There have been many films made about the haunting of Amityville, but none that really focus on the events of the family murder that took place in 1974 prior to the haunting. Daniel Farrands, who directed a documentary on the Amityville story, used extensive research as well as some of his own East Coast family history to re-create the dysfunctional family and their eventual demise at the hands of their eldest son. Using cast members from previous AMITYVILLE films like Diane Franklin and Burt Young, as well as meticulous seventies production design, Farrands pays homage to the earlier films while still accomplishing a unique perspective with his film. Daily Grindhouse got a chance to talk to him about where his film fits in AMITYVILLE history, how his East Coast family history inspired the project, and what he believes is true and false about the Amityville murders. Skyline Entertainment released the film THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS in theaters and on demand on February 8th, 2019.
Daily Grindhouse: What draws you to the Amityville story?
Daniel Farrands: Way back before this one, I had directed a documentary on the true Amityville story for the History Channel, back in 2000, and it was true what the people involved in the case, including the Lutz family, and the attorney involved with them, believed, and a whole bunch of people all said it was a hoax made for money. And I really became familiar with the ins and outs of the story making a documentary. One of the facts of the story I felt had never really been explored or dramatized in a way was the first part, which was the murders that took place in 1974. It was kind of an interest of mine, and I always thought I could pursue it as a film, and the opportunity came about last year. So we developed it and it came together rather quickly, but it was exciting to do my take on that story.
Daily Grindhouse: Did you study pictures of the real family to influence your casting process?
Daniel Farrands: Yes. I mean, having done the documentary, I was very familiar with the way they looked. It wasn’t so much, kind of the physical look we wanted to do of the family, but in particular the house. We really wanted to make things so that we re-created the look of the house, so it appeared real. So we used a lot of crime-photo scenes of the house to kind of re-construct it. We found the house haunting was the bones of it. We were able to re-decorate the house and re-do some things and add some new walls and play with it so that we could bring it back to that look the real house had. Even going so far as to re-create the family’s oil paintings. Their appearance, sort of where they were on the stairway. Little details, like the floor of the foyer as you walk in was a re-creation of the original floor. So we took the trouble to get the details right.
Daily Grindhouse: Where did you have to fill in some details of the story where they weren’t necessarily known?
Daniel Farrands: You approach any story, whether it’s based in reality, or if it’s something you’ve created from your own imagination, and you bring to it your own life and experiences, and the lens of your own mind, really. I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, which is not too far from Amityville, just about 100 miles. So my family was not dissimilar, in the way that the mother was screaming at the kids and the kids were in the basements and that kind of thing. People showing up at the door, making themselves at home. That was the early seventies. And I remember it well, and just the way that East Coast people related to each other, it’s very different from anywhere else. It always kind of comes from you. Also, a lot of dialogue came right from the file transcripts. And other things have been said and told about the story in interviews that were given where the father says “I’ve got the devil on my back with my son.” The father really thinks that about Butch. The dream that the mother has, sort of a premonition that she talks about in the movie of having seen the end of her family was true. There were a lot of moments in the movie where we really went back to the true story. When Butch tried to break up a family fight and aimed the rifle at his father and fired and it didn’t go off. That was true. The father saying “I’m proud of you for what you did, it proved to me you’re a man.” All those very disturbing family fights and things, those were all out of the file.
Daily Grindhouse: What was the difference between directing a documentary on this subject and directing this film?
Daniel Farrands: It’s different in a way, in some ways not so much. In a documentary you’re doing re-creations of these moments, so in a way it was a sense of déjà vu for me doing this again. I think the difference is, in a few ways the special effects, that’s a much bigger thing than I’d been used to in documentary films. But also, I think working with the actors and really guiding them with their performance, I think that was something that was certainly more of a challenge. In a documentary you feel more like you’re in an enclosed space, it’s you and the editor kind of working together, and it’s a very close-knit bond. Whereas in a feature film you’ve got this big crew, and a lot of people have a lot of questions, so you kind of have to lead the charge as it were. It’s a much bigger group of people.
Daily Grindhouse: How did you try to capture the time period in which the film was set?
Daniel Farrands: There’s so many things, like I said, everything from the production design, which was beautifully done by our lead production designer and his crew. You know, little touches of things, again things that I remember. We put in the PSA called “The Crying Indian,” with the Native American on the side of the road and somebody littering, and that was a big PSA in the seventies. And just little touches of things to make it part of that time period, to try to bring that time period back. The wardrobe and the makeup and the hair, all of that forms it. In a sense the cast always felt and I always felt when we stepped on that set we all felt like we were stepping back in time, so that helped.
Daily Grindhouse: How much research did you have to do into the case for this film?
Daniel Farrands: A lot, because it was having to re-visit a lot of the documents. The trial transcripts, there was another excellent book that was written about the case where I actually interviewed the authors — it was a book called High Hopes : The Amityville Murders, which really was more about the trial and the dynamics of the family. So I went back to some of those things, but again I think when you’re telling a story it’s a little bit limited, it was basically one location, and we had to take a lot of elements of the story and make them the same in some ways. But I wanted to make it true to the relationships of that family, and kind of how I imagined they may have interacted. I think again, a lot of it was informed by my memories of my own slightly crazy family on the East Coast, but it was taken to the extreme. But also, really investing myself again in the time period, the year of Nixon’s resignation, and all of those things happening culturally, I wanted to make sure that we were in the same realm with this movie.
Daily Grindhouse: How did you bring the special effects for the demons living in the house to life?
Daniel Farrands: You know it’s funny, some people think that they were computer-generated, but they were actually all actors in black spandex making moves, so that was kind of an interesting to see how they could manipulate their bodies when they were making their way into the tunnel of the red room. They were very lithe, circus-like performers, so it was interesting to get them on the set. Especially when they were in the background, standing in front of the windows. You could see this dark form, and it was actually spooky.
Daily Grindhouse: Was it intentional to bring actors from the previous Amityville films in?
Daniel Farrands: For sure. I wanted to do a little bit of fan service with that, but also I had met Diane Franklin who plays the mom, and I wanted to put the cycle back into place. The mom, when she made AMITYVILLE 2 several years ago in the eighties, she had played the teenage daughter, and I thought that would be a neat bit of casting. But Diane wanted to audition, she wanted to just get in the role, and I hadn’t seen her in awhile, I wanted to see how she did it. But she came in and she really blew us away with her audition, she was finely casted. She was just the right person for the part, so that being said, I wanted there to be a legacy idea in the film, where I wanted people who had seen those movies, to understand that I got it. And that I was paying service to that. So it was nice that Diane did it, and then because Bert had played her father, Burt Young, had played her father in that film in the eighties, generationally it just made sense he’d be her father. It sort of made a lot of sense and it was fun, and it was a nice cameo for him, but again those who grew up on those movies like I did, I feel like they’ll get it, the little wink to them, the nod. But again, I really just give credit to Diane for giving a strong performance. It’s the best performance of her career, and she’s been in a lot of movies, so she did a great job.
Daily Grindhouse: There’s been so many takes on this. How do you think this is similar or different from the other AMITYVILLE films?
Daniel Farrands: It’s similar in that I think I’m bringing it back to the source of it. I don’t think there’s been a movie that’s attempted to make the house a real character. Going back to the first and second, maybe the third one, I don’t really consider the movie as part of a franchise. No, it’s not the AMITYVILLE HORROR PART 9, it’s THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS — this is what happens to this family before that family moved in and had their experiences in the house. So I wanted it to sort of stand on its own, but I wanted, again with respect and admiration for those that had come before us, having grown up on them and been a big fan, I wanted to do that justice, but also tell it from the perspectives of the relationships of this very emotionally-charged atmosphere these people were living in.
Daily Grindhouse: What do you believe is true and false about the Amityville case?
Daniel Farrands: Well I certainly believe that an entire family was murdered by their eldest son, and that there were elements of that crime that to this day cannot be explained. All of them lying facedown on their beds, having been shot, nobody got up and moved after hearing the first gunshots go off, nobody in the neighborhood heard any shots go off at night in this little community, so I think that is true. I think the Lutzes purchased the house a year later, lived there for 28 days, and then fled with very little of their personal belongings. And their story brings to mind for me my long relationship with them, and having known them for the many years that I have now, that absolutely happened. There are a lot of people that believe that was a hoax, or it was all nonsense, but I realized from my personal interactions I think it’s pretty obvious that something really scary happened to them, something that troubled them deeply, and changed who they were as a family and who they were as people. They were never quite the same after they left the house. There was something that still haunted them, not literally, but the memory of it was still very much alive for them. So I think in a way the house was a scene for two tragedies, for two families. They’re different, one lost their lives, the other escaped for their lives, but they were never the same family after that.
Daily Grindhouse: I know you said your own life influenced it, but how did you build those troubled family dynamics in the movie?
Daniel Farrands: Again, I had a lot of source material. Not only as a documentarian, but also going back to the trial, going back to some of the books that had been written on the case. Other documentaries have been made as well. And it just seemed to me that there was a family there that essentially loved one another, but that love was contaminated by something, or it was by the father who would abuse them, and then he would spoil them with lavish gifts. Cars, and money, and it was love-hate dynamic going on. I love you, I hate you. I’m going to punish you, but now I’m going to reward you. And I think that confluence of conflicting emotions just kind of created this perfect storm for what happened. I just think it’s one the most tragic stories that I have ever come across, not to mention that it obviously became the basis for a bunch of movies, but I think beyond that, especially at the ending, we really wanted to pay homage to the family and show, this really did happen. This wasn’t just made up. This family’s lives were tragically cut short, and the eldest son did it. Why he did it, he’s the only one who could ever really explain that, but I don’t think he’s about to. He’s never been forthcoming with the truth. But I think that’s part of the reason the story lives on in mystery, and why people are so interested in it to this day.
Daily Grindhouse: Other than the source material, what were some of your other influences? Like movies that influenced you in making this movie?
Daniel Farrands: Certainly I was a huge John Carpenter fan growing up, so HALLOWEEN. I wrote one of the HALLOWEEN movies, it was one of my first jobs ever, which I was really grateful for. So I definitely have some attachment to HALLOWEEN, some of the camerawork, some of the imagery. THE SHINING, POLTERGEIST, and interestingly, just even some movies that aren’t genre. Like ORDINARY PEOPLE, you see a family with dysfunction tear them apart. Movies of the seventies always get me excited and interested. I just think it was a time when filmmakers were really taking chances. It’s nice to kind of pay my respects to them.