Wittily crafting a stunningly unique representation of a way of life that doesn’t feel redundant or unnecessary is often a difficult challenge that unfortunately not everyone can succeed at in their careers and personal lives. But Simon Rumley, who has made a name for himself as one of the UK’s leading independent genre directors over the past decade, is proving that it is possible to craft a rare portrayal of a seemingly commonplace lifestyle that’s unparalleled by other films. In his new horror movie, ‘Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word,’ the filmmaker is breathing new life into the seeking revenge from the grave supernatural subgenre. The movie, which was written by Ben Ketai and Marc Haimes, is proving that people who have been deemed outsides by society can truly defend themselves, even if they can only do so through their memories that target their tormentors after their death.
‘Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word’ chronicles the aftermath of an atrocious crime that took place on Halloween in 1981, in Amarillo, Texas. Sister Tadea Benz, a 76-year-old nun, was found raped and murdered in her bedroom in her convent. The title 17-year-old (Devin Bonne), who’s from the wrong side of the tracks and is a victim of abuse himself, is arrested for the infraction, due to public outrage, even though the evidence against him is questionable. During his subsequent trail, he insistently maintains his innocence. But he’s ultimately sentenced to death, as the jury is persuaded by the inflammatory speeches of an ambitious district attorney (Sean Patrick Flanery). However, one member of the jury, Adam Redman (Mike Doyle), believes the teen is innocent, and only votes guilty after being forced by his peers.
On the day of his execution, Johnny pens a letter that once again proclaims his innocence. It also states that his spirit will return and kill not only those involved with his sentencing and death, but also the members of their families. Soon after the convict’s death, those involved in his execution start dying. Adam, who has built a comfortable life with his wife, Lara (Erin Cummings) and their 10-year-old son, Sam (Dodge Prince), becomes increasingly concerned over his family’s safety.
When a reporter, Kathy Jones (Cassie Shea Watson), who’s aware of the original court case’s details, warns Adam about Johnny’s letter, the former juror soon fears the worst, especially since Sam has suddenly become seriously ill. Despite everyone else’s skepticism, Adam decides the only way to halt the mysterious deaths is to posthumously exonerate Johnny.
Rumley generously took the time a couple of days after ‘Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word’ had its World Premiere during the Midnighters Section at this year’s SXSW to talk about directing the horror film during an exclusive interview. The filmmaker stopped by the Austin Convention Center in downtown Austin, Texas and discussed that he was attracted to helm Ketai and Haimes’ screenplay because it shows that viewers are meant to sympathize with the title character, as he isn’t distinctly good or bad. The director also explained how he immediately cast Bonne in the title role after the actor auditioned, as the performer not only physically resembles Garrett, but also naturally understood the character’s struggles and turmoil.
The filmmaker started the conversation by explaining that he was interested in telling Garrett’s story, and was drawn to Ketai and Haimes’ script, because “This project is different from most of my films, as I have written and directed most of movies. On this film, I was very much a director for hire, so I came on board when the script was close to completion,” the filmmaker revealed. “So I didn’t have any control over this script, which was quite unusual for me.”
The helmer also noted that “While this movie has more horror and supernatural elements than my previous projects, it still fits in with my previous films.” Even though the film’s elements are different from his earlier work, Rumley added that he “loved the story, as it was quite unusual. When I first read the script, I wasn’t quite sure if it was true or not, but it did happen. So I thought it was an interesting thing to take on,” since the horror film’s story focuses on a moral dilemma. “These people basically sent this kid to his death, and he was probably innocent. So the whole film was about him getting revenge on these people.”
The fact that ‘Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word’s lead character, “who you’re meant to sympathize with, has done something that put him in this situation,” also interested Rumley in the story. “You’re also left wondering if he’s a good or bad guy. This character isn’t distinctly good or bad; he’s more in the middle. He makes a bad decision, and then gets punished for it. I liked that idea, and felt like it fits in with what interests me.”
While the movie’s plot is based on true events, Rumley knew nothing about the real case when he signed on to direct the drama. “I’m from London, and the story is set in Amarillo, Texas. The crime happened in 1981, and Johnny was executed in 1992, so I knew nothing about it,” the filmmaker divulged.
“Again, my immediate thought when I read the script was, is this really true? So I did a lot of research,” the producer also revealed. “There’s an amazing documentary called ‘The Last Word,’ which was written and directed by Jesse Quackenbush, that I watched. It mainly focuses on the unfair elements of the trial, and Johnny Frank Garrett’s purported innocence.”
The director added that he thought it was unusual for “this story, which is very tragic, to have this horror twist to it. When I first arrived in Los Angeles and started pre-production on the film, I had an office in Beverly Hills. When I went there, the production office had all of these letters that Johnny had written to his mother, sisters and cousins while he was in jail.” So in addition to watching ‘The Last Word,’ Rumley also read the letters Garrett had written.
As a result of watching the documentary and reading the letters that title character had sent from prison, “we wanted to present the Johnny Frank Garrett who received an unfair trail, and put him in as positive a light as we could. All of us who were involved in the film didn’t really believe that he should have been executed. Even though we took the film into more of a genre direction, we also wanted to show that he received an unfair trial, and shouldn’t have been executed.”
Rumley also noted that for about the first 20 minutes in the film, the story focuses on the jury’s deliberation, him being in his cell and then his death. “I thought it was important for us to show that, so that we could remind people that this is a true story. Even though it’s unusual for a genre film to do this, the beginning of the film is driven by drama,” the director explained. “We were all very keen on making the real-life Johnny as sympathetic as possible,” particularly through the facts that are presented during the beginning of the story.
“The demon spirit is something that Johnny has no control over,” Rumley also emphasized when he then started discussing what happens to the title teenager after his execution. “Then people started strangely dying,” which helped fully usher in the supernatural elements into the horror film.
With ‘Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word’ featuring a diverse cast, including Bonne in the title role, the filmmaker then began discussing the casting process for the movie. “We worked with an amazing casting director, Karen Hallford, who I previously worked with on (the 2010 horror thriller,) ‘Red White & Blue.’ She’s a great person to work with, and has a great energy,” the director explained.
Rumley then admitted that Hallford admitted that she was nervous about casting the title character. But she also told him that “there’s this one guy who I really want you to see. I think he’s perfect for the role, and I really think you’ll like him.” So the filmmaker asked the casting director to call the actor in. When Bonne read for the role of Johnny, he “did an amazing audition, so we cast him on the spot. In a weird way, that was the easiest part of the whole film.
“If you look at photos of Johnny and Devin, they’re actually remarkable similiar,” the director then noted. “Johnny’s mother and two sisters saw Devin’s image on Facebook, and one of them said, ‘My heart just skipped a beat. I saw (Bonne’s) photo, and I thought it was Johnny.’ So the fact that Devin reminded them so much of Johnny was amazing.”
Once Bonnee and the rest of the actors were cast in the horror film, they were able to have some time to discuss the characters and story together. “The most important thing in filmmaking is being able to work with the actors, and making sure they know what they’re doing,” Rumley admitted. “But it costs money anytime you have an actor and they’re not filming. So most productions never include rehearsals, due to the finances,” the director also explained. “Everyone thinks that the cast will naturally understand their characters because they’re actors. But as a director, you find it very important to discuss the characters with the actors.”
With Bonnee, “we had one meeting to discuss the the film together,” the helmer noted. “But the great thing about Johnny is that the information is readily available. Devin also watched ‘The Last Word,’ and I really let him prepare on his own overall. I think he did an amazing job,” Rumley revealed.
The helmer then discussed his experience shooting the horror movie on location in Shreveport, Louisiana. “We wanted to film in Amarillo. But when the producers contacted the town, they basically said, ‘No, we don’t want you here,” Rumley admitted. “So we then had to look around in nearby states to find a location that really looked like Amarillo. We looked at about 13 different places.” The filmmakers ultimately “choose Shreveport, even though Louisiana is very different looking than Texas. But Shreveport’s the city in Louisiana that looks the most like Texas.”
Rumley, who also served as a producer on the drama, then noted that since ‘Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word’ was made independently, “we couldn’t shoot a lot of wide shots. If we did shoot wide shots, the locations wouldn’t look like the right period, and we couldn’t afford to dress everything up. So most of the scenes in the movie are shot close-ups, and you can’t see the backgrounds that much.” The director added that even though he likes wide shots, he also wanted this film ‘to feel claustrophobic, which I also did with ‘Red, White & Blue.’ So I tried to make those close-up shots a strength for the film.”
In addition to using the film’s visual aspects to better tell Garrett’s story, the helmer also noted how important the score is for movies, particularly in the horror genre. “Every good horror film has a fantastic score and sound design. (The movie’s composer,) Simon Boswell is a friend of mine from London, but we had never worked together before. He’s done scores for Dario Argento, Danny Boyle, Clive Barker and Alejandro Jodorowsky films. So he has this terrific pedigree of working in the genre.”
Rumley then described his working relationship with Boswell on ‘Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word.’ After the duo discussed the film’s story and subject matter, the composer “came up with an idea. After that, it was all about going back and forth, and figuring out the perfect music for the film.”
The filmmaker also mentioned how he also worked with sound designer Vincent Watts on the feature, after they previously collaborated on the 2006 short thriller, ‘The Handyman,’ which Rumley directed. “We also collaborated on ‘Red White & Blue’ and ‘The ABC’s of Death.’ I’m also directing (the upcoming drama,) ‘Crowhurst,’ and he also worked on the sound design for that film.” The director added that “sound design is incredibly important to me, as the difference between noise and quiet is so important in films; sound really enhances the mood. So Vince and I tried to make the sound as interesting as possible.”
Since ‘Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word’ had its world premiere during the Midnighters section of this year’s SXSW, Rumley ended the conversation by sharing his experience of premiering the thriller at the festival. “It’s been great. This is the third film I’ve had at SXSW, so I know what to expect. It’s a crazy machine, as so much is going on; there are people everywhere. You don’t know what’s ever going to happen here; you don’t know if people are going to hate it or love your film,” the director revealed. “For the films I’ve brought here, there has been a mixture of reactions. But it’s always exciting, and there’s a great atmosphere here. I love Austin, and SXSW is one of my favorite festivals. So it’s an honor to be here.”
Written by: Karen Benardello