The world of independent filmmaking is incredibly subjective to the minds of the horror community because the freedom that coincides with the do-it-yourself mechanisms is open for interpretation. Some filmmakers find independent filmmaking to be a cathartic experience in which they can visually express the depraved and shocking allegories for their stark opinions through a storytelling means. Other independent genre filmmakers take the storytelling means as a way to expand and build their own mythology and folklore, crafting characters and monsters from their own subconscious desire to create. Sometimes, these filmmakers can meet somewhere within a grey area of storytelling, making edgy stories that don’t ride the line of brutality as to keep the film hinging on a sense of humanity.
Whatever the case may be, the cultural fascination with the shocking and the unnerving aspects that boil under the surface of genre filmmaking has in part fuelled the work of producer and filmmaker Andrew van den Houten. While shrugging off any labels associated with himself and his production company, Modernciné, by creating and releasing films within different genres and subject matters, van den Houten has in fact taken a risk with his reputation in order to produce challenging and unconventional projects that have, in turn, led him to become one of the most versatile and dependable producers in the independent filmmaking business. In his new production, the Chad Crawford Kinkle-directed Jug Face, van den Houten brings his unique sensibilities into the world of genre filmmaking once more for a surreal and psychologically disquieting venture into backwoods mysticism and tradition. For Diabolique’s JUG FACE WEEK, van den Houten spoke about Jug Face, his relationship as a fan and as a producer, and what lies in the future of Modernciné…
DIABOLIQUE: Jug Face is a very unique horror film as it takes place almost entirely within its own defined society, which is always a risk in terms of audience engagement. However, the film does very well at establishing the norms and traditions of that society without spelling it out beat by beat. As a producer, were you attracted to the idea of making a film that has its own little universe?
ANDREW VAN DEN HOUTEN: Absolutely. I think any opportunity, especially in independent filmmaking, when you find a script that lets you make an entirely new world is a great opportunity. Jug Face, particularly, was like this Winter’s Bone world, but with a far more twisted, dark theme.
DIABOLIQUE: In The Woman, you had this whole other world behind the film that you were able to springboard from Offspring and the work of Jack Ketchum. Is it important to you, as a producer, to pursue films that have a larger universe behind them as well?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: [That appeals to me] as a director and a producer. As a fan, too; I’m always drawn to projects that allow for there to be a strong mythology as well as good characters and fabulous character development because you can’t really create a world without great characters to populate it.
DIABOLIQUE: Much like many of your previous Jack Ketchum adaptations, Jug Face shows an inherent human terror that lies behind our social formalities, although this time it takes place in a backwoods colony as opposed to the suburban domain of The Girl Next Door and the rural community in The Woman. What is it about basic human interaction and niceties that you enjoy mining horror from?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: Well, for me, people are the scariest thing on this planet. I’m not too fearful of ghosts or aliens. Even natural disasters tend not to scare me as much as what people are capable of. So I’m usually attracted towards material that really seems to explore the psychology behind the more unsettling and off-putting elements of human nature. Although I do have to say I enjoy comedy and other genres as well, but when I go off to make something disturbing and twisted, I’d much rather like to take an Alfred Hitchcock approach. I do like supernatural films, but as somebody who’s always been drawn to stories that could be real and true, I tend to lean towards [realistic stories] more as a fan.
DIABOLIQUE: Considering you’ve touched upon the horrors of many different locales, as mentioned before, is there any environment that you’ve yet to explore in the horror genre that you would like to in the future?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: Yeah! Absolutely, I’d think so. I like isolation, and although suburbia is densely populated, you can still find isolation in it, which I think we did very well in The Woman. In Jug Face, we found the isolation within the woods as an environment. I think it would be fun to revisit the urban environment, ala Candyman. I love Candyman; it’s great. Also, Headspace, which I directed, took place in New York City as well. I’d love to explore an urban environment in another country. I think that could be very interesting. The Raid: Redemption did that and that was a very successful and fun movie.
But there’s something to a film like 28 Days Later, where the world of London just lent itself to that story so well. So I don’t know. I’d love to explore different urban environments outside of the United States. That could be something very interesting. Who knows? We could do something in Brazil. That could be interesting. Inversely, it’d be fun to go to a place and do something in Antarctica or The North Pole like when Larry Fessenden did The Last Winter or John Carpenter’s The Thing. I do like the idea of doing a film in those worlds.
I’d also like to create, like putting together a world that’s futuristic as well. I like the idea of Mars being terraformed and what that might look like in a thousand years from now. I think it’d be fun to explore sci-fi, I suppose, and have the supernatural meet the horror and play with that. Obviously, All Cheerleaders Die is the first step in that direction. To do more of that would be fun as well, but also maintaining the real tropes of social interaction and human disturbance and people being the terror as opposed to the supernatural being the terror. I like the idea of incorporating both but staying true to our roots and what we’ve been doing over time.
DIABOLIQUE: One of the most effective aspects about many of your projects, Jug Face especially, is the suddenness of the escalation of action in the film. The horrific moments never seem like they’re out of nowhere but when they happen, they are a stark contrast to the quiet that came before it. Are you ever afraid that that brand of slow-burn tension may not translate to casual horror fans?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: It’s so funny because I think Ti West does this successfully as well in his films and the hardcore horror fan base seems to be very loyal and appreciative of what we’re doing. I think there will be certain films that I will make that will continue to have the slow-burn appeal, which is a much more Kubrick-esque approach to telling a horror film, and a Hitchcock approach to that as well.
I love that kind of storytelling; I think it’s a great way to keep that dramatic sense around this horrific world. It’s that tension that’s built by taking your time and really foreshadowing. There are certain films where if you eliminate that [tension], the film becomes much more like a slasher movie or something that’s more mainstream that just goes into that world where it’s a complete popcorn movie and it keeps every moment building. You can do that, too, but I think in the third act of all our of movies tend to pay off pretty well, but in their movies, you’re getting a lot of that action earlier on. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a great example of a film that I think does both very successfully but definitely has a big payoff by the end as well.
DIABOLIQUE: In making these movies, do you feel that slow-burn tension compliments moments gore more than startling scares?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: I think gore is appropriate in the right films. If you’re trying to make something very realistic, then doing too much gore pulls away from it. But if you’re doing a movie like Cannibal Holocaust, then the impact of the gore is actually going to drive the narrative. So I think a lot of times it’s what you don’t see that’s more scary and more impactful, but it really comes down to what kind of movie you are making and what story that you’re telling.
Orphan is a great film; I loved it and I’m a big fan, and thinking over to the gore, I think they kept it in the world that they were creating and I thought it was very, very effective. On the other hand, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film that needs its horrific gore and disgusting grossness to it in order for it to work. It comes down to who your villain is and how you want to exploit the horrific moments where [people] are killed in the movie, and whether you need to [exploit those moments] as well.
DIABOLIQUE: You assembled a great cast for this film, most of who have previously ventured into the horror genre, including Larry Fessenden, Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Young, Sean Bridgers and Daniel Manche. Considering the uniqueness of this particular project and it’s rather bleak outcome, was there any hesitation on their part to reunite with you on this project?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: No, there was not one actor who did not want to commit and jump into this project, surprisingly. I think there was a lot of trust, considering my relationships with these actors, and there was a lot of respect considering the film’s cast was really well put-together and we obviously worked with a lot of great actors in the past. So the relationships and continuity was established by working with almost the entire cast before, so the new actors who came on board felt very comfortable were excited to work with actors we had felt comfortable with and had worked with in the past.
There was a certain trust that was there, so it was like, “How do we take this material and heighten it?” So the challenge in the conversations for everybody was, “So, how do we push our starting point, because we’re already so far in and deep in terms of what we’re understanding, and how do we go ever deeper?” That comes down to Chad and what he wanted as a director and as a writer, beyond what was in the script.
I thought the script was very telling, incredibly well written, very descriptive, very detailed and incredibly well paced and thought-out. I thought for someone who was starting out with their first movie, what [Chad] had done was written a script of somebody who has done multiple films. The script felt like it was done by someone who had done this many, many times before, which is always what you want, and then when he had made his short film, Organ Grinder, which we’re going to be releasing before the theatrical release of Jug Face, that showed that he had the control over the direction of the performances and of the actors. The actors that we brought in really respected [Chad] based on the screenplay, conversations they had with him and seeing Organ Grinder. So there was no uphill battle as far as trying to articulate or explain what the movie was all about.
DIABOLIQUE: When producing a film, do you find casting to be more of an intuitive process or do you rather go through the traditional auditioning process to make sure you find the right person for the project?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: Well, let me give you an example of two different movies. First, you have a film like Jug Face, where I completely had a hand in the casting to the point where I casted 80% of everybody and all of the leads. I was very involved with Chad to make sure he felt comfortable and that [this casting] was something he wanted to do. For his first feature, these were actors Chad thought would never consider doing the film, but of course, when I told him that they would, he was thrilled. Actors like Daniel Manche, Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Bridgers, Sean Young and Larry Fessenden were all people Chad was fans of from other films I had worked on, so he was very open to the idea [of casting them].
So in that film, I had a big hand in the casting process and Chad was very open to working with me collaboratively on that, which was why I was able to just back off during production and just Chad direct the hell out of everything. Chad had all the right tools in his kit and it was just a matter of me making sure that he had time to use them. So that’s one example.
The other example would be All Cheerleaders Die, where the directors said to me, “Hey Andrew, you know, we’re not really going to go after all the actors that we know. I don’t want you to go after the actors that you know. I sort of want to go into this process clean and fresh, so we want you to find a casting director who is going to get us hundreds of actors in several weeks to a month for us to audition.” I loved that. It was such a new process for me.
For a movie called In the Family, Patrick Wang and I very successfully produced that film which went on to get four stars from Roger Ebert, and that was not a horror film but as far as the casting process was very similar to All Cheerleaders Die where we brought in as many actors as we could to audition. What’s exciting about that is that you get to discover new ideas, and not necessarily ideas that were planted in your head before when you see certain actors you know being in the roles within the project. You discover nuances in your script that you wouldn’t have thought about beforehand without these actors having come in, prepared different ideas and takes on these characters themselves.
So it’s an exciting process because not only did you discover a new challenge in finding people to work with that you hadn’t worked with before, but you discover new things about your material very early on that you might not have discovered early on in production when you’re working with your actors in rehearsal before. They’re just very different processes and I think both are fabulous. I think both processes lend themselves to creating a unique project; one is a little more exciting for a particular reason while the other is more exciting for a different reason. Of course, when you work with actors you know, it’s exciting to see them take on these characters as you envisioned them and seeing them heighten the role and bring new ideas to them. In the auditioning process, it’s exciting because actors are doing things in a completely different way than you expected and they have different looks than you could have even had imagined from the beginning.
So it’s really cool, and I love that process. I’m obsessed with actors because they are the heart and soul of so many good movies, and the best movies. You can add effects and all kinds of exciting sounds and music, but you know if you don’t have the soul of the story within those characters, then everything else won’t work.
DIABOLIQUE: Before you became an award-winning producer and filmmaker, you began your career in entertainment as an actor. How have your experiences in front of the camera particularly informed your tastes behind the camera, either as a producer or as a director in your own right?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: Having worked as an actor before I had directed or produced a film allowed me to have a certain level of respect for the crew. When I did Alma Matter, which was Hans Canosa’s debut feature film that to this day has not been released, and I sincerely hope he does one day as I’m extremely proud of my performance in that movie as well as the story and performances from all of the other actors, but I was able to learn that and then producing my feature immediately that it is as important for an actor within an indie film to inform the crew about what they are doing as it is for the crew to inform the actor about what is going on as well. That’s really the director’s job to articulate that, but I think that allows me to have a certain level of appreciation towards the communication that goes on between the cinematographer and the actors, director and the actors, and the production designer and the director.
As you’re designing and creating a character as an actor, whether it is on the stage of in front of a camera, you’re really just using all the elements that you have at your fingertips to make your best performance. So it’s so important as an actor within a film to know where the camera is and how you want to play your scene out, whether it’s a subtle blink and a look off to the right side while the camera is to your left or there’s a big motion within the frame because you know that it’s a wide shot and you want to create a certain level of drama within the scene, especially within comedy.
I think it’s fascinating that I worked more as an actor within film, television and commercials and that allowed me to have a certain appreciation for the idea of “hurry up and wait.” I think a lot of actors become impatient because they have to wait, and for me, to have to wait makes me excited as an actor. So, it changed my whole attitude as a director and a producer, which was if I can articulate and make sure actors understand what they’re getting into and what my process is, then it’s only going to make them stronger within the project and make our lives easier as well. So I try to inform the actors as best as I can, as a producer, and All Cheerleaders Die is a great example because I was making sure everybody knew what was going on as much as possible, but also making sure not to distract them with unimportant details as well.
DIABOLIQUE: Well, aside from smaller roles in movies that you have produced, have you ever been tempted to return to acting or have you become comfortable enough just as a producer and filmmaker?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: You know, I love being entrepreneurial and I love the creative stimulation of being a producer across the board. I love the business stimulation between the creative stimulus and the entrepreneur stimulus in doing that job. I love living on both of those levels as a producer. That being said, if the right role came across the desk and it was a friend of mine who was a director and they asked me to act in something, I would do it in a heartbeat. I love the challenge [of acting]; it’s something that causes me to really focus 110% in the moment, but it’s such a meditative and mindful challenge to do such in a performance.
I’d love the opportunity with the right project and the right director, again. I’m not going out and soliciting people to hire me as an actor, because that’s not where I’d like to focus my attention, but like I said, if the right project comes across the desk, then I would definitely consider it. My friends know me best and know my range best, so if the right role came across my desk and it was somebody I knew, I would take it on and have a blast.
DIABOLIQUE: Alongside Glass Eye Pix and Troma, Modernciné is often seen as a great New York-grown independent gateway for up-and-coming or underutilized filmmakers. Have you embraced the role of an independent filmmaking mentor?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: So much so that I’m starting a new company that’s all about embracing up-and-coming people, and it’s going to be something we’re going to be announcing at South by Southwest next year. I can’t go into too much detail, but I recently got funded with a new internet start-up company that’s going to be in the entertainment space and is just going to be a wonderful place for the people like the directors that we’ve been able to bring up to participate in.
DIABOLIQUE: Now that not only genre work but independent filmmaking in general has shifted business models towards Video On-Demand and Instant Streaming, do you think digital distribution has allowed you to be more flexible or experimental as a producer, distributor and filmmaker?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: It’s going to allow for both [flexibility and experimenting]. I wouldn’t get into this start-up space if I didn’t think that was the future. I think this new company we’re going to be starting is going to be exciting and it’s going to be complimenting Modernciné in many ways. Hopefully, it’ll be so successful that Modernciné doesn’t get dwarfed but instead becomes this little picture shop on the side and remains as this specialty house.
I think Modernciné is starting to grow to do more studio projects for sure in the coming years to try to expand the brand in that direction where as with this upcoming company could really innovate and create a rift in the entertainment business, all while using new technology. So I’m very excited about it.
DIABOLIQUE: Now that Jug Face is releasing theatrically this Friday, August 9th, and has been available on Video On-Demand, what other projects do you have in development or releasing soon?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: Yeah! My focus right now is really around The Undertakers and All Cheerleaders Die, and we’re examining a handful of projects from various sources right now, and I’m fascinated to get into stuff that compliments everything that Modernciné has been doing. I am looking for stuff that expands and goes a little more wide for what the audience might be for a particular project. I want to still try to push the envelope a little while trying to reach a larger audience.
I think the time has come where we need to do that. I don’t want to alienate our current fan base but at the same time, we still do want to create movies within the world that we’ve been working in, so it’s a two-fold approach. We want larger projects like The Undertakers and All Cheerleaders Die, but we also want the projects like Jug Face and The Woman. There’s nothing I can really announce now that’s on our slate, but we’re working avidly on finding material that we’re excited about working on. So we’ll see what happens. It’s definitely a day-to-day process and it’s definitely exciting, especially for our fans, or at least I hope so.
DIABOLIQUE: Considering that this entire summer, horror films have outgrossed bloated and star-filled action films time and time again, do you think the studio system may be inclined in the future to accommodate intimate genre films that Modernciné has produced and released in the past?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: You know, I think we may have made one. We’ll find out very soon.
DIABOLIQUE: As a filmmaker and producer who has built Modernciné through your own devices and means, do you have any advice to filmmakers who may want work with or have their films produced or distributed with Modernciné?
VAN DEN HOUTEN: First and foremost, I’d say to keep an eye out of I-Backlot, the start-up company which will be coming out next year and is going to be huge and a great opportunity. Secondly, I’d encourage them to make some amazing short films. You can write a great script that is awesome, but if you can write a great script and direct a great short and show that you have the capability to be a fine director as well as a fine writer, that’s appealing to us.
I think we’re a very director driven studio. I think we are very focused on script and story first, but then if a director is very visionary, then the indie film world better allows a vision to come to a screen successfully. So even if it’s a director who really writes and can accomplish putting their spin on it, that’s what I’m really interested in. I’m both interested in building our relationships with screenwriters and directors, but directors first and foremost at this point.
As mentioned before, Jug Face is releasing this Friday, August 9th in select theatres, and the film is still available for rental now on iTunes, Amazon and VOD platforms. The film is also releasing on DVD and Blu-ray on October 15th, 2013, and is available for preorder on Amazon and other retail outlets. For more information on the film, you can visit it’s official website here. For more from Andrew van den Houten, you can follow him on Twitter: @AndrewvdH, and for more from Modernciné, you can visit the company’s official website, like their official Facebook page, and follow the company on Twitter: @Moderncine.
For more from Andrew van den Houten and Jug Face, including our exclusive interviews with Chad Crawford Kinkle, Sean Young and more, check back later on DiaboliqueMagazine.com during our JUG FACE WEEK! Also, don’t forget to pick up Diabolique Issue #17, our incredibly great and star-studded horror-comedy issue, which is available for preorder now and will be on shelves and available for Digital Download soon!
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.