Throughout his career, filmmaker Simon Rumley has created some of the most uniquely compelling genre efforts we’ve seen. From The Living and the Dead to Red White & Blue to his segments in the anthologies Little Deaths and The ABCs of Death, Rumley has always found ways to push audiences into uncomfortable places. His latest, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word, looks to do the same, but in a very different way, as the film is based on the real-life court case that found a young man guilty for the rape and murder of a nun in 1981 Texas, and the strange slew of deaths of those involved in his conviction after his execution.

While at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival, Daily Dead sat down with Rumley to discuss his latest project and heard more about his approach to the story, his thoughts on utilizing a script that he didn’t pen himself, the responsibilities of a filmmaker working on a project with a real-life basis and more.

Great to speak with you again today, Simon. You’ve always had a way of creating intriguing stories and I’m excited to see this one. How did the cast for this project come together?

Simon Rumley: We have a great cast. Devin Bonnée plays Johnny Frank Garrett. He's pretty amazing and looks uncannily like the real Johnny Frank Garrett. We were lucky to get such a good bunch of actors. The casting director was Karen Hallford, who worked on Red White & Blue, too. She's based in Austin and the majority of the actors are from Austin; because it's a Texan story, we really needed the accent.

Because this story has some real-life context to it, does that change your approach to this film versus something like Little Deaths, which has a more surreal feel to it?

Simon Rumley: Yeah, very much so. It has to respect certain facts at its core. For example, there's a district attorney who actually died. He committed suicide. He also had a 14-year-old daughter who committed suicide not that long afterward. We thought having this guy watch his daughter commit suicide might end up being too much, and the producers thought it might be too nasty to the family who lost the father and the daughter to have that. But also, all the deaths you see in the film are based on the reality of the situation. The deaths aren't bloody. They aren't gory. We act them up a little bit, but we try to be as close to the story as possible while still making it entertaining.

There's one scene in a classroom—which is the other one that we've pushed into a much more fictional area—about a teacher who committed suicide. But generally speaking, we tried to be as close to the facts as possible, because every film gets that kind of thing where people watch it and go, "But this isn't real." It's still very sensitive subject matter. Johnny Frank Garrett's family is still alive. They're actually coming to the screening, so that’s going to be a very unusual experience for me. If you do some research about this case online, though, it’s incredibly unusual and that’s what drew me in.

What I've always appreciated about your career is that you've tackled challenging material that pushes audiences to go outside their comfort zones. Did you have to wrangle in that approach a bit on this project?

Simon Rumley: Yeah, in a way. I didn't write the script and so much of that stuff comes from the writing. I'm a stickler in the way that once the script is done, that's the film. Hitchcock was very much like that, too. But I didn't write this script, so it's a very different approach—it wasn’t about pushing the audience in ways I had done previously.

You can see my flavor to this film in the directing. In the script, not so much per say, but it was an interesting experience, to do something I haven't written or have no control over.

It's a good thing to get into because as a director only, in theory you could do maybe one full movie every year. As a writer/director, it's about one every two years—sometimes even three or four years depending on how the process goes. But as someone who likes working and wants to keep working, this was great. There are a lot of good scripts out there, so it's just a matter of tracking those down or getting people to come to me with them.

But this was a slightly more commercial film for me because my last films, as much as people seem to generally like them, were very hard to sell and very hard to get the money back. People were basically scared of them. The audience for those films has loved them, but from a sales point of view, from a business point of view, or even from an industry point of view, people were generally like, "Bloody hell. What are we going to do with this?"

Do you see this as a turning point for your career?

Simon Rumley: It's hard to say. I thought it wasn't, but when I got the job, I realized how much bigger this was going to be than anything I had done. Actually, at one point there were distributors on board who'd released Looper, Evil Dead (2013), Drive, and Insidious. They were on board and in my point of view, they are the coolest distributors in town. I'm not sure what happened, but the company closed down so that went away and it all changed.

So at that point I was like, "Oh my god, this is what I've been waiting for." Of course, that didn't happen because they folded, but it's great, from my point of view, for me to have done a film that comes with pitfalls in way, but it's something that I've never done before, either. Hopefully this film and the work I did on it at least sends a message that I can do other films that I haven't written, that I'm in that market now.

I shot a film in England last year and now I'm shooting this film in Austin that I'm currently in prep for. We start shooting on March 28th. It's kind of crazy because at the moment, unless anything goes severely wrong—which it hopefully won't—I'll have finished three features this year, which is a bit like, "Oh, bloody hell." This industry is so unpredictable, but I enjoy that.

*Above image courtesy of Milton Kam.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.