Image: 'The Pizzagate Massacre' poster
No movie has captured our current political mood like The Pizzagate Massacre. The low budget grindhouse movie from Texas follows Duncan, a schlub convinced interdimensional lizard people are controlling people from the basement of a pizza restaurant. It’s a relentless and shockingly empathetic horror satire about Americans who believe deeply weird shit. Its villains aren’t the conspiracy theorists but those who profit from riling them up.
The Pizzagate Massacre is the brainchild of filmmaker John Valley, a guy from a small rural town in Iowa who moved to Austin, Texas with dreams of making movies. He moved to Austin instead of Hollywood because he was a fan of Richard Linklater, Robert Rodrigues, and Terrence Malick.As Valley and The Pizzagate Massacre gained notoriety, the death threats started rolling in. “We knew when we made the movie it would draw some heat,” he told Motherboard. “But then when it actually starts happening it’s a whole ‘nother story. It freaked me out a lot more than I thought it would.” Valley said he deleted most of what came, saved the scarier ones, and sent some along to the authorities.He also got support from cast and crew who’d dealt with similar threats before. “We’ve kind of been getting a lot of that kind of pushback ever since,” he said. “The trailer definitely opened the floodgates.” But with the death threats and attention came a kind of legitimacy he hadn’t experienced before. “Everyone started treating us differently,” Valley said. “Everybody started taking the movie more seriously. One QAnon guy ripped the trailer and it blew up for us. It’s frustrating but also relieving in a way.”
In 2016, Valley was working on a satirical modern remake of Taxi Driver when the world shifted on its axis and got deeply weird. “When I saw Trump rising, all the bells started going off,” he said. “I knew what was coming.”
“Pizzagate could have been way worse. So why are we just laughing at it? Why don’t we see this as a huge warning sign?”
His Scorsese-inspired project changed. “My interest in the story was to present the humanity within the deplorables,” he said. “I grew up in a pretty conservative rural area, a family of hunters, lots of military in our family. So when the Trump thing started happening, I immediately knew these people and their anger. I don’t condone it, but I understood it.”According to Valley, he’d grown up seeing wealth inequality devastate his community. He disliked the solutions his family and friends in Iowa sought for their problems, but he understood them. “The pain is real,” he said. “I had no interest in straight lampooning them because I feel that’s been done by every late night comedy host.I thought the thing that was missing from the conversation were the humans and characters at the center of all this.”In November of 2016, when a gunman entered Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C. and opened fire while investigating a supposed cabal of satan worshippers, Valley was more shocked at people’s reaction than he was to the incident itself. “Pizzagate could have been way worse. So why are we just laughing at it?” He said. “Why don’t we see this as a huge warning sign? So my idea was, ‘What if this would have gone the other way? What if people would have started getting killed?’”
Duncan, the protagonist of The Pizzagate Massacre, is a conspiracy theorist in Texas. He’s got a panel van full of guns, a confederate license plate, membership in the local militia, and ideas about who is really ruling the world. As the movie progresses, he’s caught in a plot that involves the more extremist elements of his militia, an up-and-coming journalist willing to do anything for a story, and a Texas broadcaster with a penchant for conspiracy theories.That broadcaster is Terri Lee, a thinly veiled female version of Alex Jones. As an Austinite, Valley has an intimate relationship with Jones. He knew about the conspiracy theorist before moving to Texas because he was a Linklater fan. Before becoming a figure of national scorn, Jones was a bizarre local eccentric in Austin, Texas. Most people in Texas who didn’t buy into his conspiracy theories saw him as a mostly harmless lunatic with a radio show and a bullhorn. Director Linklater even put him in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.Living in Austin, Jones is hard to escape. He and his goons have a habit of showing up at any public event. “Anytime we would go to rallies, without fail, you would see InfoWars folks milling around and screaming at you,” Valley said.Valley noted that Jones has moved on from standing on the street corner with a bullhorn. “Now he’s in a tank,” he said. “He does this thing where he goes to big cultural moments or protests and just drives around in his tank and shouts in his bullhorn. Which is just the perfect evolution of him. You can see the story of his financial growth. You can see the story of his own fear growing. He can’t be out on the street anymore without a posse around him.”
By happenstance, Valley filmed the Terri Lee segments of The Pizzagate Massacre in the studio where Jones started filming his show in the 1990s. When the scout helping him find locations learned what Valley’s movie was about he “lit up like a Christmas tree,” Valley said. “He’s like, ‘Oh my god, did you know that this was the studio that Alex Jones used?’”Working on a project so closely linked to Alex Jones and conspiracy theories has had some deeply unpleasant moments. For one, it was hard to get anyone to take him seriously. “People were either afraid that we were going to create a backlash for themselves that they couldn’t handle or they literally thought it was pro-pizzagate,” Valley said. “There were some festivals that ought to know better who turned us down because they were like, ‘You made us empathize with this character. We shouldn’t be empathizing with these people.’”After a slew of rejections and losing a lot of money, Valley cut together his own trailer which leaked online after it made the rounds in conspiracy circles. That’s how I learned about the movie, I saw the trailer after seeing it make the rounds in conspiracy groups I was watching.It’s been a long strange journey for Valley. He poured his heart, and his wallet, into a strange little grindhouse movie about conspiracy theorists only to be ignored and threatened. After years of development hell, the movie is finally available pretty much everywhere. It’s a movie that asks you to take the radical step of having empathy for people befuddled everyday by hoaxers like Alex Jones. Valley said that everyone has a part of them that wants to believe wild and magical things and he reminded me that that yearning to believe wild things isn’t exclusive to one side of the political aisle. The pizzagater, he said, is all of us. “Their confidence is the same as our confidence,” he said. “They think they’re right just like we think we’re right. If there’s a clean and sober conversation, you can see which side of the story is fake. But that doesn’t change the fact that these people believe what they’re doing is correct.”The real problems begin when people exploit that need to believe. “When you saturate that part of the brain long enough, you can do anything with it, which is what I think people like Alex Jones, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and Trump do,” Valley said. “They all seized on it. They know what they’re doing. They know the trick they’re pulling on people, which is what makes me so angry at them.”