As an avid director, writer, and actor going back to his youth in New York, Thomas J. Churchill has a lot of experience in the indie and b-movie worlds that makes for great stories. I talked with him about his new thriller Nation’s Fire, the simple joys of monster makeup, and a possible ghost encounter on set.
Edmund Barker: Can you tell us a bit more about your newest film, Nation’s Fire, and what it’s about?
Thomas J Churchill: Yes. Nation’s Fire is coming out on video-on-demand platforms and on DVD…it’s an action-thriller biker film about family, strength, and honor. It stars Bruce Dern, Chuck Liddell, Lou Ferrigno Jr., Gil Bellows, and Krista Grotte Saxon, just to name a few. It’s…it’s a biker flick with heart, and there’s a lot of moving pieces in the film…basically, the movie is about family, and what one will do to protect their own, pretty much. It deals with a lot of family values and strengths, it also pretty much determines that family doesn’t have to be blood in order to have one’s back.
EB: Now in your newest movie you got to work with some big actors like Bruce Dern. Can you tell me what it was like contacting him or being on set with him?
TJC: Well, Bruce Dern is an icon—you know, two-time Academy Award nominee. I had an amazing time working with him, I got to learn a lot from him. Got to learn an Old Hollywood-101 crash course, pretty much. What’s funny is that Bruce Dern kind of loosely plays a character based on my dad. My dad wasn’t a biker, but a lot of things my dad did, Bruce Dern based [the character] on…Bruce Dern was one of my dad’s favorite actors, and I wanted to do something to keep my dad’s memory alive. I lost my father five years ago, right before I started to make Checkpoint. So, Bruce, when he read the script, said “This guy sounds like he’s someone really, really dear to you, is he based on a real person?” I said, “Yes.” He asked who, and I said, “My father.” He said, “I’m gonna make your father proud,” and you know, he made me proud with how he portrayed the character, it was great.
EB: I can see from your IMDB that you’ve been making movies since you were a teenager with a VHS camera. What are some filmmakers or movie houses that really inspired you back in your DIY period?
TJC: I was born and raised in New York. We used to go to movies all the time, my father would take me when my mom was cooking or when I came back from school, to get away…we always went to the theater. I blame my father, who was not in this business, for introducing me at an early age to the world of motion pictures. My father was a big film buff, he taught me who actors were and kind of broke it down for me. If I saw an actor in costume, he’d tell me who that was. For example, back in the day there was the show BJ and the Bear, with Claude Atkins who was Sheriff Lobo. Now, I was a big Planet of the Apes fan, and I learned he played one of the gorillas in those movies. I found that fascinating, as a child, finding out that it’s all pretend; it’s this guy playing this person doing that with makeup…it made me wanna know more about that artform, what’s behind the screen. But it wasn’t until Star Wars premiered—A New Hope, can’t even say the original anymore because there’s nine of them—when that came out, that was the movie where I wanted to be there. I wanted to know everything: how do you get into that world? How do people react? It reminds me that a few years after Darth Vader, Conan the Barbarian came out, and my father said “that guy right there was Darth Vader,” and he’s talking about James Earl Jones. So, at a certain age I always like to learn little things about movies, little tidbits. When I realized that actors weren’t just people up on the screen, once again I was with my father, at the Central Park Zoo, and he pointed out actor Fred Williamson. “See that guy over there? He’s a movie star.” Now, again, this was before internet, before cable, before all that stuff. So I beelined over to Fred Williamson to tell him I wanted to be an actor, and I realized these people are not just on the screen, but in real life. That made me really want to know more about this world.
EB: When did you first think you might be interested in acting as well as filmmaking? I saw you had a small part in the Steve Buscemi-directed Trees Lounge from 1996.
TJC: I was just an extra in that…years before, I was up for a [child] part in the movie The Champ, in the top five in New York. And they cast Jon Voight and I didn’t look like him, and they ended up getting Rick Schroeder to be in the movie. But still, when I was sever years old I was picked out of hundreds to be the top five, so the acting bug was always there. I popped up in music videos and background roles like Trees Lounge. When I was seventeen, I convinced my dad to buy me a video camera, as the story goes. I basically wanted to shoot a movie showcasing my talents as an actor, and I ended up falling in love with the entire process of moviemaking. Actually, it was a bit before that—a friend of mine in junior high school was doing something called The New York Junior Showcase Company, and it was about actors and models. I ended up auditioning to get in there with him, and I was picked as an actor. We did stage plays and everything, and I loved the vibe of how the audience worked off of you and you worked off of the audience’s energy. I wrote my first story as a play, which was called The Warmaster, and that got a standing ovation. So a year later I decided to make that play into a feature, and convinced dad to get me a video camera. All I wanted to do was play the character, but I fell in love with the [filmmaking] process. I fell in love with putting it together, getting the locations, getting the other actors…creating the world. Then I started making films where I could act in them. I’ve also been in other people’s movies, which made me feel validated…I had a role in a movie called Samurai Cop 2, and in Syndicate Smasher. Then the producers of the movie The Rat Pack, which I went to direct, wrote a role for me. They wanted me to play this one character, and I said, “Nah, I’m just here to direct the film.” And they were like, “You HAVE to play this role.” They wrote a role called Antonio, and I created his whole look and style. I worked opposite C. Thomas Howell as an actor, and as a director it was one of the first films I directed myself in.
EB: What are some of the challenges that come with making something like a horror film with creature fx on an indie budget?
TJC: Well, when you have some great special effects artists, you can. For the last few projects I’ve been working with Joe Castro, and he’s a brilliant magician in the form of special effects. I like pushing people to do things better, and working with Joe, we both push each other to create something disturbing or good. Joe worked me with first on Nation’s Fire, where he did all the basic effects in the film, and then we went on to do a few other projects. We did a movie that him and I and Steven Escobar produced, called Xenophobia, which was a sci-fi film—it was great working with aliens and stuff. We did a movie called Big Freakin’ Rat, where there’s a giant rat, a bit like Friday the 13th meets Jaws with rats. We did a vampire movie called Amityville Harvest with creatures…creatures, when done right, play a big part in a movie. I’ve done a lot of horror thrillers, but I’ve also done a lot of action thrillers. But creatures do have a big part when doing a creature feature.
EB: I see you were also on SyFy’s Monster Man reality show when they made a werewolf. What was that like?
TJC: At the time, we were gonna make a film called Hollow Point, and I was working with another effects house, SOTA. They were doing a reality show about their special effects house, and I ended up pitching a concept I wanted them to work on for a werewolf movie. The SyFy Network was there shooting, and I didn’t know what they were doing—they asked me if I wanted to come on camera and do the same thing, pitch my concept. So I was supposed to do it for one day, and it ended up being four or five days. Out of the six episodes, that one, episode two, was the most watched. Unfortunately, the series didn’t get enough attention for it to come back, and I think the team didn’t wanna do another season. So, that was my first experience as a reality TV star! Didn’t think I would ever do that, but it was fun; it was different. It was a fun experience, I had a good time doing it.
EB: Pie-in-the-sky question time. Someone suddenly gives you one hundred million dollars to shoot the movie of your dreams, what would it look like?
TJC: Well, if you got a hundred million dollars, you could have a hundred million mistakes or a hundred million blessings. If you have the right team in place and someone gives you a hundred million dollars, of course, it’d look really, really good. What would I do with it? I’d probably do maybe two films, and work with some A-list talent I’ve grown up watching. Or, I’d do something that’s just phenomenal—look at James Wan. Ten years ago, James Wan was pitching the concept for Saw as an indie guy out of Australia. Then he started to make it, and did a movie called Dead Silence that nobody liked, so he came back and did Insidious, which was big. Then he gets the opportunity to do a big studio movie like The Fast and the Furious 7. They give him a hundred million dollars to do it, and his main star gets killed making the movie, and now he’s gotta come up with a way to fix it and create a beloved character—how do you tell that story? And he did it, he fixed it, and it made like a billion dollars. And he went on to do a couple more horror movies like The Conjuring 1 and 2, and then he got Aquaman, which cost two hundred million. So you know, “pie-in-the-sky” as you say, but sometimes that pie really comes into fruition…one thing I hope never happens to me is for my team to not challenge me. “Tom, why do you want to do this, why do you want to do that?” I never want anybody to just yes me, because it’s something they think I wanna hear. I’m a big Star Wars fan to a degree, and people get mad when I say I’m not a big prequel fan, but I learned to respect the prequels because they’re still telling their story. But somewhere when Lucas was doing Episodes I to III, someone should’ve said “that’s a terrible idea” to certain things, but everyone was a yes man. Then you’ve got the controversy with Episode VIII, with older fans who hated it and others who loved it. Looking at its lore, it’s conflicting—if you look at it from the perspective of people who loved the Original Trilogy, Episode VIII broke every rule of that. But if you look at it from the perspective of the people who watched the Prequels, and follow the canon throughout, it’s a different story, and it’s fine.
EB: Your website says you’re putting out your first novel this year, which interested me as a fellow horror writer. Can you tell us about the book?
It’s gonna be towards the end of the year…there’s a couple of things I was asked to write, and it’s kinda like a zombie book, and it’s probably gonna be towards the last quarter of the year.
EB: I’ll keep an eye out for it. One last question—what’s the strangest on-set story from a movie you’ve been involved with?
TJC: I guess there’s different levels of strange, but to keep with the horror theme…we just finished shooting a movie that’s in post, The Amityville Harvest, and the location we used was haunted. We went in hearing it was haunted, and whether people believe it or not, we found out it was. One of my scripties had this camera always by her side, and she never lost a camera…but it disappeared from her side, and she has been using the same camera for twenty years. We heard kids laughing and clapping in the background at times, and one of my production designers was standing outside this door with frosted red glass, and behind it you could see images without really seeing what it was. So he’s standing outside on the porch talking to people, and he sees something move behind the red window. So he went to open the front door and found this tall guy, about six foot, in a white suit. And he smiled at him, so my production designer smiled back and closed the door. Then he was looking around to see who that was, because it was a location that was locked off with no way in it. It was private property—in fact, a museum area we rented with no one around. The doors were all locked and closed. So he calls me, I get off from lunch and go over to him, and he says he thinks he saw a ghost. And as we were talking we hear the front door close and people walk, but the front door was already closed. Once inside the house we heard more kids laughing and clapping. Then the lady who owns the house comes in and says “Can you describe what that person looks like?” We immediately describe, and she had a smile on her face and says that it’s Mister Harold, and everyone sees him, since it used to be his house. THAT creeped me out! …at the same house, they kept telling us there was this one locked room they didn’t want anybody in, it was closed at all times. So we were filming on the second floor, and there was what sounded like a door opening, but no one paid attention. Then we turn around and see the door that was supposed to be locked was now open. So I walked over to that and said out loud, “We’re just making a movie here, we don’t mean any harm, you have a lovely, lovely house!” I closed the door again and walked away, and it freaked me out. The atmosphere was very thick. You’ll be able to see the house when The Amityville Harvest comes out!
Photo Credits: Thomas J. Churchill and Thomas Churchwell