Andy Mitton talks The Harbinger ahead of Grimmfest screening

Grimmfest announced their first selections this October’s festival, including The Harbinger, the follow-up to The Witch in the Window from Andy Mitton.

We caught up with Andy to talk all things The Harbinger, here’s what he had to say –

What is always your intention to write a film set during the pandemic or did this come organically through the process?

It was…both, I think? Initially, it was very organic, but the pandemic issue is sensitive, and eventually, I had to be very intentional about how I was going to handle it.

My goal was to tell a story that wasn’t on-the-nose about the pandemic but rather was fueled by it. I suspected there would be some with an aversion to “pandemic films”. But I rejected the idea that it should be totally avoided. I know horror fans better than that – they’re not pure escapists; as long as you’re delivering the goods, they’re happy for you to dance on the nerve of the moment. I also rejected the idea that it would “date” the film in some way. In the future, the pandemic will be as valid a setting to revisit as any other fascinating historical period that echoes through time and elevates themes.

The bottom line for me? Writers look for stories that the maximum number of people can relate to, can understand and be moved and terrified by. How many times in human history have we all had a shared trauma to draw from? Through that lens, the situation should be irresistible for storytellers and audiences alike. After all, we haven’t begun to deal with this shit – and in horror, the process can be exciting, fun, and cathartic. 

Why do you think the idea of nightmares is something we constantly revisit in horror?

Because it’s a horror we all share, it can’t be escaped, and none of us really understand it.

Also, the rules go away with dreams. And the imagination can really run free. That lack of boundaries can be dangerous and ungrounding if you’re not careful, but with some structure and some basic rules in place,  the possibilities are totally intoxicating. I think people sometimes avoid dreams because they figure Freddy Krueger has the market cornered, but as much as I love my Elm Street box set, I think there’s so much more to explore. In fact, tonally my main point of reference was Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, which is probably my favorite dream-oriented horror film. 

The Witch in the Window was a chilling affair, how does The Harbinger compare?

It’s hard for me to see this clearly through my tunnel vision – but I’ll try!

The Witch in the Window is quieter, a bit smaller in scale, and certainly warmer. It’s a ghost story and one that sort of sneaks in the back door and surprises you with subtle scares. The Harbinger’s not a ghost story, but rather a demonic one – darker, with a sharper edge. It still shows patience in building up the characters, but from there it’s much more kinetic. And while The Harbinger is also low-budget, it’s a more ambitious film. Less creepy, and more outwardly scary. It comes right in the front door and speaks to the moment. 

Stylistically, it’s also a very different film. The sunny tones, smooth camera movement, and lyrical qualities of The Witch in the Window are gone and replaced in The Harbinger by a darker and grittier look, a mostly-handheld camera, and a more jarring experience overall.

There are things in common as well – mostly that films are personal, very much from my heart, and made with people who trusted my vision and made it better every day. I feel very lucky to have gotten to make them.

As filmmakers are you always trying to diversify or one up yourself, or is it a mix of both for each project?

Good question. That’s tough for me. I think it’s a bit of a war. There’s a part of me that’s like my inner career manager, the voice in my head that’s constantly like “time to write your franchise starter! Raise the bar, damn it!”. And then there’s my actual muse, who doesn’t really care about that, and simply won’t write something that doesn’t feel right – believe me, I’ve tried. That’s a gift and a curse. 

But I think those two voices are collaborating better these days, especially on The Harbinger. I knew the inner career manager had some good points – more horror would be good, more of a splash, yet somehow still shootable during pre-vaccine Covid. My muse could work with those restrictions and still feel free to get personal, get weird, and go against the grain when inspired to. 

The truth is, my writing is a lot more diverse than my existing body of work would indicate. I have a slew of scripts for when I have the resources, and they are in all corners of the genre. There’s a slasher, a few very bloody dark comedies, a sci-fi thriller – lots of colors and levels of stylization. It’s just that the ones we could make independently are of course the slower-burn thrillers, so if people know me then that’s what they know me for. 

Tell us how you put together the film’s villain?

I knew I was dealing with a demon. Which to me is pure fun, and an opportunity to be more veiled, more mysterious, more strange. I was drawn to the image of the plague doctor – for many reasons. But really, before we were all in a pandemic, the image always scared me. The dead eyes, the “beak” – it strikes to the uncanny, which is gold for me in horror.

Of course, masks are a great genre tradition, and I was excited to try my hand at it. But I also crafted a story that wouldn’t solely rely on the mask. I get to keep it in reserve for select moments because the Harbinger’s real weapons are the nightmares, where he has any face and any voice he’d like to try on. That felt like a good playground to lay anchor in. 

Moung Hui Park designed the mask, in addition to heading up make-up and hair for the film. She’s brilliant, and was able to make something that feels much more than the plague doctor image we’re used to – it’s an evolution, going beyond what’s familiar and winding up really unique. He feels like an ancient, timeless evil – that was always the idea. 

And Jay Dunn is the man behind the mask – and also plays another supporting role, and is a producer. Jay was the secret weapon – he had extensive training in mask and bodywork, and he brought our “Harbie” to life impressively. 

Tell us about casting the film?

We were shooting in New York, and casting New York actors made a lot of sense for staying safe and efficient during pre-vaccine Covid. Also, there was a unique situation going on in the city:  the theatres were shuttered. New York’s best stage actors were largely home in their apartments. I saw an opportunity in that, and it really paid off. 

Gabby Beans and Emily Davis, our two leads, are still new to the film community, but in New York they’re well-known as two of the hottest up-and-coming stage actresses. Gabby was a Tony Nominee for Best Actress in a Play this year for her Broadway leading role in The Skin of Our Teeth, and Emily’s also just gotten rave reviews on Broadway playing American whistleblower Reality Winner in Is This A Room. Ray Anthony Thomas, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Laura Heisler – they’re all incredible veteran stage actors I was lucky to entice. Well, okay, Laura’s my wife so she was a touch easier to entice – but only a touch. Then there’s Jay Dunn, who I’ve worked with since college and adore. Myles Walker’s a newcomer and recent grad who I truly think will be a star. And I’ve got the best “horror kid” in the business in the brilliant young Cody Braverman, who brought so much light and to joy to the set.

Coming from theatre myself, working with actors is one of my favourite things about directing. And these collaborations make up some of my favourite memories from our chilly February in Binghamton NY. I sincerely love and appreciate their performances without exception, and I just hope the film does them proud.

Does it feel good to be returning to Grimmfest after the positive reaction to The Witch in the Window?

Hell yes. Grimmfest was easily one of my favourite stops on The Witch in the Window circuit. Not twenty minutes after getting off the plane in Manchester I was throwing axes, surrounded by the friendliest film-loving people imaginable, all totally determined to drink me under every table. Not a hard feat, sadly. But I gave it a go. I’m not sure I’ll be returning in the flesh this time around, but either way, it does my heart good to know that their incredible audiences are going to get to see the film on the big screen. 

The Harbinger will screen at Grimmfest 2022.

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