PCA Interview: Ansel Faraj

Los Angeles based filmmaker Ansel Faraj put himself on the map of independent horror and fantasy in 2013 with “Doctor Mabuse.” Now he is back with his latest film, “The Last Case of August T. Harrison.”

It’s been a couple of years since I caught up with LA based film maker Ansel Faraj.  When we first spoke he was just about to release his feature length supernatural horror film Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar, the sequel to his successful 2013 film Doctor Mabuse, starring Jerry Lacy. In the years that have followed, Ansel’s Doctor Mabuse films have been very good to him, helping to put him on the map of the independent horror and fantasy film scene.  His dark and provocative films have gained their own unique following, especially via fans of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows who have supported the films due to the appearances of many DS alumnus’s including Jerry Lacy, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Laura Parker and Christopher Pennock.

“The Last Case of August T. Harrison” combines crime noir with horror and fantasy with strong ties to HP Lovecraft lore.

The collaboration between Ansel and Jerry has proved to be so successful that they have teamed up again for a brand new original film, The Last Case of August T. Harrison.  Released in late 2015, the film is a very original supernatural thriller in the Val Lewton style, which combines crime noir with HP Lovecraft lore.  Jerry Lacy plays August T. Harrison, an aged detective who investigates a missing persons case, only to get trapped into a dark world he never knew existed, and discovers that the mystery falls closer to home than he thinks.  A carefully crafted thriller, The Last Case of August T. Harrison is another triumph for Ansel Faraj.

Appearing throughout film festivals in 2015, horror fans can see The Last Case of August T. Harrison this year at the Depth of Field International Film Festival, Other Venice Film Festival Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival ,  Los Angeles CineFest ,  Wiper Film Festival, The Silver Scream Film Festival  and the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival.

I was pleased to be able to talk to Ansel about The Last Case of August T. Harrison.  Having been sent a copy of the film, I was captivated by it and noticed the evolution of Ansel’s style, both as a writer and a filmmaker, in this remarkable film.  Although spoilers came up in our discussion, we were careful not to give anything away – especially in regards to the remarkable conclusion of the film.

Sam:  So how long ago did you finish The Last Case of August T. Harrison?

Actor Jerry Lacy stars as August T. Harrison. Best known to horror fans as the villainous Trask on “Dark Shadows,” Lacy starred as the sinister Doctor Mabuse in Ansel Faraj’s previous two feature length films: “It’s so wonderful working with Jerry. We are always on the same page.”

Ansel:  We finished shooting at the end of 2014 and finished it up in early 2015.  We started it on the festival circuit in late 2015.  It came out at Vimeo on Demand in November, but we are still doing the festival circuit.

Sam:  With the film having been finished for a while, are you still excited about this film or are you gearing up for the next project.

Ansel:  No.  I actually feel that this is just starting.  We shot it a year ago, and now that more people are able to see it I am even more revved up to promote it and talk about it because I know it’s a good film.

Sam:  You received high praise for your Doctor Mabuse films, which really put you on the map.  What has the reception for this film been like?

Ansel:  It’s been a bit of a slower build this time.  Doctor Mabuse was a known property, and it was the first time that the Dark Shadows actors had come back together for a film.  So that was a novelty, and I wasn’t aware of the impact that it was having.  With this film, it is an original concept.  It deals with HP Lovecraft and his world, but August T. Harrison is my original character.  It’s also not Dark Shadows centric, although it does star Jerry Lacy.  I feel like I’ve been pushing more for this film, but I’ve just started pushing harder now that it’s more readily available.

Sam:  I really enjoyed your Doctor Mabuse films, but I really noticed the evolution in your storytelling in this film.

Ansel:  Thank you.

Sam:  What was your initial inspiration for August T. Harrison and the story?

Nathan Wilson co-stars in the role of classic horror writer HP Lovecraft.

Ansel:  Well, I had done the two Mabuse films with Jerry Lacy, and Jerry and I get along very well.  It’s so wonderful working with Jerry.  We are always on the same page.  Well, when we were doing the premier of Doctor Mabuse in San Diego, Kathryn Leigh Scott said to me “You’ve got to do a noir.  A full on detective noir with Jerry Lacy.  You’ve got Humphrey Bogart.”  I thought that it would be cool, but that was in 2013.  We did the second movie, and then I was going to do another film called Todd Tarantula, but that didn’t work out.  So I needed to do something where I can take a hold of my existing resources and do something grounded and realistic instead of something as opposed to the fantasy of Mabuse.  So what’s my best asset?  It’s Jerry Lacy.  Kathryn’s suggestion came back to me and I’ve always been a fan of Lovecraft.  So I thought what would be cool is to do a film noir mixed with HP Lovecraft.  I knew Jerry would play the part.  I’d write for his voice, because he has such a great voice.  When we were doing the Mabuse films the dialogue is pretty crazy, but he makes it work.  I knew that I needed that voice over to really give the insight to his slowly fractured mind. I just wrote this really sad guy living in Venice, California.

Sam:  I thought your use of Venice to be very interesting.  Do you live in or near Venice?

Ansel:  Yeah.  I live on Venice Boulevard.  Venice Beach is just five minutes away.

Sam:  I loved the way that you used Venice.  It got me very nostalgic for Venice and Santa Monica.

Ansel:  So you do understand the weirdness of Venice.  It’s a very oddball area.

Sam:  So what do you love about Venice?

Shooting around Venice Boulevard and Venice Beach, Ansel uses the character and weirdness of the famed LA area as the backdrop to “The Last Case of August T. Harrison” : “Venice has a certain kind of magic too it.”

Ansel:  Well, as I said, it’s an odd little area and it’s very atmospheric in a cinematic way.  Orson Welles used Venice in Touch of Evil for the Mexican border town. Where we were shooting was in the same intersection that Welles filmed that.  Being an LA kid I try to scout as many LA film locations as I can.  Especially old LA because we have horrible track habit of destroying our old buildings.  But Touch of Evil was a huge influence along with Curtis Harrigton’s Night Tide, which are both set in Venice.  And then you add Lovecraft – you’ve got the beach, you’ve got the water.  You remember in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button how they said that a story like that could only happen in New Orleans because there is a certain type of magic there?  Venice has a certain kind of magic too it, and although Lovecraft is East Coast and Venice is West Coast, it would work.

Sam:  I love the fact that you never really see the monster, but you can hear it and see a tentacle here or there.  It was a really Val Lewton type effect.  Was that intentional or was it a matter of budget?

Ansel:  It’s a bit of both.  As I’ve said, I needed to use my immediate resources, and I’ve always loved Val Lewton’s films.  The Seventh Victim and The Leopard Man in particular.  They aren’t supernatural based but they have this really great sense of atmosphere in a city environment.  So I always wanted to make a film in the Val Lewton mode, and this was a perfect opportunity to work in that tradition.  There is a nod to it in the scene in the canal, and Jerry can hear something following him, and then the car comes along.  That was a direct reference to Cat People with the bus.  And Val Lewton had very restricted budgets himself.  All the sets were reused from the RKO films.

Sam:  Well you do that very well.  Where did you find the rest of your cast?

Maggie Wagner as Elenora in “The Last Case of August T. Harrison.”

Ansel:  Jerry, Nathan Wilson and I cast the film.  We spent September through November 2013 looking for actors to play Elenora, Jason and Drake.  Jerry, Nate and David Graham came from Doctor Mabuse, so they just carried over.  I worked with Lisa Richards in Theater Fantastique.  But everyone else we cast.  We were looking for a younger woman than Maggie Wagner to play the role of Elenora.  Originally she was supposed to be in her late 20’s, but it seemed that we saw every young actress that had ever come to LA to make it, and none of them I could quite believe.  I realized I needed someone with a little more maturity.  Someone who lived a little more.  So I met Maggie Wagner at the Actors Studio.  Christopher Pennock introduced Maggie to me.  There is a quality about her that is Elenora to me.

Sam:  I agree, and she looks like one of the type of characters you’d meet at Venice Beach!

Ansel:  Yeah (laughs).  She had a really tricky way coming in.  The way that the schedule worked out, we started filming without an Elenora.  We started filming in December, but Jerry had to do the Dark Shadows cruise in January and we couldn’t pick up until the end of January.  So we had the three days for the Elenora, and the way we shot the film she had to play her scenes backwards.  It’s very complicated because you’ve got to work with one certain process and then go backwards into being a “nice character.”  She was fantastic at it!  There were really subtle things, and she brought a lot of humor into it.  I am so impressed with the way she did it.

Sam:  Let’s talk about the film’s ending.  Of course I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was one hell of an ending.  In an age where we’ve seen everything, it’s difficult to create an effective twist ending.  Did you have that ending in your mind from the beginning of filming, and what sort of reaction have you gotten from the audience to it?

Jerry Lacy as August T. Harrison with his family, Lisa Blake Richards as Susan and Eric Garlow as Jason; “Well believe me; I had an ending where I could have destroyed these people.’

Ansel:  The ending actually was originally much darker than I had planned.  It was a bleak Lovecraftian ending.  Well Jerry was reading the script and discussing it, and we knew that it wasn’t going to work.  So I started thinking that I might need to do a happier ending for once where things work out.  So it was hard to make the ending work out without being schmaltzy.  So with the atmosphere of the film, and the fact that everything is off side and implied and that we’re never quite sure what’s happening that I decided it would be a supernatural story.  Then it all sort of clicked.  But it took a lot of time to get there, and I took a lot of input from the actors.  David Grahame gave some input.  Jerry gave some input.  My Dad actually gave me a lot of input.  He said “Nobody wants to leave the theater depressed.”

Sam:  Well, even as the movie is winding down, you realize you like the characters and you want them to be okay.  It’s such a good ending!

Ansel:  There’s a funny story.  Bill Wandell, who is the film’s composer and has been working with me for quite a while, saw the film and said “Ansel!  That’s such a great ending!  I can’t believe people survived!”  I said “Well believe me; I had an ending where I could have destroyed these people.”  He was pretty amused with that, because he’s used to my bloody downbeat end of the world endings.

Sam:  When you show it in cinemas, how is the audience reaction?

David Graham as Professor Richard Hobb and Maggie Wagner as Elenora in “The Last Case of August T. Harrison.”

Ansel:  Everyone is usually taken aback.  The way that Jerry plays it there is about fifty emotions that runs in his eyes in that scene.  Everybody is on the edge of their seats.  Everyone is usually very enthusiastic, and then they want to know if there is a sequel.

Sam:  Is there a sequel?

Ansel:  No.  They need to have their happy ending.

Sam:  What are you working on now?

Ansel:  Well, last year I did a short film called Whatever Happened to Detective Adam Sera.  Adam Sera is a comic book character I created in high school and I’ve been writing stories about him for a while.  We’re going to do a second one, and hopefully we’ll be filming soon.  Because I started working with the Dark Shadows group repeatedly, I wanted to do something that was very much my own and have no Dark Shadows connection.  Just to see what I could do on my own.  Adam Sera got a good reaction.  I’m going to try to keep that tradition with this series at least.

Sam:  You have been successful doing horror and fantasy films, and now you’ve worked the noir element into that.  Are you planning on sticking to these genres?

Ansel:  Well, I do want to do other things.  One of my all-time director heroes is Robert Altman, and he dabbled in every kind of genre.  I’d love to do a musical.  A crazy, psychedelic rock n’ roll musical.  I’d like to do an action film.  I’d love to do a Batman movie.  I don’t plan to stay in this particular genre.  I’m just going to just roll with and see what happens.

A talented young writer and director with a mind that doesn’t stop working, Ansel Faraj is the future of horror and fantasy.  Well versed in the history of the medium, Ansel is a man with a love and understanding for the medium, and has an uncanny ability to bring interesting people together to create his dark fantasy’s on screen.  I’m excited to see what comes next from the dark corners of Ansel’s mind.  For more information on Ansel’s projects visit the Hollinsworth Productions web-site at http://www.hollinsworthproductions.com/.

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