By Mitch Koehler
Harrison Smith is the writer and producer of the acclaimed thriller, “The Fields,” starring Oscar winner Cloris Leachman & Tara Reid, the Corey Feldman horror cult hit, “6 Degrees of Hell,” “Camp Dread” starring Oscar nominee Eric Roberts & horror icon Danielle Harris and the Billy Zane, Dee Wallace zombie action “Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard.” Smith’s directing debut was “Camp Dread,” followed by”Zombie Killers.” His latest horror feature, “Death House” was released theatrically February 2018 and has been performing well. He just finished and sold his first action-comedy, “Garlic & Gunpowder” for release in 2018.
B. Harrison Smith is President of Class of ’85, LLC. Directing debut: Camp Dread. He recently wrapped production on the horror star studded Death House and the action-comedy, Garlic & Gunpowder. He’s the director of Camp Dread, Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard, Death House, Garlic & Gunpowder Writer of The Fields, 6 Degrees of Hell, Camp Dread, Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard, Death House, and Garlic & Gunpowder. TV Work: Hang Men.
Smith was born and resides in Pennsylvania. He works to create high quality motion pictures on modest budgets with domestic and international success.
This interview was a little tough to conduct because Harrison was in the middle of filming, and so we had to make the time. Enjoy!
1. What and who is Class of ’85, and what do you do?
It’s my company named after a very special group of people. My work often has a strong touch of the 80s to it as my IMDb says. I am a director, writer and producer and a guy who does whatever needs to be done to get the project made.
2. I’ve seen some of your movies, most notably Death House (2018) and Camp Dread (2014). What was the hardest part about writing these scripts? Did a lot of people tryout for the movie?
Camp Dread was a fun write because I knew exactly what I needed to do and wanted to do. As long as Felissa Rose was in the film as Rachel, then that’s half the battle. For Death House it was making sure I remained loyal to Gunnar’s vision.
It starts with a good script. I gave the first draft to Mike Eisenstadt and Gunnar. Then it went to Rick Finkelstein. They loved it. Gunnar felt it was a departure from his original story but was pleased I honored his requests. Rick had a campfire reading of it over last summer and the people around it went wild for it. Gunnar called to say he gave the new script his blessing.
We now had a working script.
Then we found out Gunnar was ill. He never let on during our face to face brainstorm sessions or numerous phone calls. This gentle giant was silent on a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He was far too fine a human being to let on to anyone. Hindsight is 20/20 and looking back I think I now know why he was so urgent about the film getting made. He wanted to know the money was locking in and that it was getting done. He lobbied his horror comrades to be in the film and honor letters of intent that had been signed years earlier.
He knew he was dying and it breaks my heart to write that.
Gunnar died last fall. His last wish to both Eisenstadt and Rick was “Get this made. Use my death to exploit it. Film it on my grave if you have to in order to get this thing made.” He was adamant and we all said we didn’t want to look like parasites or vultures. He dismissed that. “Get it made,” was his final directive.
Gunnar was gone. We had a solid script. Now we needed the money.
3. I love that you’ve worked with Tara Reid, I love her in the movie Vipers. What’s it like working with people like Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th) and Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp)? Any good stories?
Fun. Felissa is my business partner and the sister I never had. We have a blast. I love her kids and one of the best stories is that she would always have wild parties on set and one night, one of her co stars called security because the hotel party was way too loud. That’s a classic. When Felissa arrives on set the radios start buzzing and you hear “Felissa has landed! Felissa has landed!” It’s very funny.
As for Death House Kane was the site prankster. He and I quoted Blazing Saddles on an almost daily basis and he has such a brilliant sense of humor. My God he makes me laugh.
The cast of Death House were the nicest, kindest and generous people. I mean that. No egos. No divas. They were there for Gunnar and I loved them.
4. Who are your main writing partners? Who do you share your ideas with?
So far it’s been just me but I am teaming with some gifted guys for The Death House sequel, “The Farm.” I am excited about that.
5. We’re both from Pennsylvania. Pretty cool! How did you get started as a director/writer — did you ever “move to LA” and “try to make it”? Where from PA are you?
I wanted to make movies after seeing Jaws in 1975 at the age of 8. Jaws is the movie that made me want to make movies. From there my uncle got me a Super 8mm silent film camera and it went from there. I made home made comedy shorts with my brother and friends, got a local cable TV show and edited with scissors and tape. I went to video and then I failed out of college and worked in LA for awhile until coming home to try my hand here. I am presently in Lancaster.
6. Horror will always have a secret and supportive fan base. Have your projects ever made it into theatres or on TV networks? Do you care?
Yes. The Fields and 6 Degrees has limited, very limited, theatricals. Death House will my biggest theatrical and I hope it kills out there. The odds are tough for sure. Of course I care, I want BlumHouse to take notice of me and that I make good stuff for little money and I can do wonders for them as well. A filmmaker wants their work to be seen and also be able to eat and continue to do it. : )
7. Being an indie filmmaker can be tough. What are your biggest and lowest budget films? Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
I don’t want to say that because to me they are all on the same level. Death House is the biggest but a lot of people had to do a lot get it done and when the money finally moved all the stars we wanted didn’t have open schedules. So budget is always an issue but we try to overcome with good stories and acting and production value.
I’ve attended a lot of Hollywood meetings. Creative. Business. Social. In every one of these, ideas and projects get thrown around. People get excited. Plans are made. I usually wait until the very end to ask the most important question. If it is not mentioned up front, you kind of have your answer, but it’s a game in the end to see if you’re as smart as you think you are.
That question is: Is the financing in place?
You get either leaden silence as if you committed some grave social faux pas, or you get the “well, we are talking to so and so…”
Translated: there is no money.
Don’t believe the Hollywood fables of making a film for $15,000 and making $400 million. With all legends there is a grain of truth, but like an oyster makes a pearl, it’s slathered with layers of mucus and shit. No, your $7000 movie is not going to make a million. I promise you. If you are telling investors that it will, you are misleading them at best.
Finding the money is the toughest part of making a movie. Making the actual film is easy in comparison. See my previous Cynema articles on this subject. The bottom line is: show me the money and then spend it wisely.
The filmmakers out there making these 20K and under films who promising their backers they will make millions are ruining it for the real filmmakers. If you think yet another $5000 zombie film is the path to riches…get ready to be disappointed. I knew someone who cobbled together about 25K from various people willing to take a shot on his zombie film. I told him to not make a zombie film. The market was flooded and you won’t make one that will make that money back. He even had the idea of casting some D list porn star for name value. I told him that wouldn’t work either.
He went ahead and did it anyway. The film ended up somewhere online for free. It was never bought and he should have just taken that 25K and lit it on fire. So what’s the fallout? Those people who invested will never do it again and will be sure to tell anyone else ever thinking about putting money into film to avoid it. It’s like dropping a rock in a pond. The ripples keep going out further and further.
The filmmakers out there making th3ese 20K and under films who promising their backers they will make millions are ruining it for the real filmmakers. If you think yet another $5000 zombie film is the path to riches…get ready to be disappointed.
“Death House” had a number of people come forward promising to put in funds. Some came through. I spent an entire summer courting one major financier who was vetted, showed proof of funds and in the end wasted our time and everyone’s associated with the project.
You may find people out there who have the money. The issue is, will they give it to you? They string you along…why? Maybe so they can tell their friends they are making a movie and this person, that person are in it. Maybe it’s just a game to them for power or manipulation.
Me (c) with Entertainment Factory producers Rick Finkelstein (r) and Steven Chase (l). These two men worked tirelessly to get the funding in place.
I had one prospective financier say clearly, “I could give you the million dollars you need and never miss it. But I am not going to.” Maybe this person was pushed down one too many times on the playground or didn’t get to go to the prom…who knows? However it was clear that
their unhappiness was going to affect my project. It was a power trip and nothing more from someone presented their self as a generous person and magnanimous. Disingenuous is more like it. On the flip side, it IS THEIR money and they can do whatever they want with it. Including not giving it to me to make a movie. But don’t lead me on.
This was not the case with Entertainment Factory producers Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase. They brought me to the project over a year ago and while they ran defense on not just securing funds but ensuring all departments had what they needed…they made the making of this film a pleasure. This kind of hustle and flow from producers trickles down to the rest of the set and allows for a positive working atmosphere. Supportive producers make all the difference and they saw this as a team effort from day one.
I take issue with celebrities shilling to crowd fund their movies. Some of them made enough money on previous dog movies to finance a slew of indie projects. Going to their fans for money is a middle finger and nothing short of a friendly shakedown by taking advantage of ignorant fan idolatry.
Final funds for “Death House” locked January 2016 with a group that saw the potential of this film. The intent is to get the money back for every investor in this film. The biggest issue in that respect is distribution. The distributor is supposed to provide statements, does the accounting and you pray they do their jobs. Any indie filmmaker will tell you horror stories they’ve had with distribution. Some films are bought and never released. You get some up front monies and then that’s all you ever see.
Others are badly marketed . While you receive proper outlets, little advertising is done to highlight the film’s presence in those outlets. So while Best Buy may have your DVD, if it’s not featured in their circulars and hand outs, then how does anyone know it’s there? You may get the Wal Mart deal, but what good is it if they stock the shelves with only five copies of your film?
There are those who think they have built a better distribution mouse trap. They think they have some new streaming platform that will best what is already in place. The lure of self distribution is sometimes a siren song…it can lure you right to the rocks if not careful.
The goal for filmmakers is getting what they deserve. The stories are too many to repeat when it comes filmmakers who have submitted good product, sold it for a few percentage points above their costs and then see nothing even when the studio makes millions off a successful run.
Finding the money to make the movie is tough, but to getting it out there is an equally daunting task.
8. Do you shoot any of your films in Pennsylvania, or is M. Night the only one?
Nope. I shot The Fields, 6 Degrees, Camp Dread, Zombie Killers and 75% of Death House in PA. M. Night needs to catch up with ME. Maybe he would like to work together if he reads this. I’d love it.
9. I’ll have my contacts get in touch with M. for you. Who is your favorite actor or actress you’ve worked with and why?
Ah, I don’t answer that either because it always offends or alienates someone. I can say there have been great things about every single actor I have worked with. There are some trying times but that’s with any job. It’s the way it works.
10. Anything new or unreleased you’re working on that we should know about?
I have a number of things but I never list them until they are financed, otherwise you just look like a bullshitter. There are plenty of IMDbs littered with “In development” That means nothing. Always look to my IMDB for real projects. What’s there is real and if it falls through it gets deleted. That’s how it should work. There’s enough BS in Hollywood and a list as long as your arm of “In Development” means nothing to anyone who is real in the industry.
11. Are you a collector?
No. I mean I had Star Wars toys as a kid. I like Godzilla figures but most have been gifts. I love them though and I can send you a pic of them.
12. I find some of the best stories to be hidden in books that are already written, just waiting for a film adaptation. I like the 1922 King adaption on Netflix – it’s creepy. Do you read a lot novels?
I do. I have read lot. There are a few books I have my eye on to get the rights.
13. Everyone knows my favorite movie is Scream. What’s your favorite scary movie?
Wow. I am going to say Lake Mungo. It’s scary, tragic and for me a reminder of our own mortality. After seeing it I reached out to the director and told him, “After 25 years I’ve finally seen a film that made me keep the lights on after watching.” I love it and it sits on my shelf. Scary, truly haunting and every parent’s worst nightmare. See it.
NOW GO OUT AND SEE DEATH HOUSE!
Harrion’s Director Reel