“Animal Among Us” is a new movie by director John Woodruff who discovered his passion for acting when he was in high school. Formally a self-confessed class clown, Woodruff decided it was better he spent less time making trouble and more time doing some creative and productive. All these years later, turns out it was a wise decision, with Woodruff now both an accomplished actor and filmmaker. Woodruff’s latest film, horror throwback “Animal Among Us”, is released on DVD and Digital later this month and he was happy to discuss it via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): You started as an actor?
John Woodruff (JW): You could say that, I was introduced to theater my freshman year of high school by a teacher who was perceptive enough to manage my ill-placed theatrics in her class by making me audition for the high school play instead of squelching my ambitions with detention. The play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I was cast as Flute/Thisby which entailed playing a girl and I was mortified. I went to a small rural high school where I wrestled and played soccer, so I was sure that this would lead to my social demise and I would be laughed out of town. Suffice to say that it DID illicit the laughs, but the experience had quite the opposite result on my social life… suddenly everyone in school knew who I was and wanted me to do the part from the play and give them a laugh, so there was no going back after that! My teachers knew that I would do my best to make a mockery of the role, which I did, and to a degree that is exactly what the piece called for, so I ended up a fortunate victim of their wisdom and foresight and for that I’m forever grateful-
MM: When did you decide you wanted to pursue filmmaking?
JW: Kind of late in the game, actually. I had never even considered filmmaking earlier in life because it seemed like such a far-off magical thing… I could imagine being an actor, but it never occurred to me that maybe I could actually make a film until I started to be exposed to the process through acting… The first time was in college, when I took a class called Acting For the Camera which was actually very production oriented. You have to realize that we didn’t even have cell phones or laptops back then, haha! Maybe a few kids that were ahead of the curve, but most of us were still going to the computer lab to get on the internet and mad when we had to do that! So even while I was in college, the technology really wasn’t readily available to make a film unless you had been exposed to film or beta or MAYBE had a camcorder, but to make a REAL film was a very hard thing to do because of how hard it was to get your hands on the tools that were necessary to make a REAL movie… SO when I got out of college, a lot of the stuff I was acting in was being shot on mini-DV and it was OK, but there were still a lot of steps in the process as far as digitizing footage and stuff and honestly, the quality still was nowhere close to that of film… it was around this time that I fell into modelling, which took me to NYC and then on to Japan. It was there that I became exposed to the SLR camera… these photographers were shooting behind the scenes videos and fashion videos on the same cameras that they were shooting stills on and the video looked SPECTACULAR. It was then that I finally knew that I could try to make a film… the technology had finally reached a point that made sense to me, and so I started developing my first short film.
MM: And have you let the acting go, completely?
JW: Well… never say never, right? Haha! But to be fair, yeah, I have. I realized I was over it when I was getting annoyed that I was receiving auditions. And I felt TERRIBLE about it because I realized how hard it was to get those auditions and how many people out there would die for them. That was when I knew that it was time to let it go. That was a hard thing to accept because I recognized the value of the opportunity and I appreciated it and had worked very hard for it, but my heart just wasn’t in to it and I just can’t do anything that my heart isn’t into. That’s a bit of a blessing and a curse I suppose…
MM: When was this? How many years back?
JW: Like everything, it was a process and ironically that process began when I moved to LA about 8 years ago. The acting experience is very different in LA than acting in NYC or random places a project might take you, so I immediately felt different about it upon getting here. Plus, I had the opportunity to meet and work for some pretty successful actors as well as a former studio head, which gave me a lot of perspective on the “lifestyle” of a successful actor vs someone outside of the industry vs someone behind the scenes who still works in the industry. To me, the studio head had it made. He could go anywhere, get into anything and had access to everything but was able to maintain a high degree of ambiguity and that was very appealing to me. As for when I fully accepted the fact that I needed to let the acting go and finally walked away from it, that was only about 2-3 years ago. We were deep into ANIMAL and it was consuming all of my energy, attention and passion and every time I would get called into for an audition, I was so frustrated that I had to step away from the film that I eventually just took a hiatus with my agency… which I never returned from… I think they knew before I did, haha-
MM: What was the first film you directed?
JW: The first film I directed was a short film called Reflections. I developed it with a friend that I went way back with, we did a lot of improv. together and were room mates in NYC. We wrote something that we could shoot in and around the apartment, with minimal people involved and that we felt had a high likelihood of success. And by success, we just meant watchable. I think the script was about 6 pages long and the film was a very impressionistic drama- which is funny because he is a professional comedian and corporate humourist and I’m a horror guy, but it just felt like something we could make and succeed at making. One of my oldest friends who was a photographer and who had worked on a lot of the films I had worked on, had some really nice lenses and an early SLR, the T1i, and was down to shoot it. He’s a brilliant photographer and we have very similar tastes visually, so it made sense to have him DP it. My girlfriend at the time, who was also a model acted in with me. We shot over a weekend, just the 4 of us and the film was completed in a total of about 6 months from conception to completion. Did the whole thing for 500 bucks. It wasn’t embarrassing and I felt fulfilled doing it, so I immediately started developing the next one…
MM: And how do you think you’ve improved as a filmmaker since then?
JW: Well, inevitably you learn by doing, so one of the interesting things about the actual process of filmmaking for me is that it is a long enough process that by the time I’m in post with something, I’m looking back at development or production wishing that I had done something differently (or better) and then by the time the film is finished, I’m looking back at post wishing that I had done something differently (or better). So you learn almost faster than you can make the stuff, so hopefully I’ve improved in every way… ironically, so much of it isn’t the filmmaking itself, it’s the business side of it, the financing, the publicity and marketing, the legalities, the leadership and management aspects… I would say that those are the areas that I have grown the most… how to better position a project for success and balance the workload, how to set myself and my team up for success by giving them what they need to work to their potential, thus improving the process and overall quality of the product exponentially.
MM: Has one of your films opened more doors for you than another?
JW: So, from the time we made the first short, I knew that I eventually wanted to see if I could make a feature. Primarily at that time to try to advance my career as an actor. That was my personal goal the whole time, so each subsequent project was designed with that in mind. Of course, I thought I could make a feature, but I didn’t KNOW if I could, so in a way I was kind of trying to prove that to myself and to my potential future team members should I get the opportunity to make a feature. So, in reality each film opened the door for the next film and let the next film become a reality, eventually leading to Animal Among Us. Animal is definitely the most visible and is my first feature as the director and one of the lead producers so a lot of potential opportunities are now presenting themselves which is refreshing, amazing, and much appreciated as it was a much longer, more arduous road to even get to this point than I ever anticipated, haha!
MM: Tell us about “Animal Among Us”?
JW: Animal Among Us is written by Jonathan Murphy, who was also the other lead producer on the film, and I would describe it as a psychological horror film in the guise of a bloody-camp subgenre film. It leads the viewer right up to a lot of the standard tropes found within the bloody-camp subgenre, only to then take a severe left turn at the last moment, hopefully hitting the viewer with something a bit unexpected to keep them off balance and guessing throughout the film. It’s a lot of fun and we set out to make the most fun, scary film that we possibly could and I think the pacing and energy of the film really reflects that… If nothing else, it should at the very least be a fun watch.
MM: The movie might be best described as an ‘old-school’ horror movie. Is that fair to say?
JW: I’d say that’s fair, it’s set in the present, but we played to a high level of nostalgia and sentiment in order to make the film feel familiar to the viewer, so that when they are in the world of Animal Among Us they feel like they’ve been there before. Like it’s always been there. We played deeply to the history of the genre, even throwing some fun nods in to some of our favourite films, characters, authors and moments from the late 70’s through the 80’s… I think it will be fun for audiences to look for some of those references and hopefully they will be effective in adding to the familiarity and sentiment of the film. I‘ve personally found that there is a fun factor and an innocence about some of the horror films from that era that I feel like have been lost in more recent times, like the films have become too self aware, so we wanted to try to capture some of that naivety that make some of those films so fun and thusly so loved… We really tried to find a nice balance between the comedy and the horror, the campiness and the cool… at the end of the day, our number one goal was to give the viewer something fun that they would want to visit again and again…
MM: And do you have a man in the suit for the creature, just like the old days?
JW: Several, actually… lots of people got thrown into the suit on this one, haha- Just like the old days!
MM: Can you tell us what else you have coming up?
JW : I’m deep in development on what I think will be my next feature, Fear the Dead… Whereas our goal on Animal was to make the most fun scary movie we possibly could, my goal with Fear is to make the scariest movie I possibly can… but if there is one thing I’ve learned from Animal Among Us, it’s that you never know what will happen next…