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OCU professor reveals how he harvested ‘Children of the Corn.’
Oklahoma City University clearly is in the Halloween spirit. It’ll screen 2001’s remake of “Children of the Corn” for free at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. tonight in the United Methodist Hall dorm theater room. Despite that strange-sounding setting, the public is invited.
What makes this interesting is that Fritz Kiersch, chairman of OCU’s Moving Image Arts Program, will discuss “Corn” between the showings, because he directed the 1984 original.
Five years ago, I interviewed Kiersch about making that minor horror classic — spawning a franchise that’s now up to part eight, with the brand-new “Children of the Corn: Genesis” — so why not yank it out of the Gazette archives to share it with you? Here goes!
FRITZ KIERSCH: ‘CORN’ FARMER Just think: Had economics graduate Fritz Kiersch not stood on Wall Street wearing the same blue seersucker suit as everyone else, the world may never have experienced the cinematic pleasure of seeing kids murder all the adults in their town and promptly establish a Satanic cult in the Nebraskan cornfields.
Today a department chair and artist-in-residence for Oklahoma City University’s Moving Image Arts Program, the Texas-born Kiersch was all set to embark on a career as an international banker when he was struck by the realization of how dull it would be and thought, “This is stupid. I’m outta here.”
One coastal switch later, Kiersch pursued a love of filmmaking that eventually would lead to his directorial debut on 1984’s “Children of the Corn.” Based on the short story by Stephen King (the first of his short fiction to make the jump to screen), the low-budget shocker starring a pre-fame Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton proved a sizable box-office hit — one that still enjoys a healthy cult following more than two decades later and spurred a profitable (if uninspired) franchise, currently six sequels strong.
Kiersch cut his artistic teeth making TV commercials. He got along well with an assistant director he hired, who went on to become an executive in charge of production for New World Pictures.
“One day he called and said, ‘Because you put all this ice cream in my freezer, I’m going to give you guys a chance to make a movie,’” Kiersch recalled.
Scripts followed; Kiersch declined. A couple months later, his friend pressed on with a script for “Children of the Corn,” telling Kiersch, “This is right up your alley.” Kiersch went in to talk and left with a green light; he was off scouting locations in Iowa the next day.
“I’ve never had such an easy motion-picture hire,” he said. “It was out of a fairy tale. People wait their lifetime for this kind of stuff.”
According to Kiersch, New World saw a lot of potential in King’s story “about children in an environment of terror.” Kiersch himself was game, seeing the trappings of the movie’s low budget as an opportunity for “a world of creativity and imagination and innovation.”
“The script was specific to a certain level of generality: corn fields, isolation, abandonment,” he said. “We had to fulfill those requirements … at a time when harvest was going on and the corn was turning from green — the good color — to dead yellow, which did not photograph very nicely. One day, we’d shoot, and return the next day and the corn would be gone or dead. So the invention came with ‘What do we do? How do we fix this?’ We took scissors (to the script) and literally cut around scenes to make things happen.”
Another challenge: The monster — known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” — was never described in George Goldsmith’s script.
“So I invented everything,” said Kiersch. “I said, ‘On a dark country road when we were 12, every sound made us wet our pants. Over the wind! Let’s use those influences and do an homage to the horror movie on the B level.’”
This entailed a conscious decision to let the acting be stiff, the characters cardboard, the threats obvious and the monster intangible. Its terrifying menace would have to be suggested, via moving corn and upturned soil — effects creatively gained through no-nonsense use of fishing line and an upside-down wheelbarrow.
When it came time to blow up the monster at the end of the movie, “we were going to be able to make a 10-story fireball twice. The second time, it went off incorrectly,” Kiersch said. “The guy who loaded the gas pumps was drunk.”
With only one take to use, the new director realized it wasn’t visual enough … until a friend later let him crib some clouds from a Kawasaki ad to add in to up the ominous factor. Admitted Kiersch, “Luck played a tremendous element in the success of the film, but so did inventiveness and gut feeling and just the idea of honest filmmaking. We weren’t trying to be slick and cool; it was to be rough and pay tribute.”
It paid off. Shot over four weeks, “Children of the Corn” took in more than $10 million upon its release in spring 1984 — not bad on an investment that didn’t quite clear $1 million. Its true fortunes would be found on home video, first on VHS and then in DVD editions from Anchor Bay.
Critics were unkind — not surprising, given the genre.
“I was called ‘the hack’s hack,’” Kiersch remembered. “People looked at its value and said, ‘Here’s a story about children killing adults. This is not good!’ That was a big lesson for me. When you make a film, you don’t think globally about what you make, but when it’s released, it goes all over the world. You have to accept responsibility for it. I was completely naïve to that at the time.”
Said Gray Frederickson, a friend and collaborator of Kiersch, “Other than maybe ‘The Bad Seed,’ I don’t think there was a movie where the kids were the bad guys. It was a very unusual first experience for people to see kids doing bad things.”
One of the harshest critics was King himself. Perhaps already indisposed to like the film since his own screenplay had been jettisoned — Kiersch said King was “not a competent screenwriter at the time” — the best-selling author penned a savage letter to the director and studio, claiming they “destroyed” his source material. Said Kiersch, “He was somewhat angered and frustrated.”
Because of “Corn”’s success, Kiersch fielded numerous offers for more spook shows — “Howling II,” “Nightflyers” and, he said, “movies about worms and Native American shape shifters.” Instead, he turned them all down and went on to direct several movies involving kids and teens — though far less homicidal — like “Tuff Turf” with James Spader and Robert Downey Jr.
“I just didn’t want anything to do with horror, because I felt that was not where I was strong,” he said. “But what I’ve realized retrospectively over the years is horror is a form of storytelling where you can do things outside the norm and play around.”
Eventually, he returned to deal in dread. And all it took was a move to Oklahoma City. In 2000, he was recruited by Frederickson — an Oscar-winning producer of “The Godfather” films and “Apocalypse Now” — to make movies in Oklahoma for Graymark Productions.
Lensed in Meridian, Norman and Oklahoma City, “The Hunt” is the first result of that partnership, about a group of hunters having the tables turned on them. “Surveillance,” a Penn Square Mall-shot thriller with horror elements, soon followed with star Armand Assante.
“We love the pictures he’s done for us,” said Frederickson. “He doesn’t subscribe to the new slasher school of horror, like ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel.’ He’s more of the Kubrick/Hitchcock guy, and he’s very good at it.”
“Suggestion is far better,” agreed Kiersch. “I think it’s cool to manipulate an audience, to sucker punch them. I love watching an audience that talks back to the screen.”
He said he will “try my best” to make all his films from here on out. “I’m very proud to be a part of this community. Our creative energies are terrific here.”
Odds are, none will have the shelf life of “Corn,” but that’s OK by him.
“It’s nice,” he said of its enduring legacy. “It’s just one of those things in your life that, for whatever reason, sticks around. I’m proud of it. I came up with something that has generated a particular reference in American pop culture. Even though it’s not a positive reference, it’s cool.”
Told of recent whispers that Hollywood has eyes on remaking his baby, Kiersch sighed, “Oh, my. Life is getting boring if they want to redo this.” —Rod Lott