After 25 years in the business, Danielle Harris has finally found herself. Not that she's been working aimlessly—in fact, the 35-year-old "scream queen" hasn't stopped to catch her breath since she made her acting debut, at the age of 10, in 1988's Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, followed a year later by Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. Before returning to the Myers world in both of Rob Zombie's recent Halloween films (2007, 2009), Harris worked in every other genre, including comedy (Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead), action (The Last Boy Scout), and kid-friendly cinema (Free Willy). Once Zombie's '07 Halloween remake debuted, though, Harris' reign as one of horror's most beloved actresses kicked into high gear and has yet to slow down.
Until now. This August, Harris' first film as a director, the horror-comedy Among Friends, will hit DVD shelves, signaling the beginning of the Queens native's career transition into becoming a filmmaker first, and actress second. Set in the 1980s, Among Friends shows what happens at one of the worst dinner parties imaginable, one in which old pals start doing terrible things to one another as personal secrets get exposed.
Initially, Among Friends represented the chance for Harris to express herself artistically in a new way, but the production's biggest aftereffect was something she didn't anticipate: Having previously deferred to male directors in the past, Harris was able to call all of the shots, and, in the process, gained a new, profound sense of self-worth and heightened confidence. Something she—like fellow scream queens turned directors Debbie Rochon and Jessica Cameron—would advise any hard-working actress in the horror realm, women who've gone topless, ran through woods screaming, and fake-died too many times in other people's movies.
You bring an interesting perspective to this discussion, being that you're a veteran actress who's tirelessly worked in the horror genre.
It's really interesting, because most of the leads in these movies are women. I've always noticed that, with all of the male directors who've directed me, there was this lack of understanding about the emotional journey that a woman goes through during something as traumatic as what happens to a woman during one of these movies. That's one of the reasons why I wanted to direct. I wasn't really getting that, and I didn't know if it was because these guys were fans of mine who didn't want to tell me how to do something. I'm still an actor, though, and I want to be challenged, and I wasn't getting that. As a director, I was able to talk to my actors, who were mostly female, and get them to go to these deeper places emotionally. I wasn't able to do that with the help of most of the male directors I've worked with.
Sexualizing stuff becomes an issue too. Listen, I've done a lot of love scenes, and I've done nudity in movies, and there's this unavoidable, undeniable awkwardness. As a woman, though, I'm able to get in there during a scene like that and the actresses trust me.
Your directorial debut, Among Friends, has a predominantly female cast and mostly women working behind the scenes. Was that a conscious decision?
There was some statistic recently that said that only 18% of the people behind the camera are women. When I see a woman who's a grip on set, I say, "Hell yeah!" I'm not quite sure what's stopping us besides ourselves. I've definitely heard women say, "I don't have a voice," whereas men don't care about that. On Among Friends, there were three women producers and myself as the director. It's really hard when you have all women.
There's an emotional component to the filmmaking process that maybe some women shouldn't expose themselves to. Maybe some women shouldn't be in the business. You have to have a big fucking set of balls. I'm a woman director who's looking for $1 million but I'm not bringing $1 million to the table. I've got to go in there, sell this movie, get someone to give me a check for $1 million and make them believe that they're going to get five times that much back, if not 15. I have to have them trust me, so that means I have to go in there with 100% confidence. I can't be a yes-girl. I can't roll over and say, "Whatever you want," which is what I think a lot of women do. That's what I did, honestly, for my first movie. There was a lot of me just being happy to have the opportunity and not realizing that you have to have a voice. You have to fight.
You weren't as demanding on set, due to the insecurities of being a first-time director?
Not to be cheesy, but I watched Beyonce's documentary, and she had one line in there where she said something like, "I don't get anywhere in life by being polite," and she's right. There's a way to be professional, but you have to open up your mouth, and some women are just happy to have the opportunity and don't want to jeopardize that.
I remember when I was shooting Among Friends, something wasn't going according to plan. Quentin Tarantino is a friend of mine, and somebody on my set said, "If this was happening on Quentin's set, what would he do?" And I said, "He would fucking fire everybody." And they said, "Well, why aren't you?" I was like, "Well, because…you know…I don't know." And I don't mean Quentin now—I mean Quentin back in the day. I don't know why women feel like we have to say, "I understand why you're doing this," when it should be, "No, dude, just fucking get it done." I'm not going to be so nice the next time around.
I definitely was excited for the opportunity. We literally got the money in our bank six days before we were going to shoot, and we shot the movie in 10 days, and we had seven leads cast in every scene. We had three cameras, a crew there for basically free, and sometimes you get what you pay for. It's like having eighth graders mixed with Harvard grads, so it's very difficult to put that level of people with newer people, but everybody has to learn. It definitely was incredibly challenging, and I knew I only had certain things available to me. I learned a lot, like not shooting a movie in such a cramped, rushed period of time.
God love [Among Friends producer] Jennifer [Blanc-Biehn], but she recently approached me with, "We have something that we'd love for you to direct. It's super low-budget and has a really quick shooting schedule." I wrote back with, "No thanks." [Laughs.] To me, that's not an opportunity—that sounds like hell again. I need a production company, I need seasoned people that can get it done. I'm going to be a producer next time. It needs to flow a little bit differently, but I leaned so much that I wouldn't change anything about it. I learned more on that movie than I did any other movie in my entire career.
It seems like directing your first movie has given you an all-new level of confidence.
Absolutely. That's why I said you have to go in there and own your shit. I think that's why I've been more successful inside the genre than out of it, because I know when I walk into the room, there's nobody better than me for the role. When it comes to horror, I know this, and I feel that way about directing to now. I know that I'm a kick-ass director. I think I'm a better director than I am an actor, and I think I'm a pretty good actor.
The script that I'm optioning out now, it's been around for awhile and the screenwriter has had some very big people interested, and she's said no. I got her on the phone and told her my vision of it, and she got excited about it, saying, "I hope you get to make my movie," and I told her, "Oh, I'm going to make this movie, I'm telling you, by the end of the year," and she said, "I know you are." I have no doubt that I'll make it. I'm going to find the money within the next two months. I don't think a lot of women have that confidence.
Especially if they feel like most men are looking at them sexually, not professionally.
I'm an actor, so I'm coming into it from having so much previous experience in the business. You just don't know. You're just like, "Eh, this guy's full of shit," but that's just from being a woman in general. As an actress, I had other actress friends who had those casting couch situations—I fortunately never had that happen, but I definitely had friends who were meeting with the directors, producers, and bigger stars of movies and were asked to go have meetings with drinks or in private places, and I would say, "Don't fuck him. If you fuck him, you're never going to get the job. I'm telling you right now, if you don't fuck him, he's probably going to cast you."
Listen, if I walk into a room as a director to pitch my script to financiers and they find me attractive, I'll probably get my money more than if they don't find me attractive, and, oh, well. You don't have to fuck them, but I'm more than happy to have them give me the budget for my movie. They can think whatever they want—for me, it's all business. But that's just men. It happens. It's not going to stop me from making my movie.
Has being a scream queen worked to your advantage, in terms of getting people to pay attention to Among Friends?
I maybe don't have the "Is this girl for real?" thing because I'm an actor and I'm already known and have that established kind of respect. But I do have a little bit of that, "Oh, she's an actress who's trying to direct, like they all want to do." That's what I'm afraid they're thinking, and the other thing is I look so young and that I'm tiny. They can be like, "Oh, good for you! You're so cute!" And my response to that, "I'll fucking rip you right now. I'll destroy you on set, so don't think I'm so cute, because I'm not." Maybe I have short-man complex, I don't know, but I don't want to be stereotyped as some cute little actress who's trying to direct. I know what I'm doing.
The fact that I was able to make Among Friends for nothing, in 10 days, and sell it to Lionsgate and Anchor Bay Canada and pull that movie out of my ass the first time out of the gate, they're like, "Wow, that's awesome." Now they're listening. I just hired an attorney, and me going in there, saying I have something I want to option, knowing that I have nothing to lose—I don't give a fuck anymore. I don't care. I don't need a career anymore. I'm getting married, I want to have babies. I could be done with all of this and be super-happy that I've had an amazing run. I don't feel panicked about anything.
Directing Among Friends has woken me up to my own self-worth. I had a meeting with an attorney the other day, and he said, "You've got to be careful because your next movie could make or break you. You have to hire an amazing editor and an amazing DP. If it doesn't work, you could have a hard time finding another job." I was like, "No, no, no. Hang on a second—no, it won't. A, I'll never let that happen, and, B, I will always be able to work. Somebody will always give me another opportunity. I don't have to direct the winner of Sundance to be recognized. I will always be able to direct and act. There's no make-or-break—I'm already made, and I don't worry about being broken."
I may not make a movie that everybody likes, I may not make the next great Paranormal Activity franchise. It'd be awesome if Saw happened, but am I looking for it? No. Would I rather make a movie like Spring Breakers? Yes.
What has been the biggest impact you've felt from directing Among Friends?
It was the experience of making Among Friends that made me stop and say, "Wow, I didn't realize that I had a voice in this world." I started off with the attitude of, wow, I get to direct! And then I started noticing how certain festivals didn't want the movie unless I came with it. I was thinking, Oh, it's the fact that I made the movie that's getting people interested in it. I get it now. I didn't see the value that I brought to it; I was just excited that the producers trusted me with money to make a movie, but I realized that they know I'm marketable.
Now, I don't think that people who cast me in movies necessarily think I'm an amazing actress—they know that they'll probably get more money if they sell a movie with my name attached to it. Originally, I would say, "Oh, that's great, you want to be a part of your project!" But I've had to take a step back and go, "OK, I bring some kind of value to the table," and I had to learn that through directing my first movie. It's not an ego thing—I know I can make things happen on my own. And now I'm doing it on my own.
I've come a long way from thinking people only wanted me because they liked the way I die in movies, or because they grew up watching me in Halloween 4. That's what I thought of myself. Now, it's, "Oh, fuck—they're not hiring me because they like me. They're hiring me because they want to make money.