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JT Petty Talks Cowboys and Monsters in The Burrowers

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S&MAN director JT Petty returns to the Toronto Film Festival with his latest film, The Burrowers, and talks to about why he traded in the world of snuff films in his last feature for the cowboys and creatures of this one.

Q: When you look at your previous films, particularly S&MAN, The Burrowers is a completely different sort of film for you. What made you want to make a western?

A: It started as much about making a western as making a horror movie. I’ve always loved the hell out of westerns and a lot of what went into The Burrowers is that when you think about how to try and scare people now, you have to figure out how to break the genre conventions a little bit. It’s like how Hostel killed off who you think will be the main character at the thirty-minute mark and let the funny sidekick be the main character. I thought that was a really effective way of throwing you off balance. Or like Audition, which seems to be like a romantic comedy…

Q: …Until the bag jumps.

A: Until the bag jumps, totally. I had no idea who Takashi Miike was
when I saw it and when the bag jumps, that was as freaked out as I’ve
been at a movie in a long time. So, for this movie, it was this time
period where people were living in. When you walk into a western and
set off down that path you’re expecting that the John Wayne type
character is going to be able to do something for you, that the Jimmy
Stewart character is going to be able to do something for you. But when
the monsters show up, those characters have no use anymore. They just
don’t know how to deal with it. I wanted to make something that would
throw an audience off balance that way.

Q: How did you develop the idea of your creature?

A: It was important to me that the creature wasn’t this sort of Freddy
Krueger, hand-rubbing villain taking pleasure in hurting people. It’s
an animal just doing what it does. And so while a lot of the movie is
about setting up a very consistent and compelling history and mythology
of what the monster is and how it works, that still doesn’t make them
fully characters: You still have to let your villains be human.

Q In The Burrowers, the horror isn’t just in the creature, it’s also about the human interactions.

I think the human element is important. I think it comes really
naturally to this kind of story. It’s what Stephen King does do well.
You’re set up against some supernatural threat but it’s what that
inspires in people and their interactions with each other that makes
things really scary. Like
in Aliens, when Burke is going to close the door and let the face hugger
go at Ripley.  That scene is so much more awful than most of what the
aliens do.

And for this film, specifically, so much of what
it’s about is the lack of communication. I think a lot of the horrors
that were perpetrated in the old west were simply messy reactions to
things that they didn’t understand: The whole tragic history between
cowboys and Indians could have easily been resolved if they just spoke
each other’s language.

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