BJ McDonnell is living proof that with a lot of hard work and dedication can turn your dreams into reality. Originally from the Deep South of Pensacola, Florida, he moved to Los Angeles after his punk rock career ended. Influenced by his grandfather; actor Leif Erickson, he decided to pursue a career in the film industry. Over the past several years, McDonnell has made a name for himself as a camera operator on large studio projects, such as Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ films, ‘The Devil’s Rejects,’ ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Star Trek Into Darkness,’ just to name a few. Little did he know when meeting franchise creator Adam Green that his hard work as a camera operator on the first two ‘Hatchet’ films would lead him to helm the third and final film of the series!
‘Hatchet III’ continues the tale of the now-iconic villain Victor Crowley, played by genre favorite Kane Hodder, and ramps up the action to bring this epic tale of terror to a close. The film As a search and recovery team heads into the haunted swamp to pick up the pieces and carnage left behind from the first two films, Marybeth (Danielle Harris) hunts down the true secret to ending the voodoo curse that has left the ghost of Victor Crowley haunting and terrorizing Honey Island Swamp for decades.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with director BJ McDonnell to discuss his feature film debut, the challenges involved and what projects he has in store for us in the future!
What was it that originally intrigued you about the world of filmmaking and made your pursue it as a career?
It was the movie ‘Aliens,’ along with my grandfather. My grandfather is an old actor and he used to take me to film sets when I was younger kid. That sparked my interest! Plus, I made short films when I was a kid with those really awful VCR/VHS cameras where you ran around with a backpack with a tape deck in it and all that stuff! I really just got bit by the bug of making short films with my friends back in Florida. It is funny I mentioned ‘Aliens’ because Vasquez runs around with this huge rifle on what is basically a steady-cam rig arm. That is really how I got into the camera operating world. I got to know how that was with the steady-cam and how it worked. I was intrigued by telling story through movement of the camera and I got into doing that. That is where it all began!
Who would you cite as your biggest professional influences? You mentioned your grandfather and I sure that was a huge one for you.
Yeah, experiencing going to sets with him was definitely an inspiration as a young kid. Seeing the movie magic process that was going on and having him explain it to me was incredible. Working out here, a lot of the things I have learned come from the directors of photography I have worked with like Caleb Deschanel, Eric Leach, Brandon Trost, who are a bunch of guys who I have worked with who are really awesome cinematographers. They are the guys who taught me how to tell a story through camera. Those guys really inspired the hell out of me. Rob Zombie, as a director, inspired me because he taught me how to break the mold and break out of traditional storytelling and go with a lot of visuals. Working alongside of him and seeing what he does and how he works was really awesome! The guy really takes pride in what he does and researches everything. He is an amazing guy and I really respect him.
You have been a part of the ‘Hatchet’ franchise since the start and it has been very good to you. Going back to the beginning, who did you first get involved and what are your first recollections of meeting it’s creator, Adam Green?
My friend Sarah Donohue, who I had worked with before as a camera operator, said she was getting ready to do a movie and wanted me to interview for it. I went down to the office and I walked by a dude wearing a Metallica t-shirt who was smoking a cigarette and dressed like a PA. I glanced at him and said “What’s up.” He said “What’s up.” I walked by him and went in to meet the director of photography Will Barratt. He sat me down and asked me about my love of horror films. I started talking about ‘Evil Dead’ and how I loved that movie, along with ‘Nightmare On Elm Street,’ ‘Halloween’ and things like that. I didn’t know that behind me, Adam was back there listening to the whole thing and he was looking for a camera operator who loved horror films. That was me! Of course, they guy in the Metallica t-shirt turned out to be Adam. From there, I talked it out with those guys and knew what they were going for and we went from there!
Here were are years later and they have passed you the torch to direct this thing! Were you at all apprehensive about helming the project and what were your thoughts on an approach to the film?
Yeah, I mean, you are always a little bit apprehensive. I didn’t ever ask to direct the movie. Adam approached me about directing it because he knew I was wanting to start moving into directing. Camera operating is great and I love it but I wanted to more and what I came to Los Angeles for was to direct. He gave me the opportunity to do that by offering up ‘Hatchet III’. He knew that I knew the story and all of the characters, so it was really neat to get into that. You’re apprehensive about taking these things because there are people who love and people who hate the movie. You are automatically throwing yourself into a world where people are going to hate what you did because they didn’t like the first two films. You will also have the people who will love what you did or love what you changed about certain things. My whole goal for this film was to make it look a bit more like a big movie. I wanted to change the shooting style of it a bit and go a bit darker with the Victor Crowley character. I wanted to make everything a bit darker and scarier as well as making it cinematic and telling a story through camera and having the actors get into the mud of it all because we shot on a real location. We were out in the swamp which is something we hadn’t done before. We had only done day exteriors for the other films for a day. This film was fun on nighttime swamp! The conditions were brutal but it looks better! It looks better! When you work in terrible conditions for some odd reason, it always looks awesome! It’s weird!
We had the chance to talk to Adam Green the other day and I know the people behind the scenes on this franchise are a very tight group. How has the collaborative process evolved along through the years?
The collaborative process on the first two films was what we were going to do with the camera and how we were going to accomplish a certain shot and things like that. Will [Barratt] and I would come up a lot of things on the day we were shooting. This one, because I was directing it, it was a lot of thing in pre-production were Adam, Robert Pendergraft and I would get together and talk about what we wanted to do. Adam would talk about what he wanted to do with it. I talked about what I wanted to put into it as well as talking to Robert about if we could pull these effects off. It was one of those things where Adam had an idea of what he wanted, I had ideas of what I wanted to put to the script and that is basically how it came about. Adam took action sequences for situations for certain situations I wanted to do in the movie and put them into the story he was writing. It was a great collaboration of what I wanted to do with the film and what his script was. It was really neat to do it that way. On set, I would get in there with the camera and tried to flow the camera with the story.
You have had the opportunity to work alongside of some of horror’s iconic stars from days gone by. In your opinion, what did this group of actors bring to the table for ‘Hatchet III’?
I worked with Danielle Harris and Kane Hodder before. Before I worked with Kane on ‘Hatchet,’ I had worked with him on ‘The Devil’s Rejects,’ so I had gotten to know him. I had gotten to know Danielle from the ‘Halloween’ films. They were both very easy to work with because it was like dealing with friends. It was a really fun group. Zach Galligan, I didn’t know at all. We had just talked on the phone prior to filming. I told him it was going to be a really tough shoot and I didn’t want to lie to him! He came down and he was fantastic! The whole crew really felt like we were a bunch of buddies and most of them are! Some of the people who I cast like Jason Trost, Sean Whalen Diane Goldner are all my friends, as well as Cody Snider and Derek Mears. When you do a first time directing thing with people like that it was easier because I have already known them instead of going into a movie as a first time director and not knowing any of the cast. They could bust my balls and I could bust their balls back and everyone would just get a laugh out of it! It was a lot of fun!
Looking back on the entire process, what were the biggest challenges you faced as a first time director?
One of the biggest challenges was making our days because of the night movie exterior. We shot in the summertime, so we had eight hours of night. You are really limited to the amount of stuff you can get! You have to go as fast as possible to get everything you scheduled in. We only had 16 days to shoot in the swamps down there. We did 4 1/2 days here but they were all contained but they we still eight hour days because we had to do them outside. It was tough with the swamp because of the bugs, rain, alligators, animals and people getting sick from deet poisoning. Out of all the ‘Hatchet’ films, it was the toughest one. Even compared to ‘Hatchet II,’ where everyone caught H1N1 virus because of the stage and a grip showing up and giving it to everybody. This was a brutal shoot because of the conditions alone! You can shoot in the rain, which always looks so great on film, but working in it is awful! You have to think about the people behind the cameras who have to deal with it and the things that aren’t going right because the conditions, the rain making things not happen or being unable to get certain equipment to a location because it is stuck in the mud. It was a challenge to get it all done but I think it really shows. I think the fact that I did shoot it in the swamp and put my foot down and said I really wanted to shoot there so we can actually see what is going on pays off, as well as shooting it in scope. Going with the vision I was aiming to achieve, I think it really helped to shoot down there. I don’t regret that at all, other than it was miserable for people down there. Luckily, we had a killer crew that pulled through it! These were people who could have actually left. They didn’t need to stay there and we weren’t paying much, so they could have left but they wanted to do the job. I am really grateful for that and for everyone who did the job! The cast and crew were all amazing!
I had the chance to screen the film and I thought you all did a terrific job. I am a fan of the franchise and I really like what you brought to the project!
Oh man, thank you so much! You dug it, huh? What did you think of it difference-wise?
I really thought you did a terrific job with the pacing. This film was a lot more action oriented right from the get go. That being said, I think it pairs really well with the other films, which I am sure was a challenge for you guys to balance the elements and keep it fresh for yourselves at the same time.
Exactly. That is one big thing I wanted to make sure we didn’t do — have nothing happen until 50 minutes into the movie. I was like “We have to keep this thing going and make sure things start happening at least 20 minutes in. It has to go from there — Go, go go!” I really wanted to keep the energy up all the way to the very end of it. I think we did a pretty good job of that. I was pretty hellbent on making it that way!
You have an incredible resume of work in your field. Do you every get to reflect on your career so far, how you have grown along the way and what you are looking to tackle in the future?
Yeah! I think I learn something new with every job. I never get to the point where I think I have done everything, there is always a new challenge around the bend. I look forward to each job because of the people you meet in the field. Every job I am on I learn something from a new director or someone else on set. I reflect back on those things and I am very proud of what I have done. I have accomplished a lot in the short amount of time I have been doing this and it is always a learning process. Mostly, I am happy with the people I get to meet and work with every single day. In this career, you meet some of the best people you could ever meet. You also meet some of the worst people you could ever meet! [laughs] It is a great job and a great career! I am looking forward to directing my next feature, which I am working on right now. Hopefully, we will get that off the ground and get going!
That’s great! I know you are early in the process but can you give us any details on that?
Right now the projects are in script form but we are getting ready to start pitching the ideas. One is just a straight up 90s action film, which is super awesome! I have a lot of good stunt people behind me who want to do it, as well as effects artists and people I have gotten to know here who can pull off this kind of stuff. The other one is basically a spy, sci-fi, action film that is very cool but very serious. I am very much looking to get both of those off of the ground. Both are written by two of my friends who are pretty good writers who have definitely done some stuff. I can’t go into detail about them right not because we are not in the phase to reveal who they are but we are onboard together. I think if we get it going, it will be a killer, killer movie! I just want to keep it going!
You are a great example of someone who headed out to LA to achieve their dream. You have made your mark and continue to forge ahead. What is the best piece of advice you can offer up to those looking to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
My advice to anyone who wants to do this stuff, be it someone who wants to act, someone who wants to do a certain thing on the crew or direct, is simple. There are always going to be people who are going to tell you that you can’t do it. Don’t get discouraged by what other people say. If you truly believe that is what you want to do, you have the heart for it and you really want to go that way, go for it! People in Florida when I left said stuff like “Oh yeah, good luck out there in Hollywood. Good luck doing that stuff.” The choice I made to come out here and do this stuff kept me going and got me where I am today. The people I have met are great and so is the whole community out here. Don’t let anyone get you down about it. Follow your dream is basically what I can tell you.
I want to thank you for taking time out to talk to us today. I am really excited to see what you bring to us next with these new projects!
I am ready, man! I can’t wait to get them off the ground and show them to you, dude! It’s going to be so much fun!
Awesome! We will be spreading the word and I look forward to talking to you again very soon!
Thank you so much, Jason! Take care!