England, Eric (Madison County)
Oftentimes on indie film shoots, timing is everything, which means you don’t necessarily get a lot of time to sit down with the cast and crew to talk extensively about their project. This was the case with the ambitious Madison County, which was written and directed by Eric England and shot back in September, 2010 in rural Arkansas.
Once the cast and crew wrapped up production and returned to civilization, Dread Central caught up with everyone to talk about their experiences while working on Madison County. In this first interview we chat with newcomer England on how he got started in the industry, what makes Madison County different than a lot of recent slasher films, and the future of one of the newest faces of horror - Damien (played by Nick Principe).
Heather Wixson: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you discuss what made you decide to get into filmmaking?
Eric England: When I was about 4 years old, the first horror films I remember seeing were Fright Night, Night of the Living Dead, and Stephen King's "IT". All of these films rocked my world and turned me into the horror nerd that I am today. My parents were pretty cool. They let me watch whatever I wanted so I was always the kid that saw all the R-rated films that my friends couldn't see. It all started when I was about 9 years old. Scream had come out in theaters, and the theater manager let me go in and check it out. I was hooked. I LOVED the movie. The mystery, the suspense, the scares -- I was fucking scared out of my mind! I remember watching the audience's reactions through most of the movie thinking, "I want to scare people for a living..." I loved seeing their reaction to what was on the screen. I didn't know how it was done -- I just knew I wanted to do it.
So I went home and described the movie to all of my friends (how they usually got their entertainment since their parents wouldn't let them see the films my parents would). They were terrified. I did the same thing with I Know What You Did Last Summer, and eventually a couple of my friends saw the movie and told me that "it was better when you told us about it". That's when I first started telling scary stories.
In 2002 I was 15 and a freshman in high school. My dad and I continued our "movie nights" every Friday, and on one particular night we got Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. I remember watching it and thinking of Evil Dead and all the other films that felt like those movies, and it just clicked for me. I told my dad I felt like if I were to make a movie, it would be like this. Some kids in the woods and terrible things happening. Simple enough, right? I knew nothing about storytelling back then; I just knew I liked those kinds of movies. So I started outlining Madison County but trying to make the story unlike anything I had ever seen.
A lot of films had a massive influence on me in those days as well. House of 1000 Corpses, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, The Dawn of the Dead remake, Saw, Wolf Creek, etc. I think it was because I was in high school and everyone was thinking about college and all I could think of was moving to LA and making movies. I wanted to do something bigger and better (at least to me it was) than just being a doctor or a lawyer or a coach. Everyone was doing those things. I wanted to do something different! I wanted to make something that people would remember! So I took a year off from high school, saved up some money, and moved out to LA.
HW: So you moved to LA to pay your dues and start making your way in the industry. How difficult was that time for you before you got Madison County greenlit?
EE: Once I was out of school, all I could think of was making a movie. I didn't have any money at the time, and I didn't know where to go to get financing. And even if I did, I only had a couple of little short films from film school under my belt. It's the Catch-22 -- no one is going to give you money to make a movie until you've made one... but you need SOME money to make a movie. I was willing to do whatever I could to make a movie. I applied for dozens of PA jobs and anything I could just to get me on set, but no luck. Also, I HATED being a PA. I had done that in film school and realized I liked making my own movies better. So that drove me pretty hard to get my own things going. So I had my short films that I'd shot, and I began writing feature films and pitching them to anyone that would listen.
After several projects fell through with various producers at different levels of the industry, I got frustrated and put together a small feature film called Hostile Encounter with my producers Daniel Dunn and Ace Marrero and took us all down to Arkansas and made that movie. I wrote/directed/produced/financed that film, and ultimately, that's what led Daniel to seek out the financing for Madison County. He was really impressed with what we did on that film for basically no money and a crew of about 5-6 people so on February 16th of last year, Daniel asked me what I wanted to do next if I had the money to do it and I told him I'd want to do Madison County. And he said he thought he could get the money so I said, "If you get the money, we'll make the movie." Daniel's told me a couple of times that if we had never made Hostile that he never would have made Madison. So I think that was definitely the best investment of my life -- and I guess you could say where I got my "official" start in the film industry.
HW: A lot of up-and-coming directors do a horror movie to start off their career, but I know you’re truly working in the genre you love the most. Can you discuss what it is about the horror genre that you enjoy as a fan and as a filmmaker?
EE: What can I say that hasn't already been said? It's probably the intimacy that I like the most. Everything about it, really. From the stories that are told to the people that make the movies. It's all very personal. I love hearing about movies like Hatchet and Cabin Fever that come from filmmakers with passion that are telling stories that they've been living with for years. I love how people naturally want to take a date to a horror film. Or when you're staying up late with your friends, you watch Halloween and not Pride and Prejudice. Horror movies built a really strong bond between my father and I when I was a kid. We would spend countless hours in movie theaters and in front of the TV. My friends all love horror films and I love making them with those friends. It's just a part of my life that I love. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?
I was also influenced by a lot of my favorite directors. When I first moved to LA, I had the pleasure of running into or meeting a ton of great directors and I felt like a little kid. I remember meeting some members of the Splat Pack at the Scream Awards in '07 and being in shock; I was always inspired by their stories when I thought of making my own movies. A lot of directors like Eli Roth, Ti West, Adam Green, James Wan, Darren Lynn Bousman, and numerous others really inspired me to bust my ass and keep pushing forward. I saw those guys telling the stories they wanted to tell and having a blast while doing it, and I wanted to do the same.
HW: I know that it takes real dedication to work on a film on an independent budget. What was it about Madison County that made you want to dig in to make the project successful on your own terms?
EE: Madison County is a really close and personal story to me. A lot of it is based on things that happened to me as a kid and stories that I just kind of dramatized to fit into a horror film so to be able to share those stories with the world and shoot them in the actual locations where they took place and in my home state, around my family, was very important to me. I knew going into this that Madison County would be a low budget film. I knew it was going to be made on the blood, sweat, and tears of everyone involved and no one was going to put in more work than me. We had such a hard working crew that worked ridiculously long hours for barely any pay. I was in Arkansas a month before the rest of the crew, scouting locations and doing all the little things involved before the crew gets there. Then Daniel joined me, and we kind of put the finishing touches on everything.
Daniel, Ace, and I were the producers on the film but never acted like "typical" producers. Ace was always one of the last people to leave set, as well as Danny. At one point both guys helped serve as AD's on set and even gripped when we needed an extra hand or two. We were always getting our hands dirty moving C-stands, apple boxes, etc., and cleaning up every day after we wrapped. We wanted to create a friendly working environment to let everyone know that we were there to work just as hard as them and we'd never ask them to do something we wouldn't do ourselves.
HW: Were you at all apprehensive about traveling to the middle of nowhere in Arkansas to shoot?
EE: Since I wrote the script around certain places in Arkansas, I always planned to shoot there. But I was always a little apprehensive about what kind of gear/crew/support/etc. we would find while shooting a movie there. Ultimately, it was the best experience of my life. We met a ton of great people that worked on the movie or helped out in some form, and after day one my apprehensions were gone. I couldn't imagine shooting this movie anywhere else.
HW: I’ve heard a lot of the hotel horror stories from the cast, but from your experience as the director, what would you say the biggest production challenge was?
EE: I have to pick just one? Ha ha! It's hard -- probably scheduling and weather. We're a low budget film so time is always an issue. We didn't have 20 million dollars to work with and all the time in the world so we had to cram a full movie into a short schedule. We got rained on, it was cold one day and burning hot the next. Then it would rain.
We even had to shoot in a fully functioning diner because we couldn't afford to close them down. So we had to shoot our scenes around patrons ordering food, getting gas, and the owners cooking food. It was insane!
We were a day behind schedule for most of the shoot because of rain, and we were completely short-handed and under-scheduled. But that's just a testament to how badass our cast/crew was to get the job done in time while still making the best film possible!
HW: Since you’re a horror fan, I know I don’t need to tell you that there have been a lot of incredible slasher films over the last few decades. So what sort of steps did you take as a storyteller to ensure this wasn’t just another run of the mill slasher flick?
EE: I tried my best (and hopefully it shows) to add a lot of mystery to Madison County. I didn't want another slasher flick with a bunch of kids running around, having sex, doing drugs, and getting knocked off one-by-one. That's not this movie. I tried to go against the grain and really tell a story that got you interested about people you actually cared about. I never set out to make a film about killing people... I wanted to tell a story that happened to have people that got killed in it.
There are definitely moments in the movie that are reminiscent of other films. I don't think you can ever get away from that, no matter how hard you try. It's all been done. But if you're going to do it, you have to do it in an original way. Present it in a new light, try something a little different. If everyone goes right, go left. You may still end up at the same place (a killer with a bunch of dead bodies around him), but at least you took a different way of getting there.
I was never setting out to reinvent the wheel with this story, and especially Damien Ewell. I was just trying to give quality back to the genre and introduce a new killer. Much like Adam Green did with Hatchet. He just gave us more of what we loved. I tried to do the same, but more like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre and less comedy. I grew up on films like Scream and Urban Legends. So I wanted to mix in the mystery and suspense of those 90's thrillers. I think a nice blend of mystery goes well with a little violence and terror!
HW: Have you already started thinking about the future of Damien and Madison County? Have you toyed with any ideas for a sequel yet?
EE: I always conceived this idea of Madison County as a time line of sorts. The original idea I had was to tell the origin story of Damien and the place/people. But that story was a little too big to tell with the resources we had so I chose to tell a story somewhere in the middle of the time line. I specifically left a lot of questions in the movie to be answered with future films, and thankfully, we've already been approached about making sequels. But I don't plan on taking Damien to space anytime soon.
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