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An Interview with John Oak Dalton, Director of The Girl in the Crawlspace

by Mike Haberfelner

February 2020

Films directed by John Oak Dalton on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie The Girl in the Crawlspace - in a few words, what is it about?

 

It starts where a lot of horror movies end—with the Final Girl escaping, and the local sheriff shooting the killer. It’s more about everything that happens after. And I wanted it to be about how creativity can save you if you live in a small town. But ultimately, yes, it’s about a guy in a canvas mask chasing around poor Erin R. Ryan.

 

The whole small town set-up and Johnny's fish-out-of-water situation - was any of this based on personal experiences?

 

I’ve lived in small towns for close to twenty-five years after growing up in a medium-sized town, so I would say it is more a reaction to people who come out to visit, and what they think that might be like. I believe you can be creative anywhere. About 80 percent of the movie was shot at my own mid-century modern home on five acres with my chickens and my dogs and my cats.

 

(Other) sources of inspiration when writing The Girl in the Crawlspace?

 

I’ve always felt that if people like B-movies they would also like other things I am interested in, so this one has a lot to say about DIY culture like zines and fan/slash fiction as well as RPG games. I was pretty heavily influenced by several trips to Italy I have been able to make over the last few years, chaperoning my wife’s college field studies. One day I got to slip off by myself to the famous Italian film studio Cinecittà which is a pilgrimage I won’t forget.

 

What can you tell us about your movie's approach to horror?

 

My touchpoints are really 70s horror primarily, so I went with a slow burn approach, a lot of quiet wide angles and a lot of intense close-ups. My director of photography (and producer) Henrique Couto, even though his touchpoints are more 80s and 90s, caught the vibe right away and used a lot of old-school lenses to get where I wanted to go.

 

Do talk about your overall directorial approach to your story at hand!

 

I was a screenwriter first, so I think my storytelling ends up pretty cerebral and focuses on meaty characters—I was lucky that my DP Henrique Couto had helmed more than a dozen of his own movies, so he was able to bring a lot to the visual side while I focused on the emotional side.

 

Coming back to the small town locations - where was The Girl in the Crawlspace actually shot, and what was it like filming there?

 

As I mentioned I shot a big part of it at my house in rural Mooreland, Indiana, where I live, but the actual small town was a place I lived for about twenty years called Farmland, Indiana. That was where the community center was that played a part in the story. The town I live near now does not have a lot of infrastructure anymore but Farmland still has a nice thriving downtown with a lot of interesting buildings and places to shoot.

 

What can you tell us about your key cast, and why exactly these people?

 

I have been a screenwriter for about twenty years, with more than a dozen writing credits on movies you can rent and stream and find in Dollar bins everywhere, so I gathered up a lot of friends and called in a lot of favors to make my debut feature. I had met a lot of the principal talent on other movie sets over the years. I wrote the main parts with Erin R. Ryan, Joni Durian, and John Hambrick in mind, and was completely flattered that they actually came to my house and acted it out. Tom Cherry, who plays the local sheriff, is an old friend who I knew I would cast in a film one day, if I ever got to make one, as he is a tremendous local theater talent. A lot of his theater friends filled out the cast.

 

A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

I spent about twenty years working in television, so I thought I would be ready to shoot a movie in five days, but the first day was still like an avalanche coming down a mountain, even though I had written the script very small and tight with everything I knew I had on hand. I was lucky to have experienced actors as well as a number of people behind the scenes who pitched in above and beyond. We shot one weekend, I fixed a lot of things in between, and then shot a Friday through Sunday the next weekend. We spent the whole final day shooting the last few minutes of the movie.

 

Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of The Girl in the Crawlspace?

 

I decided to direct my own movie because I had gone a long while without being offered anything, or anything I wanted to write, despite having a number of credits. So I decided to just write a movie I would like to see and not worry what other people thought about it. Then I decided I could direct it myself as well. I have been happily surprised that a lot of people seem to like it, and it was picked up for national distribution on streaming platforms and physical media, and is available everywhere.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

Literally the day we sent the deliverables on The Girl in the Crawlspace in January 2019, Henrique Couto and I started working on a new movie called Scarecrow County, which we finished in September 2019. It debuted shortly thereafter at Film Scene in Iowa City and then was sold to a distributor as well. I hope to see it street later this year or beginning 2021. I tried a different vibe with my second movie, with a lot of blue gels, fog machines, and Dutch angles.

We have formed a company now called Midwest Film Venture, which is intended to produce films with Midwest sensibilities and genre beats. A new project is coming along shortly.

 

From what I know, you entered the filmworld as a screenwriter - so what made you want to write movies, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?

 

I wanted to cartoon, but I wasn’t that good, and my word balloons got bigger than my drawings. I won some high school playwriting contests and that gave me a good leg up. I studied film in college but only took one screenwriting course, in which I got a C. Not everyone will be surprised at that. But I did win the David Letterman Scholarship at Ball State with a script I wrote in 1987, my first payday as a writer. I’ve always been interested in writing and was fortunate to finally strike some luck with screenwriting and be able to keep going.

 

What made you want to pick up directing eventually?

 

Largely because I had gone a while without being hired to write anything. But also to be able to take one of my screenplays and make it on my own terms, and be solely to blame for how it turned out.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to The Girl in the Crawlspace, in whatever position?

 

Besides screenwriting, I actually broke in being an assistant editor on a film called Forgive Me Father for a friend, director Ivan Rogers, back in the late 90s. I edited a bunch of the killing scenes and didn’t see anyone alive until I went to the premiere in Indianapolis, Indiana. In lieu of payment I asked Ivan to help me shop some screenplays, which he did. I figured there wouldn’t be a lot of movies shot in Indiana but I could write screenplays anywhere.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

I try to be professional and play to everyone’s strengths, and encourage collaboration as much as we can based on all the constraints put on a B-movie.

 

Writers, filmmakers, whoever else who inspire you?

 

I learned screenwriting by reading bound screenplays from movies I enjoyed, from Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee. Michael Tolkin’s screenplay for The Player really inspired me, which I posted on my blog, which he found and wrote me an email, which I was too nervous to respond to. I have also often thought, what would William Goldman do?

Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany really blew my mind as novelists.

In general I love Hammer horror, Soviet sci-fi, Japanese rubber monster and yakuza movies, Italian sword and sorcery and spaghetti westerns, Mexican wrestling flicks, French new wave films, anything that played on Kung Fu Theater, Up All Night, or on my local late-night horror host Sammy Terry’s show in the late 70s.

I think what actually tipped me over into action was hearing Nicolas Winding Refn talk about Andy Milligan at the Indiana University Cinema in 2013. It changed how I looked at movies.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

I always say, I hope I make a movie one day as good as Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. I would also love to remake Le Cercle Rouge by Jean-Pierre Melville. Old favorites include Dr. Strangelove, Sunset Boulevard, The Bicycle Thief, The Seventh Seal, Stalag-17, The Bridge Over River Kwai.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

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I think we need to accept that The Birth of a Nation really doesn’t have any contemporary merit, but Triumph of the Will is a truly sinister film because it shows the power of film to influence people.

 

Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram by looking up @johnoakdalton. My blog, which details projects going back many years, is at johnoakdalton.blogspot.com. You can subscribe to my secret email newsletter I Was Bigfoot's Shemp at https://tinyletter.com/johnoakdalton

 

Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

Just thank you for asking me, and for asking interesting questions!

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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Robots and rats,
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Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

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Your Bones to
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Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

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Out now from
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On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
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... and for the life of it,
you can't decide
WHICH IS WORSE!!!

 

A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
starring
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD