Interview with The Hills Run Red director Dave Parker

When The Hills Run Red hit DVD shelves last year it really created quite a furore amongst horror fans. The film focuses on a group of young film students who venture into the woods in search of a long lost horror film. The film, titled ‘The Hills Run Red’, was considered by the very few that had seen it to be the scariest movie ever made and shortly afterwards its director Wilson Wyler Concannon vanished, taking the only reel of the film with him. The students eventually discover however, that the deranged killer from the movie is real and still very much alive – and filming never finished as he is still killing for the sake of his art. And they are his new co-stars.

The Hills Run Red combines post-Scream reflexivity with ‘old school’ horror violence, tension and atmosphere, shot through a post-‘torture-porn’ aesthetic to create an interesting homage to old slasher flicks that had horror fans positively salivating. While it may have divided audiences, it still got genre fans talking and provoked plenty of discussion and lively debate. Director Dave Parker was kind enough to chat with Behind the Couch recently about The Hills Run Red, early 80s slasher movies, Hollywood hypocrisy and the unbeatable thrill one gets when watching a really great horror film.

How did the idea for The Hills Run Red come about?

The idea came from John Carcietta of Fever Dreams LLC, a production company out of New York. He worked with the original screenwriter Jon Dombrow turning the idea into a full screenplay – that’s what I read when they first contacted me.

How did you become involved with the project and were you involved in the writing process?

Dave Parker and 'friend.'
In late 2006, Carl Morano and John Carcietta came to Los Angeles to meet with directors and producers out here. Several mutual friends suggested that they meet with me and my producer at the time, Robert Meyer Burnett. At the time Rob and I were working together on DVD Special Feature documentaries together and were both looking to get back into making movies and when this opportunity came up we got really excited.

I responded to The Hills Run Red script, because it felt a little like a throwback slasher movie of the ‘80’s, which I have a very fond place for in my heart. I really wanted a chance to do a masked killer movie also. The reality in the film business, if you are not a big director, is that it can and in my case did take years to get another movie off the ground – so I wanted it to be the best that I thought it could be and also didn’t want to just rehash the same old thing or things I had done before. The original script had a lot of obvious and in your face film references that I wasn’t thrilled with, so part of the process to get the movie was to give Fever Dreams notes on how I would like to change the script. I also had artwork done – this business is a visual one and I wanted the ideas I was presenting to seem clear to them. I worked with my conceptual artist Michael Broom, who created several very effective pieces of art depicting certain ideas/scenes/concepts that I wanted to incorporate into the script. I also had him do some early designs for the masked killer, Babyface, giving them an idea of where I was coming from.

The next step was getting David J. Schow (The Crow) to come in and do us the huge favour of rewriting the script – basically keeping the core ideas of the Dombrow script, but changing almost everything else. Rob and I were both very involved in the rewrite process with Dave, which was a really great experience. It was a real pleasure to be able to hang with Schow at like 4am working on it and trying to not only come up with the most twisted shit we could, but also to get to work so closely with a writer that I have admired for a very long time.

The film has quite a striking look – what were your reasons for shooting it this way?

Visually my approach was to give it a feel of an 80’s movie, but execute it with a modern sensibility. It’s lit with a glossier sheen than many of today’s horror movies and not as desaturated. The colour red was an important aspect to the movie and I wanted it to be very vibrant and to stand out. I talked a lot with my director of photography Ilan Rosenberg about horror movies of the past and trying to bring that feel to a modern day film. Also, I didn’t want to use a lot of hand held camera techniques in the movie, I was just tired of the whole shaky cam aspect that seems to be in modern horror. Unless it’s used properly I think it confuses the audience and can disconnect them. I wanted the audience to be able to follow what they were seeing in terms of the action. Plus, I think a more traditional filming approach helped create moments of tension.

Who or what are you inspired by and why? Any particular filmmakers you admire?

For this movie in particular I was inspired by the early 80’s slasher movies – to be more exact films like The Burning, Madman, Tourist Trap. These were films that were spawned by the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, and perhaps because they were a little rougher around the edges, they had a more ‘pulp horror’ feel. There was also a subliminal infusion of Italian cinema, films of Argento and Fulci also seem to spill over into what I’ve done, especially the colour palates they used. As far as filmmakers go I’m inspired by so many. John Carpenter is tops for me, he blended style with great storytelling and characters that I’ve always been drawn to. Stuart Gordon is also a real favourite because he’s never afraid to push the boundaries of horror and not only question our morals, but our stomachs! Don Coscarelli is someone else I love, and to me something like his Masters of Horror episode Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, really captures what I think is a fresh approach to a slasher story, and I’ve always admired his abilities to create a world for his characters that feels very unique. Bottom-line is, I think these filmmakers are great storytellers who know how to unnerve the audience and make the simplest ideas seem nightmarish and fresh - something I’m trying to do.

What themes and ideas intrigue you most as a filmmaker?

For The Hills Run Red the theme that we really focused on was obsession. How far would someone go to get what they want? I think it’s an interesting question to pose to the viewer and one that hopefully they will ask themselves. How far can you stretch that moral compass to get what you want? Maybe because I’m working in Hollywood where that line tends to be grey for a lot of people, is the reason I’m intrigued by it. This is a business of a lot of desperation, compromise and sadly backstabbing to get ahead. For me it’s the part that is hardest to deal with because I’m just not wired that way. I’ve certainly seen others cross that line and achieved some great success, but for me I believe that everyone deserves credit, and blame, and should be treated fairly.

How did you go about filming the film within the film in The Hills Run Red? It genuinely looks like a lurid old slasher flick from the early 80s.

Filming the movie within the movie was pretty fun really. Since I have a pretty extensive knowledge of the films of the past I knew that the material had to be lit and shot pretty simply. Many of these slasher films were made by people who were cashing in on past successes and just copying a style – through camera angles, music, lighting and story. That’s what we tried to do: make the audience feel like it was as authentic as possible. Sadly we didn’t get to shoot more of the original movie as I would have liked – we just didn’t have time, so we had to make those moments feel familiar and related to the audience that knows and appreciates those kinds of films very quickly. Everything down to the trailer narration was paying tribute to what had come before.

You’re obviously a fan of horror - what scares you? What do you think makes an effective horror film?

What scares me obviously has changed over the years. Early on almost everything scared me – scary music, the setting, kills – even if it was very basic it worked because I was a blank slate and a sponge for whatever they threw at me. Now, after watching so much, it takes more to really get to me, but the basic things that scare everyone still affect me. Death, the dark, the unknown, dismemberment, disease, loss of control – the difference now as opposed to my early years is that I really need to be drawn into the story and characters for it to really affect me. Perfect example that’s pretty recent is The Descent – great characters that you felt for and knew and a lot of terrifying moments, great atmosphere and setting, cool monsters – for me a perfect blend.

The other thing is there is the debate if a true horror movie has to be just scary and not fun. Most of the horror films we hold up as true classics have very few if any, light moments – Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead. But then there is a whole crop of movies like Creepshow, Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator, Fright Night that are examples of films filled, not just with great scares, but great humour – they are thrill rides. I miss that – it’s a very difficult combination, just that right blend of humour and horror that compliment each other – An American Werewolf in London being the perfect example. But if you get that right then I think you have a pretty unique movie. I’m not saying all horror movies should just be fun, but I don’t think that every horror movie has to take everything so seriously.

Given some of the more ‘explicit’ scenes depicted in The Hills Run Red (the drug use and rape scenes) - Was there anywhere that you were quite hesitant to bring the story?

I really went into doing this movie and script knowing that there was some pretty dark stuff in it. I made the choice early on that you couldn’t dip your toe into the water, so to speak, but had to dive right in. That’s what I did. Some of the scenes were not pleasant to shoot but I did my best present them in a stylistic way that would magnify what was disturbing without always being in your face about it. I know that we managed to do that in several scenes and I’m proud of those. They might not be the most wholesome scenes, but to me, especially with this movie and having Babyface present in it, in my mind, distanced the movie from pure reality. Our goal was to make an effective film, not an ugly one. This movie is not high art, and I would never make the argument that it is. It’s a movie. 80 minutes of good old pulp horror. The fact that there are interesting things to say about what horror is – obsession etc - and our fascination with these things in the movie, is gravy and very much thanks to David Schow.

Babyface in the woods...
 The killer in the film has a genuinely iconic ‘slasher villain’ look about him. How did you go about creating the look of Babyface?

Babyface started, as far a concept, on the page. The name alone – which is kind of silly – does bring up certain images in my mind. The thing that came to me initially was a doll face. Those old porcelain dolls always had very creepy faces to me and I like the whole paleness to them. Visually I thought that could work really well. So that’s what Michael Broom, my conceptual designer, and I started with. Then we started really thinking about the character – why he wears a mask and the things that go with that. For that I talked with David Schow a lot, and to me, how to make this character different from other slashers. I wanted this mask to actually be his face. This idea feed into the script. Why is it his face? What led this character to cut off his own face and sew this mask on? If he had been killing people for years, what would that mask look like if the victims fought back? It may sound funny to think about all these aspects for the look of the killer, but to me it was a very important part of how the look came about. It also led us to create some pretty cool scenes, like the opening scene with the child Babyface cutting off his own face.

Babyface is really a result of working with Michael Broom, David Schow and Jim Kagel, who sculpted the mask and what was underneath. When you combine that look with what David Schow brought to the character in the script and our actor Raicho Vasilev did in playing him, you get something different hopefully. I’m really happy with the result, I think we created a character that audiences could buy living in the same universe as Jason or Michael Myers. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Babyface iconic – that’s something only time and the fans can create.

Was it a difficult shoot? What were the most challenging aspects?

I think at this level of filmmaking which is still, in the studios’ eyes, very low budget is always difficult. I think people have misconceptions of what making a movie is really about. If they just watch Entertainment Tonight and see an on-set story, it looks like its one big party! The reality is different, not that it’s bad or not fun, but there is a lot of work. By the time you wake up each day to the time that you are back in bed is usually 20 hours. You’re always wishing for more time. The majority of our movie takes place outside at night – not something you can fake easily or without a lot more money. We shot in the summer and we only had at most 8 hours of darkness. The usual shooting day – actual shooting hours – is 12 hours. So we had to compress everything we planned. Sometimes you are waiting around for special effects to be ready – and if they don’t work the first time, then you have to wait for them to reset it. There are a million challenges everyday, but if you love what you do – and getting to make a movie is a real privilege – then it’s all worth it.

Any subsequent rewards for shooting a low budget horror film?

The best advice I can give an aspiring filmmaker is just to ‘do’. The more experience you have, the more you get to work on your skills, the more you get to experiment, the better you will be. Shooting on a low budget puts you in the hot seat all the time. You have to be more creative in shooting, because you don’t have the time or the money

It has been creating quite a stir in the horror community. How do you feel about the reaction of audiences to the film?

I’m surprised by the reaction, I wasn’t sure it was going to be as well liked as it seems to be. That’s not to say I’m not proud of the movie – I am, but I have no way to judge what someone watching it at home is going to think. I have to go off of what I like, what I would want to see, and my knowledge of the genre. I always want to make movies that are seen by as many people as possible, but you never really know if it’s going to connect with them or not. You just have to go with your gut.

One of your earlier films, The Dead Hate the Living, is also concerned with a group of horror film buffs attempting to make the ultimate horror film. Why does the idea of horror fans and why they love horror so much appeal to you?

With The Dead Hate the Living, it was my first movie, I was the writer – so I wrote what I knew – which was horror fans and fandom. With The Hills Run Red, that idea was in the script before I ever read it. It was an aspect that Fever Dreams wanted to keep in the rewrite and Dark Castle responded to it as well. I was concerned about the connection, in that sense, between the two films, but it’s not an aspect I had control over. That being said – horror fans heading to the middle of nowhere to find a lost film seems at least a better motivation than a group of kids go out to the woods to drink, fuck and die.

How would you describe your own particular brand of horror? What makes The Hills Run Red stand out from other horror movies today?

I haven’t made enough horror movies to have a brand. John Carpenter is a brand, George Romero is a brand. Right now I’m just trying to learn. I like all kinds of things in horror. Personally I tend to gravitate to the more pulpy kinds of horror – Richard Laymon books, Creepshow - things that are larger than life, but with each project something different comes so out. The Hills Run Red is post post Scream, its post ‘torture porn’, other people have called it Meta-Horror though I’m not sure what that even means. I think what makes The Hills Run Red stand out is that there’s more layers to it when you look at it than just blood and guts. It’s not a cut and dried thing where I can go – it’s different because our gore is the best ever!

How did you go about assembling the cast and crew for the film?

Since our schedule was the way it was I couldn’t be in two places at the same time. Erik Olsen, our producer, is very good at finding the right talent for the project and luckily we managed to get a very good cast of on the rise talent including Tad Hilgenbrinck (American Pie: Band Camp), Sophie Monk (Sex and Death 101), Alex Wyndham (Freakdog) and newcomer Janet Montgomery (Wrong Turn 3). The strangest part of it all was that they were all cast very last minute. I didn’t get to meet any of them until 2 days before we started shooting the film, so there was, I think, anxiety on both sides because none of us knew what we were getting into or had even met before then!

William Sadler was always my first choice. I didn’t want the usual “horror character actor” to play the role and I’ve always loved his work. He was my first choice and was absolutely thrilled that we got him. I think he’s going to surprise people when they see him. He has such presence and, even with his limited screen time, creates a very memorable and untypical character. Our DP, Ilan Rosenberg, had worked with Dark Castle before and he proved to be invaluable. He’s very Zen about everything and it all moves very quickly. He’s great with ideas and how to combine shots when we were running out of time. The rest of the crew was assembled in Bulgaria and people who had worked on Return to House on Haunted Hill with Dark Castle. They were fantastic to work with and as dedicated as any I’ve ever seen. It really is a family there, they care a lot.

What does the future hold for you? Any future projects you can tell me about?

I’m working on several scripts and projects now that are horror in one-way or another. What’s exciting is that the projects I am working on are very different from each other. One’s with author John Skipp while another one is based on a comic book and David Schow and I are working on ideas. It’s an exciting time and I can’t wait to get back on set.


Most excellent, thanks for providing such detailed and insightful answers Dave and thanks for posting this James!
James Gracey said…
My pleasure Carl - thanks for taking the time to read it. I was pretty much beside myself with glee when Dave agreed to do an interview!
Matt-suzaka said…
Great interview! I enjoyed The Hills Run Red and there was some great insight in this interview. Awesome job, James!
WriterME said…
I agree with the previous comments: great and insightful interview!

Somewhat off-topic question, though. The post mention two movies by Dave Parker that use horror fans in the plot. Do you know of any other movies that specifically feature horror fans as the main characters?

I might be doing a presentation for a conference in April that will deal with audience perceptions of the genre, both inside the fandom and outsiders looking in, and thought it would be interesting to bring in representations from movies.
James Gracey said…
Ooooh. Good question. There are quite a few horror films ABOUT horror film fans. Just off the top of my head - Dead Snow, Scream, Friday the 13th Pt 4 feature horror movie fans as main characters - and even though its not a horror film - American Movie features two down on their luck horror fans trying to make a horror movie. Great film.

A blog (doh - that I can't remember the name of!) posted a cool article a while ago about horror fans in horror films - there were pictures too - if i can remember the blog - i'll post a link to it here.
WriterME said…
Thanks! Let me know if you do think of it.

I'm not sure if the talk will be about this. My plan is horror fandom, but I know my director of studies is thinking of an extension to the haunted attractions piece. Still, I'd love to look into this some more at some point :)

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