As any genre fan may know by now, the world of horror has always had such a strange and tumultuous relationship with women as a gender. Whereas often times horror films will rely on a female figure as the “sole survivor” or “final girl”, weaned from the mistakes that led her friends to their untimely demise, these figures are often played by women who go through hell and high water against misogynistic directors and screenplays, producers who crave nudity for profit and the risk of having their career solely configured to the singular role of “scream queen.” While some actresses embrace this relationship, using it as a springboard to launch their personal side-projects and basically keep a steady stream of working roles, others intuitively rebel, citing the lack of female presence behind the camera as well as pro-active roles for women in horror films. However, in the passing years, the progressive mentality of up-and-coming horror filmmakers have brought new light onto heroines and anti-heroines, with projects like Evil Dead (2013), You’re Next, The Walking Dead and the Hatchet series exemplifying exactly how strong a female performance can be in a horror project while also being badass and resourceful. Furthermore, female genre directing is on the rise as well, as The Soska Twins, Kimberly Peirce, Jessica Cameron and Katie Aselton all offering unique horror offerings in 2013 alone.
However, few female directorial debuts have been as awaited as that of Danielle Harris, a genre veteran in her own right as well as one of the more prominent and diverse actresses in the horror world. With her stints in the Halloween universe (both in the original timeline and in Rob Zombie’s rebooted films) and the latter two Hatchet films, Harris has become a cult figure of horror femininity who also takes the time to explore beyond her comfort zone, participating in short films, animated roles and comedy when given the chance. Most recently, Harris was able to get behind the camera for her independent effort, Among Friends, currently on DVD and VOD from Lionsgate films, which tells the tale of a deadly dinner party in which retribution is served to those who have transgressed against their torturous host. Balancing horror with comedy with a stark visual style, Harris gives it her all from the script from star Alyssa Lobit and shows herself as ambitious as a director a as she is an actress. Even though she is currently filming See No Evil 2, Harris spoke to Diabolique about her directorial debut, her collaboration with the Soska Sisters and her surprising immediate plans for her acting career…
DIABOLIQUE: You’ve carved out a career for yourself within the horror genre, starring in no less than three horror franchises. What was it about Among Friends that inspired you to choose that film as your directorial debut?
DANIELLE HARRIS: You know, I think there were just so many great characters. It was just a scary, smart, well-written, simple story that was incredibly complex. I think when you’re taking a project, you have to consider the budget and what the script entails and if you can do it for that; you don’t want to cheat yourself. So I think it just sort of came together, and a friend of mine [Alyssa Lobit] wrote it and I had friends producing, so I knew who I was getting involved with and I knew who I could cast.
I read [Among Friends] and I saw so much potential, and in sitting down with Alyssa, the writer and star, we discussed it and where I was going to take it. I gave her ideas on things that I wanted to change because she knocked the script out in 2 weeks or something like that. So I said, “Here’s what I would like to change if I would sign on to do it,” and we just made it more fun. We made it campy and quirky and dirty, and we set it with an ‘80s theme so we could have that sort of style to it; we kind of turn [that theme] on its head, and most of the dialogue is the same, though we just pumped it up a little bit. When [Alyssa] was on board with all of my changes and agreed to everything, I knew that it was what I wanted to do.
DIABOLIQUE: After doing horror films for all these years that had such high gore elements, such as the Hatchet and Halloween films, was it important to you as a director to do something a little different than that and had a psychological element to the horror?
HARRIS: I’m not in this business and industry to make money, so for me, it’s been about characters that I’m after. It’s always been about characters and relationships, so I think making a movie like this is more about what I find is lacking in the genre now. What I would like to do and what I would like to see wasn’t what I was seeing and what I was doing. I think it was more that I wanted to do something contemporary, stylistic, out-of-the-box and was still smart. It’s not a franchise; I mean, it could be, but there’s no serial killing masked man running around, aimlessly stabbing people that are going about their lives, completely unaware of what’s going on and their surroundings, which is the typical formula for those types of movies.
So I think [Among Friends] was about getting to know people. Personally, I love documentaries, and nobody makes documentaries to make money. It’s always something they’re passionate with, so my goal with Among Friends was that it play like a documentary in that you don’t really know whose side you’re on. It’s kind of like you want Adam to die because of what he did, so you kind of agree with what Bernadette has done to him, but at the same time, there are other things about it that don’t make it right because he did it and now she’s doing it back to him. So, like I said, it’s kind of like a documentary because in a good documentary, you leave with questions, like, “I don’t really know and I’m open to either side of these things. It doesn’t point me in one direction.” I kind of liked that about Among Friends.
You know, we shot the film in 10 days and we had 5 or 6 days of preproduction. It just happened so fast. So I definitely wanted to do something a little more creative and see. I just wanted to put everyone in a room and see them unravel.
DIABOLIQUE: Considering that the creativity of the film, as well as the camp factor that you added to it, was so essential to Among Friends, do you think that the low budget experience was somewhat necessary to this film functioning as successfully as it does?
HARRIS: Listen, I could have done the same thing if I had money, but a lot of the saving moments in the movie had to come from the cleverness of the editor and choosing the colors. I could have cut it the same way still if I had more time and money. If I had more time and money, I would have pushed and taken as many takes as I had, and I would have had the actors exactly what they did. I got everything that I wanted and I personally would have loved more, but I could still do the movie the way I wanted. It wasn’t a “happy accident”.
You can still do a movie the way you want to do, regardless of how much money you have to work with, as long as you’re clear on your vision, which I was from the very beginning. I couldn’t really write [my vision] because I really didn’t have the time to put it on paper, so they really just had to trust me that this is what I was doing and why I was doing it. When I planned to bring a level of comedy to it, some of the actors didn’t know what that meant because they thought we were doing a movie about a killer. [laughs]
So, I ended up going, “Let me just say that this is kind of funny.” So when I’d be laughing at a line behind the camera, they would be confused sometimes as to what I thought was funny. I think it was because I knew how it was going to sound, and they weren’t really there yet. I knew they were committed to it because, for them, it was serious. For me, it was not serious. For them, I needed for them to think that this was really real, and I was able to play off of that.
DIABOLIQUE: Considering that you’re also acting in the film, did you ever find it to be difficult to direct yourself in a way that would be objective and unconscious to your own performance?
HARRIS: Well, I’m not the kind of actor that wants to write a script where I would be the lead and direct it. I don’t know how, although never say never. I was just so focused on directing that on the day that I showed up to the hallucination scene, I said, “Oh my God, I don’t even have a costume because I totally forgot that I’m in this.” I just didn’t even think about it because I’m there to do my job and give myself 100% to my actors and my crew. I think if you can take yourself out of it, you’ll have a really great producer, so you’ll have someone monitor that you’re doing what you’re doing and know that you’ve got it.
I can usually feel when I’ve nailed something or that I have what I need, or what they need. I tell directors many times, “Look, I know that you’ve got that, but you might want to get this piece of coverage, too,” or, “I need another one. Can we do it again?” I do think I can probably do both [acting as the lead and directing], I just would rather not. I definitely will put myself in movies that I direct in the future, but I won’t be the lead.
DIABOLIQUE: As an actor who is transitioning into directing, what was the most important lesson you took from your experience as an actor that you applied to your direction on Among Friends?
HARRIS: The most important thing that I learned, and it sounds so stupid, but it really is true, but I’m sort of the girl where, as an actor, I always wanted to keep the set light and fun. I’m always joking and joshing people, and when you do a horror movie, it’s always very intense, so you want to balance it out. You want it to be fun, or else you wouldn’t want to do these movies. So what I’ve learned is that when my actors come on set at the 11th hour when my head is loaded as the director, and I’ve got a lot to do and I don’t have any time to do it, and they’re still having fun, I wanted to kill them.
So for me, when I go on set, I just show up and shut up. So when they’re chasing the clock or chasing the light, I just show up, stand there, say “What do you need? What can I do? Let’s get it done. Let’s shoot. I’m ready when you are.” There’s no fucking around. So I think all of those years of always having fun or maybe chatting, [the director] was always focusing on what we needed to get done to make the day. So I need to be quiet and make sure that my crew and cast get what they need.
DIABOLIQUE: Your next film as an actress, Shiver, comes out in a couple of weeks, in which you co-star with John Jarratt and Casper van Dien. Considering you’ve had so many projects that were populated by actors known best or mostly for their genre projects, would you say the support system between “genre” actors is stronger and less competitive than that of regular dramatic actors?
HARRIS: You know, there isn’t really a “horror” actor. I mean, most of the actors that I work with have come from mainstream stuff or they’re classically trained and they just happen to [work primarily in genre film], like Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Brad Dourif and Malcolm McDowall. These aren’t “horror” actors, they’re just actors. Horror movies are really hard to do, and these actors just don’t get enough recognition for having to do that on a daily basis for weeks at a time. Doing a romantic comedy would be a vacation.
There’s an art about [horror] as well, but they’re pretty gnarly. I think it’s amazing that I get to work with these good guys, and I’m usually the sole girl that works with the John Jarratt’s and all these amazing actors. I work with very few women, believe it or not! In my career, it’s usually me and a father figure ever since The Last Boy Scout. I’ve always been the girl with the dad, and that’s always been my career and it still kind of is. Even with the movie I’m doing now [See No Evil 2], a lot of it is about my brother and I, so it’s like, “Well, here we go again! If it’s not my boyfriend or father, it’s my brother.” It’s kind of ironic.
DIABOLIQUE: Well, with Shiver and See No Evil 2, you’re returning back to the slasher genre once again, although obviously without necessarily repeating yourself.
Obviously, working with The Soska Twins must have been an attraction for See No Evil 2, but otherwise, what is it about these particular films that make them stand out amongst the slasher market?
HARRIS: Well, Shiver was a movie that I wanted to tackle as an actor. It was the first movie I had tackled in the genre that was a psychological thriller and not a slasher film, and I knew that I had to bring it. It’s played a ton of festivals and it’s the first film I’ve actually ever received awards for with my performance. Even though the movie can be a bit campy at times, I think that my and John Jarratt’s performances are on a whole other level from anything we’ve done in the past. John is pretty damn badass in Wolf Creek as well.
For me, this was a chance to be the lead, since I had only done Hatchet II [as the lead] and this was the first time I got to play the shy, quiet girl who ended up finding her strength through the horrific experience of being kidnapped and tortured by this man. It was a lot of one-on-one time; there was no running, crying and screaming. It was all very intense, so that was something I wanted to take as an actor, and I’ve done it, so I’m good. [laughs] I never have to go through that again!
As far as See No Evil 2, I was a very big fan of the first film, and The Soska Twins… I’m kind of obsessed with. There’s very few female directors in our genre, and I love their movie American Mary, which is a great independent with Katharine Isabelle. Among Friends played at the same festivals as American Mary did last year, but we were never at the same place at the same time. So I’ve been wanting to meet them and have been trying to, but I never made it happen, so finally, when I heard about See No Evil 2 and my assistant actually said, “They’re doing See No Evil 2 and the twins are directing it!” I was like, “Shut. Up.”
So I called my manager and they called their manager, and they went back and forth for quite a bit but we were able to set up a lunch when they came into town. We just geeked out together over horror movies and I loved them as much as they loved me. I’m really excited, more so because I’ve only been directed by two females throughout my entire career and [The Soskas] will be the only other two before I take a break. I’m going to take a break from doing movies for a bit as an actor to have a family and focus on directing. I didn’t want to go out of the business for a little bit without having been directed by these girls.
I just want to know what it’s like to be the lead in a genre film and be directed by women. I wanted to see what that feels like because that’s what I’m going to do [as a director]. I wanted to pick their brain and I’m going to shadow them. I’m one of the stars of the movie as the female lead, but I’m not going to be in my trailer at all during this process. I really want to be apart from watching them do their magic.
DIABOLIQUE: With See No Evil 2, you will also be co-starring with Katharine Isabelle, and you both come out from this background of unconventional final girls in horror films earlier in your career. In the Hatchet films, you were more pro-active than most final girls, and with Katharine, she was a very delicate and concise but also in carrying a specific attitude. Is there anything particularly about your role in See No Evil 2 that carries on that unconventional final girl mold?
HARRIS: Normally, I can’t say too much but this role is definitely going to be different than anything you’ve seen me do before.
DIABOLIQUE: Now that Among Friends is out and Shiver is releasing very soon, do you have any films currently in development or awaiting release?
HARRIS: I believe that I have a couple coming out, including Ghost of Goodnight Lane is coming out as well as Hallow’s Eve and Dead.tv. Those three were the last in the wings that were trying to find distributors. Then I’m hopefully gearing up to do Fear Clinic: The Movie, which is the only sure thing on the slate right now. I don’t know when we’re going to do it, but we’re hooking on for November, so I’ll be going from this project to that. I’m excited to get back on set with Kane Hodder and Robert Englund again. That would be awesome, so it everything gets figured out, that’ll be great.
To see Among Friends, directed by Danielle Harris and starring Jennifer Blanc, Alyssa Lobit and AJ Bowen, you can buy the film on DVD at Amazon and other major video retailers, and you can find it on iTunes, VUDU and other VOD outlets. For more information on Among Friends you can visit the films official website here. You can also can see Harris in Shiver, on DVD/Blu-ray from Image Entertainment on October 8th, as well as Hatchet III, currently available on DVD/Blu-ray from Dark Sky Films. You can also see Harris in Hatchet II and Stake Land on Netflix Instant Watch. You can follow Danielle Harris on Twitter: @halloweengal. For more from Danielle Harris and See No Evil 2, check back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com!