I

went to art school, not film school, and the artists who interested me were the ones who were transgressive. They crossed the line, stepped over the boundary of convention and good taste and dared to go where others feared to tread.

It seemed to me that the artist’s mission was to break the rules, subvert authority and my personal goal was to step over the line and join them.

Film came later.

For the last two years, I’ve been teaching at the newly established Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City Chicago. I tell my students that they probably believe the world started on the day they were born. (I know I did when I was young.) But with time, you realize that your life only occupies a small slice on the larger timeline of human existence and endeavor. And you have to make it count.

After the first public screening of my first film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I saw a friend who was a fledgling producer then and a prominent producer today and asked him what he thought. He seemed to have trouble forming an answer and after stammering for a moment simply said, “You can’t do that.” To which I replied, “It’s too late now.” He went on to explain that you can’t make a film in which the murderer walks away free, where the cops make no appearance whatsoever, and the end fails to offer a single glimmer of hope. But as I said: He was too late; the cat was out of the bag.

Henry came to life when Waleed Ali offered me $100,000 to make a horror film. That was his only requirement. There was no money for special effects, or monsters, or makeup. So how does one best create the experience of horror on film? I was introduced to a writer named Richard Fire and together we undertook to redefine the nature of horror on film. We decided that the best way to horrify an audience was to remove the element of fantasy, which can act as a buffer and/or shield to protect us from the harsh truths reality has to offer.

Our intent was to redefine what a horror film was or could be, to break the rules, to be like the artists we admired who came before us — to be transgressive.

The interesting thing about the horror genre is that, by its very nature, it encourages transgression. Horror takes you to the dark side, that’s its job. The dark side of human experience is horror’s territory. I find it interesting that horror is so successful at this moment. I believe it is a reflection of the times we are living in. The horror genre is essentially disreputable and just like in life it’s so much more fun and liberating to hang out with disreputable characters in dangerous nightclubs and seedy bars.

When I started making films, horror was a ghetto. I find it amazing how horror has currently entered the mainstream — and it scares me. If horror becomes respectable, then what is the point? Where do we go to transgress?

I recently watched Ken Burns’ latest documentary series, Country Music, and it was instructive to see what happened to country music when it entered the mainstream. Originally, country music was marginalized and looked down upon by the mainstream. It was “hillbilly music,” intended for the lower orders until Chet Atkins ushered in the Nashville Sound which was essentially country-flavored easy listening. Sales went up, but the thrill was gone.

The same thing happened to comic books. Once the repository of the dark, horrific, and anarchistic, they gradually found mainstream respectability and critical acceptance. Comic book movies are, of course, the dominant modern genre. They are essentially mythology, portraying the lives and efforts of gods no one can match. Their powers are beyond human and we are thereby relieved of the responsibility of actually acting heroically in the real world we occupy.

Hollywood is not looking for artists. Executives say they are but they don’t mean it. An artist is trouble within the Hollywood system. You may want to make a work of art but your benefactors want a product they can sell. This does not necessarily make them wicked or evil; it’s just the way it is and the trick is to make a work of art that they are able to sell.

But some filmmakers strive to be artists. What’s important is the experience of life. That’s what interests them. That’s what drove them to be filmmakers, to tell stories about the life of human beings. Real human beings, not about characters from other movies. My life growing up on the streets of Chicago was always interesting. There were always stories to tell about the people I knew. Yes, I loved movies and as an only child I watched TV constantly, until I was old enough to go out and run the streets. Telling stories is something humans have always done. Stories are how we make sense of our lives. How we connect to the world. I was fortunate to grow up in a crazy place.

Often when I am directing actors, I will tell them stories about the people I grew up with and the crazy shit they did in order to help them to understand their character. Usually they will look at me suspiciously and doubt that I am telling them the truth. Often, they will say to me, “that never happened.” But it did. You can’t make that stuff up.

The point is that telling stories about human beings in the world as we know it is of extreme importance and value to the human race.

T

he truth is that making movies is a business. It costs a lot of money to make a movie and the people who put up that money obviously want to earn it back. Who can blame them? And for the last hundred years or so we have witnessed the existence of the so-called entertainment industry. Movies, we are told, are entertainment.

Entertainment and art are two different things. Entertainment is to me a safe experience. When it’s over, it may stay with you but for the most part it is disposable. When you step away from it, you have been entertained and/or amused for a while but now it’s time to get back to reality and the business of leading your life in the so-called real world.

Ashley Judd in Normal Life
Ashley Judd in Normal Life

I made a film some years ago called Normal Life, based on the true story of a young married couple in Chicago who took to robbing banks just to pay their bills. They got away with it for a while and robbed quite a few suburban branch banks for small amounts of cash. They bought a modest home in the suburbs and even opened a used book store but their story ended tragically, as both died in separate gun battles with the authorities. Luke Perry and Ashley Judd star as Pam and Chris Anderson. Their story is unique because they were not glamorous characters like Bonnie and Clyde — they were just average, if there is such a thing. Average Americans trying to get by and live a so-called normal life.

Their story is tragic and the movie tries to be something more than entertainment. It tries to get at the essence of the lives of these two characters and lay bare the depth of their pain and also their love for each other, which was deep and true.

“Normal Life is one of the greatest movies ever made about how much work it is to fool ourselves, and how willing many of us are to do that work rather than face reality. In scene after scene, Perry conveys a kind of frantic denial that I’ve never seen on film before, but that I’ve seen plenty in life,” Jim Hemphill wrote for Talkhouse in March 2019. “Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) fans were understandably mortified by images of self-mutilation and scenes of marital discord so searing they made Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage look like an episode of Newhart.”

But this is not entertainment as we are used to. It’s not Kalifornia. It’s not Bonnie and Clyde, as much as I love Bonnie and Clyde. When I think about the film, I wonder why should audiences want to see it? Life is tough enough for the average person: Why would they want to see a film that reiterates this fact? Entertainment relieves us of our burdens, lifts our spirits for the time we take to indulge ourselves. Why should we want to be reminded of the darkness we face in our everyday lives?

Despite my uncertainty, I am nevertheless drawn to tell stories that tell people what they don’t want to hear.

I

sometimes think of certain films I have made as anti-tainment. They are something other than entertainment. They are an attempt to get to the truth, if that’s possible. Perhaps it is not, but the artist must try and when you aim for the truth you must penetrate the darkness that we as humans try so hard to avoid and deny. And in the darkness lies horror. I am reminded of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now playing the character of Colonel Kurtz. He has looked into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at the core of our being that civilization tries so hard to deny and all he can say is, “The horror! The horror!”

Which leads me back to horror films. To me the genre allows us to explore the depths of horror available to we humans in our time here on earth because if we try to deny the horror that surrounds us it will bubble up and enter our lives whether we like it or not. The horror genre is a place that, due in part to its disreputable nature, allows us to explore the dark side with a certain degree of impunity.

I think most horror filmmaking falls into the entertainment category. What I refer to as Ooga Booga: monsters, ghosts, all manner of supernatural and fantasy stories and beings that allow us to dip our toes into the darkness without ever actually confronting it for what it is, if indeed we can ever even begin to understand what it is. But we can try. It’s not a comfortable place to go after a hard day at work. Ingmar Bergman went there and his films are not easy or pleasant to watch to this day.

Like the paintings of Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon, art is not always pretty or entertaining. Art that plumbs the depths of what it is to be alive and human travels through darkness and pain and horror. Yet in the field of fine art, these artists’ works command monumental sums. The movies have not yet caught up. Movies, as opposed to films, are expected to be uplifting and above all to offer us hope, which is indeed a noble pursuit if you can do so honestly. People don’t want to walk out of a movie theater depressed or afraid, they want to re-enter their lives convinced that everything is okay.

But is everything okay, really? Probably not.

Is it the job of movies to allay our fears? To make us believe that things are as they should be and everything is fine? If you can pull it off, it’s a great way to make a living. But personally, I am not in the entertainment business. I want to make films that disturb. That challenge rather than reinforce our most deeply held beliefs. That suggest everything’s not okay. And a great place from which to accomplish this is within the genre of horror — but horror by my own definition.

People want to be comfortable; people want to see what they’ve already seen before. They want to be reassured in their beliefs. They want to hear that what they already believe is true. When you challenge that, you’re very likely going to upset them.

And it seems I just can’t help myself.

L

ast year I got a call from Henry himself, Michael Rooker. He asked if I’d ever read a short story by Flannery O’Connor titled, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Indeed, I had, some years ago. Ms. O’Connor has long been a favorite writer of mine and I am a huge fan of the only film adaptation of her work I’m aware of, Wise Blood, a late-career masterpiece directed by John Huston.

We talked about the story and especially the character called the Misfit, an escaped killer on the run. Michael told me producer Ed Richardson, who owns the screen rights to the O’Connor story, had contacted him and asked him to play the Misfit. Michael called me because he wanted me to direct.

Brad Dourif in 'Wise Blood'

The first time I read the story, I was so shocked by the events of the final scene that I didn’t quite comprehend what I had read. My brain had a white-out and refused to process it. I had to re-read the scene to understand what had happened. Talk about horror. Talk about transgressive. Talk about art. This was the gold standard.

Ed Richardson sent me the screenplay. It was fascinating to learn that Ms. O’Connor used the stories of two real-life criminals of the era to piece together the character of The Misfit. Benedict Fitzgerald wrote the screenplay. He also wrote the screenplay for Wise Blood, a good sign. The O’Connor story is only 17 pages and much new material had to be invented to flesh it out. A tall order, considering Ms. O’Connor’s stature in the world of American literature. In the wrong hands, it could so easily become a travesty.

I approached the script with caution. I loved the story but would I love the screenplay? Mercifully, I did.

So here we go again, back into the heart of darkness.

Currently I’m not watching many films/movies or TV dramas. I’m watching true crime documentaries on the ID (Investigation Discovery) Channel. Also, American Greed on CNBC and People Magazine’s documentary series on cults. True crime fascinates me. Husbands murder wives, wives murder husbands, con men/women swindle the gullible, charlatans create cults and followers are drawn to them like moths to the flame.

Human behavior is what fascinates me. As an artist, if I can claim to be one, I like to paint from life.

Trying to get past entertainment to touch life itself. What does it feel like?

Actors call it being in the moment: It’s when they are no longer acting, no longer pretending, but actually being.

It’s like grabbing a live wire. It’s not safe but it is exhilarating.

It’s … transgressive.

John McNaughton is the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Wild Things, and Normal Life.