BEYOND THE GATES is a fun, scary, and surprisingly touching horror film that boasts a great cast of genre favorites and one of the best hooks of a movie in any genre this year. Co-writer/director Jackson Stewart and actors Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson were nice enough to talk with me about the inspiration for the film, keeping fantastical stories grounded in real relationships, and how Graham Skipper is a really nice guy who just happens to play characters filled with barely-repressed rage.
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: [to Jackson Stewart] The idea of a VCR board game to base your film around—that’s a great hook. Where did that idea come from?
JACKSON STEWART: That idea came from my co-writer, Stephen Scarlata. He had this idea basically about these two brothers who find this VCR board game in their dad’s video shop and they realize that it leads to a different dimension. So it was Steve’s idea and the two of us got together pretty frequently to develop it and figure out what the story should be for that. We both landed on this idea of it being a more mature version of movies like THE GATE and PHANTASM and these other sort of kid-centric horror movies we’d grown up watching to see what it would be like if that was done with adults. That and a lot of my own personal stuff and some of Steve’s were kind of brought into the narrative.
DG: It cracked me up because I remember those games, but I never actually played them. Did any of you ever actually play them?
GRAHAM SKIPPER: I definitely did. I owned Nightmare and I also owned Hulk Hogan’s WWF one. Pretty ridiculous. But I really liked them and I remember there being this moment—because I was pretty young when I first started playing Nightmare and of course, you know, we’re at the height of technology with VCR board games. It’s interacting with you, it’s talking with you—I totally believed it was real. Then after a couple of years of playing it over and over again, you start to realize they were actually saying the same things over and over again and it’s sort of like finding out the truth about the Easter Bunny. A little disappointing.
CHASE WILLIAMSON: I did not. I did not play any VCR board games that I can remember. But I think I may have played the cool one? I have a fascinating interest in this whole process because now I want to track them all down and play them. For sure.
JS: I was in this store in Burbank the other day called Halloween Town, and they have a copy of Nightmare for sale.
GS: Oh, yeah.
CW: How much?
JS: Like forty or fifty bucks.
CW: So way too expensive for me right now. (laughs)
JS: I didn’t play them growing up but once we started writing this, I immersed myself in that world pretty heavily and found out everything I could. I played all the Nightmare games and found everything I could get my hands on. There’s this WAYNE’S WORLD VCR board game that’s pretty crazy. There’s a ROBOCOP one. There’s a STAR TREK game. There’s the Hulk Hogan one that Graham referenced. There’s Doorways to Horror—there’s a ton of them. There’s just an insane amount of these things. And then there’s a Clue too. The Clue VCR board game is another big one.
GS: That’s a no-brainer, right there.
JS: Yeah, absolutely. (laughing) I love me some Clue.
DG: [to Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson] I found a believable awkward rapport with you as estranged brothers coming back together. There seemed to be the little running joke of you didn’t know whether to shake hands or hug throughout the movie and it became easier for you as the movie went on. Did you have any time to rehearse together or did you know each other well enough beforehand that this was easy for you?
GS: Yeah, Chase and I had—we’d met before. We’d hung out on a couple of occasions. We’d actually done Jackson’s short SEX BOSS together. We got together I think once or twice to just talk about character stuff and what our relationship was and kind of—you know, Chase, help me remember this, sort of spent time to create the idea of what would have caused us to become estranged? What was our childhood like? What did these board games mean to us as kids? I think that helped to guide us to really find that once we were on set.
CW: We did a lot of work on our own and then met up and it meshed up pretty well so it was a pretty good indicator that we were going to be on the same page. The hug things were actually helpful for me because they were like markers as to where we were in the story.
DG: [to Jackson Stewart] Did you have Graham and Chase in mind as the brothers when you and Stephen were writing this or did they come together in more traditional kind of casting methods?
JS: The three lead roles for Gordon, John, and Margot—and actually Elric, the shopkeeper—they were all written for Graham, Chase, Brea (Grant), and then Jesse Merlin. I honestly can’t really picture anyone else playing it but these guys, you know? I remember thinking at one point, if they don’t do this movie this is probably going to be really terrible.
DG: Is that how you pitched it to them? You just guilt-tripped them into it? “My movie’s going to be terrible if you don’t do this.”
JS: (laughing) No, no, not at all. I think I just sent the script over to them. I sent both of them an earlier draft and they were like a little lukewarm on, but they were also like, “Eh, we’ll probably do it.” And then I re-wrote it for a while and then they were like, “Oh, this a lot better now.” Once that happened, I think it was pretty much a safe bet at that point.
(Skipper laughs at this recollection)
DG: I’m hearing some disbelieving laughter, but we’ll let that go.
JS: That was all Graham.
GS: One of the great things about working with Jackson is how collaborative he is. I was just laughing at reading through those early drafts—and then it’s really a gift as an actor to be included in that process of revising the script and continuing to make it more complex and see that progression. So I was just laughing because it’s just cool to both in that pre-production process and then even on set—one of the cool things about working with Jackson was how collaborative it all was. How he was totally open to hearing ideas from everyone.
DG: [to Jackson Stewart] How did you manage to bring on Barbara Crampton?
JS: Basically, I’ve been friends with Barbara for I think five years or so. I met her at a performance of RE-ANIMATOR: THE MUSICAL, which Graham and Jesse (Merlin) were both starring in. I can’t remember how we started talking. I think she followed me on Twitter or something sort of recently before that. We just became friends and once the time rolled around to do this movie, she’d been kind of interested in producing and I said, “Hey, would you want to come on for this? We have X amount of money, we’d only need this little chunk more.” She read the script and really like it and said “I’ll come on.” We actually did have another actress playing her role. That didn’t work out for a number of reasons which I won’t really get into. But I—
GS or CW: (sarcastically) It was Kim Basinger.
JS: (sarcastically) It was Kim Basinger. She was just very disrespectful and rude toward me, so— (laughing) We had to cut her out, unfortunately. No, Barbara just seemed like the perfect connection to these ’80s supernatural horror movies that we’ve all been influenced by. It was just such a no-brainer to use her after I made a terrible decision in casting someone else. So, there you have it.
(Just for clarification, Kim Basinger was not ever cast in the film. – Ed.)
DG: I was kind of surprised, just by what I’d heard about the film, by how much heart was in it. All I’d ever kept hearing about it was just the game. But there really was heart in the relationships between the three lead characters. At the same time, when the movie goes gory, it really goes for it. Did you have trouble maintaining a balance between paying off those relationships, the high concept, and the blood and guts?
GS: I think the relationship between the characters is always the number one most interesting thing to me about it. So once we started going off into crazy territory, like you said, there’s so much before, after, and around that that’s really human that I didn’t really—I don’t know. I didn’t really—I didn’t notice much of a shift when it happened. They were sort of moments that just drove the relationships forward, I think.
JS: Yeah, I agree. I mean, from the get go, it was clear that the bones of this movie were in these relationships between these characters and that they served as a jumping off point—or as a base from which all this other crazy stuff was going to happen. Even on set, that was always the primary concern: keep it grounded, keep it real—if we keep this real for us, then when all the really crazy stuff happens it’s just going to serve to—it’s going to make that more effective. So there was never—like I said it just served to further the story of the relationships rather than serving how do we get from this gore gag to the next gore gag.
CW: (sinister voice) Gore gag.
JS: Gore gag. That’d be a good band name, wouldn’t it? (laughing)
CW: For sure.
DG: [to Graham Skipper] Now I understand that this part was basically written for you—but you seem to over the last couple of years to have cornered the market on unassuming guys with this repressed rage. In THE MIND’S EYE, you had the greatest angry telekinesis face I’ve ever seen.
GS: (laughing) Thank you.
DG: Where do you think that’s coming from? Where do you think directors are seeing that in you?
GS: Man, I don’t know. You’d have to ask Jackson that. You know—I don’t know. I don’t think I’m an angry guy.
(Stewart and Williamson laugh at this)
GS: I think that maybe a part of it is that I’m sort of averse to—I love doing horror films and I grew up really loving horror films. I’m a big horror fan. I was just telling Chase before we started this interview that last night I watched this incredible movie for the first time called DEATH SPA. If you haven’t seen it, please go see that movie.
DG: It’s so good.
GS: Oh my God. It’s crazy. But, I’m a big horror fan and then as an actor, my approach to all this stuff is to keep it super grounded and real and do what is called for to make the character a real character. But I guess in these movies I’ve been doing, when you apply that with some of this stuff that I guess is necessary for these horror films of, like you said, this repressed rage, I don’t know—this is a terrible answer. I guess having a grounded, subtle approach to some of the acting when combined with insane explosions of—in THE MIND’S EYE—telekinesis or here, the whole character’s based around this rage that’s totally pent up in him, I guess it stands out. I don’t know. That’s a terrible answer.
(Stewart and Williamson laugh)
DG: The answer I was looking for was this keeps you from going out and committing horrible murders. I’m just kidding.
GS: Keeps me from going all FALLING DOWN on everybody. There you go.
GS: Jackson, do you think I’m an angry person? Is that why you wrote this role for me?
JS: Absolutey. Graham is the angriest person I’ve ever met. And I desperately wanted to channel that into this.
(laughter from all three)
GS: There was that moment on set when I went all Christian Bale and like screamed at people.
CW: You did throw that phone at my face.
GS: I did. (laughs)
JS: Real quick, to add to that—
CW: I think I’m way angrier than Graham.
(laughter from all three)
JS: That is totally true. With Graham, one of the things I wanted to do with him was doing a slightly different role than we’ve seen him in ALMOST HUMAN and THE MIND’S EYE and some of the other stuff. I felt like he would be a really good fit for this buttoned-up, kind of straight-laced guy with a dark past where he’s trying to stay on the straight and narrow and basically clinging to something so tightly that he’s actually strangling it. There are sort of shades of STRAW DOGS in that character that I was trying to touch on. I had Graham watch that before the movie started shooting. FALLING DOWN is actually a good reference for that. But I felt like it would be interesting to see him in that kind of role. I honestly had never made the rage connection between the three of those movies, but it’s very amusing now.
DG: [to Chase Williamson] I haven’t seen SiREN yet, unfortunately, so I’m not sure exactly who you’re playing in that—
CW: I’m filled with rage.
DG: Well, there you go.
(laughter from all three)
DG: I’m disappointed you’re not playing a slacker type who has his life more together than at first glance.
DG: It seems like that’s what you’re getting hit a lot with.
CW: That’s a shock, because I’m very well put together in real life—(laughing) very organized.
CW: I don’t know—totally. In SiREN, I play the straight-laced brother in that which was fun. I always want to do different stuff. When I was starting out, I only wanted to play the “slackery,” smartass dude because it felt safer—more in my immediate wheelhouse. But now having some experience and some context, it was nice to finally dive into a different archetype, if you will. You don’t want to play an idea or a caricature of either one, so to bring little things from one to the other I think helps it be more well rounded. Hopefully, the more things I get to do, the more I can use everything I’ve gotten to do so far to round out all sorts of new characters.
DG: [to Jackson Stewart] It seems like a lot of actors today—especially in the horror genre—come from backgrounds where they also write, direct, and produce. Does that make it easier for you as a director? Does it give you more of a shorthand?
JS: It’s kind of interesting because there’s a lot of—before we started shooting, I had a few conversations with Graham and Chase about their characters. Asking each of them what they thought they were doing, what they thought their life was like growing up, what have they done in the five years since they’ve seen each other? That type of thing. And then both of them were pretty much spot on with it. Graham kind of freaked me out with how close he was to what the backstory was with that character. He was like, “I think he lives in this city. I think this is his job.” He completely locked into this in kind of an eerie way. I don’t know how he did that.
GS: I had broken into Jackson’s house and read all of his notes.
(laughter from all three)
GS: I just wanted to impress him.
JS: I think with Chase, it was a thing of—he was like, “I think this is this guy’s deal.” And then as we sat down for the table read, I was like, these guys clearly both get these characters and brought a lot to them. They brought a lot more to them than was on the page, so I give them both big thumb’s up for that. But as far as it being any kind of problem or aid or anything like that, if you’re hiring good people who you’ve worked with before and they’re smart and add their own ideas, to me, it’s a necessity. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m micromanaging someone or trying to feed them their lines or getting my hands in an irritating way. I think if there’s something a little off, we can work it out and figure out a good solution for it. But for the most part, I want to hear what everyone’s ideas are and then see how to best incorporate that into the movie. For me, it just feels like it’s a much more rewarding experience for everyone and then it ends up being a better product because sometimes I don’t have the best idea and sometimes Graham will have the better idea or sometimes Chase will have a better idea or Barbara or whoever. It would be foolish not to use those. That’s where I stand with it.
DG: [to Graham Skipper] How is SEQUENCE BREAK coming along?
GS: SEQUENCE BREAK is coming along great. We’re in post-production right now. Chase is absolutely brilliant in it, and I’m not just saying that because he’s right here on the phone. It’s great. It was an awesome experience and I’m really—I don’t have any sort of information about when it will come out or anything like that. We’re working as fast as we can. I’m really proud of it and I’m really—you know, I’ll tell you, and I’ve told Jackson this before. It’s like the process of directing a film is so much more all encompassing than you can really imagine. Looking back on BEYOND THE GATES, especially now with the context of having directed SEQUENCE BREAK, it’s a real challenge to be able to develop a cohesive world and a film that you can really follow and that feels like it’s a fully realized thing. It definitely takes a village, but it definitely also takes a clear vision of where everybody’s going and a group of amazing people around you that all get what you want. And I know that was my experience on SEQUENCE BREAK: was that everybody really got it. It’s definitely a weird movie and there’s definitely a lot of big, bold choices that we made, but everyone was totally on board with what we were trying to do. I think it just helped to make the final product that much more special. And I think the same is totally true of BEYOND THE GATES. We all—every single one of us—me, Chase, Brea, Barbara, Brian (Sowell) the D.P.—I mean everybody got what Jackson wanted to do and I think that just served to make the process on set and the process of developing these characters—everything involved—it just made it that much [easier]. When everybody’s on board and everybody’s on the same team, everybody’s fighting for the same goal. But yeah, SEQUENCE BREAK is coming along great. I’m really excited for people to see it. I think it’s some of Chase’s best work.
(laughter from all three)
GS: I think everybody’s going to really enjoy it.
DG: [to Chase Williamson] You’ve acted opposite Graham a few times now. How was it to go to being directed by him?
CW: He’s great. Graham is just a sweet, sweet friend. The film for him, I think, is really personal so as someone who loves Graham, I felt like a—not responsibility, but it motivated me to want to do the best job I could. He was what you’d expect. He’s just a really smart, well-versed, cinephile genius. Just the sweetest guy ever—very supportive and I was just really happy he put me in his movie.
DG: And he’s not all filled with repressed rage.
GS: I just repress it very well.
CW: Ask his wife.
(laughter from all three)
DG: Are you excited or nervous? How are you feeling about the movie coming out? Chase, I know you have two movies coming out this week, so—
CW: I’m excited. The movie premiered a little while ago at the L.A. Film Festival and we’ve gotten to go around a little bit with it, so it’s sort of already had a bit of life. So I’m just excited for it to be available to the masses.
GS: Yeah, me too. It’s been so nice to see this movie really be embraced by people. I mean, people get it. They totally get it. I think that’s always a special thing when a film finds its audience and it’s very clear that the audience totally understands what the director was going for. I think that’s what has happened, so I’m excited to see it step out from film festival world for everyone to see.
JS: I…I have some mixed feelings about it because now it just feels—I mean, this sounds horrible—but it feels like I’m sending my kid off to college. I’m like, “Oh, no! I can’t keep coddling this thing that I’ve been working on for two years!” Now it’s just going to be released into the world and it will belong to the public at this point and whatever people think of it is going to be the ultimate decider on the thing. It’s been really nice having some positive feedback so far. We’ve gotten some good reviews and generally it seems like people dig the movie, so that’s been great. I’m just a bit more curious to see where it lands with everyone and what people think, what they like, what they don’t like, and all that stuff. I’m sure I will be very nervous for the Q&A on Friday, but I will do my best to come up with some witty answers for that.
DG: If you could turn any ’80s horror film into a VHS board game, which one would you go with?
JS: Oh! That’s a great question. And I can’t believe no one’s ever asked us that.
DG: I’m changing my answer at the last minute to DEATH SPA because Graham brought that up.
GS: DEATH SPA would be pretty great.
DG: That’s perfect because you could just get Ken Foree (to be the host).
GS: Yeah, Ken Foree! I was like “Ken Foree’s in this?” And he has the most amazing costume ever. You just have to see the movie. He has an incredible costume in that movie. I have an answer for this. I think I would want to do CHOPPING MALL.
GS: You do like a Mall Masters sort of vibe, but it’s CHOPPING MALL. And then one of the robots shows up on the TV and blasts you or something.
CW: This is neither ’80s nor horror, but I think it would be fun to play a VARSITY BLUES VHS board game.
CW: Or maybe CRUEL INTENTIONS would be really fun.
DG: Both of those sound more horrifying than actual horror.
CW: Yeah, well, to each his own, my friend.
JS: That’s a real SOPHIE’S CHOICE there. That’s a very tough question for me, but my gut reaction would be to pick SLEEPAWAY CAMP. The original.
CW: I was gonna say that too!
GS: That’s a good one. That’s a good one.
JS: Especially if we can focus on her having a penis at the end of that movie, that would be a really cool mechanic to have in the game. So cheers to that.
GS: You could really only play it once.
DG: You could only play it once and be traumatized.
JS: Once you find that out, it’s all over. (announcer voice) The player in the blue shirt, stand up. You have the penis!
Thank you to Jackson Stewart, Graham Skipper, and Chase Williamson for their time. BEYOND THE GATES opens in select theaters and VOD on Friday, December 9th.