Damian Harris, Gardens Of The Night
Coming from a family of actors, Damian Harris went against the grain when he chose to become a writer-director. Harris is the son of Richard Harris, the legendary British screen thespian, as well as the stepson of Rex Harrison and the brother of Jamie and Jared Harris, who are also actors. He got his first taste of the movie game when, at the age of 10, he acted alongside Tom Courtenay and Romy Schneider in the comedy Otley (1968). That experience, however, made him realize that his expertise was not in front of the camera, and prompted him to study film at the London International Film School and then screenwriting at NYU. He first gained attention in the mid 80s with the shorts Killing Time (1985) and Greasy Lake (1988), the latter starring James Spader and Eric Stolz and based on a T.C. Boyle short story. He made his feature debut as writer-director with the 1989 adaptation of Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers and followed that up with two movies for Touchstone Pictures, the Goldie Hawn psychological chiller Deceived (1991) and Bad Company (1995), a slick thriller with Laurence Fishburne and Ellen Barkin. He directed another feature with Barkin, the erotic thriller Mercy, in 2000.
After spending his entire career as a studio director, for his latest film, Gardens of the Night, Harris moves into indie territory; ironically, this “new” project was actually written over 20 years ago, before he had even made his first feature. The reason for its long road to the screen is the film’s subject matter: it is a deeply unsettling portrait of lost childhood told from the perspective of two young children, Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) and Donnie (Jermaine “Scooter” Smith) who are abducted by two pedophiles, the avuncular Alex (Tom Arnold) and hotheaded sidekick Frank (Kevin Zegers). The movie is divided into two halves, first showing Leslie and Donnie’s introduction to their captors’ sinister world, and then revisiting them nine years later (now played by Gillian Jacobs and Evan Ross) when they are deeply troubled street kids prostituting themselves for drug money. Gardens of the Night is not a film for the fainthearted, yet its strengths are many. Elegiac and beautifully shot, it features excellent performances by its young leads as well as a remarkable turn by Arnold, and draws on Harris’ many years of research to create an authentic and deeply unsettling depiction of children robbed of their youth and innocence.
Filmmaker spoke to Harris about his long quest to make the movie, his transition into indie filmmaking, and his dream project, Spartans.
Filmmaker: Gardens of the Night has been a long-gestating project that you first started working on in the mid-80s, and I believe the starting point for you was seeing a picture of a young girl on a milk carton.
Harris: It was my first time in Los Angeles, and then there was no notion of a child going missing – it just didn’t happen in England. Or you would find them. But then you realize that America is so huge that once you go missing, the chance of being found must be minute. I wanted to discover more about it and I ended going to speak to a father who’s son had been abducted and had been missing for a couple of years. He talked about [his experiences], he was convinced that his son was alive and he said, “I hope whoever has him is being kind to him. I want him still to have a childhood.” I thought, “That’s the story I’m going to tell and tell it from a kid’s point of view. Who does it make you become? How does it shape you?”
Filmmaker: How did you go about doing the research for writing the script?
Harris: Mostly it was talking to people. It started with talking to that father. It usually starts with the police and then at that time there were a lot of shelters for runaway and throwaway kids. You get a trust and then you end up talking to the kids themselves, and I went around America going to different cities. There was a sort of route that this street population went on, so I went to these different cities and would hang out with the kids and then they would end up trusting you and tell you their stories. From all that information, I started to get an idea of who the character was. The idea of there being two kids came from seeing two pictures, side-by-side in a shelter, of this girl and boy who’d been missing for 8 years, unrelated, and this counsellor saying, “You know what? They’re fucked. They’re either dead or they’re so fucked up because of what’s happened to them they may as well be.” So I thought I’d take two kids and make them have a different reaction to the same experience. It was looking at a relationship that is born in ground that’s so traumatized and how it affects that relationship and who you become.
Filmmaker: What was the effect of doing this research? Presumably immersing yourself in these stories and in that world was quite troubling.
Harris: It was a dark place to be. It was a very dark world to be in for a couple of years and it was frightening to just be aware of how almost commercialized this thing was set up, and to realize this thing was going on. You got that through the police telling what they were trying to fight against. I was surprised at how prevalent it was, how accepted it was – it made me have more of a cynical view about what goes on and not seeing through those rose colored lenses where everything’s happy and childhood is all so perfect and the world is such a great place. I went to New Orleans to meet up with the sex crimes police there and I was met at the airport by somebody else from the New Orleans police force. He was stopping me from coming and said, “We’ve just had to shut [the sex crimes division] down because we found that they were actually involved in a child pornography ring themselves.” They had to head me off and they were incredibly embarrassed that they had literally arrested these guys the day before. And then you’re thinking, “Is it because they were drawn to it because that’s who they were, or was the exposure of being around it suddenly open up something inside of them?”
Filmmaker: Was that something that you were concerned about?
Harris: No, but I realized myself that I was drawn to [this subject] because I’d been molested when I was about eight. It was something that I’d completely compartmentalized. It wasn’t until way later in this process that I started to see, “Oh, maybe this is why I’m interested in this story.” At the time, I had not made the association and it was only literally once I’d written the script and I was working on it that I said, “There must be something that I haven’t really worked out in myself that’s in this story.” And that’s why for me it’s more important that it’s seen as a film about dealing with that as opposed to something about abduction or pedophilia. It’s about how you deal with something in your childhood so traumatic that shapes you as you grow up.
Filmmaker: I’ve read that you finished the script almost 20 years ago, so I’m presuming the wait had a lot to do with this being an extremely tough film to pitch.
Harris: Yeah, it was very hard and it got harder. When I finished the script, immediately there was a producer who came on board – a guy called Nick Wechsler, who’d done Drugstore Cowboy – and he said he wanted to produce it. He was managing Leonardo DiCaprio, who was just 17, and so he was going to play Donnie and we started to put a whole cast together. It was going to cost $4m and it was going to happen. And then, for non-financial reasons, it didn’t happen that time, and every time I’ve tried since then it’s gotten harder and harder, so the budget got less and less. In the end, I put the money up along with a couple of other people because we figured we could make it for very little and so would take the risk ourselves.
Filmmaker: I’m very intrigued about the way you worked with the young actors in the film, because obviously you couldn’t tell them what the movie was actually about. Is it true you created a sanitized version of the script to get around that?
Harris: It was an alternate story. We said that the Tom Arnold character, Alex, had been left by his wife and so he was living alone with Frank, his good buddy, and he wanted a family so these two kids would become his children. There was not going to be a mummy, because the mummy had left. Frank was now jealous because he thought that he wasn’t Alex’s favorite anymore, so that’s why he was being mean. Then for the specific scenes with Ryan, we’d come up with a scenario that fitted emotionally where she had to be, so we didn’t have to tell them anything beyond that. I came up with that version of the story with Monique, who’s Ryan [Simpkins]’s mother, and we kind of worked it out together.
Filmmaker: Did you grapple at all with the thought that 10 years down the line these kids may find out what kind of a film they were really in and regret their involvement?
Harris: I didn’t so much worry about that because I was a kid actor myself at the age of 10, and I what I remember about that movie is the experience of being with the other people. I don’t remember the scenes, I don’t even remember what the film was, I just remember my relationship with my understudy, my relationship with the director and the producer and Tom Courtenay and Romy Schneider. I remember it being very boring. If the film had been about something else, I’d look back and go, “Oh, that’s what it was,” so I didn’t have that worry for [child actors] Ryan [Simpkins] and Scooter [Smith] in 10 years to look at this and feel that somehow they’d been tricked. They only really looked at it as dealing with this thing day-to-day that they turned up to do and it was never about the arc of Leslie or the arc of Donnie – in which case they would feel trick and say, “Oh, actually that wasn’t our arc.” Every scene was, “OK, imagine that this is happening to you. Imagine your mum’s not here and she can’t look after you and you’re feeling upset because where is she going to be.” We’d get them to an emotional level that fitted the characters’ level and then you’d play the scene.
Filmmaker: Looking at your filmography, this is something of a departure for you, as you’re moving from more Hollywood fare to independent filmmaking. How has that transition been for you?
Harris: Ironically, this is probably the first script I wrote. Right after this, I did The Rachel Papers, so I went to do that, and then I did some other films in Hollywood. I enjoy those kind of films and I kept thinking, “You’ll earn enough credits to be able to then be able to do a film like Gardens of the Night.” Which is not always true. In one way, making a film like this was almost like going back to film school, because you really had to pare down your ambitions and be really specific about what you wanted to do. You’re dealing with people who are kind of learning as well so you’re fueled by enthusiasm and energy. I think what’s been harder is after the film’s done because you’re on your own. It’s down to you to. You can’t walk away from it and you are the one who’s banging the drum and you have to bug everybody and push it. You’re the one who creates the momentum and traction, so that’s a lesson. Hats off to guys who just do this the whole time, because it must be exhausting. You have to work out how to make money out of it. You do it out of love, but you have to pay the bills.
Filmmaker: Do you feel you’ve been able to work better with actors because of your father?
Harris: I knew what he looked for in a director, and I can understand the frustrations of actors and their temperaments, so it doesn’t freak me out when I see that happening, because I get it. I understand that when things get explosive – which they can do – it’s really about something else and not to get sidetracked. What literally helped me more was going and doing it. I studied acting at a drama school in Los Angeles, and that helps you more. To me, that helped me understand how to be spoken to and so how to speak about it.
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Harris: I always wanted to work with my father. We were about to do a film before he died, this book that I optioned called Pop that’s a grandfather-granddaughter story. I was going to do it with my dad because he had such a strong connection with my daughter and it became a huge thing for him in the latter period of his life. I mean, the main relationship that he had was with my daughter, so I optioned this book, did the script and I went to England to go into preproduction, and then he got sick and died. Therefore we were really going to work together; before that, we’d always [just] talked about it. I’ve always wanted to do the story of the Spartans, so I’d have him as Leonidas. He’d have been very temperamental, but I think I could handle him. I’d have him in his late 20s, early 30s and he’d play Leonidas, and you’d have Vanessa Redgrave as his wife and you could have Alec Guinness as the main Athenian and Javier Bardem as the King of Persia. I’d also like to add my brothers Jared and Jamie to the cast of Spartans.
Filmmaker: What was your dream job as a kid?
Harris: I wanted to be a soccer player for Arsenal.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Harris: Stick with it and never take no for an an answer. Have a very thick skin and stick to your point of view.