Simon Rumley has been a rising star in the world of cinema, both in the horror genre and beyond. He was described by Screen International as “one of the great British cinematic outsiders, a gifted director with the know-how to puncture the conventions”. Let’s be honest. He’s one of the great outsiders, period, not just in Britain.
Since 2005, he has been making increasingly well-received feature films: “The Living and the Dead”, “Red, White and Blue” and “Little Deaths”. His biggest exposure was in 2012, when he was a featured director in “The ABCs of Death”, seen by just about everyone on Earth with a Netflix account. His segment, “P is for Pressure”, made animal lovers squirm… torture and kill a person any way you want on screen, but suggest that a kitten might die, and people get upset. Love it or hate it, Rumley’s segment is one of the more memorable.
His most recent release is “Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word”. Essentially, the film starts with the true story of Johnny Frank Garrett, a man wrongfully convicted and executed in Texas, and becomes a what-if story. What is Johnny is able to get his revenge on those who killed him? It is this story that forms the basis of the interview below, which took place on March 3, 2017 (a week before the film is set to be released).
Simon is a busy guy. Not only is “Last Word” coming out, but “Fashionista” (with Ethan Embry) is touring the festival circuit, and “Crowhurst”, the true story of an amateur sailor who died while competing in a single-handed, round-the-world yacht race, is not far behind. Without further ado… Simon Rumley!
GS: In the original “ABCs of Death”, your segment (“P is for Pressure”) was probably the most uncomfortable part of the film.
SR: Oh, thank you very much.
GS: What kind of hate mail do you receive because of that?
SR: Ha! That’s a good question. There are some things I’ve seen on Twitter. Someone said I should be put down. But that’s as far as it goes. And it should be obvious, but maybe it’s not – I’m not advocating crushing kittens. There is a real, live phenomenon called “crush videos” and it is very gross, to say the least. In these videos, we have women in high heels and stockings playing with cute animals… and then crushing them. When I found out about his, I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? How crazy and nasty is that.”
When it comes to my films, I’m always curious about why things are the way they are. You can open any newspaper and on some page there will be an article about so-and-so who died or was murdered. As a person who has never had a violent tendency in my life, I see these things – and they’re everywhere – and I wonder what makes people want to do this. So, with the crush video, I wondered why anyone on Earth would want to do that?
I thought about it, and supposed there was someone out there who really wanted to do good things for the people in her life. But in this case, it’s doing good by doing something really bad. So that was where the motivation came from. I think most people got it, that it was intended to be social or political commentary. But inevitably, people will see it, see a kitten, and see that kitten under a shoe and think, “Simon, you’re a monster!” I should hasten to add that no animals were harmed in the making of the film.
GS: As I understand it, “Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word” is the fictionalized version of a recent documentary about a real homicide case. Basically, the first 10 or 15 minutes of your film is based on the documentary, and then it takes a supernatural turn.
SR: Yes, that’s pretty accurate.
GS: So, of all the murder cases or wrongful conviction stories out there, what was it about Johnny Frank Garrett that got you doing this project?
SR: First, this is a bit different from my other films in one big way. It’s the first time I’ve directed a feature as a director-for-hire rather than working on my own material. So the producers came to me and asked if I was interested. I read the script, and watched the documentary, and my jaw dropped. Here’s a case about this kid who was essentially railroaded by the system. As the documentary shows, and our film covers somewhat, there were many facts left out at trial that resulted in him being very unfairly treated. Quite possibly for other people’s political ends. It was shocking.
So that was a springboard for me, and had me asking how I could turn this into a genre film, a horror film. Again, when the producers approached me they already had a script, so the concept of this being a horror film was already there. For me, when I’m working on a genre film, I try to push them in different directions to get people asking, “Are they horror films?” I prefer to describe my work as “extreme drama” rather than horror. So here, I wanted to take the genre and push it in a different direction, provide it with a social conscience.
If you look back to “Freaks” and forward from there, there’s obviously a lot of social commentary in these films, in the horror genre. But I feel like as this millennium is progressing, there is increasingly less of that. The goals are more often escapism or making money for Hollywood. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I’d like films to have a bit more subtext. So all of that was going through my head when I thought this would be good to push back against the genre with a social commentary on justice and injustice.
GS: During the court room and jury deliberation scenes, the religious aspects are almost over-the-top. Was this caricature of religion in the script, or something you added as a message?
SR: Well, usually I write my own scripts, but in this case I wasn’t as much involved in that part. I did write a draft, but that was very little of what you see in the final film. That being said, I am responsible for the scene you’re referring to, with the jurors sitting around the table, holding hands, praying the Lord’s prayer.
One thing I was trying to get across is that there were certain people who were the agitators when it comes to this process that Johnny goes through, from arrest to execution. The others are just following suit, doing what they feel is best. There’s actually a quote from “Making of a Murderer”, it’s Steven Avery’s defense attorney, and they say, “Most of these aren’t bad people, and they don’t think what they’re doing is wrong. But in doing what they feel is right, they’re doing wrong.” That’s how I felt about the people of Amarillo, Texas. It’s a relatively small place, a tight-knit community. And then a 70-year old nun is raped and murdered. In any community, that will make people ask, “What the fuck kind of society are we living in where this sort of thing happens?”
What I imagine happened is that once Johnny Frank Garrett was accused, people didn’t want to hear anything else. Didn’t want to hear the contrary evidence. So the overtly Christian moments were intended to show that these are good neighbors, essentially good people, but they made a wrong decision. Their motives were right, but their decision was wrong. I suppose there’s also the conceit that Jesus tells us to love our neighbor and turn the other cheek; he doesn’t tell us to send our neighbor to the death chamber.
GS: This sort of thing might not matter to others, but it really jumped out for me. Because the film takes place in the early 1990s, you have props from the time, such as computers, that really felt authentic. How much work goes into that?
SR: Yeah. So, this wasn’t a low budget film. By Hollywood standards, where the minimum is maybe $15 to $20 million, we were low budget, but for a genre film we were working with what would not be considered a bad budget at all. So we had the full staff. The costume designer, the props master and all that. The job of the props master was very much to look at the time period and look at the script and decide what props were needed to make everything authentic and believable.
The original murder was in the 1980s and he was executed in the 1990s. So we’re not talking that long ago. For some of us, these events are still within our memory. But as you say, there are some important changes. No Internet, as evidenced by the computer and the game that is being played on it. The game by today’s standards is ridiculously old-fashioned, but in the timescale of humanity, it may as well have been yesterday. But I’m glad you appreciated the work they put into it, because for every one like you, there will be just the opposite – that person who points out a teacup with a design from 2010. They’ll go online and write, “I can’t believe they had a fucking teacup from 2010 in the 1990s!” As you know, these are things that people love to proclaim. But as director, I trust that the people responsible for the props know what they’re doing. I have an eye on these things, but I’m not a historical expert, so I’m hoping that others are.
GS: “Last Word” was shot in Louisiana. The last few years, the movie industry has really taken off there. Did they reach out to you or did you choose them because of this infrastructure?
SR: Actually, before I was even on board, the producers were trying to get clearance to shoot in Amarillo, the actual setting. The authorities more or less said, “No fucking way.” I came on just after that, so I took part in looking for other locations, and Louisiana is just to the east of Texas. So while Louisiana is not Texas, there is part of it that’s pretty close. My location manager is from Texas, he looked around Shreveport and decided it was close enough to Texas. We looked together, and he said, “Yeah, yeah, this is completely Texan.” Much of the film is interior, so it doesn’t matter, but there are some landscapes and he signed off on those. My casting director, Karen Hallford, is also Texan, so I would turn to her and ask, “Do you think this landscape works?” The importance of location shouldn’t be overlooked. You don’t often see a bad location, but occasionally you do. Only certain places can pass as Texas besides Texas. It’s these details about directing that really make you appreciate all the other people around you.
GS: On “Crowhurst”, which has yet to come out, you got to work alongside a legend in the movie business, Nicolas Roeg. What was he like to work with?
SR: Well, it was amazing, and to be honest it was one of my career highs. I’ve watched his films ever since I can remember. When I was a teenager, I had a friend who lived in London and I would go visit her. Nic’s films were playing at a cinema there, and I remember going to see them while a little bit drunk. I didn’t quite remember what I had seen the next day. Of course, I had to see them again and he’s probably, really, my all-time favorite director. The subject matter he does… it’s not unlike what I aspire for, “extreme drama” rather than genre. He has his psycho-sexual elements, the stylization. The editing, which he’s known for almost as much as his directing. You watch his films, and you just have to ask, “How did he do that? How did he imagine that?”
I went up to his house a couple times and I wasn’t really sure what to say. But he’s a great guy, very humble. And actually, one of the times, he said he was actually quite nervous in meeting me. Are you fucking kidding? He read the script for “Crowhurst” and one of the reasons he was so interested in it was because in the 1970s, his heyday, he wanted to do his own version of the same story and he was discussing it with the studios. It was going ahead… and then it didn’t.
We had conversations, but honestly it was more about me asking questions and just listening to him. I’d love to ask him 100 more questions. Before I met him, I hadn’t see his movies in a while, so I revisited three of them, just because I didn’t want to be in a situation where I tell him I love his films and then can’t remember them. Frankly, it’s an honor to have my name on the same film as his. A tremendously exciting moment in my life.
GS: Absolutely. Wow. Thank you for taking some time out for me today.
SR: My pleasure. Let’s do this again.