ANYTHING FOR JACKSON is a remarkable horror film that walks a tonal tightrope between pathos, comedy, and terror. Centering on a pair of grieving grandparents who perform a Satanic rite to bring their late grandson back to life, the film deals with issues of faith, grief, and guilt. Shocking and heartbreaking, ANYTHING FOR JACKSON was an Honorable Mention in Nightmarish Conjurings’ Fave Horror Films of 2020. I had the pleasure of chatting with director Justin G. Dyck and writer Keith Cooper shortly after ANYTHING FOR JACKSON’s Shudder premiere. We discussed ANYTHING FOR JACKSON ’s surprising origins, how lucky they were to finish production right before quarantine lockdown began, and the best way to throw food and fake blood into a snowblower for Part 1 of our discussion. As a general disclaimer, there are spoilers featured in this interview.
I know that you two have worked together before. Did the idea for ANYTHING FOR JACKSON come — you know, it’s kind of a subversive holiday film, or at least that’s how it’s been marketed — did the idea come when you were working on the more conventional holiday films together?
Keith Cooper: You know, it’s funny, I think that would be a logical thought. No, this idea actually came from Justin and I being dirty liars. We were in another pitch meeting and we’d had another movie that we wanted to do. And they were like, “Yeah, that’s a cool idea. But I wish you guys had something that was kind of in the spirit world or, you know, supernatural.” And we’re like, “Oh, of course, we do. Yeah, we have that, we just didn’t bring it. So let us send that to you tonight when we get home.” So then Justin and I had about — I think it was about an hour and 20 minutes, Justin?
Justin G. Dyck: About that, yeah. In the car.
Keith Cooper: And then, yeah, we just had our car ride home. And we just kind of came up with the concept there. You know, we — I think Justin or I, we never know who actually comes up with the ideas. They go back and forth. And then reverse exorcism came up. And then we were just kind of off to the races after that one.
I wanted to ask about the cast. They’re phenomenal, and I had a chance to speak to some of them earlier. Can you talk about the casting process for this?
Justin G. Dyck: Yeah, Keith wrote the first draft of the script, and I was watching a movie called Cardinals, which starred Sheila [McCarthy]. And I just fell in love with her then and there. Like, I’ve been aware of her forever, but I watched that movie and was like, “Oh my gosh, she is the lead.” So I called up Keith and got him to look at the movie and we sent the script to her. And I think within two days she got back to us and said, “This is fantastic. Let me know if you guys get it off the ground. I’d love to be part of it.” So yeah, with Sheila attached and a really good script, it was a lot easier to get this thing made. So about a year later, we found the financing with Sheila attached, and that helped lead us to Julian [Richings] who had always known Sheila but never gotten a chance to work with her. And then Yannick Bisson was actually a lead from the production company Vortex. They got us in touch with Yannick and he liked that role and wanted to come and play with it. He liked playing sort of off type, which is, I guess, a nice change of pace for him. And then Josh [Cruddas] and Konstantina [Mantelos] both came from audition tapes. And the rest of the cast we kind of pulled from friends, a lot of them from the Christmas and family movies that we had made for so long. We work with a lot of really talented and serious actors. So we reached out to them, and they came out and helped us out as well.
So, what was the process like between the panicked pitching and actually turning it into the script for ANYTHING FOR JACKSON?
Keith Cooper: It wasn’t too bad. You know, I think sometimes you can just kind of — you see the whole movie right away. Funny enough with this movie, the opening shot, you know, I think I pitched that to Justin on the car ride. I was like, “What if it’s this, and we just start here, and we’re not going to move the camera.” And Justin hates when I say we’re not going to move the camera. He’s like, “That’s my job. Don’t do my job.” (Justin laughs.) And so anyway, after that, we just kind of — I went home, I think I had a first draft pretty quickly on this one…I think within the month anyway, or at least a couple weeks is typically what I send off to Justin. And then we just go from there, back and forth. Justin has a lot of great ideas. So then we just, you know, sit down and hammer it out. I think it wasn’t that long, really. I think maybe within a month. We were really, really, really pretty happy with the script.
Justin, you may not like this question, but one of my favorite things about the film is how patient and deliberate the camerawork is. There’s not a lot of quick cuts; there’s not a lot of movement. You give the script and the actors a lot of room to breathe, which is really important in horror. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Justin G. Dyck: Oh, no, I love that question. Because I take credit for it. I don’t like when Keith writes in the script, you know, “Wide angles, zoom in, pan left, tilt right.” Because he gets it all wrong.
Keith Cooper: So wrong. [laughs]
Justin G. Dyck: No, yeah, it absolutely is deliberate. And a lot of that stuff, you know, joking aside, Keith comes up with all these things. He’s a filmmaker, you know, from start to finish as well. So a lot of these ideas come from him and then we collaborate with everybody. Sasha Moric, our DoP, of course, brought in tons of fantastic ideas to the cinematography. He and I went back and forth. He put together a whole lookbook of sort of the light and color tone and mood he was hoping for, for this film. And luckily that jived with what we were thinking, and we shared other films that were sort of inspirational for the look of this movie. And then each scene just — I guess it’s pretty standard: each scene requires its own style and camerawork, and we did it accordingly. So Jackson’s bedroom, we wanted to make sure we built that as a set because there were some scenes that just required more space. So it was a set that we could remove walls and put cameras places that you couldn’t put in a practical house. So yeah, that was certainly intentional from start to finish. And the ideas came from all over the crew from start to finish.
You mentioned kind of drawing a little bit from other films. Did you have specific ones in mind when filming this or things that you watched together?
Justin G. Dyck: Yeah, I don’t know how many we actually watched together. But we certainly did throw them back and forth, like, you know…a lot of films from the ‘70s. I remember watching The Changeling. Keith, I think you suggested I watch that one. And then we went back and forth on a lot of films from the ‘70s…The Shining, The Changeling, The Exorcist, of course. And then we looked at some more modern films, and I think every time something started to feel too close to our movie, I would turn it off and walk away because we don’t want to start just, you know, stealing. [laughs] Inspiration is one thing, but just mimicking shot for shot is another. So as soon as something started feeling, you know, really relevant, I think we sort of shied away from that and just looked more for inspiration in a wide variety of things. Not just horror, too. We looked in, you know, drama and action and thrillers and just lots of spaces for inspiration.
Keith Cooper: Yeah, I remember you were talking a lot about movies that had grief in them and stuff like that…
Yeah, when I was talking to the cast, I was talking about balancing the tone between — it’s not just horror, there’s not just comedic elements, there’s so much grief. And there’s the love story at the center of ANYTHING FOR JACKSON as well. And Sheila mentioned The Orphanage, which is a favorite film of mine.
Keith Cooper: Same!
And there are parallels there between that and ANYTHING FOR JACKSON. Because there’s this core story of this unimaginable grief. So I don’t know if that was something that you were thinking about. But I really like the use of grief in horror in general.
Justin G. Dyck: It’s been one of my favorites for a long time. And one I purposely didn’t rewatch before shooting because I didn’t want to take their style. But that one is certainly deep in my subconscious. So I’m sure we ripped off a bunch of stuff.
Keith Cooper: And also I think, you know, I know we talked about it a lot, and I’ve been a horror fan since I was three years old. But at the same time, I think you should be able to take out the horror and still have a movie. So that was really important to us. We’re like, “Okay, well, if we took out the scares and the ghosts, is this still an interesting movie?” You know, it’s different for sure. But we just wanted to make sure that — that was really important to us, that we focused on the grief. And luckily, you know, with Julian and Sheila and Konstantina, it was so easy. Just to watch them, we were like, “Oh wow. Yeah, we don’t have to do anything. This is great. We can just take credit.”
While we’re still talking about camerawork a little bit in the film, there were a few shots that I really loved. But the one that I have gone back to, just to rewind and watch that scene, is when Ian first comes to the Walshes’ house and they’re sitting at the table and he’s standing up with the book. And then we just kind of tilt and we see the mirror and then we see Ian and Mirror Ian at the same time. Was that specifically scripted? Can you talk about that scene a little bit?
Keith Cooper: I didn’t write that in. That was all Justin. I’m with you, that’s one of my favorite shots in the whole movie. I love it just for…I’m sure we’re not doing spoilers, but the rest that goes with it, I’ll let Justin explain it. But I just want to jump on board and say I loved it as much as you did.
Justin G. Dyck: Yeah, I wish that was so intentional that we came up with it before we even started shooting and said, “Alright…we’ve got to build this set. Put a mirror right there because that’s going to give us the perfect balance to make this shot work.” But it was the nature of the location. There was the mirror there. It was originally scripted to happen over at a different table, but I think just coming in the front door one day, looked at it, and said this mirror has to be — that mirror comes into play a lot, actually. With Audrey walking to the door, there’s a lot of sort of… it’s not even a scare or anything, but it just throws you off just enough that you see Audrey walking and then realize, “Oh, that was her reflection and now here she comes behind the wall.” So, same thing. We saw that mirror and we said, “We can put Ian there and the reflection can” — you know, you can add metaphor to that as well if you want to lean into that. But yeah, that was just one of many that the location lent itself well to it.
Yeah, diving back into the deliberate, patient camerawork, sometimes the biggest scares are the slowest ones. Sometimes we’d see a ghost that wouldn’t call attention to itself. It would just kind of be in the background. So I loved the mirror kind of recurring throughout and adding elements not just of space, but, like you mentioned, metaphorically. I just really loved that.
I know we can’t really get into spoilers, but I did want to ask about the ending a bit. It seems like one of the unhappiest happy endings I’ve seen. Can you talk about what you want people to take away from it? I know it’s hard to ask you to talk about the end of ANYTHING FOR JACKSON without spoiling anything for people.
Justin G. Dyck: Yeah. Do you want to take a crack at it first, Keith? Or I’ll start?
Keith Cooper: No, you go ahead.
Justin G. Dyck: Yeah. So we have a — I think Keith and I agree on a very intentional ending to the movie and what it means. But we did want to leave it open for interpretation, which was on purpose as well. And we went back and forth on whether or not we would tell people our interpretation of the ending. But there are so many theories coming out online right now that I absolutely love that I kind of don’t really want to share exactly what we were going for. Because I’m not, you know — someone else might be right. Maybe I’m wrong. Because there’s all sorts of ways of reading it. Yeah, any input on that, Keith?
Keith Cooper: Yeah, I’m right there with you. The only thing I’ll say is I have seen a few people online that sometimes I’m like, “Ah! They get it! That’s exactly what it was! That’s exactly what we’re going for.” And then I’ll read another one and I’m like, “Oh, that’s so much better! I wish that was what I was going for!” I was like, “We should lie and say that that’s what we were doing.” But no, yeah, I’m with Justin. I think it’s cool that people are coming up with their own interpretations. And we did, we did want it to be somewhat open for interpretation.
From what I’ve been seeing, the horror community is just embracing this wholeheartedly and people are going crazy for ANYTHING FOR JACKSON. I know filmmakers don’t necessarily try to anticipate audience reaction, but was that something you expected or something that has surprised you at all?
Justin G. Dyck: I think it surprised me…Keith and I have been making movies for a long time, but this is our first horror film. So I think we’re both confident that we know how to make a movie. But I have movies that I absolutely love, and most people hate them. And I have movies that are, you know, critical darlings or audience favorites that I just can’t stand. So I think as confident as you are, art is art, and you’re not going to be able to predict exactly how it’s received. So I think my highest hope when we started out was we’re going to make a film that does, you know, pretty well on the festival circuit, and we didn’t have a lot of money. So it’s a bit of a pipe dream to say, “We’re gonna make it into one of the major festivals,” but maybe we can sneak in there and play on the last day of something major. And that was kind of my hope for the film and something that I thought was a realistic goal. I don’t like setting my hopes too high, because then I get sad. (laughs) But then the festivals went away. We only had this online thing to do and that was quite disappointing. And I thought, “Well, you know, hopefully, people connect with it and we get at least some good reviews out of the festival,” which started happening. But then it started moving really fast and Shudder bought it after the first festival and said, “Yeah, we want this. We’re going to release it in the spring.” And what a great home for it on Shudder. We were so excited. And then after the second festival, they said, you know, “We’re going to move this up to December so it’s going to come out in two weeks,” or three weeks or whatever it was at the time. And that just boggled our minds. And then it turns out, this wasn’t a film that was going to live in the festival world. It was a film that lives in the release with just fans watching from home. And the reaction to that has definitely surprised me. It’s more than I could have hoped for, I think.
Keith Cooper: Yeah, absolutely. I would agree with that. I mean, I think sometimes when you make a movie, you get that audience reaction. Even if you just do a small screening you can at least tell, like, “Oh, are people scared here? Or are they, you know, is this working?” But we genuinely had no idea. I just, you know, I know that I’d said, “Okay, well, I would want to watch this movie as a horror fan.” So that’s basically all we had to go by. I was like, “I wrote something that I would want to watch,” you know. We had our checklist of: no CG, no this and that. You know, things that we didn’t want to see in a horror movie…but the reaction has been incredible. And Shudder has been amazing. So it’s, I mean, there’s no way we could have predicted it going this well.
You mentioned no CG. That was another thing that I loved so much, that there’s so much done in camera and, you know, practical effects. When I talked to the cast, they mentioned how much they loved playing off of something in the moment and how theatrical it was. And it’s really an intimate piece anyway, with these grieving grandparents. Can you talk a bit about achieving the effects in this and what you were going for and any challenges you had with that?
Justin G. Dyck: Yeah, well, we enlisted Carly Morris to do our builds. She created all the makeup and a lot of the practical effects for us as well. And she is just extremely talented. We had worked with her in the past on, like, a kids’ movie, and she just became a friend and she was willing to come out and help us. I think she had just come off of Birds of Prey or something crazy. Yeah, to come and work on our movie, she wrapped that and came over and started working with us. So we were definitely punching above our weight in that category. And what she brought was just second to none. And then it’s just a matter of, you know, finding a way to shoot it to maximize its effect. So that obviously worked with our entire crew from our DP to our gaffer, everybody, to make the things Carly brought, which looked incredible in person, come across well on camera. So yeah, that’s how it works so well. And then in terms of places that were challenging, I think bringing our crow back to life. We made an attempt with a — we had a taxidermied crow. I’m assuming he passed away of natural causes, I don’t know the story there. We rented it. And we tied some fishing string to it. We’re like, “Alright, yeah, we’re going to get this shot, he’ll be out of focus. So you won’t be able to see the detail. But we’ll have it, like, you know, stand up, maybe that’ll be how it comes back to life.” And it was the most ridiculous, hilarious shot I’ve ever seen. They’re in the middle of this, you know, the actress in the middle of the scene. And then we’ll cue the string pole and the crow starts tilting up in the foreground of the frame. And everyone on set just burst out laughing. It looked hilarious.
Keith Cooper: The skeleton in the Vincent Price House on Haunted Hill looks far, far more realistic than what we had that day.
Justin G. Dyck: So that one we had to fix it with a little bit of CGI. Luckily Keith comes from a VFX background and he said “Alright, here’s the backup plan. This is how we’re going to fix it,” and thank goodness he said that. The other thing that was challenging in the pre-production but turned out really, really well — and I guess this is a bit of a spoiler — but Keith and I spent a long time in my driveway with a lot of different food throwing it into a snowblower. So I’ll just leave it at that because you never know how the snowblower’s gonna react.
Keith Cooper: We do now!
Justin G. Dyck: But for the next generation, you’re going to want to freeze the food that you put in a snowblower because warm food won’t go like that.
Keith Cooper: No oatmeal.
Justin G. Dyck: No, warm oatmeal does not do well in a snowblower.
Did you have some angry neighbors? Or were you far enough away that they didn’t have to deal with it?
Justin G. Dyck: Yeah, it was worse than that. Because we did it on the day of my daughter’s birthday party. So by the time we were done, we looked around and the snowbanks were all covered in fake blood. And we thought, “Ugh, we’ve got a problem.” So we went inside and grabbed a bunch of blue food coloring, poured it in water, and splashed that all around. So we go, “Yeah, they were just, you know, painting in the snow.” So it helped a little bit, but I still got in trouble.
Keith Cooper: It still looked like murdered Smurfs on your front lawn.
Part 2 of the ANYTHING FOR JACKSON interview series will drop tomorrow! RLJE Films will release ANYTHING FOR JACKSON on VOD, Digital, DVD and Blu-ray on June 15, 2021. To learn more about ANYTHING FOR JACKSON, check out our review!
All images courtesy of RLJE Films.