What was your filmmaking background before you made the film?
JON: The Hagstone Demon is my second feature as writer/director. There was a period of time after I graduated from college that I was shooting other people’s movies for free, and I did that for about five years. So I came into the field as a cinematographer, using the volunteer work to develop my craft, and then became more interested in directing. I’ve had a fairly st
eady output of shorts and features since 1992. Around the same time I got involved in shooting and directing commercials, and I had about 800 of those under my belt before it was all over.
Where did the idea come from to make "The Hagstone Demon"?
JON: Certain scenes were drawn from Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel La Bas, which I had read a few years earlier. In it, Huysman describes a black mass ritual he attended in Paris, and his account has a sort of journalistic banality that was disturbing in it’s own right, so that’s what I set out to capture visually. But the story itself has more of an autobiographical
significance for Harrison Matthews, the screenwriter, because the protagonist is also a caretaker of a brownstone and also a writer.
What was your process for co-writing the script?
JON: Harrison usually takes a script through two or three drafts before I take it from him. At that point I work on the plot and structure, and also insert the set pieces that become essential to the character of the film. More or less I take his characters and fit them into the genre.
Harrison is very good at character, dialogue and scene transitions, whereas my strong points are plot, theme and subtext. What is nice about Harrison is that he does not necessarily start out imposing this or that genre formula or convention on the story. His characters determine how the events unfold. Because of this approach, you can watch The Hagstone Demon and it will be impossible for you to predict what will happen next.
What was the key for doing the film so cheaply?
JON: Since I can do the writing, shooting, producing, directing, editing, etc., myself, I eliminate the need to hire people to do those things for me. I learned this approach doing commercials. The downside is that it takes its toll on you, especially if it’s a feature. Shooting Hagstonenearly wasted me, and I’m not exaggerating. The size of the crew also affects the budget. I always work with a small crew, so that the company can move fast and be agile and adaptable as conditions change. This strategy increases the amount of setups possible per day, which means I can shoot much more detail into the picture.
What are the advantages of shooting the film yourself? Disadvantages?
JON: I came from a commercial background, where I was used to directing through the viewfinder. So that was always natural to me. The disadvantage to this is the fatigue that can result from, say, operating twenty takes of a guy walking across the room. But the camera operating usually doesn’t hamper my ability to judge the performances, and there are many directors who do that, Steven Soderbergh for example.
What are the advantages of editing the film yourself? Disadvantages?
JON: The advantage to editing my own footage is that I am aware of the original purpose of each shot composition and camera move, and this boils down to keeping the visual subtext intact. The greatest downfall to editing your own footage is leaving in sequences that you are attached to aesthetically. It may feel satisfying but it ultimately hampers the economy of the storytelling.
What did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
JON: The only thing I learn from shooting films is how I could have written them better.