I had the wonderful chance to speak with writer/director/producer Harrison Smith. His movies include: “The Fields,” Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard,” “Camp Dread,” and the much anticapated “Death House.” See what he has to say here:
You’ve been working in the horror genre since your first movie, “The Fields.” How did you become drawn to horror?
“The Fields” gives part of an answer to this. My grandmother loved horror films–the old Karloff, Lugosi Universal Monster films. I grew up with old horror hosts like Dr. Shock, Uncle Ted–the guys who hosted Creature Feature and Saturday afternoon shows of that nature. Additionally, I loved the CBS Late Night Movie where films like “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death,” “Shockwaves” the Christopher Lee “Dracula” films and such. So by the time I was 8 or so I knew all the old horror names like Price, Cushing, Lee, Karloff, Lorre, Chaney, Lugosi…it was fun. Then I saw “Jaws” at the age of 8 in theaters in 1975 and I never looked back. “Jaws” was the movie that made want to make movies.
Writing, directing, producing…you do it all. Which is your favorite?
Writing. I like the setting up of worlds and populating them with characters. It is also relaxing.
How did you come to cast the likes of Kane Hodder, Sid Haig, Tony Todd, and Gunnar Hansen? Was it collaboration on the Death House screenplay, with Mr. Hansen, since he wrote the original story?
By this time, the origin of “Death House” has been reported in quite a few trades and interviews. Gunnar had the original story. His agent Mike Eisenstadt collaborated on the “Expendables of Horror” type of concept. Gunnar had a script but he knew it wasn’t really catching fire. He had some other writer do revise and Gunnar didn’t care for it at all. Then Mike brought me to the attention of Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase of Entertainment Factory, who had come on board to get the film made. They came to me, met me and offered me the job to rewrite it and direct. Gunnar and I worked in person and by phone to shape the revise toward something that would get investors and talent excited but also keeping true to Gunnar’s vision. He officially sanctioned it with blessing before he died and was happy with what I came up with. He was a gentleman and kind. I am lucky to have had this opportunity with him.
Being his last film, how would you describe Mr. Hansen?
As said, he was a gentleman and soft spoken and so smart. He was an artist and he wanted “Death House” to be different and not just a run of the mill slasher. In an alternate universe he would have made a wonderful Santa Claus.
Even though you have your own production company, and also have partners, how many of your films are crowd-funded?
None. I have found independent financiers for all of my films. While I respect crowd funding and those who have done it and are doing it, I prefer to not do it and hope I don’t ever have to. I have a personal issue with wealthy celebrities shaking down fans for money to make their film or pet projects. James Franco could have made his one crowd funding film with a fraction of the money he got for that lousy “Your Highness” film. Same goes for Zac Braff. I don’t understand why people would give them money, when a venerated publication like “Dread Central” needs financial help and people can’t be bothered. Makes no sense to me.
Do you still consider yourself an Indie Film maker?
Well, until I land a major studio gig, yep, I am an indie filmmaker.
What are your thoughts on Indie film versus “main stream” film?
You have good and bad in both camps. I think the line has also been blurred between “indie” and “mainstream.” Nowadays a 20 million film can be seen as an “indie” film. I’m not quite sure that is correct. As for “main stream” I think we are in a dangerous cultural issue with what I call “repackagings.” I wrote about this concept here on my Cynema series: http://horrorfuel.com/horror/movies/zombie-movies/not-a-reboot-not-a-remake-its-a-repackaging/
“Repackaging” is pretending the film is a sequel but is really just a remake in disguise. You take the best bits of a previous film, and then stitch them into a newer storyline, but it really is just the same chain of events all over again with new actors and updated locations. “Jurassic World” is a perfect example of this. it isn’t a movie, it’s a fabrication and fast food remake of “Jurassic Park,” often a shot for shot one. We are being duped and most people don’t see it or don’t care. When our art becomes product, when our cuisine becomes fast food…it affects us in every way. Our political system is a genuine reflection of this type of mentality. Read the article I attached. It very clearly explains it.
Would you ever consider casting Kyle Hester, from “Preacher Six,” and “The Chair” in one of your movies? He would love to work with you.
I was unaware of this and am a fan of Kyle’s. Feel free to connect us.
You’ve several projects coming up. “Wretched” in 2018, and “Garlic and Gunpowder” in 2017…can you speak on these movies? Maybe give us a little tease?
“Wretched” is a supernatural Halloween witch film that we had going, lost financing and now is back. It’s gonna be a solid film with what looks like a 3D aspect in Real D. Let’s see what happens there. “Garlic and Gunpowder” is my first comedy and I am really excited about that. We start shooting Jan 9th with Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, Lainie Kazan, Judy Tenuta and so many great names. Very, very excited about that. It’s like a Cohen Brothers style comedy.
I was following you before, during and, of course, after “Death House.” You had a very quick shoot schedule. How did you manage that, coordinating shooting schedules with all the big names you have?
I managed that because of a wonderful crew of people, line producers post production artists and staff that work their asses off. From my G&E crew to camera crew, I try to work with the same people over and over because it’s like production shorthand. Couple that with wonderful cast and you got a solid core to get things done quickly but also done well.
“Death House” is one of THE most highly anticipated Indie films. Any clue on a release date?
It will depend on the buyer and their plans for it. I would expect early 2017 but that is just spitballing.
I love your take on Cynema vs Cinema how did you come up with that?
“Jaws the Revenge.” It’s the worst movie ever made because it didn’t have to be. It was created to line pockets and was never intended to be a good movie. That is cynical and lots of people made money off that cynicism with no respect for the legendary first film. So after seeing this, I came up with the concept of “Cynema.” My articles are not film reviews. The Internet has enough of those. I look at cynicism and how it affects our art and us as a society.
Do you plan to keep your movies in the Indie category? I ask because I noticed Vivica A. Fox (who I love) is cast in “Garlic and Gunpowder.” Speaking for myself, I (and I think the whole Indie horror community) would hate to lose you to mainstream.
I have no control over these kind of things. I have to keep the lights on, so if a studio came to me with an opportunity, of course I would take it. I don’t think it took a lot of thought for Gareth Edwards to accept “Godzilla” when it was offered. When given a choice between that and “Monsters 2” we see where Gareth leaned.
Being as busy as you are, you always have time for your fans. For that we truly thank you. How important is it to keep the Indie fans involved with the films?
I don’t like the word “fan” as it implies “fanatic.” I get it, but simply I am appreciative for the folks who like what I am doing and like to have a measure of accessibility. I always make the effort to help out because I didn’t have anyone open doors for me. So I get it. I’m not excited when I get the “Cast me in your next movie!” DM’s on Twitter. That’s not the proper way to do something and I avoid that. I am just doing a job, no different than what anyone else does. It’s simply the job I always wanted, that’s all.
What director do you admire the most, in the horror genre and in “regular” film? Which writer do you admire most?
I don’t really like to single anything out because there have been multiple influences in varying measures. I will say Tom Holland of “Psycho II” and “Fright Night” fame had a major influence on my writing. John Carpenter on style and production. Almost everyone says Spielberg for directing and while that is certainly true for me, I would have to say Orson Welles also counts for influence on me. So there are a lot of people. I love Mike Mendez’s work and I think James Cullen Bressack is one gifted motherf’er.
To work with one person, who would that person be, and why?
I don’t have just one person and it kind of undermines the importance of the people I have been lucky to work with so far.
What is your favorite go-to horror movie…the movie that every time it’s on, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you just have to watch again?
“Jaws” but also I love putting on “Halloween III” or “Psycho II” for background sound while working or even doing stuff around the house. “Fright Night” is another one. I also enjoy Tobe Hooper’s “Salem’s Lot” for background sound. That’s a fun time.
What is your advice to writers and directors who want to become involved with films? Especially horror films.
Don’t talk about it. Do it. The world has enough talkers. Get a thick skin. There is always someone more talented than you, so forget the “you’re special” self-esteem garbage so many schools pushed on you. Want to write? Then write, read and read more variety to understand style. Want to direct, get out there and make the film. Studying movies doesn’t make you a director and certainly not a producer. Look up from you phones, get off social media and learn how to talk directly to people…that wins over a financier because all good business is done face to face.
While any one can make a horror film, what’s your secret to making them well, and keeping them fresh?
Depends on who you ask. I have no secret. I loved film all my life. I have made films since I was ten years old. Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.