Rusty Cundieff photo interview

Interview – Rusty Cundieff

Out of the great city of Pittsburgh, PA, Rusty Cundieff is a filmmaker with a diverse résumé. Dabbling in various genres, he has made a name for himself both in Horror and in Comedy over the last few decades. Building a dedicated following in both genres, his 1993 film Fear of a Black Hat has stood the test of time, while 1995’s Tales from the Hood is a modern Horror classic. Additionally working on the Chappelle Show, Cundieff really has a lot to offer the entertainment world.

Continuing to do what he loves, in 2023 he returns with his new Sci-Fi Thriller film 57 Seconds. A project where he worked with Award-Winning Actors Morgan Freeman and Josh Hutcherson, the thought-provoking film hit on demand and digital September 29th… and is quickly building its own audience. Excited for the future, Rusty Cundieff sat down to chat about 57 Seconds, his experiences in Horror and Comedy, influences, plus more. 

Cryptic Rock You have been involved in film for nearly four decades now. In that time, you have been a part of a lot of compelling projects; directed, produced, and acted. How would you describe your incredible journey in film to this point?

Rusty Cundieff I have this conversation with friends from time to time. One, I’m amazed that I actually have a career; I can make films, and that’s how I make money. It’s pretty amazing in some ways because you know… who gets to do that? I feel very fortunate in that regard. I also feel kind of fortunate that I’ve been able to do a lot of different things. There is a plus and minus to that, but I’ve done Comedy, Rom-Coms, and obviously, Horror.

I think 57 Seconds is the first true leaning Sci-fi thing that I’ve been involved in. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to tap into so many different things and work with some pretty fun people along the way. Getting Morgan Freeman and Josh Hutcherson for 57 Seconds was amazing. I would never imagine that we would get either of those guys! I was pretty grateful when we got them casted.

Cryptic Rock Yes, and you certainly have done a lot of different things. You have been involved in Horror, like 1995’s Tales from the Hood, as well as Comedy, with 1993’s Fear of a Black of a Hat. That said, do you have a favorite genre?

Rusty Cundieff – I think it depends on where I am at a particular time. I love the mockumentary vibe of Fear of a Black Hat. Being able to satirize something is really cool. Probably along with that, it would be Horror or Sci-fi. You can see in my films I have a lot of views on society, politics, etc. Horror and Sci-fi allow you to play in those sandboxes if you want; without being on the nose, or being on the nose. If you can make it entertaining, you can talk about issues and things in an entertaining way. That is something I really like about those genres.

Fear of a Black Hat Movie Poster
Fear of a Black Hat / The Samuel Goldwyn Company (1993)
Tales from the Hood movie poster
Tales from the Hood / Savoy Pictures (1995)

Cryptic Rock Most certainly. You have an ability to do that in Horror and Sci-fi. Your newest film, 57 Seconds, is a Sci-fi Thriller. How did this project come about for you?

Rusty Cundieff – The initial idea was based on the short story by E.C. Tubbs, Lucifer. That was found by Thomas P. Vitale; one of our producers on this project. He bought the rights to the story and had been looking to get the thing done for years. 

What we had to really play with was an original story, which is a very dark story. The protagonist in the short story is an asshole, basically. He gets this ring and doesn’t try to do anything good with the ring; it’s all very selfish and me-orientated. So, Thomas had Macon Blair write a script off of that short story. It followed the story and had to make these characters really come to life; which I think he did a great job at. The issue I think was that the story was so dark and hard to sell. It was like a Sci-fi Leaving Las Vegas (1995); this guy gets this ring and goes down this really dark rabbit hole.

When I came onto the project it was trying to figure out how to take that story and make the protagonist a bit more of someone that we would root for. It was to give him something to fight for; that he can use this ring as a tool to achieve. Then it was about creating a villain and a spirit guide on one side; which may or may not be good. It had a few different incarnations.

My first pass on it was also too dark. The first thing I wrote was ridiculous. It was about – how can we pull it back? How can we make this someone who people hopefully like and root for? That was figuring out what Franklin Fox’s journey would be like dealing with this company that basically produced a drug that killed his sister. He then finds this ring and uses it.

Cryptic Rock It is interesting to hear where it started and where it went. This film has many different elements. Is it different to balance all those different elements and keep the story moving forward?

Rusty Cundieff – Yes, actually it is a little tricky. You know there are those who think, “just jump right into the Sci-Fi; I don’t need romance, etc.” You are really trying to give just enough of this to have it give us an understanding of character. That’s really what the romantic side of this was; to give Franklin a grounding, but also to show how his interest in using this ring was affecting a relationship. 

I wanted to show on different levels how the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I also wanted to show how it affects people on a personal level, but then how it affects the world and those around you in ways you may not even know initially. That is what you see with drugs that are created that can do some good… but also do some harm. The same with technology; it can do a lot of good, but also can be used in some not-so-great ways. Those are themes that percolates into the film.

Cryptic Rock Yes, and that makes you think as well. There is a butterfly effect and we sometimes do not even think about this.

Rusty Cundieff – Yes, little things can take you down an entirely different path. Things like, missing your bus in the morning, or forgetting your keys and having to go back into the house. You just don’t know how that’s going to play out down the line. 

With this being, for the lack of a better word, a time travel movie (even though they are only going back 57 seconds), it shows you quickly how even changing something a few seconds ago can have extreme consequences of what your future path is going to be… as well as people around you.

Cryptic Rock Very true and also interesting ideas to explore. You mentioned working with Morgan Freeman and Josh Hutcherson. What was that like?

Rusty Cundieff – It was pretty awesome. Josh is one of the most prepared, easy-going actors that I’ve ever worked with. His facility as an actor to pull out his emotions and make things work is really just one of the best I’ve seen. He is very intuitive and very smart. 

Then working with Morgan, it was a similar thing. He is eighty-six now and still willing to do the work as an actor. There is a scene where someone takes a shot out of him, he’s on the ground, and all the crew said, “Morgan, you don’t have to get on the ground!” Everyone was so worried about him getting on the ground; and he just fucking got on the ground. (Laughs) Our DP said, “Mr. Freeman, you don’t have to get down there.” Then Morgan looked up at him and said, “Does the script say that I’m on the ground? Then I’m on the ground.” You hear that and think, alright!

Once you start talking to Morgan Freeman you realize he is a person like everybody else. But he definitely had people a little bit on pins and needles who were working with him; because you have this great actor coming into the set. It was a joy working with both him and Josh. I feel really quite lucky.

Morgan Freeman and Josh Hutcherson in 57 Seconds
57 Seconds still

Cryptic Rock It sounds like it was a great experience. So, as someone who has done Horror, and excelled within the genre, what are some of your personal favorites?

Rusty Cundieff – Different things struck different things in the first Tales from the Hood movie I did; maybe more than the others. A Clockwork Orange (1971) really informed a lot of the stuff that went into the last story of Tales from the Hood; the gangster story where he is strapped to a chair and spinning around. 

The doll segment was influenced by Trilogy of Terror (1975). There is a segment with Karen Black and this little African doll, and it was one of the scariest things I saw as a kid and it was great! 

Then the pilot episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery where Ossie Davis and Roddy McDowall are in this house. Ossie Davis plays this butler (Osmund Portifoy), and Roddy McDowall’s character (Jeremy Evans) father in the story is this old curmudgeon millionaire. Roddy’s character kills him, so he can inherit his house and all the wealth. The estate is so big and there is a painting on the wall of the land just outside the house where they have a private burial ground. 

As we pass this painting, after Roddy’s character kills his father, the painting slowly starts changing. His father’s tombstone wasn’t originally there, then the dirt starts to bubble up, a hand comes out of the ground, and he sees this guy coming toward him out of the grave in the painting. He ends up dying from fright. Then Ossie’s character ends up with the house and you realize he paid this painter to put up these paintings to scare the crap out of Roddy’s character. Then, as he is walking by, the painting now has Roddy’s character tombstone… and he thinks… oh shit, I didn’t pay for that!

Anyhow, all of that, with Trilogy of Terror, went into the doll segment of Tales from the Hood. Those are just a few examples of things that directly influenced me and the first Tales from the Hood.

57 Seconds movie poster
57 Seconds / The Avenue (2023)

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