Interview: Brooklyn Horror Film Fest - Director of BEYOND THE GATES Jackson Stewart

A few weekends ago, Jackson Stewart's award winning genre horror film, BEYOND THE GATES screened at a packed house at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.  The film, which won The Nightfall Award at it's World Premiere at LA Film Fest, centers around two estranged brother who, after digging through their missing father's video store, discover a VCR board game that holds a connection to their father's disappearance and deadly consequences for anyone who plays it. Recently, Abigail had the chance to speak with Jackson about his inspiration for his latest film, his love of cult classic VHS movies and the possibility of a sequel in the future. 

Abigail Braman: Hi Jackson, thanks so much for speaking with me today!  To start things off, how did the concept for BEYOND THE GATES initially get started? 

Jackson Stewart: It came from a couple of different things.  My co-writer Stephen Scarlata and I got together, and we were working on an anthology project at the time, which we were both going to do a segment each.  We ended up both pulling out of the project, but we met up later on because we got along so well.  He then pitched me this idea about a VCR board game that these two brothers find in a video store that leads to another dimension.  As soon as I heard that, I thought it was absolutely brilliant.  For a long time, I've wanted to do a supernatural/adventure horror movie (like PHANTASM or THE GATE), and I feel there's a huge deficit of those types of films.  I realized that this would be the perfect movie for that, because it had everything that made me fall in love with genre films in the first place. 

AB: As I'm sure everyone is aware, you have a lot of very talented and recognizable genre actors in your film - were a lot of these actors pre-chosen? 

JS: Graham Skipper, Brea Grant, Chase Williamson, Matt Mercer and Jesse Merlin - their roles were all written for them.  I'm a fan of them as people and as actors, so I kind of tailored it to them a bit. Barbara Crampton first came on as a producer, and we actually shot that role initially with another actress, which ended up just not working out due to a lot of elements that weren't really working.  So yeah, Barbara was a late addition.  As soon as I started thinking about it - who better to be the connective element between these 80s supernatural horror movies that I grew up loving, then Barbara? 

Jackson Stewart at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival

Jackson Stewart at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival

AB: Was it difficult coming up with ways in which the characters had to receive their board game keys?  Were there some scenarios you wanted to use, but didn't make the cut? 

JS: It was interesting because we had to kind of keep changing the dynamics of it.  One of the things I really liked in the film HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was when Henry and Otis go into the pawnshop, and the guy working there, he's mouthing off to them and is a total slob, and Henry and Otis end up dropping a TV on his head and killing him.  But you as the audience are all right with it because the guy sucked anyway.  But, then there's the whole home invasion scene, where they just brutally murder this family and it's just super upsetting. I wanted it to be similar to that in BEYOND THE GATES, where you're glad Hank dies but you don't want Matt Mercer's character to die.  We were really trying to steer away from everyone's expectations, as far as the keys go.  We did have another thing, which Steve reminded me of, where early on there was a ten-year-old kid who broke into their house for no reason, and started watching the tape, and the kid's head ended up exploding.  We realized very quickly that that would be something for a completely different movie.  We initially had stuff that was a lot more obtuse, where they would have to go and find an object in the house, and it would be on a timer, which they would then have to destroy.  As soon as we cracked the title BEYOND THE GATES, we knew they had to be keys. 

AB: During the Q&A after the film, you mentioned that Chase Williamson watched THE ONION FIELD in preparation for his character.  That's a great film - what other films or characters did you have your actors tap into for their roles in BEYOND THE GATES? 

JS: A lot of it was giving the actors history of their characters: where they came from, what their lives were like growing up, etc.  I would just ask Chase or Graham, what do you think this guy was doing five years ago - and they would have great answers.  Graham actually had some really detailed answers, which weirdly enough, he locked into all of the stuff that I was intending. It's all subtext, but he did a great job figuring it out.  And Chase instantly knew his character.  I also had him watch POLTERGEIST, PHANTASM, and THE GATE just to get the general mood of it.  Brea tapped into POLTERGEIST, THE BEYOND, FROM BEYOND, and Graham, his big one was STRAW DOGS

AB: I heard the Junk Food Dinner podcast is doing a commentary, yet they have zero involvement with the movie... why is that?

JS: Junk Food Dinner, they're basically my favorite cult movie podcast.  Since video stores are essentially non-existent, it's the curated way for me to see obscure cult films that I wouldn't have heard of otherwise.  There's three guys that host it - they're die hard cult movie fans, and it turned me on to a lot of films that I've never heard of before.  I ended up talking to them online and we became friends.  They asked if I wanted to be a guest on their show and I said absolutely - so, they went and watched BEYOND THE GATES.  All three of them liked it, which if you listen to their show, that's very rare.  But, it's super fun and that podcast is one of my favorite things in the world.  I was quite thrilled that they agreed to do a commentary for it. I also really like commentaries where the person doing it has absolutely no involvement in the movie whatsoever.  Like, Carrot Top on THE RULES OF ATTRACTION commentary, or Roger Avary on the DAY OF THE DEAD commentary. 

AB: What was the most challenging aspect of creating BEYOND THE GATES?

JS: The big one was the location.  It was really tough to find.  But, every aspect of making a film is really tough. I pretty much just surrounded myself with good people - Brian Sowell, who was the director of photography did such a great job, Josh and Sierra (the makeup team), they're really good, and Josh Ethier, my editor, is really skilled also.  When working on a film, you're going to have problems no matter what.  So, if you're surrounding yourself with good people that you can depend on, it really goes a long way.  I will say that the exploding head was very difficult to pull off.  It was definitely the most stressful point of the entire shoot, because the guy who was supposed to blow up the head cancelled that morning, after we'd been talking about making this head for awhile.  The guy cancelled, and someone else came in and replaced him, and he did something completely different from what we were expecting. Originally, there was supposed to be an explosive charge set inside of the fake head, so it would blow up in a chunk, which would then go out and hit the camera with blood everywhere. This new guy brought a shotgun that had a blank in it, and he was shooting the back of Matt's fake head, and nothing would happen.  We ended up having to do it about three times before it worked the way it was supposed to. 

AB: You also mentioned possibly making a sequel - would that contain the same characters or have a brand new cast (if one was made)? 

JS: We're working on that right now, but I did write out a sequel that centered around Chase's character, who has a new girlfriend in the mix, and basically it would be his story.  It takes place a little bit after the events in the first one, possibly a couple of years down the road. 

AB: And last but not least, are there any other projects that you are currently working on that we should keep our eye out for?

JS: I shot a short film with Alex Essoe (STARRY EYES), Samantha Robinson (THE LOVE WITCH), and Alena Von Stroheim (FOUND FOOTAGE 3D), which should be coming out around Halloween, so be on the look out for that!

For more information on BEYOND THE GATES, follow them on Facebook at @beyondthegatesmovie and Twitter at @BeyondTheGates_

Chase Williamson, Graham Skipper, and Brea Grant in BEYOND THE GATES

Chase Williamson, Graham Skipper, and Brea Grant in BEYOND THE GATES