Exclusive Interview with Double Emmy Award Winner John Harrison!
Updated: Jul 6, 2018
A working veteran of both film and television, John Harrison knows his way around the entertainment industry. As a writer, director, composer and actor, he's a favorite among the horror and science fiction circuit. Mr. Harrison has granted Retro Injection the following interview, in which he relates insights and anecdotes from his long career.
George Romero's great anthology film Creepshow was your first score. You state in your Day of the Dead Waxwork Records liner notes that the job was “a story for another telling.” Would you share it with us now?
I was George’s Assistant Director on Creepshow. Supremely unqualified for the job (see below), but George and his then-partner, Richard Rubinstein didn’t care about that. They just wanted a friend to be at George’s side to keep the set moving. Turned out to be the best film school I could have ever attended. And so much fun! Particularly those few moments between set-ups when George and I could talk about filmmaking and music.
George’s original plan for Creep’s music was to use Library or ‘needle drop’ tracks from the Capital Music library. He’d used this method successfully in all of his other movies. And one thing most people don’t know about George is that he had a very sophisticated musical sense. He didn’t play any instruments, but he was an avid film score collector and a brilliant film editor. I used to be in awe of how he could take two or three music cues and edit them together to create an entirely new cue that would fit perfectly with his scene. And he accomplished this with tape and splicers. No digital gear!
But Creepshow required a higher level of production value, and the cues we got from Capital were not always up to snuff. As a musician myself, I offered to enhance some of these cues with my own gear, maybe write some transition material, come up with a theme. One thing led to the next and I ended up scoring more than 75% of the film with only a piano and Sequential Circuits classic Prophet V. The score became popular and has been re-released over the years.
I credit George with the creative inspiration for it. All those days on set, gabbing about movie music, and what might be good for this scene or that, informed what I wrote for Creepshow (and later Day of The Dead). So in a way, I consider him to be my co-composer.
Most Frank Herbert purists believe that your version of Dune is a more faithful adaptation of the novel than David Lynch's 1984 rendition. What were your points of reference and influences when you directed the Dune and Children of Dune miniseries, both of which won an Emmy?
As much as I admired David Lynch’s film visually, I wasn’t thrilled with his narrative adaptation. Given the all the apocryphal stories that have been circulating for years about that film, I’m not sure that was his fault. But when I got the call from Richard Rubinstein asking if I wanted to pitch an adaptation of Dune for a TV miniseries, I jumped at the chance. I loved the book since my first reading in high school, but it’s incredibly dense and complicated. I knew there would have to be a serious adaptation to bring it to the screen. Without trying to sound pretentious, I envisioned Dune as Shakespearean in tone, with more than a little Jacobean revenge tragedy mixed in. I was determined to be as faithful to Herbert’s narrative as possible, and luckily I had six hours to tell the tale. Even with our limited TV budget, I wanted to invest it visually with as much David Lean and Stanley Kubrick as I could muster. Fortunately, I had great collaborators like Vittorio Storaro, Theodor Pistek and Miljen Kljakovic, each an artist in his own right, to help me. Also, the producers fully supported our schemes.
In addition to directing the 1990 movie, you wrote and directed a few episodes of the Tales from the Darkside TV series. The show has proven to be a cult phenomenon, and was perhaps too intense for audiences during its heyday run. Which of your episodes is your favorite and why?
Of the four seasons I did of that show, my two favorites are probably “Everybody Needs A Little Love” which I also wrote, and “Sorry, Right Number” which was Steve King’s first original teleplay. Very different episodes in tone and style. “Love”, starring Jerry Orbach and Richard Portnow, was a study in noire. I had a wonderful cinematographer named Rob Draper (who was also my cinematographer on Tales From the Darkside, The Movie), who shared my love of that genre, and I think we pulled off just the right amount of grim penumbra.
“Sorry…” was more of a ghost story, not particularly scary, but very emotional and heartfelt, unlike a lot of Darkside episodes. It was a kind of tragic love story. So with those two, I was able to exercise different filmmaking ‘muscles’. I was also able to do the music for both, so they’re very personal episodes for me.
You mention in your Waxwork Records Day of the Dead liner notes that you were “supremely unqualified” to work as the assistant director of Creepshow. Tell us about the experience.
My only experience on a film or TV set up to that point was as an actor, sometimes as a producer on small indie projects my company was doing. Being a good Ass’t Director is a very specialized skill. The Director’s Guild has college level training courses to teach you how to do it. There are so many facets to the job, both creative and practical, some really exciting, others maddeningly dull. I had none of those skills.
But I guess, in the end, the essential function of an AD is to make sure the director has all the tools he needs to make his day and accomplish his vision. I’m not sure I was very good at that either. But my relationship with George as a friend at least allowed me to wing it. And our crews put up with the poseur. Lots of laughs along the way.
You are duly accomplished in both television and film. Which is your preferred venue in which to work, and why?
Getting a film off the ground these days is a small miracle. But television has more wonderful opportunities than ever before. At the end of the day it’s all about story-telling. I’m just happy someone wants me to work in either medium.
You were good friends, and collaborated closely on a number of projects, with the late horror auteur George A. Romero. What is your favorite memory of your time together?
Too many to recount. Both professionally and personally. So many laughs. Too much whisky. Everywhere from Pittsburgh to LA, New York, Toronto, London. He was my mentor as well as a great friend. I miss him.
How do you feel when musical artists, as varied as Ministry and Gorillaz, sample your Day of the Dead score in their tracks?
In order to fix a continuity goof, you played the screwdriver zombie in Dawn of the Dead. Describe the atmosphere on the set.
I got a call from Zilla Clinton, the Production Manager, around 5PM on the day of that shoot wondering if I’d come out to set for a zombie cameo. I told her I would, provided I could be wrapped before midnight. I had a pitch early the next morning for my own company, Image Works. For a commercial at one of the big banks in the city. Zilla said it was an easy cameo and I’d be wrapped in a couple of hours.
Well…. for those of you who know the film biz, nothing ever runs on schedule. I showed up, and Tom Savini appeared to do my make-up. He explained that George needed to cover a continuity error in one of the action sequences and he, Tom, had invented a gag that would fix the scene.
In the JC Penny’s, Scotty Reininger (Roger) had been filmed running one direction with his sweater on, but without it in the reverse. So George had to come up with a reason how/why he lost the sweater between those two shots. That was me. As a dead maintenance man who attacks Scotty and rips off his sweater. He finishes me off with a screw driver. Courtesy Tom Savini.
Come 2 AM, I still haven’t been called to the set. I’m getting nervous about the next day. Finally, in the wee hours, I get the call. We do several takes. Savini’s screwdriver was rigged to squirt blood in my ear to make it look like Scott had driven it into my brain. Worked perfectly. I’m out of there with just enough time to get back to my place, shower, put on a suit and head downtown for a meeting with the bank VP.
I make my pitch. I think I’m killing it. He’s very attentive. Staring at me intensely. Hanging on every word, I think. But when I’m finished, he asks if I’m feeling alright. Now, I’m confused. I thought he was digging the pitch. “Oh, yeah. It was great,” he says. “But you’re bleeding out of your ear!”
In my haste, I had not cleaned up enough, and some of Savini’s stage blood was still caked around my ear. I explained what it was all about. He got a good laugh.
And my company got the job!
If the budget had been in place for George Romero to envision his original, grandiose Day of the Dead screenplay, how do you think your score would have differed?
Not much. I had done most of my sketches based on the longer script. George loved ‘em. So when he came back to me with the revised script, we still decided to keep the tone I’d created. Even though the revised script was scaled down from the original, it was still set in Florida/Caribbean. We just never went outside (except briefly) as much as the first script had planned.
Lastly, what advice do you have for any young composer heading out to Hollywood with a synthesizer and a dream?
The world is vastly different from the one I came up in, and in many ways there are more opportunities than ever. But being entrepreneurial about one’s career is imperative! Studios for both film and TV rely on composers with credits, composers they’ve worked with before. Until you have a body of work to present, it’s going to be difficult to break into that world.
The old chicken and egg dilemma. “How can I build up a resume of work if I can’t get the gigs?” versus “How can I get the gigs without a resume of work?”
So, I would advise young composers to find any kind of indie work, student films, experimental films, etc etc. Write music. Hang out with filmmakers and play them your stuff. Be in it for the long haul. Hound producers you meet as well as the music agents in town with demo tapes and cold calls. Don’t be shy. Don’t be deterred! Get used to rejection.
BE READY TO WORK FOR NOTHING AT FIRST.
Sooner or later, someone you worked for will get a shot, and s/he’ll think of you. Or someone will hear your music and think it’s perfect for a project they’re developing.
Never give up.
We really appreciate your time, Mr. Harrison. Thank you so much for a great interview! Contributing writer Luke Worle helped out quite a bit with this article. If you haven't done so already, check out the site's great retrospective on Day of the Dead.