J.D. Lifshitz: The Next Generation of Horror
It’s not often in the world of horror you can use the term wunderkind, but J.D. Lifshitz might be just that and then some. At 17 years old, Lifshitz is anything but your average teenager. He recently finished filming his first feature film, Killed on the Fourth of July, during the summer of 2009 after writing the script and securing independently-raised funding alongside his partner Josh Adams.
Now, in the midst of editing his first foray into writing/directing professionally, Lifshitz took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about how he got his start, his film Killed on the Fourth of July, and what he thinks about joining the ranks alongside many of his horror heroes.
Lifshitz’s fascination with the macabre started when he was just two years old (he’s making movies at 17, it’s not at all surprising that he’d start appreciating horror at such a young age.) after seeing Batman Returns, which he likened to a superhero monster movie.
In 8th grade, Lifshitz decided to take a chance and reach out to director Eli Roth through MySpace just to see if it would be possible to talk to him about the industry he wanted to break into. Turns out, Roth was more than happy to oblige.
“In 8th grade, I sent a message to Eli Roth on MySpace and he replied back within five minutes,” explained Lifshitz. “He sent me a fully personalized email and it just inspired me to keep going and to follow my dreams of making movies.”
After reaching out to Roth, Lifshitz then reached out to Tim Sullivan, the madman associated with the horror flicks 2001 Maniacs, Driftwood and Hood of Horror.
For the red carpet premiere of Hood of Horror, Sullivan initiated Lifshitz into the industry lifestyle, even if he still technically had curfew.
Lifshitz said, “I was such a huge fan of 2001 Maniacs so I really wanted to get to talk to Tim to get his advice and just pick his brain. He then invited me to the premiere of Hood of Horror which was so surreal. I was some kid doing camcorder flicks and here I was out in LA, completely freaking out."
"What’s really funny is that I really wanted to meet Snoop Dogg. He got to the carpet at the very end, so Tim basically told him I was a Make a Wish kid just so I could get to meet him on the red carpet before the night was done. I really felt like that was my initiation night into the business,” added Lifshitz.
Lifshitz decided that he needed to tap into any resources he could in order to make his way in filmmaking, so he spent two summers at the New York Film Academy. That’s where he met Adams who became an instant friend and collaborator.
“Josh and I talked about a lot of different projects we wanted to do and decided that no matter what, we’d shoot a movie regardless on June 28th, 2009. We started brainstorming ideas and came up with the idea of a carnie that kills people with a sledgehammer. Then I had to get busy putting together the script in just one month,” said Lifshitz.
Lifshitz went on to discuss the story of Killed on the Fourth of July and what inspired his twisted little tale of carnie carnage.
“I like to joke that Killed on the Fourth of July is the darkest and most twisted romantic comedy ever,” explained Lifshitz. “You have this hideous guy working at a carnival and the owner basically keeps him working there out of pity. One day, a little girl shows him the slightest act of kindness and it creates a bond between the two of them. Her father freaks out a bit by their bond and gets him fired. Now, the disfigured carnie is jobless and has nothing left to lose, so he decides he wants to get the girl and get revenge on those who wronged him.”
It’s been a while since the horror genre has had a good carnival-themed movie made, so I asked the writer/director to talk about where he found the inspiration for Killed on the Fourth of July.
Lifshitz said, “I wanted to make a really screwed up movie, sort of Night of the Demons-esque. The thing is Demons wasn’t exactly an original movie but for that kind of fun horror film, it didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
“To me, 80s horror is a testament to the independent spirit of the horror genre, so Killed on the Fourth of July is a way of paying homage and embracing that spirit. Adam Green’s Hatchet is a lot like that so I really kept Hatchet in the back of my mind the whole time I have been working on this project. I just want audiences to have a good time watching my movies and maybe even get a little grossed out too,” Lifshitz added.
So, how does someone in their teens go about getting the wheels moving on a production when they aren’t exactly getting an allowance from Donald Trump? A lot of hard work and preparation.
“Josh and I decided that for us to do this right, we needed to raise $55,000 independent of our parents,” explained Lifshitz. “So I had to talk to a lot of people and really get them to understand I wasn’t making some pet project, that this was the real deal.”
“I just never thought that it could actually happen but we ended up getting all the financing we needed to make the movie. I was so humbled by all my friends too- so many of them helped out and they didn’t really have motivation to do anything for the film, but they stepped right up and you can’t ask for better friends than that,” Lifshitz added.
I wanted to find out just how intimidated the up-and-coming director felt the moment he walked on set for the very first time.
Lifshitz described his experience as, “The first night was probably the most peaceful night for me on set. I spent most of the week before stressing out and honestly, starting to panic over everything. But once I got on set and looked around, it was like I found nirvana. When I yelled “Action” that first time, it was pure magic. The last day was the most stressful which I expected, but I honestly can’t wait to get to do it again.”
One experience on set in particular that Lifshitz relished the most was directing the legendary Lloyd Kaufman in a scene. It’s something he still has trouble believing some six months or so after filming completed.
“I remember the one night that we had Lloyd Kaufman on set for a cameo in Killed on the Fourth of July,” explained Lifshitz. “Lloyd has so much enthusiasm for the industry and everyone was so enamored by him. I still have trouble believing that I directed Lloyd Kaufman! What’s really cool is that he’s even doing a short film about his experience on the set.”
"It’s still surreal for me to say that I made an actual movie and it’s kind of scary too. I originally wanted to make this movie as my calling card to get into the business so I had no idea it would go this far, let alone even think about things like distribution or anything like that,” Lifshitz added.
Lifshitz is first to admit that most of what got him here was his hard work and determination to make a film, but he is also quick to acknowledge everyone who has helped him along this far in his journey.
Lifshitz said, “If it wasn’t for Josh pushing me, I never would have gotten the script for Killed done. Tim has become my mentor and I can’t think of a better person to learn from. Tim never gave me a handout; he’s always just given me advice because he saw that I was actually serious about doing this.”
“In the end, I think what’s important is that you make it happen for yourself. Tim knew that too so that’s why he knew I needed to make this happen on my own. He just guided me along as I found my way,” added Lifshitz.
So, how does Lifshitz feel about working alongside many of the people that he grew up admiring and still admires to this day? Very humbled.
“I still think it’s a bit miraculous that I’ve been given the opportunity to become friends with people I really respect in the business. What amazes me as a fan is just how awesome everyone in the horror industry has been towards me- it really doesn’t benefit anyone to go out of their way for me so to have come across so many selfless people is kind of humbling,” said Lifshitz.
“That kindness is what makes me excited about working in the industry. It’s why I have to keep making movies, so that maybe one day, I can pay it forward,” Lifshitz added.
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