Following its world premiere last year at the SXSW Film Festival, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word is now out on home media (including DVD and VOD platforms) from Momentum Pictures, and to commemorate the film's release, we caught up with director Simon Rumley in our latest Q&A feature to discuss adapting the tragic real-life story, the film's shooting schedule, what initially drew him to the project, and more.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us, Simon. What drew you to the real-life story of Johnny Frank Garrett?
Simon Rumley: My pleasure! I first watched the documentary called The Last Word by Jesse Quackenbush, which is an amazing viewing experience. Jesse’s an attorney, so it dealt much more with the legalese of the situation and thus the unfairness of the trial and the multiple inconsistencies that were put forward by the prosecution. I’m interested in pushing horror in different directions than the norm and felt there was a really interesting place this film could be pushed, which presented the truth about how badly Johnny Frank Garrett was treated by the system, but which also mixed it with the horror of the curse he left behind.
Where did the majority of filming take place and what did those environments add aesthetically and atmospherically to your movie?
Simon Rumley: The film itself is set in Amarillo, Texas, but we shot in a town called Shreveport in Northern Louisiana. The producers approached the Amarillo authorities about shooting there, but they had no interest in digging up this case. We discussed the possibility of shooting in various states and it turned out that Shreveport was the closest city in Louisiana to Texas, so some of the buildings, streets, countryside, etc. felt as close to Texas as we were going to get. It was important for me to try to recreate Texas as much as possible, so this is what we tried to do…
What was the shooting schedule like for Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word?
Simon Rumley: Well we had 5 x 5-day weeks, so only 25 days to shoot the film, which is more than what I’m accustomed to, but the script was 109 pages (I think) and also, due to the larger budget, we had a much bigger crew, which included 13 juggernauts that followed us from location to location—things move slower the bigger the crew you have. We also had two cameras shooting throughout the process, so that helped speed things up but, of course, gave our editor much more footage!
Do you have any favorite revenge movies—horror or otherwise—that influenced you while making this film?
Simon Rumley: Well, that’s an interesting question and ultimately, I’d have to answer nothing that really influenced this film. My original pitch included references to Final Destination, Sinister, and Insidious, and certainly the first two rank amongst some of my favorite Hollywood genre films. But as production progressed and the script changed, any influence from these films fell by the wayside. Similarly, I was really inspired by watching West of Memphis, about three men who were incorrectly accused of murdering three young boys, but again, as our process progressed, this became less of an apparent influence than I had hoped.
When you look back at your time on set, is there a particularly memorable moment that stands out?
Simon Rumley: There are a couple, actually, but I can’t tell you them, unfortunately! One of the things I did enjoy shooting was the quick cutting scene/montage in the hotel room, where we see a lot of the jurors having some kind of mental breakdown, wearing some fairly outré makeup—bloody, wounded, battered, bruised, etc. This was an off-the-cuff improvisation, and I told the makeup [department] to do whatever they wanted and make it as dark as possible and we’d shoot a scripted scene and then rush to shoot all those scenes in different locations against black backdrops.
Was there any improv on set, or did you and the actors stick mostly to the screenplay?
Simon Rumley: Both myself and the actors would have liked to improvise a lot more, but the producers were very keen that the script was shot and acted word for word.
In recent years, it seems like there have been more and more movements—on social media, true crime podcasts, etc.—on behalf of people wrongly imprisoned based on insubstantial eyewitness accounts, giving Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word another layer of relevancy. Was that courtroom issue on your mind while making the movie?
Simon Rumley: Yes, absolutely, and it’s the main reason why I was so keen to be involved with the project, because I hoped it was going to take horror in a different, socially aware direction. I still think it does this in a way, and at the end of the film, I hope anyone who’s interested in learning more can watch Jesse Quackenbush’s documentary and find out more information for themselves as to why is seems incredibly unlikely that Johnny committed the crimes he was accused of. The film is ultimately championing Johnny’s innocence and thus railing against the death penalty, so that’s something I’m proud of having done. Johnny’s family came to SXSW to watch the film, something I was very nervous about, but they loved the film and were happy that it puts Johnny’s case back in the limelight.
With Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word coming out on VOD from Momentum Pictures beginning March 14th, what projects do you have on deck that you can tease, and where can our readers find you online?
With regards to other projects, I recently finished a film called Fashionista, which is playing the festival circuit now to great acclaim. It’s got a great cast featuring Amanda Fuller (who was in my previous Red White & Blue), Ethan Embry, Eric Balfour, Alex Essoe (from Starry Eyes), and the actor who plays Johnny Frank Garrett, Devin Bonnée.
In-between Johnny Frank Garrett and Fashionista, I shot a film called Crowhurst in the UK, which is about a man who sailed around the world with disastrous consequences—effectively, it’s a psychological drama. And I’m just entering pre-production on a 1940s gangster film, Once Upon A Time In London, which is exciting.
In case you missed it, check out Heather's SXSW interview with Rumley, and watch the official trailer below.