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Q&A: Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on “THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN” (2014)

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When THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN hit VOD and Streaming last October, there were many who lauded the influence of Ryan Murphy on the Blumhouse picture, citing Murphy’s penchant for the nightmarish, visceral and surreal on AMERICAN HORROR STORY that appeared throughout the remake/sequel. However, when it comes to those aesthetics, credit is due- if not moreso- to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose unique directorial style on AMERICAN HORROR STORY bled (literally) into THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (2014). Now, with the critically acclaimed ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL in theaters and THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN coming to Blu-ray and DVD from Image Entertainment, FANGORIA was able to catch up with the auteur on his approach to SUNDOWN, his incredible cast and what he’s learned from the House of Murphy…

FANGORIA: How did you initially become a part of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN?

ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON: I had been working on ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, and another project had fallen apart. At the time, I was directing AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM, of which I had been directing episodes since season one. I bumped into Ryan Murphy, who said, “Hey, I have this project that I think you might like. Come to my office.” So in his office, he pitched it to me and gave me the script.

At first, I was on the fence, and I said, “If I do choose this project, I want to shoot it in a very specific, quiet way like a Michael Eastman or Stephen Shore photograph.” I wanted to make it like THE LAST PICTURE SHOW where we could really embrace the movie within the movie and tell a story about this town defined by a movie. But I wasn’t sure, and that’s when Ryan said, “Listen, you’ve been trying to get your CITIZEN KANE off the ground for years now (though he was referring to a movie that wasn’t ME AND EARL) but maybe it’s better if you started with BOXCAR BERTHA.”

It made sense, and it hurt a little bit, but he was right. I had to make a feature and have some fun with it because it would help me get the next one. So I pitched my take on the film and did all of this visual research, so I put a lookbook together. Once the producers said yes, it came together very quickly

FANGORIA: There’s a very dreamlike atmosphere to THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN and carries an old school influence that you might not see on a contemporary horror show like AMERICAN HORROR STORY. What inspired your approach to the film?

GOMEZ-REJON: That’s the way I saw the film immediately. I’m from a border town in Texas named Laredo, and I also know other border towns between Texas and Mexico. So I didn’t know Texarkana per se, but I knew border towns such as Freer, which I’d drive through on the way to the beach sometimes and it almost seems like it is frozen in time. I liked that idea and I wanted to embrace that; it was fresh to me, and I liked the formality of it.

Even though it was very old school, there are some elements that are very contemporary and other elements that are very timeless. I really wasn’t a fan of found footage horror, creatively or in direction; I’m much more of a fan of a traditional approach, at least as a way in to this story. I loved the idea of a town that was somehow defined by a movie and the power of a movie, then in some ways, the camera could be a character and I could embrace that.

FANGORIA: One refreshing aspect of the film is how much you’re able to embrace the film and film culture without going into meta territory, especially considering you’re dealing with a remake, sequel and slasher all at once. What was it like to inject your voice specifically into this film?

GOMEZ-REJON: Well, you’re hoping that you don’t think about that too much and it just happens. You see the movie as you see it and you want to realize it and personalize it. But I’m glad you picked up on that because when you see Denis O’Hare’s place, there’s these films cans everywhere and that is a reflection of someone holding on to the past. The town is anchored by this movie from the past, and it keeps opening up old wounds over and over again every time it screens because it fictionalized real pain and real blood that was spilled in the ‘40s.

The original TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN incorporated elements of real murders and maybe hurt some people along the way. That film was made in 1976 and I don’t know how consciously I was in paying homage to that specific era of cinema as much as I wanted to pay homage to movies and try a different, quieter pace with this film. It’s really through Addison Timlin’s point-of-view as a woman who is starting slowly to process how to become alive and present again. She needs to leave the past behind and live in the present.

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Everything in the movie had to have a nod to the past in it. We didn’t have a lot of money, but the money we did allot for cars in the film I wanted to make sure was spent on cars from a different time. There was nothing “too new” about THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, ever, and there’s never a contemporary car in any shot. The clothes that everyone wears had to have a nod to the past: all of the cops’ collars are about an inch longer than they should be, and all the fashion that the kids wear are all nods to the clothes of the ‘70s but you could find hanging in American Apparel today.

The movie was all about balancing an homage to the past, but by the end, the school that we show is quite modern with a steel-and-glass look. That had to be a nod of her character moving on to a different time, so that served the characters and worked out technically towards the impact that the original film had on her character.

FANGORIA: Working on a television schedule such as AMERICAN HORROR STORY must have been a great preparation to the lean way of Blumhouse microbudget filmmaking. What was the most important lesson from working on AMERICAN HORROR STORY that you brought with you to THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN?

GOMEZ-REJON: Well, working with a producer like Ryan Murphy was great because he always gave me creative freedom, and at one point, he said, “Shake it up and do whatever you want. The idea is to stay on schedule and on budget as best as you can, but once you’re in that world as a director, you can stylistically experiment and do a lot of things. Through that experimentation, you learn so much about the craft such as what lenses you like and whatnot.

So on AMERICAN HORROR STORY, Ryan was like my Roger Corman, and when you go into those episodes, they’re almost like little movies and you can do whatever you want as long as it’s bold. That boldness starts to define the show, and that’s the benefit of being so creative. So encouraging us to be bold and to experiment is the greatest gift Ryan gave me, and that clearly extended to the film. With THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, it was like, “Why play it safe?”

FANGORIA: You really got some great character actors on THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, like Ed Lauter, Gary Cole and Denis O’Hare. What was your inspiration in assembling that cast, specifically?

GOMEZ-REJON: We also had the late, great Ed Herrmann, who passed away last year and played the preacher. It was a total joy to work with these actors whom I had admired for so long, and one of the best things about making this movie was having a steak dinner with Ed Herrmann and asking him questions about Warren Beatty and REDS and Broadway and the friendship that came out of that. We also had Veronica Cartwright!

I love actors, and I loved the cast of this movie. Actually, the first actor of the cast who I wanted to meet for the movie was Gary Cole, and I was able to get a lunch meeting with him where he signed onto it. I came to work when I was on that movie, but I was able to work with some of my heroes and slashers are so much fun to do. The bloodier the scene, the more fun it is to do. It was a total dream, especially considering how naturalistic and realistic the performances were in this weird, dream-like story we were trying to tell. They were able to capture the drama within the fever dream within the horror film.

FANGORIA: The film has been very popular on streaming services, and ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL has been really playing well with audiences and critics. Do you have anything up next?

GOMEZ-REJON: I’m just pushing the movies coming out now, and I’m preparing a couple projects but I’m always superstitious that they might fall apart. I’m hoping to be shooting one of them in the winter, but it’s unclear which one it is going to be. But right now, the focus is on ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL and THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN alive and keep people talking about those projects.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is now on DVD everywhere and on Blu-ray exclusively from Best Buy. Look out for more TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN coverage here at FANGORIA.com!

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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