The Creators: An interview with filmmaker Keith Boynton

Keith Boynton, left, with Aitor Mendilibar, right, the cinematographer who shot “The Haunted Forest” as well as “The Scottish Play” and “The Winter House.” In the background of is Vinny Castellini, first assistant director.

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The Creators: An interview with filmmaker Keith Boynton

Keith Boynton is a filmmaker who grew up in Salisbury, Connecticut. He attended Salisbury Central School, Town Hill School, and Hotchkiss. He has made numerous feature films including Seven Lovers, The Scottish Play, The Winter House, and is just wrapping up a new film, The Haunted Forest, which is a horror/slasher movie. Boynton has made numerous music videos for the band Darlingside, and for Alison Krauss. He is a poet, a playwright, and comic book art collector.

JA: This series of stories The Creators focuses on artists, their inspiration, and their creative process. Keith, what was the seed that got you started?

KB: I think the earliest stage of everything is just daydreaming. I’ve been a daydreamer my whole life, probably most kids are. Those daydreams are just daydreams - they don’t come to anything - but occasionally something happens in your imagination that you can’t let go of. Something you want to make real, whether that’s a goal in your life, or a project that you want to pursue, or something you want to create, it just sticks in your mind, and can change your whole life.

JA: Was there a favorite book that you loved growing up?

KB: My favorite book in childhood was The Wreck of the Zephyr by Chris van Allsburg. Some books just fired me up a like Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli, an amazing book that was probably the most exciting thing I’d ever read up to that point. I remember finishing it and just sprinting up and down the driveway. I loved all the William Steig books, especially Dominic. Some art forms lend themselves to the imagination. One of the things I love about cartooning (I’m a huge comic book fan, and I collect comic book artwork) I love the way it can be anything. It is the unfettered exercise of the imagination, whereas making a live action film is a very fettered exercise of the imagination. You are bound by the technology and the reality of what you’re shooting, and the limitations of what you have available, so it’s still a creative act, but it’s not the kind of thing you can just daydream on the paper. You must contend with a lot of reality on the way to making that dream something real.

JA: Why do you love language?

KB: I mean, words are magic. They can create whole worlds. I‘ve always been fascinated by them. There’s nothing more human than the urge to communicate, but words do more than communicate; they conjure. It’s a hell of a thing.

JA: You cannot escape the business side of filmmaking. How do you handle all that, financing, promotion, deal making, streaming, film festivals?

KB: It is a job in itself. The mindset of promoting a film is the opposite of making one. It’s rare to find one person who’s good at both. I want the film to be successful, yet don’t see myself as a marketer. When I am forced into that role it’s an awkward fit. I love the response of an audience. I love watching a movie with an audience, or even better being in front of an audience, that immediate kind of connection. The relationship that you have with anyone in the business of curation of a Film Festival, or a studio executive, lacks immediacy. Yet you must not become an artist who thinks they’re entitled to an audience, or entitled to a platform, or entitled to be regarded as special. Audience members who grant you their time are giving you a gift, which is often unearned.

JA: Do you control the editing process?

KB: I edit my own films, I direct them, and I write them. I’m steering the ship to a certain degree at every stage which is gratifying.

JA: How do you cast your films?

KB: For some films I have used a casting director. For The Haunted Forest, the slasher film that we shot in the fall in Maryland, that is just wrapping up, I was the casting director myself. My first time working without a casting director in probably a decade. It was far more work than I realized. There were 38 speaking roles and I had to piece them together for my people to submit it on the Internet, to attract people who lived in the area. Some were actors, some were not, some from New York, some local. It was an incredible hodgepodge of people some of whom had never acted before, and some phenomenally accomplished actors.

JA: Tell us about The Haunted Forest:

KB: Cousins on my dad’s side, the Markoffs, live in Montgomery County, Maryland. They’ve been operating this haunted forest for about 30 years on their property, creating scary tours in October where you walk through, and people jump out and frighten you. It is like a homemade, horror film Disneyland. I was blown away by the scope of it, the scale of it plus the attention to detail and just the passion that they put into this place. My brother Devin McEwan [slalom canoeist, gold medalist 2015 Pan American Games, medalist 2016 Olympics] had the idea to set a film there. He conceived of the story idea. We developed the screenplay together. Great shout out to my brother without whom this movie would never have been dreamed of, much less brought into being. It’s a story about a young man passionate about horror and Halloween. He gets a job at the Haunted Forest, loves his job, meets a girl, then people at the Forest start dying for real and no one knows why. It is a murder mystery, slasher thriller which is not my wheelhouse as a filmmaker, or even necessarily as an audience member, but I had so much fun making this. The film still has a certain romanticism, maybe more than previous films. The genre is larger than life. There’s darkness and terror, but also the opportunity for heroism and overcoming. I think some of the most cinematic stuff that I’ve ever captured is in this movie. We are close to locking the picture edit, and then after that we sign color, music, visual effects and it’ll be ready to premiere at the actual Haunted Forest this fall. Anyone in the DC area, come watch this movie on site and get scared out of your minds.

JA: Were the special effects challenging for you and for the actors?

KB: I had a steep learning curve. We brought in a special effects expert. Some actors were covered in blood, and it was cold at night, yet the vibe on set was amazingly good, people had so much fun. While most of my films are realistic there’s a certain attraction to melodrama. I want to be fantastical, operatic, yet feel grounded and human and real. If you can pull that off, that’s magic.

JA: How can people watch your films?

KB: Three of my movies, Seven Lovers, The Scottish Play, and The Winter House – are available on Amazon and Apple TV. The best way to keep up with me is facebook.com/TheKeithBoynton, and crazylakepictures.com

JA: Your favorite films and directors?

KB: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Sting, Back to the Future, Point Break. Frank Capra, Christopher Nolan, Martin Campbell, Steven Soderbergh.

JA: Relationships feature in your films, and music videos. Does that come from your own well of experience?

KB: I did grow up in an incredibly warm family, incredibly welcoming, supportive, creative, funny, eccentric. I had a pretty idyllic childhood. [Keith’s father Jamie McEwan was an author and medal-winning Olympic slalom canoeist. Keith’s mother Sandra Boynton is an illustrator known for her iconic, delightful creatures and designs] That does stay with you forever. Optimism is one of the gifts the arts can give us when we need something to hang on.

JA: Tell us about your friendship with the band Darlingside.

KB: I’ve known Don Mitchell since he was little. We grew up together. We used to play the Legend of Zelda in his mom’s basement. Later, after hearing their brilliant music, I offered to make some music videos. I have used their music in my films. They are the loveliest people, so sweet, so committed to what they’re doing. They are really four of my favorite human beings in the world.

JA: Your film The Scottish Play, was just shown on Channel 13 as their Valentine’s Day romantic offering. How did you write so many lines of iambic pentameter?

KB: I have always been interested in Shakespeare’s time. I did some Shakespearean acting as a child. The language is extraordinary, alien yet familiar. It does create a different world, a heightened world, a romantic world, something you can indulge in, escape into, so for a long time I wanted to find some way to play in that sandbox of Shakespearean language. I conceived of the idea of having Shakespeare appear as a ghost because then it can be a contemporary story and Shakespeare can be anything that I imagine. He doesn’t have to be tied to his own biography or anyone else’s version of Shakespeare. I can just write him any way I choose. That movie came out of my desire to synthesize the real and the fantastical.

JA: Do you prefer making independent films?

KB: One of the reasons I toil away in the indie world is because I relish the control. My work can be ignored but it can’t be stopped, or changed, influenced by anyone, which is why I direct my own scripts instead of trying to sell the scripts. Screenwriters have no control over what happens to their screenplay. I was a writer first and foremost. [Boynton has an MFA in playwrighting from Columbia]. I had to learn to direct movies because that’s the only way to protect and make sure the story gets out in a way that you feel comfortable with.

JA: You are a romantic at heart, true?

KB: Romance is a recurring theme in my work, although not so much in my life, and maybe those two things are related. It has been a preoccupation of mine since childhood. My very romantic view is a great engine for stories. I do have a small pipeline with my own poetry on Facebook where I can reach a small number of people very quickly. I wish I could scale up a film pipeline, and I knew just how to reach that audience with that same level of immediacy. It would be an extraordinary feeling, so liberating creatively. Sometimes it is so hard to get up the energy and enthusiasm to begin a new project, when so many things that I’m proud of have been orphaned, forgotten, or fallen on deaf ears.

JA: How do you gauge the success of a film?

KB: There are three categories of response: people that I know which can be gratifying, I sometimes hear from professional critics, and then sometimes a random stranger stumbles upon the movie and loves it. Sadly, the scale of money, time, and energy that goes into a film does not always correspond to the to the scale of the impact.

JA: Do you love filmmaking enough to be satisfied despite a lack of response?

KB: I love being on the set. It is only two weeks out of every two to three years, but I love that feeling of working together.

JA: What’s next?

KB: I’m gearing up to another movie in September and that’ll be shot here in Salisbury, maybe at Mt. Riga. It will be about 10 months between shooting one feature film and another. The film is broadly in the category of horror or psychological thriller. More about mood and character and fabulous actors. I’m going to reuse some of my favorites from people who maybe had a smaller part in my other films.

JA: You describe your work on your website: “it’s humor and a touch of optimism. also, we like coffee.”

KB: I think coffee is one of the core principles of life. It’s certainly a major theme in my work. I think every play or movie contains at least one reference to coffee and usually a very loving reference. It’s a touchstone, but also maybe it represents warmth and comfort.

JA: What do you love about filmmaking?

KB: The camaraderie, the moments of magic, the sense of capturing something special and unrepeatable, the sublime irrelevance and absurdity of the whole endeavor, the excuse to drink endless cups of coffee, those occasional moments when you whisper to yourself (or to someone else): We’re making a movie. (And you are.)


The Winter House will be screened at the Moviehouse in Millerton, N.Y., Saturday, April 6.

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