If you’re a fan of genre film and have never heard of Josh Ethier, you’ve managed to avoid the work of one of the most prolific producer's, editor's and sound designer's in independent film from the past decade. Along with director Joe Begos, Ethier is one half of Channel 83, an L.A based studio that has produced and distributed five features, including the recently released artful and internal horror, Bliss, and their latest film VFW. We sat down with Ethier to discuss his beginnings in TV editing, directing Gutter, working with Oz Perkins and Orion pictures for the atmospheric folk horror Gretel and Hansel, the splatter action VFW and more!
We wanted to reflect on your career, starting with yourself editing a TV series ten years ago. What was your perception of film editing before working on "Young Blood" and how was that perception altered by Ed Marx ("Jeepers Creepers")?
Young Blood was a series that I was an assistant on first and then, as was customary for Ed around that time, he started taking on lots of extra jobs. There were maybe two or three episodes that I ended up cutting myself with the producer, which he was obviously very supportive of because I'd worked with him for about a year at that time. What was most fun about that show was that the segments that I would edit were usually just segments that had to do with nature conservation and sound design. So, the show was actually about a kid who is a hunter that wants to get the big seven in Africa, who is like this spoiled rich kid from the Midwest. The best sections of the show are when the camera guy would take a day off and go visit Kilimanjaro or visit a conservation park; those were the segments that I always ended up editing, which I was grateful for because I don't really want to edit some rich kid killing rhinos.
It was a lot different than the stuff I had done up to that point, which was a lot of shorts with Joe Begos and also assistant editing on Horror films but it used all the same muscles. So, while it was difficult to do because it was almost like reality TV, trying to make a story that wasn't really there, that was a good exercise for when there actually is a story and learning how to properly underline and capitalise things, so it’s clear for the viewers. It just gets more difficult when you have to make all of it up yourself.
Of your many credits to date, "Almost Human" was a career changing film for you. Most notably it marked the start of your collaborative relationship with Joe Begos, leading yourselves to launching Channel 83 films. How important has your consistency together been to your work and his?
Joe and I have been working together since high school, we would hang out on weekends and make short films. I remember the weekend that Cabin Fever came out, I was over his house all weekend and we made a movie about a ghost in the woods. We made kung-fu films, we made horror films, we made action films, it was all very ridiculous because we were just kids with bicycles and video cameras. When I moved out to L.A., I moved out here with Joe. Joe was the one who, through several other contacts of his, introduced me to Ed Marx, who I then worked with for a couple of years.
When I was working for Ed, Joe was working for Stuart Gordon and we were living in a two bedroom apartment in the Valley. At Frightfest in 2011 we had a short playing, which was called Bad Moon Rising. Paul McEvoy, one night when we were drunk at The Phoenix, pulled us aside and said, "You guys have got to make a feature!". We walked back to the hotel drunk, stumbling all over the road and Joe said, "I have to write a feature. We have to come back here with a feature. We've done this. We have to go do that!". Then we just saved all the money that we could to make Almost Human. On Almost Human, I was a producer, editor, sound designer, and I played the heavy, which is all the roles I've done with Joe since we were fifteen or sixteen years old. He couldn't be in front of the camera, so it was always me acting, and then because I had a background in music, I moved into editing and working with sound. We've just produced everything together since we were kids, now we're four features in and I wouldn't trade that relationship for the world.
Seeing your directorial debut screen at Frightfest last year, in front of "Bliss", was one of my highlights. Did working with Begos on "Bliss" influence your choices as a director with "Gutter", with both films being made so close together?
I definitely think that a lot of Gutter ended up in Bliss, just because I had built some relationships with certain people, most notably Josh and Sierra Russell from Russell Effects, who worked on Gutter for free, just because they knew me and they liked me and they thought it was a cool idea. I think they did an incredible job. Also, that was my first time working with our sound mixer Shawn Duffy. He's worked with a lot of our friends, guys like Mickey Keating and Eric Pennycoff, who was also premiered his film at Frightfest last year. Shawn also agreed to do it for free because he liked the idea and he liked our films. Like Bliss, we shot guerilla style in Los Angeles. I had friends that worked at bars, friends that worked at warehouses and they were willing to help either by giving me a place to put equipment, giving me a place to rig cars, or getting me a bar to shoot in. Whereas it usually costs about ten thousand dollars a day to shoot in a bar out here, I was able to shoot for free. We used some more of those connections on Bliss and ported over some of the people who helped me out. But also these people were always in our network of friends and I think we were going to end up working with them anyway, so I don't know if Gutter sealed the deal on that, but it was nice to go direct something and to have the same support system that we had on our first two films, as well as working with some new people who then worked with us on Bliss and VFW. Joe was on set for Gutter every day and he saved my ass a handful of times. No matter how well you prepare there's always something you've forgotten and I think Joe and I have been able to step in to that role for each other, where it’s like, “You were bound to forget something, it's cool, I’ll go handle this and you just worry about the things in front of you right now".
Can you take us through your transition from editor to director, and the parts of your editorial process that helped you create "Gutter''?
I never really thought that I wanted to direct anything. I really, really love editing and I love the collaboration of working with a director. A lot of the directors that I've worked with are now great friends of mine; guys like Adam Green, Joe Lynch and Adam Mortimer. Gretel and Hansel is out now; Oz and I hit it off wonderfully, he's a great guy. I think that I thought that I always wanted to edit and to just help other people make their films. I don't think there was anything necessarily that I wanted to say as a director and then as time progressed, as I saw different films, travelled more, I became interested in making something of my own. I worked on Bullet Head with Paul Solet, so I got to go over to Europe twice for about six weeks, just watching him work with the actors and watching him work with his DP, watching him manage this entire giant production. It was things like that that started to get the wheels turning. Gutter was actually an idea for a feature that I'd had and I thought, "Well, maybe I should just make the intro of the film as a ten minute short film, make sure it has a proper beginning, middle and end, and try to establish all the necessary beats". Of course it would be different in a feature film but why not try to just make a short and call in all the favours just once and try it out.
Then I started writing it and started to get really excited about shooting it. Because I'm an editor I was trying to think of ways to cut down on time spent on set. I was really focusing on performance, so that once we had what we needed we could move on. I was careful about coverage, trying to keep it minimal so that my DP Brian Sowell could focus on making the shots we did need as good as they could possibly be. That all came from the types of films that I was digesting at the time and I continue to digest, which is a lot of really quiet, downer eastern European cinema. Looking at it editorially helped me to break it down in a way that I could understand it on set. I wanted to think of how I could use the things that I have learnt from other people and films and from my own experience working to try and minimise the headache for anybody that was willing to help me make this. That really what was most of the benefit of my prior experience. I was thinking about how to make a short without pissing off all my friends because it would need to be made on the backs of some really talented people and thankfully, I think I found a way to balance it so nobody was too mad that they helped me out.
On the subject of talented people, it features a role from Jeremy Gardner, who in addition to "Gutter" appears in two films by Begos; "The Mind's Eye" and "Bliss", as is often the case with several other actors in Channel 83 films. Do you have a favourite actor you've edited or like Gardner, continue to cut?
There's a couple of actors that are a part of our stable, let’s call it, who have always been dependable, always done the work, always been on time, never complained about anything, because when you're making a low-budget horror film there's a lot to complain about. The conditions aren't great sometimes, it can get cold, it can get wet, so in that capacity I would definitely say that Graham Skipper, who starred in Almost Human and The Mind's Eye, Bliss and most recently VFW, and also our good friend Matt Mercer, who was in The Mind's Eye and was in Bliss. I'm always so happy when those guys are in a project with us, because they're so easy to work with and they're so talented. Dora Madison, who's in both Bliss and VFW and is incredible in both movies, she completely gives herself up to the cinema gods every time she walks on set, and she's a total joy to edit as well.
Outside of the stable of friends that I work with frequently, there's a lot of people who’ve been a joy to cut, like when I worked on Evan Katz's Small Crimes and he told me that the protagonists parents were going to be played by Robert Forster and Jacki Weaver, I almost fell over backwards, like, “Oh my God, I get to cut Robert Forster and Jacki Weaver". With VFW, when we got that cast together with Stephen Lang, Bill Sadler, Martin Kove, Fred Williamson, David Patrick Kelly and George Wendt, who was also in Bliss, it made my job easier. Not creatively, because there’s still so much work to be done editorially, but they give you such a broader selection to pull from because everything that they do is unique. Further in VFW, Sierra McCormick, who was in Some Kind Of Hate, also, is amazing to work with. She's somebody who, again, doesn't complain about conditions, and understands independent filmmaking. It was the same on Some Kind Of Hate, she was there every day doing the work, doing a great job and in both of those films, she had really hard roles to pull off. Like, for instance, how in Some Kind Of Hate you have to be sympathetic to her character because of her history, but she's also killing children. It's a really hard ask of an actor and I think she handled it so well. In VFW a lot of the attention is always on the veteran actors, which of course, is what we're excited about as genre fans, these old guys kicking a bunch of young punks asses, but Sierra fits in there and guides the film, gives them the information that they need, does it stylishly, does it with a very well defined character and gives them a bit of hell at the same time. That was a very difficult job and it's almost like she did it without even having to think about it. It was just so natural for her.
How many times do you like to screen a film personally as an editor?
Usually it depends on the movie. Sometimes you have to turn around a film quicker than you would like, sometimes you have all the time in the world, which is very rare. You can do it ten or twelve times but usually for most of the stuff I work on, there is usually about three screenings before its locked, with a close group of friends, people whose opinions you respect, then working with producers, to meet whatever needs need to be met on their end and deal with their notes, but I’ve never really had bad experiences from that.
Is it ever challenging bouncing back and forth between aesthetic as frequent as you do with the different films you have your hands in creatively?
I don’t think it’s that difficult at all. I worked on the movie The Standoff at Sparrow Creek with my good friend Henry Dunham, which is a very quiet movie, there's no score, the sound design is all essentially miles way. It’s basically just dialogue, almost like a stage play. I usually don't get sent movies like that and when Dallas from Cinestate sent me that script, he said, "I don’t know if this is the kind of thing that you’re looking to work on, but this is what we're doing next, we would love to have you involved". I said, "This isn’t the type of movie that I’m sent frequently but it is the kind of movie that I want to make".
So, I got to work on something that was quiet and story-driven and then as soon as that movie wrapped I went to go and work on Bliss, which is the opposite of quiet and story-driven. It’s just experimental and dreamlike and loud and big and colourful. It’s kind of like working out and hitting different muscles. Working on different films like that allows me to play as an editor in a way that usually you don’t get as a director because it takes so long to make a movie and you have to be a specific mindset for such a long time. For instance, we did Bliss, and then I did Gretel and Hansel, and the day that I finished Gretel and Hansel I drove out to Dallas, Texas for the first day of the shoot on VFW. So, I went from a horror movie that’s soaked in drugs and sex and violence and heavy metal and sludge and distortion, to a quiet, scary studio horror film with this incredibly cool director, and then right back in the trenches on a splatter-filled action movie. To do those three movies in a row and to have them all coming out sequentially in theatres and VOD has been a great experience.
I recently interviewed Kevin Greutert, the editor of 2008's 'The Strangers', which of course came out during the end of an era for horror films, where it now feels dream-like, that studios were throwing sizeable budgets toward original genre films. What was it like working with a studio as open and accepting as Orion for your latest film Gretel and Hansel?
Working with MGM and Orion on Gretel and Hansel was a total dream. They had already done the hardest work, which was hiring Oz Perkins, and part of me was worried that you know, "A studio has hired Oz Perkins. Is it going to be the same Oz Perkins that I’ve been a fan of?” I was at the world premier of Black Coats Daughter, back when it was called February in Toronto, I just love the way that he makes movies! When I first spoke to him on the phone to interview for that movie, he basically said, “There have been people who have said my movies are slow or that they’re boring and the only thing I want to say is that I’m not interested in making movies for those people", which I agree with completely.
We had a blast every day doing weird, different, interesting things, trying cuts that never would have worked and then also kind of liking them and trying to figure out how to make it work with sound and music. We were constantly trying to subvert the expectation from both the studio and then eventually from the audience. MGM and Orion were on board the entire time, they emboldened every crazy decision that he made. They backed him on the visuals and the style of the movie that he wanted to do; they backed him on the pacing and the strange sound design and soundtrack. They got him a composer that made the score that he was looking for. I found that to be a really invigorating experience because you usually only see that on the smaller movies.
When Joe and I did Almost Human, we essentially paid for it ourselves, we made the movie for about fifty grand. I remember showing it to other directors, friends that we had and they said, "Guys, this a lot of fun and it’s cool that you got to do all of the stuff that you wanted and that you were in control, but I definitely wouldn’t get used to that". Through the last seven or eight years, I’ve been blessed to speak up for that approach and speak up for the directors that I’m working with and embolden them to do weird stuff and make strange decisions and say, "Don't worry about it, if we have to test screen it, we'll test screen it. Make the movie that you want to make, don't worry about the limits that are imposed on you". That’s my main job as an editor, to pick up a director and carry them through a minefield and say, "Don’t worry about notes, don’t worry about audience feedback. You worry about the thing that you’re trying to do with the movie and we'll find a way to incorporate what needs to be incorporated". On Gretel and Hansel, everybody that was above my pay grade was completely there for the film, which was very exciting to see. I hope I get the chance to get to work with them again.
How many times did you find yourself going back to the original "Hansel and Gretel" story as a way to stay faithful to the source material, as well as focus on a different structure?
I never once thought about the original story after I was originally reached out to about the job. I read the script and I liked that what they were trying to do was something that was intrinsically different to what had been done before. As soon as I read that I was one hundred percent on board with the way that they were going. I think if I had tried to do anything more traditional in regards to the story, I think that would have grounded the film in a negative way. I think Oz specifically needed to make his version of the story, and that's what I fought for everyday
Were there any films that he had you watch as references to establish a shared language between the two of you for his vision?
Not at all, no. We had a short call for an interview and then when I found out that they were going to go with me, I spoke to him again on the phone for a little bit longer. He never wanted to use any references of things that were already existing. He never told me, "Look at this painting,", or "Listen to this album", or "Watch this movie." I think he totally went and tried to make the most “Oz” version of the film that he could make.
We're at a time where reboots, remakes and franchise mania continues to lead trends in cinema in 2020, as was the case when you worked on "Leatherface", which is often thought by people as one of the most divisive films of the 2010's. What was your experience editing "Leatherface" like?
Right! I’ve had people tell me two years after the movie came out, "You know, I watched Leatherface, I thought it was really good" and then there were people who at the time said, "Yeah, but it's not really a Texas Chainsaw movie". When I received the call about possibly working on it, obviously I was excited. I have a Leatherface tattoo on my back. I was in a chainsaw shirt when they called me to offer me the job. I was over the moon and then realising it was by the guys that made Inside, was even more exciting, because Inside is one of my favourite films of the last 25 years. So the chance to work with them and to also work on a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie sort of knocked me over sideways. I was the second editor that was brought on to the film, so instead of reading the script I just got to watch the movie. When I first watched it, the scene that had me excited the most was Stephen Dorf essentially getting chainsaw-fucked by Leatherface. All of the different inserts of body parts being ripped apart, all the blood on screen, how angry it was, how violent it was, how it wasn't supposed to be fun, but in a way that was really fun. I was really excited to expand on that and put whatever I could get away with into the film. I sort of went into that movie with the idea that, certainly horror fans are going to be divisive because it wasn’t really a Texas Chainsaw movie until you get to the last fifteen minutes, so what can we do to pump up the stuff that those people are there for, like the gore, the violence, the tension and scares.
Then when I was editing it, the scene that I had probably the most fun with was the shootout in the diner. I was having a blast at work every day. The Producer, Beth Bruckner O'Brien, who worked at Millennium, was my contact for most of the editing and we were just sitting down in the edit bay having a blast, trying all the stuff that had been previously cut out because they thought it might not work and seeing if we could refashion it in some way. I already knew that it was to be divisive purely from the script stage, from the set up of the film, but we tried to do everything that we could to make it so that it you give it a chance, it's enjoyable and then you get your Leatherface at the end. I think that too much fan service in anything is a bad idea. I think movies need to be different from what we've seen before. Even with something like Star Wars for instance, they’re not even really movies any more, they're just pumping out the beats that they know will sell tickets, so they can sell toys. I was excited to find out that they were doing Texas Chainsaw Massacre like a violent road movie, and that in its final twenty minutes became closer to the movie we all love.
Can you talk about the space you like to occupy when it comes to pushing boundaries and rejecting expectations?
I love subverting anything that can be subverted whenever I get the chance to. On Bliss everything was so loud and everything was so fast - everything was flashing! There were so many colours and the film was exploding off the sprockets on both sides and every once in a while we tried to just stop it, almost like when you put your hand on a record, and just give everyone a bit of a shake before you continue on with the onslaught, keep things changing and different.
When I did Gutter I stayed away from music. The movie doesn't have a score, the movie just has needle drop tracks from bands that I love and people who allowed me to use their music. I didn’t shoot anything hand held, everything was on sticks, which is the exact opposite of what Joe did on Bliss and has done on a lot of his films. Everything was quiet and still. Doing something different is always a little bit more interesting than just doing things in a tried and true way that you know will work.
What’s your relationship with the role music plays in your editorial process personally as a sound designer?
Music plays a big part in my process. I don't like to cut dry, I always cut with music. I have a giant score library, I have spent a lot of time working with music to learn how to join certain things from this track, to the rhythms in this track and then take the melodies in this track and I sometimes have up to as much as four, five or six layers of different cues going to create one cue. You’re trying to control the audience’s attention as an editor and to give them the information that they need and then also sneak in as much style as you can, depending on what the film needs. If it needs something to be big; be big, and if it needs something to be small; be small. I think music is a great way of underlining what you’re doing as an editor, so I have a lot of fun doing it, and it’s always different on every movie.
I think that music can really ruin a film for a viewer if it’s just those "copy and paste” style cues. If I see something that feels cookie cutter I get really upset. It makes me upset as a viewer sitting in the theatre, somebody who has pulled out money, to sit there and think, "OK, the music is all big and then it got quiet. I guess there will be a scare in fifteen seconds", and then there is a scare and it's louder and it's bigger. We all see that stuff coming from a mile away now, so I want to try and do something different, be it more music, or less music or different music and just constantly try to evolve the tools that we use, to say the things that we're trying to say, because if we're saying things the same way as somebody else, that's never good. You want to try and have a voice, you want to try and have something about you that that is specific and unique.
VFW is out in theaters and Video On Demand today with a European premiere following at Frightfest in Glasgow in March. Was it every bit of fun shooting Fred Williamson as you imagined it to be?
Walking on set for VFW, I thought, "OK, well, I have to be careful. I don't want to do anything wrong. I want to make sure I’m on my mark and that I’m doing things right", then you walk on set and you’re working with actual living legends, and all that anxiety comes back. Fred Williamson was incredible! You just point him in a direction and he knows what to do every time, I was more worried about acting with him than I was about editing him. There's one scene in the middle of the film where everybody has to fight my character and Hammer has to get hit with a chair. We said, "Fred, we'll get a stunt double to do the chair hits.” He said, "I don't need no stunt double!”. Joe said, “You sure?”. He just looks Joe dead in the eyes, chomping his cigar and says, “Get it right the first time!". He actually ended up doing it three times. He did it with no pads and then he got up, he went outside, smoked a cigar. He's just a legend! The cast was a great joy to work with. Each of them is so specific. There's real personalities on screen and they’re all great guys.
What's next for Josh Ethier and Channel 83?
Well, there's VFW , which is in theaters and video on demand today! It will also be showing at Frightfest in Glasgow. Gretel and Hansel is still showing in theatres. I'm not actually sure what's next! I've got a couple of things that I'm sort of circling. I know that Joe is writing another film and then ultimately I'll hopefully be involved in that, but I'm anxious to see what it is that happens next!