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.
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
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
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’
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
Right now the Natives are the “other.” Any
moment they’re going to show up and take your women, kill
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
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?
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
The whole idea was to use the grass in the West like the water
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
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
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
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?