Quantcast Joe Harris interview - THE TRIPPER, DARKNESS FALLS

Joe Harris!!!
This month, we spoke to writer JOE HARRIS, co-scripter on David Arquette's directorial debut THE TRIPPER. Joe talked to Icons about getting his start writing comics for Marvel, his short film the Tooth Fairy which later inspired the movie Darkness Falls, his short film Witchwise and what it was like working with David on THE TRIPPER. Read on for the FRIGHT exclusive interview! - by Robg. 4/07

What were your earliest recollections of the horror genre? What opened you up to the world of horror?

Well, I guess the roots of this are that we were the first house in the neighborhood to have a VCR when I was a kid. By the time we moved out to Long Island, we already had the Beta-Max and my Dad, after VHS had won the war - was bringing home tons and tons of videos. Being a little kid in the 80’s you had all these movies available. It was as if the flood gates had opened. And all the neighborhood kids would come over to watch stuff because we had the VCR at our house. It was the horror movies that we watched the most. I recall the first few Friday The 13th films. John Carpenter’s Halloween. Phantasm. Everyone’s probably got the same list. All of us that grew up in that era, we all went to the video stores and we all marveled over the box art to Q: The Winged Serpent.
(Laughs) Very true. We grew up with the greatest video box covers for horror movies.

Thinking back to that time, my entire family enjoyed horror films. In fact, they still do. I come from a large family, and I’m the oldest of 5 kids. Nobody ever policed the R rating in our house. Perhaps in retrospect, it’s probably a little strange to look back and recall watchingteenagers having sex and smoking weed while Jason hunts them down with your parents in the house, but that’s the way it was!
What about television? Any influence from there?

I was always really into watching shows like The Twilight Zone and Rod Sterling’s Night Gallery, to the point that when I consider making a short film, I always gear towards trying to make something I’d like to hold up to that kind of story telling. I’ve always been very fond of episodic stuff like Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories or Alfred Hitchcock presents. Comics also. I used to go to this comic shop on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and I would buy stuff out of the dime bin. Just all sorts of twisted things. That led to me loving things like Creepshow when Romero did that movie.
Oh, funny story. My dad once took me and the family to The Haunted Mansion in Long Branch, New Jersey. It was this huge massive haunted house attraction on the Jersey shore. I remember there were these creepy commercials on TV with a hunchback guy carrying an oil lamp down a spiral dungeon staircase saying “Come to the Haunted Mansion”. I remember taking a walk thru this place and really being scared! Being around 5 or 6 and going into one room, with essentially the story of Lizzie Borden being acted out, with Lizzie Borden picking up an ax & killing her mother. You go into another room, and you’d be presented with this mad scientist and his ultimate creation, this headless woman.

He’d be sitting next to a woman that didn’t have a head, which was such a cheap special effect to pull off, but there was something about the stage craft about this place that really inspired me. My father and I still talk about this thing. I have my family to thank either directly or indirectly for exposing me to horror. To this day, my Dad always asks me what he should Netflix. Working in this genre, it’s a nice way to come full circle. Because it’s very accessible to the people closest to me.

At what point did you get interested in the making of movies, what went on behind the scenes to make a movie?

You know, I started to appreciate the craft that goes into building something like a horror movie. For example, Friday The 13th, they built this franchise by the time they began marketing the 3rd one, and it had officially became a phenomenon, Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3D was coming to theaters. I remember I and all my friends were so fucking excited to see it. I began to see the strings on the marionettes in a way. Because you had these expectations from the previous two films, and here was this third film that was bigger and took what the audience was expecting into account, and I could SEE that. They were trying to top themselves in the way that they staged these kill scenes. And the different circumstances that the character Jason was going to go through.
You knew he was going to get up and not be dead by the end of this thing. That was just thru repetition and evolution from growing up with a franchise like that. Watching movies at a young age, like in The Shining when that kid is riding his Big Wheels down that hallway, you realize this isn’t what reality looks like. Someone is pulling the strings behind this. Someone is deciding to present this film to an audience in a way that they choose to achieve a desired effect. And even if I couldn’t see it distinctly then, it began to dawn on me that that’s what was going on.

For me, I come to all this through writing. I always wanted to write, but there’s also this visual component as well. For me, it’s just a matter of growing up around all of this material and you begin to see where all the strings are attached.

You’ve written and directed some of your own shorts, but your history with writing goes back to comics. Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved in writing comic books?

I had gotten out of film school and I had graduated with a short film I had made which was a moderate success. For the level that I was at, at least. It played a few festivals and won a few awards and was even released on video at one point. It wasn’t horror. It was a really dark anddramatic piece. There was a time in life I thought I was going to be a “serious” storyteller and filmmaker.

It took me a while to realize I grew up loving genre stuff and that’s where I should be focusing my energy. I was having a screening of my short called “Rapscallions”, and one of my best, dearest and closest childhood friends is Adam Pollina. We worked together on a bunch of things, and he was a noted artist for a lot of the X-books at Marvel. At that time he was drawing X-Force for Marvel Comics and he had invited the X-Men editors to the screening. So, everyone came down to the Tribeca film center and we watched my film, and I ended up hitting it off with the X-editors. They said to me, “We really like how you deal with young people in tough situations and we think you should be working for us.”
Now I had grown up a comic book fan, I used to go to the comic shop every Tuesday and eventually it changed to Wednesday and I used to cut school to get the new books. I had dozens of long boxes of comics in my small room in Long Island! So to have this opportunity to suddenly be writing comics was just – pardon the cliché, but a dream come true. I ended up at Marvel writing fill-in books for different X titles right off the bat. When you’re the new guy, it’s like you’re the go-to person when they need a story if the regular writer is running late. I started doing these inventory stories that would end up as fill in issues that would end up in X-Factor, X-Force and before a month even came up, I got offered my first monthly book. A Spider-Man spin off called Slingers. In those early days at Marvel, I’d be given these really horrible ideas for comic books. It was as though the publisher had said,“Let’s launch the most ridiculous sounding title because we think we can sell it!” Naturally when you do that, the readers have certain expectations that it’s probably going to suck!
And what I took as a point of pride was to try to explode the expectation that would come with launching a book like Slingers, or something like Bishop: The Last X-Man. I tried to make those books better then anyone thought theyhad any right to be. (Laughs) So, that was a lot of my early work at Marvel. I was in my early 20’s and very green. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, but I had a lot of ideas and I got to work with some great people at what was a very difficult time for that company. Things were very gray there, and there were a lot of transitions going on with editorial and corporate. And everyone was trying to stay afloat, and somehow, in the middle of all this, I got the opportunity to play with a lot of great toys. That inadvertently led me to Hollywood. It’s funny, now that I’ve had some success in the movie business, that’s giving me more the opportunity to go back into comics, and more specifically to work on horror comics. Right now, I’m going to writing some stuff for Fox Atomic Comics.

I thought I had read that. What exactly will you be doing with Fox Atomic Comics?

They’re publishing a graphic novel called The Nightmare Factory in October (of 2007) to come out around Halloween. And what it actually is, is an adaptation of 4 short stories by a horror author named Thomas Ligotti. I’m not sure if his books are still in print, but he’s a brilliant, brilliant writer. The stories are very gothic and twisted. And I’m going to be adapting 2 stories for this volume. One is called Dr. Locrian’s Asylum and the other is Teatro Grottesco. One of them is going to be painted by Michael Gaydos. It’s going to be a gorgeous book. They’re still putting the finishing touches to it, so I’m looking to see what else this might lead to. I scripted The Tripper adaptation that Image is publishing with Steve Niles and Nat Jones. I love comics to death, and I’m optimistic that I can play one success off of the other, and that’s what I’m looking to do right now, because I miss doing comics on a regular basis. And I’m happy that it looks like I’m starting to get the opportunity to do more of them now.
I love comics and I love horror movies! Those are my two favorite things. I personally can’t imagine writing any Marvel characters myself, but for you, was it intimidating writing X-Men and Spider-Man characters? Or were you not really even thinking about it at the time?

It’s kind of awe-inspiring. You can’t not geek out over it. If you’ve been a fan of this stuff at all, to suddenly be sitting down and typing the word “Spider (Dash) Man” with a colon after it and thinking, this is where I’m going to put his dialogue, that’s pretty awesome! I wouldn’t say I was intimidated but I… was a little bit. I just hoped I didn’t suck! When my books started to come out, I did start to get good feedback! I always felt like I strived to find the voice for whoever it was I was writing. I mean, working with X characters and getting to put words in Wolverine’s mouth fun shit.

At what point did you go back and do the short film version of ‘The Tooth Fairy’?

Well, I was working at Marvel and I felt like there was very little room for me to grow. There were a lot of obstacles above me that made it difficult for me to imagine doing much else at that point at the company. I remember telling myself that I wanted to be a filmmaker – I loved making comics, but I needed something else to do. I wanted to make a short film. And I had this idea for a short horror movie called ‘Tooth Fairy’ about a tooth fairy that does far more nefarious things then just take baby teeth left for her at night. I had this idea, and I was getting ready to go out to San Diego Comic-Con, because I go every year. Marvel would send me out to go talk on panels about what we were going to do with the X-Men that year, and you’d sign books for whomever showed up with their stuff. So, I go out there and I have this script with me for the 5 minute short as well as a poster that my friend Adam had drawn for me. And I figured, I’m just going to go out there and show people what it is I’m going to do, not expecting anything to really come of it, other then to generate some interest, so people would expect it. I had the fortune of hooking up with John Fasano, who ended up being one of the producers and co-writers on Darkness Falls.

He thought it was a great idea. It turned out he had a deal with a company called Distant Corners, who in turn had a deal with Revolution Studios. Everyone said, “We think this is a great idea and you should be doing it as a feature. We’re going to finance your short. And we’re going to hire you to write the script” for what eventually became Darkness Falls.

The short I thought was very effective because of its length and the way the kind of - twist ending worked. At the time that you were about to do the short, did you have any ideas for expanding it into a feature? Or were you just concentrating on making this idea you had into a short film?

Not much. It hadn’t dawned on me to write a feature version until I met John and he thought it was a no-brainer. He encouraged me and got this all rolling. The rest for me is history because it worked out so well.

Original TOOTH FAIRY short film
by Joe Harris

Well, Darkness Falls has a LOT of history behind it. And you’re credited on the final film as one of the writers on it. I know there were a few other names involved. What can you say about the making of it? Did it turn out to be the film you thought it would be?

No, but you know... There’s no ill-will from me towards anyone on it. Obviously, the movie left a little to be desired. I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as some people might say it is, but it’s clearly not … let’s put it this way, I’m far more proud of The Tripper as a writer with something to say and a canvas to paint against -- than I am of the work on Darkness Falls. It was a lot of people’s first movie. In my experience, when things start to get real in this business, it’s when they start to get messy too. That’s just the way it is. It was the director’s first movie. It was the majority ofthe producers’ first movie. It was certainly my first movie and I think it was Revolution studios first movie, if not one of their earlier films. It was a rollarcoaster. I’m sure you’ve heard all the stories about how we had a really brilliant creature design by Steve Wang…
A GREAT design!

And then while shooting it they brought in Stan Winston to redo the creature. The film was a rollarcoaster and in the end, it did what it did. It established everyone’s career and it actually made some money. It was the number one movie in America for that weekend so that was quite an experience. I’ve learned in this business you have to find your positives where they lay. Because creatively it was a frustrating experience, but there were a lot of positive experiences linked to it as well.
How long after that did you start thinking about Witchwise?

Not that far after that. I was already thinking of what else I wanted to do. I wanted to direct something else. I like telling these little short stories. They come very naturally to me so I’m always thinking of little kernels of ideas that can be really effective short films. I guess Witchwise came in the wake of Tooth Fairy being done and Darkness Falls becoming a reality. The idea of it had been gestating since 2002-2003 for me.

What’d you shoot both The Tooth Fairy and Witchwise on? Can you give us the basic stats of those shorts?

For Tooth Fairy, really cheap and really quick on digital video. It was originally only supposed to be web content. So we weren’t so concerned, because it was originally supposed to be something streamed on a website to promote the eventual feature. So that was done in two nights, really down and dirty. Witchwise was a more glossy production compared to Tooth Fairy. We shot on 35 mm film. We did about 5 days of production over a long labor day weekend in Pasadena. You can see the difference if you line them up. They’re night and day.

What exactly inspired the story of Witchwise? I’m getting the feeling that you like to attack little children with horrible things. (Laughs)

No, I don’t like to attack little children at all! They’re just great subject matter. Growing up I read Lord Of The Flies over and over and over again. I love movies like Children Of The Corn and Village Of The Damned. I think in children, we see the potential to tell stories in which human nature is in its most unadulterated, ugly form. I find kids fascinating. I’m not anti-kid at all!

I was just joking! It’s just anytime you put a kid in peril, it’s traditional horror!

Yea, I like kids doing bad, I’ve always found it fascinating. Oh, and one of my favorite movies growing up was that early Matt Dillon film, Over The Edge, which Kurt Cobain used to reference as one of his favorite movies too. Ever see that? Where all the town’s kids go crazy and they barricade all the adults in the school? And they just tear up the town and burn everything in site!
Right! (Laughs) One of the things that I really liked about Witchwise was the sound design and score. Can you talk a little bit about working on both the score and sound design?

Tian did the score. He’s a super talented guy. We sat down and talked about the different things I liked from 70’s horror movies, like the scores with piano. I gave him a bunch of notes and he came back with something that was so above and beyond. When people tell me what they think that film, they always point out the score. As far as the sound design goes, I hooked up with a really talented guy named TC Spriggs. He really gave the ring a voice in this movie which added so much to some of the key scenes in this film, and he was just really intuitive with what he came up with. I was really blessed with some great people.
Let’s talk about The Tripper. Steve Niles is involved as one of the producers and he’s obviously in comics. So, how’d you hook up with him? Did you guys know each other from the comic world?

I didn’t know Steve at all, actually. I’d known his name and was familiar with 30 Days of Night and his early comics stuff, but we’d never crossed paths. After I was done with the script and David (Arquette) had started to cast and attach peopleto the movie, Tom Jane came on board and Steve and Raw Studioscame with him.
How’d you hook up with David Arquette and end up co-writing the script for The Tripper with him?

Evan Astrowsky, who produced Cabin Fever, hooked us up. David had this idea for a horror movie that he’d been writingand Evan thought he and I should hook up and potentially collaborate. So, David and I started talking back and forth about what this idea is and what it should be. I assume that by now, the secret’s out of the bag and you know what it’s about?

Well, I do, but why don’t you share with our readers who don’t know what the story is for The Tripper?

(Laughs) The gist of it is that it’s about a group of hippies who head up to the Redwood forest of Northern California to attend this out door music festival. And of course, they’re out for all the sex, drugs and rock n roll they can get their hands on. A total weekend of debauchery. The thing is once they get there they find themselves hunted by a maniac with a Ronald Reagan fixation. And this guy dresses up like Ronald Reagan. He’s the spitting image of him. He spouts one liners reminiscent of the most famous Reagan performances on camera. And it was this crazy idea that David had, and I really responded to it.
I’m a really politically minded person. I feel like the best genre fiction tries to make some sort of social commentary. Some sort of point. I grew up reading a lot of great science fiction, and I feel the best sorts of genre fiction are the types that try to do something for society. Now, I’m not going to tell you that The Tripper is some super poignant“let’s change the world” kind of story. (Laughs) But I have been looking to bring horror films and politics together, and David really gave me this great opportunity to sit down, take his ideas into account, come up with some of my own, and really try to put together a story that didn’t take itself all that seriously, but that did make something of a point.
What was really funny was that while David and I were going back and forth, he would send me stuff to read, I’m reading thru it and leaving notes in the margins for what I’d like to do with this idea, and I’m watching CNN in the background, because I have cable news on in my apartment all day while I’m working. And they make an announcement that Ronald Reagan slips into a coma. And by the time I was done reading and making all the notes, he had died. And I remember telling David, “now that we’ve killed Ronald Reagan, I think we’re sort of obligated to pull this off.” (Laughs)

Wow. David got such an amazing cast for The Tripper & I’m sure while writing it you weren’t thinking about that. What was it like for you to see the whole thing come together with that cast?
Well, incredibly gratifying. Obviously! They’re all friends with David and it’s no surprise to me why they all respond for him and go to the wall for him when they do. He tends to engender that type of enthusiasm from people and he’s all around great guy. I can’t say enough kind words about David Arquette. So, for me it was incredibly gratifying to see them sign Jamie King to play our lead Sam, or when Lukas Haas came on board to play Ivan, or of course when Paul Ruebens or Thomas Jane or Marsha Thomason. Jason Mewes who was a last second addition and he practically made the cast!

For me, it was a very different experience then say Darkness Falls, which was a studio picture and had a much smaller cast. This was a complete 180 degree veering away from my previous Hollywood experience. I’m really happy with how The Tripper has turned out. It’s a great, twisted little film.

It’s scheduled for release in April, right?

4-20! National pot smoking day!

(Laughs) Well, it’s already screened in a few film festivals. What’s the response been like so far with an audience?

At Screamfest, back on Friday The 13th of October (2006) it played and the response was great. We had a very enthusiastic crowd. It was a premier crowd. It was great to watch it in front of a packed movie theater. I’m really looking forward to the opening!

What’s next on the horizon for you?

A few things! I wish I could say more. Check back with me in a few months and hopefully I can tell you.

Check out our interview with THE TRIPPER director
David Arquette!

VISIT: www.JoeHarris.net
and: www.MySpace.com/JoeHarris

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