The Clovehitch Killer is a slow-burning murder mystery that peels away the facade of the all-American family living inside the Bible Belt. It’s not hard to believe that a stranger on the street, or a next door neighbor could be a killer. But the second we begin to suspect the people we know and love, our entire worldview will come crashing down. I interviewed Duncan Skiles, director of the The Clovehitch Killer, now in theatres!
As you’ll read below, The Clovehitch Killer has been in the works for a quite a few years. When I talked to Skiles, he had already moved onto his next film, a documentary. After conducting so many interviews for the project, Skiles expressed his relief of being on the other side of the questions, being considered an expert in his specific field.
Chris Aitkens for Nightmare on Film Street: What I enjoyed about the film is that the setting seemed very familiar, just because I also grew up in a Christian home. Did you grow up in a similar setting?
Duncan Skiles: No, but I grew up in the Bible Belt, and I had friends who were very Christian. My buddy Kevin, he lived down the street, his parents were very religious. I took some inspiration from that experience.
NOFS: Were you judged at all by the people around you for not going to church?
DS: No, because I come from a college town, so it’s a cultural mix of blue and red.
NOFS: Did you do an activity with Charlie Plummer and Dylan McDermott to build a father/son relationship between them?
DS: I think we met two or three times before shooting, schedule permitting. I had them read together a couple times. And we also got together with Samantha [Mathis], but that was the extent of it. They really created the relationship on their own to a large extent.
“I became obsessed with serial killers when I was doing the research for the story. It just resonates on a primal level, that somebody can be so broken.”
NOFS: I was also very fascinated with the character of Kassi. Obviously, she’s fixated on the Clovehitch Killer for personal reasons. In your opinion, why do people become morbidly obsessed with serial killers?
DS: Yeah, I wonder. I became obsessed with serial killers when I was doing the research for the story. It just resonates on a primal level, that somebody can be so broken. There’s no defense for it. It’s so outside of the norm. There’s no way to prepare yourself for an encounter like that. I don’t know why people are obsessed with serial killers but in her case, it was one thing but it turns out to be something deeper.
NOFS: I found this film was quite a departure from what you’ve previously worked on. How did you come across the project?
DS: It came from me; the structure, the characters, and such, when I was researching serial killers. It was something I was genuinely curious about. I was very sad reading stories about serial killers and was sad that such things existed. I felt like I needed to tell a story that captures how scary it is, and allow for some kind of processing of my feelings about it.
NOFS: And is this when [writer] Christopher Ford came in?
DS: Yeah, he’s a good friend of mine. We worked together on a lot of stuff. And he’s a great screenwriter. I feel very fortunate that he wanted to do it, because I’m pretty bad at screenwriting on my own. He’s got a very good antenna for storytelling.
NOFS: When you reached out to him about doing the project, what did you initially say?
DS: I had an outline. And I had told the story verbally many times up until that point. I had a general sense of the blueprints. He really helped fill it out. We would fill it out and then we’d tear it back. We were fortunate to be able to develop it for a few years, because nobody wanted to make it. So as we were pitching it and trying to get it to come together, we were tweaking and revising. With every pitch meeting, you can tell what’s working in the room and what’s not. That would make us go back and rework the script.
NOFS: In terms of building the suspense and the tension, were there certain devices you wanted to use?
DS: I tried to avoid certain devices. I wanted to create tension through the lack of familiar suspense cues. I wanted it to feel like something wasn’t right. I was really inspired by the scene in Zodiac, by the lake. That was one of the most nearly terrifying scenes, and I hate it, because it’s so scary. When the couple is having a picnic by the lake, and then they see a masked figure in the distance, and he’s walking over. It’s a beautiful day. There’s a willow tree, it’s a golden afternoon, they’re in love. And there’s this guy who’s walking over to them. He’s getting closer, and oh, that’s weird, he has a mask on. He’s carrying a rope. It just unfolds in the middle of such a normal, pleasant scene. It’s so gradual. By the time you realize that something is wrong here, it’s too late to do anything about that. And there’s no music! I was really inspired by that scene, among other things.
“I wanted to create tension through the lack of familiar suspense cues. I wanted it to feel like something wasn’t right.”
NOFS: Leading up to the world premiere, how are you feeling about the film?
DS: I’m sick of watching it. I shot it two years ago, and I finished cutting it about a year ago. And I started conceiving it in 2011. But I’m thrilled. I’m so excited. I’m just so happy that it’s being released. I hope that people enjoy it. I just feel blessed.
NOFS: And after having worked on it, would you be interested in pursuing more films like this? Ones with a more serious tone, or a thriller aspect?
DS: Definitely. I’m working on another thriller now.