When I first saw Beyond the Gates at Fright Fest last year, I instantly knew it was going to be one of my top five finds for the whole weekend. Bear in mind this was only film #2 on day one of the five-day gore fest, so you can imagine how blown away I must have been to come to that conclusion. It’s a story of family, friendship and sacrifice… ultimate sacrifice. With blood, guts and a haunted VCR game, it corners the perfect thrill that horror fans the world over seek so often and so rarely find.
For the digital release of Beyond the Gates, I got in contact with director/co-screenwriter Jackson Stewart and co-screenwriter Stephen Scarlata for a chat. These guys were more than happy to divulge their influences, secrets and advice for you, dear readers. So, buckle your seatbelts… and then unbuckle them because what are you doing in the car? Get out of the car. Weirdos.
I hear you guys wrote the film that you always wanted to see as fans, which is great because it turns out that’s what the fans wanted to see, too! How did the idea for Beyond the Gates originate?
Stephen: I was a big fan of VCR board games when I was younger. There was a game called Doorways to Horror that planted the seed in my head. The idea was rattling inside my head for a while. I attempted to write it out once by myself. [I] had some difficulties with it mainly because I didn’t think people would dig the concept. I was totally doubting myself. Then, I was lucky enough to meet Jackson. The first time we hung out together, I told him about the idea and he lit up.
Jackson: It’s such a weird thing because when we were pitching it, or at least when we started writing it, we had talked to some production companies and they had no idea what a VCR game was, and I just thought, “Well maybe this is just a really niche movie,” which it still might end up being, which is fine. There’s a lot of things you can find to be discouraged about the process, but the thing with me is that it was the type of movie I really wanted to see as a fan, and then you also don’t get many films coming out of this ’80s adventure subgenre either.
It’s so refreshing to see a film like this: horror for the fans of horror. I actually saw a lot of Clive Barker in the story: cursed objects, tasks you have to complete with dire and a horrific consequence — it gave me lots of Hellraiser vibes. What were your influences when writing Beyond the Gates?
S: It would definitely be inspired by ’70s Italian horror. We were both huge Lucio Fulci fans. That was one of the first things we talked about and bonded over the first time we hung out. Every time Jackson and I would meet up, we’d always discuss the atmosphere of his films. I was also watching whatever film I could find with “house” in the title, like House of Witchcraft and Ghosthouse during the writing process. The dream-like world of Phantasm was another film that we drew influence from.
J: There was definitely some Hellraiser in there, but it was a little lower down on the list. I think some more of the obvious ones, as far as influences, were The Gate, The Beyond and Phantasm. Hellraiser worked its way in there along with Poltergeist, though, for sure.
All great recommendations too, I hope our readers are paying attention! You guys snagged the number two spot in my top five films in the whole of Fright Fest. I loved it, especially Jesse Merlin; I don’t even know where you found him, but he stole the show. What was it like to see your writing come alive on the screen? More than that, what’s it like to get such a great response to Beyond the Gates?
S: It was a humbling experience. Written so many scripts throughout the years, it really blew me away to finally see one make it to the screen. I was very lucky to experience that. Jackson and I are both blown away by the response. Really happy and, again, humbled that people are digging it.
J: I’m really thrilled to hear people having a great reaction to Jesse Merlin. He’s one of these guys who’s insane but just constantly blows me away. He’s phenomenal, a terrific actor, and I feel so glad he was able to attend Fright Fest and sit in to watch the audience give such a wonderful reaction to his part in the movie.
You’re not wrong; I think I heard applause after every scene he was in! Stephen, was there anything you put into the script specifically for nostalgic reasons or to give a nod to any directors/storytellers you admire or respect?
S: That was mainly the video store aspect. I grew up in a video store and used to ride my bike to four different video stores around Long Island when I was a kid. Each store had different horror section, and each one had its own unique vibe. It was my favorite place to go. It was a big part of my life growing up, so I’m really happy we were able to document one of the last video stores in Beyond the Gates. Unfortunately, there could be a time coming up where there will be no more left.
Jackson, the soundtrack is amazing. I’ve recently become obsessed with the soundtrack to Beyond the Black Rainbow; I just fell in love with it and have been listening to it non-stop. So, I have a few questions: 1) Are you going to be releasing your soundtrack so I can buy it and listen to it on repeat, and 2) What was it like to hear that music played alongside your vision for the first time?
J: That’s a good question. It definitely is coming out; I can’t say with who, but it’s someone that Wojciech Golczewski has had albums released with before. I also want to say that there’s a song in the movie that often gets attributed to Wojciech, but isn’t actually by him. It’s the song from the opening titles, and it’s actually by an Italian called Vincenzo Salvia, and that song’s called “Outrun with the Dead.” It was actually really interesting to hear [the soundtrack] for the first time. When you’re making it, you originally put together a temp score, so you’re hearing tracks from Final Fantasy VII and all sorts of other string stuff, Let the Right One In. We had the theme to House by the Cemetery playing as the main characters walked through the gate in the movie, and then Wojciech went away and did his own version of that score. To be honest, it was quite off-putting to hear his along with the movie because I was so used to the temp score, but he really was able to understand that area much better than I could and it turned out really great. Now, I’ve heard it so many times it’s, perfect. He did a terrific job.
As filmmakers and writers, it’s clear you have a great love for horror. Can you suggest a horror film or films we may not have seen but, in your opinion, need some more spotlight? (When asked, I usually answer with something like Hong-jin Na’s The Chaser. An incredible movie not enough people have seen.)
S: I love all kinds of genres. Mainly horror and action films. Lately, I have been watching lots of Shaw Brother’s flicks thanks to the El Rey Network here in the States. I would recommend The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and Five Element Ninja. I’ve watched both of these films multiple times this year.
J: It’s probably a toss-up between Phantasm and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Phantasm more just because it has all these elements I really like that kinda keep me intrigued to watch it over the years more and more, just because there’s some mystery to it and it doesn’t totally reveal its hand at the end of it. There’s still a lot of theories you can explore, [like] where the Tall Man comes from and other things in it which I quite like. Then The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because the original is one of the most intense movies I’ve ever seen. It does this interesting thing at the end where it almost makes you complicit with the killers. Towards the end, once they have their moment where they’re all just screaming at her and she’s just shrieking and losing her mind, you just basically want them to murder her so that she’ll stop freaking out.
Absolutely! That whole sequence pushes you to the point of actually getting annoyed, and then your morals get skewed. I love that about horror. Good choices. Is there anything else from you guys in the pipeline? Anything you want to plug or something we should be keeping an eye out for?
S: Currently I’m producing a new documentary Jim Kunz is directing. Also, Jackson is working on a horror film based on one of my concepts titled The Day After Halloween.
J: I’m also about to shoot a project with Blumhouse that’s like a Christmas horror anthology called 12 Deadly Days in the same vein as Gremlins or Tales from the Crypt, and the episode I wrote is like a cross between An American Werewolf in London mixed with Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause.
I don’t even know if I can imagine such a thing! So, our audience is filled with lots of creatives like yourselves. The world we live in at the moment promises opportunities within arms’ reach, but rarely do we find that our dreams are that easy. I’m wondering if you guys have any words of advice. What keeps you motivated? What stokes your fire?
S: My motivation is ideas. I’m constantly getting ideas and need to do something with them. I always have to write them out; otherwise, I’ll explode. My advice to aspiring writers and directors is if you have a passion for it, just keep doing it. Keep writing and keep shooting. You can do so much with a cellphone. If you’re a writer, while you’re taking a walk, record your ideas and dialog. Don’t stop, and try not to get discouraged. There will be days you’re depressed, but tomorrow is another day. Just keep doing it. It’ll pay off.
J: Oh God, well, I’m still trying to stay motivated myself. I still struggle with my own stuff, but I guess you just need to treat it as seriously as possible, treat it as a job and try not to make excuses. A lot of it just comes from divorcing the material from your ego and being willing to get some harsh, honest feedback here and there about how to make things better. Ultimately, when you’re starting out, you’re not gonna be Scorcese. It’s an ongoing learning process. Try to improve and find ways you can do things better. Write every day — I try to write 2-4 hours a day. Also, try to surround yourself with good people.
Also one last thing, we do a segment called PWR’D where we let our readers know what we’ve been Playing, Watching, Reading and Doing lately in the form of a clever anagram. Can you give it a go?
P: Started playing Star Wars Battlefront on Xbox One and preparing for Gears of War 4.
W: Just spent all August having my mind blown by all three seasons of Hannibal.
R: Currently reading the novelization for Joe Dante’s “Explorers.”
D: Been listing to Electric Wizard’s “Witchcult Today” and LazerHawk’s “Skull and Shark” for the last month.
P: I usually have Batman for the NES on constant rotation with Resident Evil 4, which is my favorite game of all time.
W: Blood Rage and The Mutilator are classic slashers your readers should check out.
R: I’m reading “Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King and “Down and Dirty Pictures” by Peter Biskin, which is a book about the Sundance Kids of the ’90s, like Tarantino, Kevin Smith and all those guys.
D: I’m finishing up a script called The Day After Halloween, which is basically about what happens to the final girl after the ending of a movie like Friday the 13th or Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
A huge thanks to Jackson Stewart and Stephen Scarlata for being great sports and sharing their time and knowledge with me. Beyond the Gates is available to watch right now online and on select VOD services. It will also be released on DVD February 20, 2017. Keep your eyes peeled for this film, guys. It’s seriously worth the watch!
Want to read more of my horror interviews? Try checking out the chat I had with Chris Giroux about his film Let Her Out or the conversation I had with Andy Edwards about his film Ibiza Undead. Follow me on twitter @mickeyralph so you don’t miss out on the next one!