August 1, 2017
Fantasia Film Festival

From Film Publicist to Celebrated Horror Director: Ted Geoghegan's Fantastic Journey

'We Are Still Here' director Ted Geoghegan is premiering a new film, 'Mohawk', but he still keeps his day job.

Meet Ted Geoghegan: publicist by day, writer/director by night. His breakout first feature, We Are Still Here, premiered at SXSW 2015 and snagged the coveted #1 spot on the iTunes horror charts. His second feature, Mohawk, is receiving similarly positive buzz after this month’s premiere at Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. As for the director himself, when he’s not doing Q and As for his latest project, you can find him in the press office, promoting the festival program.   

In a decidedly rare moment, NFS set up an interview with Geoghegan, the filmmaker, through Geoghegan, the publicist.

“Ted would be happy to do an interview,” he quipped. 

“What if I hadn’t been so obsessed? If something excites you, pursue it. There are so many opportunities out there.”

Like a Marvel superhero leading dual lives, 38-year-old Geoghegan—pronounced ‘Gaygen’—has managed to pave his way into the director’s chair while promoting other people’s work. “I spend 80% of my life as a film publicist, the other 20% directing and dreaming of directing,” he laughs. “But I have to admit: my hyphenate career has opened a lot of doors.”

Geoghegan’s path to success has been as strategic as it has been karmic. Like most filmmakers who ‘make it,’ his trajectory has been a mix of luck, hard work and persistence. What separates him from the pack is the weirdness of his particular path…and the skillset that has made it possible.

Promoting comes naturally to Geoghegan. He even sells his own origin story like a horror script…including the scary parts. It’s an uncommon journey. Not all of us are obsessed with horror films; even fewer are likely to become professional publicists. But the lessons Geoghegan learned on his way to becoming a successful director can be translated into good advice for us all. The top takeaways from our conversation are below.

Nurture your obsession

The story begins in small-town Montana.

As a kid, Geoghegan was obsessed with genre films. He hung out at video stores; he rented every horror flick on the shelves. Then one day he came across an unlabeled VHS tape, marked simply ‘Violent Shit.’

“It certainly lived up to its name,” he chuckles.

Even better, the mysterious tape proved to be fateful: a homemade horror short directed by Andreas Schnaas, an amateur German filmmaker who later became Geoghegan’s first collaborator in the film world.

Serendipity? The way Geoghegan tells it, it’s more like a suspense film.

“What if I hadn’t been so obsessed? What if I hadn’t reached out to Schnaas? If something excites you, pursue it. There are so many opportunities out there.”

Credit: Dark Sky

Take opportunities to practice your craft

Over time, he and Schnaas became friends. Then came a surprise: the German asked him to help translate a script into English. “I spent months retooling this screenplay with Schnass’s wife who had really limited English,” Geoghegan recalls. “The film, Demonium, was destined to be awful—but it was the first one I ever had my name attached to…and Schnaas let me help out on set. That was an amazing learning opportunity.”

Geoghehan never went to film school, but he did take a screenwriting course—the only one offered by the University of Montana—taught by Carrol O’Connor, the legendary actor/writer known for his role as Archie Bunker on All in the Family. “That too was amazing. I got into that class purely by lottery.” Geoghegan shakes his head in disbelief. “It was last time O’Connor taught that class; he passed away the year after I took it.”

"I’d give them a couple thousand dollars and they’d churn out some gory horror movie."

Then, in 2003, Schnass told his young American friend that he had a new project. Geoghegan was apprehensive at first: his last experience with Schnaas had left him somewhat disenchanted. But the idea of writing another script—all while still in college—was too appealing to pass up. “So I wrote another low-budget schlock movie,” he admits.

Schlock or not, Geoghegan’s repeat offenses paid off. “It was 2003, pre-digital revolution,” he reflects. “There were far fewer movies being made back then, so the fact that I had an IMDB page was kind of a big deal.” He managed to parlay his screen credits into a credible early career. “I wrote a few more ‘Walmart bargain bin’ horror films, most of them shot in Europe. I also made a lot of friends through Andreas, and started writing and producing for them as well. Not big money: I’d give them a couple thousand dollars and they’d churn out some gory horror movie.”

Credit: Dark Sky

Get yourself noticed

This continued up until 2007, when Geoghegan made his fateful move to New York City. When he first got there, he was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it all: “I realized I was a very small fish in a big pond. I wanted to make sure that I was noticed, so I started going to all these film parties.”

Then one night, as he made the rounds at Magnolia Pictures’ holiday mixer, introducing himself, a partygoer recognized his name. “He eventually figured out that he knew me from some tiny movie I’d written, so he said ‘You must have a great publicist. Who gets the word out about the movies you’ve written?’”

"I just thought that’s what you were supposed to do: go online and write to websites, tell people about your movie."

“I laughed and said, ‘I did. I just thought that’s what you were supposed to do: go online and write to websites, tell people about your movie.’ Immediately this person was like ‘Do you want a job as a publicist?’” This chance encounter led to Geoghegan’s first PR gig at Oscilloscope Laboratories—and that led to his being headhunted for a corporate PR firm. Pretty soon, Geoghegan went rogue: he realized he could do even better on his own, as an independent film publicist.

“I never stopped working. I worked 100 hours a week, and I still had time for Facebook and friends. It’s tiresome, it’s stressful, but that’s what filmmaking is. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” 

One by one, doors opened.

His next big break came while working as a publicist for the New York Asian Film Festival, where he met Korean filmmaker Ryoo Seung-Wan. “Ryoo was looking for an English screenwriter for his next film, The Berlin File (2013),” he recalls. “I managed to get the job, and ended up co-writing this action movie–which, at the time, was the biggest-budgeted movie in Korean film history. Pretty insane, and I got it from being a publicist at a festival.”

The Berlin File (2013)Credit: CJ Entertainment

Develop your own material

Geoghegan was eager to graduate from the Walmart bin.

As soon as The Berlin File was written, he went on to work for Dark Sky Films, publicizing genre movies like Hatchet 3–and, simultaneously, he began writing a feature script of his own.

“Like everyone else, I wanted to direct my own film,” he says. “After all, I’d been on tons of sets as a writer; even as a publicist, my job was to ghost the director, day and night. So I caught the bug in the process.”

Happily, Geoghegen’s decade of writing schlock scripts-for-hire had taught him how to craft a compelling narrative and, even more importantly, how to craft a film that was feasible.

"The sad truth is that no one is going to fight for your art the way you want them to."

“I used to think ‘Just write, and you’ll figure out a way to make it into a movie,’” he admits. “But then I realized that you need to write for budget, for reality. Most writers don’t want to stifle their creativity, but the sad truth is that no one is going to fight for your art the way you want them to. You need to write things that can be shot on limited budgets, at locations that you have available.”

A few years down the road, Geoghegan’s script was completed: the now-renowned We Are Still Here. He showed his opus to his close friend Travis Stevens, founder of Snowfort Pictures. Stevens agreed to produce it , and suggested that it might be a good fit for Dark Sky as well. Geoghegan wasn’t so sure: “But I’m their publicist! Wouldn’t that be weird?”

Despite trepidations, he presented the script to Dark Sky, and they loved it. In fact, in association with Snowfort, they helped finance, develop, produce and shoot both We Are Still Here and his follow-up feature, Mohawk.

Why such ‘instant’ success? Geoghegan is quick to remind us: ”Both of those scripts were written for specific budgets and locations–and I think that’s why they work so well on screen. I’d rather watch a film that was created with a specific budget in mind than a dream that’s not fully realized. You can tell when films don’t have the money to turn page into screen.”

Face challenges head on

Then came the hard part: directing.  

“Taking command of the set was definitely a steep learning curve,” he confessed. “When you see it from the sidelines as a writer-producer, you think you know what you’re getting into. But when you’re actually there and you’re the captain, everything becomes alarmingly real. I remember looking around the set on day one, and being shocked by all the things I still had to learn.”

At this point, even though he’d had a lot of exposure to the filmmaking process, Geoghegan hadn’t even directed a short film. He credits the tutelage of his on-set producer for steering him in the right direction. “Stevens is very hands-on, and well-known for giving first-time directors a shot.”

Geoghegan rose to the occasion.

“When you’re given that kind of opportunity, you owe it to your producers and financiers to really know what you’re doing,” he advises. “Sure, it’s scary stuff: you’re leaving your comfort zone. But if you don’t face these challenges head on, you’ll never be able to figure them out.”

'Mohawk'

Dare to experiment

Again, Geoghegan’s gamble paid off. Both We Are Still Here (2015) and Mohawk (2017) are superlative genre films–and both are unpredictably different.

We Are Still Here —the film that hit #1 on the iTunes list—is a classic horror flick. In large part a heartfelt homage to Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery, Geoghegan describes his first feature as “the opposite of the horror filmmaker Dario Argento. There’s nothing classy about it, it wallows in gore and sleaze. Just like Fulci,” he added proudly. “One of the nicest things I got out of making that film was when Fulci’s daughter saw it. She found me on social media, told me that she loved it and that her father would have loved it too.”

As for Mohawk, it’s a very dark drama, a lot more cerebral. It deals with some very serious issues like colonialism, nationalism, racism, and human rights that resonate today.

“I’ve never really felt marginalized in my life, but I knew that the horror genre would be an ideal way to tackle this topic.” 

“In many ways, Mohawk is a film for Trump’s America,” Geoghegan explains. “The villains are white men who don’t realize that their racist attitudes will put them on the wrong side of history. The good guys are Native Americans. When I first moved to NYC, I thought a Mohawk was a haircut. Then I started seeing signs everywhere that said Mohawk Construction. Looked it up and discovered that the Mohawk people from upstate New York built a majority of the skyscrapers in Manhattan. That they were one of the most brutal, fearless of the nation’s first tribes, that they were relentless, unstoppable badasses. And that they’re almost gone.” He paused for emphasis. “That means anyone can go. The most powerful, willing-to-fight people can be erased from the planet. I wanted to tell that story in the most respectful way I could.”

Geoghegan co-wrote the screenplay for Mohawk with best-selling horror novelist Grady Hendrix, and then cast Mohawk actress Kaniehtiio Horn in a leading role. “I felt very humbled that she was so willing to do this, especially given the fact that I’m not Native American,” he said. “I’ve never really felt marginalized in my life, but I knew that the horror genre would be an ideal way to tackle this topic.” 

That’s where Geoghegan shines: he’s still a genre fan at heart. The very same kid who hung out in the video store.  

Geoghegan, on set

Find your film's soul

Geoghegan has high standards.

“I don’t want to make schlock. I want to satisfy the cravings of a genre fan, because I love that stuff myself—but I also hope that everything I create is beautiful and different, that it has a message and a soul.”

There’s a new horror wave taking over the genre, and Geoghegan is part of it. This isn’t just about visceral thrills and gruesome escapism, the schlocky, stupid, violent fare that will always be out there. Recent films like Get Out, The Witch and It Comes At Night offer more than that. They ponder existential questions and they’re inherently confrontational; they attack their audience and reflect bigger issues. The very best ones let the zeitgeist bleed into their narratives and tap into people’s real fears. They may be violent, but they’re also subtle. The best of them hide a hard-to-take real world message inside a full-blown fantasy.

Geoghegan cites the late, great George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968)–which was heavily criticized at the time for its explicit gore–as a classic example of a film with a soul.

“That movie has so many layers. It has characters you care about. It has an incredible socio-political commentary. It’s a film full of meaning for people who lived through the '60s—but even if you strip all that away, it’s a phenomenal horror film. A five-year-old kid with no agenda at all will still be blown away and hiding under his blankets because that story is so well-crafted.”

Clearly, Geoghegan knows what he likes, but is he satisfied with his own work? His answer is careful.

“Let’s just say that I’m proud of my progress,” he smiles. “I work hard, I take risks, I’m starting to know my own strengths...and, perhaps most important of all, I believe in myself. I believe that I have what it takes to keep growing, improving.”

And there you have it, the essence of Ted Goeghegan: pursue your passion; aim for excellence; and, while you’re at it, make sure the world knows you’re there. 

“Be forward and make yourself known. Walk into the room and own it. Even if all you’ve got is one great idea, you’re awesome. You have to be confident and thick-skinned enough to survive because this is a ruthless industry. Be cordial, be professional. Show up and believe that your presence matters—because if you don’t believe it, no one else will.”

Spoken like a true publicist.      

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