Filmmaker John McNaughton
Calling upon fairy tales and psychology, the director harnesses
the power of story in his latest project, “The Harvest.”
By Allan Richter
The psychological horror film “The Harvest,” now in production, isn’t what its director, John McNaughton, likes to call a “booga booga” horror movie with improbable supernatural effects. “As I told the writer, Stephen Lancellotti, I’d be happy to see the booga booga movie. I love movies like that,” McNaughton, 64, said in December on set, a creaky Victorian house in upstate New York. “But I don’t want to make a movie like that. This picture has no supernatural elements. It’s more horrific and shows what human beings are capable of.”
In McNaughton’s diverse body of directing work, characters have taken more comedic turns, in “Mad Dog and Glory,” for instance, with Bill Murray and Robert DeNiro, or have plotted criminal conspiracies, as in “Wild Things,” with Kevin Bacon, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards. “The Harvest” marks a return to McNaughton’s darkest, most sinister material, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.”
“Some films are considered too violent or having too much sexual content. This will get none of those tags,” McNaughton said last month in New York City, where he was editing “The Harvest,” “but it’s still disturbing. Even though it’s not overtly sensational in any way, the story itself, and what the characters are doing, is really dark. It’s as dark as dark can be, what the characters are up to. When you go into a dark room and you work on it with intense concentration,” he said of editing the film footage, “it certainly isn’t like war combat, but there’s a certain PTSD to it.”
That may not sound like the healthiest frame of mind, but stories, even when they’re as dark as “The Harvest,” are the constant that fuel the filmmaker. And the neuroscience behind storytelling is hardly the kind of “booga booga” smoke and mirrors that McNaughton eschews. Research shows that stories stimulate the brain, in addition to providing a window into our souls. “Stories,” McNaughton says, “allow us to understand our lives.”
As the well-studied McNaughton, who sees the Bible as the most enduring of stories, might put it, story is as much sustenance as a full head of hair was to Samson. In turn, one of his films is likely to have funneled into it any number of streams of science and culture, without the audience overtly conscious of their presence.
A Modern Fairy Tale
In “The Harvest,” Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton play a married couple who use their medical background in nefarious ways to keep their ill son (Charlie Tahan) isolated. A teenage girl (Natasha Calis) moves in next door and befriends the boy, unsettling the couple’s routine. The film also co-stars Meadow Williams as a pharmaceutical rep and Peter Fonda as the teenage girl’s grandfather.
“To me it’s got the elements of a classic fairy tale,” McNaughton says. Specifically, the filmmaker saw an archetype for “The Harvest” in the popular Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” “The great fairy tales are often extremely dark and sometimes bloody,” the director says. “‘The Harvest’ is not particularly bloody, but it’s got two young kids who are very much like Hansel and Gretel. It’s got the pediatric heart surgeon [the female lead] who is very much like the Wicked Witch. It’s got her weak husband, who is much like the husband of ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ It’s got the kindly grandparents of 1,000 fairy tales. So it’s got kind of a classical depth to it.”
As McNaughton tried to imbue the story with deeper meaning, he referenced The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Vintage) by Bruno Bettelheim, the late Austrian-born University of Chicago psychology professor whose work with emotionally disturbed children gained him world recognition.
“It was about the importance of fairy tales to the development of children’s psyches, how beneficial they could be in preparing children for the challenges of the world growing up,” McNaughton says. “So I started to take some of his ideas, which had a lot of depth, and tried to develop this story with deeper meaning. It has to do with taking a child’s heart, but metaphorically.”
“Hansel and Gretel,” Bettelheim says in The Uses of Enchantment, stresses a child’s efforts to hold onto his parents even though “the time has come for meeting the world on his own.” The fairy tale “gives body to his anxieties, and offers reassurance about these fears because even in their most exaggerated form—anxieties about being devoured—they prove unwarranted.”
To convey the film’s dark motifs, McNaughton, who studied art in school, modeled the interiors of “The Harvest” on the surreal photographs of American suburbia by the New York artist Gregory Crewdson. “When you look at his work you feel there’s something very wrong going on,” McNaughton says.
If he were cast in a movie himself, McNaughton could easily play a Gene Hackman- or Rod Steiger-type “everyman,” but one more affable and engaging than those actors portrayed in their often-gritty roles. He does not measure his words and is as straightforward as the black-and-white color scheme in the sparse apartment he maintains on the East Side of Manhattan, right down to his black jeans and T-shirt.
The dark elements of some of his films don’t jibe with McNaughton’s easygoing persona. But more source material for exploring evil, and why people do it, shows up in the themes of the books on his glass coffee table. The allure of his hometown has him paging through Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City (Vintage), about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer. And he is reading philosopher Leszek Kolakowski’s Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?: 23 Questions from Great Philosophers (Basic) and historian Antony Beever’s The Mystery of Olga Checkhova (Penguin), about one of Hitler’s favorite actresses.
McNaughton got the directing bug early. As a boy, he was watching “Beginning of the End,” a 1957 movie in what McNaughton says was known as the era’s “insect fear” genre, about giant mutant grasshoppers converging on Chicago. “There was a scene with the Wrigley Building, which is a white ceramic skyscraper in a very Gothic style. The grasshoppers are climbing up the Wrigley Building, and all of a sudden a grasshopper is climbing on the sky. At that point, I realize what I’m looking at is a photograph of the Wrigley Building that grasshoppers are climbing on. I said, ‘I can do better than that.’ It made me understand that there were people on the other side putting this together, and that they did a lousy job in this particular instance.” Being behind the camera also fit what McNaughton says is his “reclusive” nature.
His deeper appreciation for stories came later. While McNaughton’s mother was a committed Catholic, his father avoided religion. His father dropped off and picked up his mother at church on Sundays. McNaughton grew up with no religion but later came to appreciate biblical stories, their lasting impact and the powerful metaphors—the Promised Land, for instance—that the Civil Rights movement of his youth embraced.
“When you’re young you don’t think much of this, but when you get older you see why this has survived this long,” McNaughton says of the Bible. “People become attached to it and it gives meaning to their lives. I wound up reading Homer, too. The Battle of Troy—that was in the oral tradition for ages until somebody wrote it down. Those stories were the cornerstones of Western civilization.”
Those biblical images resonated powerfully with McNaughton because he grew up on Chicago’s rough South Side, near the dividing line between black and white neighborhoods. But so did other images from his tough Roseland neighborhood that today is one of America’s most violent urban areas—he recalled one acquaintance who built a cannon that propelled bricks through car windows.
For all his youth’s rough edges, McNaughton’s intellectual capabilities were recognized by his teachers. He was placed in an advanced reading course, where the works of John Steinbeck and Mark Twain further fueled his love of storytelling.
When McNaughton attended The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, however, he realized that students who came from more affluent neighborhoods with better schools had a head start in general academics. To make up for lost time, McNaughton read everything he could get his hands on.
“He has a unique point of view that comes from his upbringing,” says Steven A. Jones, McNaughton’s longtime collaborator who is producing “The Harvest,” their eighth film together. “That view of the world is a little cynical in some ways and he finds humor where other people don’t. That’s part of his gift. Part of it is that he’s very knowledgeable, practically self-taught in literature and philosophy. He’s extremely well-read. Great books and great theories—he’s got all of that rattling around in his head. And he’s sort of a film scholar, so there’s a lot to call upon, a lot to reference.”
Though his conscious love of stories started in his young adulthood, McNaughton realizes he’s been a storyteller all his life.
“I love telling stories because there were such great stories where I grew up,” McNaughton recounts. “In high school every Monday we’d come in and something always happened every weekend: ‘We went and got some beer, then we did this and the cops were chasing us. Then we jumped over the fence and they shot at us and we hid in Tommy’s basement until the cops went by, and the mother came down and said, ‘What the heck are you kids doing here?’ Something always happened every weekend, and on Monday you’d come in and tell the stories.”