I'm very happy to be interviewing the horror film producer Jennifer Handorf. Two of my favourite horrors of the last couple of years - The Borderlands and The Devil's Business - are Jennifer's work so I jumped at the chance to ask her some questions.
Over to Jennifer...
LW: Let’s start with introductions. Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background? How did you get started in film?
JH: I'm a film school kid, really - I did four years studying film as an undergrad in NYC and two years getting my masters in LA. It's what I knew I wanted to do from a young age, and so I really worked at it. I've always produced my own stuff, though. I started in theatre in NY, producing my friends black box productions. Then, one day, a grad student I was friends with asked if I wanted to come help him produce his thesis film. I said yes and never looked back! I've basically been producing progressively larger and larger projects, rather than working my way up a title ladder. I would say, though- I've also spent a lot of time working on other people's projects in other departments - art, costume, camera… I think a producer should spend as much time as possible in other people's shoes to really understand how to facilitate their department's work on set.
LW: Is there a standard day in the life of a film producer?
JH: No. But that's why I like it. I might be up at 5am so I can get the train to some thousand year old caves or I might be able to sleep in until noon and go have a pint with a potential new collaborator. But producing is always on my mind- I'm never really able to shut it off, no matter what I'm doing. But everyone is different- just because that's how I approach it doesn't mean that's prescriptive. I know some producers who get up and go to the office every day for 9am and come 5pm they shut off. As long as you're getting projects made, you've got to go do what's right for you.
LW: Your films The Borderlands and The Devil’s Business both have a gradual build up of a sense of dread. Was that intentional? Are you more interested in slowly creeping out the audience rather than going for a more immediate scare?
JH: Thank you! And yes! I think mood and tension are really what horror is about- sure, you can get a jump out of your audience with a quick loud noise or make them squirm with over the top gore, but you've got to take the time to build something if you really want to get in their head. Not to say there isn't a place for gore and loud noises- there absolutely is!- but they are like cotton candy on their own… a treat with no substance that's gone in a moment. What you've got to have is a slowly building sense of dread- I guess it's like the fibre part of horror nutrition. It stays with you.
LW: A particular scene in The Borderlands takes place in a very confined space. How did you choose the location and was it as difficult filming down there as it appears?
JH: Our costume designer suggested it, having been there when he was a kid. It's actually called the Chistlehurst Caves down in Kent - for £2 anyone can go visit. I really recommend it - it's actually a really interesting historical site as well. Several thousands of people were based down there during World War 2 - it was a refuge. Besides the naturally occurring creeps that come with filming in a place like that, the history was really palpable… it definitely added to the atmosphere.
LW: In The Devil’s Business, there’s a great contrast between the scenes of dialogue with the two leads and tense moments of silence where the viewer is listening for (and scared by) every small sound in the background. Was that always the plan when scripting and shooting?
JH: Sean is a big fan of dialogue, and he's good at it. But you can't really just hit an audience with a wall of words, you've got to balance it out. I'm obsessed with sound, so I was like a kid in a candy shop playing with the quiet moments, which really aren't quiet at all. There is a clock sound in one seen that builds and builds until a particular climax- then it immediately drops back down to normal volume. I'm not sure anybody really notices it while they're watching, but they can feel the atmosphere building.
LW: Working with smaller budgets must present some challenges. Have you encountered any which have meant changes to a script or planned ideas?
JH: Always, but that happens on films of all budgets. I've got lots of friends who work on bigger budget jobs, and we always talk about how the problems never change, you're just able to throw more money at them. Which isn't always the best solution. There is a lot of creativity that comes from budgetary limitations. And, because every penny on screen has to count, you've got to think every moment through and really prepare. A lot of bigger films will shoot for six weeks, then wind up with thirty minutes or more of the film on the cutting room floor. Why not just shoot what you need for four weeks and leave ten minutes on the floor?
LW: What are you working on at the moment?
JH: I've just wrapped production on my first Sci-Fi film- a production entitled NATIVE starring Rupert Graves (Sherlock) and Ellie Kendrick (Game of Thrones). It was a lot of fun - I'm very excited to get into the edit. I've also got a film premiering at Frightfest this August - THE FORGOTTEN. We actually filmed this between Devil's Business and The Borderlands, but the nature of micro-budget is that things take as long as they take. It's exciting though - to go back and see what I did before… I'm looking forward to seeing what audiences think of it.
LW: What’s next?
JH: A thriller on a downed submarine, a horror about murderous children in Nottingham, a World War 1 creature feature, and an action horror set in a tank. Life is never boring!
LW: For someone interested in getting started in film, what’s the single most important piece of advice you can give them?
JH: Just do it. Volunteer to work on short films for a film school, make a bad short with your phone, apply for extra work on big features- just get involved, and then do it again and again. There are so many films being made out there now, even if you aren't getting paid, you're learning by being involved. Then, once you've made at least a few bad films yourself, get some money together, pool all those favours you've tallied by working on other people's projects, and go make your good one. But don't expect to be a brilliant filmmaker out of the gate - you've really got to fail at it a while before you learn the right way to do it.
Thanks to Jennifer for taking the time to answer my questions. You can buy The Borderlands here, and The Devil's Business here. Jennifer's IMDb's page is this way and she's on Twitter over here.