4. maj 2014

Horror-Unrated Retrospekt #5: Fugleskræmsler og forbandelser. Et interview med instruktør Brett Simmons og hans film 'Husk'.

Efter 4 år har vi valgt at lukke og slukke for Horror Unrated. Med tiden fik vi hevet en hel del spændende og dybdegående interviews i hus, fra de store kendte horror stjerner til ukendte independent filmskabere. Personligt er jeg meget stolt over den række af interviews vi endte med at få på Horror Unrated, og enkelte står stadig som nogle helt unikke. Bl.a. interviewene med instruktøren af 'Don't Go in the Woods', James Bryan og David Winters - manden bag 'The Last Horror Film', som begge velvilligt satte sig til at scanne gamle billeder filmpris-certifikater ind til os som vi kunne bruge i artiklen. Og danske Heini Grünbaum som i 1999 lavede 'Flænset', gav sig rigtig god tid til virkelig at gå i dybden med sine svar. Den dag i dag er det så vidt vi ved, stadig det eneste interview der findes med ham på internettet.
Af forskellige årsager valgte vi at lukke for Horror Unrated d. 12. november 2013, og da undertegnede tidligere har været skribent for denne fantastiske blog, Sørensen Exploitation Cinema Proudly presents, valgte jeg og bloggens ejer at flytte de mange interviews over på bloggen så de kunne få nyt liv, og forhåbentlig blive læst og nydt af nye læsere. Skrevet af Claus Reinhold.

HORROR UNRATED: Hi Brett and welcome to Horror Unrated. Your latest feature Husk is today’s topic, but to start off with I would like to hear a bit about your background and the story of how you became a film director?

Brett Simmons: My background consists of a lot of short films, which is of course how Husk began, as a short film. It went to Sundance which opened a lot of doors and ultimately paved the way for me to meet some great people and get to make the feature version. In the meantime, I also did an independent feature called Mark of Love which is getting DVD distribution later this year. It’s totally different than Husk which is why I hesitate referencing it, but in truth, I did it pretty close before the Husk feature and already knew Husk was happening, so it’s related in the sense that it was a great preparation. I made sure to learn as much on that set as I possibly could, and the movie turned out great, especially considering the small scale. So yeah, I’ve basically just always been filming or scheming to film projects at all times, and among those has always been Husk, which I’ve finally gotten to do. It’s all pretty exciting.

HORROR UNRATED: Since this is a horror webzine, I have to ask you if you’re a horror fan yourself, and if so, what are your inspirations (I sense a bit of Hitchcock in Husk, but maybe that’s just me?) and favorite horror films?

Brett Simmons: I’m a big horror fan, and I’m impressed that you sensed Hitchcock. Your sense is accurate, my friend. I love Hitchcock. I’m a huge fan of the power of suggestion, and the creation of suspense. I always feel like jump scares are cheap because they’re easy, but creating suspense requires more masterful storytelling, and Hitchcock is the master of them all. I never get tired of his movies. They never let the story take the easy way, and they never let the audience have the easy answer. Same with the old Twilight Zones. I’m a geek about those too. As far as favorite horror films, my all-time favorite is John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s simply the best. I also love the original Halloween and Psycho. Those are my trifecta. I always go back to those. I do manage to squeeze the original Nightmare on Elm Street in there too from time to time. My favorite recent horror film has been The Descent - that movie is phenomenal.

HORROR UNRATED: Okay, so how did you become involved with the After Dark Originals?

Brett Simmons: Our introduction was pretty standard. They read the Husk screenplay and saw the original short film, and asked me in for a meeting. How we became involved was largely to do with how instantly we all clicked and connected at that meeting. We all liked the same horror movies and connected in our passion for the genre.
The biggest thing for me was that they understood what I was trying to do with Husk. Not only did they understand it, but they were on-board to do it. After Dark Films was the first company that didn’t ask me to compromise the elements of the project that I was clinging on to.
I wanted to try some very specific and at times “risky” things, all for the sake of giving the horror audience a fun experience, and After Dark Films wanted to do the same. They as a company have such a regard and concern for the genre and its audience, and I’m a filmmaker constantly concerned with the audience experience, so our connection was pretty instant. They wanted to make Husk, and I was excited to sign on. It was a great collaboration.

HORROR UNRATED: Husk is based on your short film by the same name. Tell me, how did you come up with the story of Husk to begin with – how did it originate?

Brett Simmons: Husk originated first as a response to the horror movies I had been seeing at the time. I love horror movies, but they were becoming consistently over-complicated, and a little cheap in the sense of taking the easy way out. Like I said about Hitchcock, I was missing horror movies that posed harder obstacles. Also, growing up and familiarizing myself with the standard beats, pacing, and structure of the genre, I began creating a list of things that I thought would be fun to try. So as I began conceptualizing, that list informed a lot of things. Conceptually, I knew I wanted to make a single location horror movie, and my two favorites are Night of the Living Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing. Both are amazing in how they portray the unraveling of once ordinary people as they experience extreme, horrifying circumstances. And scarecrows specifically have always been dynamic horror figures that in my opinion hadn’t been exploited to their full potential. So in exploring a creature and setting, I quickly arrived at the farm. So Husk was kind of birthed out of all these things.

HORROR UNRATED: So what was it about Husk that made you want to tell the story again and furthermore, expand what you had already done with the short film?

Brett Simmons: Making the feature and expanding the story was always the end goal, I was just never fully assured I’d get there. The short was designed to capture the beats and structure of a horror feature within the constraints of a short format, all in the hope to suggest feature potential. Apart of that, I even deliberately avoided stepping into certain creative territories like the backstory, knowing that those would be better suited for the feature. So when the short started getting a positive response and people began talking about feature potential, I knew it was time to expand it. The feature was fun because I was addressing creative things that length and budget never permitted before.
They were the things I always reserved for the feature and was thrilled to actually mine through.
So, yeah, to answer the question what is was that made me want to do it, it was simply “all part of the plan”. I’m just glad that plan actually worked.

HORROR UNRATED: Personally I would say, after seeing the film that it is far from a straight-up typical scarecrow flick. How would you describe it?

Brett Simmons: I’m glad you think so. I’d agree. I think it avoids being a straight-up anything, which I’m pretty proud of. It’s a “killer scarecrow” flick, but there’s a lot more to it than you’d expect. Yeah, it’s kids stranded on a road trip, but it’s not the way you’d expect.
Truth is, as a fan of the genre, the first thing I wanted to do was really embrace the typical things of the genre, and then once they were established and familiar, choose more unexpected, less predictable choices.
But I guess that’s my fault for making it a difficult pitch, because when I say “it’s a horror movie about kids stranded outside a cursed cornfield filled with killer scarecrows” people kind of roll their eyes. Ha. I would too. That’s why I tend to say “It’s a supernatural-slasher horror-mystery about killer scarecrows,” people at least perk with a little more interest - or confusion, both better than rolling eyes, I think. After Dark’s summary of it is pretty good actually. I’m not objective enough to be able to say anymore because I always want to say too much.

HORROR UNRATED: What sort of atmosphere, style and feeling were you going for with Husk? I mean, when I watched it I didn’t sense that typical 70s and 80s slasher atmosphere that you get a lot these days – it was more like the aforementioned Alfred Hitchcock atmosphere and feeling, also because it isn’t particularly gory – I think it prays more on anxiety and fear. What would you say?

Brett Simmons: I’d say “thank you” and “I appreciate that”. Hitchcock was patient yet simultaneously relentless, and that’s what I wanted for Husk, to start and never let go. I wanted the movie to be as relentless as the scarecrows. But you know what else, cornfields automatically make for an amazingly immersive atmosphere, and I hadn’t seen a cornfield movie quite deliver. Cornfields are so hard to shoot in, you typically see them shot from within plowed paths or clearings, making the camera safe…but also making the actors look safe. When you stand inside a cornfield, it’s freaky because it’s disorienting and intrusive. I wanted the camera and movement to communicate that as much as possible. Especially on a low-budget, we were so lucky to have a massive cornfield that actually surrounded a property, and I thought it’d be a missed opportunity to not capture it. The environment I think really elevates the experience and the scale. On top of that, we had an amazing production designer who helped make everything have a constant sense of foreboding and creepiness. She was amazing. I guess what I’m saying is, that’s what I was going for, but the camera and set really did the job for me.

HORROR UNRATED: Basically the film takes place in two locations; the farmhouse and the cornfield. Personally I’m a sucker for stories that can unfold in one or two locations and still deliver. Now, one thing is writing for the short film format, but was it hard for you as a writer to get the story to work with only these two locations when making the screenplay for the feature? And if so, what obstacles did you have to overcome in that process?

Brett Simmons: Man, I love movies that unfold in limited locations too. I think part of that comes from loving creative challenges. Like with Hitchcock earlier, or even the Twilight Zone, limitations should really be embraced because they force you to be creative and not take the easy way out. Keeping Husk in the house and the cornfield was a huge challenge, but I loved it. It’s really the reason why the history and the mystery is so rich, because that’s where my brain had to go in order to make the setting stay interesting, and the keep situations mounting and escalating without leaving. That was the biggest obstacle, keeping it interesting. But I think the mystery elements and the elusion to grander things it was helps a small, limited movie feel bigger and more exciting.
HORROR UNRATED: Regarding the cast, did you write the screenplay with any specific actors in mind, or did you have a regular casting process?

Brett Simmons: Christopher Walken. I’m kidding, even though if I thought he’d do it, I’d go to all lengths to make it work. Really, I didn’t write for anyone in particular. I just imagined these characters pretty vividly and kept my focus on that. I also wanted to leave room for the actors to do their job and bring their own things to them. Our casting process was pretty regular in structure, but our goals were unique, I think. Early on, I and the casting directors agreed that we didn’t want to cast “victims” but “characters”. These types of movies often get away with just filling in a death count, which I know works and can be fun, but Husk doesn’t have a death count. It’s just these five college kids. I viewed it like Night of the Living Dead. This house is occupied by these people trying to survive, there isn’t going to be mass carnage, so I needed to find actors who could make these characters likable and believable.

HORROR UNRATED: How do you work with actors? Are you the type who rehearse a lot before takes or do you like to improvise?

Brett Simmons: Honestly, I love both. I love rehearsal and I love improv. Rehearsal unfortunately is considered a luxury, not a priority, so you’re not always able to get it. In the case of Husk, we shot in Iowa on a very quick schedule, so there wasn’t any time for rehearsal. The actors flew in only days before we started shooting. But we were able to find time to rehearse early in the day or during setups. I always try to find time. But I also love improv. Sometimes, when shooting is tough, or the elements are challenging (like a muddy cornfield, at night, freezing, with bugs etc.), improv helps loosen things up and refocus things. It’s also a great tool when you haven’t had time to rehearse because it opens an alternate method for the actor to access the dialogue. For me, it all depends on the actor, which is why I like both. Every actor has different needs, so my main priority is to find out what they need as an individual and accommodate.

HORROR UNRATED: I noticed in the end credits a Red One logo, so I take it you shot the film with the Red camera. Since I’m a cinematographer myself, I want to ask you why you went for the Red One camera and how it was to work with, for you as a director? Also, did you experience any problems with it, because I heard stories of the camera overheating and failure on the hard drives?

Brett Simmons: The Red camera was cool. I shot Mark of Love on it too. I much prefer film, always, but for Husk, I don’t see how we could have shot it any other way. Shooting in a dirty cornfield, and adding all of the weather issues we faced, shooting on film could have been a huge risk-factor, or at least slowed us down considerably. I think I would have been constantly anxious about film scratches or dirty gates or things like that. Instead, all I had to be anxious about was crashing hard drives… and of course my fears were realized. Half way through the shoot, after our biggest day of shooting (the truck scene) we found out the hard drive failed and all the footage was gone. That was a nightmare. We were able to squeeze into our schedule the time to re-shoot it, and I’m glad we did because it gave us a chance to fix things, but losing that footage was horrible. Thankfully, it’s the only time it happened, it just happened at the worst time.

HORROR UNRATED: Tell us about how the production went?

Brett Simmons: We shot in Ames, Iowa, outside Des Moines. Our schedule was three weeks, 18 days, but with the re-shoots, it was more like 17 days. It was exhausting because we had a long commute to set which ate away at our schedule. Also, by shooting in the summer, the sun was out for much longer, making it a challenge to shoot a movie that’s three-quarters at night. So we had to chip away at day time stuff throughout the shoot in order to fill our day, and rush through night stuff in order to get it all. It was nuts, but a blast. The crew was awesome, and we couldn’t have done it without all their hard work. We had tons of weather issues, which was a nuisance. It meant that our awesome production schedule had to be dashed pretty early and ultimately never repaired. The weather kept us on our toes. Quite a few nights, we showed up, waiting to see what the weather would do before we scheduled our day. It was fun, though. It kept a constant, unpredictable energy on set.
HORROR UNRATED: For the gore hounds out there, can you tell a bit about some of the special F/X and maybe how some of them were done?

Brett Simmons: I hesitate saying too much because the F/X guys were the magicians, and I don’t want to be the guy that spills the beans, but I’ll spill one. We have an exploding scarecrow head. It’s hacked by an axe and explodes. Mike Regan and Blake Bolger did the F/X, and they came to me with the idea of shaving down a watermelon and dressing a scarecrow with a watermelon head. I wasn’t sure it would work, but it did. We’re on set, Mike has a fruit shaver, and he’s shaving the head down, squeezing it into one of the scarecrow heads. We rolled cameras and the axe came down and watermelon went everywhere. Now I’m scarred for life, because watermelon definitely resembles exploding brain to me now. It’s a great example of their practical F/X because all of the FX in the movie was practical, and I love that about Husk. Practical is magical.

HORROR UNRATED: It certainly is. That’s also our opinion here at Horror Unrated. I’m familiar with the saying “a film is never finished, it is released”, but still I want to ask you; are you completely satisfied with Husk, or are there things today you would like to have done different?

Brett Simmons: There are definitely things I’d still do, but that’s going to be true forever about everything I do. Martin Scorsese once said “Films aren’t finished, they’re abandoned” and it’s so true. I think it’s true for art in general, needing a deadline or pressure to get you to finally stop working, accept your work for what it is, and move on to the next venture. As for Husk, there are only really small things I’d tweak. Things no one will ever notice or be bothered by. Truth is that I’m really proud of Husk. It came out great and in some ways, better than I hoped. And anything I wish I did with Husk I can always do in a sequel.

HORROR UNRATED: Will we be seeing more horror from you in the future Brett, or would you like to go on and work with a different genre?

Brett Simmons: I’m pretty open. While I know that I’d like to move on to other genres, I also have a few more horror ideas up my sleeve. I’m playing with a couple of them right now, and I’m pretty excited about them. I think you can expect another horror movie out of me before I move on too far.

HORROR UNRATED: That sounds great Brett and we’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you so much for your time, it was great talking to you and the best of luck with future projects.

Brett Simmons: Thanks so much, and thanks for the interview – I had a blast.

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