GREENSBORO — Jaysen Buterin has a crippling case of coulrophobia.
“I’m deathly afraid of clowns,” he said.
So why has Buterin surrounded himself with clowns in “Kill Giggles,” the first feature-length film he wrote and directs?
He calls it “ill-advised, self-administered psychotherapy.”
“We’ve all seen the movies where the murderers or monsters all dress up like clowns,” Buterin said as cast and crew prepared for the day’s filming. “I wanted to have a serial killer of clowns. It’s never been done before. No one has ever made the clowns the victims.”
“It’s kind of like a dream come true and my worst nightmare all at the same time,” he said.
Area audiences know Buterin, 43, for independent short films created by his company Mad Ones Films and as the drummer for band The Malamondos.
He got his start in filmmaking 13 years ago in the 48 Hour Film Project, in which teams have 48 hours to write, shoot and edit a short film.
He won an honorable mention for best writing. That ignited his fire for screenwriting and then directing. His short horror films include “The Devil’s Tramping Ground” and “The Corner.”
He spent four years writing and directing the epic short-film trilogy, “The Gospel According to Booze, Bullets & Hot Pink Jesus” — the latter a souvenir statue.
Buterin says that he was “cool with clowns” until age 6 or 7, when he saw the supernatural horror film, “Poltergeist.”
The scene of a clown marionette attacking a boy was ranked No. 80 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
“That just completely unhinged me,” he said.
Now he has a son of his own.
“I figured it was a matter of time before he got invited to a friend’s birthday party and Bubbles, the floppy-footed guy, would be the entertainment du jour,” Buterin said.
“So I figured I could either have a very well-rehearsed story about where Jack’s daddy disappeared to, when the truth of the matter is I’m locked in the trunk of my car crying hysterically,” he said. “Or I could try to get over my crippling case of coulrophobia.”
Before “Kill Giggles,” he made “Killing Giggles,” a short proof-of-concept film that he took on the film festival circuit to build awareness.
The screenplay won two awards, including Best Unproduced Screenplay at the GenreBlast Film Festival in Winchester, Va.
He raised money from two online crowdfunding campaigns. He estimates that it will cost at least $50,000 to make the full-length feature.
He’s filming “Kill Giggles” over 19 days.
“What’s so important is that it’s an original idea in an age and era of remakes and reboots and re-franchises,” Buterin said.
In recent years, more filmmakers have left North Carolina for locales with better financial incentives.
“I want to put North Carolina independent filmmaking back on the map,” Buterin said.
The cast and crew have come from North Carolina and as far as Austin, Texas. They have filmed in about 30 locations around Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point, Asheboro, Eden and Yadkinville.
Winston-Salem resident Jacob Felder is in it as a mime. He’s the brother of Journal reporter Lynn Felder.
Buterin, who is also the casting director, was thrilled to recruit three celebrities: Felissa Rose played Angela in the 1983 cult film, “Sleepaway Camp;” Vernon Wells, who plays Giggles, appeared in the 1981 “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior;” and Judith O’Dea played Barbara in “Night of the Living Dead.”
“These are people I grew up watching religiously, and now they’re saying words that I wrote,” Buterin said.
He describes “Kill Giggles” as more thriller than horror.
“It relies much more on story and much less on gory,” he said.
Haw River actor Michael Ray Williams plays Tommy dos Santos, the serial killer.
Tommy “wasn’t born a psychopath, really, nor was he made into a sociopath, per se,” the official synopsis says. “He was something entirely new, and he was walking his own path — a path that will run red with the blood of the foulest most fiendishly frightening creatures ever conceived by man: clowns.
“No longer the madmen and monsters that nightmares are made of, it is the clowns who are the victims now, running for their lives from a killer who won’t stop until every single one of them is dead,” the synopsis continues. “As Tommy’s body count rises, he finds himself getting closer and closer to what he thought was a ghost, the once great clown king known as Giggles, and wonders: If laughter can’t die, how about Giggles?”
Buterin and his crew recently turned the former Guilford County Republican Headquarters on West Market Street into Joey Z’s Clown Academy.
Cast put finishing touches on costumes and makeup as crew set up lights and sets.
Photography Director Jesse Knight formerly taught at Piedmont Community College in Yanceyville. Jason Ledford, chief lighting technician, works in film and TV production at Western Carolina University.
Charlotte actor Patrick Keenan, who has appeared in several Buterin films, plays a detective. So does Margaret Alice, Williams’ real-life wife.
Local entertainer Joey Rudzinski is a clown — really.
A proud graduate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Rudzinski plays Joey Z. He also serves as creative clown consultant for “Kill Giggles.”
He provided the props, with a little help from Extravaganza Props in Charlotte.
All the performers, he points out, are really stilt walkers, mimes and balloon-twisters.
“I really think this film is going to be incredibly big,” Rudzinski said.
Buterin wants it seen worldwide.
He aims for a world premiere in May at a film festival.
Avail Films will act as a distributor, Buterin says. He will approach online streaming sources such as Netflix and Hulu. He predicts a healthy run on the film-festival circuit.
It will end up in some theaters “if we’re lucky,” he said.
“We’re hoping so many people out there who love clowns will like the movie. We’re showing the clowns as people, not as monsters,” Buterin said. “The people who hate clowns will watch it. And people who don’t really care about clowns one way or the other will want to watch it, to see what all the fuss is about.”