An American Terror – It’s Not What You Think
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n American Terror is the story of what happens when three marginalized teenagers get sick and tired of being bullied and decide to get some revenge. On their path something happens that will change their lives forever…and that’s when things get really dark. I sat down with the Director, Haylar Garcia to, discuss his movie and why he made it.
AN: Tell me about An American Terror.
HG: The movie is sort of a social horror combined with a standard genre core. It’s about three boys who after being bullied decide to do something really unthinkable at their school ala Columbine. We’re from Colorado so it’s a subject that’s really deep in our heart. In the course of doing so and collecting the weapons they need to pull off this horrible massacre, they come across somebody who’s a lot worse than them and the story ensues from there.
AN: That character was pretty crazy. How did you conceptualize him?
HG: There’s a lot behind it. I know it kind of comes across as sort of slashery in the middle, but basically his character, at least in my eyes, isn’t really a character at all, he’s sort of the embodiment of that lack of humanity. He’s kind of like the end of the road of where these boys are going. This is why their path leads to him. He’s an example of what happens when someone is allowed to take vengeance on and kill and hurt and maim for so long, without being caught or stopped, that he eventually becomes inhuman. That’s one of the reasons he never shows his face; he’s not really a character he’s sort of an ideal.
AN: There are some pretty torturous scenes in the movie. What was your research for that? (Spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know what happens go to the next question)
HG: It’s interesting because a lot of people see them as a series of these horrifying acts; some people think it’s exploitive or torture for tortures sake or just graphic gore but to us it wasn’t about that. Not to give too much away but in the first scene, what he does to the boy with the eyes…it’s all about the unblinking eye; the way kids are unable to look away when certain things happen. The machine that takes the person apart is all about the empty shell that’s left because of that and then the third thing, which is maybe the most important, the sort of “breast feeding scene,” for me is about desensitization. As kids grow up it’s like, for a lack of a better phrase, they’re nursed on blood. By the time they get old enough to make these decisions they’ve already pulled spines out in video games. [They’ve] already seen everything they can; it’s like they grow up on blood. They’re all very important [scenes] even though they just seem very graphic.
AN: This takes place in Colorado…
HG: It does.
AN: Was that on purpose considering everything that’s happened there?
HG: It’s an interesting thing because we’re from Colorado. Columbine has always been in the back of my head so when we decided to do a horror movie we wanted to do something that was scarier than scary, and what’s scarier than a social horror right? We knew that we would probably be ripping off some Band-Aids. At the time we started this Columbine was 13 years old, so we thought it would be okay to sort of touch on the subject. The problem was, once we wrapped principal photography James Holmes went into the Aurora Theater, in our town, and shot the place up. We thought WOW, can we even does this movie, is it going to be tasteless, are people going to think it exploitive? And then we decided we just have to push on because, as you know, the movie’s not really what you thought it was about, it has more to it than that. So what appeared to be a bad omen was maybe just reminding us why the movie was important. It was reinforced more when the day after we finished our rough cut to present to the producers we heard about Sandy Hook in New Town. So we had the same feeling. We felt that those who would find the film exploitive or look at it in that way…we would have to take that heat because the film is what it is. It’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. So we decided that whatever is good for the movie is good for the message and we decided to stick to our guns and put it out. We did consider not doing it but we had too much at stake and we were coming from the right place.
AN: I imagine there will be some backlash when this is presented.
AN: Are you doing anything to try to get in front of it or are you just going to deal with it once you present the movie?
HG: At the end of the day every film has it’s own life. As a filmmaker you just have to put it out there and let it be judged. Sometimes the initial knee-jerk reaction is to be judged harshly and you hope that history, whether that’s a few years or however long, will then judge what you’ve done in a fairly. We’ll just have to see. I think it’s safe to say that nobody on the cast or crew, including myself or the producers, ever meant to be exploitive although some of imagery and scenes and situations can’t help but feel that way in this time.
AN: Are you afraid that people won’t get through the movie because of some of the scenes and miss the culmination?
HG: I think there are multiple sections where people might leave. There’s the initial first act where we learn this is about a school shooting and some people will check out there. Other people will check out in the second act where it becomes very violent, very sort of gorish. But at the end of the day I think that’s why we watch horror right? We watch it so that we can go to a dark place and then emerge. I’m not a fan of bleak horror. I’m always a fan of the slightly uplifting ending because I think that’s what’s safe about the genre. We get to experience our deepest fears in a way yet intrinsically know that we’ll be safe at the end. Alien is really scary but the most important thing about the movie is someone of virtue triumphs in the end. I know that contemporary horror has changed; we have some very down…very harsh endings in some stuff, but I’m sort of a fan of that formulaic ending. Maybe not happy but growth; I like the emergence from the darkness.
AN: There’s a girl in the movie, which plays a damsel in distress but is also a heroine. Was that intentional or did that evolve as you wrote the script?
HG: Interestingly enough I feel all the kids that are in the movie are more archetypes than they are characters, not to take anything away from the actors because they’re all great. Like the three boys are really symbolic of one boy and three choices: one embraces the darkness, one embraces his conscience, and the other gets lost along the way. With the heroine, she’s very important because she’s a member of the other clique. It’s important that we never show the cliques in stereotype; within those cliques are people with and without virtue and it’s like that in real life. Not every jock is an asshole and not every freak kid is a heartless killer; it’s just not true. So within these cliques we needed someone from each side of the track to sort of emerge and do their part for each other because really that’s what it’s all about, two people realizing that they’re people and not stereotypes. Only when they do that can they get out of it.
AN: At the end of the movie, without spoiling things too much, things don’t get better for the protagonist. His life or circumstances don’t change but his perception and outlook does. I thought that was an important detail because too often we think that only because we get through something horrible life changes for the better.
AN: You still have to deal with the day to day. I’m assuming that was done on purpose?
HG: That’s a super astute thing that you noticed because it’s something that we did want to come across. At the end of the day, if you really look at his situation he’s actually worse afterwards. If anything, he’s marked. He doesn’t have the comfort of those few people who were like him and now he’s all on his own. Everyday it’s still the same routine. It’s only his perception that changes. I always describe this movie as my grim fairytale about what I wish would have happened before Columbine; something, anything that would have made somebody say wait a minute and just take a step back. That romantic idea of teen angst, that darkness…you know when we’re teens we tend to embrace it and we don’t realize how much it scars us right? I’m not saying you can’t be dark and you can’t be weird and strange but sometimes we embrace that darkness and we combine that with our hate and sort of all of the weird things that are happening when we’re teenagers and we find ourselves lost and barren of anything. The point is bad things happen from the time that we’re teenagers to the time we get old; it’s about how we respond to those things and that’s what he learns. You’re never over life you just learn to deal with it better. And you learn that things that are important one day can be absolutely silly the next. I look back at the stuff when I was in high school and I just say wow, I thought that was so important or that it was life ending and it totally wasn’t! If there’s anything this movie should tell anybody it’s that, if you’re out there thinking, even contemplating doing something really bad to someone or just as equally yourself…it’s not what you think! High school is not the end of life. You have your whole life ahead of you still. You’ll wake up one-day end think ‘aghh those guys were not even worth it!’
AN: So what’s next for the movie? Where can people see it?
HG: We’re doing the festival circuit, and again I want to thank L.A. Fear and Fantasy. They’re our first nation premier …and in L.A., that’s awesome! They’re kind of the kick off right? They’ve kicked us off to whatever comes this year. There’s some more festival that we’re going to be announcing soon and probably more later so what I think the film’s going to do is ride the festival circuit throughout 2013 and of course try to gain distribution or some sort of sale…we have our fingers crossed for that.
An American Terror went on to win Best Feature at the L.A. Fear and Fantasy Festival and Haylar Garcia won for Best Director.
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