Taking on the directorial reins of a popular horror franchise that’s beloved by devoted genre fans can be a difficult task for many established helmers, let alone a new one. But first-time director BJ McDonnell, who has made a name for himself as a camera operator on large studio films, such as ‘This Is the End’ and ‘Star Trek Into Darkness,’ as well as horror hits, including ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ and ‘Halloween (2007),’ easily stepped into the helmer’s chair for ‘Hatchet III.’ McDonnell, who worked as a camera operator on the first two films in the horror comedy franchise, naturally took on the helm from Adama Green, who also penned all three movies. The new director satisfyingly created a comedic, horrifying conclusion to the fan favorite series.
‘Hatchet III’ follows the vengeful Marybeth (Danielle Harris) as she continues seeking out a way to destroy Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), a hulking, seemingly-invincible sociopath rampaging through a sleepy Louisiana swamp. While a heavily-armed team of mercenaries takes to the bayou surrounding Crowley’s home, Marybeth finds herself begrudgingly teaming up with a local policeman, Sheriff Fowler (Zach Galligan), and his reporter ex-wife, Amanda (Caroline Williams). Amanda’s an expert on the homicidal urban legend, and may have uncovered the secret to ending his murderous rampage once and for all.
McDonnell generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Hatchet III’ over the phone. Among other things, the director discussed how Green approached him with the offer to helm the horror comedy, as the screenwriter knew the camera operator wanted to delve into directing; how he had natural and easy-going working relationships with both Harris and Hodder on the set of the series’ second sequel, as he has previously worked with them on other popular horror films; and how having a small budget limited the way he could shoot the franchise’s conclusion, but fans are still eagerly anticipating its release.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new action horror comedy ‘Hatchet III.’ What was it about the script that convinced you to take on the helm for the film?
BJ McDonnell (BJM): It was more about Adam asking me to do it. I never actually knew that I was going to do it, as I was a camera operator on the first and second films. Adam didn’t want to direct the third one, so one day he came up to me and asked me if I was interested in directing the third installment. He knew that I wanted to move on to become a director, as that’s where I was trying to get going with my career.
So I took on the challenge because I already knew the story and the monster and the cast. It was a great stepping stone for me to take on this movie, in order to get my directing career started, as I already knew it.
SY: Speaking of starting your directorial career, ‘Hatchet III’ marks your feature film directorial debut. Did the fact that the movie was your first helming job influence the way you shot the film, or pose any challenges while filming?
BJM: I’m very comfortable on a set with actors and crew people, so that really wasn’t too tough for me on that part. But I was definitely nervous on that first day, because I had never been in the chair directing. But after about the first hour doing the first shot and really getting things moving, it got to be more natural. I was nervous for at least the first two hours, but then it was great and fun.
It was challenging though with the shooting process that we had, as we were shooting all nights in a swamp. We didn’t have enough time to shoot everything. When you shoot a movie, it takes 12 hours a day. You’re on set for at least 12 hours. We only had eight hours, as we only had eight hours of darkness during the time of the year that we shot in the swamp.
So it was really a speedy way of shooting a movie. We had to be really well prepared to get things going and get what we needed, and then move on. Luckily, I had good preparation, doing pre-pro(duction) with my girlfriend down in New Orleans. We did it and got it ready, and we were ready to go.
SY: Speaking of Adam, who wrote and directed the first two ‘Hatchet’ films, penned the script for ‘Hatchet III.’ What was the process of working with him like on the second sequel in the series like overall? Did you collaborate with him once you began shooting the film?
BJM: We collaborated at the very beginning, when he was writing the movie. He had his idea of what he wanted to do, and where he wanted the script to go. I had input on what I wanted to do. I had input on more of the action elements, and how certain people died, and what we were going to do with certain characters.
There’s a big action sequence in the middle of the movie that I actually wrote. I wrote the situation and gave that to Adam. He took it word for word and put it in the movie, which I’m really impressed with, because most writers don’t do that. I was really happy that I got the chance to do that. There are other situations (where I had input), such as the very end of the movie, and we worked on that together.
But it’s still his dialogue in the movie. But all in all, it was a very big collaboration on the whole thing. It had both of our ideas.
SY: Like you also mentioned, you’ve worked as a camera operator on other films and television series. Did having that experience influence the way you directed ‘Hatchet III?’
BJM: It did tremendously. Going into this, I didn’t want to do the same things as, or make it look like, the first two ‘Hatchet’ movies. I wanted to make this one Scope, instead of 185 or 240. I wanted to make the movie grittier and darker and add more cinematic qualities. I wanted to add dolly shots and overhead shots amd things like that, that you didn’t see in the other two ‘Hatchet’ films.
It was really telling a story through camera movement, which was what I was getting into, down to the lenses from Panavision. I have a friend at Panavision who really gave us a great deal. It was really down to the quality of the glass we used to make this movie. I wanted it to be visually different, and I think we accomplished that. But we wanted to keep it as the same feel as the other ‘Hatchet’ movies.
SY: Was it always your idea to take this film in a different direction from the first two ‘Hatchet’ films that Adam directed?
BJM: Yes. Getting a movie like this, I didn’t want want to step into a set and do exactly what Adam did with the first two. I didn’t want (people to say), “Oh, that guy went in and used the same template that Adam did.” That’s something I didn’t want. I wanted to make sure my mark was on the movie with what I did with it.
That was with the choices, down to what what we did visually and with the action sequences, and trying to keep the flow from being stagnant. It’s hard to maintain a good flow in a movie where you have multiple things going on, but I think we accomplished that with this one. But I definitely wanted to make it different and mine.
It was great; I had the freedom on set. A lot of times, you have the writer siting with you the whole time during the movie-making process. Adam wasn’t doing that a lot, which gave me a lot of confidence in being out there directing. He would come out on set every now and then and check out what we were doing. If there was a kill he wanted to see, he’d come out and watch it.
But most of the time, he was back at base camp in the trailer writing ‘Holliston,’ because he had to get that done before we finished ‘Hatchet III.’ He was still really involved with it, and would deal with issues on set, but he wasn’t sitting ext to the camera the whole time. He was mostly writing ‘Holliston.’ That gave me confidence, knowing that he had confidence that I was going to do a good movie.
SY: Danielle Harris, who’s known for appearing in such horror films as ‘Halloween (2007),’ ‘ChromeSkull: Laid to Rest 2‘ and ‘Stake Land,’ reprised her role of Marybeth from ‘Hatchet II.’ What was the process of working with her like on ‘Hatchet III?’
BJM: It was great, Danielle’s cool. I worked with her on Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ and ‘Halloween 2.’ So I already knew her before she did ‘Hatchet II.’ It’s great having someone you already know, and who knows the character and who you can easily talk to, on set. She was fantastic.
I wanted to take the Marybeth character almost in the same vein as the character in the first film, as she’s tough. But in this one, she’s had enough. She hasn’t slept basically for two night straight, and she’s seen tons of people get murdered. She’s kind of gone blank, and doesn’t want to go back to the swamp. So I really wanted to go with that. Danielle, being the pro that she is, went with it and is fantastic. She knows the character and jumped right in and knew exactly what I wanted her to do with it, and she pulled it off.
SY: Kane Hodder, who’s known for playing Jason Voorhees in ‘Jason X,’ reprised his role of Victor Crowley from the first two ‘Hatchet’ films in the second sequel. What was it like working with him like on the set?
BJM: It’s funny, because I knew Kane even before the first ‘Hatchet,’ having worked with him on ‘The Devil’s Rejects.’ I knew Kane through the film coordinator. Kane’s a pleasure, as he wants to make an awesome movie.
Kane knows the character, and he is Victor Crowley when he’s on set. He’s scary and intimidating and is all out fantastic. You say, “Hey, man, I want to do this,” and he says, “Let’s do it. I want to get in there and scare the hell out of people, or at least make Victor Crowley look mean and badass.”
With this one, I wanted to make him tear through people. He’s a hulking guy, and he’s great. It’s just like working with your friends. It’s like grabbing a camera and equipment, if you were going to shoot a short film with your buddies.
SY: Like you mentioned, You have experience in the horror genre, as you have worked as a camera operator on such films as ‘Halloween (2007)’ and ‘The Devil’s Rejects.’ What is it about the genre that you enjoy so much?
BJM: I love the horror genre because the fans are so unique. There is a certain group of people who just love horror films, and are hell-bent on seeing horror. There are horror conventions, but you don’t see action movie or romantic comedy conventions. Horror fans are a die-hard group of people who just love the genre and love to watch it.
When you watch a horror film, you get that feeling in your stomach of being scared or excited, and I think that’s what brings that uniqueness to the able. People want to have an amusement ride, and be scared or watch something completely awesome. It’s a unique group, and that’s what makes horror fans so fun to work for, and actually put a movie out for them to enjoy.
SY: Did you screen ‘Hatchet III’ for fans of the first two films at all?
BJM: Well, Adam did a Boston showing, and that’s really the first time that the movie’s been seen. I wasn’t there for that, but there were tons of fantastic feedback from that one, and it sounds like it went over really well. I heard there was a standing ovation, and people really applauded it and loved it.
Anyone I’ve shown bits and pieces of it to here at my house have been like, “Man, that’s crazy. For that being a ‘Hatchet’ movie, it’s totally different.” It’s insane what we pulled off with a smaller budget.
SY: Speaking of having a smaller budget, did making the film independently pose any particular challenges?
BJM: Yeah, when you have a movie that you only have a limited amount of time to shoot, and you don’t have all the gear you want to make it happen, you have to improvise. You have to make sure what you’re using can make it work. This one was challenging because it had more action involved with it than the other two. How you had to get all the stuff accomplished was brutal.
Having a big budget, you have all the time in the world to do something. You get all the right gear, and you have time to prep it and think about it, and rehearse it and execute it. But with a movie like this, you have to know going in on set that as soon as the sun goes down, you’re rolling camera. You have to make sure it works out. So it’s all about preparation and knowing what you want right when you step on set.
SY: ‘Hatchet III’ is set to play in select theaters and on VOD. Do you think releasing films on VOD is an important way for audiences to watch films, particularly independent movies? Are you a fan of watching movies on VOD?
BJM: I think so. I think it’s great this movie is going to theaters. I wish it could go to more, so that fans can see it more in the theaters. But the fact that it’s available on VOD right then and there the day of release of the movie in theaters, and people can go out and rent it, is fantastic. I think the horror fans are really going to want to check that out.
There have been people who have wrote to me, saying they’re going to have a marathon of all three films. So I think it’s going to go over pretty well.
I barely get to watch movies because I’m pretty busy, but I’ve never got to do a VOD. I always rent on Apple TV because it’s right there. I think it’s pretty great. But I do miss going to Blockbuster Video and picking up movies. There’s something about going to the video store that I loved.
SY: You’ve worked as a camera operator on both bigger budget and independent films, as well as on television series. Do you have a preference of working in any particular medium?
BJM: I’m more of a feature guy. There’s something about doing feature films that makes me really happy. When you finish a feature, you have that forever. You’ve got this one movie you can pick up on Blu-ray or DVD that’s always there. But sometimes TV shows kind of get forgotten about over time, unless it’s something huge or crazy.
So I think there’s more gratification in doing features, and not so much TV. I like making TV, but I’d much rather do features. That’s my whole thing.
SY: Do you have a plan of sticking with directing films in the future, or maybe trying writing scripts as well?
BJM: Yeah, I have two feature scripts right now that are in the works. One I have a second draft of, and the other’s being written right now. We’re getting ready to pitch those right now. One’s a sci-fi film, and the other’s a straight-up action movie with a little horror element mixed in it.
I’m really big on stuff like ‘The Raid: Redemption,’ where there’s a lot of good fighting going on. Those kinds of movies I really love, and I kind of want to do stuff like that-more action-based films. Not to say that I wouldn’t do another horror film, because I truly love doing horror. But if you do a horror film, you should do something different next, and then maybe come back to horror.
SY: Do you have any ideas on where you want to take your career after you’re finished promoting ‘Hatchet III,’ and projects lined up you can discuss?
BJM: I’m definitely going on vacation first. (laughs) Then when I get back, I am going to be a camera operator on a feature film shooting here in L.A. Also going forth, I’m trying to get the money and figure out where I’m going to go with one of these two scripts, or both scripts, to try and direct.
So my main goal is definitely directing later on. But I’m in no rush to jump into directing another feature film right at this moment, although that’s where I want my career to go. I love what I do; I love being a camera operator also. It’s very challenging, but also very rewarding at the end of the day when you get to see your work on the big screen. It’s something that I’m proud of.
But directing is something I want to do more of, and become a director who’s just directing. So that’s basically my focus. That’s what I want to do the next couple of years.
Written by: Karen Benardello