John McNaughton is best known as the director of two very different films: the unforgettably disturbing and brilliant HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986), and the irresistibly entertaining erotic thriller WILD THINGS (1998). McNaughton has always shown a diversity and breadth to his filmmaking. Amongst his films are the comedy drama MAD DOG AND GLORY (1993) featuring Robert De Niro and Bill Murray playing against type as a sensitive cop and tough mobster respectively; sci-fi horror THE BORROWER (1991); crime drama NORMAL LIFE (1996); Eric Bogosian stand-up concert movie SEX, DRUGS, ROCK & ROLL (1991); romantic comedy SPEAKING OF SEX (2001), and horror thriller THE HARVEST (2013) with Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton. McNaughton has also excelled on TV with films like GIRLS IN PRISON (1994) and LANSKY (1999), and shows like Homicide: Life on the Street, Without a Trace, and Masters of Horror. In the final part of a three-part interview, I spoke with McNaughton about working with Bill Murray, his experiences directing in the theater, working on the Masters of Horror TV series, his forthcoming film CARNY KILL, and making the films SPEAKING OF SEX, THE BORROWER, NORMAL LIFE, the documentary CONDO PAINTING (2000), and THE HARVEST. 

Parts one and two of the interview. 

You've worked with Bill Murray three times, on MAD DOG AND GLORY, WILD THINGS and SPEAKING OF SEX. Why do you think you collaborate so well? 
I don't know, really. I just get along with him. The thing with Bill Murray is - never lie to him, always be straightforward with him, and you'll probably get along with him really well. He's just way too smart to try and bullshit.Whenever I'm doing a movie, Bill usually asks if there's a part for him. I'm getting ready to do a fourth film with him, THE KING OF COUNTERFEIT. Bill sent me the script a few years ago and asked me to direct, which was very unusual. 

What was the reason for the eleven year gap between SPEAKING OF SEX and THE HARVEST? 
I did a few TV pilots that didn't get picked up. Pilots that don't get picked up are like the tree that falls in the forest. You spend six months of your life and it's a tremendous amount of time and work, and people at the studio show your pilot to one or two test audiences and then nobody else sees it if it doesn't get picked up. A pilot that doesn't get picked up doesn't help you get jobs obviously, because nobody sees it, and it doesn't enhance your reputation, even though most pilots don't get picked up. If you're lucky to have a hit, then you're golden. During that gap I worked in the theater in Chicago and Los Angeles, and I did some work with Juliet Landau, who is Martin Landau's daughter. I really enjoyed it and I am thinking I would like to do some more of it. During that time, there were many projects I wrote or re-wrote or collaborated on as well. I also traveled a lot on the North American continent. I grew up on the south side of Chicago and we didn't get the world's best education, so I read a lot of classic literature that I had always wanted to read for many years. Now that I am working again I'm glad I did the reading because it informs the work. I wrote so much that I am finding scripts I wrote and thinking ''Gee, let's see if we can take this out again. '' 

How do you think your work in the theater impacted upon THE HARVEST? 
What I love about the theater is that there is almost no technology. There's lights and cues and all that stuff but there's no huge crews to deal with, and there is no studio and no executives. When I was working in the theater, there were just a couple of people who ran the little theater companies that we dealt with. One play that I did, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, was just two characters on stage. It became a matter of mostly working out performance and staging. I realised that this is what I enjoyed the most, and all my reading came to bear. There are only so many stories, and human behavior is to some degree predictable, and if you read the Greeks, they figured it out a long time ago. When I went to do THE HARVEST, I really concentrated on performance. 

Was it challenging directing the young actors, Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan, on THE HARVEST? 
Those two kids were so great, that it was easy with them. I think their parents should say a prayer every day that they were blessed with kids with such clear gifts that allowed them to work for a living so early in their lives. They know exactly what they are doing and where they are going, and their lives are focussed. They're such hardworking kids. I would have adopted those kids had anything bad happened to their families. It was a tremendous pleasure working with them. I loved them. 

Was it difficult finding such great young actors? 
You always think ''How are we going to find such great kids that can do this?'' But you always do. I remember trying to find a six year old kid for Homicide, and these kids come in, and they just learned to read in the last year but they astound you with what they can do. And they haven't trained. They're born with a gift, and there it is. 

Was it a dream come true working with Peter Fonda on THE HARVEST? 
This was actually the second time I had worked with Peter. He was in a pilot I did called The Book years ago, and we got on very well. The Book was another diasastrous nightmare scenario. We were working with a guy named Ronald Perelman, who used to own one of the big cosmetic companies. When I was working for him, he bought Marvel and didn't know what to do with it. He decided that he was a tough guy and that we were going to shoot non-union in L.A., and we got shut down three separate times. We had Whoopi Goldberg picketing us because her husband at the time was one of the top Teamsters. The picketers were abusive to the crew coming onto set, spitting at them. It was awful. Throughout, Peter was just like ''It's cool.'' It was an adventure for him. Just having Peter around makes the set so much nicer. He's so nice to everybody, and he's got so many stories because he has been everywhere, met everyone and done everything. I remember one thing he said – ''It doesn't cost an extra penny to be nice. '' 

What was it like directing Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton, who both have reputations as very intense, dedicated actors? 
They are very intense, believe me. Michael Shannon came out of Chicago theater but I didn't really know him. I knew of his work, certainly. Samantha was someone I hadn't met either. She said to me ''Even though I didn't study, I'm a Method actor to my bone. '' She's playing a woman who is going to cut the heart out of a child. That's a hard person to be in a room with sometimes! The way Michael's character was written was very ambivalent. He was sort of the child's advocate but nonetheless he is going along with this stuff, so in another sense he's not the child's advocate. It was a very hard role to fathom, and I think Michael was really conflicted. When you get that both of them are very Method-y actors, they weren't terribly fun people to socialise with as they were being those characters. On the weekends, sometimes we would go and watch a play or get hammered and that would be great. But on set it was best just to let them be, I found. 

I was impressed with your ability, as in all your films, to enable the audience to root for dark, unlikeable characters by humanising them so well. 
With Samantha's character it's interesting because in one sense what she's doing is a good thing -she's trying to save her child. I am always reminded of the famous scene in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) when they bring in Martin Sheen, and Harison Ford is the young officer, and G.D. Spradlin is the General, and they're eating the big prawns. They're trying to tiptoe around the fact that Marlon Brando has gone off the reservation. They're trying to say the words while not saying them, and Spradlin looks up and says ''His methods have become ... unsound. '' With Samantha's character, it's the mother instinct gone horribly awry. Her intent is good but her methods have become unsound. She's going to save her child by taking the heart of another child. 

What can you say about the new film you're developing, CARNY KILL? Was it inspired by your own time working on carnivals? 
Yes, I photographed it all and I've been pulling out photos from like forty years ago. It was an amazing life experience travelling with that group. When we were in Canada, it was North America's largest carnival -The Royal American Shows. I think they disbanded in 1999. Most of the money was made in Canada because Canadians have a short summer and they love to come out and enjoy themselves. These were the halcyon days. The people we were working for were carnies, and everything was in cash – dimes, quarters, dollars, whatever. They were cheating the Canadian tax authorities for years and years and years. You could go to to Canada, cheat the tax authorities out of their money and bring back all the cash to the States, but the US wouldn't allow Canada to do the same. Finally the Canadians said ''Enough of this. '' The RCMP came down on us like rain hailing from the sky, guns drawn, and took everything. I don't know how many millions of dollars, and semi-trailers and tractors were confiscated. We had to get out of town, ten of us to a pick-up truck. It was quite a grand adventure. 

What was your responsibility on the carnival? 
I ran something called the dime pitch, and then I would drive a truck from town to town that was loaded up with the gear and all the stands and merchandise and pulled all the trailers and everything else. 

When did you start thinking about the project? 
Over ten years later, after I made HENRY, a friend of mine, Elke Titus, found the book Carny Kill, and sent it to me saying ''We should make this into a film. '' We optioned it way back in 1987, and I wrote a script, and it kicked around for years and years. I got hired to do films like MAD DOG AND GLORY and I had to make a living, so it lay dormant for a long time. I went to the Fantasia Fest in Montreal for THE HARVEST and had a great time with the whole crew up there. I didn't realise what a big and important festival it was until I arrived. A couple of months later they emailed me and told me about this Frontieres International Co-Production Market where they invite twenty film projects to get pitched to buyers, production companies and distributors from all over the world.. For three and a half days, you have a table and you can talk to whoever wants to talk to you about your project. We had about 35 or 40 meetings. They said it had to be genre, so we resurrected the CARNY KILL project. It's a classic noir story, but almost in a Caligari world, a strange amusement park, populated by carnival types. 

THE BORROWER has recently become more and more of a cult film. How did the project originate? 
When HENRY was screened by the artist Joe Coleman for a small audience in New York, and the critic Elliot Stein saw it and named it the ''Best Film of the Year'' in a full page review in the Village Voice, I then got signed to the Gersh Agency by a young agent named Scott Yoselow who is my agent today. Based on the heat from HENRY I was sent stacks of horror scripts, mostly dreadful, and although I was flat broke, I turned down every one until I read THE BORROWER. 

What was the experience of making the film like? 
I have often thought of writing a book about the making of THE BORROWER titled, 'Worst Case Scenario.' Every possible bad thing that could happen during the making of a film happened at least twice. A textbook example of Hollywood at it’s worst. Thinking back, it seems like a hilarious misadventure but it didn’t seem so at the time. My favorite memory is driving over to the offices of Atlantic Entertainment on Sunset during the last week of filming. They had stopped paying people so since we were shooting nights I was able to drive over during the day to investigate. I drove up the hill and turned into their parking lot where normally there might be 25 or 30 cars and it was empty. Upon reaching the back door of the building I found the door wide open and swinging on its hinges. Inside, the building was empty. The whole company had literally disappeared in the middle of the night. For a film, that’s like being abandoned by your parents. Funny now, not so much then.

The completion bond company took over the film and that’s never any fun. Atlantic was a releasing company and when they went away there was no one left to market and distribute the film so it became an orphan. Eventually it got a small theatrical release and Warners picked it up for video and I think MGM also owned it for a while and may still or may not. I would love for a gifted film sleuth to track down the current ownership. There aren’t that many suspects and it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. I know the elements are intact and would love to see it restored and re-released. For all the hell of making it, the film holds up quite well in my opinion and is a lot of fun to watch. 

When you tell stories based on real events, like NORMAL LIFE and LANSKY (1999), do you feel a pressure to be faithful to what happened? 
Yes and no. I think you try to be as faithful as you can to what actually happened, but in the end you are telling a story, creating a drama, and not acting as a journalist, merely reporting facts. It is almost inevitable that at some point you will have to invent something that didn’t happen or ignore something that did in order to make the story work. You must shape your story so that it has coherence and meaning which is not usually the case with the random events of life as lived day to day. Ironically, in order to tell a 'true story', you will almost always have to violate the truth in order to create a meaningful narrative. 

How was working with Ashley Judd on NORMAL LIFE? She gave an extraordinary performance. 
Ashley was portraying the character of Pam Erickson who was a real person suffering from mental illness. Pam, together with her husband Jeff, went on a bank robbing spree in Chicago and both were killed in separate shoot outs with the police. I remember how powerful Ashley’s performance was while filming it but at the same time it was wildly different from take to take in keeping with the mental illness her character suffered from. I wasn’t certain how we were going to cut what she was doing into a coherent performance. Fortunately, my long time editor and collaborator, Elena Maganini, shaped the takes into one of the best performances I believe I’ve ever seen. I think credit needs to also be given to Luke Perry for giving a rock solid and consistent performance as Pam’s husband Jeff that served to ground the story, allowing Ashley the freedom to really go out on a limb time and time again. Recently I saw NORMAL LIFE projected at a screening in Chicago, presented by WGN radio host Nick Digiulio. It had been a very long time since I had watched it and was completely blown away by Ashley’s performance that was really as good as any I’d ever seen. 

You made the documentary CONDO PAINTING, about the painter George Condo. When did your love of his work start? 
As I often tell interviewers, ''I went to art school not film school. '' It was the love of art that led me into film. I was introduced to George Condo by a young woman named Janet Koo, who seemed to know absolutely everybody in the worlds of art, entertainment and commerce. George, at that time, was represented by the Pace Gallery in New York and they wanted to make a short film about him to be used as a promotional piece and to screen it at various of his gallery shows. When George and I met, we just hit it off instantly. I was not really familiar with his work but became an immediate fan when I walked into his studio for the first time where he was working on a large group of paintings. What was supposed to be a short film just kept growing as we kept shooting, having way too much fun to stop, until the project grew into a feature length documentary that includes the final film appearances of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg who were both friends and sometime collaborators of George’s. 

How was the experience of making SPEAKING OF SEX, and working with legendary producer Alain Sarde?
I only met with Alain Sarde briefly on two occasions. We dealt mostly with Pierre Edelman who I was friendly with at the time and who was anxious to make a sexy film based on the success of WILD THINGS. Pierre worked under Alain Sarde at Studio Canal who funded the film. I really enjoyed working with the actors on SPEAKING OF SEX. James Spader and I had wanted to work together for some time and finally got our chance. Bill Murray and Catherine O’Hara are certainly two of the most gifted comedic actors alive. Jay Mohr, Melora Walters, Lara Flynn Boyle, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullaly, Kathleen Robinson, Katy Erbe and more. An incredible cast and a great script by Gary Tieche.

Was the unique tone of the film something that was a challenge to achieve? 
Interestingly, SPEAKING OF SEX was the first full blown comedy I had undertaken. Many of my films are funny, even HENRY is funny after the initial shock wears off, but I had never done a declared comedy before. The tone is, I think, a product of actually trying to be funny for the first time. Previously the comedy emerged from character and story and the primary intent of the films was not to be funny and the humor exists as a sort of by product. This time I decided that since we were making a comedy, we would go for it and really reach for the comedy. In retrospect I’m not sure that’s the right way to approach comedy. If I had it to do over again I would probably have the actors play it straight and let the comedy emerge from the situations and characterizations without reaching for the laughs. 

Did you encounter problems distributing it in America with 'sex' in the title and as the topic? 
Originally there was a deal in place for the film to be distributed in the US by Fox but Pierre Edelman felt he could get a better deal shopping the film in the open market after it was complete, so he walked away from the Fox deal which in my opinion turned out to be a mistake. Fox didn’t seem to have a problem with the title or the subject matter and it was unfortunate that we didn’t close that deal. 

On the Masters of Horror TV series, you joined a team of esteemed horror directors that included John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Larry Cohen, Don Coscarelli, John Landis, Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, and Guillermo Del Toro. Was it an experience you enjoyed? 
Masters of Horror was a very positive experience. The producers were selling the show based primarily on the directors, aka, 'The Masters', so we were treated very well and given a lot of creative freedom. I felt they'd done a great job assembling a first rate crew in Vancouver and the show was well run. They allowed me to bring two actors, Jon Polito and Derek Cecil, both friends whom I'd worked with before, up to Canada to act in my episode, Haeckel's Tale. The script was adapted from a Clive Barker short story by Mick Garris, who had also conceived Masters of Horror as a series. I had great fun working with Jon and Derek and hanging out with them both on and off set. Unfortunately, Jon Polito passed away a few weeks ago, leaving behind an amazing body of work. There was also a great camaraderie among The Masters. Mick Garris organized a number of dinners for us where we got to swap war stories and hang out over dinner and drinks. Great fun. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

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