EXCL: J.T. Petty on The Burrowers

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Director previews his upcoming creature feature

Leaving a viscous wake in its path, the Creature Feature is writhing its way back to the forefront of the horror genre with slow determination. Between the remakes, the psycho thrillers, the ’70s throwbacks and, well, the remakes, filmmakers are still finding potential in “monsters with meaning” – those scaly, toothy, sometimes tentacled, bastards from the beyond (or born ‘n raised right here on planet Earth) that spell doom for the human race but wield poignant metaphorical value. With time, themes have metamorphosed from ecological disruption (Creature from the Black Lagoon) and bodily invasion (John Carpenter’s The Thing) to reflections of post-9/11 worries, societal collapse and spiritual introspection (Cloverfield, The Mist). Soon, Lionsgate will eschew the “torture horror” label that often goes hand-in-hand with its name for something more old school (on various levels) in J.T. Petty’s The Burrowers.

Currently in post-production, the film is Petty’s fourth feature, his second for a studio. In 2003 he turned Rear Window into a voyeuristic bug hunt in Dimension Films’ oft-overlooked sequel Mimic 3. “It was a really good lesson in how to work with a studio, a balance between what you want and what they want and learning how to get what you want,” reflects Petty who has taken a break in editing to chat with Shock. “I’m still happy with Mimic 3 and what it is. It was good in learning how to let a production help you.” Shortly after that experience, he scaled back to “indie” mode (a la his debut Soft for Digging) and directed S&Man.

The Burrowers features a wide palette of salt of the earth, character actors – Clancy Brown, William Mapother, Doug Hutchinson – in a period yarn set in the 1870s about a group of men searching for missing settlers. What they discover is danger circling beneath their feet. “A lot of what I wanted to do with the movie was create a new monster,” Petty says. “All of the movies I’m seeing today are 80-percent vampires, 15-percent Frankenstein [retreads] and the rest …werewolves. I love what Guillermo [del Toro] is doing in trying to create new monsters, so with The Burrowers I’m trying to do something new. Part of what I love about Aliens is that they have a good set of rules and how the monster works and part of what’s so scary in watching that movie for the first time is trying to figure out what is happening. And the Alien is just going through its life cycle, it’s not malicious – which is so much scarier than something that is hunting you and awful. These are things just getting dinner and that’s so much scarier to me.”

Petty adds he referred to John Ford’s westerns, notably The Searchers, for inspiration. “There’s a Jeff Bridges movie called Bad Company that I really love. The Proposition and ‘Dead Wood’ are interesting kinds of westerns.” The film’s setting – the grass plains of the Dakota badlands – is something he likens to the ocean in Jaws. “You’ve got just open plains of grass without no one around for miles. We now face a sophisticated horror audience – any fifteen-year-old post-Scream knows when or how all of the deaths are going to happen. I feel like if you set something in the Old West, you’re not expecting the creatures to show up because you’re in this world of cowboys and Indians.”

“The movie takes place two years after Little Bighorn, so all of the white people have pretty much wiped out the Indians at this point but people are still terrified of them,” he continues, commenting on the other possible threats plaguing the lead characters. “So you’ve got this giant influx of population and people are still terrified of the 2% of people who are out there, basically dirt poor and living in camps. There’s a fair amount of human violence in the movie. And there are a lot of classic monster movie elements in there.”

Relying predominantly on practical FX over CGI, Petty turned to Robert Hall’s Almost Human (“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”). The grocery list of CG work the film does contain, he says, is for clean-up purposes. “I’m a huge believer in latex and foam and practical monsters on set. This is easily the biggest thing [Almost Human] is doing.” Petty brought the project to Hall two and half years ago. A fair amount of time for the two to brainstorm the look of the titular beasts, “build the monsters inside and out” and avoid any audience comparisons between this film and a certain 1990’s monster flick pitting Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward against giant underground worms. “[The early associations to Tremors] are something I hadn’t anticipated at all. It’s a completely different tone and a completely different world, I actually like Tremors a lot. It’s an awesome fun monster movie, with this I wanted to make something more in line with The Thing and Aliens.”

As for the “human” element, “I feel like Lionsgate is the only movie that would let me make a movie with this good of a cast – like a Coen brothers kind’ve a cast where you’re going for real acting talent instead of gorgeous nineteen year olds,” Petty honestly states. “The cast needed to feel like they could fit the texture of the Old West. Beyond that, it was about the personality. Clancy [Brown] specifically. I needed somebody who could stand up to the mythos of John Wayne and Clancy, I feel, has had a ton of roles but he doesn’t get the leading parts he should be getting. He’s insanely charismatic.”

Look for release details on the The Burrowers and more coverage in the near future!

Source: Ryan Rotten