October, 2012. Another of my interviews with indie horror directors (following Eduardo Sanchez and Joseph Kahn). This one’s with Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores – known jointly as The Butcher Brothers – as The Thompsons, the sequel to their previous The Hamiltons, was released. Originally published at Empire but no longer there since the site migration. So here’s the full thing.
The Hamiltons, that age-old heart-warming story of suburban orphaned siblings forced to kidnap and kill people to survive, arrived to quiet acclaim in 2006. Six years later, directing duo The Butcher Brothers – Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores – have brought the family back under an assumed name in The Thompsons. A bloodbath at a Nevada gas station sees them on the run and heading for vampire-riddled… Shropshire? We asked the brothers for the lowdown.
What sort of reaction have you had from the people of Ludlow?
PHIL – Well Ludlow is pretty much a fake town.
It’s in Shropshire!
PHIL – Oh yeah, I think we did hear about that! We shot primarily in Kent though. The pub and the house were about thirty minutes away from each other. We did a week in the Mojave desert and three or four days in London, but the rest was primarily Kent. So people haven’t really objected! The locals we met that helped the shoot seemed to really love it.
Why did you bring it to the UK? Was the script written around an opportunity to shoot something here, or was it written first and always intended for England?
MITCHELL – We had a few drafts of the film. We were approached to make The Thompsons and we thought it would be great to revisit the characters. We got together with Cory Knauf who plays Francis, and he’s a writer as well and he came on board and we sat around in a circle and started coming up with stories. But then the idea came along from our producers… they had some connections in the UK and we thought it might be interesting to put it there. And then that really inspired us. We didn’t ant to swim the same river twice, so being in England allowed us to create a back story for our family, finding out what their heritage really is and where they come from. The film focuses on Francis more than the rest of the family this time, but the change of location allowed us to bring in new characters too.
Is it a British film in terms of production, or an American film made in Britain?
MITCHELL – It’s a joint effort. I’d say it’s more British than American, if you round it off. We had a big posse land in England from America, but if you do the math it was primarily a British crew. We weren’t even 100% convinced that we wanted to be involved with the film as directors, but once England became the focus it really sparked something. We also had a lot of influences from British horror movies, so that was a factor too.
When you made The Hamiltons did you envisage an ongoing series?
MITCHELL – The idea was there. The Hamiltons was kind of a unique story, but especially with horror films the idea of a continuing story is always in the back of your head. We wanted to see what the reception to that first film would be, and it became quite a big thing here in the States and worldwide, but as you can tell from the six-year gap in between the films, it wasn’t something Phil and I were ready to rush in to.
PHIL – We wanted the right story. We worked with Cory, and with Joe McKelheer who plays Wendell – he’s a producer on this too. Joe’s the one that was really pushing for a sequel, and after a while we realised we really wanted to do it. It is a family affair: all the cast rallied around to get it done. We shot in America for about a week but then it took a while to get over to England and shoot the remainder.
How does it work when there are this many cooks on set? Two directors, an actor/writer, an actor/producer…
PHIL – The good thing is that Cory and Joe have to go into actor mode, so they’re focused on something else! But having worked with those guys before, they know our style, and once we get on set everyone kind of turns it over to us. Everyone gives us the freedom to do our thing. We know these characters best! It’s our story and our franchise.
How do you divide up directing between the two of you?
MITCHELL – We’ve got a kind of shorthand now. We’ve been brainstorming and writing stories and directing together for years now. We grew up together in the same neighbourhood too, so we have all the same stories. For the bulk of it we’re both behind the camera. Four eyes are better than two. But we have different perspectives, so it’s like putting a puzzle together that ends up looking pretty cool when it’s all done.
Both these films break a lot of rules as vampire films: they’re out in daylight; they’re mortal; there’s even a scene in The Thompsons with vampires saying grace around the dinner table. Is that just an organic thing, or are you deliberately going through a list of things to do differently?
PHIL – When we did The Hamiltons it was before a lot of this big vampire craze like the Twilights – we put a couple of Twilight jokes in this one! Really, it was about trying to go at it differently, viewing vampirism as a disease that these characters have to live with. In The Hamiltons the word “vampire” is never even used. We wanted to humanise them, so we went about it like, “if vampires were real, how would they function in society, or just kind of be?” There were all these rules, like they don’t show up in the mirror? And if they don’t show up, wouldn’t their clothes show up? There’s so many weird rules in the vampire universe, and we were just like, ‘Let’s not…” It seemed more satisfying and creative and fun to explore it that way.
The Thompsons is very different to The Hamiltons. In the first film they appear to be a family of serial killers, whereas in this one they’re up against an even worse family, which makes them seem more sympathetic. Is that a difficult balancing act?
MITCHELL – Yeah, I think it’s always tough. Even with The Hamiltons it was tough to make antagonists actually the leads in the movie. In that first film we kind of used that family structure where it’s basically Francis versus the rest of his family. Hands down, this family are killers and they have to kill to survive, even though Francis does it begrudgingly. The big theme for him is that it’s a curse, and he has to grow and accept who he is. Now this time we have Riley in England (Elizabeth Henstridge) who feels completely useless to her family because she doesn’t have this curse. At the end of the day it’s a fun challenge to see how all this stuff balances out. And a lot of them get killed anyway! There are no innocent bystanders. There isn’t one person who doesn’t know their way around death and violence. Even Riley, who isn’t a vampire, is good with a knife and can be pretty vicious.
Nobody’s innocent – is that a personal philosophy?!
MITCHELL – Yeah, we kill for a living!
Was there any resistance the title from the money people? It’s not immediately obvious unless you’re very familiar with The Hamiltons that The Thompsons is a sequel.
PHIL – Not necessarily. I think we had some early mock-up posters that said The Hamiltons 2: The Thompsons, but it was just kind of laughable and tired and unwieldy. It’s the dysfunctional family structure that’s the face of the films. If anyone’s unaware, they can soon put themselves straight by reading the back of the box.
We still don’t know what happened to their parents – is that a thread to be unravelled in the future?
MITCHELL – Yeah, after The Hamiltons there were a lot of calls for that, so we kind of wanted to carry it over as far as possible! Now in The Thompsons they’re discovering their roots and their mom features in the story. A lot of people want to know. Half the fan letters we got were asking that question.
Do you know the answer yet?
PHIL – We don’t! We kind of have ideas and we’ve got some drafts. There’s a lot of god story there, and I think that’s why this film got made, because the characters are interesting. We wanted to keep giving hints, and build it into a bigger story going into the third one.
Ah, so a third film is a definite thing? It’s happening?
MITCHELL – Right now we’re in talks and there’s quite a bit of interest, but we’re close to finishing another film called Holy Ghost People, and we’re in pre-production on something else called Raised By Wolves, so it’s a question of when. We literally went back-to-back on three productions in a row so we might want to take a breather, but it’s definitely under discussion. It’ll be a lot sooner than another six years.
The Thompsons is available on DVD and VOD from Lionsgate.