Bob Verini is the Los Angeles-based theater critic for Daily Variety, for whom he also contributes features on film, theater and television. Since 2000 he has been a senior writer for Script.
John McNaughton isn’t interested in oogah boogahs.
You know from oogah boogahs, right? I’m talking about monster pictures. Horror movies, where the lights go out and the creepy crawlies come up the stairs, or a dead hand is propelled out of the grave to grab the heroine’s throat. The term is actually a staple of industry shorthand, as in: “Whatcha workin’ on?” “Oh, I got three weeks on this oogah boogah piece of shit.”
That’s not to say that McNaughton doesn’t get a kick out of putting the screws to audiences. Remember, he’s the guy who slapped us across the face with 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and then sent erotic shivers up everybody’s spine twelve years later on Wild Things.
Now, after a 15-year hiatus from feature filmmaking, he’s back to thrill us again. The Harvest, from a screenplay by newcomer Stephen Lancellotti, concerns the efforts of medically-trained parents, far from society’s prying eyes, to keep their terminally ill son alive, locking him away from a lonely schoolgirl neighbor who’s only searching for a friend. Eschewing the shock effects we associate with the creepy genres, The Harvest nevertheless remains an edge-of-your-seat nailbiter.
“My preeminent criterion when I read a script,” McNaughton reveals, “is to see something I’ve never seen before, and I hadn’t seen this before. At the same time, I love classic themes you can trace way back, and when I read the original script I felt it had the bones of a fairy tale. “There’s Gretel taking Hansel by the hand – or in this case, by the wheelbarrow – as the wicked witch pursues them; the house in the woods; the evil mother; the well-intentioned but weak father… And on top of that, there’s no more ancient, classic and dark theme than child sacrifice. Go to the Old Testament, Abraham and Isaac. I love that it’s got all that.”
Attracting major, Oscar-nominated stars famous for their willingness to take on intense roles (Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon as the medico mom and dad; Peter Fonda as the orphaned girls’ grandpa), The Harvest is a notable return to form by a helmer who, in his own words, “had worked continuously for so many years, and I was just kind of burned out. And then they bombed the World Trade Center and the whole movie business kind of changed.”
One thinks of 9/11 as having altered so many aspects of American life, but perhaps not this one. McNaughton explains: “In October of 2000, I think there were 54 studio projects in production. A year later there were eleven. Eleven directors were working in the studio system. I was in L.A. at the time, and there was this wonderful little restaurant on the ocean near where I was living and it was packed every night. After 9/11 there were two people in the place.”
He turned his attention to episodic TV – “did what I felt like doing for a while, and read and loafed” – and directed some local theater until the itch to do a feature returned. Funnily enough, the screenplay as sent over by his agent was, in fact, an oogah boogah.
“I told Stephen, there’s two movies you could make out of this. The oogah boogah would be a lot of fun, and I’d probably like to see it, but I don’t want to make it. I do character studies. To me there’s nothing more terrifying than what human beings are capable of.”
McNaughton and Lancellotti met in Chicago to hash out the changes the director needed to steer the piece away from genre conventions. Originally the action began with a younger Katherine (Morton), a doctor, meeting nurse Richard (Shannon) and falling in love, before leaping ahead a decade to their child’s debilitation.
The director chuckles, “There’s almost no script where I read, ’10 YEARS LATER,’ that I don’t put down and say, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ It was such a corny opening.”
Inspiration for the prologue they went with came from the baseball theme that Lancellotti, a longtime fan, had already incorporated into the script. (Young Andy, played by Charlie Tahan, has his room decorated with MLB-related wallpaper and toys, and he bonds with Natasha Calis’s neighbor character when she contrives to bring him outdoors to play catch.) As reconceived by Lancellotti and McNaughton, The Harvest now begins with a Little League game.
The helmer explains, “This scene is such a non sequitur. It’s a beautiful, sunny day. The birds are chirping, the grass is green, the parents are in the stands. And what are you expecting? Not what you get.” The pitcher, a little African-American boy, gets hit in the chest by a batted ball. Taken to the hospital with what appears to be cardiac arrest. He’s brought to the hospital where Morton’s pediatrician character saves his life – and we never see him again. Talk about your non sequiturs. Yet it does set up his principal character.
“I love misdirection,” the director chortles. “She saves the child. She’s a wonderful person. She saves children for a living; what could be more noble?
“Ohhhhh – well – we’ll see about that.”
Other revisions shaped by the writer and director can’t be described here without depriving viewers of much of the story’s fun. Suffice it to say that the team successfully exorcised the oogah boogahs, to pull their thrills from a more true-to-life place.
Says McNaughton, “Once you get to horror fantasy, you sort of let the audience off the hook. It can be fun, but it doesn’t cut as deep. It doesn’t inflict permanent scars in the same way as going into the depth of the human psyche.”
The Harvest is available through Video On Demand, and opens in selected theaters on April 24.
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