In his first film in nearly 15 years, the director of ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ harks back to the depravity that made his 1986 debut a horror milestone. But less based in reality, The Harvest is closer to a fairy tale from Grimm’s darkest corners. Maryann (an impressive Natasha Calis) moves in with her grandparents after she’s orphaned. Desperately lonely, the preteen sets out to befriend a neighboring deathly ill, bed-ridden boy (Charlie Tahan), despite the outright disapproval of his mother (Samantha Morton). Maryann’s persistence pays off, however, and during a series of secret visits she gradually uncovers some seriously sinister goings-on in the house… Morton as the boy’s overprotective surgeon mom is the stuff of great screen villainy—at once utterly monstrous and tragically desperate—so much so that she makes even frequent heavy Michael Shannon, as the more subdued dad, pale in comparison. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with director John McNaughton to discuss his legendary career, return to feature filmmaking and the challenges he faced along the way.
What intrigued you about the world of filmmaking early in your life and ultimately led to you making it a career?
I don’t know exactly! [laughs] I always knew I would be in the arts in some way or another. It was something that was sort of imprinted on my being. I went to art school and it led me to realize I wasn’t going to be a painter or sculptor. The art form I really responded to was film and television, so I switched my major and got a degree in television production. In a number of years, I would find my way into making my first film. It’s not so easy! It certainly wasn’t easy before digital technology because everything was shot on film and it cost a fair amount of money to process.
Who were some of the artists or mentors who helped shape you in those formative years?
I grew up in the late 1950s and the 1960s and I was an only child, so I spent a great deal of time in front of the television set. I watched a lot of old American movies, which were on television a lot in those days. I guess it was just instinct that pushed me in that direction. Mentors, I had virtually no mentors until later on. As I have often said, the first movie set I set foot on I was the director on. I had no mentors until I made “Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer.” Someone who gave me a giant helping hand along the way was Martin Scorsese, who asked me to direct “Mad Dog and Glory.” I love his films. I remember going to see “Mean Streets” before “Who’s That Knocking At My Door,” which was his first film. His first commercial film was “Mean Streets” and I went to see it with a few friends. We had all grown up on the south side of Chicago and basically snuck into see the movie. It was like we were seeing a movie about ourselves! [laughs] The south side of Chicago was a fairly rough place and we pretty much looked like the guys in that movie when we snuck into see it! We were wearing our leather Beretta jackets and similar hairdos. Martin Scorsese was a big influence and a mentor to me.
You can’t go wrong with that!
No. No you can’t! [laughs]
I know it has been about 15 years since your last feature film. What made you return to directing film?
Ya know, I think it is hard to shake it once you have been bitten. I had the bug! I had taken a vacation from the whole thing. I had worked so steadily for about 15 years or so and I was a little bit burnt out. One thing led to another. I did some television in those years, a number of TV pilots. TV pilots that don’t get picked up are like trees falling in the forest, no one sees them or knows about them. A lot of work goes into them but ultimately they are something that no one ever sees, so it doesn’t really help your career to do TV pilots unless they get picked up for a series.
What was it about “The Harvest” that made it the right choice for your return to feature films?
When my agent sent me the script, I wasn’t exactly sure I wanted to do it. I said, “I’m not sure about this at all.” He said, “Read it again. I think there is something there.” I did read it again. The original script was more of what I would call ooga booga, which is sort of an industry term for a standard horror film. I shouldn’t say standard because this material was not something I had seen before. We took the script in a different direction than in which it was written. Originally, it was a little bit more of a stock horror film. We took the ideas I found interesting in a deeper direction. To me, it is about the fears of childhood. You know, it’s much more psychological than overt. In fact, I don’t know if it will ever be rated but I am daring the MPAA to give it anything more than a PG rating. It has no overt violence, it has no real blood or dismemberment, no sexual situations, no nudity or bad language. It is really the idea that is horrific in this particular movie. I was thinking about it the other day and I think it is my statement on childhood and my last word on my own childhood and thereby my chance to put it to rest.
When taking on the project, did you have a particular vision for the film in a stylistic sense?
We had a 28-day schedule for this film. We also had two children, so they couldn’t work the full 12-hour day. Michael Shannon had a play on Broadway, so we lost him Tuesday through Friday at about 6 p.m. The schedule was really difficult because we couldn’t do overtime because we just didn’t have the actors. It was a miracle to be able to make the picture in 28 days under those conditions. I didn’t try for any big reaches stylistically and opted for a very simple and direct style. It was really concentrating on performance. In my hiatus, I had done some theater in Chicago and Los Angeles. The last thing I had done was a John Patrick Shanley play called “Danny and The Deep Blue Sea.” It is basically two characters throughout the play. I really enjoyed working with the actors on performance and character and not having to deal with a crew, a company and all of that stuff. With this particular film, I really just wanted to concentrate on the actors and the performances.
The performances are very strong, I have to say. What did the cast bring to these characters that wasn’t on the written page?
Both Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton are both parents. Samantha had two children when we were making the picture and now has three. Michael has a daughter. I think it was very difficult for them to actually have to go there. They are both actors who actually go there! They don’t work the circus they go to the depths! I don’t want to give anything away but I think being those characters and what they face is not a very nice place to have to go. I think Michael and Samantha brought the darkness of what it is that they are up to as characters. To me, Samantha’s character has these maternal instincts that have gone awry. What she is doing in a sense is noble. She is saving her child. What was it that they said about Colonel Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’? “His methods are unsound.” Her methods are very unsound! This was my first time working with kids and going to that sort of depth. I think they were doing their very best to be those kids. They are both incredibly gifted actors and very instinctual, especially Natasha [Calis]. Charlie [Tahan] is much more planned out in what he is going to do, where Natasha lives much more in the moment and reacts.
What challenges did you face in bringing this film to life?
Our cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, when I showed her that she would be spending the majority of the film in one room, I think it was a big challenge for her! [laughs] I think it scared her a little bit! She said, “Can’t we knock out a wall here?” [laughs] No! This is somebody’s house! [laughs] Working in the confines of the house and the kid’s room was certainly challenging because there wasn’t much space. You have to think about how to shoot it in such a way to make it interesting because we spend so much time in that room. I think there are only five locations in the film, which is very unusual. Seventy-five percent of the film takes place in the house. That was challenging and the house became very much a character in the film. Another challenge came while we were in prep and Hurricane Sandy struck New York. At that point, it was such a disaster, we didn’t know if we would be able to continue. We had offices in Manhattan but everyone else, from production design to costume design and everyone else in between, were located in Brooklyn. We literally couldn’t get there. There was a fair amount of damage done to the house, which was about 40 minutes north of Manhattan. It really threw the entire production into turmoil. We had to postpone our shoot by about two weeks, which meant we were coming into winter, which was not a good thing. That was a pretty interesting challenge having that hurricane hit New York. There are always interesting challenges along the way and those were some of ours.
Looking back on your body of work, how have you most evolved as a filmmaker?
It’s funny because I am sitting here reading a book called “Grammar of The Film Language.” It is pretty dry and technical to people. It shows you the various camera placements, how to stage a scene and so on. It is a 600-page book and I read it years ago. I am reading it again now and it is like I never read it in the first place! I find myself thinking, “I didn’t know anything!” [laughs] Here it is 30 years into a directorial career and it is like a revelation reading this book! So many of the things I do I know by instinct. I will say, when I was growing up in the ‘60s, we didn’t want to have jobs and wanted to live wild lives! [laughs] Myself and most of my friends did! I knew eventually I wanted to be a filmmaker but there were other things I wanted to do and I did them! I toured North America with a traveling carnival, I built big racing sailboats, I made jewelry for a living and traveled all over. I did all of those things and once I learned to do them, I was sort of bored. Once I mastered something, I would move on to master something else. I have been directing for 30 years and I hardly know what I am doing as far as that is concerned! Each film is a different experience and I still feel a long way from mastering the medium. Hopefully, I will continue to strive to do so! Each film is a whole different world. There are some things you can take to the next film but a lot of things that don’t apply at all. It is something that continues to be a challenge and I hope it will be so for the rest of my life!
Where do you see yourself headed next? Anything in the works at the moment?
I have been working for seven years on another project with my friend Bill Murray. If it gets made, it will be our fourth film together! A couple of weeks ago we thought it was a done deal. It was ready to go and we had dates but it didn’t work out. Like I said, we have been working on it for seven years so far and maybe we aren’t as close as we thought! I did sort of think I would be doing that film this year. At this point, I am not sure one way or the other but I would certainly love to! Again, over the course of 30 years I have certainly piled up a backlog of projects. Some of them are scripts that I have written and projects that I have been attached to that other people have written that I love. Early in your career, you think, “Oh, I got this script. OK, sure I’ll do it! Let’s go!” [laughs] Even with the Bill Murray project, like I said, it has been seven years we have been working on it. I was listening to Scorsese speak a few weeks ago. He was talking about different projects he has been working on. He said, “Oh yeah, some of them have taken five years. Sometimes it is 20 years!” [laughs] Sometimes it takes that long! As you go through your career, a pile tends to build and before you know it you have a backlog of projects. Destiny is involved and when it is the right time, hopefully, they get made!
Thank you for time today, John! I wish you continued success and hopefully when it comes to destiny, the odds are in your favor!
Thank you, Jason!
‘The Harvest’ opens at the IFC Center and is available on VOD April 10, 2015.