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An Interview with Director Jeff Betancort

by on March 19, 2009
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You may have never heard of Jeff Betancort, but chances are you’ve seen some of his work. A film editor by trade, Betancort has cut films like “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” the Jennifer Aniston flick “The Good Girl,” and both of the American versions of “The Grudge.” 

Betancort makes his directorial debut with the straight-to-DVD film “The Boogeyman 2,” the sequel to the 2005 Barry Watson film. 

I caught up with Betancort to discuss horror films, directing versus editing, and the transient lifestyle of growing up with a parent in the military. 

JS: Let me confess that part of the reason I took this was because I read that you were a Navy brat growing up, and I was an Army brat myself, and moving into military quarters was kind of creepy at first. Did you draw upon your experiences in making this film?

JB: You know, I never really consciously thought about it before, but absolutely. That idea of every 3 years, getting up and moving, and never really having a childhood. It’s a unique position to be in. A lot of my friends grew up in the same spot and lived there their whole lives. As a kid it was hard moving from place to place, but now that I’m an adult I almost wouldn’t have had it any other way, because that prepared me for the world of being a filmmaker. You make a movie and you’re really close to all these people for like six months, and then it’s over and you’re on to the next one. It might be a completely new set of people. I think that skill set has been a big part of my career. 

JS: I just had to get that out of the way. I don’t get a chance to talk to someone in a situation like mine often.

JB: It’s really true. We did move around a lot. I think that’s part of why I got into movies. You’d come to a new town and you didn’t have any friends, so my mom would take me to the movies. Movies were always the constant. Even if I moved from one side of the country to the other, “Star Wars” would still be playing in that other place too, and we would at least have that. 

JS: This whole concept of the Boogeyman, it’s that first childhood fear. The monster that’s coming to get you just because it wants to get you. Can you talk about that a little?

JB: When I first read the script for “Boogeyman 2” one of the things that excited me was that it was a new take. The first movie, it felt like that story was complete, and they sort of finished up that story. But the Boogeyman means so many things to so many people and cultures around the world all have their version of the story. I found there was a version that was like a bad version of Santa Claus, that would come and put the kids in a bag and take them away. 

JS: Can you tell me a little about working with Tobin Bell? It kind of gives you a little street cred off the bat having him, and he’s very good.

JB: He is terrific. I have to admit I was nervous meeting him. You have all these images in your head about him from the “Saw” movies, and what his personality is going to be like, but he was really an important part of our movie. When I first met him I was so nervous. But the first time we met he came to us with all of these ideas for his character as for the way the story could go, and I saw that his hand was shaking. He was just as nervous as we were. I couldn’t have asked for a better star to be in the movie. All of the scary aspects of his personality went out the window the first time I had lunch with him.

JS: Let’s talk a little about the differences between directing and editing. 

JB: Whether I’m directing something or editing something, I feel like being a storyteller is my main job either way. My job as an editor is really to help the director tell the story. I sit there during the shoot and tell him what shots he needs to complete a scene, or any bits and pieces he needs to complete the story. I ended up enjoying [directing] very much. One of the parts of editing I love about editing the most is working with the composer and figuring out the score with the director, and I got to do all that stuff again as the director, and we really hired a great director of photography and production designer, so I got the terms of that as an editor, and now I got to play with the full palette, and it was a lot of fun.

JS: Do you think your experiences on this were easier or harder because you directed and edited?

JB: I think directing is a lot easier than editing. When I was editing, if I came up with something I wanted to do, I had to do it. The best part about being a director is there are all these talented craftsmen around you, all these technicians and artists. If you come up with an idea you can tell them, and they’ll go and execute it and come back with that for you. It’s such a gratifying feeling. 

JS: Now that you’ve directed one, do you have a different take on how you view horror films? Are those things still enjoyable for you?

JB: They’re definitely still enjoyable. Having made one, the biggest challenge always is trying to keep it fresh and new. You can see someone cut up a million different ways in a scary movie, but when you’ve got the suspense, that will always make it more of a fresh and interesting experience with the audience. Also being a direct-to-DVD release, I think there’s a huge opportunity when people make these movies. We wanted to make one that people would love. 

JS: Of the mainstream horror films, most of them are just so bad. So much of it is just terrible. I think there’s so much more freedom here.

JB: Yeah, definitely. You have fewer eyes on you all the time, so you can play. You have to scare people, not with a big CGI monster, but with creativity and cleverness and that’s where these titles really offer something new to people.

JS: Horror gets so much of a bad rap compared to other genres, and people say horror is just there for people to see the gore and fans just want to see these horrible things, but people don’t watch a comedy and say “they just want to see people be humiliated.” Why do you think that is?

JB: The people who criticize it the most are the people who either can’t stand to, or they’re too scared, but it makes it so easy for people to talk about something they haven’t seen, or they can’t relate too. There is an opportunity there for so much creative storytelling and social commentary. When you see violence in society, it’s so easy to say “well, horror movies are violent. That must be where that’s coming from.” There are so many other elements in our society with violence-you see violence on television. I have struggled as an editor working with the MPAA in showing something scary. They’ll say “We can’t show that,” then when I get home at night I’ll find something a hundred times more horrifying on regular TV. But there’s so much opportunity in the genre and so many fans that I don’t think it’s ever going away.