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About Effects with John Harrison

Longtime readers of The Digital Bits may recall our previous interview with writer/director John Harrison about his mini-seres adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune for the Sci-Fi Channel (and the subsequent DVD releases of the mini-series). You may also recall the special feature we did a few years ago on the making of Paramount's Tales from the Darkside DVD, in which we went behind-the-scenes with John and fellow filmmaker George Romero as they recorded audio commentary for the release.

Recently, Synapse Films released one of John's early film projects on DVD - a horror film, called Effects, that's gone virtually unseen since its initial (and all too brief) theatrical debut back in 1980. Along with John, such Pittsburgh-area filmmakers as Dusty Nelson, Tom Savini and Joe Pilato were involved in the making of Effects, virtually all of them alumni of George Romero's legendary Dead films.

Last week, John and I had the chance to chat about his work on Effects, and the effort involved in producing the new DVD release. John's become a good friend over the years, and it's always a lot of fun to talk with him. As is often the case, our discussion also covered a number of other interesting (and related) topics as well, including the changes in independent filmmaking over the years, the future of the film industry and more. For those of you who are fans of Dune and John's other past work, he also lets us know what he's been up to lately - some exciting projects indeed.

I think you'll find it our discussion interesting reading, so let's get right into it. Enjoy!

---

Bill Hunt (The Digital Bits): John, I finally got the chance to see the film yesterday, and I have to say... I liked it quite a lot.

John Harrison: I'm glad to hear that. You know, it's really strange. A lot of people have watched the movie recently and have said to me that... it's a twenty-seven year old movie, but it doesn't feel that old. It looks old in terms of some hairstyles and clothes and stuff, but...

BH: The only thing that really dates it for me is that Simon game.

JH: (laughs) Yeah right.

BH: (laughing) When I was watching the movie and I heard that sound, it definitely made me smile...

JH: And those old RCA cameras behind the walls.

BH: With the massive lenses... right.

JH: But the themes I think are still relevant. And the film was a lot of fun to make. I'm really proud of it finally coming out after all this time.

BH: It's interesting... the whole idea of the movie within the movie - even the issues of the snuff film - all that was very much ahead of its time. That stuff is being dealt with now, today in films... in just the last few years. You're seeing different kinds of storytelling that play with narrative, story within story, time going backwards...

JH: I actually think that was part of its problem, to be honest with you, Bill. I think that... when Effects first came out, it had a very limited theatrical release. We had a small distribution company that didn't have much money to promote it, and they put it out basically for a week. And the themes of the movie, I think, as you say... I don't want to sound pretentious and say they were ahead of their time, but I think they were of a time that hadn't really happened yet.

Now, today, you've got reality television and Big Brother and people with their webcams saying, "Come on into my bedroom and watch me live for two weeks." We've kind of accepted that. The idea also of the 24-hour news cycle, and blogging -- a guy like Lacey Bickel could actually exist today. He could do something like this and get away with it.

But back when we first put the movie out there, I think there was a moral, or an ethical compunction against what the movie had said. We went to a couple film festivals where we were actually trashed for that reason.

BH: Well, even now... but in the seventies particularly - I remember as a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s - the whole notion of the snuff film was something that was really controversial and disturbing. Could there really be an underground market for this kind of stuff? Were they real or not? It was a hot-button issue at the time. And even going into the 80s, you started to see things like Faces of Death on videotape...

JH: Sure.

BH: …where it was news footage being compiled of people dying. I creeped people out. Even now, as jaded as we've become by the media and the images we've seen of warfare and the like, it makes people uneasy. And over the years, you've seen a few films try to dip into that mythos, behind these things.

JH: Yeah. I think the other... not the problem, but the other choice that we made - and I stand by it... I'm not trying to dodge it or run away from it - is that we never made a statement of value one way or another about the issue. If you remember, in that scene where Lacey shows them the snuff film, he never answers the question of whether it's real or not. He never says, "Oh, it was a fake" or "Yeah, that's real and I got my hands on it..." He leaves it alone. And leaves that disturbing notion out there, which I think troubles a lot of people.

BH: It's almost a troubling 'what if' scenario that taps into the psyche...

JH: Exactly. And we don't take a stand. We just say, "Here it is." And I think that audiences then were disturbed by that. I think people are more willing to accept that moral ambiguity today, because of everything that's going on in the world. So to some extent, I think it still feels like an interesting movie.

But I was just so happy that Synapse decided to take it on and release it on DVD. I'm really happy with the way that Synapse took it on. They got Dusty down here to do a new transfer. (laughs) It looks better now, Bill, than it did when we first made it!

BH: Well, I've got to tell you... I watched it on a large projection screen, and it does, it looks great. It's even in anamorphic widescreen. And this was shot on 16mm, I assume?

JH: Yes, it was. It was shot on 16. And that was the beauty of what happened. When Don (May, Jr. of Synapse) came to us and said he wanted to do it, he said, "What elements are we dealing with?" And all I had left was a 35mm print - one of the only ones that still exist. And we screened it just recently at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh - we were invited to screen it at the Warhol - and amazingly enough, the 35 looked pretty good. It had desaturated a little bit - it was kind of pinky. There were some cinch marks at the heads and tails of each reel, but for the most part it was pretty clean. But... it was not at all like going back to the 16mm negative, which we still had. Thankfully, we didn't have to use the 35 interpositives, we went back to the 16 negative - the A and B roll negative - and put it up, and Don was willing to go the cost to have that transferred in HD, and that's what Dusty timed for the DVD.

BH: It looks better than some mainstream feature films from that period.

JH: That stock, which I think was 7254, was relatively new at the time. The beauty of it was, and the reason we chose to shoot with that stock, was because it was real light sensitive. It was much, much faster than anything that had come out at the time. So we could get away with a lot. There was a version of it for 35, but this was the 16 version. It allowed us to basically shoot with the equipment we had, which wasn't much. I don't know whether you had the chance to look at the documentary, but we're not kidding when we say we only had four lights and one of them didn't work. (laughs)

BH: It's surprising, because a lot of film stocks that were new at that time, weren't as stable as people had hoped. Some were more so than others. Consequently, some films from that era have withstood the test of time better than others.

JH: Well, the negative really held up. I mean, it's 27 years. And we got that up on the rack, and it looked, you know... And then, of course, what you can do digitally now is just amazing. And so that's what Don did, and I really applaud him, because he went back and he cleaned it up and he made sure that whatever scars were there were taken out. He put some time and effort into it. He put a new soundtrack on it. We were thrilled.

BH: Don has always been really good that way. Synapse has a reputation of treating every film with kid gloves, and really going the extra mile. It's a bit of that same boutique approach that Criterion will use. They take every film seriously, and they really go in and give it their all. And you can tell, because if Effects had been released by a major studio, they would just have dumped it out there as a movie-only DVD, with whatever transfer they had.

JH: Yeah, very respectful. And the fact that they went the extra mile... you know, they could have just said, "Look, it's an interesting artifact and it's had this urban legend value for a while because no one ever saw it, and it was affiliated with Romero's crew and all of that, but we'll just put the movie out." But he said, "No, I want to do some extras. What else can we do?" And so that's when we got Michael Felsher to do the documentary. And to me, it's almost as much fun just watching the documentary because of the context it puts everything in.

BH: What struck me is that the documentary is literally 50% of the equation on this disc. In addition to this film being interesting for all the reasons you described, and the fact that most people have never seen it, the disc itself has got a time capsule feel about it, of a certain era and place of filmmaking history.

JH: It's true. And I have to hand that to Michael Felsher. When Don said "Let's do this," and he asked what we had... I said, "Well, obviously we'll do the commentary, we'll be happy to do that. And we have a couple of old films, you know, that were kind of artifacts of that era and we could put those on." And Don said, "Yeah, that's be fun. What else?" And we thought, "Well, how about if we do some new interviews with the people involved?" So I went with a few others and got a lot of the interviews shot. But I didn't know what to do with any of it. So I just dumped it all in Mike Felsher's lap. And he came up with the whole concept of looking at the 70s, and what was it like to be working back then, and the whole approach.

BH: Putting it all in context historically...

JH: Yeah, and you know it's fun for us to think about it that way. And I hope that people who are cinéphiles and are getting the DVD for that reason can really get something out of it. Because it was a period of time, when you really think about it, when there really was an independent film movement in this country. All over the country. I mean, Wes (Craven) was doing his thing, Tobe Hooper down in Texas, Sam Raimi up in Detroit... There were all these little, small clusters of filmmakers that were truly independent. It wasn't, you know, owned by the majors - the studios - and just called independent like it is today. The Focus films, the Weinsteins' hadn't come out with their stuff yet. It was really hand-to-mouth filmmaking. It was, "Okay, we've got a camera, we've got some film, we've got some people who are like-minded... can we just go and get some money and do it?" And it was truly independent.

BH: That's what struck me as well. This was a time when... in a way, it's actually easier to make a film today. But the structure of the business is such that it's harder to get into the industry than it ever was. Back then, it was more open.

JH: Man, you've really hit on something crucial. Because that's why I also think that those of us that are ensconced in the business now can't see the forest for the trees. It's gonna be kids like my son and his peers, who are in college right now, that are gonna find a way to change the industry. Because they don't look at it like you and I do. They can go out with their DV-cams and their cell phones and they can make movies, and they're gonna find a whole new way to distribute this stuff that is going to go completely around the industry as we know it.

BH: And I think a lot of that comes out of the Internet and digital distribution.

JH: Definitely. I'll tell you, it's really hard right now. I've been doing this for a long time. I think the marketplace right now is just very difficult for anything, because it is going through this transitional phase. The studios are really risk adverse. They just don't want to - I hear this from filmmakers every day. From George (Romero), for example! Look at all the years he's struggled to get his projects - Land of the Dead or something like it - off the ground.

BH: Not to mention all the trouble he had with the studio while making Land of the Dead!

JH: It's unbelievable how difficult it is, because there's so many cooks trying to stir the pot, and also they are all so scared about whether they're going to make any money, and are they marketing right...

BH: And because of that, we're seeing the other side of that now. In the last year, you've really started to see audiences staying away. People are saying, "I'll go to movies when they're actually good again." But they're just not good. It's all rehashes and remakes...

JH: And it's $10 a ticket.

BH: Or even more. That's one of the reasons why DVD was so huge. People figure, "Hey, if it costs $30 or $40 to take my family to the theater, I might as well just wait and buy the thing on disc for less and watch it in the comfort of my own home."

Effects

JH: That's right. And I don't think the industry has woken up to that yet. They keep thinking that bigger is better, and they throw a ton of money in to create these big spectacles, and it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because then they have to charge more for it, and they're making fewer films, but taking on higher risk. And it's rare that a Peter Jackson will come along and actually do something of that size that's worthwhile - that's spectacular. There aren't many films like that.

BH: On that note, you said that Effects had gotten a limited theatrical run. What was the extent of its release back in the day?

JH: We took it to a few film festivals, where it did well. It won a couple of awards. It was certainly controversial at a couple. I don't know whether I mentioned this before, but it was at the U.S. Film Festival in Utah in 1980, which became Sundance the next year... we almost got thrown out of that place. (laughs)

BH: You're kidding?

JH: No, they took a look at our movie and said, "How could you make something like this?!" And you know, the interesting thing was, we were the only - it was called the U.S. Independent Film Festival back then - and we were the only film that was truly independent. All the other films that were in that festival, that were in the same category, had all been supported by arts council grants, or government grants. And we had made ours just with money that we'd raised ourselves from friends and neighbors. But the subject matter was... (laughs)

BH: (supplies) Controversial?

JH: To say the least. We got this one fantastic letter that I always remember from the head of the film festival in Gothenberg, Sweden, where it had premiered. He wrote back to us and said, "Dear Mr. Harrison... Your film did exceedingly well, however I have to ask you... during the snuff sequence, we found a man in the front row masturbating. Does this happen often?" (laughs)

BH: (laughing) Ouch. That's the kind of thing - you know you should have posted that letter as an Easter egg on the DVD.

JH: There's an idea! So anyway, it was controversial. But we'd finished it, and we'd gotten it into a couple film festivals. The plan was to get it into a couple of festivals and get some heat... and we did. We got some nice reviews, internationally as well as here in the States. And then we started looking for distributors. But most of them back then really didn't see the profit in it. We had made the movie without a star, because we couldn't afford one, so we didn't have that to fall back on. And at the time, George's movies were big and very successful, Wes' movies were very successful, Carpenter had Halloween and so forth... and the gore factor worked against us. As you can tell, our movie really isn't that bloody.

BH: So it didn't have the sort of schlock factor that people were looking for at the time. And then also... the whole video market wasn't quite in place yet.

JH: Yeah, there wasn't any market on video yet. So we finally found a small company in New York that was willing to take it on, called International Harmony - they had a film at one point called Cocaine Cowboys, and they had made some money off of that. And they wanted to take Effects on. And to their credit, they loved the movie. This wasn't a Sam Arkoff thing, or the kind of things that happened to George. They really wanted to do it. Unfortunately, they just didn't have the resources. So they blew it up to 35, and it got a theatrical release. I think it was in a theater in Pittsburgh for about a week, and it was in a drive-in out in Arizona... it played in maybe two or three theaters around the country. Very limited. And because it didn't set the world on fire, and the company didn't have enough resources to broaden the run... it just died.

BH: What was it more recently then, in the last couple of years, that finally provided the impulse to release it on DVD?

JH: Well, during the 80s, I constantly looked for ways to get it out there. We still had the distribution deal... but then that company went bankrupt, and the rights got tied up in all kind of legal wrangling there. Eventually, things worked out, and as the home video market exploded, I tried to get another deal. There were a couple of nibbles, but it never really went anywhere. People would kind of step up to it, and it was the same kind of problems. It didn't have a star, it was by now an older movie, plus the studios were getting involved, so you were competing with relatively recent, new releases. Effects hadn't really come out like Night of the Living Dead and created a cult following, so that therefore you could release it as kind of a historical thing.

So it was only when DVD started to really take off that I thought, well... maybe we have another shot. But similar things happened. DVDs were all about new studio releases at first, the blockbusters were what was on the shelf, etc. But all along, there was always this... you'd hear about the film in references related to other movies, like, "There was this movie made back in Pittsburgh that had a snuff movie in it, and it was all done by Romero alumni - hey, whatever happened to that?" You know, every once in a while, genre fans would hear about this.

BH: So within a certain audience, there was a mythology building up around Effects

JH: That's exactly right. And not only here, but abroad. We'd get fan letters from people in France, for example, wondering how they could get their hands on the film. Or from Australia. And of course, we'd have to write back and say, "Unfortunately, you can't get it anywhere. It doesn't exist as a release." But about, I guess it was two and a half years ago, my score to Day of the Dead was released on CD. And I was at a signing, and a guy came up to me and asked the same thing: "Hey... whatever happened to that movie? I know you were involved in it and we've heard about it and it's supposed to be controversial and all." So I told him the story. And he said, "You know I have a very good friend at Anchor Bay, and maybe they'd be interested." His friend turned out to be Michael Felsher.

BH: Interesting. Small world.

JH: Yeah, so I called Michael. I sent the film to him, and he said, "Yeah, I'd love to do this." But Anchor Bay was involved with all of the new Dawn of the Dead releases, and they were really hung up in that massive new collection. And so they said they couldn't do it. It wasn't big enough for them. So Michael went to Don at Synapse, and said, "Hey... what do you think?" And Don called me and asked, "Can we make a deal?" So we made a deal with Don. And he just really took it on and ran with it. And since then, he's been like a dog with a bone, just really pushing it along. (laughing)

BH: Well, it's a really great little DVD release. I think for fans of horror... you know, there's an audience out there. DVD has really broadened the audience for niche titles, genre titles, horror films. I really think there's an audience out there that's going to love something like this. Just look at how successful Land of the Dead was recently. There is clearly an audience out there that's ready to tap into something like Effects, because of the history and the subject matter and the controversy.

JH: And with DVD... you can really satisfy your own personal taste. You can look for films that... you know, I go to these conventions, Bill, and it's unbelievable! These horror conventions. I'm always amazed by how many fans of the genre are out there.

BH: I think that goes hand in hand with the Internet. An interesting aspect to the DVD phenomenon, is that it really happened - it really took off - along the same time as the Internet. Parallel with it. And so finally you got - frankly, I think it's one of the reasons DVD became as successful as it did so quickly. People were able to go online and talk about it. There were all these online communities that developed, whether it was film fans in general, or home theater fans, or horror fans, or classic film fans, or fans of Italian spaghetti westerns... whatever it was. They were able to network for the first time over long distances, and share information and really connect in a way that had never happened before. So you got this audience, that in many cases had always been there, but all of a sudden they were thriving and active and you could reach out to them, and vise versa.

JH: And it transcends films. It gets into comics, and books, and videogames. I know, a couple years ago, I was at Comic-Con, because of Dune… and that's huge.

BH: It's funny you mention that. We go down there every year and hold a big panel discussion with DVD producers. And Comic-Con has gotten bigger and more mainstream every year. The Hollywood studios have discovered it and they're all down there in force now promoting their films. You can barely get in there now it's become so huge.

JH: Isn't that always the case? It's always the way. The studios watch and see something starting to make money, and then they dive in and try to take over. And that's exactly what happened with independent filmmaking. Back in the 70s, you had to scrape and put film projects together yourself. And then the industry saw that there was money to be made, and they created their own genre.

BH: And all of a sudden, independents aren't so independent anymore...

JH: That's right. And what happens is that the creative boom - that same impulse - pushes out somewhere else, like with Internet movies, and straight to DVD. That's the other thing that I'm sure you're aware of given what you do. You go to these horror conventions, and you see all these movies that people are making just on their own, and they're selling them on DVD and promoting them themselves.

BH: You're also seeing... and I think this is why you're seeing the studios releasing so much deep, deep catalog and TV material... you're seeing bootleg releases of really obscure stuff. Old TV shows and genre titles that have never been legally or officially released, but that someone has an old VHS, off-broadcast copy of, and they've made a DVD-ROM out of it and they're selling them at conventions or trading them on the Internet.

JH: Yeah. It's sort of like the record industry and the book industry. People have their own collections of things that appeal to them, and they're sharing it with each other.

BH: And there was a time, not so long ago, when you couldn't do that. Young people today have no idea. To them, it's astonishing that there was a time, just ten or fifteen years ago when, if there was a certain film you wanted to see, that you couldn't just go to the store and pick up a copy and watch it that night. Almost any film, no matter how obscure it may be. So many of those things are available now on DVD, and if your store doesn't have them, you can just log onto Amazon.com and they're in your mailbox in 2-3 days. It's crazy. But it wasn't like that no so long ago.

Synapse's Effects DVD
JH: You're right. My kid... he would never conceive of that.

BH: It makes you wonder, how that's going to inspire the next generation of filmmakers creatively.

JH: What I always worry about is not so much the isolation, or the fragmentation of the audience, but... will there be mass entertainment anymore? I don't believe that any of these new technologies - because historically it's never happened despite all the claims to the contrary - that any of it is going to suddenly put the film out of business. I think people love to go to movies, they love to go to the theater, they love to go to concerts. It's not like... television didn't kill the film industry, DVD hasn't killed television, the Internet hasn't killed DVD. I think they all kind of coexist. They change, that's for sure. But it will be interesting to see how mass entertainment survives. I suppose there will always be the big blockbusters. Some kind of big event film that everyone will want to see. But for a filmmaker, for storytellers, how do you cut through the noise and find your audience?

BH: It is trickier. That is the great thing about the Internet, and also sort of the curse. You can reach your specific audience, but it's getting more fragmented. So it's harder not only to find your audience, but it's harder to do that in a way that you can make a living in the process.

JH: Yes. Exactly. It's a difficult trick. And I don't know what the answer is. And I may be past figuring it out. But I'm sure there are a lot of people that are smarter than me thinking about it. Obviously advertisers are thinking about it, because they have to figure out a way to counter what happens with TiVo, where people can just by-pass their marketing message completely.

BH: I think the answer, at least right now, is that nobody has an answer. Which is why everyone in the entertainment industry is so scared. Nobody is sure what's happening next, what with digital piracy and now that we're moving into broadband access and high-definition video. You're getting the potential for pirated copies that are nearly as good as the original master. You can only improve things so much, until you've got a readily available product out there that is as good as the original.

JH: Right. So the difference between a legal, store-bought copy and a pirated copy becomes irrelevant. And how do you sustain an industry in that environment?

BH: That's certainly a tough question.

Well... we've covered a few topics here! Good discussion always covers a lot of ground, doesn't it? I'm glad we talked about the changes in the industry over the years, though, because I think one of the things that makes Effects as a film still relevant today are the differences in the filmmaking climate back then when you first made it, compared with the way things are today. You really get a sense of that in the DVD, particularly with the documentary, and I think people are going to find that interesting.

JH: And I would hope that people find it... again, I don't want to sound pretentious... but I would hope it inspires a few people. Because, here were a few guys who just, on their own, went out and raised some money and made a movie they believed in. That can be done today. With DV-cams and the Internet, you can do that today. So in a way, it's an object lesson. You can still get your hands on a camera, and with people of a like mind, you can still make a film today. It's easier than ever in a way.

BH: It's really just about the love of doing it.

JH: Yes. Definitely.

BH: Before we go, I wanted to ask you a little more about what you're working on now, project-wise. I'm sure our readers would be interested to hear what you've been up to since Dune.

JH: Well... in addition to the DVD, the score to Effects is being released on La-La-Land Records. As far as the major projects... the Painkiller Jane pilot, which we shot for Sci-Fi, will air on December 10th. It's got Emmanuelle Vaugier in the title role - she's been in SAW II recently, among other things. She's also been seen on Smallville, and a lot of WB stuff. She's wonderful in the role. And depending on how that does, we may end up with a series out of that. Which I'm very excited about. What we're going to do with it, Bill, is really interesting. It's going to be about science fiction today. What does it mean today to be human? How are we changing ourselves as a species? How is human nature evolving... and what is evolution? Technologically, of course, but then also what does that mean emotionally and spiritually?

BH: And how does our morality struggle to catch up?

JH: Exactly. That's what the series is going to be about. I think we did a wonderful job on the pilot. The director we had (Sanford Bookstaver) was great, I'm proud of the script. I think it's going to turn out to be a really good show.

BH: I'm looking forward to it.

JH: Then I've got another pilot with Dean Devlin at TNT, that hopefully we'll be shooting in the spring. It's called Blank Slate. It's a very cool - I can't say too much about it - but it's a female-driven crime drama that has a sci-fi twist to it. I've finished writing the pilot for that, and we're excited about that.

Meanwhile, Richard Rubinstein and I continue to try to explore the Dune franchise further. We're still trying to get a TV series going. We had a proposal for a Dune TV series that Sci-Fi didn't want to do, much to my dismay.

BH: That's surprising, considering how successful the two mini-series were.

JH: That's actually an area we're looking at now for straight-to-DVD. Dune is a huge franchise worldwide. And I'm also involved with Richard on the prequel books that Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson wrote - trying to get those going as projects.

BH: That's interesting.

JH: I also just finished adapting Clive Barker's Abarat novels for Disney. I don't know when they're going to make that, because that's a huge, huge project. I think they're waiting to see what Narnia does. And I'm about to adapt one of his short stories for a low-budget horror movie.

BH: So you're doing a ton of writing.

JH: A lot of writing, yeah. And the Supernova mini-series I directed was just on Hallmark back in September, and did well. It had Peter Fonda and Luke Perry and Lance Henricksen. It was a lot of fun. They rerun it occasionally. I don't know if that will find its way to DVD or not. (Look for it on DVD on 1/3/06 from Echo Bridge Home Entertainment)

So you know... I've got two kids in school. (laughs) I've got to pay the bills.

BH: It's good to hear that you're staying busy creatively. I'm looking forward to seeing some of these things as they come together.

Well, it's always a pleasure, John. Thanks for talking with us.

JH: You too, Bill. Take care. We'll talk again soon.

---END---

On a personal note, special thanks to John for his time and friendship. Thanks also to Don May, Jr. and everyone at Synapse Films for their hard work. You can read my review of Synapse's new Effects DVD here. The disc is now available in stores, so be sure to check it out.

I hope you've enjoyed the interview. Cheers!

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


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