I caught up with writer, director, and producer Daniel Farrands for a chat on filmmaking, horror, true crime, influences, the ethics of treating a true tragedy in cinematic form (a subject I've written at length about for The 405), film as catharsis, and more as it relates to his latest, The Amityville Murders, in theaters, On Demand and on Digital now, and his other project The Haunting of Sharon Tate, coming April 5.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate takes its cue from a curious episode which happened to Sharon Tate before her murder in 1969 at the hands of the Manson Family, in which she had reportedly had a premonition of her death.

Stay tuned to The 405 for more on The Haunting of Sharon Tate as it gets closer and watch the trailer for it below this interview. Also, check out my interview with The Amityville Murders star Diane Franklin, at this link.

Ms. Franklin is a veteran of the Amityville franchise, having starred in Amityville II: The Possession where she played daughter Patricia Montelli – a loosely-based on a true story character. In The Amityville Murders, however, she plays one of the real victims, Louise DeFeo, in a tour de force performance that adds tremendous humanity to this very dark story. The Amityville Murders as a film does this too, while giving us a truly disturbing look into the underbelly and dysfunction of what – for most outside accounts – seemed like a normal New York family.  

On the night of November 13, 1974 in Amityville, NY on Long Island, Ronald Joseph DeFeo Jr., also called "Butch", (played by John Robinson in the movie), aged 23, grabbed his father's .35 caliber hunting rifle and went room to room in his family's huge, rambling Dutch colonial house, shooting his mother Louise, father Ron DeFeo, Sr., and his 4 siblings as they lay sleeping in their beds.

One of the oddest parts of the grisly discovery at 112 Ocean Avenue was that only 2 DeFeos stirred as Butch went room to room firing a rifle with a report louder than a jet engine – not even a single neighbor heard the shotsAll of the DeFeos were found on their stomachs in bedThere was also zero evidence of drugs in the victims' systems.

The DeFeo Murders happened two years before the Lutz family would move in and have the experiences that shaped the original 1979 Amityville Horror. As for Butch, he is still in jail (serving 6 concurrent sentences of 25 years to life), after having told a number of stories about the murders – including saying it was actually the mob who killed his family and (at a different time) that voices compelled him to kill. To hear more on the true crime details, check out the Real Monsters podcast here. I will be on it Thursday February 14 for our episode on this bizarre crime.

The rambling Dutch colonial at 112 Ocean Avenue after it became a crime scene. Source:historyvshollywood.com

The DeFeo children. Source:historyvshollywood.com

Enjoy the interview below and catch The Amityville Murders in theaters, on Digital, and On Demand now.

Hello, Dan.

Hello.

How are you?

Hi there, I'm doing well. How are you?

Not bad. Getting right into it what initially inspired you to do a film on the DeFeo murders?

It goes back a lot of years. I had done – back in the 2000s for the History Channel – a two part documentary that was kind of a reinvestigation, if you will, of the truth behind the haunting of the house. The family that is there is there subsequent to the DeFeos but the story also functioned as a kind of a recap and a look back on those mass murders.

Interesting.

So that began my interest in it all and flash forward to all these years later, I had done a movie called The Haunting in Connecticut, that I produced. So I was kind of a person that seemed to be, kind of drawn to or at least looked at these based on a true story movies, with super natural elements to them. And the DeFeo story had never, I felt like, been told very well…

Nope it hadn't. Till now.

And, I thought that it was an opportunity to direct it in a totally different way while, sort of a nod or homage to the earlier films and, the so called, Amityville franchise. I don't know why they even think of it as a franchise but, there are a lot of movies with the word "Amityville" written in the title.

Indeed. Just a cursory Google search yielded 21 titles, including The Amityville Murders.

Indeed, I just thought you know what of the variety of this crime and that there were so many elements that were, to this day, unexplained. I think it's a very interesting, subtle place to sort of look back on it. And really look at it, first and foremost, as a sort of relationship and with drama. You know, and sort of seeing what the dynamics of that family may have been. But that's what interested me from the get-go.

I understand that. And that's exactly what I was thinking while watching it. To my knowledge there has never been a movie that's focused more on the murders, versus the rest of it…

Yeah, the second movie in what they call the Amityville franchise. Amityville II: The Possession, which was way back in the early '80s. Kind of adapted the DeFeo story but then you see them bringing the make believe trying to sensationalize it for everyone. Then there is the exorcism at the end and insanely active haunts.

Yeah. Not exactly realistic.

It was a movie of that generation where the devil was a really free in American; it was like he was haunting all of us. The Amityville movies, The Omen, The Exorcist, all of those things that scared us so much.

Indeed.

I wanted to kind of do away with all the Catholic frills. I didn't want a priest showing up at some point to exorcise the house. All of that kind of stuff. I wanted to focus more on this idea that has three different parts to it. One being that Butch Defeo [John Robinson] was this young man who lived under the iron fist  of his very controlling and an abusive father.

But also this dynamic where Butch being a greedy kid. He got cars and money and was probably given too much. He is from Brooklyn on Long Island. Kind of a product of the "I want it all!" generation.

The third is what if there has been some kind of dark force within this house that the family believed resided there? There was a lot of talk. To this day people would say things about the house, that they don't necessarily want to say publicly. That people do still think that there is something to the haunted house aspect of it.

Yeah. It's arguably one of the more enduring supernatural tales in American history, no matter what one thinks regarding the veracity of  the Lutz family claims at 112 Ocean Avenue.

So as the movie goes on it becomes more and more focused from Butch's point of view. So you're never quite sure, and I don't want the audience to be quite sure of whether or not this is really happening or is he losing his mind essentially. So I wanted the paranormal in the movie to be ambiguous: is it figments of his imagination, ramblings of a very disorganized mind…

Either influenced by drugs or obviously the other mental issues going on in the household. But I did borrow… and  filled in some missed pieces from my researching the story. There is a lot of that too.

(L-R) Paul Ben-Victor as Ronnie DeFeo, Diane Franklin as Louise DeFeo, Kue Lawrence as Jody DeFeo, Zane Austin as Marc DeFeo, and Noa Brenner as Allison DeFeo in the “THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS” a horror film by Skyline Entertainment. Photo courtesy of Skyline Entertainment.

Oh, absolutely. That actually was a question I had… What were the challenges like, and the one that I would be particularly curious about, what are the ethical challenges like when you're doing something based on a true story?

Always a tough line. You want to be respectful, but at the same time film in an art form. You are telling a story that is meant to be seen in a dark theater or on Netflix.

That movie is the type that has to have a structure and it has to have momentum and it has to have that "Boo!" moment. And it has to do what a movie of that type does.

Right.

You know I did also want to be careful about not going too far in any one direction. And just sort of… I didn't want to exonerate Butch DeFeo, and make him out to be a victim. He was a perpetrator for sure.

Yeah. I didn't think you portrayed him as a victim here.

I also don't like the fact that Dawn [Chelsea Ricketts in The Amityville Murders], his oldest sister, has gotten some bad press over the years because of him saying that he theorizes, you know he comes up with all these different theories from his prison cell – he sits there to this day saying who did it, he did it, they did it, everybody else did it. He didn't do it.

The one theory he kind of sticks to is that-was the one where he said that Dawn had been the one that committed the murders and he killed her in self-defense. But I have looked at the crime scene photos, and there was hardly a struggle. She was in a night gown. She was tucked into her bed… You know I don't see that that was the case. And I don't think any serious investigator would ever give that much credibility to him.

Agreed completely.

In a way I wanted to show the family as being a loving family, but who were living under extreme conditions with a father that's just tyrannical in many ways. He abused the mother, children and certainly Butch was the focus of a lot of his wrath… Butch would leave and dad would bring him back. It was this see-saw thing going on. I thought of the whole thing like more of a Greek tragedy more than a standard horror film.

It really was more of that Greek Tragedy-tinged kind of psychodrama than your usual horror fare.

…Just thinking about the crime, I think, for me like most people, what sticks out the most is that nobody heard the report of the 30-30 rifle that night.

I know.

That is such a loud gun. It’s report is actually louder than a jet engine at takeoff.

Yeah, oh my god it's a hunting rifle. It would've been heard a mile in every direction. And it wasn't, Listen, I'm sorry, if I am asleep in the dead of the night and I hear several gun shots going off in my house, I'm gonna jump out the window.

Yeah, oh yeah.

I don't know how that could even happen. They weren't drugged. There was no silencer piece – that was all proven in the trial. Even the investigators, they couldn't explain it. Why did no one in the neighborhood – it wasn't like in the movies where the house was kind of off on its own on a lake. This house is built right next to all the other houses quiet literally in this bedroom community. How would the neighbor on either side of the street not hear gunshots?

Oh absolutely.

Doesn't make sense.

That probably is one of the elements that made me think, maybe there is something more to that dark energy throughout the story. Who knows? I don't think we will ever know because only Butch Defeo is alive to talk about it and he is never going to tell the truth.

Chelsea Ricketts as Dawn DeFeo in the “THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS” a horror film by Skyline Entertainment. Photo courtesy of Skyline Entertainment.

I think you're right on that, sadly. Switching gears just a bit to a question I like to ask everybody, slightly modified for you. What makes great horror?

I think it's that primal fear of death.

We fear the unknown; we fear the thing in the closet, that thing in the darkness. But we also fear what's in ourselves and the potential we all have for doing something unthinkable and not being able to take it back. I don't think it's monsters, I think it's what's in us and the potential we all have for evil. I think that's what's scary about it, is that we can all look at moments in our lives where we may not have been good or something has driven us... Just little things that people do to get back at each other.

Very true.

Look at social media, in some ways it's just a platform for people who are angry to vent that anger. And that has resulted in real violence, in the real world. That scares me more than anything. Our inability to connect with each other.

That's very well said, most definitely. And like you were talking about the sensory ambiguity in your movie, that really hit me too. That's one thing I always love in a horror movie – when the ambiguity is done right. Like The Shining, for instance, I think does it pretty well too. I’ve actually written about that aspect of Kubrick’s movie before.

Right, oh gosh. To even be compared to that would be. But that is just the perfect way. Because Jack as a character is so, he is troubled but he's still sane at the start. Then there this influence of this location that brings out the madness in him. I think there is a similar trajectory if you want to call it that, to the Amityville story and what happened with Ronald DeFeo – at least my depiction of that story.

I hadn't thought of that. That's a good point.

Definitely well done in your movie too. Both of them. Its kind of –

Much lower budget but we tried [Laughs]

[Laughs]

...and I have to give a lot of credit to my production designer [Billy Jett] on the movie who just pulled out so many different little miracles for me. I mean he trotted in a house in Los Angeles – he found that Dutch Colonial, which is rare to find in L.A.

I imagine. Wow.

They transformed the interior of that house to look like the 1974 DeFeo house. We had the crime scene  photos as reference: from the red tacky carpet going up the stairs, to the tackier gold and purple curtains at the top of the stairs. We even replicated the family portraits that were hung on the stairwell.

I love that attention to detail.

The cast was posed exactly as the family did in those portraits and it was really something. We even created the foyer tile to be exactly the way it was in the house back when the DeFeo's lived there. There were a lot of little touches that you find really interesting, then you start to feel like, oh my god this is where the lights were. We are set in a certain way from midnight so you really get that energy of what that house must have felt like back then.

That sort of thing – and how it relates to mise-en-scéne – is always crucial for me in order to suspend my disbelief and properly get into a movie.

John Robinson as Butch DeFeo in the “THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS” a horror film by Skyline Entertainment. Photo courtesy of Skyline Entertainment.

Let's see, another one I would like to ask everybody. What directors and films would you consider most influential on you as an artist?

Another big question… [Laughs]

[Laughs] it is…

…that's a great question.

I was such a John Carpenter fan as a young person. I try to emulate his movies; but my first big break came when I was 25 and I was hired to write Halloween 6. So that to me was, I felt like I had gotten the golden goose right away. But I had gotten that job because I was such a fan of Carpenter's work and of Halloween in particular. So I would have to certainly say John Carpenter.

Nice.

I would certainly think George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Scorsese, William Friedkin – oh my gosh, I could go on and on. Certainly let me mention Stanley Kubrick. All great, great film makers, I hold them very high. My admiration of their talent.

Fantastic list there. You know I didn't realize until I was doing a little bit of research on you the other night that you had also wrote The Girl Next Door, based on Jack Ketchum's book of the same name. I remember first seeing it in college – actually renting it from the video store. Damn that's a profound piece of horror – so sad and so true.

So traumatic. Yet another one based on a true story. With the Sylvia Likens case – oh gosh, just monstrous. It's one that I really can't revisit…

I don't blame you one bit Dan.

…that's just one in my list of films that I have been involved with. I appreciate what the movie was. I appreciate the work that went into it. But it's so difficult in knowing that happened and continues to happen. Just last week there was story of a little boy that was starved to death by his parents. Forced to live in a cellar.

Absolutely disgusting. They withheld food as a form of punishment. They were sentenced to 25 years (the husband) and 20 years (the wife).

The Girl Next Door is one I would hesitate to recommend to our readers. Not because it's a bad movie – it isn't, it's a fine film – but because it is that extreme and unsettling in its story – and I'm the type who has a high shock threshold. It takes a lot in a movie to really disturb me. "Watch it only if you have a strong constitution" is usually the position I fall back on with it.

You know its stuff like that that's just the stuff that keeps you up at night. That I can't reconcile how that kind of human cruelty even exists. The children and animals…

Absolutely.

At heart despite the movies I make, I'm a cry baby I think. I have to say and I think that those are the things that upset me and define me in a way. I think by me telling some of these stories, it exercises a little bit of that sadness that I feel. For stories when you hear and when you read of these things. But that one really gets you on a really deep level.

Absolutely. The catharsis.

It's just horror beyond imagination, it really is.

Definitely.

We are actually at the last question. Which is, what's next for you?

Oh gosh, you're killing me. [Laughs]

[Laughs]

After this we have… I did a film last year that's coming out the end of April that's called The Haunting of Sharon Tate. Which has already become kind of controversial because of the title. It's because people don't know what the movie is yet, and I hope that they go in with an open mind. I didn't make a movie to exploit the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends.

From our chat now I can't imagine you doing that either Dan.

That is the last thing in the world I would want to do or ever put my name on. If fact what I wanted to do was give that story a twist so that the victims of that horrific crime were actually given a fighting chance. So I kind of rewrite history a bit in a way that keeps it interesting and then empowering.

…I can't wait for that one. It being 50 years since the crime too.

It's going to be amazing, everyone involved in that film did it with so much care and respect especially for Sharon Tate and her friends who were butchered at the hands of this horrific cult. I don't even give them names in the movie, I don't even look at them as people. I look at them as phantoms or boogie men. Charles Manson is not even a character in the film so they're just not people to me. The only human beings are Sharon Tate and her friends, and that's the way I want them remembered.

Hilary Duff as Sharon Tate in the forthcoming THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE.

THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS trailer.

THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE trailer.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007) trailer.

HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995) trailer.