Today we welcome writer, director, producer Harrison Smith through our doors. Harrison has been a very busy man over the last few years, starting out writing The Fields in 2011, a film which picked up a number of festival awards. Harrison went on to write the screenplay for 6 Degrees of Hell (directed by Joe Raffa, and starring Corey Feldman), before moving into the arena of writing, producing and directing his own films. Regular readers may remember we reviewed Harrison’s upcoming feature Dead.tv, which has now been renamed Camp Dread, a film which we found to be an intelligent and modern take on the tried and tested slasher formula. You can read the review here (you can also find links to the official pages for Camp Dread, and Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard at the bottom of the review). With the promising start shown in his directorial debut, Camp Dread, we are itching to get a peek at his upcoming film Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard, but in the meantime Harrison has kindly agreed to visit our gory little corner of the interweb and tell us a bit more about himself.
Harrison is one of those directors who is always willing to engage with horror fans on social media, which is refreshing, and also shows his obvious love for the genre. It is great to come across someone with an enthusiasm for horror both as a fan and an independent filmmaker.
We would like to thank Harrison for taking the time to talk to us about his career as a writer, his transition into directing his own screenplays, Camp Dread and his upcoming project Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard.
So what drew you into writing scripts for horror films, have you always been a horror fan, and if so what were some of your early experiences?
Harrison: I grew up watching horror films with my grandmother as I stayed a lot with her and my grandfather when growing up. My first film that I wrote and produced was “The Fields” and shows this. By the time I was 8 I knew who Lugosi, Karloff, Price, Lorre and all those folks were. She explained how it was all fake, and would laugh at some of the bad ones like Bride of the Monster, and we both loved the classic Universal monsters. So for me it was something that was ingrained in me since childhood. And for all those dumbass Disney readers (why they’re reading your article is beyond me) no, I didn’t need therapy and I grew up to have a perfectly normal childhood and had a great time in school as a top student and high school class president. I personally think Disney is far worse for kids than horror because horror doesn’t have an agenda, but Disney does. They pass their garbage off as wholesome family entertainment and most of the time it is hardly that.
You wrote the 6 Degrees of Hell, what were some of the inspirations you drew on for that?
Harrison: 6 Degrees was inspired by a walk through at the real Hotel of Horror. This guy was chained to table screaming that what we were seeing was real and to call the police. After we left the room I wondered aloud, what if it was? We all thought it was part of the Halloween act. What if that poor bastard was really telling the truth? Who would know?
How did your script translate to the finished product, was it changed much in production?
Harrison: Well we had a small budget, the smallest of my 4 films. Joe Raffa was a young 21 years old at the time. He was not versed strongly in horror, and frankly his generation thinks Twilight and I Know What You Did last Summer or the awful Halloween H20 is what passed for horror. However Joe is an efficient and smart guy and director. The script was far more ambitious and certain elements did not make it to camera that I felt left gaps in logic in the end result. To be fair we shot it in 19 days, and it was a tough film. What I wanted to come through was my love for old time horror: 60s Hammer and 80s slasher and Universal glory days in between. The film is all over the [place but my God I love the way the graveyard scene was shot. Our DP, Charlie Anderson gave exactly what I envisioned. I could almost see Peter Cushing trolling through the heavy dry ice fog with a lantern looking for Chris Lee’s vault.
You have now moved on to direct your own movies, starting with Dead.tv was this your first experience of directing?
Harrison: Moving into directing was kind of easy. I have been making films since I was 10 years old. I had a Super 8mm Kodak silent camera, and got my friends in the neighborhood to be in my movies. I cut them with scissors and spliced with Scotch tape. I did my laser effects by hand with a needle and light board frame by frame. So moving into official directing was really one of those moments where you say “Shit, I’ve been doing this since Carter was in office. I can do this.” And I did. I mean think about it, I have grown ups killing each other, taking off their clothes, screaming, killing and for what? To make a movie which I’ve been doing for years. I had my own cable TV show when I was 16, which featured my bother running around in a dress as the world’s ugliest super heroine.
Eric Roberts was an absolute joy to work with. And that’s not just the politically correct thing to say. The crew loved him. He was always joking with everyone and light of heart. He talked with cast, gave advice and always came to set prepared and in a good mood. He was fun and goofy and I think his enjoyment of our set shows in his performance. He was perfect in the role of Julian Barrett.
Danielle Harris is a consummate professional and always in the zone. She has since become a good friend and we plan on future projects. Smart as hell, savvy and most of all “wiley.” If you ever interview her, ask her about me calling her “wiley” because she is and she likes being described as that. Because she is in every sense of the word. The weird part is a number of our cast had crushes on her. One asked me why I didn’t write her character as having to be naked or in her underwear and I replied, no way. To me Danielle is still little Jamie Lloyd in some ways as Halloween 4 was where I first saw her. To me, it would be plain creepy. I don’t even look at any of her recent model shoots as I feel like a creeper looking at those. I prefer to see her as Danielle the actress and person and wanted her as the sheriff, plain and simple.
Otherwise it was a fun shoot. We shot the film in 17 days at a real camp in PA. The weather was perfect and the cast and crew slept at the actual camp so in many ways it was like really being at summer camp. That’s what I wanted, to have that mindset instilled in everyone and again, I think it shows on-screen.
How did it feel to be able to create your own vision on to screen, and when you wrote the script did you have a good idea of how the finished movie would look and feel?
Harrison: Our investor had one directive in wanting this film made: “I want tits, blood and ass.” That’s what I had to start with. I replied that Netflix’s graveyard is filled with these kind of films, and if he let me put a spin on the old slasher genre, I think we could make something pretty cool. He agreed and basically our second investor felt the same way: “Just make a good movie that will make money.” I think we did that.
I taught high school for 15 years and know how kids talk. They don’t talk like the douchey way they did in Juno where every word that comes out of their mouths is dripping in sarcasm and worldly knowledge. I wanted to make sure our kids were real. They’re imperfect and while fucked up they don’t deserve what comes to them. I wanted the ending to evoke the Holocaust in its final image as there is a lot of subliminal things to go along with the images we put into this movie.
A distributor (Not Image) wanted me to drop the ending interviews and that was the deal breaker for me. While they offered more money than Image I went with Image because they liked the film as it was. They understood those ending interviews were a coda to the tragedy that happened to these kids. Many other slashers use the kid victims as fodder but our kids are a truly sad story. They were people and what happened to them was horrible. So those ending interviews underscore tragedy which is not seen in other slasher films of its kind.
So it felt good to get something out there that is bloody, has sexy bodies and all the things horror fans expect in their formula, but also…go figure…a smart story to go with it. Imagine that!
Was there anything you felt you had to compromise on or any moments of frustration when making Dead.tv?
Harrison: Yes, I felt with our budget and time, we compromised a larger scope to the picture. I wanted to show more of the town around the camp which of course would have meant more of Danielle. There was a whole back story to her character that we had to sacrifice, however the reviews basically agree we used her well and she’s not just a cameo ripoff to sell a few units. She’s solid in this movie.
I believe Dead.tv is getting a name change?
Harrison: Yes. Image is changing our title to Camp Dread. Image knows I am not a fan of this and we tried to offer alternate titles. I was never happy with Dead.tv and even had a contest onset for anyone to come up with a better name. I fear Camp Dread will make it sound like another dumb slasher camp movie. But who knows? I have been sending them the reviews which have been consistent in calling ti a smart film. So it will really depend on their marketing of the film. I love Image and trust they know what they’re doing.
Was there anything you found did not work, and how has your experience of directing impacted on your work as a writer, has this given you a different outlook?
Harrison: Some of the practical effects were very ambitious on page and had to be simplified on-screen. The ending death on the beach is an example of that but I think we made it work.
As a writer I definitely think “Shit, can we do this?” It definitely makes you more budget conscious and also spurs imagination to get what you want without breaking the budget.
The Dead.tv reviews coming through so far are very favourable, with a new project out next year ZKEG, do you feel there are now expectations on you? And if so how do you think ZKEG will meet those?
Harrison: You never know. It’s beyond what I think. The fact of the matter is that you have a generation out there raised on CGI and thinks everything must be that. The Walking Dead has, for better or worse, become the standard by which zombie films are measured. Plus the concept of the zombie film attracts lazy filmmakers. The belief you can make a dumb zombie movie, fill it with goop and think you’ll sell it for a million dollars is what attracts some filmmakers to the genre. it is lazy filmmaking or as I call it, The NASCAR of horror. It goes around, and we know what’s gonna happen and wait for the crashes in between. That’s a zombie film in the bad sense. The good sense is a societal commentary and that’s what we went for with ZKEG. We took the zombie film and infused it with The American Western and involved the controversial topic of natural gas fracking to give a spin on a shopworn sub genre. We populated it was a great celebrity cast and also a supporting cast of people I have worked with now on three films. Low budget doesn’t mean it has to suck.
Can you tell me anything about ZKEG, for example when can we expect to see it on screens? Is there a release date set yet?
Harrison: No release date other than to say definitely 2014. I am betting late summer early fall. There is growing interest in it.
You are working with some of the same crew from Dead.tv, is this a theme you intend to keep in your work?
Harrison: Absolutely. I learned from John Carpenter and Tommy Lee Wallace to form a “dream team” and keep working with the same people as long as you can. My G&E crew with Carrier lighting is wonderful and I love these guys and girls. Solid, reliable and most of all fun. Same goes for my cast and I think it shows in our work. Good people making good movies. How can you argue that?
Finally what are your plans after ZKEG, are you currently writing any new projects?
Harrison: I am working on a number of things and never like to crow until the egg is laid. I can say a sequel to ZKEG is in the works and a number of other projects including Adrienne Barbeau’s book “Love Bites” which I just optioned. How’s that?