For those fortunate enough to have seen director, Danielle Harris’ unrelenting psychological horror film, Among Friends realized that they were witnessing the birth of a important new voice in the genre. Many cineasts have enjoyed Harris’ ongoing career as an actress who made her debut in 1985 at the age of eight years on the soap opera, One Life to Live. Most fans will recognize her for memorable performances in horror films such as Halloween 5 and The Victim. Apparently Danielle Harris had harbored a desire to become a director and this rootshed.com columnist had the opportunity to ask that question and more. Only one question was removed because the answer revealed too much of the film where part of the thrill is discovering the identity and motives behind the characters in the stunning masterpiece. The interview is in the classic question and answer format.
Oscar: Danielle-what attracted you to this material, considering that was your first film-did you intentionally look for this kind of a tale?
Danielle: I was actually reading scripts since 2007. I was looking for something out of the norm. I wanted something that had a strong female lead that wasn’t your typical villain. I knew that I had one shot to get into directing my first feature with something original. That being said, most scripts were very basic and stereotypical horror. Among Friends was really well written and had strong characters and while all the elements were there to make it a great genre film, it also left room for me to put a creative flair on it that wasn’t your typical slasher or psychological thriller.
Oscar: Your debut film is incredible! Many of us were not aware that you had aspirations to be a director! Your film is all the more remarkable because it is a freshman effort-please tell me about how you came to this point in your career. What factors contributed to your decision to undertake the monumental task of becoming a director?
Danielle: I was getting frustrated with the lack of new ideas and felt like I was missing out on doing something “fun” on film. The characters I’ve played as an actress have been really challenging and emotionally rewarding, but there was just something missing. I was finding over and over again that directors were looking to me to help with troubles on set as far as characters relationships, special effects and story points were concerned. Sitting around waiting to be cast in order to be creative was something that I had to change. I kept feeling like, if these films were getting made and it was me who they were turning to to make that happen why can’t I do this on my own! If anyone knows horror, it’s me and it gave me a chance to be in control of the outcome for once. A job that takes a lot of patience as well as confidence. I questioned both throughout, but with the support of the fans I knew that I could find the courage and I would be supported even if I fell on my face!
Oscar: As an actress that has become so widely embraced by the horror genre-do you wish to continue directing any future projects utilizing the genre? Are you worried that Among Friends is a double edged sword in terms that it is such a strong film and any material you might be offered might lock you within this genre?
Danielle: I chose to stylize Among Friends and add a dark comedic element because I didn’t want to get pigeon holed as a genre director. I have a pretty dark sense of humor and knew that in order to get distribution I had to do something in the genre for my first time out. Now with Lionsgate and Anchor Bay behind me, I feel like I can sway a little out of the genre for my next film. I would love to do a Sundance type drama or even a documentary, but I didn’t think I could get people to see it since my only real following is in the horror genre. It’s also what I know better than anything else, so write what you know, right? What’s most important to me is that I make a good movie that people enjoy and give them an hour or two to escape from their own life for a minute. Whether that’s a drama, rom-com, or a horror movie-my next movie will find its way to me just like Among Friends did. I’ll know it’s right as soon as I read it. Directing is a very long process and I have to be in love with it if I want to give up two years of my life and live with it from beginning to end!
Oscar: For those who do not know you well(a precious few-I know!), can you let my readers know more about you and your career?
Danielle: Well, I started my career in beauty pageants when I was 5 years old and won a pageant that took me to N.Y.C. and I got offered a modeling contract with a very big kids agent, so my family up and moved to Queens to allow me to pursue a career. My first acting jobs were on Spencer for Hire and One Life to Live and then I landed my first feature film at 10 years old which was Halloweeen 4 and that movie gave me the career that I have today. It was followed by Halloween 5 and I actually came out to Los Angeles for pilot season and landed the role of Christina Applegate’s sister in Don’t tell Mom the Babysitters Dead the very first day I got there and I never left! We relocated to L.A. and my career took off really fast. The Last Boyscout, Marked for Death, a series regular on Roseanne, and Daylight with Sly Stallone followed shortly there after. I struggled to transition to an adult actor, but kept myself out of the party scene and continued to do numerous roles on TV shows and was the voice of Debbie Thornberry for 6 years on The Wild Thornberrys opposite Tim Curry while I struggled to be taken seriously as an actor. Coming back for Rob Zombie’s Halloween as a different character rebooted my career and the same franchise that launched my career in 1989 gave me a new lease on life in 2007! Finding myself back in the horror genre, I have totally embraced the path that was given to me and now the pedal’s to the metal!
Oscar: Your film, Among Friends is an incredible ensemble piece-how did you go about deciding who to cast and why? I know a few of the individuals involved are good friends(e.g. Jennifer Blanc-Biehn), but your film is wonderfully cast and I would love to know a little more about your thoughts behind the casting.
Danielle: Brianne Davis and Aj Bowen were who I wanted as soon as I read the first draft. Alyssa Lobit and I tweaked the characters personalities after they gave me the green light to cast them. Kane Hodder was also a character that we wrote a part for specifically for him after he agreed to do it. I wanted my friends to have an opportunity to do something different and give them something to play with. Jen Blanc was the perfect Melanie and I’ve always been a big fan of hers and her ability as an actress. We also work the same way as actors which I found out when I directed her in my first short film, Prank. I had never worked with Alyssa Lobit, Chris Meyer, Kamala Jones, or Chris Backus, but Jen had praised them so the casting came together very quickly. If you can’t cast a movie with your real life friends, then you shouldn’t make movies!
Oscar: I have already gone on record stating that I absolutely am awestruck at the talent, Alyssa Lobit exhibited both onscreen and as the writer of this film. How did you approach her unflinching look at friendship?
Danielle: She has the same twisted sense of humor as I do so when I read the script I immediately got it. It was a no-brainer and we worked really well together. Her story was tight, yet she was open to all the changes that I wanted to make.
Oscar: Does this film reflect your feelings on the sometimes fragile state of friendship. Do you identify with any of the characters that you have brought to life through your film?
Danielle: I identify with all of them actually. I have been betrayed and betrayed in selfish moments growing up. You live and you learn and hopefully come out a better person because of it.
Oscar: As a first time director, did you find the technical challenges that are inherent in a film that is somewhat of a low-budget effort hinder or perhaps liberate your material? I know this was a quick shoot-how did you accomplish such a feat as a first time director?
Danielle: I have no idea how we pulled it off. There were so many challenges along the way but we figured it out and kept pushing forward. I learned more on this shoot than all my movies I have been in as an actress combined. I was surprised by how much there was still to learn and equally surprised by how much I knew. I have never been the actor who sat in her trailer in between set-ups, so my years of watching professionals like Tony Scott, Adam Green and Rob Zombie paid off. I have actually learned more from the newer directors as I watched them struggle to find their way and find their voice on the lower budget movies that I have done. I feel like it can only get easier from here! I will probably never do another movie in 10 days ever again, but imagine what I could do if I had 6 weeks! Oh, my God-I look forward to that day!
Oscar: Are you somewhat disturbed that women whom are directors are still labeled as “female directors”? There is an inherent hypocrisy in the statement because directors that happen to be male are not labeled as “male directors”! What are your thoughts?
Danielle: We women have to get over it and not let shit like “Female Director” get in our way. I know that we women could take over the world if we had more confidence and most of all-support from other women!
Oscar: Following up on that question-your film is refreshingly gender neutral in its approach to the story-did you feel any kind of pressure to put an overt feminine stamp on the film? Your film did not fall into the category of chick flick whatsoever-your thoughts, please!
Danielle: I wanted all the characters to be equal and tried really hard to not have anything clichéd unless I was poking fun at it. I wanted the lesbian scene to be sensual where I feel like if a man had directed it it might have been more sexualized. I also wanted to use the juxtaposition of music and choose specific songs throughout that were not typical. I wanted to give the audience an opportunity to use their imagination and didn’t feel the need to have nudity or show too much blood to get the point across. We are so over stimulated in film now with all the CGI that we lose sight of the story and just watch the picture. The limited budget allowed me to come up with more creative ways to tell the story and rely on the writing and my actors instead of fixing it in post production. I wanted to take genre movies back to the way I learned. That’s why it’s very simple and has that 80’s feel to it!
Oscar: Your film is open for a possible sequel-do you wish to continue to explore the world of Among Friends?
Danielle: Never say never, but I’m not a big fan of sequels. There are so many opportunities to make different movies and while I’m still trying to find my style, I feel like I need to branch out and find something different. If the movie is a big hit and fans want another, then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Oscar: As you continue your career as an actress and director-do you now have a preference? Where do you see your career taking you and in what direction(no pun intended!).
Danielle: I’ve put my acting career on the back burner for the last year and 9 months, so its time to get back on the saddle and see what happens. I”m looking forward to auditioning for television again and now that I know that I could have a career as a director if I want, it takes the pressure off as an actress. I have a few possible films that I might act in starting in March, but am excited by the opportunities that will hopefully present themselves as an actor in something other than genre films. I am gonna give it a good solid 6 months and see what happens. All I can do is try my best and as long as I’m happy and inspired I’ll stick with it. I do have my eye on a particular film I’d like to direct, but have set a tentative date to start pre-production late summer which gives me plenty of time to see what presents itself my way before then. Right now I’m gearing to launch a website called HorrorGal.com which will essentially be a VIP access to fans bringing them all things horror. A really cool way to get to know your favorite genre star directly through me! Basically the opposite of all the other genre sights. Kind of like an entertainment tonight meets a virtual convention but right from the comfort of your own living room! Until then, I’m enjoying some time off from traveling and settling into my new home with my boyfriend. I may just get married and pop out a few babies and call it a day! We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
Oscar: Final question-lucky 13! If you were to be have an unlimited budget and choice of material-what might your dream project(s) be?
Danielle: I’d still keep it under 2 million because I don’t want that kind of pressure! I’d also probably do some sort of dark comedy à la Todd Solandz style like Happiness or Welcome to the Dollhouse. I love anything that’s a little out there and want to make sure I never play it safe. Safe equals boring. A script has to speak to me whether it be as an actor or director. I have to enjoy making it and most of all-watching it!