IN CONVERSATION WITH DAMIEN LEONE
“I’ve been trying to make this film for a decade now – it’s the full blown Art the clown feature” explains director Damien Leone of TERRIFIER, his tale of a maniacal clown who terrorises three young women on Halloween night. In conversation with FrightFest, the filmmaker reflected on the exhilaration of reaction to his early experiments with make-up effects, and the empowerment of horror cinema on his adolescent self. He also discussed the absence of contemporary horror stalker-slasher icons, and the sadness of abandonment.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
[Laughs] It could have something to do with my mother naming me after…I don't know, my mother was a big fan of horror films and I was one of those kids who was always allowed to watch horror movies at a very young age; thankfully I guess. It shaped the way I look at horror movies and I just appreciate the craft, and I love scaring people. When I was about twelve I stumbled upon a VHS called SCREAM GREATS, a how to by Tom Savini on special effects. Seeing that for the first time introduced me to the magic of film making and it opened my mind to the possibilities, and from then on I was just experimenting with any make-up I could get my hands on. I got my first make-up starter kit when I was around twelve years old and I would put bruises on my friends faces, little cuts under their eyes and send them home to their parents, who would freak out. I remember the one father panicked and said: “I've got to take you to the hospital.” We were: “No, no, it's fake” and I guess seeing that reaction from grown ups, and knowing I could actually get a reaction like that was exhilarating. So it all stemmed from there and I just loved getting reactions from people, especially by scaring them. Then with a very primitive JVC camcorder a friend’s father owned, I started experimenting by making home movies and filming the special effects. People always responded to it and so I just kept taking it further.
How do you perceive the transformation of how we respond to horror with age? Is adolescence the optimum period of one’s life to experience horror because of the vivid imagination that is yet to be suppressed by a rationality?
That's a good question. I don't really know the answer to that, but I was thinking about this recently, just trying to analyse why I appreciate horror so much. When I was younger I felt like I could conquer the monster. There was something about watching a horror movie or a slasher at a very young age with someone who was three times older than I was, and seeing them completely horrified, covering their eyes and screaming, which was not my reaction. Yeah I'm scared, but I am not that afraid. I can distinguish between a monster actually being able to harm you, but not from a television screen. And that empowered me because I was able to handle the fear more than someone who was older, and should have been the one protecting me. So that's where it started and then eventually when you see how the magic is done in the movies, it doesn't have the same effect on you as you get older. The next logical step for someone like me was to then be the creator, to actually create the monster and tell it how to scare somebody. And then you live vicariously through movies in that way.
My favourite movies to watch are still the old school horror, which I watch on a loop - the seventies and eighties slashers. I don't watch too many new horror movies because they don't have the same effect on me as the older ones do, but every couple of years I'll see one at the theatres. I don't know if that has something to do with getting older, or it is just the nostalgia of going back and watching the older films that resonated with me. But there is something fun about watching horror movies when you are a child, and experiencing being terrified and completely safe at the same time.
Hitchcock is one of the most studied and discussed filmmakers, and yet for any director the process of crafting suspense reveals the gulf between understanding through observation versus doing. How has the practical experience of directing impacted your own appreciation of films and their filmmakers?
I began to appreciate the craft and you see who is a true auteur, and who has a very distinct style. Obviously Hitchcock is a master and PSYCHO is one of my favourite films of all time, which I regularly watch. You'll even find that most horror fans are just movie fans in general, and so I am a huge fan of other filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, who is one of my favourite filmmakers, even more so than some horror filmmakers. He was the first director whose style I was able to identify from watching movies. You could tell his thumb prints were on the film, his camera moves and such, and he was almost the star of the film himself. When you start becoming more serious about the craft of film making, then you study the style of these great filmmakers, and you see what works and what tools and techniques they use, and how they can make a scene work that much greater.
Speaking with Don Mancini for CULT OF CHUCKY about the human fear of dolls and clowns, he explained: “What it is fundamentally, is that we have a primal aversion to distortions of the human form that links us to our fear of decay and ageing. Even seeing a skeleton or a rotting skull or whatever gives us a similar feeling. You are looking at a face or a body thinking: Okay, I recognise that it has two eyes, a nose and a mouth, but it’s just off.” Would you agree or what do you attribute as the reason to our enduring fascination with clowns and why they remain a source of terror?
It comes down to the abnormality of clowns and it hits human beings on a visceral level. I could ask that question a lot, but I don't know exactly what the answer is without trying to analyse it. But one of the main reasons is definitely the unnatural and exaggerated mannerisms, where it is human, but at the same time it’s not. It’s almost as if it’s an alien doing the best impersonation of a human being, and the way that it’s moving you can tell there's something off. And another thing, most of your clowns have face make-up on, and this is a sub-conscious thing, but when we see somebody with straight white make-up on their face, I think it’s synonymous with death. Take the red pigment out of somebody's face, especially with Art the clown whose prosthetic I sculpted specifically to look more like a corpse. I made it more gaunt and recessed his eye sockets, and so I definitely played that aspect up a bit. But I think you already nailed it in that it has to do with being very unnatural and abnormal.
Rarely do audiences enter a film without expectations, which can be cultivated powerfully by the poster and trailers, or even the synopsis text. How do you respond to the expectations of the audience?
I guess there were some expectations and the big problem is that right now IT just came out, and that's the highest grossing horror film of all time. Immediately it's almost as though you are coming across as a knock off, but meanwhile we had been making this movie before IT came out, even though in all fairness the book came out a long time ago, and the original film came out in 1990. But when I first made Art the clown in my first short film, clowns were not that popular, and there were not that many killer clowns on the scene. But it just took so long for me to get to this point and it all comes down to opportunities and budget. And nobody was throwing money at me to make the film I wanted to make, and I’ve been trying to make this film for a decade now – it’s the full blown Art the clown feature. That’s just the nature of the beast, but there are always expectations within the genre, and at the end of the day this was just a movie that I've been wanting to see personally as a fan for the longest time. I'm not saying Art the clown is a great slasher or icon type character, but I've tried to make that, and maybe Candyman was the last great horror icon. You've had SCREAM which was excellent and Jigsaw, but Jigsaw wasn't really the stalker-slasher type killer that I'm talking about. I think you just have to make the movie that you want to make. You can't really think about all those outside influences too much or else you'll just get sidetracked. So I just tried to make the movie that I and other fans would have been longing for after all this time.
Interviewing Larry Fessenden recently he spoke of how a film is abandoned. Would you agree that by a certain point you must accept the film you have and send it out into the world?
I agree with it being abandoned and I actually say that all the time because at some point you have to let it go. But a film can always be tweaked and it can always be better. There’s a handful, well more than a handful of scenes that I have such a hard time watching, which I cringe at because they could have been executed so much better. But that's also the result of time and money during production. I was constantly tweaking even the subtlest things in the film up until the last second when my deadline came up, and I just had to hand it to the distributor. Unless you're James Cameron or Steven Spielberg, who I don't think abandon their films, they are exactly how they want them to go out. But for the most part, filmmakers have to abandon their films at some point, which is very sad.
Read the FrightFest Gore in the Store In Conversion article with TERRIFIER star David Howard 'ART' Thornton HERE
Read the FrightFest Gore in the Store review of TERRIFIER from Paul Worts HERE
TERRIFIER is available now on Digital HD and DVD from 9th April 2018 in the UK courtesy of Signature Entertainment.
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