From Columbine to Sandy Hook, school shootings have truly become a modern American terror, and given horror cinema’s historic penchant for addressing the populace’s real-life anxieties in the wake of such tragedies, it was only a matter of time before a filmmaker reflected on this raw topic.
Just as the Saw series and Eli Roth’s Hostel (debatably reactionary films which perhaps unconsciously attempted to ease our psyches in the wake of the stream of beheading and torture videos which emanated from the Middle East commencing with the first Gulf War) drew audience attention, so did George Romero’s 1968 classic feature Night of the Living Dead, via its thinly-veiled commentary on race relations. The amount of sociological discourse inherent in horror is voluminous, and Colorado filmmaker Haylar Garcia is about to throw his hat into the ring, with his forthcoming feature An American Terror (the film’s trailer’s tag-line of ‘The Breakfast Club meets Saw Versus Columbine on Bath Salts’ is what initially drew our attention).
Written, directed and edited by Garcia and produced by Sam Sleiman and Tarik Heitmann and executive produced by Jim Brennan and Roland Salameh, the official synopsis for An American Terror reads as follows; ‘Three teen outcasts decide to trade their nameless and bullied existences for internet fame by exacting a sadistic template for the unthinkable, but in their search for the assault weapons to pull it off, they come upon something far darker than even their own gruesome plans.’
Starring Graham Emmons, Louise MacDonald, Joe Abplanalp, Taylor Hulett, Nathan Green and Brian Johnson, An American Terror was filmed over the course of eighteen days last June on location in Denver, Colorado (merely a stone’s throw from the Columbine and James Holmes’ massacres), and we caught up with filmmaker Garcia to discuss the feature.
Dread Central: The tag-line and trailer for An American Terror seems intent on generating controversy. Is this is your intent?
Haylar Garcia: Well, trailers are a whole other science, especially where a film like this is concerned. The fact is, even though the film has a deep message, it also was intended to succeed in the commercial market, and with horror audiences. It’s easy to over-focus on the Columbine aspect, and so the trailer is meant to remind us that it’s a true horror film, with ‘fun’ elements for the die-hards. When making the trailer and this tag-line, we looked at the commercially tag-able references in the film, and thought (that) a mash-up reference campaign would be a simple and fast way to understand what the film has to offer in total.
Dread Central: How many drafts? What was the writing process and your head space given the subject matter?
Haylar Garcia: One draft. The pitch, finance and production phases were a bit of a whirlwind. We had a finite window, which meant many things needed to get done at once in order to make this film happen, so I had to work hard to nail down the script narrative the first time around. There were some slight rewrites during production, as per the normal need to bob and weave when making an indie film. As far as my headspace, it was hard to keep myself in that darkness. It can be consuming. In order to write a film like this I had to read a lot about mass shootings and the people who commit them. You find yourself going beyond the act itself and trying to figure out what triggered the act, (and) in doing so you go through a range of emotions and you never really have absolve. No matter how much you try to nail down the catalyst, you always find yourself left with the event. That can be a weird place to be for the entirety of a draft. I will say however, that ‘feeling’ had everything do to with how the film ends.
Dread Central: How was financing acquired?
Haylar Garcia: Financing was acquired and managed through our producers, Sam Sleiman and Tarik Heitmann. They knew a L.A. investor and executive producer, Roland Salameh, who wanted to do a horror film, but Sam and Tarik wanted something that went beyond the average and abundant slasher model. I pitched them this strange Columbine mash-up idea, and found that they too were interested in making a commercially viable film that actually mattered. Getting that kind of creative freedom from L.A. folks is like seeing Bigfoot, so we were blessed to have this new breed of modern, progressive producer aboard. And when you couple Tarik and Sam with our local executive producer Jim Brennan, and production manager Patrick Hackett, things just blossomed. As a director, I was blessed to have this team.
Dread Central: As a Colorado production, did you find garnering support difficult, given the state’s recent history of school violence?
Haylar Garcia: Because we knew people would begin to talk, we kept the initial production on the down-low. The subject matter was not talked about at all. We even had a fake film on Facebook called Red Harvest about Amish vampires, and an obvious nod to George Lucas, to help keep things quietly misdirected until we were done (filming). The James Holmes shooting actually happened after we had wrapped. We had just begun to pull all of the footage into post, and it was mid-July and suddenly the news broke. It brought a sobering light to our film, because we were no longer dealing with a decade-plus old scar. We would be addressing something fresh. Bizarre coincidence? The universe screaming at us? We didn’t know exactly, but suddenly the film felt even more important. That being said, the potential for heat felt far more likely as well. We were in complete disbelief when right after finishing our rough-cut, the Sandy Hook shooting took place. At that point we were sure the universe was screaming at us. Support has been mixed, because not everyone can seem to wrap their heads around the subject matter, especially in trailer form. Some view the film as having been made just for controversy and/or to exploit the national raw nerve of mass shootings. Some believe the violence is just for violence’s sake, or that the school shooting angle is some tasteless gimmick, but nothing could be further from the truth. We knew from the beginning we would be ripping off some Band-Aids, all good horror films do, but the unexpected Batman premiere and Sandy Hook shootings have intensified it one-hundred fold for us. This omelet is using up a hell of a lot of eggs.
Dread Central: What is your personal stance on the renewed 2nd Amendment debate following the Sandy Hook shootings, and prior, as a filmmaker, what commentary did you aim to inject into An American Terror?
Haylar Garcia: First, I think it’s important to have a stance on what causes people (especially kids) to pick up guns. In actuality, An American Terror explores the preludes to these types of massacres, more than the instruments used in them.
But regarding the issue, as it does ultimately relate, I believe gun control needs to be handled in ways that better serve the populous at large, meaning, I think its common sense that certain weapons are designed for war and not for home protection or sport. And therefore, I don’t think they should be available to the public. NASCAR’s are not street legal. Why should an Uzi be? But before I get NRA-originated hate mail, I do target shoot for sport.
Dread Central: What is the status of An American Terror?
Haylar Garcia: We are currently entering select film festivals in the 2013 circuit, and we are excited to get the word out and start letting people see the first glimpses of An American Terror. Our producers are preparing to take the film out into the market as we speak. Our fingers are crossed for a lot of reasons. As filmmakers we feel the film can break into the commercial market and have great success, and as Coloradoans we hope it will help some navigate the darkness from an entertainment perspective, and actually make a difference.
For more on An American Terror, check out the film on Facebook here.
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