Director Andrew Hamer on Building Up Dread with Lighthouse-Centric Short Film THREE SKELETON KEY
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
8/21/17 8:18 AM | DEREK ANDERSON
For his new short film, writer/director Andrew Hamer adapts the chilling George G. Toudouze short story "Three Skeleton Key," which uses a secluded lighthouse as a backdrop for eerie scares. With the proof-of-concept project now making the rounds on the festival circuit, we caught up with Hamer to discuss his atmospheric period piece, his plans for a feature-length adaptation, and more.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us, Andrew. When did you first decide that you wanted to adapt George G. Toudouze’s short story “Three Skeleton Key”?
Andrew Hamer: I had read the short story “Three Skeleton Key” by George G. Toudouze when I was young and it scared the hell out of me. There was so much suspense and dread. When I was trying to find a new idea for a screenplay five years ago, I remembered that story set in a lighthouse. Those terrifying images that had been stuck in my mind since I was an adolescent all came flooding back to me.
What was the shooting schedule like for Three Skeleton Key, and where did filming take place?
Andrew Hamer: Our shooting schedule involved three days of filming on a soundstage in Los Angeles. We also had one full day of filming on location at the Piedras Blancas Light Station in San Simeon, CA.
Did you encounter any challenges adapting the short story for the screen?
Andrew Hamer: There were numerous challenges adapting the story to the screen. The main obstacle was creating powerful characters in the film that could build the tension in the lighthouse. I wanted to explore racial discrimination in 1921 through the character of Andre Rolle and his bitter relationship with the lighthouse keeper, Jim Beal. From a pre-production standpoint, everything from finding a proper lighthouse location, building sets for our watch room and lantern room, creating a Fresnel lens with bulls-eye lens panels (there was only one designer in the United States who was able to help us), to making period US Lighthouse Service uniforms and finding animal wranglers for the [spoiler warning] rats in our film.
[Spoiler warning] How did you go about getting the footage of the rats, which are a key element of the movie?
Andrew Hamer: [Spoiler warning] I came into contact with a great animal wrangler named Sarah Clifford. She and Karl Miller had twenty Norwegian Brown rats. They were trained to move together through a clever Pavlovian response. The wranglers would put food (Fruit Loops and peanut butter) in a special box. They also had buzzers near the boxes. Placing the rats on one end of the film set, they would hit the buzzers. When the rats heard the sound, they would rush towards the boxes on the other side of the film set. The wranglers also helped our actor Greg Perrow when he is ripped apart by the rats in the film. They made sure he was prepared to deal with the animals, and that no harm would come to him or the rats. We also had a great visual effects team at Temprimental Films with Raoul Bolognini, who were able to turn our twenty rats into an army of hundreds.
When you look back at your time on set, is there a particularly funny or memorable moment that stands out?
Andrew Hamer: I certainly think one of the most memorable moments on set was having actors Dan White and Greg Perrow in period costume walking down the wrought-iron staircase at the Piedras Blancas light station. The light station was built in 1875, and when we were filming, I felt transported back to a time when lighthouses were not some piece of scenery for tourists, but an active structure that was built to prevent ships from wrecking on the open ocean. I felt like I was right back in that time and place.
What was the most challenging or rewarding scene to film?
Andrew Hamer: [Spoiler warning] I think one of the most technically challenging scenes to film was the last scene. We had to build a lantern room set, since filming at an actual lantern room at the top of a seventy-foot lighthouse would have been impossible. We built it with glass windows and part of a rotating Fresnel lens. We also had to have the correct dimensions for our windows so that our visual effects artists could add an army of rats in the background. We actually filmed several live rats on glass panels with our camera underneath them. Our visual effects team then duplicated that footage and added hundreds of rats to the glass windows of the lantern room, to show that the lighthouse was completely surrounded. We also had to have our actors react to their lighthouse being taken over by a rat army. It was a balancing act of providing realistic shock to something that would seem so incomprehensible. It required an immense amount of planning, but I think the payoff at the end was worth it.
Three Skeleton Key has been well-received on the festival circuit. What has your reaction been to the positive response, and where can horror fans look forward to seeing the short film next?
Andrew Hamer: It has been an honor to receive so much praise for Three Skeleton Key on the festival circuit. I’m very proud of the short film, and I look forward to sharing it at other upcoming film festivals. Horror fans can look forward to seeing the short film at the Atlanta Underground Film Festival (August 18-20), the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival in San Diego, CA (September 8-10), and the FilmQuest Film Festival in Provo, Utah (September 8-16).
Do you have any projects on deck that you can tease? Where can our readers find you online?
Andrew Hamer: I am developing a feature-length adaptation for “Three Skeleton Key.” I had always envisioned the story as a feature film, and making a proof-of-concept short has been the first step towards realizing that goal. I am also excited to be writing a screenplay about a real Manson-esque cult that existed in colonial South Carolina in the mid-18th century. Fans of Three Skeleton Key can follow us on Facebook at /LightHouse1921 and Instagram @threeskeletonkeyfilm. Updates on the film are available at www.threeskeletonkeyfilm.com.