The Making of An American Terror

The following article is an interview I conducted for the Colorado Film and Video Association with Haylar Garcia about the making of his feature film, An American Terror.

With an undisclosed budget, a 30 person crew made up of 98% Coloradans and a three week shooting schedule, Haylar Garcia’s American Terror took on Denver by becoming one of Colorado’s most well known horror films. “It’s my grim fantasy about what I wish would have happened BEFORE Columbine.” Says Mr. Garcia, writer and director of American Terror. Here’s how it was made.
Colorado native, Haylar Garcia, was working as a screenwriter in LA during the scripting process of American terror. “As fate would have it, my lit manager Tarik Heitmann and his producing partner Sam Sleiman, came upon an investor that wanted to make a low budget horror film, but wanted a concept that deviated from the typical formula a bit.” Mr. Garcia compared the project to an assignment. “The idea of a Columbine related film had always been in the back of my mind, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to express it.” When Mr. Garcia was describing the pitch meeting he related it to a whirlwind. What started off as a pitch to sell a script culminated in Garcia and team leading the full film production to Denver, Colorado.

Mr. Garcia knew from the beginning that the film was a bait and switch, type of movie. Think Psycho, transforming from a heist film to jumpstarting the slasher genre. And his vision went according to plan except for the late inclusion of references to James Holmes. “The Aurora shooting happened just as we entered into post. It was a huge crossroads for us.” Without spoiling the movie it is safe to tell you that American Terror dabbles heavily with school shootings, always a sensitive topic for Colorado. “As a Colorado native, I needed the characters to call those horrible memories to mind.” Mr. Garcia spoke about the differences and similarities between Columbine and the Aurora shooting and his movie. “Holmes did not shoot up a school and the actual cause of his actions remains to be fully revealed…I found myself stunned by the instant “fame” that he received both on social media and the news.” The media’s portrayal of Holmes motivated Mr. Garcia to add additional footage to American Terror. “In the end I included some court footage of him, as an example of how our characters perceived that promise of instant iconoclastic fame.” If anything, the addition of the Holmes content only strengthened the film. Mr. Garcia is happy to say that he made the film he set out to make. “Overall, it comes off just as the script had hoped. We feel we are watching one movie, then it takes a sharp left, then once we get used to that path, things circle back around to explain how the bait and switch was really not a switch at all.”

Like any good horror movie, the story is as important as the gore. Thankfully, the characters in American Terror had motivation and purpose. “The hero’s arc is critical in that the character, Josh, (the protagonist) is someone who must navigate a series of social and literal hells in order to find strength when the temptation of revenge seem so much easier.” So what does it take to bring these characters to life? The monster in the film is a meth smoking, bath salt consuming, insane person that wears a predatory bird outfit made from parts of people and vintage war attire. The Costumes were created by costume and FX teams run by Jhene Chase, Melinda Piche and Alan Anderson. “They were just amazing at bringing to life the craziness in my head.” Production Designer Ken Jones took the look and feel of the Junkers Lair and other interiors from the world of Imagination to a reality far beyond what had been dreamed. His multiple sets brought terrifying insanity alive. Working closely with scenic artist Briggs Gillen and set decorator Savanna Johnson he helped to create a horrifying journey into madness. “Those guys worked as an amazing team to bring to life the Junker’s lair which was all built in a warehouse just off of 35th and Brighton Blvd in the RiNo district.”

Post Production was just under two months. 30 days to cut the film, 10 days for sound and 10 days for color with an additional two days for pick-ups. American Terror was conceived, shot and posted in Colorado. The crew was made up of veterans and a few newbies. “Once the younger crew settled into their positions and realized they were there to work, not to play filmmaker, things went swimmingly. I feel like we had a great meld of generations working together. I feel like that is what Colorado needs most.”

Mr. Garcia explained how shooting with a Colorado crew was easier for him than using Californian talent. “Using natives instead of bringing in people from out of state, helps us keep the roots hearty and people here are less jaded.” The American Terror crew rose to the occasion, so much so that the producers of the film plan to bring a much larger budget film into Colorado during the summer of 2014. When I asked Mr. Garcia to give me a moment where Colorado saved his ass, he shared this tidbit; a quote that is a perfect bookend to an article about a horror movie from Colorado. “One night during a stunt using a police car we had an HMI refuse to fire, and it would have spun us out of schedule, LSI came out at 11:00 PM to fix it on the spot, for our little ol’ indie production. That’s where hometown relationships pay off.”

Henry McComas is the senior video producer for Exclusive Resorts and owner of Crooked Lake Productions. He is currently producing his next short film, Wrong Side Up, in Colorado. WSU is a coming of age story about a twelve-year-old boy whose fate is determined by his father’s departure and the impending Dust Bowl as he is forced to care for his family and their farm.

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