El Paso, Texas based filmmaker Andrew Jara joins us for a campfire chat about his films and his long-standing love of horror cinema.
Andrew Jara is a Latino writer, independent filmmaker and director based in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. The award-winning filmmaker has directed a handful of short and feature length films and co-hosts of The Bomb Squad podcast where he reviews films and aims to find the good in films that are considered critical failures. Jara was encouraged from a young age to do something creative and his passion for telling stories through film shines through in his work. He's an incredibly talented writer and director with limitless potential.
Jara's debut full length feature film, The Last Ones, which he wrote and directed is available to watch on Tubi along with his crime drama Borderland. His recent short film Helix was premiered as part of the Official Selection at the 2021 Bleedingham Horror Film Festival. The short is currently available to watch on YouTube. We caught up with him last year while his award-winning cosmic horror film, The Empty Space was in the festival circuit. We had the opportunity to chat about his film projects and his long-standing love of horror cinema.
Slay Away: What do you believe most shaped your love of horror growing up?
Jara: My mother was kind of the breadwinner of our family. She was a lawyer and she was often in school or working long hours. We were kind of brought up by my father, especially during the week and he kind of let us watch whatever we wanted and we were able to explore a lot of different movies, even at a younger age. I think that's kind of what shaped it and I was always drawn to it. Here's me as a kid thinking, Predator looks cool or Alien looks cool. You kind of get more drawn to like what movies can do, especially with films like Star Wars. It just was a little shift. My brother and I, we're like two years apart in age. Growing up, it was always a question of, "What movie can we see?" Like finding the scariest movie you can find and so, growing up in that environment of being able to experiment with any kind of movie we wanted and I think our family just has like more of a proclivity towards horror.
In our neighborhood, we had a carport and every Halloween we would set up like this huge haunted house inside where kids would have to walk through it to get candy and it was just really fun. It was super cool and like we even had it so that if it was like a little kid, we could turn on the lights to roll fast and they could just kind of walk in and not be scared. We played to our audience that it was a lot of fun to be able to to scare kids and see what freaked them out. We moved to like a "better part of town" and that first year we set up the huge haunted house and realized that richer kids don't go out as much on Halloween so like nobody came that first year and it was super disappointing. Growing up and being able to make these haunted houses and do cool stuff like that really is what shaped my love of horror.
Slay Away: We'd love for you to tell everyone more about your films?
Jara: The Last Ones, it's like a zombie-drama. It's about two people living in the apocalypse. They've just kind of found each other and are struggling to survive. We kind of played with the initial fear of having a zombie apocalypse, the fear of the unknown, fear of your own strength and of your neighbors. So, I really wanted to play with that idea. So, it's drama and more of a psychological horror film.
Borderland is a kind of a midnight movie. It's a mixed bag, a mexican exploitation about a woman who has killed her husband who used to work for the cartels. He owed the cartels a lot of money because he was a drug runner so she has until the end of the night to get the money for the cartel. She's teamed up with one of the cartel guides to kind of figure out where the money is and it's just them driving through El Paso meeting different kinds of characters. It's kind of a hangout movie. We kind of throw everything at the wall. We did that one because we were getting ready to film The Empty Space and it had been about 5 years between The Last Ones and what would be The Empty Space.
I wanted to shoot something in between and we ended up shooting it in like a week. It was only night shoots, so we shot it in about seven days I think. We shot it on a budget small budget and luckily it got picked up by a distributor. The Last Ones got picked up by a distributor as well. Both of them are about to be re-released by BayView Entertainment. So, I'm pretty excited about that.
Slay Away: Speaking of The Empty Space, we understand it won 'Best of the Fest' at the Sacramento horror film festival, congrats! Tell us a bit about the filim?
Jara: Yes and it more recently won the second place prize at the International Horror Film Festival in Columbus, Ohio as well as the International Horror Hotel. It was pretty exciting. I had moved out to Los Angeles and I was having, for the first time in my life, severe anxiety attacks and fallen into a depression. As I started to get better, I wanted to make a film chronicalling that phase of my life. I really wanted to show the more realistic side of of living with anxiety and with mental illness. I wanted to give people the reality of it, as much as showing them what it felt like to have anxiety and to be depressed.
The best way for me to do it was to kind of wrap it in this horror film that plays with the cosmic. It's about a girl who has just suffered a traumatic event. It left her with anxiety attacks and depression and grief. She's trying to get through it and she can't figure out what's real and what's not real. The story progresses from there. It's a very trippy film and very personal to me. I'm literally putting myself out there in a way that I hadn't before, so the fact that it's getting such a good response from people, and great reviews, it's super exciting to have that kind of reaction to such a personal film that I've made.
Slay Away: You mentioned to us that your favorite films are The Thing and The Exorcist---why are they your favorites?
Jara: I think The Thing is just like, on every level, a perfect film. Especially on a technical level. It's amazing and on a filmmaking level, if you listen to the commentary with carpenter and Kurt Russell, they talk about how at certain points the set would get buried in the snow and they'd have to dig it out and just the fact that Carpenter and the actors had to dig out their own trucks to get to set is pretty amazing. They didn't have any money.
The way the film kind of plays with your mind, everything works. You know people talk about how they don't like jump scares but The Thing has a bunch of jump scares and they all work really well and I think what people mean when they say that is that they don't like bad jump scares, but a jump scare when it's effective is so good. There's a couple in film, like the defibrillator scene, it just kind of stays with you in a way that not a lot of films do for me and it's kind of the same thing with The Exorcist.
You see the mother trying to get like every treatment for her daughter, to see what works and you know I think everyone's been there, like oh let's try this. The film is presented in such a real way that it just kind of lingers with you and I really like the way that it gives you a taste of horror and then it kind of shuts the door on you. You're out of the room and you kind of get a breather. It almost feels like a boxing match where you see the round of the priest or the mother fighting against Regan and then it cuts back out. You kind of take a little ten second breather and then you go back in. I just don't think I've seen another movie that does it like that where it's constantly going in and out. So, I don't know...it just kind of sticks with me so much, especially with the fact that everyone in that film's performances are amazing.
Slay Away: The first horror film you ever watched was House on Haunted Hill (1999), recount that experience for us?
Jara: I remember it very well. I think because at the time when we were kids our parents didn't really like shun us from anything. We kind of grew up watching all types of movies, regardless of the rating. Being kids, we were like, let's find the grossest thing. We're just like watching Aliens and Terminator and stuff. So, I'd seen Predator and even like Beetlejuice and Ghostbusters, these movies that kind of mix horror and another genre together. The House on Haunted Hill looked interesting and I really like Taye Diggs, that's like one of the main reasons I wanted to go see it.
So, we're sitting there in the theater and my brother just kind of turns to me and he's like, "Oh you know this is like a real horror film, like it's not going to be like an action film." I think that's when it hit me, I don't think I've ever seen a horror film that's just straight horror and yeah, sure enough that movie scared the hell out of me. It was terrifying and especially because I had never seen a horror film like that. They did the Jacob's Ladder movement where their heads like shake and they cut out of frame so that it moves even more unnaturally. Just the idea of the doctors and that first scene, the opening scene where it shows the past is like so well done. It takes its time to built the scares. Even today, it still scares me.
Slay Away: You mentioned to me wanting to talk about queer representation in horror and specifically A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge. So, share your thoughts on that film with us?
Jara: A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge is probably one of my favorites in the franchise. I tend to like the outliers. Another of my favorites is Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, which is a big point of contention. I know that as time has passed, it has become this kind of queer cult classic or LGBTQ film. Even when living in Los Angeles for a while, they had this series of like films representing different LGBTQ issues and they had played the film. As I've watched it and I've tried to break down what I understand about a lot of the symbolism, the boy has Freddy living inside of him, obviously Freddy wants to come out. He goes to his best friend instead of his girlfriend to get help about this secret side of him, so you kind of see a lot of the imagery there but I don't know what it's trying to say by the end. I've tried to watch it a couple of times and I mean I watch it just regularly, but every time I kind of get confused by the end because he ends up back with his girlfriend and she's the one who saves them. However, it's a pretty clear allegory.
Slay Away: What spurred your interest in filmmaking?
Jara: My parents say they always pushed for us to do more creative to things and look for more creative ways to do things. We were always kind of encouraged to do that kind of stuff and I think as I've grown up, my parents not shunning us away from watching movies kind of opened the the floodgates. I never felt like there wasn't a door that I couldn't at least peek inside, you know? I could always try to at least get in and I think that kind of helped me especially like there's always that fear, "Am I good enough to really be a director" and I still have that, but there's another voice on the other side that says, "just try it, who cares if you are good enough."
Slay Away: Are you planning on any future horror film projects?
Jara: I always want to be in the horror genre in one way or another. I really just like the versatility of it, even my films, if you look at what I've done so far, like with The Last Ones, It's a drama, it's a psychological thriller, but it leans into the drama and The Empty Space is more of a cosmic horror film. Right now, I'm mainly just focusing on shorts to kind of build up my portfolio and just having fun with shorts. They're cheaper and easier to put out. We actually just filmed two new shorts that I'm editing right now for Youtube. They're really short, but creepy ideas I had and I feel like I'm going to keep doing that. There's a lot going on and I'm just trying to stay as creative as humanly possible.