Whilst trading in the director’s chair on the hit musical TV show Glee to helm episodes of American Horror Story might seem like one hell of an about-face, Texas-born Alfonso Gomez-Rejón assured me that it felt like a natural step for him as “the thing about horror films and musicals is that they both allow for really expressive filmmaking.”
Gomez-Rejón got his first foot into the movie business as personal assistant to the likes of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro before climbing up a rung of the ladder to direct second unit for films such as Babel, State of Play, Eat Pray Love and Argo. It was a chance encounter with producer Ryan Murphy that also lured Gomez-Rejón to the smaller screen to direct lauded episodes in various seasons of both of the aforementioned shows, Glee and American Horror Story.
Most recently, his second feature, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl screened at Sundance as part of the US Dramatic Competition where it picked up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Before we get to feast our eyes on that though, the UK gets to enjoy the Texan director’s feature debut The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a meta-sequel to the 1976 film of the same name. This new take on the original relates a sudden surge of killings which resemble the ‘moonlight murders’, a nightmare that shook the small town of Texarkana 65 years earlier. To celebrate the release of the film this April 17 SCREAM’s Howard Gorman caught up with Alfonso Gomez-Rejón to talk about his early beginnings in the industry, the reasons behind his ‘genre leaping’ decisions and what we can expect from him in the near future…
SCREAM: Before we talk about The Town that Dreaded Sundown, can you tell us how you ended up crossing paths with producer Ryan Murphy?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejón: Sure, in addition to directing second unit on Babel I had also done most of the street casting because there was a lot in every country. So Francine Maisler, who was the casting director on Babel and a lot of other films from which she had known me as a PA, suddenly started to talk about how I was the guy who could find people on the streets and then she set me up with a meeting with Terrence Malick at one point. That was just amazing for me, as a filmmaker, as he was one of my idols. Then eventually I think Ryan Murphy was having some trouble casting a sequence of Eat Pray Love so we met and I went to Bali and I came back with the cast for the film and he offered me second unit on that film. After doing that he offered me an episode of Glee that was still in its first season and had just been picked up for additional episodes so it hadn’t been a hit yet. So that worked out and I ended up doing a few more episodes over the next four seasons and then episodes in all four seasons of American Horror Story.
SCREAM: How was the transition from being a casting director to assistant director to then go on to direct a TV show, and a musical one to boot?
AGR: Well I’d been an assistant for Scorsese before that and I’ve kind of been exposed to films as far back as I can remember. But actually going from second unit to director was very shocking because I’m also an introvert and film is quite intimate. I remember I storyboarded my entire episode of Glee and came so prepared and they were so used to the television way of doing things, which I had no clue about, and the entire cast and crew were surrounding me and observing me, like judging me. It was so terrifying. I remember going to my cinematographer and telling him how I wanted a shot and he was trying to talk me out of it and probably do something more simple and I knew at that point I had to win this fight or otherwise everyone would lose respect for me. I won in the end and really carried out all my storyboards and that was my approach to television. I treated it in exactly the same way; I was never going to be a guy that was just going to run through cameras and hose it down and move on. I also think Ryan Murphy really appreciated what he was getting from me and he really liked my aesthetic and just kept encouraging me to do whatever I wanted. So in the end Glee was really good fun and naturally lead to American Horror Story.
SCREAM: Glee and American Horror Story seem like poles apart. Why do you say it was a natural next step?
AGR: Well the thing about horror films and musicals is that they both allow for really expressive filmmaking. I love moving the camera and I do it all the time and I love that it can be so expressive and silent a lot of the time. Some great heroes of mine have done the genre many times and my favourite directors have worked in many different genres. With someone like Scorsese, he can do New York, New York and Cape Fear and Goodfellas. It’s just about what that personal hope gives to the story for you. So I found that very exciting and I started by doing second unit for Ryan on his pilot for American Horror Story and I did the opening sequence with the two boys. That worked out really well and then Ryan gave me the next episode and I ended up directing quite a few over the first four seasons.
SCREAM: So how did Ryan and you get involved in The Town That Dreaded Sundown?
AGR: Ryan showed that to me. He knew that I had been trying to get a feature off the ground for a couple of years so one day he called me over to his office and gave me a draft of this script and he said, “This may not be exactly what you wanted to do but you can have some fun with it. It may not be your Citizen Kane but it can be your Boxcar Bertha.” I read it but didn’t get it 100% because I did not know the original film so I went online and ordered a VHS copy as that was the only thing I could get hold of. Once I saw that I really appreciated this idea of a town defined by a movie and thought it was something that I could really get into.
SCREAM: Whilst this is by no means a straight remake, were you ever concerned by how often remakes get panned of late, mainly because there are so many out there and most tend not to surpass the original?
AGR: That didn’t concern me at all. I mean, I can’t compete with what I think people are going to say about it and it wasn’t a remake at all as we are talking openly in the film about the original and even seeing the original film in there. We were even talking about the director of the original in there openly because, in doing research for the film in Texarkana, I realised by accident that the director’s son, Charles B. Pierce Jr. lived in the town where they shot the film. When I got to meet him that then informed me and inspired a character based on him, with his permission. It was meta without being too cute or ironic or cool but it just naturally became this meta thing where you had this town defined by a movie that was inspired by real murders and there were families of the victims that were still feeling the pain as the movie had reopened those wounds. It’s definitely not a remake and is definitely its own thing that pays homage to the past.
SCREAM: As you just mentioned, the original was based on the Moonlight Murders. Did you extensively research the real events?
AGR: I read a lot of old police files that they shipped me from one of the deputies involved in the original murders and they were very helpful. Also Charles B. Pierce was very helpful. There was a lot research and a lot of it didn’t make the final cut of the film but certainly a lot of subplots were inspired by real victims and also how the original film had reinterpreted those victims such as the floozy waitress. Her character had actually been a straight-A student in the ’40s but in the ’70s Charles B. Pierce had taken creative liberties and made her a waitress and then she gets killed but that re-imagining of a person really hurt the family because now that is real, the movie is real and not what really happened. That’s a place I certainly wanted to go to and so I did a lot of research.
SCREAM: Given your casting experience I imagine you chose most of the cast? What was particularly special about Addison Timlin that you thought would make a great Jami?
AGR: She’s exactly what I was looking for. She’s someone who was beautiful but accessible and had a kind of quiet, timeless quality to her. It was a very quiet and internal character with a lot of pain inside and she was sort of childlike but coming of age and Addison’s talent is coming of age. You could just hold on her for really long takes because the camera just loves her and you could feel all her little, subtle work because she is a very nuanced and smart actress and I was very pleased.
SCREAM: A couple of my personal favourites in the film were Gary Cole and Anthony Anderson. Did you have them in mind from early on?
AGR: I’ve been a huge fan of both of them. I got to work with Anthony on The Departed a few years before and I’m a big fan of his work. Gary Cole was the first person I met with and the first person I wanted to play that role and he was the first person to commit to the movie. He is able to do both humour and drama and has a huge range and a wonderful sense of humour that’s very subtle and very real and that’s this movie; Veronica Cartwright and Ed Lauter, who passed away shortly after we filmed, and Ed Herrmann, who sadly passed away not too long ago, were all able to go back and forth and they knew that, for this movie, deep down you had to have a sense of humour.
SCREAM: The aesthetic is particularly unique for a horror movie. Was that mostly your doing or did your DP Michael Goi have a lot of say in the final look of the film?
AGR: I love the camera and I knew I wanted it to be a very still film. I wanted the stillness and the quietness as I think that is scarier for me. I knew it wasn’t going to ever be a found footage film and I didn’t want it to look like a ’70s film, I just wanted the formality of it. Michael Goi and I had collaborated on a lot of films and he just gets how I think and we work very well together. By the time he came on board he had been working on a different TV show before that and I had a lot of photographs pulled for inspiration and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of film and so we just both get each other. It’s a beautiful collaboration.
SCREAM: I know you have recently been to Sundance with your latest film, Me & Earl & The Dying Girl which won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.
AGR: Yes, that’s a very personal film and a film that I tried to do right before we did The Town That Dreaded Sundown but it was a difficult one to get off the ground. I’m thrilled that it finally did because I love the horror genre and I really loved the experience of directing and collaborating with my actors that did The Town That Dreaded Sundown but it was time for me to do something more personal and for me to look inward. It’s been great to have this cathartic experience from the film and the reception of it has been overwhelming. It has also been good to show people that I can do different genres and not get pigeonholed, as much as I love horror.
In terms of my next feature after Me & Earl & the Dying Girl I’m in the middle of an idea right now but it’s probably too fresh to talk about. I’m also interested in creating my own shows for television and one idea that was going to be my first film eight years ago might become the premise for an original show. I’d certainly like to pursue that…
SCREAM: Thanks so much for speaking to SCREAM Alfonso.
AGR: My pleasure. I hope you enjoy the film and I hope to speak to you about Me & Earl & The Dying Girl when it releases in the UK.
We’d like to thank Alfonso for taking time to speak to us and we’ll leave you with the UK trailer for The Town That Dreaded Sundown which heads to cinemas next Friday, April 17th.
Words: Howard Gorman (@HowardGorman)