Interview: John McNaughton on The Harvest (2014)

Interview first published by Film4

Chicago born and bred, John McNaughton broke into the filmmaking world with a well-received if little-seen documentary on his hometown’s gangsters, Dealers in Death (1984) – but it was his next film, the unflinching crime psychodrama Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), that would gain McNaughton the most attention.

Henry… broke all kinds of ground and courted all manner of controversy: it effectively invented the serial killer genre, it helped give rise to the NC-17 rating in the US, it had a very innovative soundtrack, and it was to become a hot potato among both distributors and censors for years despite being feted by critics. The film, along with its follow-up The Borrower (1991), would see McNaughton embraced by the horror community, leading to formal recognition as a genre great in 2006 when he contributed an episode (‘Haeckel’s Tale’) to television’s Masters of Horror series.

Yet McNaughton has always seemed more interested in crime (true or otherwise, but always human) than in conventional horror, from Dealers In Death and Henry… through to Mad Dog And Glory (1993), Normal Life (1996), Wild Things (1998) and Lansky (1999), not to mention regular work in the mid-90s helming television’s Homicide: Life On The Streets – and some of his titles, like the performance film Sex, Drugs, Rock And Roll (1991), the documentary Condo Painting (2000) and the romantic comedy Speaking Of Sex (2001), have nothing to do with either horror or crime. Film4’s Anton Bitel caught up with this most versatile of directors shortly before the UK premiere of his latest, The Harvest, at the Film4 FrightFest.

Film4: I have read that for your first directorial gig, the documentary Dealers In Death (1984) on 1930s Chicago gangsters, you were hired by the production company for which you had previously worked as a delivery man. Is this as accidental as it sounds? Did you already then have aspirations to become a director? 

John McNaughton: Delivery man is probably not an accurate description. The company that would eventually become MPI was at that time in the business of leasing 8mm projection systems to bars and restaurants on the south side of Chicago. The machines played a film cartridge featuring various old silent films and/or cartoons which would repeat every hour. The cartridge remained at a location for one week and then would be moved to the next location in the chain and it was replaced by the cartridge from the previous location. That was my job. In the old days of the film business this was called bicycling the prints. But my reason for taking employment with the Ali brothers in their fledgling company was from the start to become involved in the film business in any possible way available to me from my remote position on the south side of Chicago, and from my first conversations with Waleed Ali it was clear that we were both interested in one day making actual movies which eventually we did.

How did Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer come about? 

The film came about almost coincidentally as so many of the major events in our lives seem to. I was actually preparing to do another documentary for the Ali brothers on the subject of professional wrestling. We had found someone who owned a cache of old B&W footage featuring such greats as Dick the Bruiser, Moose Cholak, Bo Bo Brazil etc. Unfortunately the owner of the footage tried to pull a fast one and upped the price after MPI had agreed to their original quote. This did not sit well with the Ali brothers so on the day I went to see Waleed to get a cheque to start the project he informed me there would be no project. At least not that one. What he proposed instead was that we fulfill our dream of making an actual movie. By this time MPI was in the video distribution business and doing well. Waleed offered me a budget of $100,000 dollars to make a horror film. No particular subject. That was up to me.

What drew you to the mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas as subject matter? And did you have any idea of the can of worms your film would be opening? 

As I left Waleed’s office after our meeting I stopped in to see an old friend who worked for MPI and told him of our deal. He asked if I had a subject and I admitted I had not at which point he picked up a VHS cassette, put it in the machine and played me a segment from the news documentary show 20:20 about Henry Lee Lucas and his crimes. It became immediately clear that this was to be the subject of the film. As to the can of worms opened by Henry…, there was no way to see it coming any more than it’s possible to predict where lightning will strike.

How do you view your relation to the horror genre, and where does your latest film, The Harvest, fit into this?

What interests me more than anything is human behaviour, especially the darker regions. What I like about the horror genre is that it gives you permission to go there. The Harvest is a story about child sacrifice which is as horrific as I think you can be. But there is no supernatural element, no Booga! Booga! No safety zone. You have to look it in the eye.

Some 13 years have passed between your last feature film, Speaking Of Sex, and this new one. Why this hiatus? And was it difficult getting The Harvest off the ground? 

Actually it was an 11-year hiatus as The Harvest started production about two years ago. During the 11 years I took some time to just fuck off. I was exhausted from a very long run of continuous work. Eventually I did some television pilots and some episodic work but stayed away from features. I read a lot, wrote a lot, traveled a lot and actually did some theatre in LA of all places which I enjoyed very much. I worked with Juliet Landau directing her in John Patrick Shanley’s Danny And The Deep Blue Sea, which won some awards and had a very good run. Danny is a two character play and I realized during rehearsals that what I loved most about directing was working with actors in order to get the performance.

I love all the technical aspects of filmmaking but in the end, for me, it’s about the actors and performance. That is what an audience connects to, other human beings, and that is what I connect to, human behaviour. In terms of getting The Harvest off the ground we were very fortunate to find a financier who was and is a man of his word. But it’s never an easy path and the project fell apart once or twice along the way and was seriously interrupted by Hurricane Sandy which shut us down for a week and almost for good.

First-time writer Stephen Lancelotti’s screenplay revolves around some very carefully managed ambiguities which the young protagonist Maryann (Natasha Calis), and along with her the viewer, fail properly to understand at first. Was it a challenge maintaining this fine line between parental anxiety, desperation and protectiveness, and something much darker? 

One of my favourite things to do in the telling of a story is to lead the audience in one direction to the point where they become complacent in believing that they know where the story is going, and then pulling the rug out. In stage magic it’s called misdirection and is the key to creating a successful illusion. The Harvest appears to be the story of a sick child who is befriended by a new kid in the neighbourhood much to the dismay of his very overprotective parents. It’s a dynamic we’ve seen before many times and so the audience is led along this path until something completely unexpected happens and the story turns inside out. Was it a challenge to pull this off? Absolutely, but that is the filmmaking problem we had to solve in order to tell the story successfully. That was the task we set for ourselves. Hopefully we succeeded.

Did you have a strategy for preserving the human parts of your onscreen monsters, brilliantly portrayed by Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon? And how easy do actors of their calibre make your work? 

As to Samantha Morton’s character what we have is a mother whose maternal instinct has gone horribly awry. But at the very core of her being she is doing whatever she believes is necessary to save her son. Unfortunately, as was said of Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, her methods are unsound. Michael Shannon’s character is playing on the idea of the quintessential fairytale figure, the weak father, who is completely dominated by the wicked mother much as in Hansel and Gretel. Nonetheless Michael manages to find and portray the human decency remaining to him and in the end does the (more or less) right thing.

They both give very nuanced and often tricky performances portraying both the monstrosity of their acts toward the boy Andy and the essentially sympathetic motives which cause them to behave so. I think both Samantha and Michael give extraordinary performances as do the two kids, Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan. At this point in my career I tend to direct the actors less rather than more. Samantha and Michael do not require a lot of direction but I do think they faced great difficulty in living daily inside characters who are committing such absolutely evil deeds especially when they are committed against children.

Although The Harvest is set in the contemporary world of games consoles, the Internet and advanced surgery, there is something folkloric in its woodland gothic, making it seem like a modern fairytale. What was your thinking behind this? 

When my agent sent me the script, I found it interesting but leaning in the direction of what I call a ‘Booga! Booga!’ type of horror film, and as I told my agent I would probably enjoy seeing that film but I was not interested in making it. He pushed for me to read it again saying, “I think there’s something there.” I took his advice and read it again. What I saw that attracted me was the bones of a fairytale. The deeper aspects of the story reminded me of Hansel and Gretel and now when I have to do a capsule description of the film I refer to it as Hansel and Gretel meets Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Eventually the producers sent the writer to Chicago and we did a good deal of work on the script in order to shape it in that direction.

I went back and read numerous of the Grimms’ fairytales and settled on Hansel and Gretel as a kind of model for The Harvest. Then I found a wonderful book called The Uses Of Enchantment, by Bruno Bettelheim, who was a psychiatrist specializing in children. The book is about the value of fairy tales to the development of children. How the great fairytales can help children to cope with the problems and difficulties of growing up. It always helps me if I can connect the material I’m working on into some deeper strata of storytelling. The story of Hansel and Gretel was published by the brothers Grimm in 1812 but according to Wikipedia may have originated in the medieval period of the Great Famine of 1315-1321. Any story with that kind of staying power is of interest to me and of course useful as a model. It is my opinion that all families are dysfunctional to some degree and that all parents are abusive no matter how inadvertently, over the course of a child’s growing up. This includes even the very best of parents/families. To quote Philip Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.” And therein lie some of the darkest corners of human behaviour, the relationship between parents and children, which we try to plumb in The Harvest.

Maryann’s grandfather (Peter Fonda) seems just a little reluctant to hand down his recently deceased son’s old baseball mitts to Maryann, after she discovers them in the attic. Do you regard loss, and the importance of letting go, as key themes of The Harvest?

It’s interesting to me that the basement often represents the subconscious in films and the attic is often a place to find the past. When Peter Fonda gives Maryann the baseball gloves, he reluctantly gives up some part of the past and maybe lets go of some pain. Once released into Maryann’s possession the gloves take on the power of liberation when she brings them to Andy and they play catch together. Perhaps it’s a very practical example of the value of letting go of the past. Without getting too literal it seems to me that loss and the pain associated with deep loss can be crippling but letting go can be liberating. However, letting go can be extremely difficult and we often need help to do so. Fortunately for Hansel, he had Gretel and fortunately for Andy he has Maryann.