Anyone that’s seen either Soft for Digging or Mimic: Sentinel will likely agree with me when I say J.T. Petty is a horror filmmaker we should all be keeping our eyes on. He managed to create a very effective near-silent film, and breathe new life into a franchise that never had much chance to begin with.
Adam Barnick recently sat down with Mr. Petty to discuss SFD, Mimic, and his upcoming projects like The Burrowers and an adapatation of Graham Masterson’s Family Portrait. Enjoy!
Adam Barnick: What inspired you to be a filmmaker?
JT Petty: That one, I don’t know…that was a really early decision. I think until I was like 6 or 7 I wanted to be an air traffic controller, and then found out what that job actually entailed, decided I’d rather be a filmmaker.
AB: Do you have a particular inspiration that led to you wanting to do Soft For Digging? An animation background?
JT: I did a lot of animation in school, a lot of that was studying the silent actors, because all the acting in animation is sort of like full-body acting, like Buster Keaton; he was so good at keeping a complete stone-face, and letting you know he was sad with, like, his wrists.
Studying that kind of stuff made me want to make a dialogue-free film, just because it would force you to take advantage of that kind of stuff.
AB: Were any of your earlier NYU movies leading up to Soft for Digging, playing with the techniques of this?
JT: None of the shorter movies were narratively linked to Soft For Digging. The pixilation, like the “shaking Claire” effect, I’d been playing around with. I made one movie called Blood Oranges, which used that technique a lot, sort of did variations on it. It had more camera movement, inside the pixilation.
AB: Were you interested in animators like Svankmajer, and Brothers Quay? Seen films like Little Otik and Tom Thumb?
JT: I love Little Otik, I like the brothers Quay, (they) did a lot of animation that was probably influential. There’s some early Norwegian animators, don’t remember their names, sort of in the cold parts of Europe, in the silent period who were doing amazing stuff. There’s this one guy who did Dancing Insects, who would actually hollow out insects and put wires in them (to animate them).
AB: Since Soft started as your thesis, did you always intend this to be a feature instead of a short?
JT: The script was about 23 pages. I told the professor I knew it’d be longer than half an hour, and I knew pretty much from storyboarding that it would be about 74 minutes long. Timing out the boards came to that. I didn’t say that (to the class/professor), which sort of became political trouble because I ended up with this ridiculously long movie. That being said, I did it within the time allotted and all that stuff and I went back and cut together a 26 minute long version, out of respect for the teacher.
AB: I kind of wasn’t surprised when I heard you were also getting into children’s stories, in Soft I saw a lot of what I’d call “fable archetypes”, the old house in the woods, few characters, sort of primal images like the forest, basic to a lot of stories, like a Hansel and Gretel kind of story.
JT: There’s a lot of Little Red Riding Hood in there…
AB: Yeah! You’ve got a minimalism which extended to the website, and the pictures on it.
You do a lot of compositions that are off kilter, and I just can’t see enough of the picture, kind of what Virgil goes through. He’s seen enough, to set him off, but it doesn’t give him the whole answer.
JT: It’s all stolen from that one shot in Rosemary’s Baby, where the woman’s on the phone, in the bedroom, leaning a little bit forward…if you can get people to move in their seat, you’ve got them.
AB: Is the reason Soft is in chapters to make it a “book,” you prefer the episodic format of chapters and novels?
JT: Part of it was just to break up the film, just for the pacing of it, ‘cause I think if we (referring to he and I) just stared at each other for an hour and fifteen minutes, we’d learn things, and there’d be a narrative, but it would be so insanely uncomfortable. And we’d either fall asleep or get so uncomfortable that we’d leave. And I think that…there’s a Bukowski line about “Words are viruses from outer space.” We’re kind of addicted to words, and it’d be impossible to have a comfortable experience without them.
So a lot of it was pacing, a lot of it was wanting to let people know it was OK to laugh at the movie, ‘cause I was trying to be funny with a lot of it.
AB: I was going to ask you, I did feel that the movie, under all the scares is actually a twisted black comedy.
JT: Yeah, I think the chapter/title cards are part of that. The other thing about the title cards is that- the reason I did a horror movie is that everybody knows, basically, what beats you’re going to hit in a horror movie, so I could focus more on characters, and the style, and that stuff. I wanted to surprise people here and there, but in the overall plot- I didn’t want to make the audience work for general genre beats; I wanted to just give that away (in the titles), so then they could focus on what I’m more interested in.
AB: You’ve got the standard things to help you understand this is a horror film, now you’re going to do your own take on the form, right?
AB: I noticed one of the things you mentioned, timing the film out and knowing about the pace, had you always intended taking your time with the pace, matching the rhythms of your lead character? The movie’s “slow,” but that isn’t in a negative way.
JT: I don’t know if I’d make another one that slow, but part of it was about the lead character, part of it was just about…I just believe that slowness is where the tension is.
Like Assault on Precinct 13. All the best scenes in that movie are slow; character drives up…unlocks his car door…opens door…remembers he has to roll the window up…rolls the window up…And before this, we’ve just seen a bunch of guys get sniped in an alleyway. So we know anyone can die at any time. And you’re watching this guy…it’s like 45 seconds where nothing happens…and it kills you!
AB: It’s uncomfortable, but it’s a good uncomfortable.
AB: I got some of that where your camera in >Soft just holds on objects. I thought at first you were showing us just how Virgil would be, like the long walk to the orphanage, of course he’s not gonna sprint. But we’re on the edge of our seats because we know maybe we’re going to get some answers here. Something bad is probably going to happen.
I don’t remember the title card preceding it, but it hinted at something not-so-good happening in the orphanage. That’s your genre convention, but HE forces us to take our time to get there.
JT: Even if you get a little bit bored in the moment, I think the overall psychological effect is worth it.
AB: You’re also getting tense from holding on things like boiling the eggs in the film’s opening, and you kept coming back to that…I’m like “is the pot going to explode?” Is there going to be a loud BANG making us jump? Even things like Shovelman, in the end of the film when he’s “infected”, and you spend so much time on him, those are moments that would be about five quick cuts in length in a standard horror film, but it’s almost more frightening when you pushed it past the accepted time to see something unpleasant.
JT: Yeah, the pacing gets established in the script, rather than in the editing.
AB: And I figured you wanted the sound to tell as much of the story as the picture was going to.
JT: Definitely. Everybody keeps calling it a silent horror film, but I think the sound is hugely important; probably where you’re most honestly frightened in movies. I think it’s almost a cliché to say you can cover your ears and not be frightened in a horror movie. David Lynch is so good at this in his sound design. It’s sneakier!
Sound can get under your skin in ways that an image can’t. You can assign something a sound that makes it uncanny, that you don’t have an easy defense against. Like if you see something, you’re always thinking…especially as sophisticated as audiences are now…”OK, that’s latex, that’s fake blood,” but a sound, you never hear something in a film and think “oh that’s cellophane being crinkled and then slowed down.” A sound just goes directly into your brain. It’s like earworms.
Miller’s Crossing; the trees, that are in the woods when he’s going back to kill John Turturro, those come back more times in the film in such interesting places, the sound of them creaking under their own weight. It’s played again indoors, when Turturro kills Leo, (we hear) the trees are creaking in the middle of a hallway.
AB: The pixilation effect in Soft For Digging, was that a way that you felt you could achieve the otherworldly with a lack of funds? It’s very unsettling to watch, but did you already know that ahead of time?
JT: A lot of it was showing “inhumanity”, a lot of it was showing…there’s no good ways to say it without it being pretentious. (laughs) I knew the effect I was going for since I’d done other shorts with that kind of effect. I knew it was sort of a pacing question, everything else was just sort of stolen from Tarkovsky, these long takes…and I wanted that intercut with these single-frame edits, clicking off one frame at a time.
AB: Claire is like this frenetic hummingbird ghost that breaks into Virgil’s slow world.
JT: There’s something appealing about something having that much motion without any blur.
AB: Even though it’s going so fast, you see every moment clearly.
JT: Exactly…it registers somewhere, and I think that imitates memory in a really interesting way.
AB: You mentioned before, the monologue by the priest towards the film’s end. Is the reason you decided to give an explanation at that point because that’s a genre convention? I also thought it was pretty unsettling at that point to GET a paragraph from a character in the film, where we’re completely denied dialogue the rest of the film. And it’s still not even enough of an explanation! Doesn’t he mention that “The dog wasn’t her first victim?” Up until that point, I never thought the girl could have had something to do with the goings-on.
JT: Part of it is a twist, part of it is wanting a “villain explanation” speech that makes things more confusing.
I keep coming back to Miller’s Crossing in this conversation, don’t know why (laughs), what I love about that movie is that if you listen to the dialogue, you’ve got no idea what’s going on. If you watch the characters, you see all their relationships. It’s almost as if the visual track and the dialogue track are of separate stories. It’s a ridiculous idea, although I love the idea of a movie that tells you the truth in the images, and lies to you with the dialogue.
And this is just a tiny little nugget of that (in Soft), that this should be a speech that should classically tie everything together, so you can leave the movie and forget about it. But it actually makes you uncomfortable that (the priest is) talking, makes you have to reassess the plot and not come to any permanent conclusions about it. Even the facts about what the priest could know about Virgil, and what he’s looking for. He’s specifically addressing questions to Virgil that are (about things that are) impossible that he would know! How does the priest know Virgil saw the dog in the field?
AB: Yeah, I thought you were almost making an ironic comment on exposition in that scene! We’d learn everything from a James Bond villain monologue, and not only did you turn our chance to get a firm grasp on things on its head, but you opened up a whole other can of worms, like the ending, which I’ll get to.
The idea of a piggybacking spirit, you heard of that from certain folklore, right?
JT: I think there was an Irish drinking song I heard once that was like all from the point of view of one guy who survives a shipwreck, and brings the corpse of the captain back to get someone…he becomes a courier for a ghost. And I like the idea of a person being haunted more than a place. I could buy a person being haunted-just because it ties so well into ideas of memory, and all that sort of stuff.
AB: It’s good, because now Virgil has to propel the plot along, he can’t just stay alone.
JT: Yeah, you can never get out of yourself, so if you’re haunted, you’re stuck with it.
AB: I got the impression that Virgil’s out there in the cabin because he didn’t want to be around other people, and now he’s always got a guest. (laughs) Now he has to do something about it!
Did you continue to work with Matt (Matthew Polis, the film’s sound designer) after NYU, developing the film’s soundtrack?
JT: I came to him after NYU, having done all the sound on Avid with just like the general system back in 2000. Had like seven audio tracks. I did just a kind of terrible, messy sound design, and then took it to Matt, asked him to clean it up. He listened to it on VHS or something, was like “Oh yeah, this will be a pretty easy job” and then looked at the actual tracks…and we had already agreed on a price, (laughs) and he couldn’t bear to let something that poorly designed go out. He ended up doing a lot more of the foley, and more of completely redoing things, and making it a lot stronger.
Soft and Mimic: Sentinel especially, both films are kind of blackly comic to me. Freaky, but not all out.
JT: Mimic especially, is just a giant dysfunctional family comedy with a giant cockroach massacre here and there. I was surprised they let me make that as I did, (laughs) and I think a lot of the Mimic fans are kind of thrown off by what an “indie comedy” it is. Horror and comedy, it’s almost just like the difference between sadism and masochism. Even in an out-and-out horror film like The Exorcist, after you’ve finished cringing, there’s no response to autoerotic crucifixion except for, like a laugh
AB: When you got involved with Mimic: Sentinel, had they seen the supernatural scenes from Soft, had they been a deciding factor? The ghosts move with the startling suddenness of an insect.
JT: I’m not sure, I think Dimension might have just seen Soft and said “what a remarkably inexpensive movie!” And for the straight to video stuff, they don’t want to spend a lot of money. I think part of it was that, part of it was…I think I got that job more from the writing end, and then directing followed. They brought me in to see if I was interested in any projects, and listed all the STV horror movies they were gonna make. They gave me their one-line concept for Mimic, and I came back with a treatment, they liked it, and I came back with a script, and they were like “Great! Can you shoot in five weeks?” (laughs)
AB: I was noticing after seeing this and Soft, certain plot parallels: you’re got these loner characters, by their own choice or by circumstance, both have Boy-who-cried-Wolf themes, and even if they decided to stay in, and not do anything about the evil in the films, it comes to their houses.
JT: Well the boy who cried wolf is a pretty classic horror idea. You see it all over the place. Home invasion I’m definitely interested in, I like the idea since “Home” is such an important American idea, so few languages separate house from home. Ghost stories are so much more prevalent in America. I like corrupting homes, (laughs) Halloween, The Searchers, these important American movies, fucking up home is always such a part of it.
AB: I notice you did the some crazy animations/edits, like that infected pigeon, and the kid in the opening of Mimic getting throttled and killed.. Did any of those abstract filming techniques worry the producers?
JT: I think they were mostly just concerned that I wouldn’t make a Mimic movie that was as slow as Soft.
Dimension was pretty hands off in just about everything except for the casting. In terms of shooting style, we had such a tight schedule, and we were shooting so far away, they had so much else to worry about, that I was pretty much left alone.
AB: Were you able to get a decent amount of prep done in that short time for Mimic?
JT: Most of the Mimic production was seat-of-my-pants, if felt like a crash course in working with a studio. Certainly things I would have done differently with more preparation time. Overall it was so much fun. I went into it knowing the constraints of doing a sequel, but knew that going in.
AB: With both of these films, was it difficult writing these two films where you have more of a reactive character as a lead? They really keep to themselves until they have no other choice.
JT: I think I tend towards those characters because they’re closer to what the audience is doing. Like their role is to watch very closely. See what’s happening.
AB: You’re still dong a lot of writing work in the video game industry. Who did you start with on that?
JT: The first games I wrote, there was a game called Batman: Vengeance, I did one with Disney’s Tarzan, a company called UbiSoft, at the time, I was the only English language scriptwriter in the company. So I’d get to like mess around with all of the projects. Then I left a couple of months before they finalized Splinter Cell, to do Mimic, came back to them for the second Splinter Cell game, consulted on a couple of other games, and most recently I worked on the upcoming game based on Batman Begins.
AB: Do you find game scripts more challenging because you have to literally write every direction the story can go in? Or is it just ‘different?’
JT: You don’t have to anticipate every direction a player could go in a videogame. Most of the scriptwriting on games I worked on was about creating the illusion of control. Hopefully we’ll figure out the technology and techniques to allow for more emergent narratives in the future, but with what we know now, I think narrative-heavy games tend to be pretty narrow corridors of interaction. The most difficult thing about game writing, compared to film, is not having a firm, hard path laid out for you by a hundred years of the art form’s development. We’re still learning how to use the medium.
AB: Tell me about what you were up to post-Mimic?. You mentioned several games you consulted on, and then you were working on a script adaptation of Graham Masterton’s Family Portrait, right? How did you become involved with that?
JT: Family Portrait was brought to me by a producer named Stephen Schneider, who put me to work on it at Gold Circle Films. I read the book and was excited by the concept, pitched my take to GC, and they bit. Pretty lucky project in a lot of directions. I’m grateful to Masterton for letting us have such freedom with the book, and grateful to GC for letting me go really dark and nasty with the material without dumbing it down.
AB: How did you become involved in kid’s books? What attracted you to doing these stories?
JT: I’ve always written kid’s fiction as a way to relax, and Clemency Pogue was the first that felt close to ready to publish. I think kids stuff and horror operate by a lot of the same devices, and I like playing around with mythic ideas. The first Clemency Pogue, (Fairy Killer) is out in stores now, and the second will be coming out in Spring of 06. I’ve got a longer, horror-for-children novel that Simon & Schuster’s going to release in the summer of ’06. I haven’t finalized the title yet, but it’ll have the word Squampkin in it.
AB: What’s coming up for you? What can you tell me about The Burrowers? And I know you have another script called Skin and Teeth you’d like to get made as well.
JT: Hopefully Burrowers will start shooting soon, I’m certainly pushing from my end. I’m writing a horror script right now for the UK Film Council, a Western graphic novel coming out in the Spring of next year, as well as the third Clemency Pogue book. Keeping myself busy until I can get back behind a camera.
AB: You’re based on the East Coast; does this affect your ability to get your films made at all? You just go out there when you have to? Any pressure/interest to be in LA?
JT: Definite pressure from the agents to move out to LA; I just keep trying to tell them how much less productive I’d be if I were constantly miserable. But I like LA in small doses; it’s kind of growing on me.
AB: For the rest of us, any advice or tips you can give filmmakers out there, some successful actions you’ve taken?
JT: The ugliest fact of movies is that self-promotion is more important to recognition than talent. And the most unfortunate is that good pitchers get more work than good writers. Only advice I’d offer is to work all the time and be ready to get shat on through most of it.
That’s probably the best advice I’ve heard a screenwriter give in a long time. Thanks to Adam for submitting the interview, and especially to Mr. Petty for taking the time to discuss something he’s obviously very passionate about. Soft for Digging was finally released on DVD recently, so click here to get your copy and see what the fuss is all about.