Jennifer Trudrung, dubbed affectionately as “The Horror Queen of Asheville” by many in the local film community, recently wrapped up her latest short film, Here There Be Tygers. It’s an adaptation of one of Stephen King’s earliest short stories, first published in 1968 in Ubris magazine and later included in his 1985 collection, Skeleton Crew.
It’s through King’s Dollar Baby arrangement that Trudrung secured the rights to Here There Be Tygers. The program grants students and aspiring theater producers and filmmakers a chance to adapt one of his works for $1.
For the online application and proposal, “I wrote about how much I love Stephen King’s books. I’ve been a fan since middle school,” Trudrung says. Two weeks later, she got the email (although not from King directly) with a contract. Once she signed the documents and mailed in her dollar, she had the rights.
The film is currently in post-production, and the filmmaker hopes to have it finished and ready for festival submissions by the end of May.
“I see it as a coming-of-age story,” Trudrung says, “and a story about power.”
In King’s version, Charles asks to go to the bathroom and is belittled in front of the class by his third-grade teacher, Ms. Bird. Inside the bathroom, he finds a tiger lying on the floor. A classmate, Kenny, is sent to retrieve Charles and bullies him. In the end, Ms. Bird also confronts Charles in the bathroom, but he is able to escape her and the tiger.
Trudrung tackles Here There Be Tygers with a feminist twist, changing the lead to an older, adolescent girl, Charlie (played by Penny Munroe, Trudrung’s daughter). The bully classmate is Susie (Selah Atwood), and Trudrung stars as the mean-spirited Ms. Bird.
“The teacher in the book … comes off as an old and ugly schoolmarm,” Trudrung says. “I wanted to play up her femininity.” Inspirations for the role included Kellyanne Conway and Jeffrey Dahmer.
The tiger was the biggest challenge. Without a real apex predator or a budget that affords special effects, she and director Polly Schattel collaborated, coming up with several creative solutions. They didn’t have much prior access to their filming location — Evergreen Community Charter School — so, they brought their two best ideas to the shoot and are happy with their final decision (which, to avoid spoilers, will remain secret for now). Suffice it to say, their focus is on character-driven psychological terror as opposed to a monster-based horror film.
Trudrung says she’s thrilled to have Schattel, an award-winning filmmaker in her own right, on board. It was Schattel who encouraged Trudrung to go darker after reading the first draft of the script. Other crew members include director of photography Greg Hudgins and production designer Shane Meador. Trudrung believes King fans will enjoy uncovering hidden King references that Meador placed in his set design.
Over the last five years, Trudrung has written, produced and acted in roughly 10 short horror films. Unbearing won an Audience Choice award at the Women in Horror Film Festival, an Alamo Draft House Special Jury Award at the Sick Chick Flicks Film Festival and was a runner-up in the thriller category at the Dragon Con Film Festival. Trudrung also received a grant from the Filmed in N.C. Fund for her short screenplay Indolence.
“I’ve always been interested in writing,” she says. “I was the kid with my head in a book, which is what started my relationship to Stephen King.” (With the exception of Here There Be Tygers, all of Trudrung’s screenplays are original works.)
Still, her foray into the acting world surprised her. “I was an extremely shy kid,” she says. “Being an actor is probably the last thing I could have imagined for myself.” Trudrung was bitten by the acting bug when she and a few friends signed up on a whim to be background actors on the feature film The Hunger Games, which was shot in the Asheville area in 2012. She ended up getting picked.
“From my first day on set, I was hooked,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do this. It was fascinating to me, especially because I had read the book, so getting to see how that world in my head was created on set was amazing.”
Since then, Trudrung signed with Bold Talent Agency and has acted professionally in projects such as “The Vampire Diaries.” She has her own Women in Horror trading card on content creator Superficial Gallery, and her horror short Closet premiered on Crypt TV in 2016.
“With Stephen King’s name attached to anything, you definitely acquire a certain authenticity and publicity,” Trudrung says. The caveat to the Dollar Baby contract is that the films can never be shown publicly for a profit, thus confining them to the film festival circuit.
Trudrung and Schattel will submit the finished project to the highest-caliber festivals, such as Sundance and South by Southwest, first.
“As a lifelong fan of Stephen King’s, there’s so much that’s supercool about Dollar Baby,” Trudrung says. “But the best is that you get to send a DVD copy [of your film] to Stephen King.”
As far as Trudrung knows, no filmmakers in Dollar Baby have received feedback from the famous writer, but she hears from the horror world grapevine that he views them all. “I want to envision him sitting in his house,” she says, “popping in my DVD and watching it.”