One of Hollywood’s finest cameramen, BJ McDonnell has worked on blockbuster films such as “BATTLE L.A.” (2011), “THE LORDS OF SALEM” (2012), “ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE HUNTER” (2012), “JACK REACHER” (2013) & “STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS” (2013). He’s also worked as the camera operator on director Adam Green’s first two “HATCHET” films (2006/2010) which made him the perfect choice to helm the third entry in the series, “HATCHET III”, which sees release this week in theaters and on VOD across the nation. He took some time out to talk about his first time in the director’s seat and what it was like to film the latest entry in the saga of Victor Crowley in a real swamp (Hint: It was kind of nasty…).
Horrornews.net: Congratulations on your first directorial effort! What was it about “HATCHET III” that made you want to make it the first film you’ve directed?
BJ McDonnell: Well I worked on the first two as a camera operator and Adam knew that I was already familiar with the story and the characters. I know how the other films were shot as well since I shot them both. All of this served as a great stepping stone for directing “HATCHET III” so that’s really where I wanted to go. Add to that a love of horror films and I have a background as a camera operator and what I really wanted to do was direct a film. Luckily for me it was this one.
HNN: I read about how a lot of your film was shot in an actual swamp and of the troubles that came along with that decision. What would you say were the best and the worst things about filming in a swamp?
BJM: The best part of being down in the swamp was the fact that we weren’t limited as to what we had to shoot. All of the “HATCHET” films were always limited in that sense because they were never shot in a swamp except for some daytime exteriors. We always shot in a desert that we made look like a swamp or on a set that was dressed as a swamp and that always limited what we could do. So actually filming in a swamp really opened up the film visually, it really gives the film the feel of being in a real swamp. I wanted to shoot in scope and make it look bigger than it was and it was easier to do that in an actual swamp. The worst part about shooting in a swamp is the actual conditions there, the bugs, mud, alligators & rain made it a struggle to get everything done in a certain amount of time because of the conditions we were up against.
HNN: Wait a second…did you say alligators?
BJM: Yeah! As soon as the sun goes down the gators would start coming up out of the water and head right to craft services! They were definitely out there with the gators, wild boars & snakes. We were smack dab in the middle of all that and just about anything that you could imagine actually attacking you was there, including Victor Crowley!
HNN: That sounds hellish! Was there anyone around to keep the gators, boars & snakes (Oh My!) out of everybody’s hair while you were shooting?
BJM: Believe it or not, the owner of the property we were shooting on was called “Gator” and he would walk around with a 45 tucked into his belt looking out for everybody. He actually knew all of the gators by name and he told us he could take care of anything that might try to hurt us. But something like bugs, of which there were plenty in supply, are things you really can’t shoot with a pistol anyway. And they’d just creep up on you, there were some big spiders and they were pretty scary but we were well taken care of.
HNN: What was your experience dealing with actors as a first time director like?
BJM: The good thing for me is that I know how to work around actors. I’ve been a camera operator making movies for over a decade and that’s a comfortable place for me. Especially with the actors we have, I’ve worked with Danielle Harris on “HATCHET II” and Rob Zombie’s “HALLOWEEN 1 & 2” so I got to know her as a friend so it was easy to work with her. Adam had already knew Kane Hodder and I met him on the set of “THE DEVIL’S REJECTS” where he was the stunt coordinator as well. So all in all there was a friendly feeling and the people that Adam had cast the ones that I had cast all brought what we wanted to the table so we really didn’t have to worry about them too much, it was like directing your friends.
HNN: That’s interesting, who in particular did you cast?
BJM: I cast Zach Galligan, Jason Trost, Sean Whalen, Diane Goldner and Robert Diago Doqui. Adam and I both cast Derek Mears, Danielle and Kane were already aboard. I also cast a few stunt guys like Guy Fernandez and an electrician I knew here in New Orleans who ended up being one of my gnarly victims. It was great!
HNN: Although it wasn’t as long as I’d have liked it to have been, working with both Kane Hodder and Derek Mears in the big showdown scene had to feel pretty epic. I know all involved knew the historic importance of the scene but was any mention of it made while you shot it?
BJM: Adam and I were both talking about while the script was being written and we both wanted a “Jason Vs. Jason” scene because no one else had ever done it before, so it was a given that we wanted to see Derek and Kane go head to head. Being that Derek was a friend to both of us it was just the right choice and he’s such a great actor to work with as well as is Kane, Kane rules! They’re friends as well and having the opportunity to have those two together to do that scene was just great. It came off really well too.
HNN: It was a great but the fanboy in me wanted a longer more protracted scene.
BJM: And for the people who haven’t seen it just yet, know that it was the running joke of the film because it has been a hyped up battle and finally you’ll get to see who wins it!
HNN: Did you have any input into the script at all or was it all written by Adam Green?
BJM: I had a ton of input, Adam had what he wanted to do and I had what I wanted to do. Adam told me where he wanted to go with it and there’s a big action sequence in the movie that I wrote and then gave to Adam to put into the script because it was something I wanted. I also had an idea for one of the characters at the end of the movie that was specifically something that I wanted to do and Adam put that into the script as well. And the kills! We worked on the kills together, We’d have an idea and go to the special effect artists to see if it was feasible and if so it went into the script. The cool thing about Adam was that he would take what I wrote and just put it in the script so I got to do what I wanted and vice versa. It was a nice collaboration, not one of us did it. It was all of us.
HNN: That’s really rare nowadays. That type of synchronicity between writer and director doesn’t happen too much does it?
BJM: Usually writers are pretty hardcore and loyal to their scripts, they don’t want to change anything. So it was really cool of him to do that for me. It worked out great for the both of us.
HNN: Did you do all of the camera work on the film as well?
BJM: My whole concept for the camerawork was to try and make the movie look more epic. All of the other “HATCHET” films were shot 1:85 and I wanted to shoot it 2:40 and make it scope. It was my intention to shoot it that way from day one because I didn’t feel that the other films had too big of a scope. And I picked Panavision lenses as well, I was very hardcore about the lenses that I wanted to use. That’s why the movie looks so different, because not only did I direct the actors, I created the shots and tried to tell the story through the flow of the camera. I didn’t do the camera operating, a buddy of mine named Brian Sowell did most of it. As did my good friend Eric Leach whose was also involved in the previous two “HATCHET” films, he was also the 2nd unit director on this one. I did all of the Steadicam work because I just couldn’t afford to hire a Steadicam operator on the budget we had to work with.
HNN: Which leads me to my next question: How much did it cost to shoot “HATCHET III”?
BJM: It cost $650,000.
HNN: It looks like it cost a lot more than that! I thought you were gonna answer “One million dollars” at least.
BJM: That was my goal! To make it look bigger than it cost. You gotta know how to shoot a movie or be around while movies are being made to know what works and what doesn’t. I decided to make my first film look as big as possible and I really think it came out looking that way.
HNN: As someone who’s worked on so many big budget movies you’d definitely be someone who knows what works and what doesn’t but you’ve also worked on a lot of low budget movies as well. Besides the obvious, what would you say is the biggest difference between the two?
BJM: The thing with low budget films is that you have to plan so much ahead of time before you actually shoot because you might not have enough money to do additional takes. So I planned out as much of “HATCHET III” as possible. But no matter how much you plan things will still go wrong. With big budget films you have tons of time & money to make sure you get everything just right. When making a big budget movie you might have 60-70 days to get it done right. With “HATCHET III” we had 16 days to shoot in a swamp, at night. With eight hours of darkness when a usual shooting day lasts 12 hours so not only did I not get enough time to shoot everything but the days were just so packed with work that it became a rush job trying to get everything done towards the end and that’s tough but as long as you planned ahead you’re good to go. With big budget movies you have plenty of time to get things right, it might take two weeks just to shoot one big action scene but you can afford to do that with big budget films.
HNN: “HATCHET III” ends in a rather abrupt manner but that seems to be the case for the entire series. So I have to ask if there are plans for a fourth film and if so do you see yourself taking part in it?
BJM: We wanted to end “HATCHET III” the way the others ended, very abruptly and dark. As to a fourth film…you never know, there can always be another one if enough people see this one but I don’t think I’d be a part of it at this point. I’d like to move on and do my own thing but you never know.
HNN: And what’s next for you? Will you be directing your next feature or will you be working as the camera operator on it? Maybe a combination of both?
BJM: Right now it’s a combination of the two. I’m working with some buddies of mine on two different scripts, one is a straight up action film and the other is a sci-fi/spy movie that is very cool by two writers who are super awesome buddies of mine and are very well known.
HNN: I don’t suppose you can tell me exactly who these two writers are….?
BJM: [LAUGHING] Not until the deals are done! But they’re two good friends and two very good writers!
HNN: One last question, I noticed in your bio that you were a member of a punk band some years back. I was wondering what the name of the band was and whatever happened to it?
BJM: Oh yeah! The name was “LICK” and then we found out that some other band was already using that name so we changed it to “LICK 57”. Pretty cheesy but that was the name of the band and we had some stuff on LOOKOUT RECORDS, WINGFOOT RECORDS and a couple of compilations. It was a pretty fun thing actually, five years of my life was filled with traveling and touring while playing bass. We opened up for all sorts of cool bands like AFI, PENNYWISE and THE TOADIES. I can name a whole bunch of bands that we opened for that got huge but weren’t when we toured with them.
HNN: And what happened to the band?
BJM: When a band is together for five years sometimes it gets to the point where everybody just wants to do their own thing and we just fizzled out. We could’ve gone further but we all just wanted to go and do other things. It all worked out well in the end!
Interview: BJ McDonnell – Director (Hatchet III)