Full disclosure: I met director James Christopher at a film festival here in New York and spent a lot of time chatting about movies, his filmmaking approach, and the film he had in competition, Abram’s Hand. The movie is a dark and nasty swipe at the Westboro Baptist Church and their absurd anti-everything stances. The interesting thing about religious fanaticism to me has always been the terrifyingly dogmatic adherence to whatever hate is spewed from a pastor or priest’s mouth. While in recent days, Libby Phelps Alvarez has discussed her “escape” from the Westboro Baptist Church, those interested can read more about the true horror of what it means to be involved in a hate group right here. Regardless, the material interested me and I was lucky enough to hang with Christopher and his Twitchy Dolphin Flix crew from Austin, including the star of Goin Guerrilla, Mark MacCarver.
Anyways, onto the whole “full disclosure” part. Christopher and I had been chatting about his latest film, XXXX, a mockumentary about the adult-film industry with plans to be followed up with a meta-take on the slasher genre set in the same universe as XXXX (head hurt yet?). I took to the idea immediately and asked if there was anything I could do to help the production, because, dear reader, you should know that practically every movie critic and writer secretly wants to work in the film industry, Christopher and I reached an agreement that I would aid the production and receive an Associate Producer credit on XXXX.
“We feel pretty excited about it, I’ve been told it’s the most complete script I’ve written. It’s the most by-the-beat screenplay I’ve written, and I think that’s because of the material itself, a lead character who keeps referencing his own character arc, narrating the act peaks as they’re happening," Christopher said, talking about Goin' Guerrilla.
I asked Christopher what the connection between comedy and horror was, considering Abram’s Hand is a slow-boil of horror and Goin’ Guerrilla is a meta-comedy about the film industry. “That’s something that’s hard to pin down. I think it’s interesting, they’re part of the same spectrum. Horror and comedy are both extremes of the human condition. In both you’re trying to paint a realistic hue on humanity, living in both genres, you blow up parts of the human condition. I think a lot of comedies forget that, by the way. They lose a part of the human condition. I think horror examines the human condition moreso, more often than not.”
We started talking more about scenes in Goin’ Guerrilla, and whether or not they’re rooted in things that actually happened to Christopher and his crew on-set. There’s a scene where the director of photography uses a pale crew member’s chest to bounce light. This actually happened to Christopher and his crew. “All we had were these high-power work lights and Chris (Copple, DP on Goin’ Guerrilla) told a kid to take his shirt off. It worked, you know?”
We talked a bit about where else the narrative of Goin’ Guerrilla came from. “I try to really write screenplays where I start with a central question and I build the narrative around that. The central question in Goin’ Guerrilla is how does one pursue art, is it by following their heart? How far do you go? That was more or less out of our frustration at breaking into larger film festivals, really.”
Mark MacCarver, who plays the lead in Goin’ Guerrilla, also plays the lead in Abram’s Hand, albeit, a very different and far more complex character. We talked about how MacCarver seems at home playing both a conflicted Bible-thumping churchgoer and a nebbish screenwriter/first-time director. Stephanie Dunbar, who plays opposite MacCarver in Goin’ Guerrilla and Abram’s Hand is another Twitchy Dolphin regular. I like this concept of loyalty between filmmakers and actors. “You know, it’s interesting, that’s the best thing I like about Twitchy Dolphin. We’ve always taken a very ‘theatre troupe’ mentality to this whole thing. If you really name the directors you like, how many of them every single movie, bring in a new cast? I think you’ll find that the answer isn’t very many. I think when you work with actors over and over, you develop a shorthand and its easier to get the best performance out of them. It’s exciting to work with new actors, as well, but it’s a lot more work.”
“With our situation, we don’t have a lot of time to make our films. Our strategy is different than any other film company out there, so we don’t have time to reinvent the wheel every time. Usually, for about two or three movies in a row, the cast stays the same. Turkey Day (another Twitchy Dolphin comedy) was able to shoot so quickly after Abram’s Hand because I wanted the same cast. Most of the same people came back for Goin’ Guerrilla, too. Now, we’re like family. I want to be with my family, so, I recognize the act of making the movie is its own reward, but I liken the wrap of every movie to the last episode of The Real World, you’re kinda’ sad when it’s over.”
Christopher took a somewhat unconventional path to filmmaking. “I owe everything I have in my life to my wife and a lot of that comes from being in the military for seven years. I enlisted at 19, needed a change, needed to jumpstart my life and I enlisted. Serving in the military did that for me. When I got out, though, there’s a lot of pressure on a soldier once they get out. I settled down, 27 years old and I went to the University of Texas at San Antonio. Halfway through, the one thing I’ve always wanted to do was act and write. I said to my wife that if I didn’t take my shot, something would be missing, and thankfully, my wife was in. The military gave me the experience of motivating folks, not yelling or screaming or anything like that, it’s about building relationships. I’m good at thinking on my feet because of the military and able to adapt to situations better.”
At this point, I mention how interesting that instead of what everyone thinks would be a “militaristic” approach to filmmaking (with yelling and screaming or whatever the standard drill sergeant image is), Christopher uses the military example of building friendships and that one follows another into combat because they’re friends and they look out for eachother. “The filmmakers I admire, I’ve seen lots of behind the scenes stuff. William Friedkin or Tarantino, I can’t rouse somebody into a performance like them. If you ever watch Mel Brooks, Bryan Singer or John Hughes’ behind the scenes stuff, those guys’ personalities are similar to mine, they’re a little ADD, they’re a little all over the place, but the people seem to be having a good time while they’re on the set. That’s what I hope to bring to the table.”
We touch further on the John Hughes connection, especially in Goin’ Guerrilla. In my review, I liken the film to being almost a Cameron Crowe/John Hughes hybrid and I think that’s apt. “John Hughes, particularly in the way that I write, the way I use music, montage, that’s what I try to do. Spielberg is huge, too, but I can’t afford to make a Spielbergian movie.”
We share a laugh and when I bring up “that one John Hughes movie with Eric Stoltz. The one I can never remember the name of,” Christopher finishes my thought saying “Oh right, Some Kind of Wonderful.”
“There’s something about Cameron Crowe and John Hughes’ scripts. On paper, you feel stuff might be a little silly or hokey, but when they inject heart into it on-screen, it works. The kinds of movies I’d make if I had a ton of money are the same movies I’m making now. I want there to be heart and intimacy in everything I do.”