Hey, but don't go by me. The Toronto Film Festival programmers also found a lot to like in S&MAN (it's pronounced "sandman"), which is why the flick's about to make its Canadian debut at one of North America's premier festivals. JT and I tried to have an interview last March, but the conversation quickly devolved into a random-access-memory 45-minute discussion about horror movies -- so with the Toronto festivities now in full swing, I asked Mr. Petty if we could give it another go. And here's how the new chat went down...
SW: Let's get the obvious-yet-inevitable questions out of the way first: Why horror? What's the appeal? And yes: tell me your favorites.
JT Petty: Everything that's great about movies is even greater in horror films; they're balls-out unapologetically cinematic. Though I don't think that's enough to explain their appeal, and answering that question was a large part of why I made S&MAN. I think we enjoy watching violence, and enjoy suffering through watching it, and that's pretty f*cked up. Favorites at the moment are pretty standard: Jaws, Audition, Alien, Repulsion, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Peeping Tom, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper), The Shining, Suicide Circle, Dead Ringers, Don't Look Now, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman).
Your first feature, Soft for Digging, got a lot of solid buzz all over the festival circuit. What was your reaction when you first started hearing things like "Man, I really liked your movie!"
I was amazed that Soft got as much play as it did, and there's nothing as fun as getting an email from some kid in Sri Lanka who really enjoyed the movie.
Flipside: Can you recall reading any criticisms that ended up helping to make you a better filmmaker?
There's definitely criticism of the movie that I agree with, though I don't know if any of it's specifically shaped the movies I want to make now.
If Fox gave you 10 million bucks to remake Digging next week, do you think it would be a better film?
I think I could make a better version of the movie with $10 million and another 10 years of experience, though I don't know how the studio system would support such a thing.
True or False: "Film critics do not like horror films." Explain.
I can't think of a better-reviewed film in recent memory than The Descent, which is about as straightforward a horror film as you can get. I might say that horror films, because they're so overt in what they present, are much more vulnerable to criticism than other genres.
After Soft for Digging, you found yourself writing video games. How's that process work? One of the games you wrote, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, is (no lie) an absolute masterpiece, and this is coming from a guy who generally just likes to point and shoot at stuff.
Our ambitions were pretty high on Splinter Cell, but I think everybody was happily surprised by how well it did, especially considering its difficulty and complexity of interface. Writing videogames is a new experience every time (unless the game is a blatant re-hash of another) because the storytelling tools present in each individual game design can vary so much. When I started writing for games, cinematics were the standard method of storytelling, but Half-Life had just come out, and it was an exciting time to be working. We were pretty constantly trying to figure out ways to weave narrative into the experience without interrupting the game.
Then Dimension came along and asked you to write and direct their third Mimic movie. How'd you get attached to that project, was it a good experience, and what's your take on Mimic: Sentinel now that it's a few years old?
Mimic: Sentinel was a great way to learn how to make a movie for a studio. I got attached by a producer who saw Soft at Sundance and enjoyed it. At the time, Dimension was churning out straight-to-video horror sequels, there were some Hellraisers, some Prophecies, maybe a Children of the Corn that followed on the heels of Sentinel, even re-used some of the sets. I think they chose me for the job because I responded to the premise of "Rear Window with giant cockroaches." I still think there's a lot of fun stuff in Sentinel, though it's a pretty consistently panned film by horror fans. I sometimes wonder if the straight-to-video consumer is mad that there are no boobies in it. And I should probably apologize for making a movie about a Peeping Tom that doesn't have any boobies in it.
True or False: "PG-13 is the kiss of death for true horror." Expound.
Jaws is PG, I think. Though who knows what it would be rated today. I think you could make a terrifying horror film with less offensive content than most PG-13 movies out in the theaters, but you'd be hard pressed to get it past the ratings board with its teeth intact.
After Mimic you wrote two of the Splinter Cell sequels, in addition to the tie-in game for Batman Begins. How tough is it to write a game for a character (and new movie) that everyone already adores?
I had a good experience on the Batman Begins videogame; It was a little rushed, but all the filmmakers / studio folks were supportive of the game script. And I'm a longtime Batman geek, so it was an honor to be allowed to play with those characters.
Are you still involved with the (alleged/eventual) movie version of Splinter Cell?
I haven't been involved with the Splinter Cell movie for a while, since it switched studios. I've got no idea how much of the script I wrote with John McLaughlin is still intact, or what the movie's chances of production are.
Which brings us up to S&MAN, which is as strangely chilling a documentary as I've ever seen. What was the genesis of the film?
The movie started as it reports in the movie, with me trying to get in touch with a Peeping Tom from my childhood, and being freaked out by the underground horror filmmakers I was meeting at conventions.
It's certainly not what one would call a "traditionally profitable" type of horror film, so who was it who backed the idea?
I think "essay" makes more sense than "documentary" for describing the movie, though that would probably make it even less "traditionally profitable."
Are you (and they) happy with the way the film turned out?
It was funded by HDNet Films, who loved the idea of a documentary-style film that was really creepy and frightening. I love the way it turned out, as do the producers. The challenge now is figuring out how to let it find its audience.
True or False: "All horror remakes inevitably suck." Elucidate.
I'd say most horror remakes suck ass. I liked the remake of The Ring. I know, it's a terrible thing to say, but there's some remarkable filmmaking going on in that movie, and I know a lot of people who've lost sleep over it. Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a fantastic interpretation of the original story. Carpenter's The Thing. How about: "All corporate-minded money-grubbing cynical Hollywood horror remakes suck." But there are some horror films out there that I'd love to remake, (including) one I'm pitching on now. I think a remake is like any other movie, it comes down to a filmmaker being passionate about the idea, instead of an executive being excited about profits.
S&MAN draws a connection between the act of watching horror movies (healthily) and the act of watching real people ... unhealthily. You knew this was coming: Do you believe that horror films inspire people to commit violent acts? Are horror movies/games/etc. in any way responsible for the violent behavior of their viewers?
I think violent images absolutely can have an effect on viewers, but I don't think anything is as dangerous as censorship.
I'm a person who's just walked out of seeing S&MAN. What's the very best (and/or worst) thing I could say as I'm walking to my car?
I want the movie to encourage debate. There's a lot of overt manipulation going on, and a lot of questions about how real / honest my subjects are being with me and how honest I'm being in presenting them to the audience. I think depending on the tone of voice, "bullshit" could be the best and the worst thing a person could say.
The "underground indie" horror filmmakers in your film have to push the envelope every time out in an effort to get some attention. Is there a limit? Do you believe that the oft-muttered comment "Whoever made/watches this stuff must be SICK!" has validity in some cases?
Yep, there's absolutely a limit. In a lot of these movies, people are really hurting people, or really allowing people to hurt them, and I don't think it's healthy. Though how do you differentiate that from the crap Martin Sheen went through on Apocalypse Now -- or Christian Bale losing a third of his body mass for The Machinist? And what a lot of audience members went to see was the genuine horror of Sheen's performance. I'm not sure how you differentiate that from the violence and degradation you see in August Underground's videos.
True or False: "It's smart for studios to 'hide' their genre films from the press until opening day." Clarify.
I don't think it's ever a smart move; People assume that an unreviewed movie is going to be crap, and people assume big press critics are going to be condescending to genre films. Yesterday I went and saw LaBute's remake of The Wicker Man because the entirely negative reviews of the thing were all pretty compelling in their description of why they didn't like the movie.
Have you ever seen a horror film that was so harsh/ugly/nasty/etc. that you regret watching it?
I don't know if I ever saw something that I wanted to erase from my memory for being nasty. The most upsetting thing I've ever seen was probably the webcast beheading of the reporter in Iraq.* I lost sleep over those images, but I don't think I've got the kind of personality that would allow me to not watch something if given the opportunity. (*Editor's Note: Petty seems to be combing the 2002 execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and the similar 2004 beheading of contractor Nick Berg in Iraq.)
S&MAN isn't exactly a multiplex-type movie. How would you describe the film to an average movie-watcher? What are the plans for the film, release-wise?
My hollywood pitch version of summarizing the movie would be Grizzly Man meets Hostel. In terms of release, we'll have to see how the movie fares at Toronto.
Who's making the best horror flicks these days?
Koreans and David Cronenberg.
Wrapping up, what's next?
A horror/western called The Burrowers, (which) I'm trying to muscle into a greenlight over at Lionsgate, but the studio system is hard to navigate.
(Rest assured, loyal readers, that I'll let you know when S&MAN hits a theater / video store near you.)