Death of Me Director Darren Lynn Bousman Details the Terror of His New Folk-Horror Film
Throughout the history of horror films, it's often been easy to identify who or what the threat to [...]
Throughout the history of horror films, it's often been easy to identify who or what the threat to the protagonists is, but a number of films have shown that the "villain" merely comes down to a matter of perspective. As made famous by the Hellraiser line, "Demons to some, angels to other," nefarious figures could merely be the case of a victim not being enlightened to what their potential sacrifice could be, with many compelling horror films exploring such a concept. The latest horror film to explore characters seemingly being the targets of a community, only for that community having to cope with these "outsiders" in their own right, is director Darren Lynn Bousman's Death of Me, which is available in theaters, On Demand, and Digital HD on October 2nd.
Vacationing on an island off the coast of Thailand, Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil Oliver (Luke Hemsworth) awake hungover and with no memory of the previous night. They find footage on Neil's camera, and watch, horrified, as Neil appears to murder Christine. With 24 hours until the next ferry and a typhoon threatening the island, Christine and Neil attempt to reconstruct the night's events — and are snared in a web of mystery, black magic, and murder.
ComicBook.com recently caught up with Bousman to discuss the film's complex narrative, finding the right tonal balance, and his return to the Saw franchise with the upcoming Spiral: From the Book of Saw.
ComicBook.com: While the throughline of your career might be "genre" films, you've had a lot of variety within that world, from Saw sequels to Repo! The Genetic Opera to Abattoir to St. Agatha, which continues with Death of Me, since it's different from all of those films. Is it a specific decision to constantly find new corners of the genre or has it just worked out that way?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Coming off of three wildly successful Saw movies, which, again, that in and of itself just still baffles me that at 25 years old I was able to go direct sequels and I never directed a movie in my life. And yet, here I am doing Saw. So I look at my career and I'm like, "How did that happen?" But then after Saw 4 where I could have done Saw 5 or one of those types of movies, I went and made a weird rock opera with Paris Hilton and Sarah Brightman. I mean, that to me is just a weird thing.
Spanning even weirder than that, I went to Japan for three months and shot a Japanese TV series. In the last four years I have been doing these big, immersive theater projects. So every time my, I don't know, my tastes change, I just get to jump ship and do something tonally and narratively different, which I obviously credit because of my involvement with Saw. I would never be able to do that without Saw's backing, without the, I guess, prestige of directing one of those movies.
I've been able to play in a lot of genres. And I think that, for me, I just like telling stories and I just want to keep challenging myself to tell them in different ways. And so from going from like a home invasion movie to a rock opera of spines being ripped out to now Death of Me, which is a lot more subdued, more like Serpent and the Rainbow kind of vibe to it, it's fun to get to play in these different kinds of worlds.prevnext
Wicker Man Influence
A lot of the influences I saw in Death of Me were Serpent and the Rainbow, but also the narrative confusion of Jacob's Ladder and the paranoia of an "other" culture from The Wicker Man.
Wicker Man is awesome. Wicker Man's one of my favorite movies and I was so upset when I saw the remake of Wicker Man because that was like one of my ... Wicker Man, I was always like, "I want to redo that one." I love Wicker Man, all right? Not even redo it, just pay homage to that. And then when I was in Thailand, one of the first things I asked the crew to watch was Wicker Man, because I love the mythology of a community and this celebration.
And what I loved about Wicker Man, what you try to do, in this as well, is that the village in Wicker Man, that island, they weren't villains. They weren't trying to be villainous. This was their culture in the same way that, I think, Midsommar did it last year. It's a celebration for them. And yes, that celebration involves people dying in very horrific ways, but I think that, at its core, what they're trying to do is preserve their lives and their children's lives and their grandparents' lives by doing this atrocious act. So the idea of one person having to die to save many is always something that fascinates me.prevnext
Between this film and, as you mentioned, last year's Midsommar and Gareth Evans' Apostle in 2018, we've seen a reemergence of these folk-horror films. I was curious if you had been hoping to deliver your own type of film like this for years and been involved with Death of Me a long time or if the script came along at the right point in your schedule and you were able to fulfill that passion for this type of horror film with this project.
Yes. All of the above. There's a lot of answers to that question. I'm fascinated with religion. I've always been fascinated with religion. If you go back and look at the movies I've made, religion plays a big role in them outside the Saw movies. From The Devil's Carnival to St. Agatha to Abattoir to 11-11-11, now to this, it's the idea of belief and what people believe in and how that belief is sometimes viewed or obscured through other people's eyes. And I think that it's easy to damn someone or to judge them based on a belief.
But if you take a step back and you look at the majority of people in America or the world, but you look at people, and religion is part of their life, whether they go to church on Sunday or they pray when a family member gets sick. And when you think about it, and if you break down religion as what it is, it's supernatural. You're believing in something supernatural. You're saying, "If I do this, then this will happen." And I always thought that it was interesting, but those same people who have a belief in a God will judge someone else's belief as crazy or out there or insane.
How is the belief that in this movie, in the case of Death of Me, how is this island belief any more insane than what a lot of people in America believe? I think that me, as a person, I've always been struggling with my own faith and my own beliefs, so I keep making movies to dance around what I'm dealing with myself.prevnext
The film definitely has a disorienting vibe to it, not just with its visuals and narrative, but also in its editing, making the audience just as confused as the characters in the story. Was that narrative confusion built into the script or found in the edit? How did you ensure that the audience felt disoriented without being completely lost?
One of my favorite aspects of these types of movies is when you give the audience an out to not believe in the supernatural explanation. So, in this case, that character, Christine's character, was dosed. And one of the first things that they say as they go to a doctor and the doctor [asks if they took a drug]. And it's a hallucinatory drug. Everything that's in the movie was based in some sort of fact or mythos from that culture.
From [taking the drug] to the actual idea of burying people in the sand, burying them for this ritualistic sacrifice. This was known as the "pillars," which was one of the scariest history things that I've read, where it was, again, something that happened in Southeast Asia where they would take pregnant women because they thought them to be the most powerful because they not only were their own life, they had a life growing inside them, and they would make some sacrifices for the town.
I think that I wanted to offer the audience two different ways to go. One: she's hallucinating. It's all by this thing that she's been dosed with, or two: it is all happening and it is a supernatural thing. And throughout the movie, and it's subtle, but throughout the movie, every time that she has one of these hallucinations with the crazy, faceless women, she's been given something to eat or drink. And so whether it be Alex Essoe's character is taunting her, making her these smoothies, whether it be the waiter who's pushing this food on her that she didn't order, whether it be the doctor who's giving her something to take and inject, she's constantly being given stuff to eat or drink. And that was an homage to Rosemary's Baby. Ruth Gordon's character in Rosemary's Baby, who constantly was bringing Rosemary these cakes or these drinks or these foods.
Or the tannis root.
The tannis root. Yes, that she wore around her neck. So that was something that I always like to do in these types of movies, so there is a dual explanation as you lead up to this or that. No, she's hallucinating, this is all brought about by this [drug] or no, it's real, she is this chosen one that's going to be seeing these horrible, evil things.prevnext
WARNING: Minor Spoilers Below
With films like Wicker Man or Midsommar, we're seeing white people go to other white, European countries, so the tone is intrinsically different when you have characters going to a Southeast Asian culture, where it could potentially be seen as specifically vilifying them as an "other." How did you find that tonal and narrative balance of embracing that fear without merely saying, "They are bad because they are different and from this part of the world,"?
One of the big concerns that I had from the script, right off the bat, is offending people. Just completely offending them, because here I am as a white filmmaker walking in, exploring this island and its villainous culture. And I think the first thing that we did, very smartly so by one of the writers, David Tish, is they're not villains, for starters. Nothing that they're doing is ever nefarious in purpose. It is a way of life. It's a way to bring good harvest and good fortune and, in the case of this movie, to stop a giant storm from killing thousands of people.
Also, I think populating it with Westerners [helped]. That's just Alex Essoe's character, who, again, is probably the biggest villain in the movie. She's the one that's manipulating everything into causing these events to happen. And here's someone that was, again, a Westerner transplanted to this island. A very important aspect for me was making sure that it was handled with delicacy and never actually betraying them as this evil, nefarious group of people doing a horrible thing.
And if you look, actually go through ... and this was, I think, unintentionally in the casting, but it ended up working that way. Some of the bigger actions that take place are done, not by the islanders themselves, but people who were transplants. The waiter at the restaurant, Alex Essoe as her character, all of this. So what I love in movies is when the people that are doing what would be considered atrocious acts, obviously don't see themselves as the perpetrator. But I think that those were the best villains or those are the best kind of things, that they are the heroes in their own story, because what are they doing? They're trying to save their loved ones and I would do the same thing to save my family.prevnext
Return to Saw
You returned to the Saw franchise with Spiral: From the Book of Saw, which was supposed to hit theaters earlier this year but will instead debut next May. Did you consider your return to the franchise as your sendoff to the series or did you see it as kicking off a series of more sequels?
Well, I'll tell you that with Spiral first off, a decade ago, I said I would never come back. And I think you can find maybe 6,500 interviews of me saying I'm done. So one thing I've taught myself is never say never because you might come back. So I will say this, there is something magical about the Saw universe and there is something that is so undefinably special about Saw that I can't articulate it. Part of it has to do with a time and memory of when I was 24 years old flying to Toronto for the first time on a flight, having no idea what the f-ck I was doing and stepping off and meeting Dan Heffner, who is the line producer now, the producer of the Saw franchise, and meeting all of these people for the first time. And there was this boyish wonder of, "Oh, dear God, When are they going to find out I'm a fraud?"
But now, as a 41-year-old man stepping off that flight, being greeted by Dan Heffner, seeing those exact same people, it's such a weird nostalgia that it's filled me full of this child-like wonderment of, "Holy sh-t, I'm back." So it becomes a drug. And I think that if you would've asked me two years ago, I said I would never do it. I would still say, "I'm never doing this Saw movie again." Now, if they call me back and said, "Hey, we're doing the next one." There's no telling. I'd probably be on a flight meeting Dan Heffner again. There's just something so magical about those movies.
Making Death of Me was hard. It was a hard movie to shoot. It was a hard movie from a production standpoint. It was hard because it was a very independent movie shot very quickly and it was stressful because it was very run and gun. When you're looking at something like Saw or Spiral, there's a safety net. You have people that have been working on the same franchise now for over a decade that is like a family. And so it was a better feeling of like, I don't know, just that I was surrounded by people that I knew would not let me fall.
Plus, if you told 25-year-old you that Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson would want to be in a Saw movie, that would be even harder to believe.
Oh, my God. There's a picture of me and it's out there somewhere. It's in the press. I've seen it. And it was a day that Sam Jackson shows up on set and I'm standing in between Sam Jackson and Chris Rock. And I have the dorkiest grin on my face because I'm like, "What is my life? Like, what is this?" And it was awesome because here are these two megastars and they were so cool and so just awesome. And it's one of those moments that I was like, "What the f-ck is my life?"
I know we have to wait quite a while to see Spiral, but I'm looking forward to seeing what you guys did with the film and ways it could potentially revive and reinvent elements of the mythos.
I completely agree. And I think that why I always loved the Saw franchise was that it was more than a horror film. It was more than a slasher film. It was something that was based around characters and people love to write those movies off as being "torture porn," but watch the film. It's not torture porn. It's a story and, in a lot of respects, it's a love story, the first few, between Tobin [Bell] and Shawnee Smith's character, Amanda, and this tragic story on top of that. So I don't know. It was a great feeling coming back. I'm obviously just distraught that it was pushed, but also that was the absolute right decision given where we are in the world right now.
Death of Me is available in theaters, On Demand, and Digital HD on October 2nd. Spiral: From the Book of Saw hits theaters on May 21, 2021.prev