Simon Rumley is one of the UK’s leading independent directors and has been making genre films for the last 10 years, leaving a lasting impact on his audiences. His films include “The Living and The Dead,” “Red White & Blue,” and “The ABCs of Death.” In 2017, he blends the worlds of true crime and horror with “Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word.” Based on a true story, a nun was murdered in her convent bedroom in Amarillo, Texas on Halloween 1981. The police arrested a young man, Johnny Frank Garrett, who always maintained his innocence, but he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On the night of his execution, he wrote a curse letter condemning the people and their families who helped send him to his demise. Shortly after Garrett’s death, members of the community started to mysteriously die. One of the jurors takes it upon himself to break the curse when his son is suddenly struck with a life-threatening illness.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with director Simon Rumleyto discuss his journey as a filmmaker, the making of ‘Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word’ and what the future holds for him behind the camera.
What drew you to the creative arts early on in life?
Good question. I’ve always liked reading stories and have been watching films for as far back as I can remember. In my later teenage years, I had no real idea about jobs or that I should even get a job! [laughs] I went to university and studied law. At some point, that felt wrong. I woke up one morning, literally, when I was 19 or 20 years old and thought, “I want to be a film director.” Now, in a way, it seems a bit more realistic but back then it seems like a crazy idea. That was back in the era of pre-digital and everything was way more expensive. I thought, “Fuck it. This is what I want to be.” I didn’t know anyone in the industry, so I finished my law degree and got a job as a runner. I started making short films thereafter. Before that, I also toyed with becoming a novelist. When I was 21, just after finishing university, I actually wrote an unpublished novel. I guess at that point it could have gone either way and I could have become either a film director or a novelist. I still have intentions to go back and write another novel but I found it to be a very lonely pastime. I think at that point in my life, at 21 or 22, spending that amount of time inside my own brain was a bit much really! [laughs] It was at that point I decided maybe I should try the film directing route. Obviously, I’ve carried on writing my whole life it’s something I’m very happy doing. It offers a kind of solace and respite from the world at large.
Who were some influences who helped shape you creatively?
The weird thing was, I was always very self-motivated. My dad production managed the construction of buildings and my mom was a teacher. Neither of them had any real knowledge of the creative industries, so as much as I would love to say my parents inspired me to become a filmmaker, I can’t really say that. I just love watching films. It was during that time of the VHS explosion was happening. As most people of my age do, I have very fond memories of not only going to the cinema but going to down to the local video shop, which always felt slightly dangerous, but in a good way. It was a bit smoke infested in their world – there were these exploitation films there and it was the age of the video nasty. Between “Taxi Driver”, “The Exorcist”, a few video nasties and “Evil Dead”, it was always quite exciting to go there. I would watch everything from “The Champ” to “The Deer Hunter” to the films I mentioned previously, and everything else! This was from the age of 11 or 12 years old until the age of 18 or 19. I don’t think there was one specific director that inspired me. I don’t think I even talk on board what a director was until much later. With that said, I remember watching “Taxi Driver” a lot and it was one of my favorite films. Scorsese was a big inspiration back then, as he was for most people. I loved Joe Dante’s “Gremlins”. I also loved “Stand By Me,” the Rob Reiner film. Even though it is a completely different genre but what I’ve ended up doing, Rob Reiner’s “Spinal Tap,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “The Princess Bride” were all films of his that I loved. I love his films because there was a real lightness of touch that was both intelligent and humorous. He was definitely an early inspiration for me, along with Scorsese. As I grew older, I was in London and there was a cinema called The Scholar. It closed down at some point, but I would go there and there would be triple bills like “Hellraiser” or a Russ Meyer triple bill or Pasolini and stuff like that. That is where I really began focusing on directors.
Your latest film release is “Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word.” How did you get involved with this project?
This was film was my first step away from my usual methodology, which is writing, directing and producing my own stuff. I was a director for hire on this project, so I was approached to direct the script. As well as reading the initial script, I watched the documentary on Johnny Frank Garrett called “The Last Word” by an American attorney called Jesse Quackenbush. He is actually from Amarillo, Texas where the story takes place. I think he was shocked by how shoddy the whole trial process was for Johnny Frank Garrett. Shoddy is an understatement. It was really weighted completely against him. The film focuses on how his guilt seemed a forgone conclusion and the whole concept of there being a rule of law which protects the weaker citizens, the poorer citizens, or the citizen’s who may have a lesser mental process than others. He was really shocked with how the will of wall was just thrown out the window. I would recommend the film to anyone. It’s almost like “Making A Murderer” but pre-dates the series and instead of being a 10 or 11-hour series, it’s about 90 minutes. You watch it and are instantly blown away by how jaw-dropping it is and think “Could this really have happened in the 20th Century.” It’s hard to believe that there could be such unfairness in what is extensively known as the most open country in the Western world. Of course, there can be and we see it all the time, whether it’s in newspapers or documentaries with stories of the justice system being abused. I thought that was really fascinating. What I have tried to do with my genre efforts is not go down the obvious route of what a horror film is. I’ve always walked a fine line between drama and what is and isn’t horror. I like to try to challenge the boundaries of what horror is. I felt that having a film that had a message of social justice and/or social injustice, depending on how you looked at it, was a great way to take the horror genre. At times, in the 1960s or 1970s, some of these films are arguably comments about culture and society. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is kind of an obvious one and people obviously say that about the early George A. Romero films. Right around the debut of the “Nightmare On Elm Street” series debuted, everything was changing. Over the decades, horror has reflected the social conscience. I think in the last few decades that conscious has vanished for various reasons. I thought that doing this film would be my attempt at pushing horror in an interesting direction.
You mentioned coming into this project as a director for hire. What can you tell us about the experience? Was it difficult to make the transition from being a writer/director with full creative control to just directing a film?
I was hoping to go in one direction of the script but in the end we went in another direction. I was hoping to merge the two things together. In the end, that really didn’t happen as much as I hoped. You read all the stories about what happens in Hollywood and directors who are more indie, alternative or whatever and how they get railroaded. I thought, “Well, let’s just see what happens.” It was an exciting experience to direct the Hollywood film. Even though it was low budget by average Hollywood standards, there was still a relatively good budget. The producers made it clear to me when I came on board that it was their film and they were trying to do something what they wanted. We worked on it together and in the end I did have some input into the script, but not as much as I wanted. Again, that’s all part of the job description. It would have been a different film had I had control of it. Whether it would have been better or worse, who can say?
One of the things I found fascinating in doing research was that Johnny Frank Garrett’s family was going to screen the film. Did that ever come about and, if so, what was that experience like for you? I had to imagine it was a little nerve-racking.
Yeah, it did and it was. So, it was basically Johnny’s mother and his two sisters. They are the key members of his family who are still alive. The producers, before I came on board, had sent the script to Johnny’s family and they said they were happy if the movie went ahead. I think, thereafter, the scripted changed a lot and, perhaps, they weren’t being consulted on every draft. We shot the film and it was vaguely in the back of your mind but really had no idea of who they were, where they were or anything like that. We got the film into SXSW and I was in Austin at the time prepping my movie ‘Fashionista,’ which we shot in March and April of last year. It was then that I got a call that came out as and Amarillo phone number, which is where the events in the film took place. I thought to myself, “Well, this is interesting! Is this the call I have been waiting for and expecting?” I picked it up and the voice said, “Is this Simon Rumley.” I said, “Yes, this is Simon.” She said, “This is Janet Weaver Riley. I’m Johnny Frank Garrett’s sister.” I was a bit nervous. She asked if they could come to the premiere. I said, “We don’t actually have any tickets left for the premiere but we can get you into the next screening.” They came to the next screening and it was her, her mom, her sister and some cousins of Johnny’s and their respective kids. I think, in the end, there were about 12 of them. I was really nervous because, obviously, it’s a very sensitive subject matter and after all these years Johnny Frank Garrett has still not been granted anything near a pardon. No justice has really been thrown at him. Because the film ended up being more of a straight ahead genre film then I was hoping, I didn’t want them to watch it and be upset, angry or feel it was a thing where their relative had the piss taken out of him. I was very nervous, to be quite honest. There are a couple scenes that are quite tough for them. There’s a scene where Johnny gets executed/murdered. I think the casting agent, Karen Hallford, did an amazing job of finding someone who was an excellent actor and who looked incredibly like Johnny Frank Garrett — Devin Bonnée. I think it was one of the sisters or cousins who, when they first saw a picture of Devin as Johnny, burst into tears because it looks so much like Johnny. So, yeah, there is the whole fairly protracted death sentence where you see for a couple of moments the mother and sisters crying. I warned them a few times that, A, please bear in mind that this is genre film and, B, there is the death scene which is fairly extracted. They said, “Look, we know it’s a genre film. As long as it comes out on his side in the end, then we are going to be happy.” They watch the film and we got up onstage and did a bit of the Q&A. Then we invited the two sisters up on stage, along with the cousin, and they started talking about Johnny and burst into tears. There were hugs and tears. They were beyond ridiculously excited and absolutely loved the film, so that was a massive relief. Everyone was in tears. I think, as much as anything, seeing Johnny’s name literally up in lights outside the theater was amazing. I think they just felt that after all this time of struggling and knowing that Johnny was innocent, expressing these thoughts and having them landing on deaf ears, they were happy to see someone else had taken up the cause and was reminding the world that Johnny Frank Garrett was a kid who existed and was arrested for murder that many of us think he didn’t commit. Of course, at the end of the film, it says we don’t really think Johnny was guilty. So, yes, it was a very nerve racking experience but one that I’m very happy I went through and one I am very happy they were so positive about.
You have a solid body of work at this point in your career. How do you feel you’ve most of all those a filmmaker along the way?
That’s an interesting question. My first three features, which most people haven’t seen, were much more Éric Rohmer/Richard Linkletter — completely non-genre. There are a couple of elements of darkness in them but it was only when I did “The Living and The Dead,” which was a pretty massive festival film, and “Red, White and Blue” that I transitioned more fully to genre. I feel those films were very unrelenting and take no prisoners. They were exactly the films I wanted to make and they are pretty hard-core emotionally. I think they did what very few films these days do, which is making an emotional impact on the audience. That’s not to say that everyone likes him. However, I am pretty proud that they were an emotional assault, which is what they were meant to be. “Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word” was an attempt for me to go more commercial. Filmmaking is a tough process and the costly one. You spent all this time and effort making films that you want to make and what you finish them you give them to sales agents and distributors who, more often than not, don’t really care much about your art for the fact that you spend one or two years of your life doing this thing which they’ve they the sell or fail to sell or distribute. As I’ve matured, I have tried to go a bit more commercial. With that said, I have really managed to carry-on doing stuff with my own style and my own kind of outlook. I like to think I have maintained an integrity to what I have done. I have also done a lot of investigation of structure in my films. “Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word” was a very linear film but, certainly, “The Living and The Dead” and “Red, White and Blue” were non-linear. I’ve just done another incredibly non-linear film call “Fashionista.” I’m currently in prep for a new film called “Once Upon A Time In London,” which is completely linear and features more traditional storytelling. I’m kind of looking forward to doing that and seeing how that works out and if I can make it more commercial.
I’m definitely excited to see where the journey takes you! Thanks for your time and we look forward to talking to you again in the future!
Thanks a lot, Jason! That’s great! Cheers!
Momentum Pictures will release ‘Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word’ on VOD on March 7, 2017. Visit Simon Rumley’s official website at www.simonrumley.com. Follow his continuing adventures on Facebook and Instagram.