14 June 2011
INTERVIEW - Director Brett Simmons
I contacted Husk director Brett Simmons via Twitter and asked if he would be interested in chatting a bit about his career and recently released film and he was gracious enough to agree. So, below is a little insight into the man behind the scarecrows plus some exclusive news.
Just a side note.... this interview may contain spoilers. I will mark them ahead of time so you know when they're coming.
TC: I'd first like to thank you for the opportunity to interview you. I'm a big fan of Husk and think that you did a great job on that.
BS: No prob, love interviews like this, and thanks!
TC: I've been to your Vimeo page and watched pretty much every short on there. How long have you been into film making?
BS: That is awesome! Thanks for checking out the shorts. I love short films. The challenges of the length and format are really exciting to me. I haven't gotten a lot of people to check those out, so thanks for watching those. As far as film making, I've been into it for as long as I can remember. I got the bug when I was really young. The camera hit my hands around 10 years old, but I was articulating stories before that in drawings and writing. I come from a family of artists, so film making made a lot of sense even as a kid because it combined all the different art forms I was surrounded by. So, goofing around with friends and a camera through out my youth led to going to a arts High School, which led to a college film school, and so on. It's always been a bit of a constant.
TC: Have you always been (for lack of a better term) a horror junkie?
BS: You know, I haven't. I didn't sit through my first horror movie until I was 13 years old...which seems like an appropriate age. It definitely wasn't for lack of effort, I just was too freaked out by them to stay in the room before then. Truth is, I still am. I'm a big wimp with horror movies. "Halloween" was my first horror movie I stomached staying through entirely, and it horrified me, but also inspired me. I loved the experience of it, and still today, even though I'm forced to watch through my fingers, I love the unique experience that good horror movies provide, and I've become a junkie for the experience. The audience experience. Any good movie should take an audience on a ride, but horror movies take it to another level. I love being in a theatre and jumping alongside a room full of other startled people. Nothing like it.
TC: The feature Husk was based on your short film of the same title. What was your inspiration for the short?
BS: I wanted to make a straight up horror movie. At that time, I was really disappointed by the horror movies I had been seeing, and I really wanted to respond to that disappointment with a contribution of some kind. It was all while I was still in film school where my mandate was short films, so I tried to conceive something for the format, but since my mind was already on features, my ambition became to make a traditional, feature length horror movie...squished down into less than thirty minutes. So that's how the "short" part happened, as for the "Husk" part, I was always drawn toward scarecrows. Without throwing any particular movie under the bus, the scarecrow subgenre was a specific one where I had endured the most disappointment. Aside from having an opinion about horror movies in general, I noticed that I had a specific expectation for scarecrows that I hadn't seen yet...so I wanted to take a crack at it. The hardest part about horror movies is justifying your villain and environment in a way that makes sense enough to move on and enjoy the ride. Scarecrows and cornfields come pre-packaged together as an iconic threat in a creepy environment, so I've always gravitated toward that. Hence, "Husk".
TC: How hard was it to take the concept of the short and build it into a full length feature?
BS: It was actually a lot of fun. First off, in making the short, I knew we didn't have much time to hit all the traditional horror beats, so I deliberately avoided spelling out the backstory and mythology of the farm and scarecrows. I knew there wasn't time, and that I could save that to explore in an actual feature. The challenge was that, after the short went to Sundance, there had grown a pretty big interest and expectation for the backstory, so when it came time for me to address it all, I felt a lot of pressure. While the idea had always generally been there, the specifics of it all become daunting for me, because I wanted it to be satisfying. My mind was also trapped in the limitations of the short. I hadn't yet regained my objectivity, and that was ultimately the biggest hurdle for me, spinning out of the short, and thinking bigger. I always came within degrees of what I felt was "right", but never really felt like I found it until I stepped away, worked on some other projects, and came back with the objectivity I needed. But as a writer, it was a very gratifying and educational experience.
TC: I know there was quite a time lapse between when the short was done and the release of the feature. Can you talk a little about that journey?
BS: It was a long journey full of valuable lessons, so I always really appreciate this question, because this is the stuff you don't learn in film school. To put it in perspective, the short was shot in 2003, went to Sundance in 2005, the feature was shot in 2009, and premiered early 2011. After Sundance came the process of many meetings to make the feature, which was full of a lot of "no"'s and "maybe"'s. I was young, ambitious, and meeting a lot of great people within the genre, which was very educational in and of itself, but regardless of everyone's interest, I wasn't finding any commitments. What I learned in that process was that all you need is one "yes", but there are a ton more "no"'s you have to deal with first to find it. I also learned that "no" is as good as a "yes" because it's definitive, where the "maybe"'s can string you along. Those were always the most difficult. So after a while of that, I finally got a few "yes"'s! Before After Dark, "Husk" was actually set up at a couple other production companies, where it obviously didn't pan out. Those were major let downs at the time, but in hindsight I can recognize the blessing each time was because those were the periods that ultimately taught me what the movie was I wanted to make. I was so excited to make a feature that I was listening to every criticism and note I received, which began turning the story into a messy patchwork, not unlike the scarecrows' faces themselves. It helped me gain the definition I needed both as writer and director, which is why I finally walked away and took time off to figure all that out. So I walked away from the production deal I was in to go and re-write "Husk" from page one, by myself, with no influences but my own. So essentially, the journey was all education, growth, and definition.
TC: How did you become you become affiliated with After Dark Films?
BS: I saved the conclusion of my last response for this question, because it's the happy ending. I left everything I had going to lock myself away and re-write "Husk" into what I had determined I wanted it to be. When I was done, that basically restarted the whole cycle I had been in for all the years prior: shopping a script around town to make a feature. Right away, the response to the script was much much stronger. Before the response was always to the short film, not the script (they were always sent out together). This time, all the response was to the new script, so that was very gratifying considering the risk I had taken. After Dark Films was the first company to respond with interest in making it. I came in to their offices for a meeting, and as soon as we all met, I knew they were the company "Husk" had been waiting for. They understood the project and my intentions, and they supported them rather than try to change them. After Dark deserves a lot of credit, because "Husk" takes a few risks that other companies were intimidated by, but After Dark jumped at them, particularly the treatment of the only female lead. So we met in a very traditional sense, and became affiliated out of our genuine excitement to make "Husk". I love After Dark.
TC: Has there been any talk of a sequel?
BS: All the sequel talk took place before and during production. There hasn't been a lot of room to discuss the sequel since for many reasons, but I can say that whenever/if-ever the conversation comes up, I have one. I'm such a nerd, and get so deep into the stories I involve myself with, I can hardly ever help myself from considering where the story would continue. I feel like it only benefits to go there because the best sequels are the ones that feel pre-conceived. So no, there hasn't been talk...but I can talk a little here. First, just like the feature allowed room to explore mythology beyond the short, I feel like a sequel allows room to explore even more mythology beyond the first feature. There's a lot there that would have been boring to cram into "Husk", plus I prefer to suggest and open up discussion than to spell things out. That's always been my own preference, but a sequel could begin to answer more and suggest a LOT more. As for Scott (Devon Graye), I never imagined anyone actually surviving an encounter in the cornfield. Yes, the ending is open to leave an audience to decide whether or not Scott dies or not, BUT if no one ever has before, and Scott does...that could mean something significant...naturally and supernaturally. My favorite horror movie sequel is "Halloween 2" (the original), not H2. It and Back To The Future 2 (my favorite movie ever) both directly continue where the first story left off. I've always loved that. I have a pretty cool idea how to directly continue in a surprising way. That's more than I've ever publicly talked about it, so there's your exclusive "Husk" news. Haha.
TC: I know there are some differing opinions on Husk, of course not everyone is going to like it, how do handle the criticism vs. the praise?
BS: Honestly, I'm thankful for all the responses. My love is for the audience experience, like I said, and what the audience says is important. Horror fans I think are the hardest to please, and I say that as one myself, so I came into it all aware of that and prepared for that. So, I've been handling it all by preparing for it, and just trying to observe and learn from it all. So far, the most interesting thing I've noticed is that "Husk" is pretty polarizing among fans. People either love it a lot, or hate it. That's been fun to see. I've long recognized that I have a very particular taste, especially with horror, and "Husk" very much reflects my taste. I prefer things to be suggested or open to interpretation and speculation because I like having something to think or talk about afterward. The people that criticize "Husk" generally don't share that opinion, and the people that praise it generally do. It's almost like I'm learning who I should be watching movies with. Haha. It's definitely not a movie for people to watch casually while they fall asleep on the couch, because the subtle things are crucial. My favorite example has been listening to everyone that noticed and read into the "Gen 4:11" verse on the sign, because they've really gotten the movie, and I've loved seeing that. All the answers are there if you pursue them, and listening to the people that have found them has been the most fun of the whole experience. Also, I knew early on that I was asking for tons of negative criticism by making the first twenty minutes look so typical, but it was the only way I could successfully accomplish what I wanted to later, creating tropes to spin them, so I just accepted that beforehand. And when people talk about how much they're surprised by the different spins and directions "Husk" takes, those are pretty gratifying. The praise has meant a lot. I'm a fan first, so the entire fan response is valuable, which is why I'm really trying to handle everything everyone's saying, good and bad. To the point that I even try to respond to as many comments as possible. I love inviting the discussion. Seriously. Twitter: @brett_simmons. Do it.
TC: I would be remiss if I didn't mention Frank (@FearChat)... he and I have talked quite a bit about how creepy the scarecrows were. How much thought went into the costumes and is the way they came out, they way you had envisioned them?
BS: I love talking about the scarecrows. We've grown very close, me and them. Yes, they turned out exactly the way I wanted. I attached a couple pictures of my concept art (also on the dvd) so you can see them. I had been sketching those ideas for a while, and when Gary Tunnicliffe came on board, I basically handed over my drawings and he went to town. He turned out burlap masks that looked closer to my concepts than I ever expected, which was really exciting, seeing the artwork realized. And the costume department worked pretty hard to get the clothing right which was crucial too. Essentially, wardrobe-wise, each scarecrow was once a victim of the field, so their clothes had to deliberately be pedestrian in nature, but "scarecrow" looking in execution, which the wardrobe team handled in a great way. Rope, cornstalks, mud, and blood. That was the method. Back to what I said earlier about the short film, one of my biggest disappointments with scarecrow movies was the look of the scarecrows. I felt like they were always overtly "scary" as opposed to simple and actually scary. Michael Myers is scary because he's simple and evil and mysterious. The scarecrows needed to be simple in my mind, and that's what I was going for. Scarecrows that were simply scarecrows...but with something underneath.
TC: Scott is a seemingly normal guy who suddenly starts having "visions"
of the violence that grips this family. I noticed that any time he has
one that crow is always there. Is the crow kind of initiating these
visions or am I just over thinking it?
BS: Oh there's never any over thinking here. That's the fun stuff. The crow is definitely involved, so I'm glad you noticed that. Crows have always traditionally been associated with dark spirits, like the harbingers of demonic activity or things like that. There's something clearly supernatural and evil on the property, and the crow was my visual indicator that something was brewing in the "unseen". He intentionally prefaces or accents the supernatural activity and is heavily associated with the evil spirit lingering around there. And you know, as far as Scott, there was a lot of complaint that there was no reason for his seeing visions, but the crow, for me, WAS the reason. The way I intended it, the crow indicated something evil and supernatural lurking around, and Scott was the only one paying attention enough to notice, and therefore see these visions. Brian was too concerned with Natalie, Chris was too concerned with his own survival, but Scott was trying to figure things out and understand. Like when Brian and Scott are in the barn and the first vision happens, I always saw it as, if Brian were in the same mental place as Scott, he would have seen the same things as Scott. But he wasn't. He was too focused elsewhere. Even on the porch, when the crow arrives, Scott actually notices and comes for a closer look...causing him to GET a closer look. That's how I saw it. I'm glad you read into the crow.
TC: Will we be seeing more horror films from you in the future?
BS: I'm sure you will. I got a few more tricks up my sleeve. I'm excited to play in other genres, but horror will always be appealing because of how unique the experience is. I'm working again with After Dark which I'm excited about, and I have a few screenplays I'm spinning simultaneously. One of the vimeo short films is screaming for a feature adaptation...which I may or may not be working on. You'd have to visit the page to guess which one. We'll just have to stay in touch.