,” Maffei asserts. “He’s resting on the sidewalk, thank you very much! We actually shot about five endings for that movie, and three of them, I just flat out show up in the hospital. We filmed it. I posted a still on Instagram of me right before I bury an ax in a doctor’s back.

An alternate ending from ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ (2018)

“I filmed that during Haunt [the 2019 film wherein Maffei played ‘Devil’, one of several masked killers terrorizing victims in a haunted house attraction]. It was the same DP, it was the same group doing Haunt. So Johannes came back and we filmed that scene there during an off day on Haunt.

“Bailee was there, there’s a knock on the door, and the doctor comes in and he says, ‘Oh, you’re awake.’ Then out of the shadows behind him, I hit him in the back with an ax and he drops. It freeze frames on me, like nutty, and my crazy eyes. So I was like, ‘Yes! This is awesome!’ The original ending, the Man in the Mask and Dollface get in a truck and drive off in a different direction. And then they killed Dollface. Then the Man in the Mask shows up at the hospital, and bursts through the nurse’s station.

“Then we filmed the bridge scene, and Johannes was like “That’s it! We don’t even need to film another thing! I love this so much!’ But then we wound up filming this other one for the Blu-ray. The alternate ending on that is, there’s a knock at the door. The door opens, and there’s a smiley face on the door. Then the lights in the hospital start shutting off one by one. Then you hear the ax dragging. You don’t see me in that, but it’s pretty obvious.”

As our conversation winds down, Mr. Maffei shares his overall thoughts on Prey at Night and its making. “I love it. I loved it when we were doing it. Never knew what we were doing. It’s interesting, when you read something, especially a script – when you read it, you can’t help but visualize it in your head. You’ll visualize the scenes, and all that. Then you go to film and it’s different, or it’s worse. Or it’s the cheap version of what you had in your head. Prey at Night matched or bettered everything that was in my head. Cinematically, or performance-wise, and all that.

“It was like, Johannes knew. We were just out there making this feverish kind of gonzo slasher, and there was no bones about it. He would say, ‘I’m going to go remake Christine now.’ Then set the truck on fire, and chase her down the street. We knew we were doing it. It was a great time, it was a great group. Everyone was all in. When I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is really cool!’

“Obviously, there was no music playing while we were filming. So that added this whole … before we’d go to film something, Johannes would say ‘I think I’ll be putting in this 80s love ballad hit.’ But he knew what he was doing. So that was great. Ryan Samul’s cinematography is brilliant.

“Yeah, I love it. It’s a fun slasher, with characters I dig. I think it’s really great. I know a lot of fans of the first Strangers were maybe not thrilled about the direction it went in. Just as fans of Alien weren’t fans of what Aliens did. Not comparing Prey at Night to Aliens! But, you know, it’s just a different direction. They want something different, but more of the same. But over the years, there’s been a really, really steady increase of people embracing it. I’ve heard from a lot of people who admittedly didn’t like it when they saw it the first time, and have come to really love it. That’s amazing to me. I have a genuine affection for that movie and the people that did it.”

Very special thanks to Damian Maffei for his time and insights.


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