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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

Steering Away From “Ooga-Booga” Horror Movies: John McNaughton on The Harvest

Michael Shannon in The Harvest

In 1985, a pair of brothers who owned a video equipment rental business in Chicago offered local filmmaker John McNaughton $100,000 in financing if he could come up with a low-budget horror movie. They probably got a little more than they bargained for when McNaughton delivered Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a chilling (though also blackly comic) character study loosely based on the experiences of real life sociopath Henry Lee Lucas. McNaughton eschewed slasher movie conventions in favor of an ultra-realistic, serious-minded film with no escape hatch for the audience; one of the greatest cinematic representations of the banality of evil ever filmed, it was true horror without the slightest hint of glamorization or exploitation.

McNaughton paid for his artistry – it took years for Henry to get any kind of decent distribution, and the MPAA said no amount of cuts could possibly get it down to an R-rating – but the film had its champions, including Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese, who hired McNaughton to direct Mad Dog and Glory McNaughton’s varied but consistently uncompromising filmography also includes great live performance films (the Eric Bogosian show Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll), documentaries (Condo Painting), and the riveting crime film Normal Life, which is as unsettling in its own way as Henry but was unceremoniously dumped by its distributor following poor test screenings. (The teen girls lured by the promise of a new Luke Perry movie were understandably mortified to see 90210’s Dylan in a tragic satire exposing the American Dream as a sham.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, McNaughton found his biggest popular success when he coated his poison pill with sugar in the form of the deliriously entertaining Wild Things, a film as bleak in its world view as anything the director ever made, but one where his dark view of human nature is expressed in poppy Florida colors and in which very ugly acts are committed with glee by very beautiful people.

McNaughton returned to the horror genre with The Harvest, a film that received a limited theatrical release earlier this year and hits Blu-ray on September 1 in a special edition from Shout! Factory. Like McNaughton’s earlier work in the genre, The Harvest is unforced and all the more frightening for it – there’s virtually no violence or gore, but the ideas, and McNaughton’s straightforward visual presentation of them, get under your skin and stay there. Young Maryann (Natasha Calis) discovers that the only child her own age in her new neighborhood is confined to a wheelchair. Unfortunately, Andy (Charlie Tahan) has an extremely domineering mother (Samantha Morton) who refuses to let him leave the house or play with Maryann because of her fears for his extremely poor health. His dad (Michael Shannon) is more sympathetic but has a hard time standing up to his wife; when Maryann sneaks into the house and explores its off-limits basement, she learns that both parents have a very dark secret, and that their reasons for keeping Andy inside and Maryann outside are far from altruistic. I spoke with McNaughton about his work on the film a couple of weeks before the scheduled DVD release.  

Filmmaker: How did the script for The Harvest first come to you?

John McNaughton: It was sent to me by my agent, and I read it and wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to do. He said I should read it again, so I did and realized that there were some interesting things there – I just needed to work with the writer to bring some of those things out. I personally shy away from the supernatural and what the trades used to call “ooga-booga” horror movies; some of those films are great and I love them dearly, it’s just not what I do. If I’ve got a script and it feels more or less like it could happen in the real world, then I know how to direct it – I know how the real world works. But once you leave the real world and get into the supernatural and fantasy, that’s just not my gift. So we took the script in a more realistic direction, with the idea that this was something that could really happen. It probably is happening – hell, Jerry Bruckheimer is doing a TV show called Harvest that deals with the same stuff, and if Bruckheimer’s on it you know it’s a trend.

Filmmaker: He should pay you some kind of residuals!

McNaughton: Maybe he’ll give me a job directing the pilot – I’ve got experience with pieces called Harvest! [laughs]

Filmmaker: When you started work on The Harvest it had been over ten years since your last film. Were you working on other things during that period that fell through?

McNaughton: Sure. In my experience most projects fall through unless you’re Steven Spielberg. I also took some time off; when I’m working I tend to be extremely ambitious, but when I’m not working I’m perfectly happy to be completely lazy. I don’t always feel the need to go to work – the biggest motivator is when I realize I’m not going to make the mortgage if I don’t. For quite a few years I didn’t have to worry about that, and I wrote a lot and read a lot – it’s amazing how much I read – and traveled…now I’ve got this stack of backlogged projects that were created during that time and I have to see how many of them I can get up and running.

Filmmaker: I noticed that Steven A. Jones was one of your producers on The Harvest, and he’s been a collaborator of yours going back to Henry. How did the two of you first hook up?

McNaughton: He grew up in the Coney Island projects in Brooklyn, and I grew up in a Chicago neighborhood called Roseland. If you really want to get shot, it’s a great place to walk down the street. When I was growing up there they didn’t have the guns – it was a more prosperous time, and working people got a better shake in those days – but it was still violent. I’ve got scars from some encounters I had there, and so does just about everyone I know from the area. Anyway, even though we grew up a thousand miles apart from each other Steve and I had similar life experiences. He came to Chicago to go to school at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which is not really famous but it’s one of the best engineering schools in the world. Aside from engineering it’s a great design school; a lot of the Bauhaus people ended up there when they left Nazi Germany – Mies van der Rohe ran the architecture school. Steve went there along with some guys I went to high school with, and we were all into music – Steve was a drummer and he ended up hanging out with these people who were friends of mine. We knew of each other for many years, and around the time that I got involved with the guys who would fund Henry Steve was working as a director of animated commercials – he did all the Cap’n Crunch commercials back in the day. I needed some animated titles, so we finally hooked up after knowing each other by reputation, and when it came time to do Henry I realized that Steve was much more connected to the Chicago production community than I was. I had been off on a life of adventure for about a decade, working in a traveling carnival and other things, while Steve had his nose to the grindstone. I needed a writer, and he got me together with Richard Fire, who ended up being the primary writer on Henry. Steve was working with Stuart Gordon’s Organic Theatre Company in Chicago, which was home to Richard, Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Dennis Farina – quite an accomplished crew – and he helped me find a lot of the people who ended up working on Henry. We discovered that we had really similar taste; personality-wise…I’ll just say he’s the good cop and leave it at that.

Filmmaker: Getting back to The Harvest, you’re working there with Steve but you also have a lot of new collaborators, most notably cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who recently shot Dope. What kinds of conversations did you have with her in pre-production about the visual style of the picture?

McNaughton: The pre-production on The Harvest was calamitous, because while we were prepping it Hurricane Sandy hit New York. Steve and I were staying in a high rise building in Manhattan on 3rd Avenue and 23rd Street, and I think 39th Street was the line – everything above 39th Street had no power, and everything below was okay. We got moved into this big old hotel, the Roosevelt, but the rooms had no Internet. There was a big beautiful lobby with a Starbucks franchise that we would get down to early so we could commandeer a sofa and outlets – the outlets in that hotel lobby were like gold for two weeks – and we ran the show from there. The costume design and production design were going on in Brooklyn, but we couldn’t get there because the subway system was down. There was gasoline, but you couldn’t pump it because there was no electricity and it was rationed. So I ended up hiring a lot of crew people over Skype, including Rachel – she was at a wedding in Spain when I interviewed her. When she got to New York she would come to the hotel, and the first half of every day we would sit on that couch and go over the shot list I had made. Our discussions were mostly practical – how are we going to achieve this – since I favor a simple, straightforward visual style.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting, almost the entire movie takes place in one house, but it never feels static or dull; it’s confining only in the way it’s supposed to be, which is as a kind of reflection of the characters’ lives.

McNaughton: When I saw pictures of that house, I knew it was the one – and it had the added charm of being owned by a real estate company that didn’t care what we did to it. We paid them a hefty fee, but then we were able to take it over and build false walls and put up wallpaper and do whatever we wanted. Rachel was not happy when she saw that bedroom and realized she was going to have to shoot half the picture in there, but that was her problem to solve and she solved it – she did a great job. I’m not terribly easy on directors of photography, but Rachel’s a really good person who takes it in stride. Which is important, because I’ve worked with some directors of photography who were real cranks, like Robby Müller. Others too, but in Robby’s case I feel I owe him the honor of naming him as an unpleasant person [laughs].

Filmmaker: I really liked the restraint that you and Rachel showed with the camerawork. The camera only moves when there’s a reason to, and the same goes for when you use hand-held – you don’t just plaster the whole movie with hand-held as so many horror films do in the found footage era.

McNaughton: I thought of Maryann as the breath of life in that dead, static world the other characters live in, so when she’s on camera we go hand-held to make it feel more alive. Other than that there wasn’t a huge amount of camera movement, because I wanted to emphasize how sterile that house and those characters were – I wanted to just sit back with the camera and observe. There was a practical component too, which is that there just wasn’t a lot of space to lay track or anything in that room.             

Filmmaker: Did you have any visual references that you looked to, like photographs or paintings or other movies?

McNaughton: Yes, the production designer Matthew Munn introduced me to a still photographer from upstate New York named Gregory Crewdson who shoots lower-middle class lives in a way that’s slightly nightmarish. His work often features wallpaper, and you’ll notice that every room in The Harvest is covered in wallpaper, which gives it a kind of weird mood that I like.

Filmmaker: The Harvest was shot on film, which has become less and less the norm. What dictated that decision?

McNaughton: That came from our financier. The interesting thing about The Harvest is that there was no company; a man named Gerry Kessler gave us around six-and-a-half million dollars, and we got another two from the state of New York in the form of tax subsidies. Gerry made a fortune in the vitamin and supplement business and late in life decided to get into making independent films. He and I really hit it off, and unlike just about everyone else I’ve ever dealt with in the film business, when he said there was six-and-a-half million dollars in the bank, there really was six-and-a-half million dollars in the bank on the day he said it would be there. That just doesn’t happen. Anyway, his attitude was, “I’m putting up all this money to make a movie – I don’t want any of this digital shit.” There were other producers involved who kept saying to me, “You’re wasting all this money,” but I just said, “The man who put up the money wants it on film, far be it from me to argue with him.” Of course, every cinematographer we interviewed screamed “Yes!” when they found out we were shooting on film – Rachel raised both arms in a victory gesture when I told her on Skype.

Filmmaker: The performances in the movie are uniformly strong, and I’m curious how you cast your leads. Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton both bring a lot of gravitas to their roles.

McNaughton: It’s funny, I’m in the process of casting this new Bill Murray picture that I’ve been working on for the last seven years, and it’s always the same – you make these lists, you go down the lists, you call the actors’ agents, this actor isn’t available, this one doesn’t want to do it…but in the end the right actors just kind of fall into the part. With The Harvest, nobody wanted Samantha’s part, believe me – especially actresses who were mothers. They were not comfortable with the cruelty to children. I needed an exceptionally brave actress who was really willing to go for it, who would go anywhere, and that’s how I ended up with Samantha. Steve knew Michael Shannon from his Chicago theater days and put in a call, and I met with him in New York and he agreed to do it. He and Samantha had done some theater together, and even though they didn’t have scenes together they were both in Jesus’ Son, so they had a history together. There’s a certain destiny to film projects, and if the vibe is right the right people show up. It’s a mysterious process.

Filmmaker: Something that surprised me was that the kids really held their own in scenes with Academy Award-nominated adult actors. How did you create an environment where that could happen?

McNaughton: This may be sexism, or reverse sexism, I don’t know, but I felt it would be good for the kids to have a woman cinematographer. A couple of the male cinematographers we interviewed were somewhat stringent, and I didn’t need that with kids – you have to make them comfortable. But both of these kids were great and had real chops. Natasha Calis was Kyra Sedgwick’s idea; I know Kyra through Kevin Bacon from when we did Wild Things together, and she called me up and said, “John, I understand you’re casting for a young girl.” I said, “Yeah, I am,” and she told me, “I just worked with this girl named Natasha Calis on The Possession, and she’s the best actor I ever worked with.” Kyra’s worked with a lot of people, so that went a long way – although the funny thing with kids is, you’d be surprised how many kids can act. You think, “How am I ever going to find someone?” and you find three. But after auditioning a lot of kids we realized Natasha was exceptional. Same thing with Charlie Tahan. He had already done great work – this wasn’t his first rodeo – and physically he was just perfect. Interestingly, the little guy in the basement, Nolan Lyons, came in to read for Charlie’s part but was just a little too small and a little too young. My original plan with the kid in the basement was to save money and just hire an extra, but my casting director Billy Hopkins said, “You’ll be sorry. It’s not just laying there, the kid’s gotta act.” And he was right. Nolan was acting every second that he was lying there.

Filmmaker: The film has some very dark ideas in it. When communicating with younger actors, are you clear and up front about everything the movie is saying and showing, or do you have to soften it a little?

McNaughton: No, those are really smart kids, I didn’t need to soft-pedal it with them. I did watch my language a little, since I have a tendency to swear like a truck driver, but other than that I treated the kids like working adults. In fact the kids work harder than the adults, because when you say cut the adults get to go off and have a coffee or cigarette break. The kids have to go to school! While the rest of us are goofing off waiting for the next shot to be ready, they’re in a classroom with a tutor.

Filmmaker: You had one of the all-time great editors on this picture, Bill Pankow (The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way), though usually you work with Elena Maganini—

McNaughton: Elena’s edited just about everything I’ve ever done, except for in network TV where they have their own editors and you don’t get a choice. This time I couldn’t use her, because we were taking advantage of New York’s subsidy deal for post-production, which is maybe the best in the country. Elena lives in Los Angeles and has a teenage daughter to take care of, so she couldn’t just pack up and leave town. I interviewed a number of editors and went with Bill, both because of his excellent credits and because he has a very nice manner. I sit in the cutting room all day – I don’t come in and say, “Do this, this, and this,” and then go to the gym – so I want somebody I’m going to get along with in there. Bill is such a gentleman, and his style is relentless; he’ll try every possible permutation until the movie is right. And he knows all the great restaurants and he knows the city better than anybody, because before he was an editor he was a cab driver.   

Filmmaker: One of the things I really like about this movie is how unforced the horror aspects of it are – you don’t rely on any of the usual gimmicks or conventions to generate scares. I thought the score was particularly effective in this sense, and unusual for a horror film. Can you talk a little about what your thinking was there, and how you collaborate with composer George S. Clinton?

McNaughton: Well, that score is one place where I clashed with two producers who were on the film because they had developed the script and kind of came with the package. For the most part they stayed out of my way – they didn’t really have the level of experience to try and cross swords with me, so they left me alone – but when it came to the music they wanted it to be really creepy and “ooga booga.” My feeling was that the movie was a fairy tale; above all it reminds me of “Hansel & Gretel.” So I told George I wanted the music to be beautiful, not scary – the movie’s already scary, so if you have “ooga booga” music you’re…well, the way I put it is you’re telling the same joke twice. I always want to avoid that. Wild Things, for example, is a movie about really ugly people in terms of their interiors – there’s almost nobody of any moral value whatsoever in that picture. So to make their surroundings ugly is telling the joke twice; I wanted it to be beautiful and lush and gorgeous, like the movie was a commercial selling you that world. Same thing in The Harvest: I wanted beautiful fairy tale music, not horror movie music. That was the one place where I hit a few bumps with the producers, who wanted the music to be more “edgy.” I told them, “When you direct your version of the movie, you can put the edgy music in.”

The great thing for me is that George Clinton was, until a few weeks ago, the head of the film scoring department at the Berklee [College] of Music in Boston. That worked out really well, because he had access to the WGBH orchestral recording stage in Boston and hired a string ensemble made up of recent music school graduates who all had master’s degrees in their chosen disciplines but were waiting to get their first chairs somewhere. They were kind of betwixt and between as far as their careers went, but they were all master musicians at the peak of their physical abilities. So we had a 26-piece string ensemble with a piano and harp and everything else – it was an analog orchestral score, which is kind of dying out. This movie was probably a goodbye to that kind of music for me, just like it was a goodbye to film, because I probably won’t be shooting film again. So it was a goodbye to a few things.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

 

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