Quantcast ICONS Interview with Director JT Petty - THE BURROWERS

JT Petty!

Director JT Petty is carving an intriguing and intelligent path through the horror genre, crossbreeding story elements and narrative approaches and yielding exciting results. His extended NYU thesis ghost story Soft For Digging blended live action and pixilation into a nearly wordless narrative; his sequel Mimic: Sentinel played with what we expected from late-in-the-series installments, fusing elements of Rear Window and dark humor into the franchise; and his documentary S&Man found a new way for an audience to explore the nature of voyeurism and manipulation of media in a non-fictional/fictional context. Petty’s newest experiment The Burrowers successfully splices a Western with a creature feature in a way that will satisfy both camps. Read on to learn more about this tense, slow-burn, character-driven film that introduces a new and disturbing class of monster to the old West, and get a hint of his intentions for his potential reimaginging of the shockumentary Faces of Death. - by Adam Barnick 5/09

Click here to read Adam’s first interview with JT Petty covering his early work.

Click here to read Bunni Spiegelman’s and Adam Barnick’s conversation with JT from 2006.

Adam: We’ve talked in the past about your interest in home invasion; which occurred in your first two films, once by a ghost and once by giant roaches.

JT: (laughs)

Adam: I know ‘fucking up home’ has always been something that influenced you or affected you in films; but that also ties into The Searchers’ influence on The Burrowers; starting with a home invasion.

JT: You can take that back to early Wes Craven too- every Craven then is a home invasion.

I was thinking of Last House on the Left in this case, it has a bit of that Western theme of ‘time to dole out justice.’ Our quest is to mete out justice… which seems like the proper motive in a lot of Westerns.

Last House has that Western idea too of ‘God being on your side’ with such a giant coincidence – “God sent these killers to your house so you can take your vengeance .”

And then you even have that line towards the end, Coffey (Karl Geary) simply states they can’t go back because “home’s not safe.” You can look at the settling of America… WE were a home invasion.

Making home dangerous seems like such an interesting goal in horror, rather than making a torture chamber dangerous.

Safe becomes unsafe.

That just seems scarier to me. If you’re showing (in a film) that some supervillian has created his house of horrors, then you just walk out the movie theater and you’re fine.

Just don’t go there.

(laughs) Yeah, just don’t go to the house of horrors! Whereas something that will come and pull you out of your bed and eat you alive, that’s scary.

Did this originate with a creature idea, or more of a Western narrative they showed up in? Was there one idea that started pulling in everything else?

It started out as a horror/Western, really quickly the creature was part of that same idea. A lot of it too was (wanting) to make a specifically American monster movie. There seem to be a lot of non-American traditions in all the great monsters. And thinking about where in America you could set that kind of isolation; and have something misunderstood like that, the Old West felt like a really natural fit. And I’ve said this in a lot of interviews already; the idea of settlers’ experience in the Old West could be science fiction. If you think of them looking at Lakota tribes, rattlesnakes, horny toads, and the landscape, even, for the first time.
They’re in a vastness of space, just land-bound. Encountering life that’s alien to them.

I wanted the Burrowers to be basically part of nature. Like if white people didn’t show up, they would have kept on their (feeding) cycle, and everything would have been fine. They come up every 30 years or so; and they came up one time and all the buffalo were gone, and were like “what’s another large warm mammal we could eat?”
Did it just feel natural to crossbreed the genre? Or did putting the horror in, given your genre background help it get made? Or is it part of that ‘displacement’ that unsettles us in horror? Of course nobody expects creatures to pop up in that time period.

It’s certainly kind of a calculated way to try to scare genre fans again. I would hope that most horror fans are as bored with most horror as I am; just because you’ve seen it so many times and there’s so many remakes and sequels.

You’d certainly expect something horrible in the old dark house we’ve seen 100 times.

Sure, or “let’s ask the rednecks for directions.” You don’t do that in a movie!

I would absolutely make a straight western if I could. But I don’t think I could get that made. It might have been easier than getting Burrowers made; just because there’s a sort of ‘genre quality’- you go out with a genre script and it’s hard to convince Russell Crowe to be in your movie- So it sort of works in both directions. It’s easier to get made because I’ve made horror movies, but harder to make because it always comes down to cast. And I wanted to have a fairly character-actory cast. I was always looking at the cast of a film like Fargo; anybody in that movie is fair game. They’re all interesting and sympathetic people; but any of them could die at any point. As soon as Nick Cage shows up in the movie, you know he’s going to be the last guy alive. I love looking back at something like Alien; where Ripley isn’t really the one driving that movie for the first half hour; she’s just the one with the least bullshit in her point of view of the world; that’s what allows her to survive.
I remember the first time I interviewed you, you were hoping to get this going; did you write it back in 2002?

Something like that, 2002-2003. I told my agents, and they said, “don’t write a horror Western”. The first draft was called 10,000 Little Indians, which I think is a pretty awesome title for a movie; and we sent it out to producers, LionsGate bites- they bought it in 2005. In 2006 we came within inches of production and then it got cancelled; in 2007 we actually got to shoot it; it’s a process.
Was Peter (Block) involved from the start?

Yeah. Peter’s the reason they bought it. And the reason it got greenlit.

1879 is when it takes place; I knew a little bit about that period and what had recently happened; in terms of history you’re like inches from the Dakota War, and the Great Sioux war, and the New Ulm Massacre..The film’s taking place close to, sort of, the Dakota badlands’ 9/11.

Sure. And people (as far away as) New York at the time were frightened that Indians were going to kill them.

From way out West.

Yeah. The Indians were a decimated population, the victims of a successful genocide, but the majority were still terrified of them. New Ulm at the time was a really big event. It was a giant newspaper story.

Right now the Natives are the “other.” Any moment they’re going to show up and take your women, kill your family…

Exactly. They’re sort of the engine of the political terror of the time.

How did you go about your research for the script? I’m curious how much is romanticized in the Western genre vs. what really goes on and what we see here; did anything surprise you in the research that informed the writing?

Yeah. Certainly all of my education had been in ‘movie Old West.’ But I also didn’t want to make a “postcard Western.” Just pretty shot after pretty shot, all these guys against an awesome landscape.. One of the big things for me was discovering through research how shitty a job being a cowboy was.

That was what I wanted to ask, it seemed in the story that if you couldn’t get a job because of lack of education or your ethnicity, the cowboys needed help. (laughs)

The way I pitched it to the actors was everybody who couldn’t get a job in Gangs of New York, usually got duped and put on a train and ended up in the West; “well, fuck, guess I’ll figure this out.”

Something that’s not even represented in the movie, though I found it in two different books- I found about 40 percent of cowboys were black. Just because then it was the shittiest job you could get. The majority of them , outside of that , were immigrants. An average posse would be a Dutch guy, a Belgian; a German, three ex-slaves, and one white guy who’s only the boss because he speaks English. HE can’t talk to the German, who’s got to talk to the Belgian..

That reinforces the ridiculous communication breakdowns that’s a theme in the movie.

Communications I knew would be a big part of it, and I knew from the start I wanted the immigrants and the ex-slaves to be the people who actually figure it out; they’re not tied into the preconceived notions of what they’re supposed to find out there. Everybody else in the story is automatically “Indians did it”. Whereas the Irishman, who’s really some guy just trying to figure out how to ride his horse, can actually still look at something with fresh eyes.

Even if he’s more out of his depth than the other guys. It was shocking to hear how the Irish were treated back then, in the movie!

Irish people didn’t become “white” around 1960. And only because of Kennedy, basically. You’d totally have trouble getting a job in the south in the 40’s, you can still find period bars with vintage signs saying ”Irish need not apply.”

Did you have a wish list for your cast from the start? None of them are the gorgeous Hollywood types..They all FIT the West.

That’s certainly what I wanted; guys who looked like they had been out there working for a long time. William Mapother and Clancy Brown; Clancy’s a giant and William is like 6” 2’.

I have to watch the staging again, it always seemed like Clancy was three feet taller than everyone else.

We always made Clancy big. (laughs) We wanted him to be like the security blanket of the movie. As long as he’s around, everything is cool. The Kurgan will kill the monster.

And you have the irony of him never getting a shot off. Did you tailor any characters in rewrites to particular people you’d cast?

The biggest change was actually Coffey- in the first draft, he was Belgian. I think I was too hung up on the green-haired guy in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. I loved the idea of having this largely silent, French-accented cowboy. And everyone basically said “we won’t make this if he never talks.” I’m asking a fair amount of an audience with this movie anyway; just to have horror audiences be patient enough with a Western, or Western audiences to be patient enough with the gore, or the horror elements; once I thought of the character as Irish, and all of the racial elements that go into that, I really enjoyed it.
But once he was an Irishman, I knew I’d go back to (casting) Karl. He was in Mimic, he’s great! I made him watch The Road Warrior a few times before this. Max in that movie is kind of a loser for a lot of it- he sort of schlubs around but you can tell that he’s a badass. I wanted Coffey to be someone who’s keeping his head low- and could deliver when he needed to, but knows it’s better to keep his head low.

Even when he does deliver, there’s another miscommunication; he costs his group a chance to solve their problems much sooner.

In making this film, you did a new mythology through your monster race- in the development of the script and story, was there any pressure in production to tip your hand with revealing too soon or over explaining them? They’re really deliberately revealed. And their physiology is so odd, it’s unsettling to see bits of them; I’m like “what am I looking at?” In the narrative, they essentially show up on page two, but like the characters, we don’t know what we’re dealing with.

The big benefit there was just how little money they gave us to shoot it, and how determined I was to keep it as practical as possible.

So you really can’t show them all the time since you can’t afford to?

Basically. (laughs)

I’d read you were developing the creatures for a year or two prior to shooting with Robert Hall. Did you have a prior working relationship with him?

I’d met him a couple times; I really liked the stuff he had done on Angel and Buffy; Angel would often do the type of creature that was largely practical but sweetened with CG.

The first designs looked a lot more like a dragon-seahorse combination. There were such specific ideas of what the creatures’ physiology and mythology is- the first idea a creature designer often has is giant teeth. The whole thing (with the Burrowers) is that they can only eat soft things. The first thing we did was make a giant mouth with hundreds of tiny little teeth.
Did you develop their biology based on what could realistically survive in that type of environment?

Partly. I think they’re basically viable. The only real thing that’s not realistic about them is- and even that kind of works- there’s no real reason for them to go underground except for when they sleep. But basically they eat like spiders, and they socialize like naked mole rats. (laughs)

And naked mole rats were actually a pretty big reference, these sort-of-mammals that live like insects. Things that live underground are going to be pale and wrinkly.

I know you’d always been a fan of animation and movement, and you used cool techniques to animate the ghosts in Soft For Digging and the insects in Mimic: Sentinel; I know you always had an interest in silent film body language; did any of this fit into your plans on how the Burrowers would move and interact? Did you know how you needed these things to move? Or did that come more out of the design? They’re so different that it’s so unsettling.

One of Rob’s best ideas was switching the back legs, they’re sort of grasshopper-shaped.

And when they’re in the fields you’ve got no idea what you’re seeing, just something’s approaching.

The whole idea was to use the grass in the West like the water in Jaws.

We spent a lot of time on the movement; the lead creature performer was this girl Bonnie Morgan. Her dad played Cujo- she’s from a family of contortionists. She was great for talking about things like rolling shoulder blades, and things like-when a jaguar is moving close to the ground, its limbs are moving really slowly but the animal itself is moving really fast. I like that idea of slow movement that results in fast motion.

I read somewhere where you compared them to the beasts to Alien in terms of them having dispassionate natures. I liked how you can’t analyze and understand their psychology; there isn’t any.

You can’t outsmart it on its own terms. I always hate when the woman’s tied up and the killer’s coming with the saw, and she’s like ..

Finds a way to remind him of his dead mother..

Yeah, the killer has his moment of weakness. But if HR Giger’s alien is coming at you..it’s a giant black cock that’ll kill you. That’s it! And there’s certainly value to the more humanized monsters, but I think it’s automatically less frightening. It also allows the humans to be that much nastier. Burke in Aliens is such an amazing motherfucker. You can’t wait until Burke dies.

Kind of like how you’ve mentioned people in horror films being afraid of the wrong things. Yes, the monsters are destructive in the space colony, but the bureaucrat who paid for the trip is much worse.

Yeah. The creatures, ultimately, aren’t that big a threat. Certainly what they do is horrible, their methodology of feeding is hideous, but just in the way that nature is hideous.

Are they a mixture of animatronics and digital? Did you break the script down in terms like “this is best served by a rod puppet; this part is best served by latex costumes sweetened with CG…”

Yeah. 90% of the creatures are suit performers. And even with them there’s a lot of leg replacement, because those back legs were so troublesome.

The most effective suit performer had the front half of the performer in the front half of the creature; their legs were in black tights on the ground with actual skeleton legs on top of them.

For close shots we had a creature that was a full animatronic just shot from the waist up.
At first in the film I was missing your pitch-black humor that’s been in your other films, but as it went on towards the end I was picking up on it. Not only are some of the situations so grotesque that all you can kind of do is laugh nervously, that Grand Guignol humor. But also just..When I first saw Soft for Digging, at the end of the film I felt you should have retitled it “That Fucking Cat” and this one I felt could have been titled “A Failure to Communicate.” It was blackly comical how much that theme occurred.

Nobody can talk to each other. The fact that the glimmer of hope is when the Irishmen can talk to the Ute Indians in French…

And then of course, everyone shows up towards the end, misinterprets the situation and ruins their chances for success. That’s the other thing that made me think of the Coen brothers here- mainly Blood Simple. Where misunderstanding piles onto misunderstanding and causes everyone to get fucked. It was almost a comedy of errors.


How’d you get involved with working with your cameraman Phil Parmet? He’s recently gotten into horror but has also worked on some great documentaries. Was it about getting the doc texture without faking too much as a DP might?

Again, we were trying to dodge the postcard western look- I loved that Phil could just pick up a camera and shoot. And he wasn’t gonna overlight anything. The Devil’s Rejects is a gorgeous movie. On Mimic I kind of had to ride the DP the whole time.. I just got along with Phil. Completely honest, no bullshit, he’d seen the films I’d seen, he knew what I was talking about, knew what I wanted to steal..

Can you tell me a bit about your general lighting scheme?

For daytime it was about keeping direct light off of the actors and bouncing light under their hats- daytime we kept very natural. Nighttime it was all about having real fire. Actual fire adds so much movement and texture to the landscape.

I saw Blood Red Earth (a short film prequel to The Burrowers on Fearnet.com) last night, I was really intrigued how that came about. Was that written before the film was, as a backstory?

Fearnet asked if we could shoot a promotional thing. And almost to take the piss out of them I said “well, the Burrowers come back every 30 years, so 30 years before that is the Lakota territories; there’s no white dudes out there. I want to have a Lakota family facing the creatures.” And they were like, ‘Cool!” At that point they’d called my bluff and I was like, ‘all right!”

We shot upstate in Woodstock, I also wanted to get the look of the grasslands before the settlers. Taller grass, many more trees.. the Dakotas I think looked a lot more like Minnesota, before we got there.

I called Larry because I had a limited budget for an artsy horror movie I wanted to shoot on the East Coast. I was like “oh, Larry!” I hadn’t met him yet, but figured if I was living in New York making horror movies, I should meet him. They seemed eager to do it. We shot in 3 days.

Was the themes and approach of your documentary S&Man what led the producers of Faces of Death to offer you the project?

They saw the movie and thought they had really seen someone die.

Did they have a take that was close to what you’re doing with it now?
I met with one of the producers and their take was a lot like that Halloween with Busta Rhymes in it-The one where they’re making a reality TV show in the spooky Myers house that turns out to be real. I came up with a different plot which is hard to synopsize, but they liked it a lot more, enough that I’m still excited about it four years later.

They like it, they’re a little wierded out by it; all the time you’re trying to make a horror movie you’re trying to convince accountants to do something crazy, if it’s good. Making Prom Night is always a safe bet. And I feel like making something like Faces of Death, partly because you’re doing a horror remake, you want to get as far outside the original as possible..

Are you going for a much more traditional narrative than the original?

Nobody’s going to think it’s a documentary. Back then, it was like ‘ my brother’s cousin who is four years older than us got us a copy of Faces of Death.” Now if a kid wants to see somebody die, that’s why God invented the internet. (laughs) You can watch anyone you want die.

I don’t think people believe everything’s been seen. If everything’s being videotaped all the time, then there’s a real possibility you could see something horrible, almost like couched within a fictional narrative. That seems like such a scarier idea.. And the idea that 12 year olds saw Saddam Hussein die, and easily; and you kind of have to work to NOT see people die now. That seems like such a scarier idea to look into. It’s not difficult to see primarily, but also not that shocking anymore. Which is kind of the outcome of Videodrome, if you follow where the world was going while James Woods was going crazy.

Faces of Death wants to be a big mass-market movie. I think it’s interesting, trying to think of how you make a movie for people who are trained for stories on the internet- I’m really interested in 15 and 16 year olds right now, and how they experience narrative. I have this idea that they expect to control a narrative- you’re reading a story online- and it could be a story about Daniel Pearl, you’re reading about Daniel Pearl and then you can link to/watch a video of him, and then go back to the story..like something that can jump around like Neal Stephenson and still keep a strong narrative thread. Inside of a horror movie specifically. Because so much is often driven in genre by shock and distraction. Titillation. So the idea of how to sculpt a movie that addresses that audience, it just seems really interesting. How do you make that a narrative?

The Burrowers is now on DVD, look for details on Faces of Death as they emerge..

Blood Red Earth link-


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