Quantcast Bryan Norton interview - Director of PENNY DREADFUL

Bryan Norton!!!
Greetings fiends!!! This month we spoke to New York based filmmaker (and teacher) BRYAN NORTON. He's the writer/director behind the acclaimed short film PENNY DREADFUL which features appearances by Friday The 13th alumni Betsy Palmer & Warrington Gillette! (Not to be confused with the recent After Dark release) One of the funnest interviews we've had the chance to conduct, Bryan proved that he's truly one of us. Read on for the FRIGHT exclusive interview!!! - by Robg., Jsyn, Mike C. 1/07

What are your earliest recollections of the horror genre? What do you remember being your first exposure to it?

The television commercial for ‘Friday The 13th’ was the thing that did it for me. I was at that perfect age where that was such a big deal. I had older brothers who were going to go see it, and they would come back and tell me about the movie – and I’d listen as if it were a camp fire story. My parents absolutely forbid me to see it. Then when Friday The 13th Part 2 was coming out, I dialed until my fingers bled to win some radio contest and I won a T-Shirt and tickets to see it. My mother told me I wasn’t going to be able to go, but my brother took me anyway. Friday The 13th Part 2, in the theater after winning tickets, that’s what did it.

I think all of us were sucker-punched by that ending of Friday 2! Do you remember your initial reaction to seeing Friday 2 considering you were so young at the time?

Yea, seeing it in a theater, taking it SO seriously, especially when they killed off Alice from the first one! People forget now, but Friday The 13th was still new and she was the survivor, and when she dies before the opening titles are over, it felt like no one was safe in this movie!

But also, I forgot – it was one of the first movie sets I’d ever been too. Because I grew up on Rhode Island and they were shooting that in a place called Kent, Connecticut. Not that far. So, my brother took me to the set, what’s supposed to be Camp Pakinac for one afternoon. So, seeing a little bit of the filmmaking and then going to see it on the big screen & hearing people scream was unbelievable. I have a picture of me on the set of Part 2! And then some 25 years later, here I am making a movie with Warrington (Gillette) and Betsy (Palmer). Go figure!

Judging from your kitchen, I know you love all the killer shark movies! Didn’t you mention earlier that you had a bit part in JAWS 2? What’s the story behind that?

Yea! We summered every year in Martha’s Vineyard. And at that time, everything in Martha’s Vineyard was just eating & breathing JAWS. My brothers and sisters were a bit older so they have vague memories of JAWS 1, I have vague memories of JAWS 2. What they would do is they would shoot all summer, they wouldn’t even get clearances, they’d just put up big signs that said “This area of the beach is for JAWS 2 and if you do not want to be a part of JAWS 2, do not use this part of the beach.” So, for some reason, there’s this random shot of me eating a hot dog that I wasn’t aware of which wound up not only in the trailer but in one of the montages of the movie. (Laughs) You get to see a young me without a shirt on. (Laughs)

Wow! Well, obviously you were a big film fan growing up, at what point did you start taking interest in what went into making some of the films you watched?

It’s probably the same clique story you’ve heard a thousand times. But it’s always true. It’s funny, when I got to film school, I thought I was finally going to be around everyone who was just like me – when they were growing up, they weren’t really interested in sports or music or cars. And that they just wanted to know about making movies. But nope!

And it was also harder back then, because there wasn’t too much information readily available as it is now. Now, you have DVD’s or you can get books or look up that stuff on the internet. Back then, you really had to hunt down that stuff. When I was little, I’d actually write letters – I’d find a way to get it there, but I’d write letters to Frank LaLoggia or Mark Rosman of House On Sorority Row. I’d try to contact these directors and I know it was really weird. I was a geek. (Laughs) But I did this from a very, very early age.

Do you recall corresponding with some of your horror heroes as a kid?

Yea! And I still maintain relationships mainly thru email and phone with people like Ulli Lommel, who directed Boogeyman (1980 version). The original Boogeyman was good! And yea, I still hunt down random people. Maybe the people who read Icons Of Fright will appreciate it, but it doesn’t register on the wonder scale of anybody else when I find… say the lead girl from Funeral Home or Curtains. (Laughs) Or the guy from Silent Night Deadly Night, who I went to Grad school with, because that’s ALL I ever wanted to talk about was Silent Night Deadly Night. He thought I was weird. (Laughs)

Is it true that you worked for Roger Corman at one point?

Yes. I was at graduate school at NYU, again same story as everyone else and Julie Corman, Roger’s wife was our chair for one year. When she came in to audition for that job they had me be her TA. Of course, no one else had heard of her, but I was star struck because she produced ‘CHOPPING MALL’! (Huge Laughs) I’d known about her since I was a little kid. I practically accosted her! I told her, “I’m going to be your TA today. I love CHOPPING MALL.” What was interesting was that the next week, a package arrived at my house and it was an original ‘CHOPPING MALL’ poster. She had remembered and we had become friends. She appreciated my knowledge of horror movies and her movies. She didn’t even know some of them! I remember asking her, “Julie, when you did the sequel to Saturday The 14th…” She was like, “I did the sequel to Saturday The 14th?!” She didn’t even realize it. (Laughs) But then her and Roger would start calling me and asking me if I knew anything about particular movies. We started this dialogue, which led to a couple of writing assignments. Some projects are in turn-around hell at the moment. Among them, ‘DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK’, which I did a LOT of work on. They’re trying to get on the remake bandwagon. BAD RONALD, which looks like it might be coming back. And for a while, we were doing a sequel to CHOPPING MALL. Because someone erroneously reported that Lions Gate was remaking it, and I told Julie and she said “They can’t remake that. That’s my movie! I’m going to remake it! I want you to write the script!” (Laughs) So, I wrote CHOPPING MALL 2.

Tell us about your CHOPPING MALL 2?

CHOPPING MALL 2 if it ever gets made is going to be awesome! BUT, I don’t think it’ll ever get made because the Corman’s just don’t make movies anymore. Back in the day, you could shoot CHOPPING MALL in the same mall from Fast Times At Ridgemont High, on film and blow things up, and they just don’t do that anymore. But the script I wrote takes place on Christmas Eve, and of course, the robots were really created for extreme warfare in Iraq, and then when the program got cancelled they got sold as security robots, but then they malfunction. It brings back all those torture devices and all those hapless teens.

Jsyn: That’s… fucking cool!

And there are dogs in it too, because there’s a pet store in the mall. Lots of dogs get blown up and stuff. Like in ‘A Christmas Story’ with the big fake mountain for Santa toward the end, we had a grand finale where the main robot is like a transformer. It collects all the pieces from the other robots to keep building up, so by the end, he’s this big stop motion robot. I’d love to make another CHOPPING MALL.

In what field did you initially come into filmmaking? Meaning did you start out wanting to write your own stuff?

No. I still don’t want to write my own stuff! I’d be much farther along if I was a writer, and it’s funny, because the success I’ve had so far has been with writing, but I’m not much of a writer. I don’t even type. My goal, especially at NYU was to be a working director, who would get hired for projects and maybe ultimately be at that stage where I can pick and choose scripts. I never had lofty ambitions of being a Kubrick or anything. But they always stress these days that you have to be a writer/director. I did my shorts and I got a couple of the top NYU prizes, and they send you to LA to get agents, and they’re like “Ok, where’s your script?” And I’d say “Well, I don’t have one.” “Are you insane?!”

Jsyn: You had CHOPPING MALL 2 though!

Right? (Laughs) That wasn’t that long ago. This was a few years ago. My goal would be to find that wonderful genre fan that likes to write, where I like to direct. One of those working relationships where we’re on the same page, but those are hard to find. A lot of people are into this violence for violence sake stuff, and I got really tired of everyone saying “a loving homage to 70’s grindhouse stuff” and I guess without me ever really saying it, that’s the stuff I like? The 70’s and 80’s stuff, but I certainly wouldn’t want to do that now.

The shorts you did for school, did they tend to lean towards horror because of your love of it? Or did you make other kinds of films then?

Ironically, I stayed away from it in the beginning, because NYU is… UBER-snobs for the genre. My faculty at NYU – Peter Stein was my cinematographer teacher and he had shot Friday The 13th 1 & 2, and he was just “Why are you talking about these movies?! Are you one of those fans from the fan club that I get emails about?” Very condescending. So, I kind of wimped out. But for my second year of film at NYU was to me more Night Gallery/Twilight zone-ish stuff. I won all the big fests that year. And surprisingly I got the Wasserman, and all the big NYU awards for a half-hearted genre thing. So that’s when I decided I should make something more genre oriented. That seemed to cross the line, I pleased some horror fans and those people that would say “Oh, I like movie’s about characters.” Those kind of film snobs. (Laughs)

How long did it take you to come up with the story for ‘PENNY DREADFUL’? And when did it first come to you?

Well, after grad school, I do what a lot of people do in New York. Having a masters in film is worthless. It means you can teach, so most of us wind up teaching film as we try to get our own projects off the ground, so I became a film teacher. And I love my job. It’s the most amazing thing, and I have amazing students, but I was getting a little too comfortable doing that. A strange series of incidents happened.

One day, I was walking in the west village on a break from work and I recognized the house on the street and it was the house from the movie ‘WAIT UNTIL DARK’. The Audrey Hepburn movie that scarred my life! Even though I look at it now and it’s not much of a horror movie, it was the scariest thing when I first saw it. I just thought, that would make an awesome location as a little in-joke for a movie. Then I thought, well what about a ghost movie. I had just met Betsy Palmer because my friend was going to do an interview with her for Index magazine. Turns out that my brother’s best friend was this guy who was in ‘EYES OF A STRANGER’. I knew Tina Krause. I had all these wonderful connections. It looked like I was going to be able to take a month off from work. I pulled some strings with NYU, because a friend of mine was the new chair. So, I could actually do a movie on 35 mm and sort of use the school’s blanket for the Screen Actor’s Guild and insurance. I thought I could actually make this work. I hadn’t done a project in a couple of years. I go to so many horror festivals and I’m just appalled by some of the movies! I hate them. But I love short films. Some of them are too flashy or too MTV or they’re just all violent. So I wanted to do a traditional ghost story in a cool location, and everything just sort of came together very quickly. I initially had an idea for an ending.
Is that where you started from with the story for ‘PENNY DREADFUL’? The ending?

Yea, I had an idea for the ending. I thought what if everything turned out to be pre-cognoscente rather then in the past. My idea was that the audience would think we were seeing the same old cliche. Oh, "dig up the back yard" and "obviously a family got killed in there". My goal was to make the viewer think they were ahead of it, but then it would turn out to be something completely different. I don’t know if I’m 100 percent successful with that, but that was the goal.

We thought you pulled it off. It was a unique twist to it.

Jsyn: I first saw it in Rhode Island. And I thought this was like “The Ghost Of Chirstmas Future: The Movie” (Laughs)

You take a lot of the cliches from ghost stories in your short and completely reverse them. For example, one that I totally loved was that when the couple finds out that their new place is haunted or might have a ghost, rather then leave, they stay because they think it’s kind of cool. Was that a conscious effort to go against what we’d expect?

Yes! I did NOT want to see one more movie – the audience already knows everything by committing to watch a movie about a haunted house. And when you have to watch a character that refuses to belief what’s happening and/or have every character in the movie say “Oh, you're crazy.” That gets so boring. And the audience already knows. So, ok, we can learn in the first 2 minutes that the house is haunted. She figures it out, and her husband believes her. And she thinks it’s really cool. THAT’S what I wanted. Just once in the history of movies. I didn’t know if it would work for a feature film, but for a short, I thought “Why not”? I would be really excited to see that. I would go get a ouija board and see who was in my house. (Laughs)

I guess it’s sort of like the mom in POLTERGEIST. She was kind of excited by what was going on in the house at first and the husband was humoring her & could care less. But yea, that was a conscious decision. And actually, it’s funny when you mention that, when I got my dailies and my footage, some people were criticizing how I was directing my actors! They’d say she’s downplaying it too much. It wasn’t until I cut the movie together that people eased off a little bit. To her (the character) it didn’t turn out to be that big a deal. And if you know the ending, where it turns out she’s pre-cognoscente, my idea was that this has been happening thru-out her life the whole time, she just didn’t realize it.

There was a lot of history to completing this short – You initially had a 6 day shoot and then months later had to do re-shoots. Can you tell us a bit about the history of shooting ‘PENNY DREADFUL’?

I never stop learning. Considering I have 2 degrees in film and I now teach film, I just realized now, especially for a genre movie, when it’s not a big-budget union thing, make sure you have people on the set that would actually pay to see that kind of movie. Because I found out I had a DP who had such contempt for the kind of movie he was making that he felt superior to it. I didn’t realize this until we got on the set, and it was just a lazy, lazy effort. This was a movie that was going to be shot in 6 days. And we had the location. We had the 35. We didn’t have to leave the house that much. It should’ve been a easy, quick, smooth shoot. But this diva attitude where he would spend 6 or 7 hours on a shot, and then he’d complain, and wouldn’t listen to the AD – all of this for the kind of movie he wouldn’t even want to see when it was all edited. I realized I had made a disastrous decision. By the end of the shoot, we were so far behind and we didn’t even get most of it done. So, unfortunately the project was shelved and then several months later, I looked at the footage that I had and I managed to get some of the actors back and get some of the wardrobe back and color and cut Emily’s hair again. And film some NEW scenes to make sense of the footage we already had, and we came up with a new movie.
Kind of similar to the old one. The old one would’ve been great and maybe we’ll make it some day, but we had to get Betsy back and just flesh it out. What was hard was that we got a new DP and shot for 3 more days. We couldn’t get the locations back, so we were shooting close-ups and medium shots to cut into wide shots that we had shot on a completely different location a year ago. We had to build the kitchen and the bedroom on a soundstage a year later. The continuity was so good that it worked out. But my main actor couldn’t cut his hair again. And he’s in a lot of the shots! Which meant we couldn’t cut to him, which was very hard. Sometimes we had to put him in a hat or eliminate him from scenes completely. But it was so unnecessarily complicated. But in the end, you like your children, even the ugly ones. (Laughs)
Well, you mentioned before that when you were younger, the films that got you into horror movies were the Friday The 13th films, and now you’ve got Betsy Palmer and Warrington Gillette in your movie. Can you tell us what it was like casting those actors? And what it was like working with people you grew up watching?
Oh, I was in awe of Betsy. I’m 37, and I’ve heard this story from a lot of people my age. Because Friday The 13th was so picked on by critics, it was considered porn by Siskel and Ebert, and parents knew that. And the way you manipulated your parents into letting you watch Friday The 13 th on HBO was to tell them, “Do you remember Betsy Palmer? Because Betsy Palmer is in this.” Betsy Palmer was America’s sweetheart at one point, so my mother would say “Oh, I LOVE Betsy Palmer!” THAT gave it that added bit of cache that let me see the movie, because of her. And I told her that… and she thought I was crazy. (Laughs)
No seriously, of course I like Betsy mainly for Friday The 13th, but when I was growing up I did go out and see all of her old movies and everything. I thought it was so cool that she came out of retirement to do that. So, for me it was a really big deal to get her to do my movie. I could have had Lee Grant or bigger people, but Betsy was Mrs. Voorhees. I wanted her more then anything. Or else I didn’t want to make the movie. AND what was also odd, again the synchronicity… the play WAIT UNTIL DARK was written for Betsy in the 50’s and that was the house I was going to be shooting in. AND if we got the movie done on time, it would be right on the 25th anniversary of Friday the 13th, and we’d have Betsy and Warrington in a movie together, and they’d never actually met in real life.

What about the casting process for the rest of the cast? For example, Tina Krause is recognizable to genre fans.

Yes, Tina Krause was an old friend and again, that was a re-shoot a year later, and I needed to create some new characters to make up for the characters who were originally eliminated when I fired my first DP. So, I needed to create a new back story for Jessica, at least give her a job where she worked to get some minor expository information out of the way. So, I took 3 characters from the original script and combined them into her boss character that Tina played. I just called her up and she said “Sure, I’ll do it.” Tina is an old friend, and Warrington was a friend of a friend. I knew he really wasn’t a big actor, but I knew he didn’t have too much to say in the movie.

Once the film was complete, did you send it out to festivals? What happened after the completion of the film? How’d you approach showing the film once it was done?

Strangely, a couple of people had already heard about it. Because either Betsy or Warrington had mentioned it in one of their interviews. So, I was getting some emails and calls as I was still cutting it. Two festivals were doing Friday The 13th retrospectives for their show and they called me – we weren’t done, we had a temp score and the effects weren’t done, but that’s technically where it premiered, it premiered at Scream Fest in LA with a temp version, which made me cringe! It was only about 6 minutes long, but they wanted it to tie in with their Friday The 13th stuff. But then seeing it with an audience there was kind of exciting, because a lot of it worked MUCH better then I had thought. Better then I thought it ever would. It got me excited to finish it. Then I got a nice grant from Warner Brothers at the last minute, which gave me one full post production sound mix and sound design, that I couldn’t afford on my own. I did really well in horror festivals. We won Shriekfest, we played Rhode Island, Terrorfest, Betsy won best actress. But it surprisingly did well in non-genre fests, which was odd. I only expected this to play in genre fests. But we did well at Woodstock and Visionfest.

Being that you are a film teacher, is there any intimidation in showing your films to your students?

Oh, I don’t show them anything.

Really? I know a few of them showed up to Visionfest when we were there.

Yea, I know, I know. But now that there’s an IMDB, they find out everything. I think you come into film school, especially at the course that they take, it’s very rudimentary. Everyone’s a critic now, so they don’t understand how hard it is to make a movie. The movie can win all the awards in the world and then they’re going to see it and say “That don’t look like Requiem For A Dream”! (Laughs) The movie might be a little old fashioned.

One of the reasons I clashed with the DP on the set was, I did not want shutter speed, ramping, flash cuts, over-head angles. I wanted to shoot it like a legitimate movie. I wanted all the camera moves to be justified. It was important to me that since the man with the shotgun turns out to be a ghost that we don’t see his point of view going up the stairs. Because that would cheat. But he just didn’t get it. The people wanted a movie where every shot would call visual attention to itself, and I didn’t want to do it. Some reviews said my movie looked like a made-for-TV movie from Canada from the 70’s, which I thought was REALLY cool! (Laughs) It should’ve been the ultimate insult, but it was actually the ultimate compliment. I thought “Yes! Exactly!”

Jsyn: I would think you’re students would think that’s cool. Like you’re the cool teacher that went and made a movie.

I am the cool teacher! (Laughs) But it’s horror. It’s the H movie. Most of my students want to be Quentin Tarantino rather then John Carpenter.

Jsyn: How can they want to be Quentin Tarantino?

Robg.: Quentin WANTS to make horror movies!

That’s how I can justify it and it’s so sad! I showed ‘MY BLOODY VALENTINE’ at film school on Valentine’s Day. A hundred people came and they were scoffing at it, but NOW I can tell them, “Well, do you know this is Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movie” and suddenly THAT gives it a cache where they will feel pre-destined to like it.

Is PENNY DREADFUL getting released soon? I thought I had read a Fango post about a DVD release?

Yes! That’s really great and I’m excited. Because it’s a short! And it’s getting released on it’s own. From Cinema Image. I think they’re going to put one of my old films on there.

How much involvement do you have in this DVD release?

Oh, quite a bit. They asked me for a behind the scenes featurette, and I’m going to do a commentary track – a good one, an informative one, not one of these candy-coated ones where I say “Oh, another great thing I did in this shot was…” It’ll be very, very informative. Along with the usual stuff. I think it’ll be out Spring 2007 on DVD.

What’s next for you from here? Would you consider expanding PENNY DREADFUL to a full length?

People would shoot me for saying this, and I’ve had offers and people have called and asked me about that, but honestly, I think that little story and that little twist only works for a 20-30 minute movie, and I don’t think it’s big enough to hang a whole feature on. Part of me should be shameless and lie and say YES, let’s make a feature. And I could’ve probably done it already, but I know deep down in my heart that it wouldn’t work. One of the problems with ‘The Village’ for me is that that twist & revelation belonged in a short movie rather then a 2 hour one.

Are you working on anything else horror-wise?

I want to write a supernatural movie about the hurricane of ’38. Which we don’t really remember it now, but it was 10 times bigger then Katrina and it destroyed New England. I just learned that there was a tidal wave in Rhode Island that killed all these kids on a school bus. Look it up, it was a really big thing. What was interesting about it was there was no real meteorology back then so it struck without warning. People didn’t know and all of a sudden it was there. It could be something cool. I like New England. I like old houses and ghost stories and there’s got to be a way to tie that all in together, however un-contemporary that is. (Laughs)

Mike C. is a huge fan of ‘THE EXORCIST 2: THE HERETIC’, and I see an autographed poster here on your wall. Do you have an EXORCIST 2 story you’d like to share?

Exorcist 2 story! I invite John Boorman to come and speak to my film students. He said he’d be delighted. So, I put up posters and told everyone. Of course, 3 people show up. Keep in mind when we have Ben Stiller, 500 people show up. John Boorman comes and it’s only 3 people. I’m not exaggerating, but 2 people got up while John Boorman was speaking, and John’s an Irish gentleman so he will stand up with you. And they were getting up to take cell phone calls, so he had to sit back down. It got to the point where he was basically giving his talk to ME, who had invited him. And afterwards, I thanked him for coming and I asked if he’d autograph my poster for me. He said (in Irish accent) “I’d be delighted!” I took out this HUGE cardboard tube and unrolled it and it was EXORCIST 2:THE HERETIC and he said “Oh dear.” (Huge Laughs) He asked “Well, what would you like me to write?” And I said, “Can you write, To Bryan – What was I thinking?” (Laughs) He looked at me and thought about it for a second and said “I can’t write that.” So, he just signed it. Then we started talking about Rospo Pallenberg who was a creative consultant on Exorcist 2, who went on to direct the immortal Brad Pitt classic ‘Cutting Class’. (Laughs) That’s my John Boorman story. Very nice man. I got an offer to teach film in Ireland up there.

Looking around your place, you’ve got an extensive collection of posters and stills from various movies. How long have you been collecting this stuff?

I’ve been collecting this stuff seriously since I was a little kid. And back then there was no eBay, and no real horror conventions, so you had to send a self addressed stamped envelope AND $1 dollar to get these catalogs from the back of Fangoria. And it’s funny, because the posters are cheaper now then they were then. I remember all of my allowance went into something like a ‘FINAL EXAM’ or ‘HELL NIGHT’ poster. Most of the stuff that I have here is from that time. It’s very rare, but sometimes I’ll find something on eBay that I’ve always wanted but could never get.
You also have a story about ‘SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE’, don’t you?

Me being such an uber-geek, they release it on DVD, and I call up Julia & Roger (Corman) and say you’ve got pictures of Slumber Party Massacre 2 on the back of your Slumber Party Massacre DVD. And she said “That’s outrageous!” So, she transfers me to some guy and screams “Tell him what you just told me!” So, I tell him and he probably gets in trouble. They couldn’t find the artwork, and I had the original artwork, so the DVD cover comes from my poster.
Wow. Tell us about your kitchen. (Which has to be seen to be believed!)

Yes, my kitchen is devoted to JAWS rip-offs with good poster art. Growing up on Rhode Island and going to Martha’s Vineyard, you can’t help but be a JAWS fan. Yea, JAWS is great and it’s very high-brow. But part of me secretly likes the trashy JAWS 2.

Mike C.: Oh I LOVE JAWS 2.

It’s like reckless teenagers. They’re drinking beer on a boat and then they get killed one by one.

Yep. I loved the scarred JAWS in JAWS 2. What are your TOP 5 JAWS rip-off movies then?

Well, ORCA! Definitely. If that counts as a JAWS rip-off. But ORCA, JAWS 2. I have to be loyal to TENTACLES because of that cast and that poster. And just the fact that it was only available on a very rare Vestron video, which you could only see every now and then. PIRANHA, of course. TINTORERA: TIGER SHARK, a Mexican shark movie. You have to see it! From the director of SURVIVE!


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