WINTERPORT, Maine — John Clisham doesn’t seem like a scary guy.
Though one wouldn’t know it to look at him, the 28-year-old has the creative mind and imagination of some of the top filmmakers of the horror genre. All one has to do is check out his Xbox Live short film “Janitor” to realize that his horror chops stack up along with the best.
“Janitor” tells the tale of a Winterport High School girl who is forced to stay late for detention. The creepy-looking janitor spots her walking down the hall and … well, you can imagine the rest. Clisham described “Janitor” as a film in which “horror meets comedy.”
Clisham and his wife, Jenna Pitula, graduated from Hampden Academy in 1999 and are finding success in Hollywood. Along with making and pitching his own horror movie, Clisham is a member of the Sector5 tech group of Lightstorm Entertainment, which is “Titanic” director James Cameron’s production company.
Clisham is currently working on the film “Avatar,” which is Cameron’s first major production since “Titanic.” The epic love story set on another planet is being filmed in 3-D and is scheduled to be released in theaters next December. Pitula worked as a production assistant on the project as well as on the crew of “Janitor.” She also is personal assistant for Cameron’s wife, Suzie.
Although the couple had gone to school together since the second grade, it wasn’t until high school when they both worked at Winterport House of Pizza that they began dating. They attended their senior prom together and were married two years ago.
Clisham’s road to Hollywood was paved years ago by a boy who enjoyed reading horror stories, such as those by Stephen King, and who had an early affinity for filmmaking. He was given a movie camera by his parents at age 16 and began making movies almost immediately.
“I’d pretty much go out and film whatever I could,” he recalled during a visit home for the holidays. “It wasn’t long before I was using the guys working with my father [Clisham Construction] and some of his equipment to make horror movies.”
At Hampden Academy he fell under the wing of Floyd Calderwood, the school’s technology coordinator. Calderwood showed him how to use computers to edit and create special effects.
He recorded much of his high school years on film, and students from that era still have copies of his “Memories of Hampden” documentary.
After high school, Clisham studied film production at Ithaca College and served an apprenticeship with Lightstorm Entertainment during his junior year. He kept in contact with the people he met at the company and when a position opened three years ago, they gave him a call.
“How I got here with these guys is nuts,” he said.
The couple settled in El Segundo, Calif., a small town wedged between the Los Angeles Airport and an oil refinery. Shielded from the L.A. traffic, the town has the “feel of Hampden,” Pitula said. “But the pizza’s not as good.”
“Janitor” premiered two days before Halloween and received 16,000 downloads the first week. It is still No. 1 in downloads of films in the Xbox Live horror series. XBL has 15 million subscribers, he said.
The nine-minute short is one of six horror films commissioned by Microsoft for the series. Clisham, who wrote and directed the piece, was tapped by Microsoft in a competition that also included some of the top directors of horror such as James Wan of “Saw,” Andrew Douglas of “The Amityville Horror” remake and David Slade of “30 Days of Night.”
Clisham and his Sector5 buddies spend their spare time working on horror films, and he had some contact with Microsoft through his work at Lightstorm. They explained the Xbox Live concept and invited him to compete for one of the $10,000 grants to make a horror short.
When he pitched his concept to Microsoft, “they were just blown away,” he said. The short also picked up the U.S. Air Force as a sponsor.
With such a low budget, many of the crew involved on the project worked for free. They rented a school in Santa Monica for four days and did most of the filming there.
“I was in charge of the Crafts Service,” said Pitula. “The first day I actually made all the food myself. After that I was so tired I said, ‘Sorry guys, we’re going Subway.’”
The 40-second-long teaser for “Janitor” had its debut at the annual Comic-Con convention, which is like a Sundance Film Festival for special effects and comics geeks, that takes place every July in San Diego.
“It played really well,” Clisham said. “It scared the pants off of people.”
Clisham has a three-year contract with Microsoft to make additional horror shorts and another script in the works that he plans to pitch to studio executives later this year. His dream movie job would be to direct Stephen King’s “It.”
“I would like to do the definitive version right here in Bangor,” he said.