Now that this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival has wrapped, I have been reflecting on the amazing movies I was able to watch. There are several reasons Fantasia is one of my favorite festivals, and the fantastic films are just a part of it. One of the best ones I was able to experience this year is Andy Mitton’s The Harbinger. Shot in the middle of the pandemic, the film embraced the panic and devastation the world was experiencing and didn’t shy away from making it a big part of the story.
Monique ventures out of quarantine to visit an old friend who’s plagued by nightmares. She finds herself drawn into a hellish dreamscape where she must face her greatest fears – or risk never having existed at all.
What Andy has given us a is a terrifying look at how nightmares can consume us and the terrible consequences we face when we go just a little too far. It will keep you up at night. To celebrate The Harbinger’s world premiere at Fantasia, I chatted with Andy via Zoom, and we discussed the inspiration behind the film, how he got his cast, why he loves horror, and more!
PopHorror: I loved The Harbinger. I blew me away, so I’m really excited to speak with you today.
Andy Mitton: Thank you. I appreciate that.
PopHorror: What inspired the film, and how did the project come about?
Andy Mitton: In 2020 about May/June, right when we were really feeling the weight of what was happening but couldn’t see a finish line in sight, I had been planning with my producer, Richard King, to put another movie out that summer. And like everyone else, our plans went down the tubes because it wasn’t going to be possible or realistic. I went into a bit of a despair. I was feeling the heaviness of everything and was pacing in my basement one night in July, suffering a really bad bout of nightmares, to the point where I was not looking forward to going to sleep every night and staying up all night.
My muse came down and struck me over the head with this idea. Some of the best ideas come in a rush like that, like a song that’s written in 30 seconds. All the pieces of this machine started dropping into place, I think because I’ve been wanting to return to the demon realm after a few visits to the ghost world. I’ve been wanting to take what I’ve learned into that. I’ve wanted to work with dreams and nightmares.
I think I was feeling a lot of the same feelings we all were at the time. I wrote it and had a draft in probably three weeks. I continued to write, but we already had the wheels turning towards production. I started writing in July, and we started shooting in February. It was a really propulsive, inspired process that took a lot of support from Richard King and Clark Freeman, my producers. Everyone sort of got inspired at the same moment, and all the pieces came together. So it was great.
PopHorror: I know what it’s like to sometimes be afraid to go to sleep. While I don’t really have nightmares, I do get sleep paralysis sometimes.
Andy Mitton: Oh really?
PopHorror: It can be terrifying, so I can understand, because sometimes I don’t know if I want to go back to sleep. I really felt that.
Andy Mitton: The documentary on sleep paralysis, The Nightmare? Have you seen that?
PopHorror: I watched about half of it. I couldn’t watch it anymore.
Andy Mitton: I felt the same. That was one of the things that went into this. I had recently seen it. It’s totally terrifying.
PopHorror: I know a lot of movies coming out now were affected by the pandemic. The portrayal of the pandemic and the panic surrounding Covid was really spot on. I really noticed it, especially when they took the wipes and were wiping down and talking about the masks. Not a lot of movies show you what’s going on in the present day and they’re wearing masks or really talking about what’s going on. I really liked the very real portrayal of it. Was this something that you added to the script or that you had in it originally?
Andy Mitton: I had it originally. It was a debate because we couldn’t see the future. We couldn’t look to this moment and know where we would be at with the pandemic, and the panic, and what level it would be at. But I knew there would be pandemic movies and pandemic horror. There might be some resistance to that for people looking for escapism. But I also knew as storytellers, what we strive for is the thing that we can all connect to. When in any of our lives has there been the shared dread that we all globally can tap into?
That’s irresistible, I think, for storytellers, and should be for audiences. I try to think of it like, “I’m not going to write about it directly, but it’s going to be like the gasoline in the engine of the story, this collective dread, and try to go from there.” What I tried to do was weave in the behaviors—these strange behaviors like wiping down the groceries—that we’ve all gotten used to. But then they’re talking about something else while they’re doing it. The way it just becomes a part of everyday life is surreal and scary and hopefully will feel like an interesting time capsule to look back on. Like any time period people set their movie in, I think the future this will be as potent a choice as anything you might choose to elevate themes and fuel your story. So, I embraced it and ran with it.
PopHorror: Another thing that I really liked was Gabby Beans. She was just incredible and natural. The conversations that they were having, especially in the kitchen at the beginning… Just so natural and normal. I think this is the first movie that I’ve seen that has really faced the pandemic head on and really made it a character in the film. What was your casting process like?
Andy Mitton: It was interesting, because we knew we were going to shoot in New York. Because we were pre-vaccine and an independent film production, we were already walking on very thin ice there. Local talent was going to be an advantage, but this was also a time when all the theaters in New York were shuttered, and the very best stage talent in New York were home in their apartments.
It’s a community I’m lucky enough to have some contacts in. My background is in theater. I share a vocabulary with stage actors, and I know that there’s a common misconception that when you bring stage actors to screen, they’re going to be too big because they’re used to playing to the back of the house and working with their full bodies. And it’s quite the opposite. They’re just some of the smartest actors, and they’re hungry to be able to work on that scale. They understand it very well.
So, I had a lot of faith in that. Emily Davis, who plays Mavis, came in first. They’re both real up-and-coming stage actors. They’ve both been on Broadway recently, and through Emily, she had seen Gabby in a play recently and recommended her. It was an immediate lock, and it wound up being some of the warmest, most fruitful, most satisfying collaborations I’ve ever had. Both of them, the craft they brought, the ability to be in the moment but also be able to talk between takes and collaborate, and in a very cold, bleak movie, it was a warm set. There were a lot of warm hearts on the set, and it made it really nice to come to work every day.
PopHorror: I thought it was a great pairing. I had recently watched a TV show where the main actress is a stage actress, and you could tell. They are very animated, the tone of their voice and the way they say things. It was very apparent that she did theater. I didn’t even know that Gabby and Emily are stage actors. They’re so natural, and they didn’t have to play that part up to get themselves noticed in the film. I liked that.
Andy Mitton: Cool, thank you!
PopHorror: This is not your first foray into horror. What is it that draws you to the genre?
Andy Mitton: I think I’ve always loved it. I was one of those kids who, like nine, ten years old, was begging my mom to buy me the Stephen King books that I really should not have been reading. So from the earliest age, I just had that fan love for it. Had just worn out my copies of Pet Sematary, everything I could find. Pet Sematary, Candyman, everything in the 90s I just consumed.
And I got into theater, and I went to school for theater, but the whole time I was doing theater, I’ve always been scheming. How do I take everything that I’m learning and just bring it to horror? Because that’s the only place… I just think horror is not only the best community in film, but I love the horror community and horror people. People outside of it don’t understand.
PopHorror: No, they don’t.
Andy Mitton: Some of the warmest and biggest hearts are, ironically, in this space, and the passion and organization of the community is unmatched. There are so many different spaces and subgenres. There’s nothing you can’t explore. Anything I could want or write about I feel like I could. I don’t need another genre to do it in. I can be very, very happy making horror movies my whole life.
PopHorror: Absolutely. People don’t understand the horror community when they have never been a part of it. What is up next for you?
Andy Mitton: I don’t know. I have a lot of things ready. There are some irons in fire, so I’m very optimistic, but I’m also very jaded so since there’s nothing official. I won’t put anything out there.
PopHorror: Fair enough.
Andy Mitton: I don’t want to apply any jinxes, but I will say that I’ve got a stack of scripts. The pandemic, a lot of people had a chance to write. I had a burst of writing, and I’ve got a host of different things I’m excited to do. I think I’ll be meeting some people in this process that are going to be new partners, so fingers crossed that there are good things ahead.
PopHorror: I think that’s one of the positives of the pandemic. It has allowed people to reconnect with the things they love and to find new things, to take the time to really spend time with themselves and the things they love to do. I’ll keep an eye out for what you have coming out. I just have one last question for you. What is your favorite scary movie?
Andy Mitton: The Exorcist is my favorite movie in any genre. I think of it as just the perfect movie. On the more fun side, Candyman is also up there for me. The original Candyman.
Thank you so much, Andy, for taking the time to speak with us. The Harbinger is currently in its festival run and has been picked up XYZ Films.