HNN Talks to James Christopher!

by William Burns

In the world of 21st century filmmaking, a director has to wear many hats. The more roles directors can fulfill the more artistic control they can exert and the more cost effective their films can be. While some filmmakers are content with adding writing or acting credits to their repertoire, James Christopher literally does it all.  Not stopping at being a triple threat (directing, acting, writing), Christopher also edits, decorates sets, produces, casts films, supervises  music, designs sound, and does the special effects for such projects as Littlefield, Scarlet Waters, Funny Books, Werebitches, Look at Me Again, Snatch-n-Grab, Lilith’s Daughters, Phantom Tragedy, Abram’s Hand, Turkey Day, and Daughter of Werebitch Meets Skankenstein. But it is with his newest film Co-Ed Campfire Carnage that Christopher brings his unique skill set to a career high as he perfectly combines horror and comedy in a loving tribute to the slasher films of yore.  Christopher’s cinematic interests run the gamut of film genres and his work for Twitchy Dolphin Flix has allowed him to dabble in many different styles and stories, helping him to expand his oeuvre trememndously. HNN had the opportunity to speak with James Christopher at the Macabre Faire Film Festival.

HNN: Tell us about Co-Ed Campfire Carnage

JC: It’s an anthology film. It’s definitely a comedy, definitely in your face. My company Twitchy Dolphin Flix do a lot of shorts during the year in addition to the features that we make so we came up with the idea of linking them together in an anthology film.  So it came out of that.  It’s a loving throwback to the slasher films of the mid 80’s It takes place in 1986. It’s definitely a lot of fun. Don’t go into it expecting your life to be changed, expect to laugh a little bit and you’ll be alright.

HNN:  Which filmmakers influenced you?

JC:  Well, Twitchy Dolphin is a company we started out of Austin, Texas and this is the 11th film we have done in 7 years, all of which have been different genres.  So for me, most importantly, it would be Cameron Crowe and John Hughes are the guys I’m most like. From the horror side, it’s definitely John Carpenter.  Halloween is my favorite horror movie of all time and The Exorcist as well so it’s a wide spectrum of filmmaker influences for me.

HNN: Do you have a genre you prefer to direct in?

JC:  No. I like to think the movie I’m going to direct next is the one I’m most excited to be directing.  We did a pretty successful horror film called Abram’s Hand that played here last year and at a pretty wide range of festivals. It’s really dark and depressing; it’s about the Westboro Baptist Church and where right wing Christianity is going in this country and then we followed it up with Turkey Day, a very cute rom/com so that’s how I keep myself recharged is trying to do something different next, each and every time.

HNN: How did you become interested in directing?

JC:  I like to tell people I grew up in the best era of movies, from 1975-1990 so everything to me was going to the movies as a kid.  Jaws was the first movie I remember seeing and being moved emotionally. It was fear but I was still moved emotionally.  Spielberg, Star Wars, movies like that. But when I saw the film The Crow in 1995, that was the first time that I thought I could actually make a movie. There was something about The Crow that really hit me. It was the combination of the visual design (which was incredible), the acting, the music, all those things that formed this emotional piece that really kind of attracted me to filmmaking.  I didn’t get into it right away though. I actually did a 7 year Army tour and then when I got out I had my mid-life crisis early and told my wife that I wanted to go to film school and she  was onboard.  I went to the University of Texas, which is one of the top rated film schools in the country, I met my business partner there and we started making films in addition to what we were doing in film school and as soon as we graduated we has opportunities in L.A. but wanted to stay in Austin and try to do something different so we did.

HNN: Can you tell me more about the Austin film scene?

JC: The Austin Indie scene is cool, man! It’s very wide ranging. The thing about Austin is that it is a such great culture artistically that a lot of people don’t leave so you have the top of the Austin mountain is Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater and those are guys who stayed in Austin and didn’t have to move to L.A. and they became an example for us. There is a wide spectrum of filmmakers there doing it and they’re all at different levels.  Sundance has something like 12 Texas films in it this year and I think 6 or 7 are from Austin and the cool thing is those people are playing Sundance but they will come out and volunteer on one of our films. There’s a great culture of support. The city lets you shoot just about anywhere without a permit. Most bars and restaurants are willing to open early or stay open late so you can shoot there.  It truly is an indie filmmakers paradise because you can cut so much of your budget off that you can actually keep making films.  I don’t have to raise $30-40,000 to make a film. If I can raise $8-10,000 I can make the film I want to make and that’s very creatively liberating. When I think about whether to go to L.A. or not, the films that I want to make they don’t make anymore.  They’re not making the John Hughes movies anymore, they’re not even making the mainstream slasher movies anymore.  So it’s a chips all in poker game that I don’t want to be a part of. I want to watch episode 8 and 9 but I don’t want to make them.

HNN: Is there a genre that you haven’t directed in yet but you’re dying to do?

JC:  Yeah. I’ve never done sci-fi. I actually write a pretty popular web show in Canada called Pete Winning and the Pirates. I get to write it but I never directed it and I sometimes wonder if I’m creative enough to do it.  For sci-fi to be good you have to have a lot of specific details and sometime my ADD gets in the way and it gets messed up for me.  I think that’s the one genre that I haven’t done…  Oh no it’s not. I would love to do a western!  I would do a western in a heartbeat!

HNN: That’s what I was waiting for you to say! Especially with the whole Texas thing…

JC: I actually wrote a couple of western scripts. Sometimes I do writing that I know I can’t produce to try to get management. I try to have it both ways. I’ve written a couple of things that people are interested in but they would be too expensive so I just rewrote for now. Just to be able to do those wide shots

HNN: Like Sergio Leone…

JC: Yes, that’s who I would look to.  You go to film school and John Ford is John Ford and Monument Valley looks beautiful but the whole Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood thing… Clint Eastwood could take John Wayne out like so easy! I know you’re not supposed to say that in this country but … I think it makes me a Communist! But I would love to, yeah.

HNN:  Do you have a preference between writing, directing, producing, developing?

JC: I went to film school to be a writer and I never thought that I would want to do anything else.  The thing is the University of Texas program is a multidisciplinary program so while my focus was writing I had to do a directing class and I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy that. So from a writer/director standpoint I love to do both. I would love to direct a script I didn’t write but the opportunity hasn’t come up yet.  Because when I’m writing I can take the shortcuts that I would never take with another script.  I would love that challenge.  I would love to pawn off all the work of producing off on someone else.  Producers don’t get enough credit for how detail orientated they have to be. All the balls they have to keep in the air.  I would love to just worry about what to put on the screen. 

HNN: What advice would you give young filmmakers looking to make their first movie or to break into the business?

JC:  We actually have a young filmmaker’s program through Twitchy Dolphin so basically the way we control our budget is everyone is working deferred but we are providing opportunities so all the shorts we do as a company are written and directed by some of our young actors and one of the trailers for our new film Going Guerilla was directed by a high school sophomore. He’d been on our sets since the 7th grade. The thing about it is I think this concept of packing your car and moving to Los Angeles and that your life will be different tomorrow is over. There are enough ways, with technology, with the ability to raise money through crowd funding that you can make your own film. The bottom line is to make your own film and not let anyone tell you no because the people telling you no are not doing it themselves.  I graduated film school with guys who would say “Well, I’m waiting to get the best camera to make my film” And they never make their film. You know why? Because there’s always going to be a better camera. You just got to do it. Your first film is going to suck.  I made lots of shorts and feature that I don’t let anybody see.  But if you keep an open eye to what you’re doing wrong, you’ll be able to overcome the lack of budget by being creative. 

HNN: What are the downsides to being in the film business?

JC: If you want to be at all good at it, it’s gotta be your first thing.  I’m married and there’s a lot of things I can’t do because I’m busy working. With the freedom of doing it yourself comes the extra burden. It’s not a job for me, it’s my life so I have to make sure everything is being juggled correctly and it can add a lot of stress. You can’t half ass it.  And that’s the important thing. You have to go all in and accept that there will be people in your life who won’t understand the vision.  We’ve been playing film festivals for the last five years, all over the world. We did a festival in Bosnia and I was there as a soldier in the 90’s so it was kind of neat to see it but a lot of people didn’t care. Then we played the Austin festival, one of the top ten film festivals in the world, and now everybody cares but you have to keep your ego in check.   That’s important.

HNN: Do you have a favorite film festival?

JC: I like the Macabre Faire Film Festival a lot. That’s the reason we come back. I like the Austin Film Festival. The cool thing about the Austin festival is we play with the Coen Brothers. Every filmmaker is treated like you’re the Coen Brothers.  And that was nice. Every year we play the Bare Bones Film Festival in Muscogee, which is all about the indies because your film can’t cost more than $500 grand. It’s all about growing a community. I’ve met a lot of people I’ve worked with at these festivals. I’ve put them in my films.  It’s a really great network. 

HNN: if you could film your dream project, what would it be and who would be in it?

JC:  I’m going to change the question. There is a script I wrote called Three Sons of a Gun that I just finished and it’s about three generations of Texas Rangers dealing with the drug war and I wrote the idea with George Clooney in the middle role. It’s a cool script because it’s really about this family dynamic, the grandfather, father, and son, and they don’t get along but they all work in the same job. Kind of like Lethal Weapon. I would like to work with George Clooney.  I have a little man crush on the guy!

HNN: Who doesn’t? Getting back to Co-Ed Campfire Carnage, were there any specific films you were referencing or parodying?

JC:  I was thinking of those 80’s slashers that weren’t supposed to be taken seriously. Like Friday the 13th. I know I’ll probably be crucified for saying this, but I don’t like Friday the 13th. It’s not a good movie. Halloween means something; it’s important but we were going for those other kinds of movies. I think people like anthology films. They’re fun.  Our film is a straight up comedy so you don’t care that people die. The first Halloween movie (and the second to a degree) was much more serious.

HNN: How hard is it to balance horror and comedy?

JC: It’s hard. I tend to do a lot of horror comedies. I made a series of shorts called the Werebitches saga and it’s a loving tribute to the Universal Horror movies about a young woman who’s a werebitch and she’s trying to rid herself of the curse. It’s hard to find a balance and I think the reason why is I’m not capable of making a movie like The Exorcist or something that’s long term scary so my comfort zone is with comedy. I almost use it as a crutch but what I tried to do with Co-Ed Campfire Carnage was dial up the gore factor as much as a could so  it could be as gory as possible while still being funny.  That’s an interesting combination. Tucker and Dale Versus Evil did that too, which is one of the better horror comedies I’ve seen in a long time. Sometimes I think is it as funny in my head? Comedy is tough in general. We just did this comedy Going Guerilla that’s on its film festival run now about a screenwriter that does American Pie type stuff and he sees one of his movies in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart and has an existential crisis that he’s not making important stuff.  There’s this hilarious scene that’s awkward and a love scene where the director is now in love with the actress and he doesn’t want to see her getting dry humped by this guy and some people will only find it funny because its scene 69. It’s the easiest joke in the movie and the joke that gets the most laughs. But for Co-Ed Campfire Carnage we really tried to bring up those 80’s clichés and see if we could make the humor work. I think the actors did a great job; they dove right in, full on.

HNN: What is in the future for James Christopher?

JC: We go into production on a drama called Disassociationville in May. It’s about a guy who graduates high school, leaves his home because of emotional abuse and then is forced to come back six years later for his mother’s funeral. The crux is he never should have left.  My argument is that sometimes it’s OK to decide what your family is as long as it’s done in the right context.  It’s a pretty dramatic thing and we’re finishing up postproduction on two films we shot at the same time called The XXXX Saga, a series of mockumentaries about the adult film industry and the sequel is a horror comedy called The Porn Move Massacre which we hope to bring here next year.  It’s pretty hilarious. 

HNN: Thank you for your time James and good luck!

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