A screener for a strange indie film called Harvest Lake landed in my inbox recently, and instead of a straight review, I decided to interview the filmmakers to get more details on their bizarro opus. Harvest Lake follows four friends who go to a lakeside house to celebrate a birthday with sex, drugs, booze, a campfire, and more sex. It's not quite a horror film, not really an exploitation flick, and I'm undecided if it could be classified as science fiction. Due to its elevated score and photography, the film encapsulates all of these genres and more, with some odd surreal moments that will surprise its viewers --- with Tristan Risk (American Mary, The Editor) stealing every scene she's even --- even if those scenes include alien appendages.
The film is about to kick off its festival run, starting with HorrorHound Weekend in Cincinnati next month. It's an inherently weird film not easily categorized. Influences might range from David Cronenberg's Shivers to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.
I spoke to director/writer Scott Schirmer and director of photography/editor Brian K. Williams about what Harvest Lake is to them and might be to audiences. Check out the trailer after the interview.
ScreenAnarchy: Your film isn't easily categorized. In a quick pitch, what is Harvest Lake about?
Scott Schirmer: It's about five friends who go into the woods for a weekend getaway, only to fall under the influence of a libidinous, otherworldly presence that makes them drop all their inhibitions. It's a thrilling, carnal experience for some, a terrifying one for others --- especially when they get the idea that obeying the presence might mean losing their identity. Possibly even their humanity,
Brian K. Williams: Harvest Lake is about a group of friends who head to nature for a weekend trip, and get much more than they bargained for. It's about losing your inhibitions, and becoming one with nature, and with one another.
How was such a strange film such as Harvest Lake born?
SS: Brian and I had just worked together on another movie, and we really wanted to produce something together. We had a window of time available, so we put our heads together for a week or so and decided first that we wanted to make a Porky's-like sex comedy. Somehow that morphed into doing a feature film version of Deep Dwellers, which see a little bit of in Found that I directed a few years ago. And that in turn evolved into Harvest Lake. It's the first time a script came out of the desire to make a movie, and not the other way around. It was literally about four weeks after we decided we wanted to make a movie --- without having a script --- that we were shooting that very movie. It was crazy, but it was fun, and it was probably the smoothest shoot I've ever been part of.
BW: I had recently sold my house in Indianapolis, and Ellie and I were trying to decide where we were going to move. Ellie was working on Frankenstein Created Bikers in Atlanta, and I was working on The Legend of Wasco with Scott in Indiana. During post of that film, I would talk a lot with Scott, and I asked him "what's next?", because I wanted to keep working, because I could feel myself getting better, and I also wanted to keep my mind busy, and help me to decide on if moving to Bloomington was going to be a good idea, or not. We were also considering Atlanta, and a few other places. We knew it would have to be super low budget because neither of us had much money, and we both had other films we would be doing later on at some point that we'd most likely have to fundraise for, so we would finish a night of post off with talking for a few hours about the next project. We talked about a sex comedy, trying to keep costs of effects down, and then after a few more days of meeting it turned into more of a sci-fi film, and continued going through several variations until it got to the treatment Scott wrote for what would be eventually be named Harvest Lake. But even in the edit, the movie continued to evolve, it was an interesting experience, letting the movie come to use that way.
How did you two meet and decide to work together?
SS: I produced The Legend of Wasco and Brian was the director of photography on that movie. We had met before, but we really got to talking during the making of Wasco. We both love talking about movies --- all the time, for hours and hours, all day, all night. It's rare to find someone else who is as maniacally obsessed about movies as I am, so I just felt a real kinship with him right away. He's also completely devoted to bringing a vision to the screen. He'll stop at nothing to get it done, and that kind of passion and dedication is something you want to be around. I don't know how else to explain it, but it just felt like a match made in movie heaven.
BW: In a roundabout way, Scott is who got me involved in filmmaking at all when I first watched Found, which was directed by him. I didn't know who he was, and don't think I had met him yet, but knowing that a film that good was made that close to me, made me want to get involved in any way I could. I had been doing photography work for over 10 years, and always loved film, but never thought I could actually do it in the middle of nowheresville Indiana without millions of dollars. I almost immediately started researching cheap video cameras, DSLRs, and NLE editing programs, and started writing the script for Time To Kill. Even though I was working with Scott when I played the role of "slick Vic" in Headless, it wasn't really until DP-ing Wasco that I really got to know him, and we got started on brainstorming for Harvest Lake. He can sit and talk about movies, watch movies, discuss movies, play movie trivia --- non stop --- and it is great to have someone around that cares about the art form as much as you do, and we come from very different sides of cinema as well, so it's nice to be able to learn so much each other I think, and we trust one another's opinion. We both had no idea how Harvest Lake was going to go, going into it, but it could not have gone better. It was the smoothest set I've ever been on.
Harvest Lake is for fearless actors only! Tell us how you found each actor and why they filled the role best.
SS: We had worked with Jason Crowe, Ellie Church, and Dan Nye before, and they are all three go-to actors for me at this point. They're all in our next movie, actually. They all have my favorite quality in an actor --- fearlessness. They're not afraid to go there, to do whatever it takes to bring the moment to life. If you know an actor is fearless, you know they will go the distance with you. When I find that quality, I try to keep those actors around. I love working with the same actors whenever possible --- whenever they're right for a role. But there were two other leading roles that were open and we didn't have anyone in our stable of talent who could fill them. So we had to ask around. I hate auditions and will do anything to not have to do them. Ellie had worked with Tristan a few times, and we talked with a few directors who had worked with her, and they all had nothing but incredible praise for her. So we were thrilled that she accepted the part when we offered it to her. Her energy and improvisation skills were a real asset on the set. And Kevin Roach was in the news around the time we were casting because he played Freddy in Nathan Thomas Miliner's The Confession of Fred Krueger. I remembered that Kevin had sent us a reel a while back, and I liked his vibe. He seemed dangerous and sexy, weird and cool. So we took a chance on Kevin, and he really impressed the hell out of us.
BW: We had both recently worked with Jason Crowe, and Dan Nye in Wasco, and they are great, and Ellie and I have worked with her in a few films too, and she is equally amazing, we knew we wanted them, and had them in mind from the very beginning. For the role of Cat, we bounced around several names, and decided on Tristan after hearing about how great she was from Ellie and James Bickert, they both worked together on Bickert's Frankenstein Created Bikers. Kevin Roach was new to us, but we saw him in Nathan Thomas Milner's The Confession of Fred Krueger. I had previously worked with Lucretia Lynn on my short film Switch, and I had been wanting to work with Derek Sturgeon for awhile. I love the cast, and the way they immediately embraced and brought each other's characters to life was great. All of these actors were asked to do some pretty interesting things by a couple of goofy dudes out in the middle of the woods, and they were professional as hell. The first night we have them meeting each other, and then stripping naked and covering them in cold, slimy goo, in the middle of a built set in the middle of the woods, and nothing felt awkward, everybody was always laughing, having a good time, and the chemistry was natural, instantaneous, and beautiful.
Would you say that Harvest Lake is a metaphor?
SS: I'm not sure if it's really a metaphor or not. I knew it was going to be a movie about sexuality, and the more vague I could be about whether sexuality is good or bad, dangerous or fulfilling, the better. Because I think most people have conflicting feelings about sex --- they instinctively crave it, but they're often so repressed about it, or embarrassed by it. I kinda just wanted to take a small group of characters out of the confines of society, to remove the pressures of morality and normalcy, and just see what would happen when they fall under the freeing influence of the creature and the woods. Would they be ecstatic? Would they be terrified? Would they allow sex to challenge their thinking or transform their beliefs?
BW: Would YOU say it's a metaphor? Just kidding, but not really. I mean, Scott wrote it, but we talked a lot about the movie together, every night for hours before the writing, during, after, all through post, and we were both on the same page throughout, that we really wanted it to be about sex, but keeping it vague, treating sexuality like a thing that could be any number of things, and make you feel any number of ways, but overall that it can just "be taken." It's not necessarily good, or bad, it just "is," in an almost primal instinct sort of way. The way the movie ended up I think it is quite metaphoric, but I really don't want to offer my opinions on what I get from it, because I will forever be more interested in what others have to say about it.
I think the could represent the idea to allowing individuals to be or do whatever they want. In America, it's almost a radical notion, seeing that we've got the religious right screaming about "what ought to be" in every section of society. But that's just me. Ideally, I'd think that each person watching would take away whatever they need from the film. What do you think?
Schirmer: I think --- or at least I hope --- that's the movie is open to interpretation enough that if someone is prudish or repressed about sexuality, they might call it a horror film. And if someone is open-minded and not afraid of sex and sexuality, they probably won't find it to be as much of a horror film. I've also been interested to see how much of the characters' behavior some viewers attribute to the creature in the lake. Some viewers see the creature influencing the characters earlier on in the story, and others see the effect taking place later --- as though the characters' attitudes about sexuality need to be justified by some outside force. On one hand, I worry sometimes about keeping things vague, but then I really enjoy seeing all the different ways people read the movie. It makes the viewer an active participant in the movie, rather than just a spoon-fed spectator.
Williams: I hope people are able to see many things in the film. I'm not a fan of spoon-feeding audiences, and I love genre-bending films. I think people who are more repressed sexually, or and a little less open minded might see a horror film, and those who are more open minded might see something different. I have already heard several different takes on what the film has meant to people, and that's awesome.
Your blu-rays just went out to your backers; what's the feedback so far?
SS: We never expected the amount of positive feedback we've received so far, especially from the horror community. We really weren't sure this was going to work for them, because it's about as far from what's en vogue as it can be. We know it's going to be a subdued movie for some, but the feedback from the backers and reviewers so far has been wonderful.
BW: We did not know what people were going to think about this film, but Scott and I both really loved what we were all able to create together, and we decided to remember that, because we were expecting a lot of the horror crowd in particular to not like it. It's a different film, much different than what a lot of people are doing lately, and that can be immediately rejected, or it can be embraced as a breath of fresh air. Luckily, and surprisingly, it has been welcomed, and we've really only seen positive feedback and reviews thus far.
The score really elevates Harvest Lake above typical horror or exploitation films. Did you go in with a plan for the type of music from the beginning, or did your composer suggest the ambient score?
SS: I saw a short film called Boniato at the Diabolique International Film Festival and the music in that short really struck me, so I remembered the composers names --- Shawn Sutta and Adam Robl. I contacted them about scoring the movie, and they agreed to take a stab at it. We agreed early on that ambient, atmospheric, a little experimental were all good approaches. We wanted the score to help hypnotize the audience like the characters are hypnotized by the woods. Where Adam and Shawn really shined, though, was in the music for the end of the movie. Without score, the audience really isn't sure how to interpret this weird orgy ending of ours. In fact, we originally temp-tracked it with some ominous music, and while that worked, Adam and Shawn got us to consider another take. They presented a cue that was almost anthem-like. It built and grew on itself, and climbed and climbed, and became almost ecclesiastic. Without that kind of music, the scene is just dark, maybe a little gross and scary. But with the music, it becomes a scene about transformation and reaching or aiming for a higher plain of existence. It's less of a downer ending, and more of a confusing one --- but a good kind of confusing.
BW: I love music so much, it is my first love. I have scored everything I have ever done before myself, I've played multiple instruments for years, and the score is of HUGE importance to me, and Scott as well. We really wanted the score to shine in this film, and we knew the score was going to be responsible for how a lot of people would feel about the film, specifically the ending. We didn't have the budget to pay anyone to score the film at first, and since I was editing, I decided to go ahead and score it while I was editing. I always edit to music, and a lot of editors will create a temp score, so that's how I handled it, but I used all my own music to temp it with so that IF we ended up not able to afford composers, my temp score would be legal, and good enough to use for the final film. Scott introduced me to Shawn Sutta and Adam Robl's music, and it was similar in a lot of ways to a few of the pieces I had written. Through our pre-order money, we were able to raise enough to hire them, and we gave them the picture-locked movie with my temp score and they went to work. They worked super fast, kept great online communication with us (since they were in Miami), and they really knocked it out of the park. I love what they did, and it's super cool to have an original soundtrack like this, that really elevates the film. Scott and I both Skyped with Shawn and Adam at first, and both gave them ideas we each had, kind of brainstormed, and they would send over pieces of the film as they completed them, and we'd give notes, and they'd take them, and it was just a really nice collaboration I feel like, and they had so many great ideas, I really hope to work with them again.
Any plans for a sequel?
SS: Brian and I have joked about making many Harvest Lake sequels along the lines of the Wild Things movies, where the story stays exactly the same every time, but the faces change. Every couple of years, we'll just take a handful of good-looking kids into the woods and make them screw the lake monster. But we're just joking. Or I hope we are.
Williams: Heck yeah! Everybody on set affectionately called the final monster "Hermie," due to having dual anatomy, so we got Harvest Lake 2, Weekend at Hermie's, and Harvest Lake 3: Hermie The Love Bug already in pre production, both shooting back to back in the jungles of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, utilizing old sets from (1987) Predator! (Just kidding, please don't start that rumor.) No, we have plenty of movies we want to make together starting in the very near future, but other than joking and coming up with silly titles together on set for fun, we never considered a sequel at all.
Is Harvest Lake currently making the festival rounds?
SS: We're just getting onto the festival circuit. We've been accepted to a couple of festivals that we aren't allowed to announce yet, but we do have a confirmed screening at HorrorHound Weekend in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the weekend of March 18-20th. We hope to announce some more screenings by the end of February.
Where can people find out more about you both --- and your films?
BW: Additionally, find us at @harvestlakefilm on twitter. I'm on twitter @notthatnewsguy.