Interview: Writer/Director Sean Byrne (THE LOVED ONES)
Never in my life has a film put me on the edge of my seat and had my heart racing during its entire running time. That streak ended when I saw Sean Byrne’s THE LOVES ONES. Made and released in Australia last year on June 1, 2009, THE LOVED ONES made its festival premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, then went on to play at AFI in L.A., and Austin’s SXSW. This is where I first heard of the film, where the only thing surrounding it was strong buzz.
It wasn’t until the Dallas International Film Festival where I saw (and fell in love with) THE LOVED ONES. Since this won’t be playing at another festival near me again, I was very happy I caught it here, but here’s the kicker: writer/director Sean Byrne and star Robin McLeavy (who’s now going down in GATW history as one of the greatest villains in horror history) were in attendance at the SXSW screenings. I wanted to drill a hole in my head for missing a chance to speak with the two.
So what did I do after constantly thinking and talking about how good THE LOVED ONES is? I seeked out director Sean Byrne to get an interview. Byrne responded pretty quickly and was very thankful for our support and more than enthusiastic about doing an interview. When I spoke about missing the screenings at SXSW, he responded with, “[It] Played great at SXSW. Want to put Austin audience in my pocket to bring back out every time we screen!” The guy has already gained the title of being a great filmmaker and now he's at the top of my awesome list.
Since Rusty introduced me to this film and was in the same boat as far as thoughts, I thought it was only fair to bring him in on the interview which you can check out after the break. If you’re reading this and don’t know anything about THE LOVED ONES, take my word: it’s awesome.
The film flows very well and the various plot revelations come about incredibly naturally. How many rewrites did you do (if any) to achieve this, and how extensive were your revisions to give the film such an organic feel?
Too many rewrites and revisions to count! I was writing for a couple of years. At first it was going to be really low budget, like a hundred thousand dollar credit card film. Then an experienced producer in Australia read it and loved it. He suggested it would be easier to get investors interested in a 3-4 million dollar film so I started expanding in terms of scope. But from the beginning I was determined to make sure each character existed for a reason, having a distinct personality and function that served the overall through-line. I’m a huge fan of P.T. Anderson and the way his films interconnect so I worked hard to make sure all the dots joined. In our case, it’s grief, and how people deal with grief that ties the characters together. The origin of this grief comes from one particular place and without warning our hero finds himself face to face with the source of everyone’s pain. He’s trapped in the spider’s web. And the question becomes can he escape, not just for himself but for the sake of those he loves?
At times, THE LOVED ONES feels like PRETTY PINK if it were turned into a horror film. You have the girl from the wrong side of the tracks with the working class father, who you would not be surprised at all to find out is a janitor or maintenance man. Plus the dress that the father gives his daughter is pink (albeit hot pink, but still pink). How intentional were these similarities, if they were at all?
I’m glad you said janitor or maintenance man because in an early draft he was a janitor at his daughter’s school, then by the final draft he was a cash-in-hand maintenance man, similar to Ed Gein. In an early cut we actually showed Daddy plying his trade, which was interesting because the audience rarely gets to see the "monster" simply existing in society. To me that’s chilling, because it shows sociopaths have a routine too. They pay rent or have mortgages, they buy milk; at some point in our lives one has probably even stood behind us in the supermarket checkout. I love the idea of normalizing "evil" because it brings it closer to home, but at the end of the day we needed to get to the farmhouse faster and get the show on the road, so Daddy’s occupation became relegated to back-story, though if you look at the vehicle he drives and his impressive toolbox it’s clear he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty!
In terms of the PRETTY IN PINK comparison, I’ve got to give Colin Geddes (Programmer at Toronto International Film Festival) credit for that one. He coined the phrase, “A mash up of PRETTY IN PINK and MISERY.” To be honest I hadn’t even thought of PRETTY IN PINK as a reference. Though I did think about John Hughes in terms of the set up and using archetypes in a similar way to THE BREAKFAST CLUB. There’s the rebel, the stoner, the girl next door, the goth, the wallflower etc. I wanted to make sure we covered a lot of personalities so there would be a good chance different personalities in the audience could see themselves on screen.
As for the pink dress, that came from thinking, “Right, how do we get noticed? How do we break through the clutter?” And hot pink satin is unmissably in your face. Unlike most horror movies that look as bleak as the subject matter we’re a shiny, candy-colored-glam-nightmare. We give the world life then strip it away. I kept thinking the prettier and glossier it looks the more we can push the horror. The sweeter the sweet then the sourer the sour, if that makes sense!
What were your horror influences with the film? And how conscious were you of these inspirations while developing the story and making THE LOVED ONES?
My filmic influences were a real mash up. Structurally the film is closest to MISERY but tonally there are shades of CARRIE, DAZED AND CONFUSED, FOOTLOOSE, THE TERMINATOR, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (original), EVIL DEAD, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, David Lynch, Gaspar Noe, Michael Haneke, John Hughes and even Walt Disney. The way Tarantino juxtaposes violence and comedy was a big influence. I’m also a big David Fincher and P.T. Anderson fan.
That said, I wasn’t a slave to these influences as I was developing and making the film. They’re films and filmmakers I really admire. I naturally responded to the work, which then no doubt subconsciously influenced my choices, but when I was writing I really let my mind roam free based on the research I’d done so the characters had a voice of their own.
However, conceptually, I must admit to thinking, “What if I took the rituals of the prom – the dress up and the crowning of the King and Queen like in CARRIE – and moved the prom to a single location like in EVIL DEAD, making the rituals of the Prom the very instrument of torture?” That’s a part of what sat me down to write. Then it became about getting the audience to care about the characters in peril, making the "monsters" three-dimensional and running the rollercoaster off the rails in my own way.
Audiences may recognize some of the influences, which is half the fun, but hopefully the film, as a whole, will be a fresh experience.
It is clear you are a horror fan, which has several sub-genres. What are some other horror sub-genres you have a desire to work in? What are your favorites?
I love the genre so I like all types of horror – myth-based, supernatural etc - but for me horror is always at its most disturbing when the threat is real. And for me that means having a relationship with the dark, extreme side of human nature and being given access to the cruelest of minds then genuinely caring about the people who are trapped in this terrifying web.
My least favorite is the stalking bogeyman style of horror because we’re almost forced to barrack for the killer. We know they won’t die (because there’s always a sequel) and we usually know nothing about the people being hunted and what makes them tick so the main point of interest becomes how much bare flesh am I going to see and how inventively gruesome is the next kill going to be. It’s usually all sound and fury and little suspense because at the end of the day you don’t really care who lives or dies and to me that’s just not good drama.
I had this saying all through development, which was “If you don’t care then you don’t scare," and I really believe that. I also read somewhere that the only thing worse than death is the fear of a fate worse than death and that’s where I tried to go with THE LOVED ONES, albeit in a gleefully deranged way.
As for subgenres I want to work in, well, I’m attached to a psychological medical horror and I’m writing something that will hopefully take the home invasion thriller into fresh, surprising territory. My motto is, “One foot firmly planted in commercial territory while the other dangles over a cliff!”
It's safe to say the film is pretty violent. There are a lot of films out there that are violent for the sake of being violent, but in THE LOVED ONES it is completely necessary to push the story forward. Was there anything you had to take out because you feared it might be too much?
There was a dead body from the aftermath of an accident that we took out at the beginning of the film because it was so devastating so early it actually sapped the fun out of the set up. And, yes, Brent’s a damaged hero, but we’ve also got other characters to meet, and the brutal shock up front took away the license to enjoy entering the high school world. So it was purely a story choice that was about making a better movie.
The hardcore horror mostly takes place in a farmhouse at a macabre prom created by our villains. And once we get behind those doors not a single punch is pulled. The trick was giving each horror scene its own personality and rhythm so the film could keep one-upping itself.
We’re a balls-to-the-wall pop-horror movie and as a fan growing up loving horror movies, I know what I like and I think I know what other true horror fans like, and we like to be pushed. Audiences go to horror movies to be scared. They’re safe in their theater seats. They’re not in danger. The brief is to freak them out so why hold back?
But I also understand there are horror movies out there that pummel the audience into submission to the point the experience is no longer fun. And I didn’t want to do that. I want the experience to be an entertaining one. I tried to design THE LOVED ONES like an extreme rollercoaster that plays with the conventions of the genre. Things go pretty much according to plan then we run the carriage off the rails, reaching a level of genuine madness that goes way beyond the bunny boiling in FATAL ATTRACTION. Hopefully there are laughs and screams in equal measure. I just want the audience to have a wild time.
Is there anything about the film we haven't asked about that you want to elaborate on?
Well I have a request. If you see this film and dig it then please dress up like Princess and Daddy for Halloween. That would seriously make me happy!
Final question: Do you realize how awesome your movie is? Because it is extremely awesome.
Thanks so much! I just tried to make a movie I’d want to watch with an audience. And so far the critical and, most importantly, audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. And I think a part of the reason why people are laughing and screaming and jumping out of their seats is because you can’t see the scares coming from a mile away. Sure the film harks back to great cult horrors of the past but it’s also got it’s own devilishly fun personality and, in an age where everything is branded and re-branded to death, surely that’s a good thing.