Bright Lights 2018: Jackson Stewart
Still fresh into 2018, Ghastly Grinning will have spotlight articles on creators, writers and voices that we are excited about and look forward to seeing more from this year, our "bright lights of 2018."
To kick off our Bright Lights, we have an exclusive interview with Beyond The Gates writer and director, Jackson Stewart.
GG: Okay, so let’s start at the beginning. What got you into film and then more specifically what drew you into horror?
Well, the first movies I remember being truly obsessed with were Back To The Future, Raising Arizona and the 1989 Batman movie. I remember watching each of those over and over much to my parents' chagrin. As far as horror goes, I had two really distinct, traumatizing viewing experiences prior to age 10 -- the first was Marnie (the Hitchcock movie) and the scene where young Marnie kills her Mom's abusive boyfriend with this fire poker after he attacked her. The sight of blood utterly horrified me. The second was Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. I'd never seen anything like it and the idea of an invisible Freddy Krueger killing you in your dream was enough to fuel my nightmares for the next three or four years. I guess I had never had any other movie give me that experience and I always wanted to conquer it -- hence becoming a horror fan.
GG: How did you end up breaking into the actual film industry?
JS: Through a lot of random chance encounters... I met someone in my first week or two living in Los Angeles who got me a job in post production and I did that for a year or so until the writers strike in 2007-2008. Once I was unemployed, I got bored and went down to the strike line and met some fine people there; one of whom was a friend of a friend who passed my resume onto Supernatural and I started working there like a year or so later.
GG: I’m a huge fan of the Supernatural series, and I know you wrote the Frontierland episode, what was it like writing for such a high profile show like that?
JS: It was so odd because I still have so many new people I meet that ask me if I've done anything they might have seen (which is usually a no) but even mentioning Supernatural, they'd always think it was Smallville or have utterly no idea what it was. Keep in mind, the show had been on five years by the time I hopped on and it seemed like absolutely no one cared. As far as the experience working on the show went, I met some great writers like Ben Edlund, Adam Glass, Sera Gamble and some others who taught me a great deal about TV writing. I felt no pressure writing for it because I assumed no one cared and no one would ever watch and I desperately wanted another time travel western in media apart from Back To The Future 3. Going to visit the set was super fun and Jensen, Jared, Misha and Jim are all amazing guys. Jared's about the goofiest person in the world and Jensen's a hell of a great person. I am stunned the show is on season 13 now, but I still like receiving residual checks so hopefully it goes for another twenty years.
GG: In contrast, what was it like to write for something for a network like that and then get to do something like 12 Deadly Days?
JS: Working on that show with Chris Cullari, Jen Raite, Josh Miller and Pat Casey was an absolute blast. I loved being in the writers room with them and just soaking up their brilliance. I was super into the idea of The Santa Clause meets An American Werewolf In London (which my episode aimed to hit) -- my only minor gripe was I wish we had cast Chase Williamson and Barbara Crampton in it -- the two leads were quite good but I wanted to hang with them on set. Oh, also, Jennifer Elise Cox is a genius. She played Jan Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie and it blew my mind she was in my episode. She's hysterical.
GG: With television and web series under your belt, are either of these avenues that you want to have another go at?
JS; Web series probably not unless it was an episode of the Angry Video Game Nerd or JonTron. Both of those guys' videos crack me up to no end. I'd love to write on another TV show that's someone else's idea. It's really fun getting to adapt and collaborate in that format.
GG: So Beyond the Gates hit and we love it here. It’s clear that nostalgia and old school VHS board games were an inspiration but what else was? And what was it like to transition from writer to director?
JS: Oh, thanks for that. Hmmm... tons of stuff. As far as movies go the big ones were The Gate, Phantasm, The Beyond, The Gates Of Hell, Buffalo 66, Black Sunday (the Bava one), Black Narcissus, Poltergeist, Monster Squad -- basically any of those I watched in my teens. I wanted our movie to take cues from those without ripping off set-pieces or story beats from them. Some other big influences on it were Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, The Shining novel, House Of Leaves, my own experience working in a video store in my teens.
GG: How was it working with genre vets like Graham Skipper, Brea Grant and Chase Williamson? And of course, genre legend Barbara Crampton.
JS: Chase is absolutely amazing -- I loved working with him and hearing his different ideas and what he'd bring to the table. It's a crime he is not a huge star playing Spider-Man or something and not returning my phone calls. He deserves a massive career. Brea was a blast to work with -- super supportive, smart, collaborative and called me out on my dumb ideas which was nice. Barbara's one of my best friends now and was an absolute dream to work with. I remember sitting with her when we were filming the Evelyn bits for the tv and it was such a wonderful moment having her there and thinking back on Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak, Chopping Mall and everything else. She's the best. Graham I had worked with a couple times before hand and is always a fun presence on set.
GG: The score is definitely something that makes Beyond the Gates stand out over other indie horror flicks, you can tell a lot of thought and love went into deciding what to use. Was that a decision you made or something that the composer developed based on the tone of the movie.
JS: Well, that's very nice of you to say -- thank you very much. Wojciech brought a LOT to the score; I remember wanting to lean a little more heavy into the strings than the synth stuff and then change gears when we went into the Other World and repurpose those themes electronically. Wojciech wisely took that idea and blended the two together while also adding elements of the SID (which made music on the Commodore 64) and did a bang-up job. I need to give a shout out to my Italian brother Vincenzo Salvia who composed the title theme. My editor and I placed it in as temp score and it was just perfect. I'm really lucky Vincenzo let us use the tune. He's composed a theme for Beyond The Gates 2 which blew me away -- it's a little more in the vein of some Frizzi/Goblin stuff but it rules.
GG: You are definitely creating your own footprint in the genre world and we love it. Do you have any movies, directors, creators or other creative folks that you've been excited about lately?
JS: Oh yes, quite a few. Super Dark Times is the best movie of 2017 and I am really lucky to have Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski as close friends. That movie resonated with me in a huge way. As far as other creators/directors I'm excited about -- David Bruckner, Corin Hardy, Emily Hagins, Jason Krawczyk, Carles Torrens, Paul Solet, Anna Biller and the Starry Eyes dudes. Tyler Macintyre is also pretty brilliant and I can't wait to see what he cooks up next.
GG: You’re one of our “Brightest Lights of Horror,” spotlighting exciting voices in the industry. What else is in the works? I know a Beyond the Gates 2 has been announced, are there any other projects that you’re working on?
JS: Thank you very much. That makes my day! Yeah, I am meeting with Mr. Brian Yuzna tomorrow about Beyond The Gates 2 which should be fun. It takes things in a different direction while keeping true to the themes of the original. I am working on a post-modern slasher movie that Steve Scarlata and I came up with the story for... a remake of an 80s horror movie that hopefully people will dig and an adaptation of a comic book from a very famous horror writer that I am freaking out about. Should be details on those soon.
Interview conducted by Ryan Larson