Friday 14 June 2013

An Interview with HATCHET III director BJ McDonnell

On board the good ship HATCHET there’s a new captain on deck for the third instalment in the franchise. Previous captain, and creator of swamp slaughterer Victor Crowley, Adam Green, has this time entrusted able shipmate and camera operator BJ McDonnell from the previous two instalments to take the helm on HATCHET III. On the morning after the Hollywood premiere, BJ very kindly found the time to talk to me about his fascinating career path to date and his experiences navigating through Victor Crowley’s swamps on his feature film directorial debut.

My first question is one that probably every horror fan in the UK wants the answer to BJ: Is Adam Green a complete c**t or what?
BJ: He’s a massive c**t!

I thought so, the truth will out.
BJ: No, he’s cool. It was pretty cool of him to give me the chance to do a directing gig – cos he knew I wanted to direct. It was really very thoughtful of him to do that and I’m really thankful for that opportunity, it was a great stepping stone for me. 

So what was your immediate reaction when Adam told you?

BJ: I was really excited when he asked me to do it, and he knew that because I was the camera operator on the first 2 that I knew the drill and knew what to do. I was really excited about it until later on when I thought: you know, this is kind of a tough gig. On the one hand you’ve got the diehard fans that are expecting it, and then you have the people who aren’t the fans that don’t like it at all and you’re already being ridiculed by the fact you’re just associated with it. So I said: Ok, I’m gonna try and make this as best as I can and to make it as fun a movie as I can and hope to get some people who hated the HATCHET movies back or the ones who got discouraged from part 2 and have them come back with this one. I hope I did my job.

While you were filming in the tough swamp conditions was there ever a time when you thought:  I wish I was just back doing my band stuff with Lick 57?

BJ: (Laughs) I don’t think there was ever a time when I thought that because honestly sitting in a hot stinky tour van with a bunch of punk rockers was basically just as sweltering hot and nasty as a swamp could ever be.

What did you want to be when you were a kid (before wanting to be in a punk rock band that is)?

BJ: When I was a little kid I wanted just to be Dracula.


BJ: That was my first career that I wanted and then I realised that would never happen...You know it was funny cos I’ve always been big into arts and music and movies. My grandfather was an actor [Leif Erickson – who worked with amongst others, William Castle on STRAIGHTJACKET, and ON THE WATERFRONT with Marlin Brando] and going with him to movie sets was always really inspiring to me – he was great, a wonderful man.

And then the whole music aspect thing, I just loved punk rock and metal. I didn’t really know where I wanted to go but right out of high school I went straight into being in a punk band and that was that. Crazy right?
Living the dream. And then you changed career paths and moved into the film industry as a grip, a camera operator and steadicam operator. Looking at your hugely impressive résumé, you’ve worked on an incredible range of films with an incredible roster of directors. Which film would you say was the best experience you’ve had to date on set as a camera/steadicam operator?

BJ: There’s a couple. Definitely all the Rob Zombie movies have always been amazing because it’s just a unique way of shooting movies and it’s just amazing to be involved with someone that’s so visual and has a great eye for things and knows how to visually tell a story. He’s just an artist and he knows his shit – the guy is truly passionate about every little thing he does – he’s not just Rob Zombie the rock star who wants to be a director: he truly is a director. 
The other director who was just crazy to be around and was just truly inspiring to work with was William Friedkin [on KILLER JOE]. He was just unbelievable. I’ve never seen someone so ready and so having his actors prepared. You get one or two takes and that’s it, you move on; and it’s amazing the performances he would get out of his actors. I would love to go in the trenches with that guy again any day.

So he didn’t pull a gun out on you like he did to the cast during the filming of THE EXORCIST?
BJ: He DID pull a gun out and he DID shoot it in the air – I’m not gonna lie! (Laughs) He did pull out a gun, I will say he did. It definitely got a response: it was pretty great (!)

Okaaaay...And what was it like working on the lens flare with J.J. Abrams on STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS?
BJ: It was fantastic. We were using Panavision Millennium XL’s with the anamorphic lenses and IMAX cameras. I was only on it for a little bit doing some of the 2nd unit stuff. I did some crane work for the opening with the tribal people running through the forest on that planet. And then I did some stuff with the ship to ship sequence where Khan and Kirk go flying through the airlock – that was pretty intense. We had some stunt guys on wires going 50mph in this long Howard Hughes air plane hangar building which was really impressive. And as for J.J. – he’s just the nicest guy in the world – he’s just a cool dude. I wish I could’ve stayed there longer but then I had to get down to the swamp and start prepping for HATCHET 3.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS was post-conversion 3D. How do you feel about 3D both as a camera operator and as a cinema goer?
3D is just a hard thing to work with; the cameras are so big; you have to have all the lenses in synch – you lose your day with the workflow of 3D. I think that the converting process has got so good now there’s no reason to shoot things in 3D – and from a director’s standpoint I think you waste time waiting for everything to work – it’s a pain in the butt. But I mean that’s not to say I don’t enjoy watching 3D movies, I do enjoy them, but working with 3D cameras it’s just too time-consuming and you just don’t get what you want out of the day.

So there was no chance of HATCHET 3D then?
BJ: Nope, not in my books.

No 3D then, but unlike the previous two instalments, you did shoot HATCHET III in the widescreen ‘Scope format. Any particular reason for that? Do you just prefer ‘Scope or was it perhaps to make the film look like it had a bigger budget than it actually had?
BJ: That’s exactly it. I don’t like 1:85. If you’re going to shoot a feature film and you’re going to try to make it look more epic or bigger and you have cool locations to shoot in then why not shoot it ‘Scope? Why not make sure you can get everything into the lens that you’re shooting. If you’re gonna shoot in a real swamp this time let’s take it in and shoot the scenery. Let’s see it. Plus it does make the movie look way bigger, way more cinematic than the previous two.  You know I’m a big fan of the first HATCHET, I love the first film still to this day, but I’m really happy with what we did with the third one by just making it look bigger and with less of a budget than either parts 1 or 2.

How easy or hard was it to let go of the camera and give it to cinematographer Will Barratt?
BJ: Well Will’s always been in control of it with the lighting and everything. I did all the steadicam in it because I couldn’t afford a steadicam operator. And then my buddy Brian Sowell and my other friend Eric Leach were the camera operators (Eric also did 2nd unit DP and directing for me). It was one of those things where I’d rather be behind a monitor watching the performance than actually trying to compose a shot. It was hard you know for me to let go of those things and I definitely worked with Will closely and I pushed him pretty hard on this. I definitely was a little more adamant about camera and angles and things like that than Adam ever was on the other ones. And I know Will’s really proud of it and I think he did a killer job you know with the amount of time we had and things we had to accomplish. Will came through and was just amazing to work with.           

Did Adam get in the way and interfere like Spielberg did on Tobe Hooper’s POLTERGEIST?
(Laughs) No, Adam didn’t get in the way at all. He was definitely there on location with us and every now and then he had to ‘put out some fires’ (as a producer should). It’s tough shooting in a place where you don’t know the crew and things like that – and I think he really got to experience how tough that was as being a producer like that. But honestly it was really refreshing for me the fact that Adam wasn’t next to me all the time and wasn’t looming over me because it just showed me he trusted in what I was doing with the film and knew I would do a good job. So to me I take that more as a compliment than anything. He would definitely show up to see the gore. If he knew we were killing someone he would love to show up and see that and then he’d take off. So that was cool, and it made me feel good that that was the way that went.

Speaking of the gore, is it all physical effects: no CGI?
BJ: There’s no CGI although we did have to do some ‘touch ups’ on some things. Cos the way we did this and what was in the script from what me and Adam actually came up with, there’s just no way we couldn’t not touch it a little bit with some computer help. Not being that we CGI’d anything but we definitely shot everything real. We shot all the gore stuff and then if things didn’t work we had to use computers to stitch what we had shot onto certain things to make it work. So it’s not really CGI but yes there was some computer work in there. I’m not gonna lie about that.

Is it correct that Kane Hodder’s make-up as Victor Crowley weighed in total 50lbs?
BJ: Yeah, it was all silicone this time. It was tough for him to move around in that you know, but Kane’s such a trooper, he’s just so good. When he gets that make-up on he IS Victor Crowley, and he is ready to just go for it. You know what you’re gonna get with Kane, he’s amazing, and the fact we used silicone as opposed to latex means you can see emotions in his face. He looks mean man! And I said to Will, look, when we shoot Victor Crowley let’s make it dark, let’s make this movie dark and gritty like almost a lot of grain to give the film a look like a late 70’s - early 80’s movie. I wanted to take Victor Crowley darker also.

But he’s not scary to direct then?
BJ:  On man I’ve known Kane for a long time and the more I know Kane the more just a prankster he is and a jokester. For me that’s the way I know him and I love the guy, but I guess for other people who don’t know him he can be a little bit intimidating. He definitely loves to scare people and that’s kinda fun on set too. He just sneaks up on people and freaks them out or hides in the bushes and jumps out at them.
He’s had quite a bit of practice at that hasn’t he?

BJ: He’s had tonnes of practice at that! He’s a pro!
And Derek Mears has also had some practice at that too...

BJ: Yeah, Derek definitely has too. The thing with Derek on this one though he’s not behind a mask. You know, he’s a really good actor and Derek’s a really funny guy, he’s more of a comedian than anything – really quick and funny. Being on set with him he had great ideas, and when you work with him he’s like a kid that just wants to give you the best thing ever: the best performance and really make you proud. It was a pleasure working with Derek - even though he was playing a pompous arsehole in the movie - he’s just great. I don’t want to take away the allure of him being a mean or big bad guy but I love Derek Mears to death, he’s a genuinely great human-being.
He was brilliant in HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS as Edward the giant troll. In fact I thought he was by far the best thing in the film.

BJ: I do too.
And you’ve got one of my very favourite actresses returning from HATCHET II, Danielle Harris. Now of course she knew what she was signing up for having already faced Victor in the first sequel. But then you have HATCHET virgins like Zach Galligan who presumably didn’t know quite what he was letting himself in for?
Zach Galligan and Derek Mears brave the swamps.

BJ: Zach was super cool. I’d already worked with Danielle and so was very comfortable with her. Zach was someone I’d chose who I wanted to cast. I told him, look man I’m not going to sugar-coat this whole thing, it’s going to be absolutely horrible. The worst experience of your life. It’s going to be gators and rain and mosquitoes and bugs – it’s going to be like going to war. But when all is said and done it’s going to be a really cool movie; and I’d love to have you! I didn’t bullshit him and he signed on. He was a true pro; the guy always knocked it out of the park, very professional and just a pleasure to work with. I look forward to working with him again.
And presumably you didn’t have any issues or problems with your head of make-up department, Adrienne Lynn? [BJ’s real-life partner]

BJ: Oh of course not, no (laughs). She actually helped me through the whole thing, even in the pre-production by finding me boats, locations and everything else. She was just a godsend to have helping me.
And of course with make-up comes effects, and with effects comes gore, and with gore comes problems with the MPAA...

BJ: This time around, believe it or not, we didn’t have that much of a problem. We got an NC17 – which I don’t care, I think it’s kinda awesome.
It basically means you’ve done your job!

BJ: That’s exactly what it means and I have no problem with that. It’s just the deal with trying to get the movie into certain theatres. We did have to do an R rated cut, which isn’t really much different you know. There’s a couple of things which are cut out but it’s not as bad as you think and I didn’t have to deal with the same thing that Adam had to deal with in HATCHET II. But I didn’t do the kills – I tried to make them a little bit less...well I can’t say less they’re pretty graphic. I honestly don’t know what I did to make them [the MPAA] be a little happier, maybe it was just the fact that I directed it and Adam didn’t – maybe they have a thing for Adam because of what happened, I don’t know.
Well he had no such problems over here in the UK with our BBFC I’m proud to say, so fingers crossed it will be the same for HATCHET III. I also hope we get a chance to see it here in the cinema on the big screen.

BJ: I hope so too man, the sound is killer on it - Mat Walters [sound re-recording mixer] killed it! If you get to see it make sure they turn that sound system up in the theatre!
Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet that you’d love to work with – and any dream project you’d like to do?

BJ: As a camera operator I’d like to work with Christopher Nolan – I’m a huge fan. Also, Michael Bay, even though a lot of people say run away from Michael Bay. I’m an action guy also, I love action films.
Directing-wise I’d love to work with Tom Cruise again, he’s super-cool. I worked on JACK REACHER and just watching him in the car doing his own stunts was just like there’s a reason why you’re Tom Cruise – and that’s why. The guy is a genuinely awesome dude. He’s a pro, he’s always on time, ready to go, knows his lines, nice to the crew, nice to everybody and you watch him work and he’s amazing.

Now I’ve heard mutterings already among some fans that maybe you’re the guy to direct the next FRIDAY THE 13TH sequel. How would you feel about that?
BJ: Really? People have been saying that? Phew, that’s a big task! You know, I would love to do it, it would be amazing to do it, but it has to be a good script. It’s hard to do franchises, even this alone as HATCHET III it’s tough to actually take someone’s baby that they created and really go with it - keep it the same but also put your touch on it.

Personally, apart from Derek Mears performance as Jason, I thought the FRIDAY THE 13TH reboot was pretty poor.

BJ: Derek was awesome. The only thing I thought was weird was there was like a bat cave for Jason Voorhees – I was like: what is that? I just kinda like seeing Jason pop out of nowhere and just kill. And that just goes with the old school environment of liking the old ones.
It felt more like a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film to me.

BJ: I liked the remake of the TCM – I thought it was really well done.

Agreed. So back to HATCHET III which has had some amazing reviews and reactions already – but then you’ve had those f*ckers at Fangoria...
BJ: (Laughs)  It’s tough whenever you have a magazine you grew up loving and you get a rough review, but you know what, there’s gonna be bad reviews. Every movie isn’t gonna be glowing. It’s just opinions and I honestly think it’s even fun to post the bad ones, it’s like why not? Sam Zimmerman over at Fangoria, the guy that did that review, I like the guy I think he’s great. We did karaoke at Comic Con and he’s a fantastic dude, but he’s opinion is his opinion and I respect that and I can’t expect everyone to love it. You can’t win them all.

Indeed. Just look at the genre you’re working in. The most maligned genre going.
BJ: Yes, exactly.

Thank you so much BJ for taking the time to talk to me. I wish you all the best for HATCHET III - I hope to see you over in the UK at some point – and I look forward to interviewing you on your next movie.
BJ: Awesome, I’ll look forward to it, thank you so much. 

Interviewed by Paul Worts

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