Maverick British director Simon Rumley talks about his new fact-based horror film Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word
British filmmaker Simon Rumely (The Living and the Dead, Red, White and Blue, Fashionista) is one of contemporary cinema’s most singular auteurs making movies that are personal, aggressive, eccentric and heavily stylized. Which makes his latest film (well, one of his latest films, rather…more on that below) a bit of anomaly. Momentum Pictures released Rumley’s bizarre and long delayed docu-horror film Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word on VOD earlier this week and what makes it such a departure from Rumley’s previous work is that he didn’t write it. Not only that but, despite the supernatural shenanigans going down within its lean running time, the story is very faithfully based on an actual, very high profile case.
Based on both the real story and director Jesse Quackanbush’s acclaimed doc The Last Word, Rumley’s film begins with a nun who is murdered in her convent bedroom in Amarillo, Texas on Halloween 1981. The police arrest a young man, Johnny Frank Garrett, who always maintains his innocence but is found guilty and sentenced to death. On the night of his execution, he writes a curse letter condemning the people and their families who helped send him to his demise. Shortly after Garrett’s death, members of the community start mysteriously dying. Then one of the jurors takes it upon himself to break the curse when his son is suddenly struck with a life-threatening illness.
Filled with a kinetic, hyper-violent visual style, bizarre jumps between fact and fiction and boasting a beautiful score by composer Simon Boswell, there’s no other film like Johnny Frank Garrett on Rumley’s resume. In fact there’s no other film like it anywhere.
We caught up with Rumley during his rare off time in London last week to discuss…
CS: Some of the things I’ve read about the film seem to make a big deal that this is your only supernatural film so far. But I remember seeing Red White & Blue at Fantasia.
Rumley: Yeah, yeah. I remember.
CS: Yeah, that movie. I mean, I know that it wasn’t supernatural, but it sure as hell feels like a supernatural film. So what do you think about that? Do you think all your movies deal with some sort of magic realism or some sort of supernatural element?
Rumley: Well, that’s a tough question. I mean, that’s funny. I’ve kind of coined my own term for what I do. I kind of call it extreme drama. I think in that extreme drama, kind of everything is pushed to a kind of logical or even a logical limit, really, and certainly, Red White & Blue is pushing that to the very end of that film. It’s an interesting point, actually. I mean, and saying, you know, an extreme drama like The Living and the Dead is again, it’s about someone who does these things, he’s doing very good things for very bad motives. And actually, what’s interesting with Johnny Frank Garrett is I think there’s a saying that basically the Amarillo community — a good, god-fearing community — were very much corralled and led to this decision by a DA who was more corrupt and a few other people who were even more corrupt.
So again, my other films have the theme of good people doing bad things and when they do those bad things, things become too bad to handle. I think if I had a bit more control over the script, I would’ve done a different script and done the kind of collective consciousness of guilt, of going back to what I was saying, that all the people or a lot of the people, especially the jury, they were good people thinking that they were doing the right thing, but they just weren’t doing the right thing.
CS: And that’s a good point actually, that is that this is the only film thus far that you’ve done that’s existed already before you entered that universe. This is not your script. But were you allowed to alter it? I mean, how much freedom did you have to Rumley-ize it? Because it still feels like one of your movies…
Rumley: Thank you. Well, the weird thing was that it was quite a long process from getting it shot to getting it out now. I did write a draft, and there are some things in my draft that are still in the film, but the majority of that draft was not really taken on board. But the irony is that the cut that you’ve seen is very much my cut. And it’s kind of my final cut, really. So it’s quite a kind of an unusual situation to say the least, where I have not much control over the script, but really full control over the cut. And so, yeah, I think there is a lot of stylization in it from a directorial point of view
CS: Now the other interesting thing is that, because it’s quasi-fact-based and many people’s initial point of reference is the doc, do you know if Jesse Quackenbush has actually seen the movie or has any comment on it?
Rumley: Yeah, yeah, very much so. So Jesse came down when we premiered at South by Southwest literally this time last year. And he didn’t make it to the premiere, but he came to the second screening. And that was an amazing screening. Have you seen the documentary, The Last Word?
Rumley: If you can find it, it’s well-worth checking out because it’s very fascinating. But I think he’s based in Houston. So he came down to watch it, and so, it was amazing meeting him and hearing his reactions. But the other thing, just as amazing, if not more so, was actually Johnny Frank Garrett’s family came to the same screening.
Rumley: Yeah, so his mother and his two sisters are still alive. And so, they came and various cousins and children and stuff. In the end, there was about 12 people from Johnny’s family. And they’d read one of the previous, earlier incarnations of the script and were happy for it to go ahead. But I was obviously fairly nervous because it’s basically taking, as you said, a real life story. And so, yeah, I was nervous about what they were going to say, because obviously, I wanted them to like it, but I didn’t want them to just hate it. So I kind of warned them a few times. I said, “Look, this is a genre version of (the story) but with still some sympathetic towards Johnny and I just want to warn you.” And of course, the scene is a fairly protractive death sentence. Well, the actual scene where he gets executed, you know, it’s not over in two minutes. It’s a good five-minute scene. And of course, the mother and Johnny’s sisters are actually in the film because they have front row seats. So they already watched their brother be executed and then had to sit through this again, and that’s rather grueling, I think.
CS: What a strange and exciting and possibly daunting experience for you as a filmmaker.
CS: You’re this like, auteur maverick guy. You make a movie your way and without a care about what people think about it. But now, suddenly you have a responsibility. I find that amazing.
Rumley: Well, yeah, and it’s a good point. And actually, when I got brought on board the job, I went to the production offices in Los Angeles, and the first thing that I did really, once I got into my office was the production company had tons of letters between Johnny and his two sisters, a couple of cousins, his mom. And so, I literally sat down for pretty much two days and just tried to read pretty much all of them, just to get a feel for what the guy was like, the person. And because again, you’re right. It is a responsibility and even though it is a genre film and there’s an escapist element of that, but it’s a film that everyone’s watching to hopefully titillate themselves and enjoy the film. It does have a serious content to it because not only, well, first of which is of course the 76-year-old nun being raped and murdered in her bedroom in a convent. I mean, you can’t get more horrific than that, really.
And then, beyond that, the fact that Johnny was, not so much arrested, but the fact that he was executed for something that he always maintained his innocence for. So talk about, again, the equally horrific tragedy of taking a young man’s life away from him in his prime. From those letters, he just seemed like a really nice, happy kind of fun, sweet kind of kid, really. And he was talking about the music he liked and all that kind of stuff. He was really, really trying to put a positive face on what had happened to him.
CS: This is one of composer Simon Boswell’s best scores in years. Can you talk a little bit about working with Simon?
Rumley: Yeah, so Simon of course is a well-known composer, best known I guess for the Jodorowsky film Santa Sangre, Richard Stanley’s films, Dario Argento’s work. I met him through doing The ABCs of Death. I went to Toronto for the premiere and Simon was there. And so, I met him. He was just an instantly, very nice, friendly, open chap. I think we got on really well. And yeah, I love what he did in this film.
CS: What are you working on right now? What film are you making?
Rumley: Well, things are pretty crazy right now because since I made Johnny Frank Garrett, I’ve shot two other features. So one is called Crowhurst, which is a non-genre film coming out, hopefully later in the year, which Nicolas Roeg exec. produced. That was very exciting and was a bit of a career highlight, to be honest.
CS: Absolutely. Roeg. Damn.
Rumley: And then, I shot Fashionista in Austin, pretty much this time last year. And that premiered at Fantastic Fest, and then we played FrightFest up in Glasgow. So that’s starting to get some great feedback. And then, hopefully, it seems like we’ve sorted out a distribution deal for the UK and the US, which I think we’ve still got to sign, but it seems like that’s kind of going ahead. And then, I’m literally in pre-production on my next film, which we start filming in, well, four weeks on Monday, which is a 1940s period gangster film set in London, which is kind of the missing link between Peaky Blinders and The Krays which I don’t know if you know.
CS: Wow. Of course I know who The Krays were and the two films about them.
Rumley: Yeah, which is basically about real life guys, criminals, yeah, who’ve never been filmed or anything, who have never been put in a film before. So I’m literally prepping that now, which is again, really exciting, because I haven’t done a gangster film before, so yeah. But I’m hoping that my style brings it all together s in some kind of a way or other.
Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word is on VOD right now from Momentum Pictures