Having directed Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th and Scream: The Inside Story, as well as co-directing Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, filmmaker Daniel Farrands is no stranger to extensively researching some of the horror genre's most beloved titles. For his latest film, The Amityville Murders, Farrands explores the real-life horror story of what happened to the DeFeo family in the house on 112 Ocean Avenue, and with the movie coming to theaters, On Demand, and Digital on February 8th, we caught up with the filmmaker for our latest Q&A to discuss diving into the relationships of the DeFeo family, remembering the DeFeos as real people, creating the film's ’70s aesthetic, casting two actors from Amityville II: The Possession, and he also discussed working with Hilary Duff and Jonathan Bennett on his next movie, The Haunting of Sharon Tate.
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, and congratulations on your new movie, The Amityville Murders. When did you first become interested in the history of the house at 112 Ocean Avenue?
Daniel Farrands: Thank you! My interest in the case began almost 20 years ago when I made a History Channel documentary that chronicled the entire history of the Amityville “saga” (Amityville: The Haunting and Amityville: Horror or Hoax?). During the process of making those shows, I was able to meet with and interview most of the key players involved in the case, including Ronald DeFeo Jr.’s defense attorney, William Weber, and George and Kathy Lutz, whose experiences at 112 Ocean Avenue became the basis for the book The Amityville Horror and all of the subsequent books and movies that followed.
There have been many installments in the Amityville franchise over the years. What made you decide to approach your film from the angle of Ronald DeFeo, Jr. and the voices that he says he heard in the house?
Daniel Farrands: Despite there being over 20 films with the word "Amityville" in the title (most of which are not official sequels but rip-offs capitalizing on the public’s familiarity with the idea of Amityville as the name of a town where a famous haunting once occurred), there had never been a film that focused on the DeFeos as real characters. It wasn’t so much the “voices” that Butch claimed to have heard that interested me; I felt the relationships between the family members and the events leading up to this horrific tragedy were far more intriguing from a dramatic perspective.
The movie never definitively takes the position that ghosts or demons caused Butch DeFeo to murder his entire family while they slept. Rather, it presents three different points of view: was Butch the product of an abusive environment that ultimately caused him to snap; was his addiction to drugs the source of his psychotic act; or was there in fact a dark supernatural energy at work in the house that affected him and amplified the dysfunction and violence that was going on within the family? Since the real Butch remains in prison and will probably never tell the true story of what happened, we can only surmise what his real motivation may have been. In the film, he is presented as both victim and villain, and as he is such an unreliable narrator, it really is left up to the audience to decide how it all went down. I think it’s sad and unfortunate that the real Butch has accused so many other people of committing these horrible crimes, including his sister Dawn, when clearly the evidence shows that Butch killed his family, and he acted alone in the commission of the murders.
Where did filming take place, and what was your shooting schedule for The Amityville Murders?
Daniel Farrands: Filming took place entirely in Los Angeles at a private residence that was almost a perfect stand-in for the DeFeo house circa 1974. Full credit goes to our production designer, Billy Jett, and his hard-working team who were able to transform that house on a very small budget to give us a real sense of how it looked back in the day. We had most of the crime scene photographs for reference, so everything from the bright red carpeting on the stairs to the replica of the foyer tiles to the framed oil paintings of the family that hung on the stairway walls are present. We really went out of our way to replicate, as much as we could, the look and feeling of the original house. The movie was shot over a period of three weeks, which wasn’t a lot of time considering the number of scenes and special effects that we were dealing with. Director of photography Carlo Rinaldi deserves a lot of credit for pulling off a great period look by using 1970s anamorphic prime lenses and for some really beautiful lighting.
Did The Amityville Horror book or any of the other Amityville movies inspire or influence you in any way while writing and directing this movie?
Daniel Farrands: Of course you need to be aware of and respectful toward the films that came before. That being said, ours is not attempting in any way to be part of The Amityville Horror canon. It is really a standalone movie that focuses on the family whose lives were tragically cut short before the events that would later be called The Amityville Horror, which really focuses on the Lutz family. That being said, I wanted there to be callbacks to some of the earlier films, especially Amityville II: The Possession, which was only very loosely inspired by the DeFeo murders.
I really wanted to cast Diane Franklin, who played the teenage sister in Amityville II, as the mother (Louise DeFeo) in my film. I met Diane briefly at an anniversary screening of Amityville II maybe six months or so before I began work on my project, and I just thought it would be a great tip of the hat to that movie to cast her again, but in a more mature role, obviously. To my surprise, Diane, who hadn’t acted in awhile, was totally game and did an audition that blew everyone away. She is a pro and having a “legacy” cast member on set as our beloved “den mother” was comforting and an honor. She was just incredibly supportive throughout the process.
Going a step further, veteran actor Burt Young (best known for his role as “Paulie” in the Rocky films), who played Diane’s abusive father in Amityville II, agreed to do a cameo playing the grandfather in our movie. So yes, there was definitely an awareness of and respect for the earlier films which I hope diehard fans will appreciate. But I also hope the movie stands on its own and tells a story that will interest general audiences and those familiar with the DeFeo case.
From your prior work on documentaries for the Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream franchises, you have a lot of experience conducting thorough research in the horror genre. What was your research process like for The Amityville Murders, which is rooted in a real-world tragedy?
Daniel Farrands: As I mentioned, I had done a pretty extensive documentary on the Amityville case as well, so having that research at my fingertips (luckily as a flag-flying hoarder I had preserved most of it) was really helpful not only to me in the writing process, but also to members of the creative team who relied upon the crime scene photographs and family portraits to create the look of our film. I don’t think anyone who has ever seriously researched this case, either experienced crime scene investigators or armchair detectives poring over the case files on the internet, have ever been able to adequately explain how no one reacted to the sound of seven shots being fired from a .35 caliber Marlin hunting rifle in the middle of the night.
How none of the six victims, all of whom were facedown in their beds, tried to escape, or how no one in that quiet suburban neighborhood heard a single gunshot. It’s just a mystery that no one has been able to explain in over 40 years, despite some rather desperate attempts by several internet trolls to do so. It just doesn’t make sense and defies the laws of basic science. The toxicology reports showed there were no drugs in the victims, and no silencer was used on the rifle. I think of all the things I ever learned about this case, this aspect might be the most troubling to me because it just doesn’t make sense in the real world, so it does leave you with the uncomfortable prospect of there being something else at work in that house.
Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?
Daniel Farrands: I think the day we filmed the family barbecue/birthday party when we had Diane and Burt on set together was special because it felt like we were in the presence of Amityville royalty in a way. Not to mention both of them were such pros and I grew up on their movies; there was just something really cool about having them on set together. I also loved filming the scenes with John Robinson as he is losing his grip on sanity. John brought so much to the role of Butch, and I think he deserves a lot of credit for giving such a powerful performance.
What do you hope viewers take away from The Amityville Murders?
Daniel Farrands: At its core, it’s still a scary movie, but also given the fact that it is based on an actual crime, and a real human tragedy that happened to an American family, is something that I don’t take lightly. I hope people remember the DeFeos as people, and I hope our film gives even a small glimpse into how they may have interacted with each other in the days leading up to the end. I think they were a loving family, and I even have to think that Butch loved them, especially the kids—John and Marc and Allison—but something was bubbling beneath the surface of their idyllic world.
There was a fear in the house, brought on by the abuse they suffered at the hands of Ron Sr., but it was also something that they tried to hide and repress. And I think that fear and repression ultimately led to the end. We end the movie with a montage of clips from the real crime scene and the DeFeo funeral which was attended by over 1,000 people. I think it’s a tragic story, and I think it’s one that, whether or not you choose to believe in the haunting that followed, people still remember because of the notoriety surrounding the house.
The Amityville Murders had its world premiere this past October at Screamfest. How did the audience react to the movie’s first public screening?
Daniel Farrands: It was a standing room only house and the audience reacted extremely well to the film. We did a 45-minute Q&A following the screening, and there was a lot of genuine interest in the film and the story of the DeFeo family. Even though the film isn’t attempting to be a documentary or courtroom drama attempting to faithfully re-enact every facet of the crime, I think we touch on enough of the facts surrounding the case that it seems to affect people. Louise did claim to have had a premonition of her family’s demise; that is in the film. Ron Sr. did refer to Butch as “the devil on his back.” I used a lot of information from the trial and my work on the documentaries to help inform the story, so even though it is a horror movie, great pains were made to try to ground it in reality. And the audience really seemed to like it.
Your other upcoming movie, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, will be released in theaters and on VOD on April 5th, and it's another film that touches upon a real-life tragedy. What was it like working with Hilary Duff and Jonathan Bennett to tell that story?
Daniel Farrands: They were both terrific. Hilary is a pro and it was a very challenging role for her, not only to step into such iconic shoes, but also because she had never done a genre project before. Jonathan was always fun and brought levity to the set, which helped because the subject matter is so disturbing. That said, I think people who have pre-judged the film will be surprised to learn that it is not an exploitation movie about the murders or the Manson “family.” It’s actually an empowering story that asks: is it possible to change our own fate?
With The Amityville Murders coming to theaters, VOD, and Digital HD on February 8th from Skyline Entertainment, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers follow your work online?
Daniel Farrands: I’m working on several new projects, including a movie about the last days of Nicole Brown Simpson, as well as a television pilot based on a very well-known horror franchise. I’m really excited and thrilled that these movies are being released virtually back to back and so grateful to everyone who supported me during this process.