Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on April 9, 2015, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
It has been over 30 years since John McNaughton came out of Chicago and entered horror history with his groundbreaking Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Now he’s back with his first genre project since his 2006 Masters of Horror stint: the domestic chiller The Harvest, which he discusses in this exclusive interview.
The Harvest boasts a pair of powerhouse actors as its leads: Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon, portraying the parents of a young boy named Andy (Charlie Tahan) who is bedridden by a severe illness. When a girl his age (played by The Possession’s Natasha Calis) moves in nearby, their budding friendship leads to the revelation of terrible secrets within the house’s walls. Also featuring Peter Fonda as Andy’s grandfather, The Harvest, scripted by Stephen Lancellotti, marks McNaughton’s return to feature films after a decade and a half away. The director (with whom Fango spoke following Harvest’s international premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia festival) followed up Henry with the alien-on-Earth saga The Borrower, then moved on to the underseen crime drama Normal Life, the Robert De Niro/Bill Murray vehicle Mad Dog and Glory and the sexy thriller Wild Things.
The Harvest is your first feature since 2001’s Speaking of Sex. Was this a case of no projects coming to you that interested you, or were there movies you developed that never wound up happening?
There were numerous projects that didn’t work out, and it also seemed like the cycle was over. I had been working with a core group of people for quite a few years, and one of the most prominent among them committed suicide, and that sort of led it to dissolve. And I was burned out, too. I did do numerous TV pilots, but they didn’t get picked up—it’s like the tree falling in the forest, you know? People at the networks saw them and test audiences saw them, and that was it. Of the five pilots I did, only one went to air, and it went for seven episodes, so that was that. It was called Push, Nevada, and it was written by Ben Affleck and Sean Bailey. I met Peter Fonda on one of them, The Book, which was a very cool show. Had it been made five years later, with cable becoming what it has become… Most of those shows were ahead of their time.
How did The Harvest come your way?
My agent sent me the script, and I read it and wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. It needed work, so I said, “I don’t know about this one.” And he said, “Well, in my opinion, you should read it again, because I think there’s something there.” My agent I have right now was my very first agent; he was a kid running for coffee when I made Henry, and he’s the one who saw it and recommended me to his boss, and he became part of my agency team back then. I’ve known him for close to 30 years, so I read the script again and thought, “OK, there is something here, but they’re going to have to send me the writer and we’re going have to work on this.”
So they mailed Stephen Lancellotti to Chicago for a few days and we worked on the script, and we continued to work on it on the set. Samantha and Michael would be like, “I’m not saying that,” and then it would be, “Oh, OK, what are we saying today?” [Laughs] It was pretty intense.
There’s a fairy-tale feel to The Harvest’s storyline; was that part of the original draft, or something you brought to it?
That was something I felt when I read it, so I started reading the Grimms’ stories, and found that there were great similarities to “Hansel and Gretel.” Then I started reading a guy named Bruno Bettelheim, and that was extremely influential. Bettelheim took some of the greatest classic fairy tales and gave them five or six pages of analysis—since he was an analyst, a psychiatrist. His analysis of “Hansel and Gretel” was kind of a key to hang the movie on.
It’s interesting that for the first 40 minutes or so, The Harvest doesn’t play like a horror film, and it’s not shot like one. It’s the story of these two kids and how they befriend each other, and then suddenly you get to the basement and it takes that turn. Was that intentional—did you shoot the first section that way to throw the audience off?
Oh yeah, that’s something I like to do. With thriller scripts, I used to read the first 10 pages and the last five, and now I read the first two and the last one, and usually I know what the last page is going to be from halfway down the first page. I remember when Wild Things was sent to me, I was reading it one night lying in bed, and I was like, “OK, here’s this guy who they’re accusing of rape,” and pretty quickly, I thought it was gonna be, poor guy, falsely accused, it ruins his life, ruins his reputation, and we’ll find out at the end that he didn’t do it. We’ve seen that crap before, you know? So I read about 20 or so pages more, and then I went to the end so I could get some sleep. And once I read it, I was like, “What the hell happened in between page 25 and here—I have no idea!”
That’s a favorite trick of mine: bringing an audience along and making them think they know what’s happening, letting them become complacent with that idea—and then it’s like, “Oh, do you now?” Also, what I wanted very much to do with that first half was get the audience intimate with these kids, because they’re really—if you knew them, but also on screen—they’re very likable kids, so I wanted the audience to bond with them, so they would really be freaked out when the story turns inside out.
How did Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon come to the project?
Well, Michael came first. Steve Jones, my producing partner I’ve worked with for years, knew Michael from Chicago—better than I did, certainly—and had seen him in Killer Joe and all the early stage stuff he’d done. So we sent Michael the script, and he agreed to do the picture. Once we had him, it was fairly easy to get Samantha, because they had acted in theater together years before, and they very much wanted to work together again. Once you get one good actor, then the gate opens for others to come too.
What was the process like of developing their characters with them? Samantha Morton, in particular, goes to some pretty extreme places.
You know, I like to say that the older I get and the more I direct, the less I direct. I watch young directors who try to micromanage the actors, and it’s just a big mistake. You hire really good people, and you stay out of their way, you know? You never come in and say, “You must do this”; you talk about the subtext you’re conveying, and go back and forth getting the ideas you want. And Samantha basically doesn’t care to be directed [laughs], and she doesn’t need it, so I just stayed out of her way. We were on such a tight schedule that we rarely did more than three takes anyway.
Were there ever any moments when you thought she was going too crazy, and had to be reined in?
Well, she came in with her guns loaded, and she was ready to go. In the scenes where she had to go nuts, you didn’t even want to be around her; it wasn’t pleasant, let me tell ya. It was like, “Hey, let’s see how far she can take it.” I mean, she’s brilliant, and she’s not going to embarrass herself, so we just let her go. There’s a lot more of that craziness on the cutting room floor.
You shot The Harvest on 35mm film; were you trying for an old-fashioned look in this age of digital cinematography?
Well, that was a matter of the financier wanting to make a movie, and it was at his insistence. I got all kinds of resistance from the New York producers and the line producers about that: “This is so irresponsible.” And it was like, “Hey, he’s the man who’s writing the check, and he wants to pay for 35mm. Ask our cinematographer [Rachel Morrison] what she’d rather shoot on.” We interviewed a lot of cinematographers, and each time they’d ask, “What are you shooting on—you’re going digital, right?” And when we’d say, “No, film,” they’d go, “Yes!” Every one of them.
Do you see a common thread between your genre films, from Henry through The Borrower, Masters of Horror and now The Harvest?
I don’t know [laughs]; I have no idea. Someone else would have to decide that! I don’t think in those terms.