Matthew Garrett is a director who hit the ground running with his first short film Ellie (2006), an unsettling movie that gathered much praise when it made the film festival rounds. His second film, the suspenseful and enigmatic Beating Hearts (2010), won Best Short Film at the Boston Underground Film Festival before it found a home here at FEARnet (click here to watch it).
Garrett's first feature film is an anthology called Morris County, slated for release later this year. Garrett kindly took some time to discuss with FEARnet his past, present, and future as a film director.
FEARnet: What inspired the story of your first film, Ellie?
GARRETT: It's difficult to discuss the news story that inspired the film without giving away part of the ending, but I will say that the themes of self-destruction, sexual abuse, and the inherent hypocrisy of organized religion were definitely on my mind.
What events led to the production of Ellie? How did it all come together?
Ellie was my first attempt at a serious film post-film school, which I graduated from in 2002. In 2004, the idea for Ellie came to me around the same time I met [lead actress] Darcy Miller. As I was writing the script and developing the character with her, I also came to know a few local guys just graduating film school and they helped me form a bare-bones crew. We had no budget for casting or locations so it was very much a DIY effort. We shot the film over 3 or 4 weekends in the summer of '05.
Ellie contains some disturbing moments. How did you and Darcy Miller prepare for and execute the more intense and unsettling scenes?
What was unique about Ellie was that Darcy and I were able to hone the character to fit her strengths over the course of about nine months prior to shooting. We did so much research and rehearsal that when it came time to do it, we were very prepared, and the crew was so small that there was a bit less pressure than there would have been had we had a full crew. The most Darcy ever needed was a few moments alone to get ready, and we were able to give her that time.
What inspired the story of Beating Hearts?
After having done Morris County, I wanted to try something a bit more grounded in the horror genre, and at the same time subvert expectations when it comes to the structure, style and overall tone. The notion of a killer child film came to me, with the goal being to make the back story more horrifying than anything we see onscreen.
What were the biggest differences between the shooting of Beating Hearts and the production of Ellie?
Well, first of all, Ellie was made for practically no money, with a tiny crew just out of film school and a standard definition mini-DV camera, while Beating Hearts had a professional crew and actors, and was shot in HD. I had also grown as a filmmaker, and was much more confident behind the camera and in my screenwriting by that point. That said, Ellie was overall a much more laid-back shoot. Despite the onscreen scenes of uncomfortable sex and a few very long shooting days, there was a certain freedom to shooting Ellie that simply would have been impossible for Beating Hearts, or the other segments of Morris County for that matter. Beating Hearts had a very tight budget, and we had to shoot in three straight days, one of which was on a boat. On top of that, we constantly had to dance around what the film was actually about, due to the age of the lead actress. Her parents were aware and very supportive of the film, but it was still a challenge during certain scenes. I was so stressed on that one, I barely slept prior to and during the shoot. By the end, I was practically delirious. On Ellie our schedule was spread out, and much easier to manage, with a crew of only four or five people most of the time.
Describe the casting process for Beating Hearts.
Judy Bowman handled our casting, just as she had with the latter two segments of Morris County, and worked really hard with us to cast those two roles, and took most of the brunt in warning parents about the nature of the script. Going in, we assumed the Grandfather would be easy to cast and the Girl part would be an uphill battle, but the exact opposite happened. First of all, there are only so many older actors on the East coast and many of them weren’t comfortable with the subject matter. We were very lucky to find Peter Coriaty to fill the role, and he did a fantastic job. As for the Girl, we saw around twenty young actresses, and I believe Gianna [Bruzzese] was one of the last ones we saw. As for the role of the Mother, it was Gianna’s agent who suggested we audition Gianna’s mother, Georgeanne, which was a lot of fun for both of them and made that scene easier for me to direct.
What movies inspired you to become a director? What are some of your favorite horror films?
The first thing that made an impression on me was the behind-the-scenes video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Watching Rick Baker and his team work is what turned me on to horror at a young age. I didn’t start thinking about filmmaking seriously until I was in high school, and my mom started showing me films like A Clockwork Orange, The Tin Drum, and any number of current independent and foreign films that were coming out during the big indie boom of the ‘90s.
As for my horror favorites, the shortlist would have to include The Brood, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, Society, Dead Alive, Hellraiser, Phantasm, The Thing, Brain Damage, Funny Games, Carrie, Schramm, Dawn Of The Dead, Audition, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Wicker Man, Creepshow, Nightmare On Elm Street, An American Werewolf In London, The Mist... I could go on forever!
Ellie became the first segment in Morris County. What inspired you to build an anthology on this short film? Were the other segments of Morris County individual short films before being stitched together to form the anthology, or did you shoot the other stories with the intention of creating the feature-length Morris County?
Ellie was my first attempt at a dramatic piece, and I knew I wanted to explore a few more ideas in this vein without the pressure of tackling a full feature. At 30 minutes, Ellie seemed like the perfect length to build an anthology off of.
As I was finishing Ellie, I already had the ideas for Family Rubin and Elmer & Iris ready to go, and thought the three together would make an interesting life-cycle piece of sorts. Doing it this way also meant that I could make the segments as long as I wanted without having to worry about them being a bit long for most festivals. At 30 minutes, very few festivals would play Ellie, and I knew I’d have a similar problem with the length of the other two. I didn’t yet know it would be called Morris County, but I knew the chronology of the stories, and that the themes and overall tone would unify the three segments as a whole.
What inspired the other stories that make up Morris County?
The Family Rubin was very much a response to growing up in suburban New Jersey, and is in some ways the most personal of the three stories. I had always wanted to make a film about the impact of divorce and the confusion of being forced into religious practice at a young age, both things that are difficult to comprehend in adolescence.
Elmer & Iris is the easiest one to openly discuss without spoiling much. Over the years, I had heard a few stories of people living with the deceased bodies of loved ones, and thought that could be a great launching pad for a very disgusting melodrama. I was also interested in exploring how we as a society dispose of the elderly, which is odd in and of itself considering most of us hope to live as long as possible.
The special effects in the Elmer And Iris segment of Morris County are especially disgusting, quite real-looking, and serve an important purpose in terms of narrative and character development. If the effects were unconvincing, the story would fall apart. Special effects artist Brian Spears (I Sell the Dead, Stake Land, The Innkeepers, V/H/S) provided the gruesome imagery. Describe your working relationship with him.
Brian, and his partner Pete Gerner, were fantastic to work with and went above and beyond the call of duty to provide top-notch effects. Producer Thomas Rondinella and I came to Brian with a very small budget and a fairly limited amount of time. He walked us through what we could afford and offered some ideas of his own on how to handle some of the ickier moments. In the end, we made very few compromises and ended up with a couple of set pieces that send people running for the door at some screenings!
While your films are intense and horrific, they don't neatly fit into the category of "horror." Do you intend to make a more straightforward "horror movie" in the future? Are there other genres you'd like to work in?
I’d love to do a straight-up horror film one day, but it would probably have to come from someone else’s idea or screenplay. I’ve tried over the years to write one and kept finding myself falling into the trappings of convention. The great thing about the horror genre is that there are so many ways to approach it and plenty of subgenres to tap into, so I’m sure I’ll get to do one before too long. I have a dark comedy in mind for a future script, as well as a few more dramas. No matter what I do, I assume it will be dark, and for an adult audience.
Are you currently working on anything that may be your follow-up to Morris County?
I’m currently co-writing a very macabre love story with my friend Heather Buckley that’s looking like it will be my next feature. It’s similar in tone to Beating Hearts and Morris County, but is a bit more sexually overt. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and so far it’s coming together very well. Although it’s primarily a drama, it has a hook that will no doubt appeal to horror fans. I can’t wait to be able to tell you more!