Pick your favorite artworks -- music, dance, painting -- and you think they’re created from a place of impassioned inspiration. Then you meet James Suttles, a native of Brevard coming from a different motivation for his low-budget horror films.
“Every decision that we make, whether it’s creative, whether it’s casting, is all about ‘How do we position this to make money?’” he said.
That’s been a central bylaw of Suttles’ career. From his office attached to the Highland Brewing complex in Asheville, he’s built a commercial production company with several high-profile clients. It’s freed him up to take a more patient, calculated path with his own movies.
Of the eight films he’s either directed, produced or directed the photography over the past decade, four are horror films. The newest is “The Evil Inside Her,” a feature-length movie shot entirely in Brevard and destined by design for the video-on-demand marketplace.
“I’m a fan of horror, but it’s not probably my number-one genre of films I watch,” he said. “But horror films are incredibly fun to make. The genre lets you experiment with some of the rules. The audience is more accepting of experimentation.”
By experimentation, Suttles explained horror films can run shorter than films typically do in other genres. They’re more dependent on storytelling and plotlines than on marquee performers, whose fees can sharply raise the costs of making films. And the genre has allowed him to work largely with local casts and crews.
Juggling commercial and expressive work has allowed him to remain in the area -- he now lives in Mills River with his wife and four children.
“I had talked to a lot of people in the industry and a lot of them told me the same thing, which is that a resume is more important than the education,” he said. “The more opportunity you have to work on projects, that builds a resume faster than four years of film school.”
Contrasting some of the well-known titans of filmmaking, Suttles has a modest, even-toned personality, and when he speaks about his approach to filmmaking, he sounds more like a businessman than an auteur.
“The mistake I’ve seen a lot of people make is they approach this not with a business in mind, they approach this with passion projects and they’re going to make the greatest story ever told, but they don’t step back to say ‘Does anyone want to watch this?’” he said. “Half this business is business, half is creative. My fear was that I’d make one film and that would be the only film I made, so I had to have a game plan of how I’m going to get to that second film and third film.”
Here’s the synopsis of “The Evil Inside Her”: A relaxing weekend for four friends quickly turns into a fight for survival in the middle of the North Carolina wilderness.
As a director, before calling ‘action,’ Suttles often holds his hands in front of his face, the tips of his thumbs touching in a classic framing of a scene, to give himself a mental image of the picture he’s about to shoot.
“Coming into ‘The Evil Insider Her,’ one of my main goals was to focus on the performance and focus on the narrative structure of the story and make sure the performances we’re putting on screen are more in line with what you’d see in some higher-end drama films,” he said. “My main goal was to find really strong actors who were great at all the classic horror tropes, but could also deliver something that felt real and genuine.”
Suttles and his company are just getting into the groove of producing three films per year. Suttles said if each can attract around 300,000 online viewers, they’ll earn the money needed to attract investors for films going forward.
“The Evil Inside Her” hasn’t exactly caught the horror world by its throat. As of this writing, users on the IMDB.com have only given it an average rating of 3.7 out of 10. The video is on Amazon, among other online outlets.
“A theatrical release used to be the holy grail for a filmmaker. That used to be the case for me -- the dream was to always have your movie in a theater. Not so much anymore,” he said. “Getting butts in the seats is incredibly difficult because people are Netflixing at home. And so in some strange way, Netflix has become the new holy grail, that if you can somehow get your film there, you’ve made it. That seems to be the common thought in the filmmaking community.”