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Currently playing theatrically as part of the After Dark Originals collection and set to make its Syfy debut as one of the network’s Saturday-night movies this coming February 5 at 9 p.m., with an encore showing at 1 a.m. (see the newest preview at the end of this article), Brett Simmons’ HUSK is the latest in the venerable tradition of killer-scarecrow cinema. The filmmaker, who adapted HUSK from his short chiller of the same title, spoke with Fango about the creation of his corn stalker.
FANGORIA: What was the initial genesis of the HUSK short film?
BRETT SIMMONS: It culminated over a while. I love watching horror movies, especially older ones. Wes Craven’s and John Carpenter’s early work, old Hitchcock, TWILIGHT ZONEs—I love all that stuff. As I familiarized myself with the genre, I accumulated a list of things I thought would be fun to try, just twists and spins on the normal beats. Horror movies tend to have a formula that you love and hate at the same time. You love it because it’s specific to the genre, but sometimes you want something different, but when you get it, it feels too different. At least, this is how it is for me. It’s a very complicated relationship I have with horror films, I guess. I was also missing the subtleties and the patience those older movies had. They took their time and never gave anything easily. I loved that.
So, with all of those thoughts spinning in my head, HUSK was slowly born. I realized how badly I wanted to make a horror movie, but I didn’t have the means to make a feature, so I made one short-sized.
FANG: Did you always have it in mind to turn that short into a feature?
SIMMONS: I always intended and hoped to, but was never fully sure. I’m thankful the opportunity came and that the work paid off. My methodology for the short was: make a movie that told a scary story with the beats and pacing of a traditional horror film, but shrink it into the short format. My intention was always to suggest a bigger story, but I hesitated making it a blatant pitch because I wanted to be able to walk away with a completed stand-alone movie, regardless of what happened after. I was trying to pitch a feature and protect myself by making a résumé-worthy short I could use to get other work. Luckily, I got to have my cake—or cornbread—and eat it too, which I know is a rare and fortunate circumstance. You can never fully predict these things, you can only try and hope. I’ll be forever grateful for the feature the short made.
FANG: How did you get the feature off the ground?
SIMMONS: A lot of hoping, waiting and enduring. The short went to Sundance in 2005, and the reaction it got there opened a lot of doors with some awesome contributors to the horror genre. But it didn’t happen overnight. I had a lot of stop-and-gos with companies that loved the project, but the timing wasn’t right for them. I was constantly rewriting, readying for casting, then waiting, more rewriting, and then back to square one all over again. It was a wild and challenging ride.
After a while, I finally put a stop to everything so I could have time to re-address the screenplay. I was worried that in all the commotion, I had lost the movie I set out to make years before. It’s the best thing I did, because I discovered how unhappy I was with the script, so I did a page-one rewrite. It was finally, for the first time, what I knew I wanted to make. That rewrite is what After Dark Films read and loved. So I connected with them, realized that they were HUSK’s perfect home, and now they’re playing it in theaters. Pretty cool.
FANG: How does the feature’s storyline expand on that of the short version?
SIMMONS: Well, since I always had a distant eye on the longer version, I specifically avoided certain story elements [in the short], saving them for that. For the first version, I knew I had to pick and choose what would be part of it and what wouldn’t. So when it came to expanding it, I got to start exploring everything I avoided before. More specifically: The short introduces what the scarecrows are doing, and a little bit of how, but it never deals with the full how or why. So I got to include much more mythology and backstory, and to deal with the property [where the story is set] as a whole. I wanted the entire property to be as much of a threat as the cornfield, which was limited in the short; I always wanted to play with the concept of your hiding place being worse than what you’re hiding from. I got to play a lot more with that, as well as some fun horror/action sequences, beats and developing the characters and setting more. I’m afraid to spoil too much; Lionsgate is releasing the short on the DVD with the feature [coming March 29; see details here], so you’ll get to see and compare and let me know.
FANG: What new twists does HUSK pull on the killer-scarecrow subgenre?
SIMMONS: More than twists, it’s really just my version. HUSK is the scarecrow movie I was hoping to see. I’ve always gravitated toward the potential for scarecrows in horror movies. The imagery and the setting of a cornfield is so dynamic and interesting to me. Where the genre has lacked the most, I feel, is in story. Scarecrows are already scary; I’ve always wanted to be more engaged by what they’re doing and why. HUSK finds its twists in working hard to make the scarecrows interesting, and spinning a bit of a mystery as to what they are. There are really specific rules to the scarecrows and how they operate. I’m a fan of rules, and HUSK puts a lot of focus on them. I’ll say that they’re not just “killer scarecrows”; there are a lot more levels involved with the happenings on the property, which is why I always call HUSK a “supernatural-slasher-horror-mystery.”
Also, whenever I’ve imagined killer scarecrows, I’ve always thought it would be fun to treat the cornfield like water, and the scarecrows like sharks. Essentially, everyone’s marooned, trying to strategize how to swim home.
FANG: Are you a fan of past films of this type, and did any of them influence your approach to HUSK?
SIMMONS: I appreciate past scarecrow films, but I was more influenced by totally unrelated horror movies—most specifically NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and John Carpenter’s THE THING. Both of those are amazing single-location stories dealing with isolation and people unraveling amidst extreme and horrific circumstances. What’s so fun about horror films is asking yourself, as an audience member, who you relate to and who is responding the way you would. Characters responding to horror is exciting territory to me. And in both movies, you think you know someone, and then they surprise you because fear and anxiety tend to bring out the hidden and darker sides of once-ordinary people. Like in Rod Serling’s “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” Awesome! Isolation, along with the threat of something outside, and the growing threat of people inside—that’s what most inspired HUSK. That and THE WIZARD OF OZ.
FANG: How were the actors cast, and how was it working with them?
SIMMONS: It was great. I loved the actors, and I’m proud of what they did. They came to work, and they delivered in an environment that was pretty challenging—as most horror tends to be…but we had a cornfield. The casting directors and I were pretty focused on choosing actors who could give the characters an added dimension, because our ensemble is small. Of course, in horror, a small cast means a small death toll, so I wanted the few deaths to be compensated with more meaning. No one’s safe, everyone’s in danger and the clock starts ticking for all of them right away. So I wanted audiences to dread something happening to them. They were a blast to work with. We had a good time.
FANG: Back to that cornfield—what was it like filming on that location, and what were the biggest challenges?
SIMMONS: It was awesome, but difficult. I love shooting on location, and the reward of doing it always far outweighs the difficulty. But, trust me, you don’t know difficulty until you’ve worked in a cornfield in the sweltering summer. I’m not in any hurry to run back there. There was quite a bit of strategy involved in shooting in the corn, and plotting out how to most efficiently do it. I mean, when you’re deep in the corn, it’s too thick and too tall to see anything or anyone around you. So communication had to be pretty simple.
Add onto that major weather issues: Iowa was uncharacteristically rainy and stormy. So the cornfield complication was also muddy and swampy for the most part. And smelly. The great part about our location was that what you see is what was there. Everything was in one place. But the problem was that when it stormed, we had no other place to move to. You’d think the farmhouse would have been a safe refuge, but our crew hardly fit inside on a dry day, and it was considered haunted. So there were challenges at all times, causing our schedule to change every day. That was the toughest part of the shoot. But our crew worked tirelessly, and I wouldn’t have a movie if it weren’t for them.
FANG: How extreme did you get with the movie’s horrific sequences?
SIMMONS: A few get pretty extreme. I wanted to pick and choose which ones I took that way and which ones I didn’t. I’m the guy who believes that when everything is extreme, nothing is extreme. So I wanted to pick and choose which pieces needed to be effective in which ways. I also have a pretty vivid imagination, and the power of suggestion really torments me when I leave a theater, so I tried to torment others with a few key sequences of horrific suggestion. For me, the unseen is worse than the seen, so there’s a lot of that. But conversely, there’s a lot of gore too. The nails in the fingers in the After Dark Originals teaser and trailer are from HUSK, and that’s one of the sequences where we really went for it. It’s not the only one, but…you’ll see. Blood plays a pretty important role in HUSK.
FANG: How does it feel to be part of the After Dark Originals?
SIMMONS: I’m honored. After Dark is a great company. Where I really bonded with them was with their concern for the audience. They work really hard to deliver something that viewers will enjoy, which I relate to. They want to provide an experience the fan base will appreciate, and they pay close attention to those people. That’s admirable to me, and made for a really rewarding collaboration. They were great to work with. I’d do it again.
FANG: Will you do it with them again, and are there other horror films in your future?
SIMMONS: Definitely. I’m excited to work in different genres too, but I’ve got a few more horror ideas up my sleeve first. I’m talking with After Dark about another movie that I’m excited about. I’m also working on new scripts. I’m excited to be writing again. That’s the benefit of having the journey I had with HUSK. It gave me a lot of time to figure out what other projects I want to do. When I think about it, I guess I’m the only one who’s been truly trapped in HUSK’s cornfield, so I’m enjoying my newfound freedom. I’ve finally escaped and am enjoying the options. Now, it’s up to you to see if I’m the only one who managed to escape!
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