Film Talk: John Portanova

Welcome. Thanks for your time and thanks for joining us here today.

No problem. Thanks for having me.

First up let’s talk right away about your film “Hunting Grounds.” Tell us a little bit about this film and how the idea came about.

“Hunting Grounds” is a dramatic creature feature which centers on a dysfunctional family that is forced to move deep into the mountains of Washington State after suffering a loss. While attempting to get a handle on this new life, they happen to run afoul of some neighboring Sasquatch and the fun begins.

The idea for the film came about because I believe in Bigfoot and have been reading stories about encounters with the creature my entire life. When it came time to write my first script (“Hunting Grounds” was written a very long time ago, but didn’t get made until after I already had a few writing credits under my belt) I decided I wanted to take all of the most interesting stories I had heard, put them in a blender and insert fictional characters in there to be a counter to these mysterious beasts. I had three goals with the film: tell an interesting dramatic story that could work even without the horror, tell a story that respected and acknowledged the history of Sasquatch (i.e. they aren’t bloodthirsty monsters that murder with abandon), and also make an action-packed siege movie. Some of those goals could be seen as counter to each other, but I think we do good by each of them and the film is richer for it.

Are you a horror and/or monster movie fan and if so, what movies kinda latched on to your psyche while you started to make this one?

I love horror movies and monster movies are my favorite. If there’s a guy running around in the rubber suit, that’s my kind of movie! The movies I was thinking about when making “Hunting Grounds” were siege films, where numerous enemies outside of a location try to break in on our heroes inside. Films like John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13”, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, and Neil Marshall’s “Dog Soldiers” were always on my mind for the way they played with their character dynamics and escalating action in a single location.

This is your feature film directorial debut even though you had directed a couple of shorts in the past. Now you had written some stuff for different directors in the past so what was it like having to wear both hats?

Everyone has ideas on a film set, but the only way you’re ever going to make your day is if people only share ideas when asked and only share the best of their ideas. So it was never hard for me to be a director on the set of another director’s film because I was always doing another job and if I wanted to do it well I didn’t have time to say “what about this? What about that?” just to hear myself talk.

The biggest challenge for me as a first time director was the fact that I had produced or been an assistant director so much in the past. Those are jobs where you are the one who has to figure out the logistics of the production, not necessarily what’s happening on camera. So I had to get used to the fact that it wasn’t my job to be stressed over the next day’s schedule or if a location fell through, I just had to be there for the actors and crew and get the footage that would best tell the story in the editing room. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly a relaxing role to switch to because I knew if I messed anything up I would be the one blamed for it for the rest of my life. (laughs)

Were costumes a major difficulty and how long did it take to make sure you got the look that you were going for in regards to the Sasquatch?

From the beginning my producing partners and I knew that we wanted to use practical FX to bring the creatures to life. That meant our Sasquatch costume was going to be a make it or break it proposition for the film. If it didn’t work, the movie would fall apart during the horror and action scenes. Luckily for us, Doug Hudson is a brilliant creature designer and he happened to live right near us in Washington State. Doug has worked on huge Hollywood films throughout his career as a member of some awesome FX teams and now we had him running our show. It also helped that he was a fellow Squatchoholic so we could really dig into what we wanted to see onscreen and take inspiration (or know what to avoid) from other Bigfoot films and documented sightings.

You also got to work with genre staple Bill Oberst Jr. What was the experience like getting the chance to work with him?

Bill is a dream to work with. In fact, the entire cast was great. We were stuck up in the woods together for a month with no cell reception and so everyone on the cast and crew got really close. Bill is such a busy guy though, so we only had him for 4 days. And he does a lot of stuff with the creatures and in some tricky locations to photograph, so we were running and gunning the entire time he was on set. But he didn’t complain once. He’s such a calming presence on even the most hectic of days and isn’t afraid to lay in the dirt or spend the better part of an hour hanging from a harness if the shot calls for it. I would work with him again in a heartbeat.

Are there any plans to get in the director’s chair again in the near future for another horror flick?

I’ve written things for other directors, but the stories and subjects I really love I save for myself. I finished up a script last year that would be a blast to direct, only problem is it’s a large scale monster movie and so it might take a while to raise the budget. Currently I’m working on a smaller scale script that features all kinds of gory FX scenes (which I absolutely love to plan out and shoot), but with a more human villain than I usually work with. Right now the goal is to finish that up and see if it gets any traction while larger projects move a little slower in the background.

Just for a bit of fun, if you could make any kind of movie on any subject, budget be damned, what would you like to do?

I’m actually not very interested in telling huge stories where the entire world is at stake. I like more intimate stories about a few characters or a specific location. I find them more enjoyable to write and it gives myself and the actors so much more to do on set because you have to keep the momentum of the story going even though there aren’t hundreds of locations and mass destruction. But that isn’t a very fun answer, so I guess I’d say if money and rights weren’t issues then I’d love to remake “The Running Man”. The original novel by Stephen King is one of my favorites and the movie took nothing from the book beyond the main character’s name. If you did a straight adaptation of the book you’d have a very suspenseful chase film on your hands. And since this remake exists in a world where money and such isn’t an issue, I could keep the book’s original ending which sees the hero flying a plane into a large building. That bit of plotting will unfortunately probably keep a true adaptation of the novel from ever happening.

To finish us off here, where can people check out the film? Also, what do you currently have in the works for future projects?

“Hunting Grounds” is available everywhere on VOD February 7th. iTunes, DirecTV, Amazon, they’ll all have it to rent and/or buy. Our DVD/Blu-ray release will happen a few months later, stay tuned for some fun news about that release.

As far as future projects, I worked as an Associate Producer and Assistant Director on the serial killer thriller “Dead West” which is also being released on February 7th. And the next film from my production company The October People, the supernatural drama “Ayla” starring Tristan Risk and Dee Wallace, will be making its festival run later this year.

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