Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing a wonderfully creative and exceptional writer, director, and producer – Harrison Smith. His films have won numerous awards from countless film festivals. He has adapted books into screenplays, such as Adrienne Barbeau’s “Love Bites” and K.L. Randis’ “Spilled Milk”. Through the course of the interview, he opened my eyes to a stunning realization regarding entertainment and the future of film.
Dru: Good afternoon Harrison, thank you so much for meeting with me. I’m excited to hear more about your recent projects, and especially your recently optioned “Spilled Milk” screenplay.
Harrison: Thanks Dru, it’s a pleasure. Let’s get right to it.
Dru: Sounds great. So from reviewing your profile on IMDB, I noticed you have adapted other books, such as Adrienne Barbeau’s Love Bites, which is a vampire love story. “Love Bites” in conjunction with your other films are markedly different from “Spilled Milk”. What drew you to K.L. Randis’ story?
Harrison: Actually, KL approached me. Due to the content of her book, I was incredibly apprehensive about taking on a project with such intense subject matter. She was persistent, despite me referring her to other writers. So, we agreed to work on a screenplay and see how things progressed.
Dru: I struggled to read her story without tearing up. I needed to take breaks, hug my kiddos, and then return to it. So I can imagine engulfing yourself in that material for months is not only a daunting undertaking, but challenging emotionally.
Harrison: I put a lot of thought into this before agreeing to the project. It would be easy to diminish what she went through by doing what’s been done before with cliches and tropes… I didn’t want this to be some Lifetime movie. This girl went through Hell and was strong enough to come out above it all and turn a negative (a gross understatement) into a positive. She has become a pillar of the community and I’m sure has made more impact than she will ever know. So I knew that if working to transition what she wrote into a film would help even one person, then it was entirely worth it.
Dru: I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for that approach. Do you believe you will produce the film that comes from your collaborative screenplay?
Harrison: I will try to produce it. Directing it would be great as well, however there is a lot to be considered between now and then.
Dru: You mentioned that she approached you. How did she find you?
Harrison: We’re both from the same small town. A former teacher of K.L.’s, who knew me, reached out and brought the idea of a screenplay to my attention. I was not keen on the idea.
Dru: I’m sure the teacher knew your integrity and pursuit of authenticity were just what an adaptation of this subject matter needed. Of all the roles you’ve held as, writer, director, and producer is there one role you prefer over all others?
Harrison: Oh, you know, I love them all. I’d probably have to say writing ahead of the others though. You get to create the world and structure. You get to see actors fit the roles and it’s wonderful to see that come to life. Directing is terrific, too. You get to see it all start to come together. I love watching actors audition and nail a role I wrote. And producing… That involves a lot of other, less creative, tasks that can get tedious. Nevertheless, it’s a necessity. So I can’t ignore that.
Dru: One of your most recent films, “Death House”, released February of this year, is a truly horrifying film. It won two Best Feature awards and an Audience Choice award from various film festivals. Personally, I struggled to sleep after seeing it. How is it that you are able to create the worlds you create? Does it get challenging to go to such dark places?
Harrison: Good question. I don’t think anyone has asked me that before. Horror films come with certain particulars such as blood sprayed cameras, a lot of night shoots, and dark spaces. It gets pretty messy. So all that can get really exhausting, it wears on you. That’s one reason we recently made “Garlic and Gunpowder”, a comedy. It was a much needed break. Frankly, it didn’t feel like work. It was constant laughter and fun.
Dru: Oh, I’m sure it was. Aside from life on set, how is it writing the dark movies that you do? Writing a screenplay is months of immersion into that space.
Harrison: Oh, writing… Yes. You know, it’s harder to write a comedy than it is to write a horror film. Like Mel Brooks said, “Death is easy, comedy is hard”. Anyone can slap together blood, guts and makeup effects. The trick is to tell an engaging story. With the state of politics in the entertainment industry, story is becoming an endangered species. That’s why we see this rise in superhero product movies and a decline in true comedies like “Blazing Saddles”.
Dru: Wow, I’d never thought of it like that.
Harrison: When I proposed a sequel for “Death House” to my producer, he laughed and called me a sick b*****d. He couldn’t understand how I could continue to “live” in that world. Frankly, I don’t notice. It’s adapting “Spilled Milk” that is scary as Hell. That story involves real horror–social horror. There’s nothing scarier than real life.
Dru: I couldn’t agree with you more. Speaking of writing and “Spilled Milk”, has K.L. been involved in the screenplay as you transition it? What concerns have come up for you so far as you reach the end of writing it?
Harrison: K.L. is completely involved in the process. I’ll write a few pages, send them to her, she’ll add her personal touch to it by sharing things that maybe didn’t make it into the book.
Dru: Such as?
Harrison: Her grandmother had a sweet nickname for the grandchildren. So KL tells me these things and I add them in. We want as much sincere authenticity as possible. We want the dialogue just right. As for my concerns, like I mentioned before, I refuse to diminish her experience and let it become something basic and forgettable. This story is something real, and we want it written in such a way that the audience can still stomach it. That being said, there are times we adjust the book version to work as a visual in film format. We can’t show some of the content that needs to be there, we have to get creative. K.L. has been amazing at helping mold it so we stay true to the events. So many movies that tout being true stories are mutilated versions of a reality that fit the writer’s intentions.
Dru: Definitely. As for true stories, your film “The Fields” (September 2011), winner of a Best Feature award, is based on firsthand events you experienced during the Manson Family story unfolding. Are you drawn to stories that are born from real life? First “The Fields”, now “Spilled Milk”.
Harrison: Not in any strict sense, although I do appreciate the chance to tell a real story as it really happened. Again, authenticity is something I strive for in everything I do, regardless of whether the story is based on reality or not.
Dru: For a story like Spilled Milk, written as the internal thoughts and feelings of a person, how do you translate that from a book to a film and still keep that authenticity?
Harrison: She wrote her story in such a straightforward and unabashedly honest way that adapting it is a breeze when it comes to that. K.L. is a naturally authentic person, so all I really do is plug her into position and use her dialogue. We ride with her through the movie, just like in the book.
Dru: I love that approach. So, what drew you to the entertainment industry and more specifically the horror genre?
Harrison: Oh, that’s easy. My grandmother raised me on a healthy dose of real horror movies, like “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, “King Kong”… I saw “Jaws” at eight years old and that was it. “Jaws” was the movie that made me want to make movies.
Dru: Did you have to start your entertainment career in other roles before reaching where you are today?
Harrison: I started out as a kid with his super eight camera and big dreams… But the real education started when I was a PA (production assistant) at Universal Studios. I was just eighteen and already learning about digital editing, post-production… I was fortunate to get to see all of this technology coming even back in the 80’s. But I didn’t have a rich father or anything like that. Everything I’ve built is based on hard work and a lot of networking. I wrote a lot of letters looking for an agent until I found one. My first feature film, “The Fields”, was produced by a man who came to me, said he had a little money and he wanted to make a film with it. I told him I had a screenplay for my film “The Fields”. He always called it the “Cornfield Movie”. He liked it, we made it, and everything sort of grew from there.
Dru: That’s fantastic! For the people aspiring to have a career in the entertainment industry, what advice would you give them?
Harrison: Don’t talk about it. Go do it. It’s that simple.
Dru: It’s pretty clear society is in the midst of a shift as far as Hollywood goes. Netflix is cranking out shows and now original movies. Streaming is dominating the way people watch everything. And the traditional “television” is becoming a thing of the past because everyone uses their other devices. What impact, if any, do you think this shift will or is having on up-and-coming filmmakers, actors, writers – you name it.
Harrison: There’s always a good and bad side to all technology. When we discovered that we could split the atom, we thought it was going to be great. Then we realized, “Oh sh**, we’re all going to die, this power could kills us.” Some technology just isn’t what it appears to be right away. Some movies just weren’t meant for small screens. Take “Jaws” for example. That film was created to live on the big screen. I really feel certain movies should not have been released for home viewing. At the end of “Jaws,” in the theater, people honest to God stood and applauded. That just doesn’t happen in our homes and certainly not when we’re cramming it onto a hand-held screen. Movies belong in theaters where there is a cultural connection. With streaming and 2,000 channels on cable, there is just too much content for any one unique item to be found. You’ll skip, skip, skip…”Meh, I’ll just watch “Iron Man 2” again…” All that other great content, the unique artistic voices, original – truly original – stories are lost and buried under excessive products and our unwillingness to waste what time we have on a chance.
It’s not art anymore. It’s factory created products made for the sole purpose to sell other products. Remember “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” It was half hour long commercials to sell the toys the show was created from. “He-Man” and “Transformers” were the same stuff, it’s been with us forever. However now there is so much content and people no longer give the time to discover something truly great. Things like character or plot development get dismissed as boring. If it doesn’t grab you in the first minute, “Next!”, on to the next thing. Look how Netflix works– it rolls you right into something next when your done watching. They don’t want you to have down time. Keep watching. Sleep is bad for Netflix. They want you to binge watch because there is plenty to consume.
Dru: Geeze, Harrison, I couldn’t agree with you more. Something magical that people shared has become a solitary experience that can be skipped, ignored, thumbed down, or tossed aside because we all know a sequel or reboot is coming anyway. One of the first dates my parents went on was to see Star Wars when it first came out. There was this sense that it was a unique, once in a lifetime, experience. Today? Seeing a movie is no big deal because you’ll see seven different trailers for it, five sequels, a few prequels, and then it’ll all be rebooted in ten years. We are all inundated beyond reason.
Harrison: Exactly. The art and experience is gone. The last movie I remember getting that feeling from was the first Jurassic Park movie. They really captured something magical. I remember thinking, “Where did they get one?!” when the T-Rex broke out of its cage. Not “how did they do that?” That was a jaw drop, a wow moment. Today? Between the hundred trailers for every movie, the behind the scenes clips, and the CGI – Where’s the magic? We know how the magicians do their tricks now and for most if it, the answer is simple: computers. Where once asked “how’d they do that?” we now know: green screen and CGI.
Some movies were not meant for phone, tablet, or even TV viewing. They were big screen movies and their impact and magic came from the big screen. To squeeze “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or any of the “Star Wars” films or “Lawrence of Arabia” onto computer screens or phones robs them of what made them special. As I said, some films should’ve never been released to home video. They should’ve been saved to be released every so many years as cultural events. Now you can buy it, own it, rent or download it and it just becomes another file on a hard drive and that’s a shame.
Dru: Harrison, thank you so much for all of the insight. I can only hope the entertainment industry sees what you see and more producers, writers, and directors start making a push toward more authentic content, remembering the importance of quality over quantity.
Harrison: Thanks Dru, anytime!
Harrison’s work can be found pretty much everywhere including: Netflix DVD, streaming Hulu, Streaming Amazon, iTunes, VUDU, ROKU, Google Play…
Director Reel: https://youtu.be/LSCPOpC1eAM