John McNaughton is the acclaimed Chicago-based director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and cult classic Wild Things (1998), and is making his return to the big screen for the first time in a over a decade with the dark coming-of-age drama The Harvest. Despite McNaughton's “break” he still managed to attract esteemed actors Michael Shannon, Samantha Morton, and Peter Fonda, who all give stellar performances, as do the two child actors, Charlie Tahan and Natasha Calis, who on more than one occasion steal the show.

The script, penned by first-time screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti, is almost like a contemporary reworking of a Grimm's Fairy Tale, in which a lonely girl moves in with her grandparents after the death of her father and strikes up a friendship with a terminally ill shut-in boy who lives nearby. However, the boy has a wicked surgeon mother, who is prone to paranoiac outbursts and harbors a dark secret.

FilmLinc talked organ harvesting, horror, and the film industry with McNaughton. The Harvest plays tonight at 7pm as part of the Film Society’s Scary Movies series, which runs through November 6. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with McNaughton, Lancellotti, producer Steven A. Jones, and actor Michael Shannon.

FilmLinc: How was it working with Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon and what was the process like of getting them on board?

John McNaughton: Michael is from Chicago, but I didn’t really know him. At the time he was doing amazing work. I worked with producer Steven A. Jones for 30 years and he knew Michael. He was so edgy and raw and gifted, everyone thought he would be doing Garage Theatre in Chicago forever. Interestingly, Michael’s first big success was from a play called Killer Joe, which was written by Tracy Letts. Tracy came to Chicago and started writing and acting—and has since won the Pulitzer and Tony for acting and writing, while Michael’s been nominated for the Academy Award. A lot of good things came out of that fringe theatre scene. When we were getting ready to cast the play we set up shop in New York and Steven called Michael who agreed to do the picture, which helped us get Samantha, as they had worked together on Jesus’ Son [1999].

My prominent skill is getting great performances from actors and I think the skill there is hiring good actors as well as being smart enough not to micro-manage them. It was very difficult being in the headspace they had to be in for those characters. Not only that but Michael was simultaneously in a play on Broadway as an entirely different character—a burn victim no less.

Samantha playing this kind of mother must have been hard—she’s already a mother of three. We talked to other actresses who were mothers, but they had no interest in going to the mental space they had to go. Most of my pictures take very brave actors and they’re both very brave and serious people when it comes to their craft. In the scene where Michael admits he’s had an affair we were pushed for time so I just let them improv. It was a big risk, not planning the shots, but I just remember feeling lucky that I got to watch this brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime [performance]. 

The Harvest director John McNaughton.

FL: What appealed to you about the coming-of-age theme? The film has been referred to as a Stand by Me meets Misery. You're known for blending dark humor and taboo subjects, like in your milestone horror film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and this was an interesting frame for those topics.

JM: When I read the original screenplay I saw the bones of a fairy tale, so I started reading fairy-tale literature and I found this book called The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim. He was a psychiatrist who trained in Germany and escaped in the war years, moving to Chicago. He then became the chair of the psychiatry department at the University of Chicago, specializing in child psychology. His feeling was that fairy tales are very beneficial to the development of children and used certain key  examples. Hansel and Gretel really melded with this story—the little girl leading the boy through the woods, the wicked mother trying to dispose of them, and the father who is very weak-willed. I like to tie stories into classic themes. The taking of a child’s heart is a very strong metaphor, your parents want to keep you a child: they want your heart. Your duty is to become an adult and escape from their clutches. To Hollywoodize it, I wouldn’t call it Stand by Me meets Misery but Hansel and Gretel meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

FL: Watching it, the organ-harvesting theme made me think of Michael Crichton’s Coma. It’s such an unusual topic. Did you have any influence over the script and why did it attract you?

JM: What attracts me to a script is the stories and seeing something new. I try to stay away from horror. A lot of work was done on the script as the original was a classic scary horror movie. Human behavior motivates me. I see Henry as a character study about people who do horrific things. I remember when I did Wild Things, I read the script and was attracted by the twists and turns. As crazy and insane as the story is, I could see it happening and when I realize that, I can direct the actors. I’ve known princes and princesses, real ones, to murderers, I know the gamut of human behavior. I feel someone is going to attempt something that crazy in the real world. Very wealthy people who may want an organ for example.

FL: There's something very attractive about the lighting and color in The Harvest. It's naturalistic with a touch of the surreal. How did you make the decisions about the look of the piece?

JM: I hired a young woman named Rachel Morrison, who was Director of Photography on Fruitvale Station [2013]. I was very impressed by her. I interviewed numerous cinematographers and Rachel had a personality I thought would work well with the kids. I tend to hire people I know are really good. I shoot things myself and I know cameras really well, but in general I leave it to the professionals. 

We were also very fortunate to have a colorist called Andrew Francis. I gave him some books of still photographers and various artists so we could work on the aesthetics not the technicality. I wanted a kind of a hyper real and he really delivered.

FL: The child actors, Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan, were also exceptional. What was the process of finding and working with them?

JM: I couldn’t have been more fortunate. We found Charlie in New York but were still looking for the girl. One day I got a call from Kyra Sedgwick who I knew from Wild Things when she would visit Kevin Bacon on set. Kyra said she’d worked with this 12-year-old girl that was the best actor she'd seen in a long time. So we had her put on tape from Vancouver and she was just an incredible actress. Both children had amazing chemistry. I can’t wait to see how they grow and to work with them in the future. I actually have a script that is perfect for when they’re a bit older.

FL: This is your first film in 15 years. Why the return now?

JM: It wasn’t an enforced hiatus. I had a couple of things in development but then 9/11 happened and there were about 10 directors on the circuit that the studios were hiring but no one else. I decided to focus on TV and come back when the right project came up.