Friday, October 24, 2008

Interview with Director Jack Messitt

Jack Messitt is the writer and director of what we called “one of the best movies of the year,” Midnight Movie. Midnight Movie was Jack’s directorial debut, and what a debut it was! Besides earning accolades from us, Midnight Movie recently won Best Feature at the Chicago Horror Film Festival! Jack has a lot to be proud of, so we were happy to chat with him about his career, his love for movies and how Midnight Movie came together.

Fatally Yours: You started your career lensing films and TV shows like Bones and American Idol. What made you want to make the move to directing? 

Jack Messitt: The project was already greenlit and they were looking for a director. I read the script – and frankly, thought it needed a lot of work. So I had a meeting with the producers and told them just that. I pitched my ideas of what I would do to make it better and they called a few days later and said that I was the guy for the job.

That’s when it was decision time. I was doing quite well as a cameraman and directing would derail that for at least a year. But I figured, why not? What’s the worst that happens? The movie is terrible and I go back to shooting – a job I already love. So I took on the challenge.

Hopefully, the movie isn’t awful and I will have the opportunity to direct again if the right project comes along.

Fatally Yours: Do you think you’ll pursue directing in the future?

Jack Messitt: While my next project is as a DP, I have several new projects as a director already in the works. Directing was a lot of work, but a lot of fun. I truly enjoyed every step of the process and look forward to trying it again.

Fatally Yours: Midnight Movie was also the first time you wrote a script (co-written by Mark Garbett). What was this experience like for you?

Jack Messitt: Actually, I have been writing for some time. Like everyone else in Hollywood, I have a dusty drawer full of unproduced scripts.

But just before Midnight Movie, I was a script consultant on Irreversi, a feature I shot in Hong Kong. This entailed rewriting a lot of the script with the director. But since there were already 5 writers credited on the project, I decided on a script consultant credit instead.

And earlier this year, I sold an original script to Insight Film Studios/TF1/Really Real Films. Trust is in the middle of production with Jamie Luner (Heat Wave, CSI), Nels Lennarson (Good People Bad Things, Smoke Jumpers), and Brendan Beiser (Something Beneath, The Sandlot 3).

Fatally Yours: How did the idea for Midnight Movie come about?

Jack Messitt: Sean Hood’s original script was written for a specific castle in Belgium. But when that location was no longer a necessity for funding, the script was rewritten by Mark Garbett. It changed to something much closer to what you see on the screen. Really, the only thing that was kept from the original script was that there were people watching a movie that they ultimately become the stars of.

Then, when I came on board, it went through a lot more changes, mainly to the movie within the movie. When I signed onto the script, the movie within the movie wasn’t very defined. It was written to be a mish mash of images, like the video tape in The Ring. I didn’t think that this worked for the movie audience in our film, so that was one of the first things I wanted to tackle.

As I worked with Mark, we went through a couple of different phases. The first was creating the movie in the movie in a 1930s style horror film. The problem was that, to today’s audiences, the 1930s horror film doesn’t really hold up. In their time, they may have been terrifying. But today’s audiences are not going to have the same reaction to that style.

So when I wrote my draft of the script, I updated it to the late 60s early 70s horror films because films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead still hold up today. I think they are legitimately creepy. They portray a world that I would not want to be stuck inside. That was what Midnight Movie needed, so The Dark Beneath was born.

Fatally Yours: Why did you pick a horror film as your first film to direct?

Jack Messitt: Who wouldn’t want to direct a horror film? I mean, come on… Going to set is great. With 21 days of shooting and 18 kills, I showed up every day, looked around at the cast and asked, “Alright, which one of you is dying today?” How much fun is that?

Fatally Yours: You definitely sold me! Since you’d had no experience with writing/shooting horror before, how did you prepare yourself for Midnight Movie?

Jack Messitt: While I had not worked on a horror film before, I have plenty of experience with thrillers.  To me, they are a lot alike. At least, they are basically put together the same way.

But I did my research. In the past two years, I have seen countless numbers of horror films. Some good, some bad. In fact, I think you learn more about how to make a horror movie from the ones that don’t work so well. You see what is missing and the pitfalls. And when you see a good one, you can see the formula that works.

Fatally Yours: Are you a fan of horror movies? If so, which ones are your favorites?

Jack Messitt: There is nothing better than a good horror film! I think The Shining is still my favorite. Still, really creepy. But as you watch Midnight Movie, you’ll see winks to my other favorites: Silence of the Lambs, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho. I think my favorite horror movies all have that strong thriller edge.

Fatally Yours: The story of Midnight Movie is very original, while still paying homage to horror films like Demons, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and ‘80s slashers. What influences do you yourself cite as inspiration for the film?

Jack Messitt: I wanted Midnight Movie to be the fun ride I remember the 80s slasher films to be. I think that we tried to update that formula to work today, but you can’t help but see both the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series in our film.

When it came to The Dark Beneath, the movie in our movie, it is based on several films from the 60s and early 70s. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Night of the Living Dead and Psycho were the main influences.

Fatally Yours: The unique look of the killer is part of the draw in Midnight Movie. How did you come up with his look, as well as his unique weapon? 

Jack Messitt: The mask is something we really struggled with. The script always had the killer in a mask. And masks have been done to death. To come up with something that is unique and scary was a huge challenge. So, we went through a lot of ideas and a lot of failed designs.

Then one night when I was really frustrated, I starting scouring the internet for ideas. I kept coming to these two iconic images. One is the Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn poster, with the skull and eyes. That has always stuck with me since that movie came out. The other image I kept going back to was Hannibal Lector’s restraint mask in Silence of the Lambs. So I started playing around, and I cobbled together the basic design of our killer. Lunar Effects took my ideas and defined them with a lot of the small details. In the end, I was really happy with how it came together.

The killer in Mark’s script was more supernatural.  He thrust his hands into the victim’s head and they turned to dust. I was worried about pulling off this effect well on our limited budget. And I thought that the repetition of the same kill over and over would get stale as the movie went on…

We needed a weapon.

Everything out there has been used in a horror film. We’ve seen the chainsaw, we’ve seen the butcher knife. You name it. So coming up with something that could be instantly identified with Midnight Movie was the challenge.

When we were toying with the movie in the movie being a 1930s style film, the killer used a fire poker. But when I switched gears on the style of the movie in the movie, the fire poker was lost and the search began anew.

One day, in a flurry of emails, my producer Jacque suggested a corkscrew knife. That’s when the lightbulb went on in my head! In college, I had written a serial killer novel where the killer had this implement that was this metal cone with a handle. You could puncture into someone’s chest with it, and as you pulled it out, it had razor sharp edges. It would pull out this chunk of flesh. So I took this 15 year-old idea and combined it with Jacque’s knife idea and our killer’s signature knife was born.

Fatally Yours: So many horror movies today lack tension or scares. How did you manage to invoke both in Midnight Movie?

Jack Messitt: To me, you can only have real scares and suspense if you care about the characters. So I worked really hard on making the people in the film as believable as possible. I wanted the audience to like them (or in Mario’s case, love to hate them). It is this connection that makes a moviegoer feel any of the thrills and chills you hope to set them up for.

Fatally Yours: Midnight Movie is pretty restrained in the gore department. Was this a conscious choice or just how the story flowed?

Jack Messitt: The steadily rising gore level in Midnight Movie is completely conscious. I wanted the kills to get better as the movie went on. If the movie’s marquee kill starts the film, it makes it tough because you have little place to go from there.

Too many films today start at such a level of gore that they peak with scene one, or set a level that makes the movie kind of plateau from then on. So I decided to set up the kills in the movie to mirror the history of horror. In the beginning, you see just before and just after, like early Hollywood. But as the decades moved on, Hollywood’s kills got more and more gory. So do the kills in Midnight Movie.

And we get all the way to today’s “torture porn” level… And while it is by far the creepiest scene in the movie, there is a surprisingly small amount of gore. Just goes to show you that the mind will fill in the blanks in a far worse way than a filmmaker can.

Fatally Yours: Were there any hardships that the cast and crew endured during production? What was the hardest part of the production for you?

Jack Messitt: Oh, where to start… Let’s just say that there were numerous times that we thought the film would not get finished. Those were the toughest times.

Fatally Yours: Do you think that you would ever write/direct a horror movie again?

Jack Messitt: I’d love to. Making a horror film is really making a movie. You get to have fun with effects, both on set and in post. And you get to say things like, “I need more blood!” It was really a lot of fun and I look forward to opportunity to direct another one.

Fatally Yours: What can you tell us about any future projects you are involved in?

Jack Messitt: I am just about to go to Vietnam to shoot a feature film as a DP. But I already have several irons in the fire for my next directing project.  I am talking to several different production companies, both for horror films as well as other genres. We’ll see which project hits first.

Midnight Movie available from Amazon!

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