In 2012, my first year of major Austin Film Festival coverage, I met a young filmmaker who found an interesting way to tell a robust story in the minimalistic world of Come Morning. The movie has attached itself to me, so much that I found inspiration for my own first film lying within its imagery. Since that fall of 2012, Derrick Sims has not only become a colleague in the film world, but a friend. So when he began the journey for his next project, The Perfect Host: A Southern Gothic Tale, I wasted no time in reconnecting our journalist relationship to partake in observing the production.
The Perfect Host is a story loosely inspired by true events in what Dread Central and many other publications call the most haunted house in America, the Allen House of Monticello Arkansas. The production presented itself to be an epic tale told through grandiose visuals (using the actual Allen House as the location), an outward deviation from his previous film. Internally, however, the two films are complimentary to each other.
“Looking at the house, you’d think this was a much bigger film and story, but I think The Perfect Host: A Southern Gothic Tale is a very small film. The budget is larger and the location is a marvel, but the story is very intimate and character-driven,” Sims explains.
The inspiration took, as he put it, “2 years and about 1500 miles” to solidify itself as the story he wanted to tell. Arkansas, the state of his origin, has many mysterious stories in its history, but it wasn’t until he was doing press for Come Morning that he became aware of the Allen family. While it did spark some interest then, nothing connected to him in a powerful way.
“Time went on, and when I was considering what project to do next I thought, ‘I wonder what’s up with that house back in Arkansas,’” Sims adds. “I bought Mark Spencer’s (the Allen House's homeowner) book, read about the history and experiences they had inside the house, and it got my wheels turning.”
The next step in the filmmaking process came, script writing. This affair can be difficult at times. It can be a lovely chore in finding a compelling story to inspect. Even with an intriguing narrative laid out in front of you, the history of the Allen House and its various hauntings, something profound has to happen in order for you to want to spend a portion of your life with this project. The desire to keep to the core emotional connection Sims presented in his first film, he looked beyond the allure of the 1940s and the majestic architecture.
“Alaina (his equally talented wife, producer, and production designer) and I crafted a story that changed a lot from its origins. I don’t want too give much away. It’s spooky and delves into the psyche a bit,” Sims explains. “Whereas Come Morning was full of men dealing with death and the idea of what it is, or was, to be a man in The South, The Perfect Host is a story of women; mothers, daughters, grandmothers; and the death of loved ones. Both films take place in the same world and while they have similar themes dealing with mortality, the women deal with it a bit differently. And the circumstances are a bit different too.”
The Sims created an all original story they were drawn to as artists. Once that backbone of the script was set, it was off to the races. Production started in the end of March 2016 and shot for 15 days. The short shooting schedule was rough, but with an amazing crew, he was able to get everything he needed to tell his story accurately. Another thing that helped with the smooth production (which was something I used in my own film thanks to his advice) was adequate pre-production time.
“We did months of prep and two weeks actually on the ground—most of which was dedicated to production design and set dressing. Another 3-4 days was used solely for walkthroughs for camera and lighting and actor blocking,” Sims explains. “If we hadn't prepped so well we wouldn't have a complete picture. When we arrived on the day, no one had to ask, ‘where do the camera and lights go’ and ‘where do we stand and where do we walk.’ All that was planned and allowed for us to hit the ground running each day.”
At this point in my observation, the question vying for attention was the desire to know what it was like to shoot a suspense film at an actual haunted house. The stories of ‘incidents’ on these types of sets were vast, could this one be another one of those productions? Frankly, if you aren’t contemplating the same thing, you need to read the history of the Allen house again.
“As for ghosts, I don’t believe in them. Maybe it’s because I consider myself extremely rational...or maybe I just don’t want to scare myself. If we had an Exorcist/Poltergeist-type film set, then it would only make for better stories right,” Sims says. “I welcome something like that, something really spooky. But movie sets are hardly ever scary in real life. There are lights, and people, and cameras, and sound, so you can’t get very scared when that’s going on. Right? Making them is far less creepy than watching them.”
Production has been completed, rest and recuperation is being consumed, and the next chapter of this gothic tale is on the horizon. We have many months until we witness the final product, ones that will be full of interest and anticipation. I’m grateful for the opportunity to witness such an amazing story unfold from truly talented filmmaker.
Written by Lisa Mejia
Images by Thomas Moore