Andy Mitton has had a passion for storytelling since he was a kid. A graduate of Middlebury College’s Theatre program, Mitton has built a career creating horror movies and musicals. His recent horror movie is The Witch in the Window and has been so well received that it has been tapped to be on the streaming network Shudder. Wanting to learn more about Mitton’s background and his latest film, I was able to interview him for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved experiencing? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Andy Mitton: I loved movies so much when I was a kid that even when they were bad, I’d find a way to convince myself they were good. But the ones I saw most the most were the ones we had on VHS in the 80s – Ghostbusters, Gremlins, all the Indiana Jones movies, Poltergeist, Back to the Future – everything you might expect. And I’ll go back to every one of them as an adult, because I like staying connected to the feeling I had when I was 10, 11, or 12. That pure love of movies is the center of why I wanted to make them, so I can’t lose contact with that feeling.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career as a storyteller? Was there a specific moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Mitton: I knew when I was very young that I wanted to be a writer. And certainly from the moment I had my first Fisher Price video camera, I was running around making movies with my friends, using all our household ketchup for blood. In my teen years I got into theater and fell in love with directing, and I gradually learned I was better at writing plays and screenplays than I was at writing prose. And I found it more interesting, making these blueprints that would eventually become collaborative.
If I had to point to a specific moment I was certain, it was my seventh grade English class. We were given an assignment to write an original Greek myth. I went home and spun this intricate little story about a woman named Emera with brilliant green eyes who goes on a journey to rescue her baby and ends up sacrificing her life. At the end, she’s carried off by Gods or angels, I can’t remember which – and this shimmering light comes down from her body and covers the Earth, turning it into a brilliant green stone that was named for Emera, and called an Emerald. I turned in the story, and when I got to class the next day, my teacher read the whole thing aloud to my class before handing it back to me with an A+. It gave me a feeling that didn’t go away, like I’d found myself. Goes to show how important our teachers are. Thanks, Mrs. McManus!
Yanes: You have a background in horror and musical theater. Joss Whedon’s career has also spanned musicals and horror. How do you feel understanding musical theater has made you a better horror storyteller?
Mitton: I think good storytelling has a lot in common across mediums and genres. In general, you’re still looking to satisfy an audience, you’re holding their attention, writing protagonists and antagonists, building a sort of roller coaster for them of different hills and valleys, twists and surprises. And if you’re wise, in both cases you’re putting your actors at the forefront.
One way musicals have made my films better is that I’m learning from another great director. I’m focused on music and lyrics when I work in musical theater, and generally I’ve worked with Aaron Posner, who a brilliant stage director and playwright. So, I get to serve his vision, watch him pull his vision together, listen to how he collaborates with actors to get their best, and takes mental notes the whole time.
Finally, I think of everything as music, really. The writing process is all about music – especially rhythm – and the same goes for how you shoot it, how you cut it – it’s all a big composition. And the language of music is complex and deep, even though you’re usually mining it for something that feels simple and accessible. The more practice I get with actual music – because like English, it’s something you could keep learning about forever – the better I should be at about anything else I do, including making movies.
Yanes: Your latest film is The Witch in the Window. What was the inspiration for this film?
Mitton: Honestly, the need to make a movie inspired this movie. I had made two features, but neither as a solo director. I’d left Los Angeles for New England, I was starting a family, I had no representation. That situation was inspiration enough. I knew I wanted to work with Alex Draper again. I knew I wanted to be on location, and mostly on one location. And I knew I would have very little money. So I called Alex and told him that I wanted to build a movie around him, and if he could find me a creepy house in Vermont and help me produce it, I would write the script for him, and for the house. I had ideas about what my sort of grounded, character-driven spin on a haunted house story might be, and I also am a father with two sons, both toddlers, who has no lack of intense fear when it comes to bringing kids up in the current world we live in. So I thought I could weave these things together into something simple, something that would feel like a sort of gothic horror novella. I made that initial call to Alex in Autumn of 2015, wrote the movie over the winter, and we were shooting in the spring of 2016.
Yanes: The Witch in the Window centers on a father wanting to flip a house by fixing it. As someone who lived through Florida’s housing market crashing in part because of house flippers, were you intentionally trying to comment on a darker element of real estate sales?
Mitton: Ha, no, I didn’t consider that angle. I just liked the idea of flipping a haunted house, and the repairs making the spirit stronger. And I guess I was likening house flipping to a form of gambling, to a profession that might attract someone who likes to take chances, and often comes out on the short end.
Yanes: Given that The Witch in the Window also focuses on a father-son relationship, what were you hoping to say about this type of family bond?
Mitton: I was using this central relationship to express my own fears about bringing up children in the current world we live in. My own boys are much younger than Finn, so I sort of projected those fears forward. Nothing else in the story is personal; I like creating characters and structuring stories to support my themes. My themes are personal, the idea of not knowing when and how to be honest with a child about the evil in the world, but the story that I build is meant to support and explore those fears. But the details are all original. My own father never had a problem with sticking with his family, and that’s not something I struggle with either. But I’m interested in Simon, and why he might – I can sympathize, and I guess that’s enough.
Yanes: One of the many fantastic elements of The Witch in the Window that stood out to me were the amazing camera angles. How did you go about finding the right angles to communicate a sense of horror? Were there any classic horror movies you turned to for inspiration?
Mitton: Thank you! Enormous credit goes to my director of photography, Justin Kane. He and his team were incredible at making the most of the house, learning where the light was, and when. He and I had a few days before we shot where we just walked around, talked through each scene, made sure we liked the design, that the light suited the blocking. We were just fast friends and totally in sync.
When I design a shot, I’m almost never thinking of other horror movies. This is the sort of film where I didn’t have to think differently just because it was scary; since I wanted the horror to feel uniquely human and grounded, I instead made camera decisions based on character and story only. So you’re never detached from them. If anything, I’m thinking of my favorite films across all genres, thinking of the Coen Brothers or Kubrick or P.T. Anderson, the people who are just serving their stories. I like horror to feel the same way. I don’t like the camera to always tell me when to be scared; it too often ruins the surprise.
Yanes: I learned of The Witch in the Window due to Shudder’s fantastic job of promoting it. How does it feel to know that Shudder had so much faith in your film?
Mitton: It feels great. I love Shudder. I love how they’re growing but staying curated at the same time. And the way they picked a small selection of films from all over the globe and focused on them for this Halloween, instead of just throwing dozens of movies out at once like you see elsewhere, it’s really given us a nice spotlight. Often times you feel with a digital release you can get lost in the noise, especially as a horror film in October – but it’s felt just the opposite. And because of our time on the festival circuit, which Shudder supported, lots of people who weren’t Shudder subscribers were also able to hear about us – and hopefully then get their subscriptions!
Yanes: When people finish watching The Witch in the Window, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Mitton: I guess I hope it moves them in some small way, that they feel an impact. And I hope it scares them, too. Those are my main goals. Beyond that, I like that people have different experiences. Being a filmmaker is a little like testing how in sync you are with the world at large. You make something that moves you, that scares you, that makes you laugh unexpectedly, that feels sincere. And you just hope that enough people out there feel the same way you do, and will be moved and scared and amused by enough of the same things that they’ll be glad to have spent 77 minutes in the dark with your story.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Mitton: I’m afraid to jinx anything! I’m too jaded at this point to go counting chickens, but I’ll say there’s a high rise horror story I’m finishing the screenplay for now that I’m optimistic about. And a few things I’ve been holding onto for years that I’m hoping to finally get the chance to make. But I’ve got so many stories I want to tell, so I’m hoping things are just getting started.