Chicago-born director John McNaughton has had a way of memorably provoking audiences, starting his feature career off with a shocking bang with 1986’s HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. Launching the careers of Michael Rooker and the late Tom Towles, McNaughton’s you-are-there look at the thrill-kill adventures of a somehow empathetic murderer redefined realism in indie horror. But if his next underseen, alien-head changing movie THE BORROWER might have gone even further into gonzo fear, McNaughton would soon prove that his talents went far outside the genre. Showing a talent for raw characters, McNaughton’s versatility veered from the Eric Bogosian performance art documentary SEX, DRUGS, ROCK & ROLL to the unlikely gangster-photographer bromance of MAD DOG AND GLORY to the hot young criminals of NORMAL LIFE and the even more sizzling ménage a trois of WILD THINGS. In the last decade, McNaughton mostly worked in the television area on LANSKY, HOMICIDE and MASTERS OF HORROR before essentially take a sabbatical after the eccentric HBO series JOHN FROM CINCINATTI.
But never fear, as McNaughton has now returned to claim THE HARVEST, perhaps his most alternately heartfelt, and horrifying movie. THE POSSESSION’s Natasha Calis plays Maryann, a kind young woman in a new rustic area after parent’s death. She’s looking for a friend, and finds one in Andy (GOTHAM’s Charlie Tahan), a boy barely able to movie from his bed due to an impending, fatal ailment. But what seems to be an unexpectedly sweet coming-of-age film takes a truly dire change of pace when Maryann runs into Andy’s parents, a heart surgeon with a dangerous case of overbearing motherhood (MINORITY REPORT’s Samantha Morton) and a male nurse father (BUG’s Michael Shannon), overwhelmed by his responsibility. Now given a Hitchcockian turn of events, McNaughton’s skillful direction tightens the screws as the kids are put into jeopardy with medical ethics run sinisterly awry. Yet the one thing that can be certain in this emotional and suspenseful movie is that McNaughton has lost none of his twisted touch in the interim. If anything, he’s back more provocatively than ever.
ASSIGNMENT X: Is it good to be back in the feature directing world after so long? And was it difficult getting back into the game?
JOHN McNAUGHTON: Yeah, absolutely. It’s refreshing I must say. It’s a strange dichotomy. When I’m engaged on a project, I’m a driven and hard-working person. But if I get a little time off, I become a lazy person. The momentum carries in either direction. I live in a really beautiful place in Chicago, surrounded by great art and a great music system. So I can sit here being pretty spoiled and lazy, reading and watching movies for years on end actually! I was fine doing a lot of travelling. But it’s good to be back, and it’s time to build momentum.
AX: So what was it about THE HARVEST that pulled you back in?
McNAUGHTON: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it when I read the original script by Stephen Lancellotti. But my agent told me that there was something there, so I agreed to read it again, and discovered there was something there. I told Stephen, there were two movies you could make from the script. The first was your standard genre B-movie horror film – what I refer to as the “ooga booga” movie. That would be a fun movie to see, but it wasn’t one I wanted to make. The one I wanted to make was much more realistic. It went into some of the things he touched upon, but didn’t mine the depth of. So Stephen came to Chicago, and we spent a few days going over the script, and took it to that more realistic and deeper level.
AX: In its way, THE HARVEST almost reminds me of the whole genre of “kid become friends with the disabled kid” movies like MY GIRL and THE CURE before veering into way more adult genre territory.
McNAUGHTON: I like to pick some genre elements, and pick some classic elements. And I don’t think anything deals better with the territory of childhood than the classic fairy tale. “Hansel and Gretel”. That was a big influence on the film, as was the child psychiatrist Bruno Bettlelheim, who was the chair at The University of Chicago. He wrote a book called “The Uses of Enchantment.” It was about the usefulness of fairy tales and the maturation process of child’s psyches, and how fairy tales break down into that – especially with “Hansel and Gretel.” That’s what THE HARVEST connects to. You’ve got two children being chased by the wicked witch, the ineffectual father who’s well intentioned but not very helpful, and the idea that you have to get out from under your parents. I was an only child who grew up in the south side of Chicago. And once you walked out that door I was in a pretty rough place. But inside my house, I was overprotected to the point where I envied neglected children who were left to their own devices! You have to break from your parents’ grasp, because they want you to be a child forever, so they can be parents forever. You have to break their spell and go out into the world to become an adult. That’s a wonderful, literal metaphor for what happens in this film. So for me, the genre is something to be played with, but not to be a slave to.
AX: It’s particularly interesting how you reverse the casting of Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton from the kind of roles you usually see them in, resulting in Michael being the “nice” guy and Samantha the crazy person.
McNAUGHTON: When you see Michael, you think he’s going to murder someone. He’s just got those eyes, the structure of his face and the intensity that goes with that. Michael came up in the so-called “garage theater” scene in Chicago. So there are certain expectations when you see him show up, which made it fun for him to play this type of character, even though he can do anything. Michael reminds me of my favorite actors Robert Ryan (ON DANGEROUS GROUND), who also had a great physical structure and an intense face.
AX: I don’t think you’ve worked with kids who are so young before in any of your movies. What was that experience like with Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan?
McNAUGHTON: I had worked with kids in television, but not to this extent. The first time I worked with kids was on the show HOMICIDE. The child actor was six or seven, a little kid. The role wasn’t easy, so he had to be good, and to truly act. I didn’t know how you could find a kid who could do that, and the truth is that we found five of them. At that point, I realized that we’re born with gifts. These kids could just play the role without study, or training. So it’s amazing that it’s not that hard to find them. Natasha and Charlie were the right ones to play Maryann and Andy, and I’ve never had a better time working with two actors. She was twelve, and he was thirteen. You watch them and you say ‘Where does this come from?’ They are both miraculous, especially when I heard about a story about one movie where the kid bit the cameraman! So there are some little monsters out there. I’ve been fortunate.
AX: What do you think the film says about parents, or sick people in general, who go to insane extremes trying to save the unsaveable?
McNAUGHTON: With any film, it helps me to believe that their stories could actually happen. The world is a crazy place. For THE HARVEST, I put in my favorite joke where Richard is talking to a drug rep, and asks ‘What’s the difference between God and a doctor? God doesn’t think he’s a doctor.” Katherine is a pediatric heart surgeon, and saves a child’s life at the beginning of the film, which makes you realize that surgeons can be strange people who really can have the power of life and death. And I do believe there is a doctor today who could pull a stunt off like what we see in THE HARVEST. The thing I love about Samantha’s character is that she’s involved in the worst crime there is. But there’s sympathy for her because it’s watching maternal instinct gone horribly awry. Yet Katherine’s motive is really good. It’s like what they tell Willard when they send him off to find Colonel Kurtz at the beginning of APOCALYPSE NOW. They praise his mission, but say that his methods “have become unsound” – just like her’s. Another thing going on under the surface of THE HARVEST is the idea that parents have an idealized child that they want you to be in their mind, and you’re not. It’s a great sense of frustration when you are who you are, and not satisfying whom they want want to be. This movie has a personification of that, of the idea that pure love doesn’t make any kind of mistakes.
AX: There’s a point where the movie becomes a bit illogical, yet you remain completely invested in it. What do you think is the challenge of making the viewer not just keep saying “Why doesn’t this kid go to the cops?”
McNAUGHTON: There has been that kind of criticism of many real cases, where people ask, “How come nobody went to the cops?” I follow a lot of true crime, and it’s insane what you read, like young women who are kept in a basement for twelve years, or the Jaycee Lee Dugard case, which was finally discovered after being kidnapped for years when we shot the film. I’ll often tell young writers that I’ll find something in their script completely unbelievable, and they’ll tell me “It really happened.” But even then, it can still be unsatisfying when you’re telling that story in a film. But if you’re carrying a film emotionally, you can get the audience past all sorts of implausible situations. My favorite is in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, when they’ve got Hannibal Lector strapped spread eagled in a cage, suspended in a warehouse. He looks at a pen, and cut to his escape! (laughs). I said, “Wait a minute! That’s a pretty big stretch!” But it won the Academy Award and it’s a great picture. So it’s very strange. You can convince the audience of anything if you’ve got emotional power on your side. It doesn’t really matter. But if you don’t, then you’ll lose them.
AX: Your films stand out with how character-driven they are, especially in this case
MCNAUGHTON: I grew up on the south side of Chicago, where there were a lot of interesting, extreme characters. I’ve known people who’ve murdered people, had friends who were career criminals, and have also hung out with Princess Caroline at her place overlooking the bay in Monaco with my friend the artist George Condo. So I’ve known some of the most brilliant and famous people in the world, I’ve known career criminals and everything in between. I worked in factories, advertising agencies and traveling carnivals. You name it. I’ve known “characters” of every stripe. As Jack Kerouac said, “The ones who’ve always attracted me are the ‘mad’ ones. Those are the ones who are the most fun.
AX: Composer George S. Clinton, whom you worked on with WILD THINGS did a terrific score for THE HARVEST that really brings together the humanity, and the horror.
McNAUGHTON: George wasn’t that well known at the time of WILD THINGS. We heard music from a lot of better-known composers, but I knew this was the guy for us. And we had to fight tooth and nail with the studio to get him, but that score is superb. George is now the Chair of the Film Scoring Department at the Berkley School of Music in Boston. We shot the picture about 40 minutes north of Manhattan, where we were also doing the post. So I was close to George, and came to visit him in Boston, where it just happened the public television station WGBH has a beautiful recording studio. George found graduates from the numerous great music schools in Boston. They were these very young players who all had masters degree in their instruments. He put together this string ensemble, along with a piano, celeste and upright bass. It’s really a thrill to be in the room when you’ve got an orchestra playing,
AX: I can’t think of a more impressive, or horrific directorial debut than HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. WIth it being such a shocking “outlaw” film, were you worrying that you’d be able to get a mainstream movie after it?
McNAUGHTON: You can’t worry about that when you’re doing it! The New York Times gave us a decent review, which was important. But Rex Reed gave us one star in The New York Post, which was a badge of honor. Thank God he didn’t like the picture, which is all I can say! Everyone came out of that, except for the young woman Tracy Arnold, who played Becky. There was an article in the Los Angeles Times years ago that revealed she was working as a waitress at Hampton’s. She said that she was brought in for everything, but she was kept at arm’s distance. It tainted her somehow, whereas Michael Rooker and Tom Towles went on to bigger careers after it. Tom unfortunately just passed away.
AX: Tom was a super-nice guy, exactly the opposite of Otis in HENRY. What are your memories of him?
McNAUGHTON: It’ll soon be 30 years since the time we all met and started working on HENRY together, and I’ve known Tom for all of that time and worked with him on many things. He was bright, articulate and funny. He was in hot water for one thing or another. So when I wanted him on WILD THINGS, he couldn’t be there for a reason I will not disclose (laughs). I was just talking to Luke Perry, with whom I worked with on NORMAL LIFE, where Tommy played his character’s father. It was kind of a comedic role for Tom, as opposed to the kind of parts he often did. He was a versatile actor, and it’s a shame he died. We’ll miss him. He had plenty of work left in him.
AX: I don’t think Tom had a more unusual role than playing an alien’s head in THE BORROWER. In fact, they used that image as the movie poster.
McNAUGHTON: Well, that company went bankrupt. Atlantic Releasing was in a motel that used to be on Sunset. They had a pretty good-sized parking lot and about 25 or 30 employees. One day towards the end of production I had to go over there to talk about how we were going to shoot nights. I pulled into the parking lot, and it was empty. The building’s doors were swinging on their hinges. I walked in, and there was literally no one there! The computers were all packed up. They literally disappeared in the middle of the night, and took the few hundred thousand dollars that was left in our budget with them. So it was an insane experience making THE BORROWER. Recently, a big revival theater in Chicago called The Music Box wanted to play HENRY at Halloween for their 24-hour horror movie marathon. But I told them that they should try something more original and show THE BORROWER, which no one had seen in forever. People had a lot of fun watching it.
AX: That being said, I’d have to say my personal favorite film of yours is MAD DOG AND GLORY which is a quite lovely romantic film about underdog characters, and features what I consider to be Bill Murray’s best performance as a psychotic “nice guy” gangster who tries to help our Robert De Niro’s lovelorn photographer with a “girlfriend.”
McNAUGHTON: It’s sort of starting to be finally appreciated. I don’t know if that movie was ahead of, or behind its time. Also switching those two leads from the expected, to the unexpected like we did in THE HARVEST wasn’t the best commercial choice. Bill is amazing in MAD DOG AND GLORY.
AX: How do you think THE HARVEST shines a light as to the kind of movies that you want to get back into?
McNAUGHTON: For me, THE HARVEST is like the closing of a book on my childhood, on all the terrors, difficulties and unresolved angst that’s left in my psyche. It wasn’t apparent to me when I made the film. It was such a struggle to get distribution and a release for it. But once it turned around all of sudden, I knew that I could let go, and that the film would be born in the world. I realized then to the degree that it was dealing with my own childhood stuff. And I knew I could move on to the next chapter. In that way, I think THE HARVEST is a goodbye for me to shooting with actual 35-millimeter film and probably having a full, orchestral score. Now it’s time to start something new.
You can watch THE HARVEST on various VOD series, and on iTunes HERE. The film will open theatrically in Los Angeles on April 24th.
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Article:Interview with director John McNaughton on his new horror movie THE HARVEST