How to Make a Living As An Indie Horror Film Maker with Harrison Smith

Horror Film Maker Harrison Smith

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This week we interview indie horror film maker Harrison Smith. He’s the writer, director, producer of Death House featuring 28 horror icons including Dee Wallace. Death House is being called The Expendables of horror movies.

Harrison is open and candid with us, answering questions like myths about indie film making today and how Paranormal Activity caused damage in the industry. We talk casting, distribution, respecting your crew, budgets and more.

Harrison has a lot of anecdotes to share from his first trip to LA, getting money for his first script The Fields and how Jaws inspired his youth.

If you’re an indie film maker, screenwriter or horror fan enthusiast, this interview will make you a Harrison Smith fan.

Watch the Harrison Smith Interview

Where did you get the movie bug?

I started making movies when I was 10 years old. My uncle got me an old silent Super 8 Kodak camera and I started making movies. I did a lot of lawn work when I was a kid, so I saved up my money to get my film cartridges. I edited with scissors and spliced with Scotch tape and drew my lasers in by hand with needles the old fashioned way.

Jaws is the movie that made me want to make movies. Saw that when I was 8 years old in 1975. So I saw it in theaters with my Mom and I fell in love with it. I think Jaws was X-rated for anyone over 30. I’m naturally afraid of the water, it’s kind of a Chief Brody thing. I’ve always been terrified of water. In fact, I have the distinction of being kicked out of Red Cross swimming lessons when I was 10 for choking the instructor for trying to drag me into the water. It has nothing to do with sharks. I know there are no sharks in swimming pools. I think Brody summed it up best in Jaws, “Drowning!”

Have you had any formal training as a film maker?

I had a semester and a half at Penn State but I flunked out because I was too busy partying and messing around with the cheerleader down the hall. After blowing that tuition I came home and said to my mom that I’m going to move to Los Angeles. I bullshitted the secretary for Anthony Perkins at Universal Studios and said I was the editor for the Penn State Collegian doing a spot on Psycho 3 that was coming out.

She started talking to me saying that she also went to Penn State. It’s funny I was thinking about moving out there and she goes, “I’ll tell you what, you get me a Penn State hoodie and I’ll get you in to see Tony Perkins.” DONE!

I flew out at the age of 18 to Los Angeles, by myself. It was the first time I was ever on a cross continental trip and knew nobody. I had no home. My mom had said, “When are you leaving?” and I said Friday and she was asking me on Monday. So I flew out there, got off the plane and put all my stuff in a bus locker. I went over to the black tower and met with Jackie, that was his secretary and then I met with Anthony Perkins.

I showed him my VHS reel and he said, “You’re making movies, but are you looking for a job?” He ended up getting me a job as a paid production assistant on Murder She Wrote. By the way I had a job before I had a home. So I slept in a hotel room that night and got an apartment the next day. I lived out there for almost 2 years and I dated a girl from a soap opera.

Finally it was Howard Kazanjian, from Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I used to eat lunch in this once place where he used to come and he asked me who are you? What are you doing?

So I told him my story and he said, “You’re living out here, but all those movies you made back home. How much did you pay to film that scene in the mall?”  I said nothing. I remember him telling me, “You aren’t going to find that here.” He said, “Kid, go home. You can shoot all you want there and no one is going to charge you. Everyone out here has a script. Everyone’s a film maker. Nobody’s gonna do you any favors.”

I ended up going home and now here I am. As a filmmaker you don’t really need to be in Los Angeles. As an actor, maybe it’s a different story. But as a film maker you really don’t. With the internet and the digital age you don’t need to be there physically.

What did you do from there? Did you put together a team?

I really wish I could sound smart and say I did but I really screwed around. I ended up running a movie theater in the local mall, an 8-plex. It was a Loews Theater that become a Sony Theater. One day my old creative writing teacher came to the movies and was like, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m the assistant manager here but I got things going.” He wasn’t a jerk about it but you could tell by his attitude that he always hoped I’d be doing more.

Then I started working my ass off to get scripts out and taking advantage of the connections when Loews got bought by Sony Pictures. Making friends with the chairman of Loews Theaters Alan Friedberg and getting my name out there. I realized I didn’t want to run a movie theater.

After I decided I was going to go to college I got married and I got my degree in education and I taught high school for almost 15 years. I got scripts going and out to people and then one day this investor came to me and said, “I wanna make a movie, I have the money. I hear you’re the guy.” Howard Kazanjian was right, the local word spread.

The script called The Fields which was originally titled The Man which was based on a true story of what happened to me as a boy on my grandparents farm. Our house came under attack by these people that came out of the corn field after us. They cut the powerlines, they killed the dog, they smashed the windows in our house.

If you haven’t seen The Fields it’s on Hulu right now. It’s a true story. Cloris Leachman plays my grandmother. Tara Reid plays my mom and it takes place in 1973. This guy put money into it. After we made the film, I said to my wife, I think I really need to try this because if I don’t I’m going to be that guy when I’m 70 going, “I shoulda.”

We shot The Fields in 32 days and in 32 days I only missed 4 days of school. Tara Reid didn’t believe I was a teacher. One night we were out and I said I have to stop by my classroom and get tests run off for tomorrow. She said, “Get the fuck out. You’re not a teacher.” We pulled up to the high school at 2am and I get out and she says, “What are we doing at a school? You’re a producer.” I was like “I’m a teacher.”

She follows me in, goes to the copy room and back to my classroom and she turns to me and she goes, “You’re Batman!” She signed every one of my student’s tests. When I came back the day after one of my students said, “Hey Smith, did Tara Reid really sign our tests? I don’t care if I flunk or not, I’m keeping that test.”

How did the process work in getting The Fields produced?

Everything you want to know about film making you can learn from the movie Jaws. Every screw up, every mess, every catastrophe, every mistake was made on that film. You don’t need to go to film school. Just devour every book and every documentary on the making of that movie and you will learn how to make movies. You need to learn to fly by the seat of your pants and think.

The other thing is, I always modeled myself after John Carpenter and I don’t mean his films.  His four best films are Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing. Starman yes, but that’s at a different level. His original four indie films, he used the same crew over and over again. If you notice watching my films, the cast stays the same. I bring them back. The same with my crew. I’ve been with the same crew now for almost seven years. That’s a big deal.

When this guy came to me and said I want to put some money into things, I contacted a few film making friends and they said to me we know these two guys. I didn’t feel like I was up for directing. I wrote the script and I was just learning producing. It’s kind of like what Captain Kirk said in Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan, “This is why you need to know how a starship works. You need to know everything that goes on.”

From taking out the trash to dealing with SAG (Screen Actors Guild) I needed to learn all of that. So I was not up for directing at that point but I had two guys that were recommended to me.  I watched their first film and I felt it was very atmospheric and I thought they’d get it and wouldn’t turn The Fields into a slasher horror film.

I made contacts in Philadelphia. Composer John Avarese has scored all six of my films. John is scoring Garlic and Gunpowder as well. You find out who’s a fit and who isn’t and you go from there. The goal is you always treat people right. You stay up front and transparent and you work your ass off. That’s really the secret sauce.

Relationships, work your ass off, get it done and don’t talk about it. We live in a generation where everyone needs to talk about everything. Stop talking and go do it. That’s why when you see these people online saying, “We’re going to review the latest trailer today.” What the hell is that? Reviewing trailers? Let’s judge the whole movie on 30 seconds.

How did you decide to make the jump from teacher to film maker?

When you realize your biological clock is ticking. I was just about 40. After The Fields had wrapped, I had a student who said to me, “So what are you going to do? You said to us this is what you always wanted to do since you were a kid.” I said but life got in the way and I don’t know. Let’s see how The Fields does and he goes, “Yeah, just like my old man says, those who can’t do teach.” I said what do you mean? He said, “Well you stand up here and tell us to follow our dreams and so you had this dream and you’re just going to put it on a shelf?”

Then I really thought about it and I went home to my wife I think I really need to do this. We were in a financial position where we could. When we first got married basically I worked the first two years and she discovered herself. It was kinda like the Mark Twain thing. Give me two years. If I can’t make money at what I love then I’ll go chop wood. So then I’ll go back to education. She allowed it and said go for it and then I landed 6 degrees of hell in six months.

Camp Dread was finally when I decided I’m going to direct this thing and the investor said the same thing. I don’t want anybody else directing it but you. Everyone says it’s a tribute to Friday the 13th. It really isn’t. It’s a tip of the hat to Psycho 2.

How has casting worked for all of your films?

I did the casting for all of them. That’s what I mean, you learn. You can’t text a casting request to an agency. You gotta know how to talk to people. This isn’t Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram. You have to know how to talk to people. To get through a door in an agency, especially to a gatekeeper where they decided if you’re going to talk to an agent or not or if your project is good or not. But you need to learn how to talk to people.

Do you consider yourself an entrepreneurial lone wolf or a team player?

I’m a team player, I’m not an entrepreneur. If I were, I’d probably be like Ed Sanchez or somebody like that. I’m not a business man. One thing I was always good at since a child was getting people together and doing things.  In 7th grade I got all the kids in my neighborhood to put together a haunted forest so we could raise money for the ASPCA. I was the class president in high school and that’s a story in itself of what we did to raise money for our prom. If you saw Risky Business and merge that with Wolf of Wall Street you get a good idea.

Forming a team it’s about finding people that saying they’ll do this for you and most of all treating them right. You really need some talented crew along the way. Man, you hate coming to them with low budgets. All this talent and all I can pay you is this and that sucks. No one is holding a gun to their head either. They can say no and some have. Some have a bigger gig and I understand that. No hard feelings, maybe we’ll catch you on the next one.

Any time I can get the budgets up high, I mean Death House was a $1.1 million dollar budget. Camp Dread was $350,000. When you start working with people and they see that you’re working your ass off to stay loyal to them, then they’ll do some things too. My gaffer, Wes Carrier of Carrier Lighting and Sound, I’ve used him since 6 Degrees of Hell. I’m not saying they do it all the time but every once in a while when you get close to that over time a lot of times they say don’t worry about it. How about a couple cases of beer for the boys? You can’t take advantage of that though. They got bills to pay too. It’s that give and take relationship.

What do you do for distribution?

The first couple of films I worked out the distribution deals. Again, I’m not an entrepreneur so that’s really not my thing. With the change of the digital revolution it’s all up for grabs.

Have you had any theatrical releases?

Yes, The Fields had a theatrical release and 6 Degrees of Hell had a limited theatrical release. Camp Dread did not. It was straight home video DVD, streaming, Netflix. The same with Zombie Killers and we’ll see what happens with Death House. Right now the feedback from buyers on Death House is extremely positive. The majority have entertained some type of theatrical release which is what we want. What you have to be careful of in distribution is, a lot of people say they want their movie out on 5,000 screens. Sure, if you have a $50 million dollar marketing campaign.

What caused a lot of damage was Paranormal Activity. Paranormal Activity caused damage because it created this urban legend that you can go out with your Prosumer camera and make a $7k to $15k film and make $450 million on it. You’re not going to. That’s not going to happen and I don’t care anybody that’s listening right now or watching says “Oh yes it will” I’m gonna tell you “Oh no it won’t.”

What people don’t realize is when I was selling The Fields, I went to LA and met with one of the distributors interested in the film and they also had Paranormal Activity first. I asked him how it feels to be the company that last Paranormal Activity now that it made all this money. He goes, “I stand by it. The movie is a piece of shit.

Let me tell you the real story. The media likes to print the movie was made for $15k and now it’s worth $450 million because of the sequels and spin offs. It’s a Hollywood success story. So everyone with their Prosumer camera and Final Cut Pro is out to make the next Paranormal Activity.

What really happened was the movie sat around, Speildberg was going to do something with it then he got side tracked. Paramount had the rights to this movie and figured what the hell, let’s Blair Witch it. So they setup a viral campaign. Remember the demand it thing? They didn’t really say it was true but they didn’t say it wasn’t. That’s just what Blair Witch did. Then they brought all these people into the studio lot at Paramount with night vision. Out of 88 minutes of people sitting with their hands on their face, there were 4 minutes of jump scares. They edit all that into the trailers and the previews and now you have the must see movie of the year. And they sunk $45 to $50 million dollars in marketing into it.

I’m not saying what they did is bad. What I’m saying is the fallout from that is people don’t know that reality story think they are just gonna go shoot some movie and then I’m going to make $450 million dollars. No you’re not.

When can we expect to see Death House?

Pretty soon. It will definitely be 2017. I can’t give you an exact date. Could be March or April.

Is Death House your biggest budget to date?

To date yes.

What was the inspiration behind Death House?

The story came to me through Rick Finklestein and Steven Chase of Entertainment Factory. They came to the screening of Zombie Killers in Los Angeles. They said they had a script by Gunnar Hansen and he wants a rewrite. Long story short, I read Gunnar’s script, I called Gunnar, we ended up talking and met with Gunnar face to face. He was very unhappy. Another writer came in and did a second draft of the script that was basically torture porn.

Gunnar had this story of a bunch of documentary film makers go into the bowels of an abandoned asylum and hilarity ensues. It wasn’t really lighting any fires. Gunnar knew this and he felt that it needed a fresh take but there were several elements of the script he wanted to see remain. I took a stab at it.

While writing the treatment I was in a bar one night where I like to go to write. The preview for Jurassic World came on. It was around the time of the Super Bowl. Suddenly it hit me. Why does it have to be an asylum? Why can’t it be like this prison where the worlds worst criminals are put in. I came up with this idea that two up and coming federal agents are taking a tour of the prison. It breaks down and monsters get out.

If you watch the trailer for Death House it’s very much like Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs. The big thing I want to convey about Death House through this podcast is, it’s less a horror film than it is a science fiction action vibe like Escape From New York. That’s what we were going for. That’s why the effects were very 80’s. All the blood, gore and violence are practical. The visuals we wanted to have an 80s feel to it.

That’s dangerous to do because you have a whole audience out there that don’t even know who these people are. They don’t even know that Friday the 13th, there even was an original 1980s film. They think it was the remake in 2008. The same with Nightmare on Elm Street.

It’s funny we have all this information at our fingertips on the internet yet nobody knows anything.

In a recent Cynema blog I put up an article by Martin Scorcese where I agree with him that there is too much content out there. Movies have lost a little bit of their muster. I think part of the problem is showing too much behind the scenes. We’ve made mini-experts out of people who have no business being mini-experts. The magicians have shown too much behind the stage.

You got guys sitting back saying, “I know how they did that.” My response is always, where’s your movie? Oh that’s right you just sit on your YouTube channel and just talk about them.

 

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