ANDREW VAN DEN HOUTEN AND JACK KETCHUM
Interview by Pitch Black
This interview with MODERNCINÉ president Andrew van den Houten and Jack Ketchum is the culmination of an unbelievable series of coincidences. It began with me seeing a History Channel program concerning the horrific 1965 murder of Sylvia Likens, which author Jack Ketchum used as an inspiration for his novel The Girl Next Door. A short time later, I randomly bumped into Frank Olsen, and had a conversation that touched on the Likens case; it turns out that Olsen works as an actor and executive producer for MODERNCINÉ, the company which released the film version of The Girl Next Door, and more recently Offspring, also based on a Ketchum novel. I was handed the Offspring DVD, viewed the film, and was simultaneously impressed and bludgeoned. Offspring is about a family of cannibals terrorizing some Maine residents. It's a hyper-intense, lower-budget affair with enough carnage to make ya wanna swear off red meat for a lifetime, but there's something intangible that makes Offspring genuinely uncomfortable to watch. Van den Houten and Ketchum were kind enough to shed some light on this and other subjects.
Horror Garage: What are your earliest memories of being attracted to the dark side?
Jack Ketchum: A recurring nightmare of being chased by dinosaurs. Twisted kid that I was, I kinda liked it.
Andrew van den Houten: I was always intrigued by Hitchcock and Kubrick. Before I got to really watch their films, however, I was drawn to movies like Halloween and Friday 13th. Something was so compelling about these particular slasher flicks, as they genuinely scarred my young mind... The Exorcist also falls into this category.
HG: Andrew, before forming MODERNCINÉ, it seemed you were already on your way to having a career as an actor and/or director. At what point did you decide you wanted to create something completely on your own? Was there one incident in particular that inspired you to form MODERNCINÉ? If so, what was it?
Andrew van den Houten: When my Mom sold her Roth IRA and I scrounged years of money from waiting tables together to make my thesis film at Emerson College, I realized I needed a company to brand it all with. Hence the formation of MODERNCINE. My mom's company was Modern Art Consultants, so we decided together to name the company with a reference to hers.
HG: In the company's earlier days, you seem more involved on the production end for short films like Surveillances and The Wait, while writing and getting behind the camera for your first shorts, Inherent Darkness and Enlightenment, and Little Mary. Is there a reason you directed some of the early projects but not others?
Andrew van den Houten: I directed Inherent Darkness and Enlightenment because it was my thesis film, and it was only until Little Mary that I was asked by Patrick Wang to direct another short. All the other projects came with directors attached. I enjoyed working creatively as a producer with these directors and found that I really could help them realize their vision. Helping young directors is always fun and exciting because they aren't all jaded and cynical yet.
HG: What "hat" do you like wearing most? Producer? Director? CEO? And why?
Andrew van den Houten: Honestly, I enjoy doing deals as a producer, working with actors as a director and branding the company as a CEO. All facets of the job keep it interesting, and there is NEVER a reason to be bored. My favorite task or job -- if you want to call it that -- depends on the day. Some days I don't wanna do anything business and others I just want to be creative. I try and let the flow of life lead me in the right direction as much as possible. Better to roll with the current than swim upstream -- however, when it comes to raising money you have to fight like hell!
HG: Patrick Wang appears in several of the early short films. Are you still working with him? What do you feel Patrick brings/brought to the table as an actor?
Andrew van den Houten: Patrick is phenomenal! I am glad you ask about him because we have been working together now for many years. In fact, I am producing a film that he has written called In the Family. He is also starring and directing the movie that shoots in New York or New Jersey in October.
As an actor Patrick brings versatility and passion to his work. He never rests for one second, and I appreciate his unending focus and ability to constantly create and find moments. He is a spontaneous and fun person to work with and I have always been impressed by the roles he chooses and creates for himself.
HG: Tell us about your first full-length feature, Headspace. What were some of the things that went as planned, and what were some of the things that turned out to be a crash course in "on the job training"?
Andrew van den Houten: On Headspace, the talent all fell into place nicely. I was able to give Christopher Denham his first lead in a legit feature, which was amazing as well. I was so lucky to work with a cast of so many great actors like Olivia Hussey, William Atherton, Udo Kier, Larry Fessenden, Dee Wallace Stone and Sean Young.
As far as lessons learned a la "crash course"... When it came to the Special Make-Up FX I learned quickly that you have to know when to cut your losses. I asked to do another take of a scene with Udo Kier's face being ripped off by our creature, and it was the biggest mistake I made. We had it good enough on the first go, however, I wanted it again... the set up and prep for another take put us into major over-time...we almost lost our entire crew on the second day of shooting. On a low-budget indie, you have to know when to move forward and when NOT to be obsessive.
HG: Headspace earned you several honors, and the film has even recently been on Showtime. At what point did you say to yourself "Ah, my evil plan is working..."?
Andrew van den Houten: For me I never think about whether things are working or not. I think about what's up next and how I can keep moving forward. I have several projects always in development so I try not to get to caught up in each particular project's success or failure. If something hits I'd rather be surprised than having false expectations and being let down by a film that doesn't perform as well.
Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door has been a real success for our company and I never thought it would have the staying power it has maintained. We were very lucky the stars really aligned for us on that film!
I anticipate a few more surprises in the coming years; however, I really just enjoy doing the work.
Horror Garage: Jack, why did you choose to write The Girl Next Door?
Jack Ketchum: Because it was there. And that's not as glib as it might sound. Sylvia Likens' true story really touched and moved me. Gertrude's and her kids' story really revolted me. I'd been attracted to the whole situation for years before I actually sat down and wrote the thing.
Horror Garage: Are you happy with the film adaptation?
Jack Ketchum: Yes. There were a few changes from Nutman and Ferrands' original script that I'd just as soon hadn't been made, but overall it was a very faithful adaptation of both the book and the script, sensitively directed by Greg Wilson, with excellent performances, and shot with a fine feeling for the period. Got pretty damn lucky on that one.
Horror Garage: How did it come about that you decided to write the screenplay for Offspring?
Jack Ketchum: When MODERNCINÉ, who'd done a good job with The Girl Next Door, optioned the book it was with the idea that I'd do the screenplay too. To which I readily agreed. In movies, whatever small amount of control you can eke out is all to the good.
HG: Andrew, do any early memories of your initial dealings with Ketchum stand out?
Andrew van den Houten: Ketchum has always been really supportive and positive of our films. I think the thing that made the largest impression on me the first time I met him, was the fact that he was such a normal dude. Given how messed up and disturbing his stories are, Ketchum has an infectious passion and enthusiasm for life. It's fun to drink with him and listen to his stories. He is a great guy to learn from, and certainly a good friend. It was funny because I never knew we were neighbors on the Upper West Side of Manhattan until I reached out to him through my publicist. It was even crazier when I found out he had gone to my alma mater, Emerson College, and that we were fellow alumni. Of course he went in the '60s, so I'm sure he doesn't remember it as well as I do...
Offspring came about because I wanted to do it as a film and figured he'd be the best person to adapt it since he wrote the novel.
He agreed to do the adaptation and I was lucky enough to get to direct the film. While on the subject, I am luckier that Lucky McKee is on board to help move the franchise forward.
It's gonna be a fun evolution to watch for sure!
HG: You chose to film in Michigan rather than Maine, where the book takes place. Why Michigan?
Andrew van den Houten: Tax Incentives are what brought us to the beautiful state of Michigan. It really turned out to be a gem of a location and the people were amazing as well...especially Sarah Rooks and all of her family! Great folks who really just took us in.
HG: Ryan Shore's score is subtle but creepy, more an atmospheric soundscape than a "soundtrack." Was the sound for Offspring approached in a very specific way? If so, can you gimme any insight into its approach?Andrew van den Houten: Doug Buck, a brilliant director in his own right, and the editor of the film suggested that I reference films like Cannibal Holocaust while posting Offspring. The approach in sound-design was heavily influenced by that film, and I think it really adds a cerebral energy that otherwise would be lost in the '70s...
HG: So, you're filming in Michigan, running around in the middle of the night with a bunch of bloody or barely clothed cave-people... does hilarity ensue, or are the locals calling the police while trying to catch you with buckshot?
Andrew van den Houten: To be honest, there were rarely any people around. We shot in very remote areas and when people did show up they really could care less. Michiganders are down to earth and not awed like so many other people by the film biz. I was lucky to find a wonderful home away from home in Muskegon and its surrounding areas. I did get to shoot some guns with the locals, however, on our days off. Thanks to a guy named Roger, who let me shoot his shotgun, I capped some poor dude's back wheel by accident -- nobody died thank God! -- and the spare got the car on the road again. I think that experience has quelled my desire to become a hunter. It is VERY true that guns are dangerous...
HG: Offspring is a sequel to Ketchum's debut novel, Off Season. My understanding is that there were issues getting the rights to Off Season... has this been resolved?
Andrew van den Houten: I don't think there is anything to be resolved. The guy who owns the rights is gonna make the movie his way and has a solid vision of what he wants to do. I hope it works out 'cause I am a huge fan of the book.
HG: Are you involved with that production as well?
Andrew van den Houten: Not at this time.
HG: How did you approach a sequel that seemed destined to be released before its written predecessor?
Andrew van den Houten: I just approached it as its own story and followed the path that Ketchum created.
HG: What, specifically, draws you to Ketchum's material?
Andrew van den Houten: I think the clarity and detail that he works in. He is a classic American novelist with the ability to bring the macabre to a new level through literature. I find his books to be the equivalent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting -- very artistic, but utterly disturbing.
HG: Throughout the film, there are comparisons between the feral people and the allegedly "civilized" characters... the family units are definitely connected, for instance. However, the "worst" character might actually be one of the "civilized" ones, Claire's husband, Stephen, who suggests to the cannibals they bite his wife with metal fangs. The theme of man's inhumanity is also explored in Home Movie. If you're making a statement, what is it? In the end, are human beings just vile pieces of shit?
Jack Ketchum: Nah. Look how protective Luke is to Amy's baby. Look how tight Claire and Amy, the two female protagonists are. Look at the loving relationship Amy and David. Look at how bravely Peters faces his nightmares and rises to the occasion. These are good people. A lot of the story's about contrasts between good and evil -- and levels of evil. So that here you're right -- Stephen's by far the worst of the lot.
Andrew van den Houten: I think we are exploring the Nature Versus Nurture debate in a lot of our films. Especially Girl Next Door, Home Movie and Offspring.
Survival and ritual many times go hand-in hand, however, when unspoken rules are broken, all hell can break lose and anything is possible. Our films have captured this chaos time and time again. People's true nature comes out in the circumstances they are presented within our films. I think Home Movie suggests nature, whereas Offspring and Girl Next Door -- certainly with the kids -- more heavily suggest nurture. Ruth Chandler in The Girl Next Door, I would argue is a product of her past. I would say the same of Stephen Carey from Offspring. I think both these characters are probably the victims of alcoholism caused by abusive childhoods and being raised in volatile homes.
HG: Both The Girl Next Door and Offspring demanded some very intense performances by children. I seem to remember that the set for Girl Next Door was monitored by Child Welfare Services at points during the production... or am I wrong?
Andrew van den Houten: They did come by set and sat with the director to make sure we were working professionally and by the law. The screenplay was a concern with the themes of the movie so they wanted to make sure we were handling the material tastefully and legally, which we were. They approved of our work and process. We were very careful and planned everything out to be sure the kids were safe in the making of that film.
HG: You're currently getting ready to film a sequel to Offspring titled The Woman. Wasn't the "mother" of the feral clan dispatched in the previous film? How is this reconciled in the sequel?
Jack Ketchum: It isn't. I killed her off in both the novel and the original screenplay. But then Pollyanna McIntosh was so damn good as The Woman they decided to let her live. When I saw her performance I understood why. She's terrific, and richly deserves a story all to herself. And hey, it's fiction, right?
Andrew van den Houten: Yes, The Woman is from Offspring, and you'll have to get the book when it comes out early next year. If you can't wait for the paperback you can get the collector's edition here that comes out this summer HERE.
I can't give away any spoilers, so I hope you get the book if you are interested. The movie is based on the book, which was written first by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee.
HG: Can you please give me a brief summary of the storyline for The Woman?
Jack Ketchum: At the end of the first movie she's badly wounded and off her game. A hunter -- who also happens to be a shady country lawyer, seriously disturbed, with huge skeletons in his closet -- captures her and decides to "civilize" her in his fruit cellar, with the help of his two teenage kids, his wife, and young daughter. Again, it's a question of who are the real baddies here. I should add that the answer to that question's not going to be as clear-cut as you might think.
HG: The screenplay for Offspring: The Woman was penned by both Jack and Lucky McKee, who also directs. I believe this is Jack's first writing collaboration. How and why did this come about?
Jack Ketchum: My first on a screenplay or book. I've done stories with Edward Lee and P.D. Cacek. Lucky and I saw Offspring screened together, loved Pollyanna, and pretty much right after that hit a bar and started trading ideas. Then we began Instant Mailing one another almost every day for a while and pretty soon we had the characters and the plot. These IMs still exist, by the way, should anybody want to publish the backstory of how the piece was created.
Andrew van den Houten: I suggested that Ketchum and McKee work together in continuing The Woman's storyline. I was intrigued by her character and felt it was an opportunity to create one of the first true female horror icons.
HG: Andrew, why is McKee directing and not you this time around?
Andrew van den Houten: As he wrote the book and screenplay with Ketchum, I want him to direct. Lucky has a vision for this story, and it really is his as much as it is Ketchum's.
I think bringing on other directors to continue the franchise will allow for a much more interesting development of the storyline and the way the films are aesthetically!
HG: Another project in the pipeline is a film adaption of a Brian Keene's novel Ghoul. What can you tell us about that?
Andrew van den Houten: I have an option on Ghoul and truly believe it will be a cult classic like The Girl Next Door if done correctly.
HG: You're also now branching out into more mainstream film with Doberman Entertainment, another company which you co-founded with long-time cinematographer William M. Miller. Tell me a bit about that.
Andrew van den Houten: It's an interesting venture and I am anxious to see how Rising Stars, the first film, will perform. I think Doberman Entertainment allows me to express a different type of filmmaking, which I am excited about. It is a more mainstream company and I want to make films that kids will really remember, like the films I watched growing up that were not horror flicks! Movies like The Breakfast Club, Big, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Goonies and Short Circuit are some of the ones that come to mind. I do believe an alternative message needs to be put out there, and Doberman Entertainment allows me to do that.
HG: Any last words?
Jack Ketchum: Favorite quote at the moment: "In a country that doesn't discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as infinitely more achievable." - Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Andrew van den Houten: Stay tuned for more and watch the Chiller Network this summer for exclusive behind the scenes from the set of The Woman! It's gonna be scary fun!