Writer-director Eric England has only been making films for a few years; then again, the Arkansas native is only 25, and already he's making a name for himself in the horror world thanks especially two his grisly 2011 second feature MADISON COUNTY, which followed his debut, HOSTILE ENCOUNTER. Earlier this year, England released ROADSIDE, a great family-trapped-in-their-car thriller, and he contributed a short film to Chiller Films CHILLING VISIONS: 5 SENSES OF FEAR, with each horror short somehow relating to one of the five senses.
Although fans of England's MADISON COUNTY have been pleading him for a sequel (and he has a screenplay ready, which we discuss), the filmmaker seems intent on keeping up his streak of new ideas rather than revisiting old material. I think the less said about the plot of his latest film, CONTRACTED, the better (so consider this entire interview a SPOILER ALERT, even though I go out of my way to talk around the film's central premise). Let's just leave it at: it's a unique perspective on a familiar horror genre, and England has actualized the fear of sexually transmitted diseases into a really fun horror story/cautionary tale. He's also made me fall mildly in love with the film's star, Najarra Townsend, even with all of her open sores and pasty white skin.
IFC Midnight picked up the film over the summer and is releasing it in select theaters on November 22 (I'm told it's available On Demand now, but if it isn't, it will be on the 22nd). Best of all, England is already hard at work on this next feature, HELLBENT (previous UNDERNEATH, previously BENEATH), slated for release next year. I sat down with him last month when he was in Chicago for the city's International Film Festival. Please enjoy my talk with Eric England…
Capone: You’ve taken arguably the most popular horror sub-genre of the moment and reverse engineered it. How did you dream up that structure? Because that’s really what the movie boils down to is that structure. If you tell this story knowing how it’s going to end, it doesn't mean anything.
Eric England: Yeah exactly, exactly.
Capone: Talk about how you pieced it together.
EE: Without giving too much away, I set out saying I want to make that kind of film and I was like, everyone’s doing it, so how would I do it differently? And for me, horror only works if it’s relatable and if you can say, “Ok, this is something that I identify with.” Because, there are movies…unless it’s like GRAVITY--GRAVITY is my favorite film of the year. I’ve never been to space, I’ve never been in a space suit, but that movie is so effective, and they have so much money and great actors. So when you’re doing a low-budget horror film, it has to be effective, and the best way to be effective is to be familiar.
So I was like, "What’s something that everyone knows about? Sex." Everyone knows about sex, and I thought it was a great introduction into horror, especially when the film ends and you know what it’s become. That’s a great genesis for that seed of an idea, and I think that’s how it started was me saying "I want to make this kind of movie. How would I do it and base it in reality and make it effective for everyone and familiar?" And sex was the best way, so let’s take this STD and see how far we can spin it out of control.
Capone: You said the only way it works is if it’s relatable, but I think for someone like me who sees 400-plus movies a year, the reason it works is because it hasn’t been done this way before.
EE: Well, great. That was another thing--doing something original.
Capone: So really what your film is saying is everyone should be scared of sex. Why do you hate sex so much?
EE: [laughs] No, I don’t hate sex. I love sex. In fact, that’s why I wanted to make a movie about sex. But I think it was just something that's personally relatable. It all goes back to that for me because when you think of sex, it's such an intimate thing and it can be scary, especially when it’s your first time [with someone], whether you just got divorced and you’re getting back out there. Or in Samantha’s case, she is dealing with issues in her sexuality. She’s been dating a girl, but her friends know her as this other person, and she used to have this different lifestyle. For me, it was all about that intimacy and making that effective. Like I said, sex can be scary. Originally when I was working on this idea, it was going to be a younger girl, and we were going to make it about her first time. Then it evolved.
Capone: That would have just been mean.
EE: Yeah, I think it would have been mean spirited, and I would have had a lot of child pornography specialists after me, but actually I originally wanted to shoot the movie in a foreign country and add this layer of xenophobia, so you have this STD from this weird party in a foreign country with foreign doctors, but we didn’t have the budget for it. So then it evolved into L.A., and I live in L.A. and I’ve been living in L.A. and all of my friends are in L.A., so it was really easy to immerse myself in that world and say, “Okay, this is how sex is in the 21st century and with these people, and this is how it goes down, and let’s make a horror movie in this world, in this bubble.”
Capone: You made a name for yourself with a type of slasher film, but the two films that you've put out this year are not only very different from that but very different from each other. Is this the goal right now, to mix it up and show people that you’re capable of? You’re sticking with the horror genre, which is great, because whenever someone makes decent horror, I feel compelled to encourage them to stick with it.
EE: Well thank you, I’m flattered.
Capone: You’re saying, “Look, there are a lot of places we can go in horror; let me show you all the places that I can go.”
EE: Yeah, absolutely. For me, it’s about versatility. I love comedy, I love dramas, I love action, I love sci-fi, I love mystery. I love all facets of storytelling. I like to say that even if I were to do a comedy, it would be something about someone hiding a dead body. I tend to lean toward the darker side of storytelling, so that was the goal as a filmmaker. When I did MADISON COUNTY, I was 22 years old and I had no idea that I was making a movie that people were going to buy and watch and see. It was very much my EL MARIACHI, where I was like, "I just hope we can make some money on it, and if someone likes it, they may let me do it again." And then when it hit and Screamfest happened, people bought it and there was some buzz around it, people were like, “Okay, great. What’s your next movie?” And I was like, “I don’t know, you guys tell me. I’m excited. What can we make?”
I was ready to make anything. I probably would shoot porn at that point. [laughs] I was just like, "Put me behind a camera, and this can be my job--I’m excited." Then I started dealing with the agents and managers, and they were like, “Well, you’re a horror guy.” And I was like, “What the hell does that mean?” And they were like, “Well, you don’t want to get pigeon-holed.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I do. I love horror. Why wouldn't I wanna make horror films?” But they were like, “Let’s make MADISON COUNTY 2, or let's do another slasher film.” And I was like, “No, I have this idea for this.” And they were like, “Yeah, but you did MADISON COUNTY. You haven’t done that yet.” “Well, I haven't done it because you guys haven't given me the opportunity yet.”
Capone: So, they were pigeon holing you within horror?
EE: Yeah, yeah. I don't know how many times I said I want to do a vampire movie or a monster movie, and they’re like, “Yeah, but you do slashers.” Well, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve done slashers and now I’ve done STDs or whatever you want to call it. If you don't give me that opportunity, it’s never going to happen. So I want to create that opportunity for myself. It’s important for me that whatever I do is as different as it can be from my last film to show that versatility. I think it will evolve.
One day, I’m going to do a comedy, I’ll do a drama; I want to do the Sam Raimi stuff where I can come back and do my DRAG ME TO HELL. I want to do it a little more consistently than he does it. I don’t necessarily want to take my foot completely out but, yeah, it’s about showing the versatility and exactly what you said, saying “Hey, this is how far we can stretch the boundaries of horror.” Because I agree with you: I think there’s a lot of of retreading going on in the genre, and it’s unfortunate. I think there are a lot of new stories, especially with technology and the way the world itself is evolving. There are a lot of great stories that are about to pop, and I want to be a part of that, forging that new path.
Capone: So far, you're written everything you've directed. Do you prefer it that way, where you have total control, or are you eager to find a book or a script that you can play with and don’t have to worry so much about writing?
EE: Yeah, originally it was a control thing. I’m a very OCD person, so I like to control and be comfortable in that environment. But the one thing that I’ve found, especially in making no-budget films, is there is a lot of responsibility. It's on you. You’re the guy who is writing, directing, producing, casting, cooking, setting up. "Okay, craft services are over there, camera's looking this way. Oh shit! We have to shoot this way now, so I have to move craft services." So it becomes stressful.
There is a side of me that is excited to start working with more money and someone else's script, and I can bring an objective point of view. But also, the horrible part of Hollywood is there are a lot of bad scripts out there, so the more I read, trying to find that diamond in the ruff of a script that I would want to take on, the more I’m like well, the stories I want to tell are a little more unique. I read a lot of really cool ideas, but they're just horribly written. The more I think about it, the more it makes me want to hone my craft and become the best storyteller I can be, so that if there is a dream project that is a script I didn’t write, while that’s waiting to be made, I can make my own films that I’m writing and I’m not necessarily relying on someone else. And I think that’s where it came from, the necessity of wanting to work and make films. I knew I could write myself, because I didn’t want to wait around for people to give me a job; I wanted to create it myself.
Capone: Do you a drawer of unproduced scripts at this point?
EE: Kind of, I’ve got a stack of stuff that I’m still working on. CONTRACTED, I wrote the script three months before shooting, and it was just a very quick turnaround, and honestly, that’s how I like to work. I want a little more time now to flesh some stuff out and work some ideas. But for me, I get excited when it’s like, “Oh, great. We have the money; we’re actually going to make this movie,” rather than write the script and pray to God we’re going to find financing. When I know the movie’s going to happen, that’s when I get excited.
Capone: The film is almost more upsetting because you’re not going for big, gory moments. It’s about watching Samantha's body break down.
EE: Yeah, it’s a bleak movie.
Capone: It’s about her teeth and fingernails and hair. People have nightmares about these things. Sure, some people have nightmares about giant monsters, but everyone has nightmares about their teeth falling out, and that’s what makes it so much more awful--you can feel these things happening to your body, like a sense memory.
EE: Yeah, they are relatable.
Capone: But then you just cross the line with the maggots. So thanks for that. That was a nice touch. Talk about the maggots a little bit, because that’s a terrifying scene. That’s an awful, awful moment in my life watching that. All you can think of is what the guy she's having sex with is seeing at that moment. And thank you for not showing that. Did you film something that was actually there and decide not to show it?
EE: No, I wish. The producers of the film are extremely religious. They’re orthodox, so we actually couldn't have any nudity in the film.
Capone: I wondered about that.
EE: So, that was actually a big hurtle when we were making the movie. We almost didn’t make the movie because they were scared that it would be too risqué for them and their culture, so I looked at that as, "Well, Spielberg made a shark movie without a shark, so maybe I can make an STD film without nudity." And honestly, that’s how I approached it. I wanted to make it as sexy and effective as I could using that, and with the maggots, honestly it was just a natural progression once you understand what the story is and where we were going with it. It’s like decomposition and rotting, and once you figure out where this is going, that is the icing on the cake, for lack of a better term. Or sesame seeds on the bagel if you wanna use that analogy.
Capone: Maybe that’s a little closer.
EE: Yeah, that’s a little closer. [laughs]
Capone: Let's talk about the character of Samantha, because you have to realize at this point that there might be some people that see this movie that never like her. She does the most incredibly selfish things, both before and after this happens to her. The film is not about liking her; it’s probably best that we don’t. Talk about creating a character that makes all the wrong decisions.
EE: For me, it was about being real. She’s a real person, she’s flawed. She makes bad choices, and she’s human. She fucks up, like we all do. It’s funny because some people really identify with her, they’re in that demographic, they understand like, “I had a girlfriend. I broke up with my boyfriend.” So some people actually identify with her, and they're very empathetic towards her. Then there are others who just feel she’s a confused girl, and there are others like you and even myself where it’s like, "She’s just a really fucked-up and flawed character. That’s just who she is. She’s a flawed person, and it’s unfortunate this situation happened to her.
I think that’s the approach I wanted to take. She’s a girl in a bind, and unfortunately her story just doesn't get better. This isn’t a happy story; this isn’t a happy ending. Once you see the end of the film, you get what it is, and it’s like, "It makes sense that it’s not going to be a happy ending because it opens the flood gates for everything else that follows." So there was no way that this was supposed to be a happy story about a girl who contracts an STD.
Capone: Yeah, I never thought a cure was in the cards, that’s for sure. And she’s such a beautiful girl; you did such a good job of uglifying her. Did you shoot this chronologically, because I’m wondering how you decided the progression of both how sick she felt and how she looked?
EE: We didn’t really shoot chronologically. We tried to as much as possible, but I have to give huge credit to my makeup artist there. I wrote it in the script, "This is her appearance, and this is what I want her to look like, and at this stage, this is what she looks like." But the continuity of where we were at was very much on the shoulders of my First AD David Buchwald, who was stellar and amazing and my makeup artist. They worked closely together and understood that, okay, this is this scene and it happens before this other scene.We really tried to break it down, because the contact lenses that she has to wear were so tough and she couldn't see, which is actually why she wears sunglasses for a lot of the film was because she couldn't see. I didn’t want her being blind for eight days, so I said, "If you’re wearing the glasses, you can hide the eyes, and it made sense for the character because she is trying to cover everything up and not be exposed, so it just made sense. Ironically it was refreshing when writing the script and logistically figuring everything out to realize that everything works out for us. I don't wanna have her in contacts all the time because they hurt her eyes, but it makes sense for her character to put on glasses, so that works out because she's hiding this. So everything fell into place, and on a movie that should have been probably a nightmare to shoot, it was actually quite refreshing.
Capone: There are a couple of moments where I actually thought, “Why aren’t people reacting more to her appearance?” Were you worried about maybe going too far with exposing her to people in certain scenes because there are times when people just go, “Wow, you look messed up.” But it’s like, no she looks really messed up. Were you worried about those scenes?
EE: Absolutely. I think that was the question on everyone's mind when we were shooting. Like there were moments when we were filming dialogue scenes when she’s in pretty heavy makeup, and I’m sitting there chewing my nails off and I’m looking at the monitor and I’m looking at the people behind me and I’m like, “Is this going to fucking work? Are people going to buy this?”
And you have to trust the context of everything, the emotional roller coaster that you’re on during the film. That’s how the movie is. You either buy the idea, or you don’t know what I’m saying? Because some people have actually criticized the film saying it didn’t go far enough. Like “Oh it’s not gross enough, or they didn’t take it there. She should have been melting by the end of it.”But then it wouldn’t make sense for her to interact. It’s about finding that balance between how much can she try to continue her normal life while trying to cover this up and also continue to be a horrific movie about a girl that’s rotting away in front of your eyes.
Capone: Well, what’s funny about it too is that a lot of the people in her think there are other reasons she looks so terrible. Her mother thinks she’s on drugs because she has a history. So that explains that away. Her friend Alice and the guy that Matt Mercer plays, they both love her so much they don't even care what she looks like. So you have these plausible deniability instances that are built into the story. That was really smart writing..
EE: Thank you.
Capone: It was very funny to see that Simon Barrett was patient zero. How do you know him?
EE: Yeah, Simon actually came to the encore screening of MADISON COUNTY at Screamfest, which was the first time I had met him, My girlfriend, who plays Nikki in the movie, Katie Stegeman, she’s from St. Louis, and Simon’s from Colombia, Missouri, so they met and I met them through them. While doing the rounds of MADISON COUNTY with the distributers etc., I met the VHS producers and we were talking about me doing a segment and they were like, “You guys should meet Adam [Wingard] and Simon.” So I met everyone in that group, and Simon and I just hit it off. He’s just a great guy. He’s really, really intelligent and smart filmmaker.
While writing the part, Simon and I were acquaintances when I was writing the script, and I wrote the part and I really wanted a Kevin Spacey in SEVEN type of feel--not any distinct features or anything like that. Just an out-of-focus bald white guy. And I was like, “Who do I know? I could go though all the trouble of casting or I could just ask someone I know.” Cuz that’s kinda what I was doing for the rest of the movie. And I was like, “I wonder if Simon would do it.” I know Simon had acted a little bit in his own stuff. For this, all he would have to really do was read lines and it was great.
So I reached out to him and was like, “Simon, would you want to do my movie?” and he was like, “Yeah sure.” Then we started to grab drinks and become closer and everything. But it was great because he showed up on set and he was over in the corner writing his next movie and we'd call him like, “Alright we need you for this shot,” and he’d come over there and do it. It was great having him on set because, filmmakers unlike actors when they’re in front of the camera, they’re savvy to what you’re doing, and he knew I was in a close up, and we needed someone who was a little short. He was so much more efficient than a normal actor, because he’s used to being behind the camera, so he could pick up on things. It was actually nice working with him.
Capone: Well, he definitely comes out of that school of filmmaking where there’s almost no devision of duty. If you’re involved in a movie, you might be in it or you might be acting. It's always good to see Caroline Williams in something. I saw her in HATCHET III, but I always dig her popping up, and now she’s playing moms, which is crazy. And she’s a great mothering, judgmental mother in your film. Have you worked with her before?
EE: I have not, no. It’s funny, we actually had someone else [in that role]. I wish I could say who because it’s a great story, but she turned it down because of the content of the script. And we had another actress that we really liked who also turned us down for the content of the script, but she wasn't in the genre. And I really didn't want to get a screen queen necessarily, although Caroline is very iconic. I really just wanted someone that felt real for me, and I was like, if we can get someone who’s a little more recognizable, why not?
Matt [Mercer, who stars in this and other films by England] and I do this thing where we have a drunken horror movie night, and we watch what we consider to be really bad horror films and we get drunk. We were watching Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN 2 because he hadn’t seen it--sorry Rob--and while watching it I was, Caroline pops up, and I look over to Matt and was like, “I wonder if Caroline Williams would do it?” And he was like, “I don't know. We should look into that.” And I think Matt sent her like a Facebook message the next day or something and before you know it she was like, “Oh Eric did MADISON COUNTY, and I’m from Arkansas.” Because she was from Arkansas. So the next thing you know, we’re having lunch with Caroline, and she's this big ball of energy that you can not contain, and she was like, “I would love to do your movie and I think your script is brilliant.” She was going so deep into the script about like, it’s about this and it’s about that. And I’m like, “You’re making my little STD movie sound really important. So, thank you.”
Capone: It’s nice that someone is analyzing it for you. So you’ve got these two films this year, and then you said you had some other things in the works. Can you say anything about those yet?
EE: Yeah, yeah. I’ve got one--actually the writer lives here in Chicago, his name’s T.J. Simfel--and it’s a brilliant, brilliant screen play. We’re working on a new title right now. It was originally called BENEATH, and then like five films came out this year called BENEATH, so then we changed it to UNDERNEATH, and now we’re changing it again, I’m not sure what it’s going to end up being [it appears the new title is HELLBENT], but the script is amazing. It’s about this accident that happens in this mine, and this rookie miner is down there when it happens, and he finds all these miners spread out in the mine just like dead or what he presumes to be dead, and he goes up to the top of the mine. Smash cut to helicopters and news vans--"Accident in the Mine" kind of things, and they’re sending down a search-and-rescue party, and there’s a very strong female protagonist who’s a wife of one of the miners, and she doesn't believe that they’re dead and she blackmails her way onto the search-and-rescue party, and they go down there together.
When they get down there, they realize the miners unearthed demonic entities that are possessing people to reach the surface. So it’s got elements of THE THING, this very contained, scary, dark environment, with elements of THE EXORCIST, and it’s just a very timeless type of horror film. It’s just amazingly executed in the screenplay, and when I found it, I was like, "This is the type of movie I want to make." It’s one of those movies that I think will stand the test of time even if I was just the worst director ever and just shot entirely what was on the page with no visual flare from my end, and it’s the type of movie I want to make. It’s bigger, we’re getting a little bit more money to play with, which is nice, and we’re going out to some bigger actors. So I’m hoping it’s a step in the right direction in terms of the evolution of my career.
I’m a very proactive filmmaker. I don't like to sit back and wait on things, so I’m continuing my MADISON COUNTYs, my CONTRACTED, my Southern pride films, as I call them, with my production company, and I’m working on a couple of new things right now. One that continues the trend of sex and horror from CONTRACTED, but more in like a surreal VIDEODROME way, and then I’m working on a horror comedy that’s in the vein of like EVIL DEAD, with a little bit of PET SEMATARY thrown in.
Capone: I know people always ask you if you’re going to do a MADISON COUNTY sequel because it seems like it’s there. Storywise, it wouldn't be that hard to step back into it, but are you not interested in that, or do you have an idea?
EE: Yeah, I’ve got a script actually. It’s definitely on the agenda; it’s just more when the time is right. CONTRACTED, which I really appreciate you saying, is being mentioned for being original and unique, and for me, it would feel like I’m going back into the woods, going back to the well for MADISON COUNTY 2. So as much as I want to do a MADISON COUNTY 2, it’s more of when the time feels right for me and what makes sense for it to jump back into that.
Capone: It would be a unique thing for someone to be patient about making a sequel, as opposed to making it your immediate next film.
EE: Yeah, let's let it grow and evolve, and hopefully I can bring something unique to the slasher film as well.
Capone: And maybe you'll have some more money to play with too.
EE: Yeah, hopefully.
Capone: Because Emily Hagins is a friend of mine, I saw your short film that was part of the CHILLING VISIONS anthology on Chiller.
EE: Cool. Yeah, I hate saying it but I had a bad experience making that, so I actually don’t consider that my film. But I love Emily and I had a great time working with her, it was almost like camp from L.A. to Austin where we just talked and shared notes and stories, and she was talking to me about GROW UP, TONY PHILLIPS because she was shooting that right afterwards. It was a good time.