One of the strange side effects of our increasingly media-saturated cultural landscape is the seemingly porous border between creators and consumers. In a world where the average person knows the basics of what goes on behind the scenes on a film set, and every form of entertainment has countless documentaries and depictions of how the sausage gets made, there’s never been less of a barrier to entry into making your own art. Add to that the ease of access to many of the people responsible for the movies, shows, books, and albums we like—thanks to social media—and the lines between who’s capable of making something, as opposed to just consuming it, can start to get blurry. “Hell, I could make a better ___” is a statement you’ve presumably uttered at some point, even if you didn’t necessarily have any intention of ever being asked to prove it.
A.J. Via is someone who decided to prove it. At a young age, he wrote a screenplay for a gleefully violent comedy, called Aisle 12 at the time, and put it out into the world, hoping it would one day get made. Like many people, his hopes of becoming an honest-to-god full-time screenwriter slowly faded, as he grew up, took a normal job, and got on with having a life. But then a second chance at success beckoned: Almost 15 years later, his script was bought and turned into a low-budget indie called Massacre On Aisle 12, a film about some bickering store employees and a duffel bag of cash. Here was the proof of his talent, making it to the big screen! And like so many things in this Hindenburg of a contemporary life, it turned out to be a fucking disaster. This is his story, a cautionary tale for anyone who’s ever dreamed of writing a movie.
While L.A. is littered with the slowly rotting dreams of the millions of would-be actors who watched a great performance and thought to themselves, “That doesn’t look so hard,” writing has always been everyone’s domain, even those of us who saw our reflections in the mirror and knew a life in front of the camera wasn’t the wisest idea. We write every day, so the glitz of Hollywood can feel attainable if you stick to what you (think you) know. Like A.J. Via, almost everyone who’s ever fancied themselves a writer has probably given some thought to trying their hand at a screenplay. I certainly did. At the age of 16, I was busily cranking out the first in a planned trio of Tarantino rip-offs (The McLevy Trilogy, I assumed it would be dubbed by the world, because famous film series are always named after the screenwriter) centered around the exploits of a gang of wise-cracking, suit-wearing burglars. I figured I’d follow the Star Wars model—become universally beloved for the simple but iconic first one, go darker and more character-driven on the second, then wrap it up with a rousing and feel-good conclusion, only with sex and drugs and swearing, because that’s how people would know I was cool, right?
I figured that even if the films didn’t get made, it would be incredibly badass to have a triptych of completed screenplays sitting in my room. I had seen an interview with John Grisham where he said his initial fantasy, when writing A Time To Kill, was that he would keep the typewritten pages in a bound collection on the desk of his law office, so that when visitors saw the pile of papers and asked what it was, he could shrug and say, “Oh, that’s my novel.” That seemed like a good strategy: Whenever someone came to visit me, I could off-handedly gesture toward the impeccably crafted works and say, “Oh, those? Those are my screenplays.” That way, when they actually were produced and I became ridiculously famous, I could pretend I had a humble vision of myself as some pure, Salinger-esque recluse, untainted by the need for recognition. (In hindsight, it’s pretty fucking embarrassing that even my fantasies were more concerned with making sure I didn’t offend my punk-rock friends than enjoying my fanciful daydreams.)
I completed maybe four pages. As it turns out, following through on a script is somewhat difficult, especially when you don’t actually have a plot, a protagonist, or even any real sense of how to go about creating those things. I put those pages in a drawer and pretended I’d return to them some day. Which I did, six months later, only to start from scratch with a new idea. That one made it to seven whole pages. This process repeated itself at least four more times during my early 20s, each time getting a bit more pragmatic and less fantasy-driven, but always with the same results: I couldn’t finish a damn screenplay to save my life. So I’m always impressed by those who have actually completed one, regardless of quality. A.J. Via has written more than a dozen. And he certainly wasn’t expecting one of the first—the script that eventually became Massacre On Aisle 12—to suddenly be reborn a decade and a half later.
“It was one of my favorites that I had written,” he says, “back when I was 17, 18 years old.” Sometime around 1998, Via had put the entire script up on InkTip, a website that attempts to hook up unknown writers with producers, helping to make connections for people trying to break into the industry. “I hadn’t even paid for it—I know I never paid InkTip anything, so I must have put it on, like, a free trial run or something. And somehow or another, the script must have gotten embedded in the site where, 15 years later, it was still on there, and this guy found it. To this day, I don’t know how he stumbled across it. I never really clarified that, but he contacted me out of the blue and said, “Hey, I found this script. I love it. I have some money.”
It’s the dream scenario for any writer: Someone stumbles across your work and is so blown away by it that they offer to put it out into the world. Though, to be clear, one of the motivations that had led Via to move to L.A. and try his hand at being a screenwriter back at age 18 was because the script had initially been optioned by a Chicago producer at the time, only for him to let his option expire a year later, the film still unproduced. With little experience beyond that, Via was skeptical when California-based Chad Ridgely reached out to him. “I optioned it to him, like a free option… because I didn’t really have high expectations of it with him. I just thought he was kind of a fly-by-night person who was going to kind of drag it along for a few months, and then that would have probably been the end of it.”
And for a year and a half, that seemed to be the case. Despite the occasional email from Ridgely assuring him progress was being made, Via more or less forgot about it. Until it suddenly became a reality. “Out of the blue, I got notified that they were going into production and they were starting shooting in a week. Everything kind of snowballed from there very quickly.” Via had gone the Stephen King route in his agreement with Ridgely: One dollar for the option on the script, with the agreement of two or three percent of the budget payment if it ever got made. Needless to say, the film going into production was exciting. Or at least it should’ve been. “That’s where things start going kind of bad between us,” Via says ruefully.
Via’s script was a black comedy about a bargain-bin Home Depot-esque store in which the employees discover a dead body and a duffel bag full of cash, then slowly turn on each other over the course of a single night. And that basic structure is still there—“I would say 40 percent of that [the finished version] is my actual script,” he says—but it’s been profoundly altered. Via describes a production process that should be painfully familiar to anyone who’s been pushed out of a project they helped begin. Via says Ridgely told him they’d be filming the following week in Savannah, Georgia, and invited him to come for a set visit, but when Via followed up to get details, there was radio silence. Subsequent requests to at least get some pictures of the set were also stonewalled. “The email he sent me said something basically like, ‘We’re on media blackout. We can’t let anything get out, so no one can see anything.’ And that was, like, wow. I can’t see pictures of the set of my movie? What do you think, I’m going to call TMZ or something?” Via says the realization that something was very wrong came after he reached out to one of the crew members on Facebook to try and glean any possible details:
I was talking to one of the people involved in the movie, and she said, “Oh, we just finished filming the sex scene tonight. It was so hilarious when Jack’s nose falls off on her while they’re fucking.” And I went, “What? What are you talking about? I have no clue what you’re talking about. There’s no sex scene. There’s no nose falling off on people. I don’t even know what you could be talking about.” And then they kind of shut the conversation down, like,“Oh, well, never mind. Have a great night,” and I went, “Dude, what the fuck are they doing to this movie?”
Communication with Ridgely had devolved into an acrimonious back and forth, with Ridgely saying he had been up front and open and inviting throughout the process, and that Via was the one who seemed to have some sour grapes about the experience. I reached out to Ridgely about his memory of the relationship with Via, and in addition to saying Via was never promised any continued involvement with the film beyond delivery of the original script, he offered the following: “In low-budget filmmaking like on Massacre On Aisle 12, all of us had multiple tasks and jobs to do, and we all tried to stay on top of them as best we could considering the rapid-fire pace of production, but I did respond to emails as best I could. A.J. did send a rather disparaging email about me to the film’s distributor, and since then we haven’t had much dialogue. I understand he’s got some other scripts in the works and I wish him the best with those.” Via acknowledges the email to the distributor, but offers a different point of contention: “I think he was angry with me because I had criticized the preview that he had put out, which was a minute and a half of the half-naked girl dancing in front of Santa Claus… that made it look like a soft-core porn or something.” You can watch that preview for yourself. It certainly is… something:
By the time of the premiere, almost two years later in November 2016, at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival (where it somehow ended up winning Best Comedy Feature against other no-budget competitors like Tonight She Comes and They Want Dick Dickster), contact between Via and Ridgely was essentially nil, to the point where Via felt uncomfortable even attending the premiere. (Via describes that email exchange thusly: “I’d write, ‘Where and when would I go if I was actually coming to see this movie?’ And he would reply back, like, ‘Yeah, maybe we’ll see you. That’s great!’ And that would be the end of it.”) Thus, it wasn’t until months later, when the film finally came out via digital platforms like iTunes, that Via had the opportunity to see it. His wife alerted him to the fact that his movie was coming out after she saw a notice online saying Massacre On Aisle 12 was now available for purchase.
That night, Via plugged in his Amazon Fire stick, sat down on the couch with his wife, and finally got to see the results of a script he had written roughly 15 years earlier. To hear him describe it is an experience roughly akin to having a next-door neighbor recall in intimate detail an eyewitness account of their own child being slapped around. He says his wife fell asleep after about 20 minutes and he didn’t wake her, so happy he was for her to miss the film. “The first 10, 15 minutes of it, she turned to me five or seven times and said, ‘Did you write that?’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. I didn’t write that. I didn’t write that.’ To the point where as jokes were happening, I was turning to her saying, ‘I didn’t write that. I didn’t write that.’” He watched it in silence, blank-faced, until it ended. Then he put it aside, the way a shell-shocked mugging victim will often have a delayed response to their encounter. Via couldn’t even process what he had seen.
After several weeks, he felt ready to watch it again, and actually engage with the material. It was almost as bad as the first time. “I don’t want to come out sounding like I’m on a high horse. There are things that can be offensive that I’ll laugh at,” he stresses, before singling out the bombardment of gay panic humor that is laced throughout the film as his biggest issue with it. “And I don’t mean to make it sound like I wrote Casablanca. It was a horror comedy that was really designed to be dark, you know, kind of in poor taste. But I looked at it and was like, ‘This is such schlock. This is stuff a 10-year-old would think was funny.’” It really depressed Via to see his name on something he so profoundly disliked. He warned friends to stay away—the same friends he had proudly boasted to a couple of years earlier about the movie he wrote that was getting made.
In retrospect, Via wonders how he could’ve been so naive about what the results would be. He had really gotten along with Ridgely at first, had considered him someone who understood what Via wanted to do, who loved the same jokes, the same beats in the script, and the two had appeared creatively simpatico. But as the partnership eroded in tandem with the original screenplay, Via started to investigate Ridgely’s output further, and kicked himself for not looking more closely at the outset. “He’s a very sex-obsessed—I mean, you can see for yourself [on Ridgely’s site]. His biggest things on there are songs about boobies and movies he’s made that are—he does a whole fake game show, Gay Or Not Gay? And it’s supposed to be this hilarious thing of trying to guess if an actor is queer or not.”
It does look odd that Via wouldn’t have seen this coming, and he knows it. And he doesn’t shy away from admitting that Ridgely probably has a very different view of all this. “Prior to this phone call, I said, I’m not going to say anything that he [Ridgely] could take offensively, or say, ‘Fuck this guy, I’m going to come after him now.’ But if it is, it is.” Some details are almost sitcom-esque postscripts to the whole affair: Via is still waiting for DVDs of the movie guaranteed to him by their agreement, DVDs that Ridgely promised him during their last email exchange. That was in January. (UPDATE: Ridgely contacted me after the publication of this article, disputing the claim of unmailed DVDS, and including a tracking number for the package which he says was shipped in July and sat unclaimed for weeks. Via’s retort: “If they got shipped I never received any info, and considering I had to send my address three times to him I am quite tickled.” The struggle continues.)
Which brings us to the subject matter over which all this drama unfolded. The cinematic landmark known as Massacre On Aisle 12.
Massacre On Aisle 12 opens on Christmas Eve, as the first night on the job begins for Dave (Michael Buonomo), the latest employee at Mr. Beaver’s, a home improvement supplies company. He’s introduced to a host of cartoonish co-workers, ranging from a bored and indifferent cashier to an addled war vet custodian to a mincing supervisor, not to mention a holiday Santa and his inexplicably semi-nude assistant. As the store closes for the night, Dave and his fellow employees discover a dead body and a duffel bag filled with cash. As they bicker over what to do (half of them vote to split up the money and go their separate ways; the other half want to call the police), the deranged assistant manager, Jack (Ridgely), locks them all inside the building, the group turns on each another, and the bodies start to pile up. Dave struggles to survive the night as others die one by one, until finally he manages to turn the tables on Jack and escape, the duffel bag of cash still left hidden, an unfortunate and ironic end to all the bloodshed.
Visually, the film is a fairly standard no-budget horror cheapie, ugly looking and clumsily staged, chockablock with bad lighting and amateurish production of the film-school-dropout variety. It’s unworthy of much note, much like the film itself. The interest here lies in the changes that were made from script to the final film—in an email, Ridgely confirms the major changes he made from Via’s initial screenplay, though obviously considers them added value to the movie. One of the elements that Via identifies as a problem—the ramping up of sexism and misogyny in the script—does seem borne out by several of the alterations. For instance, within the first couple of minutes, we meet cashier Tara (Melissa Saint-Amand), originally characterized as a snarky and rude layabout, offering biting commentary on the proceedings. Here’s how her flashback-laden introduction gets changed by Ridgely:
This is not exactly reinforcing the idea that Ridgely didn’t want to make a soft-core comedy. Via: “In the original version, there’s no sex whatsoever. That’s not a part of the movie. There’s no sexual innuendo. There’s no jokes about being a slut or anything like that. He took the one girl that he cast in the movie, and within minutes, she’s topless. He wrote a sex scene for himself with her, which to me speaks for itself.” (Ridgely responds: “There’s a five-second moment in the film, which shows Jack, with his face half burned off by acid, getting it on with Tara, and while doing so, a piece of his burned face falls off onto hers. It was a real ‘Ew!’ moment that tested really well and gets a really strong response from viewers.”)
Another new addition to the movie was the rent-a-Santa and his porny assistant, Barbie, who definitely add a layer of smutty unreality to the proceedings, as the notion that a home improvement store would spice up its “kids take a picture with Santa” promotional event by allowing what is essentially an ’80s-style Playboy bunny to be the sidekick renders any believability null and void. According to Via, the actor who played Barbie “was his [Ridgely’s] girlfriend at the time. So, he wrote that part for her so that he could put her in the movie, and he created the part of Strip Santa or whatever he calls her, and the guy who plays Santa he added because he thought it would be funny to have a Santa Claus in the movie.”
Nothing wrong with adding characters—and Ridgely’s response sounds sensible: “Santa and Barbie were added to increase the body count. There were some moments in the original script where the pacing began to lag, and having a couple more characters to kill off was the answer to that.” It was also a chance to insert more buffoonishly gratuitous T&A, ending with a close-up “joke” intense enough to repel even the most devoted fan of boorish cleavage shots:
Again, these first two clips occur within the first 10 minutes of the movie. But it’s not just the women who fare ill in Massacre On Aisle 12. Nearly every character gets scenes thoroughly laced with sexism, racism, homophobia, or a little smattering of all three. To be fair, some of these are included in the original script. Via’s biggest regret is the stuff he thought was funny at 18, like the gay panic (when the biggest show in America at the time does the same, it’s easier to understand, if not condone, his teenage prejudices), or the idea that a racist character would be played for laughs, instead of just an example of cringe-inducing racism. While we’re meant to loathe Jack for the offensive prick that he is, for instance, it’s hard to justify any subsequent “humor” with the guy after we’ve watched him interact with the only black character in this manner:
Still, there’s nothing reductive or tone-deaf in an 18-year-old’s script that can’t be taken and rewritten to be 10 times worse, almost 15 years later, by a grown man. Because don’t worry, all the other characters now offer plenty of horrifyingly racist comments played for laughs, too! Here’s the stoner, accusing Black Jack (yes, that is how everyone identifies the sole black character named Jack in the film) of being the killer:
Oh, and here’s Dave, with a quick witticism after Black Jack (sigh) hands him a journal to prove he’s a private investigator hired by the company to get evidence of employee misdeeds. Again, this is the hero of the movie:
All this stuff is a real bummer. But as Via notes, arguably the strongest undercurrent of not-funny prejudice running throughout the film is all the homophobia and gay panic humor. Mr. Kipper, the boss, is clearly a closeted gay man, but what was a throwaway gag in Via’s original script—one that actually undercuts all the “he’s a gay predator” shtick—is now rewritten to be the exact opposite. Kipper is a full-on creep now, and the film oh-so-hilariously points that out with a short dream sequence in which Dave gets knocked out and has a nightmare: That he’s raped by Mr. Kipper, of course. How this is even intended to be funny is anyone’s guess.
There are plenty more clips like this, but the general impression they leave is deeply representative of the movie as a whole. It’s an exercise in button-pushing that clearly doesn’t understand it’s pushing all the wrong buttons. It would be a contender for our Home Video Hell feature, except those films all have some ostensible appeal that attracts our attention in the first place. The only experience involving Massacre On Aisle 12 that would be worse than watching it would be seeing your name on it as the writer. For that, A.J. Via, you have our condolences.