Not only did director John Luessenhop assume quite the challenge continuing the Texas Chainsaw franchise, but he even admits that before hitting the Texas Chainsaw 3D set, he didn’t know all that much about the horror genre.
Luessenhop’s Texas Chainsaw picks up where Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original left off. Sally manages to escape and when she tells the locals about what happened at the Sawyer house, they aren’t happy. Even though Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry) is on the case, the Newt, Texas locals take it upon themselves to burn the Sawyer’s home to the ground. Twenty years later, Heather (Alexandra Daddario) is surprised to discover that an estranged grandmother has passed away and even more so that she left Heather a home. Heather heads south with a group of friends to check out her new digs and while there’s more than enough room in the massive Victorian mansion for everyone, a certain someone left behind doesn’t like guests.
Turns out, Luessenhop’s genre novice status didn’t keep him from sparking the ideas that put the film’s script back on track. After locking the job, he devoured film after film until he felt prepared enough to hit the Louisiana set and create a slasher film with a point of view that could separate it from the masses. In honor of Texas Chainsaw 3D’s January 4th release, Luessenhop took the time to discuss his self-made crash course in horror, the challenges of shooting the film in 3D, finding his Leatherface and more. Check it all out in the interview below.
How’d this opportunity come your way? Were you offered the gig?
John Luessenhop: “In an odd way. I got a call from a friend of mine, Carl Mazzocone, who produced the picture, that he was in a place with the script that he wasn’t quite satisfied. He was distraught. I told him I’m a [different] kind of movie guy, but I’ll be happy to read it and give you my thoughts on it. I read it that night or the morning, I can’t remember, but I called him the next morning and I said, ‘These are the things I would do and these are the things that I think are deficient,’ and he spoke to those so I think within five hours I was over at Lionsgate at a table talking to them about it, even though I was not really involved in the movie. I just said, ‘This is what I would do,’ and they liked those ideas and they hired Kirsten Elms to write a new draft and after that I got involved with her draft and then wrote my own based on it. I don’t get credit, but it was mine. And then I said, ‘OK, I’ll direct it!’
For me it was a great journey because I didn’t know that much about horror, which is a horrible admission when you’re making Texas Chainsaw, but I went back and I watched just a ton of movies that were sort of lower end pictures [and] I really got to know the genre. I really thought I knew a lot and I really knew nothing about it. I had fun with it and I realized these guys put their own imprimatur on these pictures, they put their own societal comments in there. It’s an incredible genre where everything could be double-entendre.
So I got quite involved with it. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll shoot it,’ and went out to the field and directed a movie in Louisiana. If you really back up, it was a fluke, but a really happy one because I really do love the genre if it’s done smart and is about something or totals to something. That’s how I looked at it. We intentionally kept the body count low so each killing would have a real meaning or feeling, and [then] wrestle through the 3D of it all!”
What was it about the 3D that made it such a big challenge?
“The camera has probably 30 plugins and it’s very complicated because it’s really two cameras running at once, the left eye and the right eye. Just timing-wise. For example, on a movie like Takes, I probably shot 35 shots a day. Here, busting my butt, it was probably 23, 24. You have to plan for it also in terms of how you’re gonna photograph things. It changes. Even the choices of lenses. You use most of the shorter focal length lenses, not the compression or long lens stuff so you can see the whole frame and let your eye explore it later on when everything is in focus. You shoot more like Citizen Kane, which was also fun for me, something new that I really liked. The 3D had its mixed blessings. I just wanted to create a cool 3D world and not have the whole movie in your lap so that you can save up for all the sensational moments so that they would have more impact. I think it’s an easy movie to watch in 3D. I don’t think the eye strain is there because we weren’t trying to go full throttle with it unless it meant something.”
Horror remakes and sequels often have a pretty bad wrap, let alone horror remakes and sequels in 3D. Were you concerned about that going into it?
“[Laughs] Yes, it did! Anyone who’s skeptical about horror remakes in 3D, they have every right to be. It was big shoes to step into, even if it was 2D because of what Tobe did with the original film. That was my point of departure anyway. I looked at all the Texas films and I just sort of brushed all of them aside and took from the original. The things that I really liked in the original, I tried to sprinkle in a new way into this new movie from the dead armadillo to the van to the freezer. I wanted it to be a little bit familiar, but you’d never be balanced enough to know exactly when what was going to come at you. But that was the challenge, to be true to the original film and not offend its audience. That was really important to me.”
One of the biggest differences I noticed between this and the other Texas Chainsaw films is how, from beginning to end, the others focus on the unsuspecting victims going into the house and being chased by a guy with a chainsaw. Here you’ve got a lot of sub-stories and also a lot of new locations. Was that departure deliberate?
“It was because you have to freshen it up for 2012, 2013. Taking Leatherface and making him a fish out of water running through the carnival, we talked at length about whether that was a good idea or a bad idea. What would he be like? I was constantly asking myself, how would Leatherface have evolved over a decade? If you start with him at the original as a damaged, abused kid who probably has the mentality of an eight-year-old, where is he today? But the locations were picked to open up the movie so it wasn’t so simple, you know, kids go to a house and die. And plus I wanted some more color in the movie. I didn’t want a dreary, grey looking film.”
And how about your new Leatherface? How do you even cast a character like that? Do you have guys come in and pick the one that wields a chainsaw the best?
“I was at this Christmas party for Carl Mazzocone and I was working on the script. I was standing across from Mark Burg who did the Saw series and I kept looking over behind Mark at this huge dude standing by himself at the door and he looked not part of the party, but looking at it in a really frightening way to me. Mark finally asked me, ‘Hope she’s really good looking, Luessenhop. You’re an asshole,’ because I wasn’t paying attention to him when he was talking. I said, ‘Dude, I think I’m staring at Leatherface.’ There was Dan [Yeager] with a huge forehead, the recessed eyes, looking sort of impassively with this stare and distance-ness to him that is a little frightening. He’s got earth strength. It doesn’t look like he goes to the gym. He’s got a farm boy body that made me go, ‘I’m willing to cast that guy.’ Dan never tried out. I just worked with him and we talked about the character and things to do down from his walk to who he is, how he is. Then he went to the life, going through the original and studying everything that Gunnar Hansen had done, and [we went] from there.”
How was it bringing him together with Alexandra Daddario? I spoke to her earlier this year and she told me she’s easily creeped out by horror movies, so I imagine having someone so naturally close to how you envision Leatherface might have been unsettling.
“I think she got a kick out of it, working with Dan. And I think the choice of Trey Songz as her boyfriend was, I guess, curious to some people, but I loved it and wanted to make the movie a little more current. I think that she embraced all of those and just felt like the movie was going to some place that at least was bold, which made her excited coming off of Percy Jackson.”
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT! Luessenhop discusses the end of the movie. You have been warned!
What about the relationship between Heather and Leatherface? You said earlier, you want to please the longtime fans and give them something fresh, and it feels like that’s what these two big arcs are gunning for. Was there any key to making that work for you?
“Just the thought that the movie is about, at the end of the day, family and deciding to stay there versus leaving, to me, was a big breakthrough and once we made that decision, you’re putting the seeds there about her. She goes through the movie, she cuts meat so she’s got some instincts like that, she asks things like, I just want to know how I fit in, and later on stabs the glass and says, ‘I’m a Sawyer,’ where she comes sort of full circle. [That] worked for her. With Dan, I think it’s more her coming to grips with him even though she’s afraid of him that I think they worked out. I don’t know if I could give that all to the director. [Laughs] They worked hard on it and, to me, that’s where I wanted to end up and I think they achieved it with the scene in the kitchen at the end of the movie.”
END SPOILER ALERT.
Having not been into horror movies before and having just completed your very first, is there any one unforgettable thing you learned that you’d want to tell other horror filmmakers?
“I would! My biggest thing is that if you make a horror movie, you should have a point of view about life that you want to get across. Besides [going] into a slasher world or a gore world, what else is it? And I think that that’s what the successful directors do who are in this. They always have some point of view, some little wink, some laugh, something that becomes larger than simply, ‘Hey, can the girl get away,’ that I think separates them these days. And that’s what I’ve learned about this genre, which I didn’t know that much about, was how much you can put into it that’s about yourself. That way, it’s remarkable.”
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.