8 Questions to Die For: ‘Husk’ Director Brett Simmons

In cooperation with Syfy and Lionsgate, on January 28th After Dark Films is releasing eight “After Dark Originals” in theaters, in a bid to take the “horror festival concept to a higher level”. Instead of acquiring the films after the fact, as with “8 Films to Die For”, these Originals were developed from the ground up at the famed genre distributor in an effort to create “high quality horror films” with full input from the After Dark team. Now, in anticipation of their release, B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen put eight questions to the directors of each of the upcoming films, in a series we’re calling “8 Questions to Die For: Interviews with the Directors of the After Dark Originals”. In this installment we interviewed Husk writer/director Brett Simmons, who helmed the short of the same name that debuted at Sundance in 2005. The feature takes the same premise – group of young friends find themselves stranded in a cornfield with killer scarecrows – and adds new elements into the mix, with effects created by Gary Tunnicliffe, Mike Regan, and Blake Bolger. See inside for the full interview.

While very few films have successfully taken advantage of the “killer scarecrow” premise, I’m hoping for a different story with After Dark Originals’ Husk, writer/director Brett Simmons’ upcoming feature-length version of his 2005 short. In my interview with Simmons, the professed Bloody-Disgusting fan opened up about the challenges of bringing his vision to the screen, what inspired him to come up with the premise, and the blood-drenched gore effects created by Gary Tunnicliffe collaborators Mike Regan and Blake Bolger.

Bloody-Disgusting.com: So “Husk” is based on your short film of the same name that premiered at Sundance in 2005. Since After Dark Originals is focused on developing new horror films in-house, I’m curious how your partnership with them came about. How much control did they exercise over the final script?

Brett Simmons: “Husk” at After Dark came about much like you’d expect. My agent sent them the screenplay along with a DVD of the short film, they responded to both, and I got called in for a meeting to pitch how I’d do it. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever had because we all instantly connected as horror fans first, then as filmmakers. We were all excited about doing the same things with “Husk”.

After Dark as a production company has a great understanding of the genre, and a clear concern for giving horror fans something fresh and fun. That was very much my intent with “Husk” too, so as far as control, they gave me plenty, and I was thrilled to collaborate with them. Especially with Courtney Solomon. He and I had great discussions early on about story, the scarecrows, and everything “Husk”. It was great because before we even started talking about the script, he got a clear sense of who I was and what I wanted to do, and that guided every creative discussion that followed. He was able to hold me accountable and challenge things, and I trusted him because I knew we were trying to accomplish the same thing.

BD: In its general outline, how closely does the film follow the short? What did you add in to stretch it to feature length?

BS: Structurally, the two are very similar. I’m proud of how loyal the feature is to the short. The truth is, the short film was always designed to play as a pitch for a bigger story, so there were creative territories I deliberately avoided with the short knowing that they would be better explored in a feature. Namely, the backstory. When the short screened at Sundance, every screening was met with questions regarding the history and backstory. How did these scarecrows come to be? How did this all begin? There was no way to be fully assured whether the short would successfully pitch the feature or not, so those questions were always encouraging because it made me realize that what we did worked…but then they also made me nervous because I had never fully answered those questions for myself.

In shelving the “mythology” aspect to save for later, I quickly realized that “later” had arrived, and I had to start actually developing the ideas I had stored up. That was an exciting pressure, and it was the primary means by which the short stretched into the feature. Having a feature length allowed way more wiggle room to explore the history of the property, further develop the house as a threat of its own, deepen the characters, etc. It was an opportunity to explore the things the short only had time to graze upon. As a writer, it was a lot of fun.

BD: There’s been quite a long stretch between “Husk” the short and “Husk” the feature. Talk about the process of finally bringing the feature to the screen, since I don’t know that a lot of people appreciate just how hard it is to pull that off.

BS: Man, I appreciate this question because it’s so true, not a lot of people appreciate the difficulty involved in getting a movie made. I made the short in September of 2003, went to Sundance in January 2005, and didn’t start rolling cameras on the feature until August 2009 (we wrapped the feature production six years to the day that we started shooting the short. Crazy). I’d summarize all that time with two words: “patience” and “perseverance”. As a young unproven filmmaker, it’s tough to get your movie made. Having a script people like helps, and having a short film to show what you’d do helps even more, but even then, you’re still a risk. It’s all a business.

Sundance opened a lot of doors for me to meet some pretty big players in the genre. It was a dream come true, and everyone loved the script. It just all came down to the fact that I was young, and that was a tough sell. But I knew that it wasn’t impossible. I just had to keep holding on, keeping a clear focus on the movie I wanted to make, and waiting for more than just a company but the “right” company. And there were a few along the way that I worked with, but obviously they didn’t last.

I also had to continually battle the temptation to give up and start going out with other projects, but I always resolved that I’d just be starting over, only this time without a Sundance short to support my script. So I just held on, meeting and waiting, hoping for a company that would get what I wanted to do and take the plunge with me. That company was After Dark, and they made it well worth the wait. I was never asked to compromise anything, we saw eye-to-eye, and I now we’re all excited with what we’ve made. They’re a company I’ve been able to share this with, which is what I always wanted. The happy ending is: I can finally say I made “Husk”.

BD: After Dark founder Courtney Solomon said this film harkens back to some of the old 1960s horror films – i.e. more atmospheric, character-based, etc. What specific films were you inspired by, either in that era or other eras?

BS: I love classic horror movies. “Husk” first began as a response to the horror movies I had been seeing. They felt overly complicated and were explaining everything away, and I’m a bigger fan of implying more than showing, and weaving information to be figured out rather than spelled out. So I found myself reverting to older horror movies and getting inspired by them. Most notably George Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead” and Carpenter’s “The Thing”. Both are awesome single location horror movies with great character conflict.

Among my favorite aspects of horror movies is the depiction of extreme situations that characters are forced to respond to. As an audience member, I’m always asking myself questions like “Would I do that?” or “Would I think that?” Both “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Thing” are movies where the characters have believable and unexpected responses. Characters becoming desperate enough to kill each other or betray each other is exciting territory to explore. Not to mention there’s shape-shifting aliens or zombies to deal with. Being trapped with a threat outside, and a question of who to trust inside, was the driving inspiration for “Husk”.

BD: You have a great effects team on this – specifically Mike Regan and Blake Bolger on the practical side. Talk about the effects required for the movie.

BS: Mike and Blake were amazing! As far as the gore effects go, 99% of them were practical, so they were really busy. If you’ve seen the After Dark Originals teaser trailer with the girl hammering nails into her fingers, that’s all from a pretty major sequence in “Husk”, and that was all Mike and Blake. I don’t want to spoil any context for that scene, but I’ll say that “nails through fingers” was a large and challenging part of the movie’s effects. When I made the short, the nails were the most difficult issue we had to deal with in terms of application time and safety, but Mike and Blake had amazing ideas and efficiency. And a lot of blood.

Mike’s ideas for the other gore effects were so creative I kept getting excited to see what he’d come up with. We have a lot of slashing and ripping flesh, shotgun wounds, a head explosion, fun things like that, and they were all practical, thanks to them. They work for Gary Tunnicliffe, and Gary was responsible for all of the scarecrow masks, which was the other major (MAJOR!) thing we needed. If the scarecrows looked dumb in a scarecrow movie…well, I’m not sure what you do, but Gary saved me from that issue. I had drawn a series of scarecrow sketches and mask ideas, and when he saw them, he just ran with them and gave me a whole family of awesome looking scarecrows. Before Gary came along, the scarecrow masks were my biggest source of apprehension, but once I saw his work…they became my biggest relief. Simple and creepy. At that point, I knew that no matter where I might fail, the scarecrows would at least look scary.

BD: There have been quite a few (mostly forgettable) killer scarecrow movies in the past (Dark Night of the Scarecrow and Jeepers Creepers being the only really good ones I can think of). Did you watch any of these before shooting either the short or the feature, either for inspiration or as a lesson on what NOT to do?

BS: Really, it was the opposite: I saw them first, and “Husk” was a response to them. I feel like they showed me what hadn’t been done, and what I wanted to try. I’m the guy that sees those scarecrow movies on the shelf and wants to watch them…but is commonly let down by them. Scarecrows and cornfields have always been an intriguing character and setting for horror to me, and I think there’s so much untapped potential. To me, scarecrows in a cornfield should be like predators in their natural habitat, and you’re their prey, out of your element. They’re Jaws, and you’re in the water. They’re Velociraptors, and you’re in the raptor pen.

Also, every time I’ve seen horror movie scarecrows or Halloween scarecrow masks, they’re always overly grotesque and over-the-top. My thought has always been that scarecrows, simple, understated, and made by farmers to simply scare birds, are already spooky enough. THAT is what freaks me out about them, and I haven’t seen that done either. So “Husk” was my attempt to play with these ideas.

BD: You’ve got a really solid cast of up-and-coming young actors in this. Talk about the dynamic between the five friends in the film.

BS: I loved the cast. They were so great and so fun. It’s what I love about a small cast is that we were all able to work really closely together, and I love working with actors. As far as their characters go, the relationships and dynamics all begin pretty conventionally, and then evolve into very different things. It makes “Husk” as a pitch sound a little clichéd, (“a sexy female, her handsome jock boyfriend, along with a nerd and two buddies on a road trip”) because the setup intentionally chooses a very familiar horror movie equation in order to spin and twist in different, unexpected directions. It’s like I said with “Night Of The Living Dead” and “The Thing”, when everything hits the fan, characters you thought you knew turn into very different people, and that’s what I wanted: to embrace the familiar equation and do something else with it.

Plus, I wanted to give the characters a different range of places to go than normal. Tammin Sursok is awesome as the female lead “Natalie”, and she gets to do things not commonly expected of the typical horror movie damsel. Same with Wes Chatham as her boyfriend “Brian”. He has to go places emotionally that the “Handsome Jock” doesn’t commonly go. If I keep going, I’ll say too much, but this is the stuff that made casting so much fun, the contrast of different ranges they had to display. Devon Graye, also known as “Young Dexter”, was awesome, and same with CJ Thomason and Ben Easter. We had a blast.

BD: Will you be returning to horror any time in the near future? If so, what projects are you hoping to get off the ground?

BS: It’s inevitable, I think. I love the genre. I’m hoping to do another movie with Courtney and After Dark. I had too much fun collaborating with them to pass up another opportunity to do so. I’m also working on a few scripts that I’m pretty excited about, including a couple new horror ideas. It’s funny because really, after all these years, I’M the one that’s finally escaped the cornfield. So I’m enjoying new options. Maybe a monster movie. I’ll keep you posted.