Interview with JT Petty

JT Petty started his career out of film school with a small $6K horror movie titled, “Soft for Digging”, went on to make “Mimic 3: Sentinel” and “The Burrowers”. He is recently planned to direct the remake of “Faces of Death”. Movie Mikes has known JT for years and got a chance to ask him some questions about his career and what next.

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Mike Gencarelli: Who/What has inspired you in the industry to pursue your current path?
JT Petty: I always assumed I would be making movies. My earliest memories are of my writing stories or making movies. I was probably 11 or 12 when I first saw Psycho and that was eye-opening. The monster movies always got me. Invasion of the Body Snatcher scared the shit out of me. I never saw Hitchcock’s Vertigo and decided then I needed to make moving. It was always there.

Mike Gencarelli: Your first film, “Soft for Digging”, cost only $6,000 to make, what were the challenges in getting it released?
JT Petty: It never really got a good release. It was out in theaters for a little while, very limited. It had some video deal but the people that put it out six years ago did a terrible job. They spelled the lead actors name wrong on the front of the box. There were typos on it. It drove me crazy. The DVD itself was a mess. It has an over-modulated commentary track and the sound was pretty shitty. The movie has been as pirated as anything else and I rely on that as my sort of distributing network.

Mike Gencarelli: For a film with virtually no dialogue, “Soft for Digging”, tells a very intense story so well, how did you come up with it?
JT Petty: It is a funny story. I was watching a lot of “The Road Warrior” at the time, which is one of my favorite movies. It was ’97 and we got our hand on a DVD player. We were amazed by how easy it was to watch “The Road Warrior” in Dutch or in another language. “The Road Warrior” in Dutch is the exact same movie as it is in English. You can come to that movie without knowing anything about it and not understand any of the dialogue. You can know easily exactly who everyone is, what their relationships are and how the story goes. It got me thinking about how you can tell me a movie without dialogue, which led me to the horror genre. I thought if I stuck to those conventions I didn’t have to work that much about the exposition and tell the story visually.

MG: After directing “Soft for Digging”, you directed “Mimic 3: Sentinel”, how was the transition to a big studio film?
JP: It was crazy, “Soft for Digging” was me and six friends in the woods. There was no money involved and weren’t a lot of second takes. It was practice, practice, practice and then we shot it once since it was on 16MM. It makes me feel like an old man, kids today are making independent films. You can buy a $500 video camera that will shoot high definition video and looks pretty good. Film is so expensive. So on “Mimic” suddenly we had 110 people that needed things to do. If I wanted to set someone on fire, we could hire someone who is good on getting set on fire. We had a little bit a CG in there. It was also really good we had professional actors. I was shocked that Amanda Plummer and Lance Hendrickson wanted to be in “Mimic 3”. Working with people like that was a huge education. It was a fun time.

MG: Tell us about “S&Man”, do you think it will ever be released?
JP: I hope so. It had some legal trouble. The company that produced it went out of business and lost a bunch of the label paper work. I have been going back and tracking down all of the rights. The rights holders are often hermetic weirdos in the middle of New Jersey. It takes as much detective work to get it back. We just cleared all that up and will able to get a disc out at the end of this year or beginning of next. It makes me sad though, it is a movie about the difference between documentary and fiction. It plays with a lot of the “Paranormal Activity and “District 9” ideas, which was more relevant three years ago. Now it is going to sneak out on DVD in 2011.

MG: What was it like working on “The Burrowers”? Was it hard shooting the film based in 1800s and set in desert?
JP: Yeah it was hard but really fun. It was like a normal movie shoot, you always have to kill yourself. It was definitely an example of not having enough money though. Lionsgate always had that film on a straight to video budget. I wanted to do rubber creatures and was trying to avoid CG. I shot with real horses and tried to be really faithful to the actual design facts of the period. All that meant though is we had to do it in a ridiculously short amount of time. We shot it in about 22 days, which for all exterior, nights, horses and rubber monsters shoots is nightmarish. On the other hand, I am hanging out shooting guns with Clancy Brown. It is hard to complain about that.

MG: You’ve written two Batman & three Splinter Cell video games, how did you get that gig? Any more planned?
JP: It happened sort of by chance. When I was just out of school and I was trying to save up money to edit “Soft for Digging”. I kept working twelve hour days and then editing for six hours and then sleep for four hours and doing the same thing again. Basically I went into a video game company looking for a day job. They also had an opening for a screenwriter so I applied for that. I guess around 1999/2000 was when the PS2 was just coming out. It was the first time there was enough memory to have dialogue in a video game. There was about four years then when I was the only English language screenwriter at Ubisoft. During that time I had done “Batman: Vengeance” and “Batman Begins”. I also made “Splinter Cell”, “Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow”, “Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory”. I am working on another game now called, “Homefront”. I am sharing screenwriting credit with John Milius and it sort of like “Red Dawn” type shooter. There is also an original license that Electronic Arts owns, in which am helping out with and getting off the ground.

MG: Is there any word on the “Splinter Movie”?
JP: Not that I know of. I wrote a couple of draft a few years ago when Peter Berg was trying to do it. Since then I think it’s been sold around a few times and I have no idea where it is now.

MG: Tell me about your “Faces of Death” planned remake?
JP: Supposedly, it has not been greenlit yet. We got a script and everyone loves it. We got a bunch of stuff in play just need to actually get it moving forward. It is definitely the movie I would most like to make next. This is funny because I have some pretty negative opinions about remakes in general. It is tough. Everyone in Hollywood is saying how hard it is to get something off the ground. “Faces of Death” seems like an obvious no brainer.

MG: What else do you have planned for the future?
JP: I am working on adaptation for Takashi Shimizu, who created “The Grudge”. I am sketching out a pilot that a friend and I just sold to HBO a couple weeks ago. Basically just staying busy!

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