Q&A: Adam Egypt Mortimer, Sarah Adina Smith & Nicholas McCarthy talk “HOLIDAYS”Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
One of the best aspects of contemporary horror anthology films is the diversity of cinematic visions that come with the territory. Whether a segment goes for gasps, laughs or dry-heaves, the fact that you get a different flavor of filmmaking with each passing tale is fantastic, especially for the curious fright fans out there who are likely to find themselves down a rabbit hole of the contributor’s past work. And when it comes to filmmakers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more diverse array of styles and tones than in HOLIDAYS, now in select theaters and VOD from Vertical Entertainment. FANGORIA recently spoke to three of HOLIDAYS’ wicked directorial roster- THE MIDNIGHT SWIM’s Sarah Adina Smith, SOME KIND OF HATE’s Adam Egypt Mortimer, and THE PACT’s Nicholas McCarthy- about their respective segments, building universes and what’s next in their frightening filmography…
FANGORIA: So, how did you all get involved with HOLIDAYS?
SARAH ADINA SMITH: I think we’ll defer to Adam to start this question, because he’s the reason we’re all here.
ADAM EGYPT MORTIMER: Well, that’s not entirely true because I didn’t really know Nick [McCarthy] until he was introduced to the project by XYZ Films. I had only seen his films and known of his work. People came onto HOLIDAYS from all of these different angles.
I came on to HOLIDAYS because of John Hegeman, who created the project and had been talking about the concept for years. I’d worked with him in the past doing short films that he produced, and when he saw SOME KIND OF HATE, he invited me to be part of the film and I started to suggest filmmakers that I thought would be a good fit for the project. Sarah was a director that I really wanted to work with, and so I asked her to be a part of it. Nick came onto the project through XYZ Films, who was producing with John, and after he was suggested, I got on the phone with him and asked if it’d be possible if he’d be interested.
SMITH: I remember getting on the phone with Adam sometime after Fantasia [International Film Festival], I suppose, and it was the first time someone asked, “Would you be interested in getting a chunk of money to go out and make something?” That was a phone call I’d never received before, but I played it pretty cool on the phone. “Oh, you wanna give me money? Hmmmm, I’ll get back to you! I guess I could make something.”
NICHOLAS MCCARTHY: Those moments are very important, though. I’ve done a lot of shorts in the past before THE PACT, and THE PACT was a short before it was a feature. Usually, when you go to a shorts program, every filmmaker wants to do a feature. Even though shorts themselves are an art form in and of themselves, and it’s a very difficult art form to be successful within; even more difficult than features, in a lot of ways.
We have so many examples of great feature films that there’s almost a format or expectation we have from watching movies our whole lives. Meanwhile, shorts are like this whole other thing, and I’d spent so many years making shorts that when I got a call asking for a short to be commissioned- and I’d always wanted to go back to making shorts, in some way, because by the time I did THE PACT as a short, I felt like I’d finally found a way to make the format work-, I finally had a chance to put those skills into action.
SMITH: I feel like if this hadn’t been a part of an anthology, though, I would have been a lot less excited, because I knew that making a short as a part of an anthology would have a better chance of having a life. I know it’s going to have a release and be seen by audiences. One of the challenges about shorts by themselves is that you can put so much talent and resources into it and a couple of festivals will screen it, but it won’t get to audiences in the same way.
FANGORIA: How did you guys figure out what holiday you were going to cover?
SMITH: I feel like we each pitched different ideas for different holidays, and then the dust settled on who was claiming which territory.
FANGORIA: How did the choice of holiday inform your creative process as a director?
MORTIMER: For me, when it came to “New Year’s Eve,” it was like, “What about that holiday inspires anxiety and is negative in particular about something that’s supposed to be joyful?” What is the actual truth on the other side of that? For New Year’s, it came down to relationship anxiety, so we’re going to go have fun or kiss somebody at midnight. Maybe I’ll be a better person next year?
There’s so much anxiety that surrounds New Year’s, so I just took that an applied it to the anxiety you feel when there’s an ax in somebody’s hand or a gun in somebody’s hand. By translating that anxiety to something that’s really life-or-death, what does that feel like? That was, for me, the approach of turning a holiday into a horror movie.
SMITH: For “Mother’s Day,” I could have gone the “scary mother” route or the “mommy issues” route or something, but I wanted to explore the primal fears of motherhood itself. I was interested in this idea that there was a time where women didn’t get to choose when they were pregnant, and they were just constantly pregnant until they died. Back then, you’d have dead babies all the time or you just bled out and your life was done, so I wanted to go back to that feeling of losing control over your body.
MCCARTHY: I guess the thought process with “Easter” was to think about the meaning of the holiday. It’s not just the meaning of the holiday that’s evident in the film regarding the resurrection of Christ and the Easter Bunny, but there’s also the earliest understanding of what Easter is, which is a “spring rite.” It’s a pagan celebration, and that’s why the Christians chose that time to have Easter. Traditionally, there’d be some celebration around spring and that’s where the imagery of eggs and rabbits come from, because we all know what rabbits do. So if there was some way to meld all of those things I was seeing into the eyes of a child at night, that was the goal.
FANGORIA: One thing I dug about all of your shorts in particular was that each narrative had an implied backstory and history to it. How did you balance your narrative between what would work in a concise format and what best serves the story?
MCCARTHY: Well, for me, backstory has always been an important part of writing short films, and I usually think about it in the way that the best kind of short fiction is written, which is basically that you’re getting a piece of a larger world. A short should only be a slice of that larger world because there’s simply no time to develop things in a traditional way, and that gives you an opportunity as a storyteller that you don’t always get when you see feature films, which is to suggest something rather than simply showing it.
I think that goes hand-in-hand with the horror genre really well, and in Easter, there’s this conversation about divorce with the mom, whose face is in shadow. What’s important is not that we hit that on the head with what’s going on, but we want to let the audience know that this is a factor in these character’s lives. One of the reasons short films are so special is that they don’t explain things, and the same goes with horror films, where they leave you with some icky, uncomfortable feelings where you question why something is going on.
SMITH: It’s really important with every film, no matter the length, that every character is a fully fleshed-out human being. Even extras in my movie, it was like, “Why are you here? How many times have you been here before?” I really tried to build a full world for each person, and, like Nick said, you’re only visiting this world, but this world exists, and the short film becomes about where you’re opening that window into this world.
MORTIMER: I love the opportunity you can get in the genre where you can start somewhere in the middle of a movie, and those characters can get thrust into a different film. In “New Year’s Eve,” you open on an image of a guy with a gun and a bloody nose, and you’re wondering what already happened, which gets you invested in it. Of course, he meets someone who comes from their own way of life that becomes a problem, and that’s a great storytelling technique. The audience should have some familiarity with what the genre is and what it means to see certain things, like an ax or someone tied to a chair. That also gives you the opportunity to flip those things around as well.
FANGORIA: How much did your previous efforts as filmmakers factor into your decisions on HOLIDAYS?
MORTIMER: I tried to go into a different tonal direction than SOME KIND OF HATE, which was so bleak.
SMITH: [jokingly] Well, you failed because it’s exactly like SOME KIND OF HATE!
MORTIMER: [jokingly] FUCK! GODDAMN IT! It’s just another 12 minutes of SOME KIND OF HATE?! Oh well!
I wanted to do something different, even though there’s obviously physical violence and a female character. I don’t see too many similarities outside of the visuals, because we used the same visual team from SOME KIND OF HATE. I really wanted my segment to be fun and light, and for something that has kidnapping and murder, I wanted it to be light because SOME KIND OF HATE was so bleak. Strangely, “New Year’s Eve” was much less fun to make, and I learned that the tone of your film and the way you feel internally don’t need to have a connection to each other. I’m still trying to understand what that means.
SMITH: I think I like films that take their time and speak in whispers, so maybe that comes through in both THE MIDNIGHT SWIM and “Mother’s Day.” But I didn’t set my intention to do that; it’s like if I picked up a paint brush, that’s just the way my hand moves. So that’s just the way I see things.
I don’t set any intention for tone; I think I am tone. I don’t know how to really describe it, aside from that. I didn’t try to hammer that out beforehand since that’s not naturally the way I approach things.
MCCARTHY: For me, “Easter” was modeled off of THE PACT short film, and if you lined them up together, you’d realize they’re shot in the same location. They’re also the same format: you see a conversation between two people that plants an idea, and then you see that idea get paid off. I also shot them in the same exact rooms with the same exact crew.
MORTIMER: [jokingly] You’re a one trick pony, Nick!
SMITH: [jokingly] You should shoot ten more and make your own anthology!
MCCARTHY: The mentality behind it was that the making of my last feature, AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR, was so traumatic- it was such a difficult process to make that film since there were so many terrible things that happened on the set of that movie and more terrible things that happened afterwards. So, for me, going back to a safe place and basically recreating what made THE PACT short so successful was kind of comforting. That’s why I got the band back together, so to speak.
FANGORIA: So what’s up next for all three of you now that HOLIDAYS is out there to the world?
SMITH: I’m in post-production on my second feature, BUSTER’S MAL HEART, starring Rami Malek, Kate Lyn Sheil and DJ Qualls.
MORTIMER: I’m currently working on a film I co-wrote with Brian [DeLeeuw], with whom we did SOME KIND OF HATE together. It’s based on his first novel, IN THIS WAY I WAS SAVED, and it’s a very crazy “ghost story”/ “imaginary friend” idea.
MCCARTHY: There’s a movie I’ll be directing later this year called DESCENDANT, and that was written by TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE’s Jeff Buhler. He’s such a great writer and he wrote an amazing script, and we should be shooting that at the end of the summer.
HOLIDAYS is now on nationwide VOD and in select theaters.