It was a fool’s errand, but I was in the middle of trying to describe what I love about the films of John McNaughton to the director himself – the wildly entertaining and stimulating sweet spot he always manages to find between sophisticated and seedy when he stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Here’s the word I love — lurid. I like to mix in a big cup of lurid, if possible,” says McNaughton. “I certainly studied the greatest and most sophisticated filmmakers, but I also love the Herschel Gordon Lewises of the world. We’re not that, but certainly there’s a certain craziness and energy that’s also part of the history of film and I enjoy blending modern art so much, the high and low.”
It’s a blend that has branded the director as a cult favorite, occupying a rarefied space where those looking to fulfill their base needs might worry about pretension (his first film “Henry” was a “portrait” of a serial killer, after all) and more highbrow crowds could feel as though they’d need to wear a trenchcoat to the multiplex (only McNaughton would cast Denise Richards and challenge himself to match her curves with those of the story). Yet to the chagrin of moviegoers like myself, it has made the occasion of a McNaughton movie all too rare, with the director slowing down his pace from roughly one every four years after his startling debut with “Henry” in 1986 to none after his 2001 screwball comedy “Speaking of Sex.”
So it is no small event that “The Harvest,” McNaughton’s first film in over a decade, is being released after premiering at the Chicago Film Festival in 2013. The two-year delay shouldn’t be seen as a reflection of its quality, but rather McNaughton’s still perfectly perverse perspective that will require time to find its audience, with those who do sure to be rewarded handsomely.
Like “Henry,” it can be sold as a horror film, though one that’s more interested in creeping under the skin rather than piercing it, slipping into the lives of Katherine and Richard (Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon), an unhappily married couple whose lives revolve around caring for their sickly child Andy (Charlie Tahan). Yet with its director’s penchant for twists and turnabout, the only thing not surprising is that all is not as it seems at first with the family, especially when Maryann (Natasha Calis), a young girl new to the area sees a kindred spirit in Andy and stumbles upon something sinister when trying to befriend him despite the disapproval of his parents.
Largely confined to a single location with a string-heavy score, “The Harvest” embraces strictures of a chamber drama as Alfred Hitchcock once did, yet putting McNaughton puts his own spin on the proceedings, bringing out the horror in even the most mundane of circumstances as he and screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti position the children with no autonomy and their overprotective parents as natural enemies who constantly undermine each other. It’s wicked fun, but since it was best to keep the film’s secrets under wraps, McNaughton spoke instead of the many turns that happened since he last made a feature, including some time spent in the theater and a brush with Hurricane Sandy during the production of “The Harvest,” that informed his latest film.
The primary thing I look for when I read a script is something I haven’t seen before, which may sound like it’s not that big a deal, but it’s pretty rare. Most of the scripts I get, it used to be in the first five pages I can tell you what happens in the last two. Now, I can say on the first two pages, 99 out of 100 times tell you what happens on the last one. Most first pages, I’ve read a thousand times before. It’s rather disappointing, really.
On this particular one, I hadn’t seen this story before. I also like stories that you can hang some ideas of greater depth on than what’s happening on the surface. In this particular instance, the whole idea of childhood [was appealing]. This was my chance to say goodbye to the fears, terrors, and problems that occurred in my own childhood. It was cathartic actually to make this film and in one sense, I love that the basic metaphor is that your parents want your heart. They want that part of you. They want you to be a child forever. But you have to take the journey to your own life and break away from that.
What distanced me from the original script was there’s two ways to go with this story – the first is the standard way, what I call the “ooga booga” horror film that would be fun and I would probably like to see it but I don’t want to make it. But I told the writer if I’m going to do it, we’re going to take it deeper. It just had a fairytale like quality, so as I was working on the story, because it’s about children, I started reading about fairytales. [The story] reminded me a little of “Hansel and Gretel,” so I found this book “The Uses of Enchantment” by a man named Bruno Bettelheim, a child psychiatrist, about the great fairytales and how useful they are to the development of children’s psyches because it is about that journey of journeying from childhood into adulthood and all that you must overcome and all the terrors that await you.
As I read his analysis of “Hansel and Gretel,” I felt that this story was very similar to the two children walking through the forest, [with] the evil mother and the kindly but weak father. There was much that was similar. Once you get into that territory, you have a classicism, and you have a depth. I have a feeling this film will be around for a while for that reason.
There’s also a back to basics feel about this that contributes to that timeless quality and I know you had done some theater since making your last feature. Did that contribute to what you wanted to do with this?
You sort of hit the nail on the head. People often think because I come out of Chicago [I did theater] and I’d done some, but [it was on my films where] I worked with a lot of people out of the Chicago Theater, especially early on, because that’s where the talent in Chicago in those days. There were a lot of great theaters, so there was a lot of great actors. Stuart Gordon, the director who did “Re-Animator” and a thousand other films, had a company here in Chicago called the Organic Theatre where he was the artistic director. Joe Mantegna was one of the actors, as was Dennis Franz. Richard Fire, who was the second in command under Stuart, and I wrote “Henry.”
Unfortunately – speaking of people out of the theater—I don’t know if you heard the news, but Tom Towles, who played Otis in my first film, “Henry” and some of my earlier films, died last week in Florida of a stroke, but Tom came out of that group. He was a character and a lot of fun. Everyone loved him. He was nothing like the lowlifes he wound up playing. He was very well-read, very well-rounded guy. We certainly miss him. There were also a lot of commercials shot here, so there were good technical crew members here.
So it had often been assumed over years that I’d also come out of theater, but it wasn’t until five or six years ago that I started doing some. I did something with a playwright from New Orleans, a guy named RJ Tsarov [a 2006 play called “Tennessee Speaks in Tongues for You”]. Then I was out in L.A. for a while and I wound up working with Juliet Landau, Martin Landau’s daughter who was Drusilla on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and I’ve been a huge Tennessee Williams fan my whole life, so we did a production of “Streetcar.” Then we did a two-character play called “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” written by John Patrick Shanley that really was an eye opener for me. It was a man and woman from beginning to end.
I really enjoyed just working with the two actors — basically no bosses, no company, no executives and no technology, no blocking — just the human aspect of performance. Of course, we had a production designer, etc. but there was very little money, so it was very spare. Every day, we were just banging it out, going deeper as a character and in the performance. I took that with me into this project [“The Harvest”]. We had 28 days to shoot and we had two children, so their hours are limited. Natasha was 12, so she could work eight hours and Charlie was 13, so he could work nine.
Speaking of theater, Michael Shannon left us at 6 pm, because he was appearing in Broadway in a play, so technically it was very challenging to make those days, time-wise. Normally, you need a couple of hours overtime, but there was no such thing here. And we were prepping the film when Hurricane Sandy hit New York. It did some damage to the house and the whole neighborhood up there. There was no transportation. We had offices in Manhattan, but production design and costume, all that stuff was in Brooklyn and we couldn’t get there. It was really crazy for a couple weeks. A lot of challenges, but there always are.
Do you actually think shooting around the time of the hurricane contributed to the film’s ominous vibe?
Everything that happened finds its way into the production. Certainly, it was ominous to the point where during those two weeks there was the possibility of the whole thing shutting down and never making the film at all, which does sort of darken one’s spirit when that’s hanging over you. [laughs] But it was the whole city of New York. My longtime producing partner Steve Jones and I were staying at a high-rise on 3rd Ave and 23rd Street and there was no power for 10 days. We had to move into a hotel.
There is a certain darkness to the film, even though so much of it takes place in broad daylight and I’ve heard you say you suggested some still photography as references to your colorist. What were the specific suggestions?
This one particular photographer Gregory Crewdson, who works in upstate New York. I studied still photography, but I wasn’t familiar with this guy’s work. And Matthew Munn, the production designer, asked if I knew his work. He had a couple of books. I looked at them and I go, “You got it. There it is.” [Crewdson’s] worked in various places in the world, but [his photos in] upstate New York [are] domestic situations with a hellish vision of life and it was in the same part of the world that we were shooting the film. All the wallpaper, the colors and interiors and so much based on his work.
The other great influence is Chris Van Allsburg, the great children’s illustrator who did “Polar Express” and “Jumanji. The mysterious quality of those illustrations had influenced me and I didn’t know when I would get to use them but it was in this one. The colorist [Sean Dunckley] was also very exceptional. He certainly is a technician, but he had another side and sensibility.
You mentioned Matthew Munn and I noticed Rachel Morrison was your cinematographer – these were people who hadn’t even entered the industry until after your last feature. Was it interesting to work with a new generation of crew?
It’s very different. One of the reasons I stopped making features for a while was I’d put together a group of people. Here’s my two great talents — one is sleeping. I’m really good at sleeping. The other is finding talent in others. Over a period of years, I put together a core group of people. The [assistant director] was a woman named Shelley Ziegler, who eventually went on to work on “Boardwalk Empire” for Scorsese and “American Hustle.” I worked with her on the television show Homicide and that was when she was basically a kid and I go, “This kid was born to do this job. She’s amazing.” I took her with me into feature films. I had a whole group — a costume designer named Kim Tillman, the producer Steve Jones, and certain actors that I often work with. At one point, my dear friend Ed McAvoy, who was my production designer, committed suicide. It just was an awful moment that was the beginning of the dissolution of that group of people. He was the key. He was my right hand creatively.
I worked in television. I did a bunch of pilots and episodes in between [features], but you take the crew that’s there, so putting together a new group was interesting. But I was very happy to work with [them]. If I had a bit more experienced crew, they probably would have said, “What you’re proposing can’t be done. You shouldn’t have to shoot this movie in 28 days” because it was literally 180 scenes. I find the scripts today, the scenes are a lot shorter. [With this script] there weren’t that many pages and [we shot] three-and-a-half pages a day, which is not terribly extreme, but it was six scenes a day. Working with a very young crew, they didn’t know that you couldn’t shoot six scenes a day, so they did and what you get in the tradeoff is not knowing what can’t be done. We had a really good group of younger people, a number of whom I will try to work with [again] – Matt Munn is going to be one of the top guys and Rachel Morrison’s already on her way.
I can’t but help tell you how nice it is to see your name back on the big screen.
It’s good to get back in the game. I took a vacation for a while. Being here in Chicago, it’s easy to disconnect from the whole thing. Not unpleasant either I might add, but it’s time to go back to work.
“The Harvest” opens on April 10th in the New York at the IFC Center. It will open in Los Angeles on April 24th at the Arena Cinema. It is also available on VOD.