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Interview: 'Possum Walk' writer/director Jeremy Sumrall

‘Possum Walk’ writer/director Jeremy Sumrall grew up in New Waverly, Tex., about an hour north of Houston, on Possum Walk Road. He decided the name would work well for the small-town setting of a horror movie, then expanded it to be the name of the movie itself.  Possum walk poster

Sumrall has written a number of scripts over the years in several styles (slasher, supernatural, occult, etc.), but could never finish anything before going back to the old adage ‘write about what you know.’

“I don’t really know a whole lot,” Sumrall explains. “But a couple of years ago my niece had a pregnancy scare, and naturally, since she’s in a small town, people immediately began looking down on her. She was an unmarried, small-town, 19 year old who grew up believing you do things a certain way: grow up, get married, then start having kids. That’s not the generation a lot of us live in anymore, but in small towns it’s still prevalent.”

His niece’s situation got Sumrall thinking about the general lack of privacy in small-town life — in order to have any secrets you have to be really sneaky about it – and provided the basic idea for his first motion picture, ‘Possum Walk.’

Sumrall set the movie in a small religious town and made the protagonist a girl who grows up believing in the straight-and-narrow life, living her own accordingly, but winding up pregnant anyway. 

The girl has a Southern Baptist preacher father with a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach. He rules over Possum Walk with an iron fist and tries to control his daughter’s life as well. At the same time these two battle their respective demons, a murderer decides to make Possum Walk his hunting ground, sexually abusing and killing its young women.

Possum Walk - Maggie
Maggie Conwell (as 'Faith Carpenter')

The paths of daughter, father, and killer eventually collide, leading to lots of messy carnage and allowing ‘Possum Walk’ to simultaneously explore the internal horror of the human mind and the external horror of, well….having a maniacal killer on the loose!

“One thing that’s always bothered me about the horror genre,” explains Sumrall, “is that people tend to look at it as being just one step above porn. And it pisses me off. There are brilliant writers and directors at work in the genre, but they get written off because the outside world sees what they’re doing as just mindless violence and sex. And yeah, we all use sex and violence in our stories, but if you go even a layer below the surface, there’s often some really good stories there to sink your teeth into. So that’s one of the things I tried to do with this one; make it a human story. If you peeled the layers back and took away all the boobs and the blood, there’s still a very dark dramatic tale here about personal redemption and living life in the moment instead of for what’s to come.”

Sumrall confesses to always having been kind of anti-message in selecting his own entertainment and is aware he might’ve run contrary to his own preferences. “There’s enough fucked up shit in this world without having to get beaten over the head with a message when I’m trying to be entertained,” he says. “Leave your fucking message out of my entertainment. And yet I wrote a script that has a message.”

‘Possum Walk’s unintentional compass seeped in through his own rebelling against small-town religious judgement. Sumrall doesn’t think religion should control anything: “It’s the fundamentalism I don’t like, whether Christian, Muslim, or the green alien that comes down from Mars. It’s not always a good thing to have blind faith, and not always a bad thing to question everything around you and find your own truth. It wasn’t until I’d finished the first draft of the script that I realized I’d written a movie saying ‘Look at yourself before you start judging anybody else.’ But there’s still lots of boobs and blood, so everything’s fine!”

Sumrall’s interest in horror began with the old slasher movies of the 80s: Friday the 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween, Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine. His first script was very much an old-school slasher flick, with a supernatural twist. He still hopes to finish it, but hasn’t touched it in 5 or 6 years.

‘Possum Walk’ was supposed to be mindless boobs and blood itself. But Sumrall felt compelled to change it up as he’d just finished shooting his role as the Beast in ‘Sweatshop,’ a movie he describes as over the top blood and boobs, completely ridiculous amounts of gore, and lots of fun.

the Beast bw
The Beast ('Sweatshop')

“Possum Walk got darker and darker and darker as it went along, and a lot more serious.”

The more dramatic parts were actually the harder ones to film, Sumrall says. “There’s a moment where two girls were finally confessing their love for one another, and then they die. That’s not even a spoiler…a lot of people die in this movie! And if they’d just lived in the moment and said ‘fuck what anybody else thinks, let’s just do our own thing and be happy about it,’ maybe they wouldn’t have ended up being killed.”

“But that day, when we had the moment with those two girls, I literally had to walk away from set for 15 minutes because I was crying. I wrote it with a lot of heart. But even more came out when we were doing the scene. So much so that a just had to leave.”

His next script (‘Iso’) promises to go even further down the dark, dramatic path, centering on the existence of a girl who lives 10 years trapped in her apartment convinced there’s an entity outside bent on doing her in unless she come out and meets it on her own terms. Hitchcock meets Clive Barker, is how Sumrall describes it. A third script Sumrall describes as Evil Dead 2 meets Mad Max--comedic and politically incorrect—is also in the works.

And his aspirations aren’t limited to horror. Sumrall says he has both a romantic comedy and a family comedy kicking around in his head, though realistically he’s not sure if or when he’ll get to them.

Sumrall is a reformed drummer who works in his family’s machine shop as his day job. But he somehow not only decided he could make a movie, but succeeded in doing so. He describes the journey as “pretty fucked up.” He burned out on music, feeling like his wheels were spinning and becoming increasingly frustrated with its collaborative nature, and started horror memorabilia company Necrobilia so he could meet other fans of the genre.

While still involved with his band, he started taking script-writing classes and saw Necrobilia as a way to increase his immersion in a culture he had long admired. One day he met Stacy Davidson (‘Domain of the Damned,’ ‘Sweatshop’) and thought it was really cool there was actually someone in the Houston-area making movies. Professors had told him if he was serious about the business he’d have to move to one of the coasts, or Toronto. Sumrall called bullshit, citing Robert Rodriguez as at least one exception, but nonetheless shuffled the whole screenwriter notion toward the back of his to-do list for a time.

Possum walk welcome
Welcome

Then he had the meeting with Davidson. “His movie was waaay better than I ever would have imagined,” says Sumrall. I expected to see something somebody had gone out into their backyard with a little $200 Hi-8 camera and made as a little cheesy indie movie. But instead it was very professionally done and very slick looking.”

Sumrall kept the Davidson connection alive at Texas Frightmare Weekend, the first event at which Necrobilia was going to be a vendor, attending a pre-party Davidson had organized and meeting several other film-makers from the Houston area, a network he had no idea even existed.

Beyond Davidson, Sumrall met Mel House (‘Walking Distance’), various effects artists, sound guys, and local composers through his newly discovered network. All of them were working on each other’s films. Newly invigorated, Sumrall recalls very badly wanting to just get access one of their sets to learn whatever he could.

When Davidson finished pre-production on ‘Sweatshop’ and was ready to start filming, he and Sumrall got together and Davidson happened to mention he was still looking for someone to play the killer. Sumrall jokingly responded that he had always liked the idea of playing a killer “so why not use me?” The two laughed it off.

But a couple of weeks later Davidson gave him an open invitation down to the set, followed by an e-mail asking if he’d been at all serious regarding wanting to play the slasher in a horror movie. “I thought about it for all of 2 seconds and answered yes,” says Sumrall, who, still stuck in life-long slasher-fan mode, didn’t dare really believe it was going to happen. “I was basically shitting water for 2 days.”

Sumrall eventually regained enough regularity to go down to the set on a day none of the killer’s parts were shooting and get a feel for the mechanics of movie making. He was instantly impressed. “They literally had just this single 13-in. monitor and an HD camera he was running himself. So if you were just a bystander you’d think it was a bunch of goofy fucking kids making their little backyard movie. But if you watched it in the monitor it already looked like a professional product. It was ridiculous how cool it was. So I knew I was onto something special.”

His own parts followed, and from that point on, Sumrall was on set almost every weekend for ‘Sweatshop,’ whether he had a scene or not, learning as much as he could, seeing how things were done. He describes the experience as invaluable, particularly regarding the importance of patience: “17 hours on set could sometimes yield just 5 minutes of screen time.”

After ‘Sweatshop’ Sumrall got a call from Josh Vargas for a cameo in the movie he was shooting at the time (‘Sway’). Seeing another opportunity to gain experience, Sumrall was on-set from 5p to 5a, soaking in as much as he could and making himself as available as possible in exchange for 2 seconds of camera time.

Along the way he started to get asked, only half seriously, when he was going to direct his movie. He responded that he always saw himself as more a writer than a director. “The photo shoots I’d sometimes do for Necrobilia were enough to make me want to pull what little hair I have left out of my head, so I certainly couldn’t see myself directing a whole movie.”

A pivotal moment on the ‘Sway’ set followed. Vargas had reached the end of his rope. Sumrall tries to remember the exact words: “It was something like, ‘I’m fucking done with this movie. I need to film something else.’” Sumrall let Vargas know he was thinking about writing something and had been asked when he was going to direct, and Vargas said he’d film whatever Sumrall was working on for free.

One week later Sumrall had completed ‘Possum Walk’s first draft. Vargas didn’t end up working on the film, deciding he had to finish ‘Sway’ instead. But around the same time, Robert Luke (‘Man In The Garage’) joined ‘Possum Walk’ as a producer.

Sumrall and Luke had met and hit it off on the set of ‘Walking Distance,’ and when it became clear Vargas wasn’t going to be available, Luke said he’d film it. According to Sumrall he did a “fucking amazing job.”

Sumrall Luke
Jeremy Sumrall, Robert Luke

With a team in place, ‘Possum Walk’ began to take shape. But sleepless nights lay ahead, and not just because of a rigorous shooting schedule. Sumrall recalls tossing and turning to the point his wife asked him what was wrong. He had initially hired friends and acquaintances as much of the cast and crew, but had come to find that many of them were treating the whole process as a lark. His wife gave him some hard advice, but advice he needed to hear: fire everyone and rebuild it from the ground up.

Sumrall now sees it as the movie’s turning point. “I got rid of a lot of dead weight,” he says. “There were a lot of people who weren’t actually actors, but were friends of friends or whatever who thought it might be fun. And I naively thought at the beginning that I wouldn’t be able to hire any professionals, because we were working with no budget. I mean we had a few dollars to pay for things here and there, but in the grand scheme of things we were a gnat on Hollywood’s balls. We’re not talking about Michael Bay money!”

Once actors were hired, forward momentum returned. Not to suggest things actually ever got easy. “When you’re working with no budget and everybody’s living paycheck-to-paycheck at their day jobs and then putting in 18-19 hour days on the weekends….it’s really fucking difficult. Tempers flare. People snap. You’re in the middle of Texas in the middle of summer.” In the end, however, Sumrall says the common purpose of making a great movie they could all be proud of would take over and carry everyone through.

Sumrall also points out that his cast made the directing process itself easier than it could have been, being self-motivated enough to free him from having to direct their each and every move and allowing him to keep focused on the big picture instead.

‘Possum Walk’s cast includes Maggie Conwell (Faith Carpenter, the main character), Parrish Randall (her father, Brother William Carpenter), Tyler Tackett (male lead, Joe Don Sims), Victoria Lane, Keli Wolfe, Kristen Hall, and Andrew Sensenig. Sumrall describes the entire ensemble as professional, dedicated, and serious actors. “I didn’t have to ask them when we got to set if they knew what we were doing. They just knew. They all had taken notes on their scripts, had certain lines highlighted, and had their lines memorized, which the one thing I was sure wasn’t going to happen.”

Sumrall recalls a conversation with Lane before he had wiped the slate in which she was telling him how prepared she was going to be before heading out from L.A. Sumrall told her it sounded like she was going to be the most prepared person on set. She sounded surprised and Sumrall explained that the rest of the cast was just reading their lines right before they had to film them. She quickly joined the chorus letting him know that better could be had.

Sumrall says the final cast often knew the nuances of the script even better than he did. That being said, there were still times an actor would slip in something weirder than Sumrall had envisioned and he would simply tell them what they needed to be doing instead. The unwritten rule on set became “if I don’t say anything I liked it. If I say something, it means something’s got to change.”
Possum walk girls
Girls of Possum Walk: Danielle Jones, Jessica Jecker, Maggie Conwell, Keli Wolfe

More often than not, however, the actors either got it the way Sumrall heard it in his head, or came up with an even better interpretation of their own. “I wasn’t going to knit-pick on certain words if the intent was the same,” Sumrall explains. “If the intent got changed, that’s when I’d get involved. But I never really had to crack anybody over the head about anything like that!”

Challenges included sometimes not knowing where they were going to be shooting until 5 minutes before the shot. Sumrall and Co. had secured a tiny church on the outskirts of Groesbeck, Tex. The only restriction the church placed on the project was no shooting on Sunday.

Not so fast. “Two days before the shoot,” Sumrall explains, “I got a phone call from [executive producer] Burt [Bailey] saying the church’s septic system had just exploded and sprayed piss and shit all over the church.” A new location needed to be found on next to no notice. Randall knew folks in the area and started making calls and knocking on doors, finding a replacement church just 12 hours before shooting.

Bailey
Burton Bailey hard at FX work

Sumrall couldn’t get a look at the inside, but based on the outside and the fact that 50 people were arriving in the morning to make a movie went ahead and approved it. They put up signs guiding the new arrivals to the location. The next morning, five minutes before Sumrall himself was ready to head to the set, Randall calls again and says, “I screwed up. I took you to the wrong church last night.”

The correct church was right around the corner from the wrong one, but still 40-50 horror movie extras had to be diverted from inadvertently showing up at the wrong house of worship. The crew shot from daybreak until 7 pm, when choir members started showing up for their own practice.

Returning to the here and now, when asked what would constitute success for ‘Possum Walk’ Sumrall instantly responds with “absolute world domination” before dialing it back a bit. “We’ve accomplished our first goal: to make the movie. Now it’s all about getting the word out. In this day and age it’s pretty easy to self-distribute your movie, with services that print on-demand. But it takes a lot longer for you to get your money selling one piece at a time. So we’d ideally like to go with a distribution deal.”

Sumrall doesn’t pretend to know who he’d go with, or who might even be interested, but plans to work the convention circuit in 2010 to find out. Sumrall says he and the rest of the production team are willing to release the movie themselves, but he’d rather find an already established distributor. Production Monitor           

“I’m hoping that the hopefully pending success of ‘Sweatshop,’ which is now out with screeners getting sent to critics and getting really, really good reviews, will help springboard ‘Possum Walk’ into something maybe a little bit bigger than any of us had anticipated,” Sumrall explains. “Indie film is a hotbed right now, especially Texas indie film. Guys like Mel House are starting to put out some really good pictures that aren’t just rehashes of other movies that have come before. They’re pretty damn original and pretty fucked up and done as professionally as possible with very little money.”

Sumrall says it would be great if ‘Possum Walk’ could be lumped into the same group. movement. “I’m sure that never in a million years did Tobe Hooper expect ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ to blow up the way it did, or Eduardo Sanchez never thought ‘Blair Witch Project’ was going to be as big as it was, and I know that Oren Peli had no idea ‘Paranormal Activity’ would be as huge as it is.”

“You just never know,” concludes Sumrall. “I’d be stupid to say I want to make $40 million off this movie. Ultimately, the idea of success for me would be having people see it, having people respond to it, and through that being able to keep making movies.”

Maggie Conwell as 'Faith Carpenter'
Maggie Conwell as 'Faith Carpenter'
Keli Wolfe
Keli Wolfe as 'Gracie Richmond'
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