INTERVIEW: Filmmaker and BlackBoxTV Creator Tony E. Valenzuela On ‘The Axe Murders of Villisca’

A talk with the innovative filmmaker about his recent film.

Tony E. Valenzuela is an award winning writer/director whose latest film ‘The Axe Murders of Villisca’ is now in release. We recently had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his film and career. A gracious talent, he had lots to say about his work.

Tony E. Valenzuela is the creator of BlackBoxTV, the #1 most-subscribed and watched sci-fi/horror channel on YouTube, including “BlackBoxTV Presents,” an anthology series (in the vein of the “Twilight Zone”) being the longest-running scripted drama online. In 2012, Tony partnered with Anthony E. Zuiker (creator of C.S.I.) for two BlackBoxTV series, “Silverwood” and “AZP.” Tony recently completed his first feature, “Villisca”(which we’ll discuss below), and the wildly successful YouTube zombie survival game “Fight of the Living Dead.” He has collaborated with Jon Turtletaub, CBS, Fox Studios and Guillermo del Toro amongst others. His scripted adventure series, “The Fourth Door”, recently debuted on Verizon’s Go90 streaming platform and was produced by Ron Howard & Brian Grazer‘s New Form Digital. Let’s talk with Tony E. Valenzuela.

Hello and thank you for talking with us. Before we get started on your film, I want to just briefly ask about BlackBoxTV. What got that going?

I started BlackBoxTV in 2010 because there was no home for horror on YouTube so I decided to build one.

It’s good stuff and I recommend readers to go there and subscribe. Let’s move on to The Axe Murders of Villisca, your first feature film. Its backstory is based on true events, but the film itself is not. How important was keeping a sense of authenticity to the facts and how close to reality did you come in recreating some of those horrific murders?

When we started pre-production for the film in 2013, we talked about filming at the actual house in Villisca but for me, it felt disrespectful to re-enact the murders of six children and their parents on the exact spot where they took place. That being said, a majority of the exterior shots were filmed in Villisca, Iowa. The graveyard shown in the film is the actual graveyard where the Moores and Lena & Ina Stillinger are buried. Again, out of respect, the Stillinger grave shown in the film is not the actual grave but a VFX shot.
Tony E. Valenzuela
Tony E. Valenzuela (Courtesy @ Tony E. Valenzuela)

The film itself is loosely based on a night I spent at the Villisca Axe Murder House (with Joey Anderton and Jessica Lee Rose) in December of 2010. That night provided the true inspiration for Axe Murders of Villisca. You can watch a mini-doc (or below) from that night on BlackBoxTV. In 2012, producer Cindy Cowan suggested I make a movie about my overnight stay at the house I disagreed as I was still trying to process what had happened to me in Villisca. I felt unsure that there was a story I wanted to tell. In the fall of 2012, producer Michael Wormser introduced me to Kevin Abrams who suggested that I reach back into my past and look for narrative inspiration. It was this process that created Jess (a small nod to Jessica Lee Rose) Caleb and Denny, a mash up of my friends from high school. Telling their fictional story made the going easier. After that, things began to narratively fall in place. When Jarrett Sleeper, the actor who plays Denny told me that I was the true inspiration for his character, I couldn’t disagree, the truth always finds it’s way to the surface.

As far as how the murders are reenacted in the film (from Lena letting in Kelly, to Mrs. Moore appearing “stuck” in her bed) after researching the Villisca axe murders from 2010-2013 I believe the film to be my best guess at what truly happened that night.

You’re obviously a big horror fan and as this is your feature film directorial debut, what were some of the larger challenges if any in bringing your vision to the screen?

The biggest challenge during the making of Villisca was my own inexperience. At that point (Villisca was filmed in 2013) I had directed 20+ shorts for BlackBoxTV so I thought the transition to feature-length would be easier. I learned very quickly that directing a short is like walking into a house, surveying the living room and then walking back out the front door but directing a film is like entering that same house except the front door locks behind you and you must find another way out. For example, the film was originally supposed to open with Caleb and his father robbing the gas station but Seth Caplan and I felt that the movie was starting off on the wrong foot tonally. To solve this, I edited the final opening of the film from footage that was initially supposed to be used as flashbacks sprinkled throughout the 3rd act.

You’ve got a bright young cast in the film. Were you involved in any of the casting? And can you tell us a bit about some of your stars?

Yes I was involved in casting but hats off to Beth Lipari and Jeremy (the casting directors) who put together an awesome cast of Robert AdamsonAlex Frnka and Jarrett Sleeper.
Tony E. Valenzuela
The Axe Murders of Villisca, 2017 © Ketchum Labs

There’s a couple of familiar names in the film as well, including Conchata Ferrell, who is always so reliable, but also the great Jon Gries, who is one of those character actors that whenever I see, I know I’m in for something special. How’d they get involved and can you share some stories?

I had worked with Jon on a BlackBoxTV short that Drew Daywalt directed called “Kidnapped” so when Seth suggested him I jumped at the opportunity. JON IS AMAZING! Conchata did me a real favor on day one of shooting. She came to me early in the morning and said, “I like to be directed, okay?” I smiled and said, “ No problem.” It was a kind thing for her to do. I mean, she knew it was my first feature but she also didn’t want any special treatment. Conchata was there to collaborate and create. Her performance of Mrs. Flanks was pitch perfect. I based Mrs. Flanks on Kay Rager, the vice principal of Fontana High school, which I attended in 1990. Sadly Mrs. Raeger passed away before the movie was completed but fortunately I got a chance to talk to her before and thank her for all the she did for me back then. I had a really hard time in high school but Mrs. Rageer never gave up on me – she was always trying to point me in the right direction, just like Mrs. Flanks tries to do with Caleb.

As an independent filmmaker, what do you like best about the process?

I like the whole thing. First, finding a story I care about, then finding the artists to bring it life, working with them on set, showcasing the best moments in post, Brandon Roberts scoring, the guys at Monekyland fine tuning the sound, then showing it to people, watching how it affects them. Yeh, I like all of it.

What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

The 360 VR storytelling we’re doing on BlackBoxTV is very exciting and meaningful for me as an artist. Creating stories for this brand new medium is inspiring and challenging in all the right ways.

We dedicate a portion of the site to discussing great moments in movies. Are there any movie moments (or movies in general) that you would say have had influence on you or you regard as being important to cinema?

I can’t really say what is important to cinema, but I can tell you three cinematic moments that are important to me:
Tony E. Valenzuela
Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006 © Estudios Picasso
1) The end of Pan’s Labyrinth. Ofelia’s death is both stunningly beautiful and difficult to watch.
Tony E. Valenzuela
Donnie Darko , 2001 © Pandora Cinema
2) The mirror scene between Donnie and Frank in Donnie Darko. This movie made we want to make movies.
Tony E. Valenzuela
Something Wicked this Way Comes, 1983 © Walt Disney Productions
3) Something Wicked This Way Comes. The scene where Mr. Dark is ripping out the pages of Will’s father’s life. This scene always moves me. 

Thanks again for talking with us. Best of luck and hope our paths cross again.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.