Recently we sat down with writer/director Jim Towns (Stiff, Manhaters!) to talk about his latest work House of Bad. This tale of three sisters hiding out in their childhood home that’s haunted by the ghosts of their troubled parents has caused quite a stir within the horror community; winning praise wherever it goes and surprising audience’s with the way that it incorporates a heist element and a very strong relationship between the three lead characters into a more typical haunted house style narrative. Here’s the conversation that took place between Jim and ourselves:
I would just like to congratulate you on the film and its success before we start. It’s doing really well isn’t it?
Thank you very much. Yeah, better than I even expected. You’re waiting for the next review, and the next review, and they keep being good so, you don’t want to be too optimistic, but at the same time it starts looking good.
Do you have any idea why this one in particular might be doing well? On IMDb it’s your highest rated film.
I think it’s probably the most mainstream; it’s a good blend of what people expect from a film like this, and then also a nice surprise as it’s a little different from what they went in there thinking they are getting, and I think people enjoy that. I think that meeting expectations and then exceeding them is maybe the secret.
It certainly worked for me; the relationship between the sisters, and the heist film that’s interwoven into it was pleasantly surprising! I gather that it was quite a tight shoot on House of Bad, did the timeframe pose any particular challenges for you, or was it easily manageable
You know it really came down to just having to plan out our schedule and go in there with an absolutely solid idea of what we needed. As far as my responsibilities; what I had to shoot, the coverage I had to get, and also knowing what I didn’t need; if I didn’t need a wideshot for a scene, if I could establish in just one take or something like that… It was just about being ultra prepared with all my storyboards and being really ready to go on the day so we could make the most of it in a short amount of time.
I didn’t want to push hours too much, you always hear horror stories about these indie films that shoot for 23 and a half hours and then everyone has forty-five minutes and then they start the next day. I think the good stuff you get out of your cast and crew, after about 12 hours starts dramatically decreasing exponentially, and by 3:30 in the morning what should take 15 minutes takes 45 and you never end up being happy with it anyway, so we kept pretty close to 12 hours usually.
Right, did you experience any onset problems because of the timing, despite being very well prepared? Did anything unexpected happen?
You know, it’s really just the cumulative effect of every little thing taking just a few minutes longer than expected, so you start trailing behind more and more and you just have to figure out creative ways to catch up with that. Usually about halfway through we would break and have our lunchtime, my producer Scott would come over to me and he would be explaining to me how behind we were and how much we had to catch up: “You have thirty more shots to go before lunch, and you’re eating your lunch right now, so you didn’t get em”! So yeah there were a few times were we just had to get creative and figure out how we can do it in one shot, and get it done really quick, but not sacrifice the storytelling, and we managed it so it worked out.
And I heard that you stayed on location during the film, is that correct?
I did, we borrowed a house from a friend of mine and my wife’s, she works in the film business so she knew what was going to be happening with this place and so she got out of town for a while, and I house sat whilst we were shooting. All-day long we’re shooting all this supernatural stuff with ghosts and everything, and then at the end of the night everyone goes home and I just stay in the same room! It was neat because one of the underlying things running through the house (in the film) is this cabin fever; they’re trapped in this house and things go on, and that was sort of what I was going through too when I realised I hadn’t been off the property in like four days except to walk the dog! But I think maybe that was a good thing which actually helped me get into that mode.
I presume shooting in primarily one location was deliberate in order to create onscreen claustrophobia, but was it also budgetary?
That was the only way we could do it as quickly as we did. 80% of the movie is there so we got to stay and keep the gear set up and everything. We could just hit it every day when we came in.
Sure, if you had a wider timeframe and a larger budget do you think you would have done things differently? Or would you have tried to keep it roughly the same do you think?
You know the film is sort of designed to be shot in this way. With bigger time and a huge budget and stuff I think I would have made a different film.
Yeah that makes sense. I mean, my favourite film is Alien and that’s obviously a film with people in one location and horrific things going on… did you particularly draw off other films when you made this?
Yeah, all sorts of stuff like that. I’m really an older horror fan, I love all the Universal stuff; Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man. They‘re almost like parlour dramas; all the exposition takes place in these smoking rooms, parlours or dining rooms, and then there’s all of this horrendous action taking place outside on the moors in the fog. On set, the idea behind putting up newspaper all over the house’s windows and filtering light through was to give the impression that they were in a cocoon. That claustrophobic thing was sort of what I was going for, and I watched a lot of the older stuff because they had the vibe I wanted, rather than any particular content.
You must have made very specific decisions then about when to shoot outside; they should technically relieve some of the tension, but they really don’t!
Yeah it happens once about halfway through the film, and then again at the end. The real idea with the end of the film is that you should just feel this huge release that you’re out of the house, but of course the bad part of the house (which Teig symbolises) follows Sirah right out of the house. In a way the house is still pursuing her.
Actually talking about the sisters, I think the relationship between the three of them and how that was written may have been the most remarkable thing about the film actually for me. When you were writing it did you have to do a lot of research to try and nail that relationship?
No not really, sisters are just characters with a related dynamic, with a past. So it was sort of about figuring out each character and making each of the sisters be very individual and different from each other so that they stand out as individual characters, and then mixing them together and figuring out what that dynamic would be, how they would play off each other, what would get on each others’ nerves and things like that. I have one sibling who’s much older than me so I can’t really work from my own context, but from family and friends I can take hints from what I’ve seen of how those relationships go and how those old grudges never really die, they still follow on and in an intense situation like this they come up in a much more exaggerated way.
You’ve said before that the fact that you were raised by your Mum may have also impacted on how you’ve written women, that you feel quite at ease doing that…
Yeah, it’s something that at some point I figured out I do well, so I’ve worked with it. You gotta go with your strengths. And I do think that female characters, especially in horror and thrillers, are for one reason or another more captivating to watch go through the ordeal that they have to. I think there’s always a balancing factor when there are male and female characters. If you talk about The Thing, especially the John Carpenter remake, where it’s an all male cast, this is sort of the flip side of the dynamics of a bunch of men that are trapped together.
You’ve just reminded me of Pedro Almodovar when he said that ‘women are more spectacular as dramatic subjects, they have a greater range of registers’, would you say that you agree with that then?
I would agree with that, and I think it’s much easier to empathically connect with female characters than male, for both male and female audience members. There’s just something about that, and I think that’s why women have been such a popular subject in art all through the ages, through the renaissance and up to Victorian literature and until now.
I would imagine that some scenes for the actresses are quite challenging at times on a film like this. Do you find that you normally can hang back and let them work these moments out? Or do you have to get involved and guide them generally?
I think that hiring the right people for the parts is a big part of it, and trusting them. You know I see so many directors who play games, trying to trick the actress in her performance, and it’s things they’ve read and heard, legends of do this and this to get this reaction, and I think that’s mostly ridiculous. I think that you hire talented people for a reason and at the end of the day you have to trust them and guide them, so my main thing is just to do that, and on set create a comfortable and secure environment for them where there’s not yelling and people throwing tantrums. I’ve acted a little bit so I can speak, to some degree, about how when you’re an actor and you’re up there in front of people you’re naked and emotionally vulnerable. I think the trick for an actor is to feel safe to go to the place they have to go to, and if as a director I can create that environment then I feel I have done my job. Within the context of the whole film if I have to help them in one direction or another then that’s what I do but I think people make it more complicated than what it has to be.
You reminded me of Alien actually, because Ridley Scott quite famously had the chestburster come out as a trick…
Well something that extreme, something not been seen before I can get that, that’s good, but as far as a basic performance then …
It must have been quite difficult with the time restriction to keep an atmosphere like that going for everyone on set. Did you find that challenging
Everyone’s a professional; Sadie Katz will be joking and telling some off-colour story, and then she gets over there, you say action, and the tears just start coming out and that’s it, because she’s professional. And what I’ve noticed is that, almost the more intense the subject matter tends to be that you’re shooting, the goofier everyone gets in the moments off camera as a coping mechanism. You’re in that environment and you just have to find those moments where everyone can just blow off their steam and then OK, take a second, and then let it happen.
Sure, just thinking about female characters again which we were talking about a moment ago, do you think you’ll write an all male cast film at some point in the future? Or will you be sticking with female roles?
I’m sure I will. I’ve written a few things that have male protagonists that we’re developing. It’s too sides of the same coin really; it’s about writing the character themselves and then casting it one way or the other. Using Alien as an example; Ripley was originally written as a man and then they cast a woman, and I think they made very little changes to the script. My understanding is that they literally changed just the very specifics that had to be changed when swapping genders.
Actually you’re doing a film about a male gunslinger aren’t you?
Yeah, A Man With a Gun has a male protagonist; a former gunslinger with a chequered past, whose wife and son are murdered, and he journeys through purgatory to rescue their souls that are trapped there. So it blends this Western with supernatural steampunk; it’s almost like a cowboy in hell. We should be shooting in 2014 and have Tony Todd attached to it, so it should be fun.
Westerns are my favourite genre so I’ll be keeping an eye on that.
It’s tough trying to get a Western going right now. A few notable Westerns have come out and not done very well recently, so it’s always a balancing act, and yet people are still making them…
And hopefully Tarantino’s Django Unchained might help keep interest going…
Yeah, I think that’s one of the ones which actually did perform and is an example of how it can work, but it’s tough to separate… if Tarantino did a space movie it would probably do pretty well, but I’m not sure if that’s because of the fact it’s a space movie, or the fact that it’s a Tarantino movie…
We’ve got a couple of questions about how the House of Bad project evolved; we’ve heard that you started off thinking about it as a black box theatre project?
Yeah I had the idea in college, and I was working in comics right then so I was originally thinking of doing it as a graphic novel. Then as time went by I was thinking about filming it, but filming it as a black box theatre play where there’s no background; it’s all black behind them, and all the girls would be in white dresses with kabuki masks, so it’s a really arty kind of thing, much more similar to my first film Prometheus. Obviously no one lined up to put money into that project (laughs), I think they thought the kabuki mask thing wasn’t going to sell too well. So I put it away for a while and then revisited it in 2011 and re-imagined it as a much more conventional, contemporary horror film. That’s when the magic happened and things got going with it.
Are there any elements that you lost in that process, from the graphic novel through to the end result, which perhaps you now miss or thought could have been interesting?
Yeah… you know there was a thing towards the end where the whole place caught fire, I think the ghost of the mother ended up burning the place down, or through the youngest daughter she burnt it down. Obviously in the graphic novel format or even on stage you can do that with lighting and sell it, once we had gotten into the real world however, with a real house that belonged to a friend of mine, that wasn’t going to happen! We did lose that element, and maybe if we ever do a sequel with a big budget and studio financing then we could get that going finally.
When I saw the final scene you ended up going with I did think that if someone else walks into here they have a hell of a situation on their hands! You just mentioned a sequel, would you ever do one do you think?
Yeah nothing with the house itself has really been resolved, it still has the same problems it’s just that some of the characters have escaped it. I don’t have any specific plans myself, I mean I’ve been living with this one project for about three years now, since 2011, so I’m ready to move on to some other stuff right now. Down the road, if the film finds a fan base and does really well, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone came to us and talked about a sequel because it’s already sort of been hinted at a little bit, and if that happens I’m ready to jump on… I’ll at least write it. Do the John Carpenter thing and write it and then let it go off into the wind.
Just thinking back to when you were talking about Graphic Novels, do you think that they have influenced your writing and directing of films, because they’re both visual mediums?
Yeah absolutely it has. From a visual standpoint the connection I make is that obviously both of them tell a story with a series of images that are put one after another in sequential storytelling, the difference being obviously that the pictures in a comic book don’t move, and those in films do. What I do when prepping for my film is get huge stacks of index cards, and I do all my storyboards on them, punch them and put them on a ring. So when I’m on set I have six storyboards of every camera set up I need; wide and tight and everything, and I basically just roll though those. Then I don’t have to think about whether I should get one from this angle or from that, because I’ve already planned that out. So all my energy then goes into actually directing the performance and crafting that, working with makeup and lighting, and all the stuff you have to do on the day. Basically at the end of the day I have a slightly crudely sketched comic book of the film, with characters that look vaguely like the actors that play them.
I thought it might be because I had read that you’ve done comic books before, and it made sense to me that they would inform one another…
My professors, one of the things they really drilled in on you is that when you’re doing a comic people shouldn’t need the words, they should be able to understand the story without any words – the visuals should tell the story. That’s something I really took to heart and I really work hard to do in the film making… hopefully you can mute the thing and you can still see what’s going on.
Do you think then that you would try a project like this again, with this timeframe? Do you find it quite exciting to have to be that prepared and to go in with such a mindset?
There’s a fun challenge to that in a way… I would as soon not. The next thing I’m hoping for is, you know, more time, more money, more assets, but I don’t think they’re vital to the storytelling. I think you can tell a story, if you’re smart and resourceful, in whatever format you want to do it in, you just have to work out the logistics of it.
Talking about your future projects, I know you’ve got Thirteen Girls and A Man With a Gun lined up, and one called Evasive where you’re working with Sadie Katz again. Have you got any others that you’re working on at the moment?
Yeah I’ve got a zombie sitcom called Living End which I’ve been developing and pitching around. It’s basically your half hour cheesy, American, multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track and everything, a normal husband, a normal wife… and the whole idea is that it’s during the zombie holocaust. They have to sort of acknowledge that it’s going on whilst making the sitcom, but still it’s about how they have a wacky neighbour and…it’s all the fun stuff. So we’re working on that, putting that around and trying to get it picked up by somebody.
Sure, so you’re primarily going to be sticking with horror for a while then it seems? Do you think you’ll venture out at some point?
For the most part it’ll filter, to some degree, into whatever I do. I have some projects that we’re throwing out there that don’t really have any kind of actually horrific elements, but I think that the aesthetic, the grittiness, does play into almost everything I do.
Do you think there’s a particular reason for that? Or is it just what you’ve watched and grown up liking?
I think it’s just my taste. It’s what I enjoy, what makes me feel happy and what I am comfortable with in general. And I think the slightly more outrageous fantasy is fun to do, just as it’s fun for people to watch too.
And I guess you can really push characters and actors through extreme situations which is quite interesting perhaps?
Yeah I like the challenge of trying to find a reality within a larger, more fantastic setting, so that’s where my happy place is as far as doing this kind of stuff is concerned.
Finally, do you have any advice for our readers that may have an interest in working in the industry? That could include graphic novels, writing, directing, or even acting.
You know perseverance is the key, and I think maybe the most important thing is that you should go into it because this is what you want to do and you do this better than anything else. Over the past twenty years or something there’s been this idea of film and even comics being a ticket towards celebrity, especially in this country [America]. I don’t understand it because I don’t think it’s realistic, but also because I think if you do it you need to do it because you love the craft and the art of it. If you’re just doing it as a means to an end you’re going to be disappointed, probably, and you’re going to burn out because it takes a long time and dedication, and a lot of sacrifice in your life and honestly in the lives of the people around you. It’s not a quick ticket, it’s a slow train.