Darren Lynn Bousman is a director best known for his work within the Saw-franchise, but alongside Saw II, III, and IV, Bousman has left his mark on the horror genre with films like Mother’s Day and St. Agatha as well as the iconic cult-classic Repo! The Genetic Opera. Death Of Me, Bousman’s new film starring Maggie Q and Luke Hemsworth arrives on our screen in early October and has Bousman turn to his favourite subject of faith and beliefs. We chatted with the director over the phone about casting local Thai people, solving puzzles, and about his upcoming Saw sequel Spiral: From The Book of Saw.
Maria Lattila for Film Inquiry: How did this project come to you?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I was given the script by these two producers, Lee Nelson and David Tish, and we’d been working for the last few years trying to find a project together, there just never was anything that we all responded to. And I remember, they called me and they pitched it to me. And the pitch I said immediately yes to, was, we wanted to make a horror version of The Hangover. And I was like, that’s awesome. This woman wakes up and she has no recollection of the night before and tries to piece together what happened. She realizes that she took place in a ritualistic murder, but here she is, completely fine. I thought that was a cool idea. And then to have the ability and chance to go to Thailand, I love traveling. I love going all over the world.
Is that something that you usually look for in your scripts as well? A hook or something unique?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Yeah, it’s got to be something, what is different about the movie? What haven’t I seen before? First off, there are great folklore horror movies. One of my favourites is The Wicker Man. I love The Wicker Man. Probably since I was in film school, it’s been one of my top three horror films that I always talk about. I saw elements of The Wicker Man in this. And it gave me a chance to play in that world a little bit, which is basically a stranger in a strange land, these two people that go to this culture that they don’t really know about and find themselves right in the middle of what is kind of a joyous festival. But that festival ends up being bad, specifically for them. And I love movies that have anything to do with faith, or beliefs and this movie have a lot to do with faith and belief.
This town and the villagers are not evil, they’re not bad. They are doing what they have to do, based on the belief that they were raised believing in. And I think that we’re all products of our environment. I grew up in the Midwest, my beliefs and ideals are from the Midwest. Imagine if you lived in this little island, where you were brought up to believe that doing this would prevent the storm which basically is and I just thought that was such an interesting kind of take
Were you ever worried about making a film from an American perspective and setting it in another country with their beliefs?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Yeah, absolutely. That was a huge thing for us. I wanted to make sure that we embellish whatever religion it was and not make it something that was real, not make it something that was going to be sacrilegious to their belief system. The first thing is, while the seedling of an idea is based on something real, the seedling of that idea is based on a real belief system, but it’s from hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
Secondly, the other thing that was critical to me was when presenting this idea of this religion, that it could not just be everyone on that island. It had to be bigger than that. One of the first casting decisions was I wanted a Westerner to be the owner of Airbnb. I think that we took precautions to try to not be offensive to the place or culture.
Did you work with the locals a lot?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Yeah, 99.9999% of everyone was local from there. I think we flew in our DP and that might have been the only person outside of myself and the producer that was not a local hire. Something else that we did, which is kind of exciting, was in the casting. I wanted to have a really authentic feel. A couple of days before we were shooting in a particular location, we would go and meet the villagers and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing, do you want to be in the movie?’ And I would say that maybe 50 to 60% of the villagers that you see in the movie, are actually from that village, including the ones that have lines and talk in the movie.
I usually ask actors if they see themselves in their characters. Does that ever happen to directors? Do you ever see yourself in a script?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Absolutely, 100%. In the case of this, not so much (in the) characters but in the mentality, what the movie is about. For me as a father, as a husband, as a son, as a person, I find my constant struggle with faith and belief, something that I’m constantly dealing with. When I go back and look at my last seven or eight movies, faith and belief is the centre part of them, from Abattoir, to St. Agatha to The Devil’s Carnival to this movie. They all deal with the constructs of religion and belief. I always bring whatever I am going through into my films. If you look at a movie like Mother’s Day, when I made Mother’s Day, which is about a home invasion, I made that movie on the heels of me buying my first house. You buy a house, you feel safe in this house because you have locks on your door, but you’re not safe, someone can kick in your door and the locks don’t mean anything. Every movie that I tackle has part of me in it and what I’m struggling with as a person at that time.
If you look at quite a lot of your films, there’s this element of mystery. It’s not just straight-up horror, there’s like this puzzle that needs to be solved. Is that something that interests you, having that puzzle that the characters have to resolve?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Absolutely. I’ve gotten into magic in the last few years of my life, I’ve got into loving magic and wanting to learn how tricks are constructed. And I think what I love about the magic is the puzzle element. It is showing a spectator something over here when you’re really doing something on the other side when they’re not looking or seeing. In essence, that is what the Saw movies are, the Saw movies are just magic tricks.
They are directing the audience’s attention somewhere, then when they’re not looking, you pull the rug out from under them and then they try to go back and figure out okay, can I see that and can I watch it again? Am I able to see that? That’s one of my favourite things about filmmaking, the magic trick element. And I always look at every movie for is there that magic trick that you can pull?
One of the things on this movie which is kind of cool, if you go back and watch it, the clues are there from the very beginning of what will happen to her, in paintings that she stands behind or stands in front of, it is in looks that the townspeople give her at the very beginning. It is in sigils that the town folks all wear, it is all throughout the movie. If you go back and watch it, you’ll be able to see oh shit it was foreshadowed in the very beginning of what happened to it, but you’re not looking for it because it’s not in your mind to think about. Those types of things are really exciting for me as a filmmaker.
How do you work with actors? With horror, you need these genuine reactions. Can those be rehearsed? Do you like rehearsing with your actors?
Darren Lynn Bousman: A movie like Repo! The Genetic Opera, I had three weeks of rehearsal. On something like that, I loved it because there were dance numbers and there were songs and it was a whole thing. However, you can’t on a movie like this, because something like this, you get Maggie Q one day before you start filming. And that’s if you’re lucky, you get her one day before filming. You get the location the morning of and you only get 10 hours to shoot but you have 12 hours’ worth of filming to do. I would love the chance to have a movie that I could rehearse, but I never seem to have that ability. I never have the time.
There’s quite a lot of ambiguous endings in your films. Why is that?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Because I think it’s not my place to spoon-feed an audience and tell them exactly what happened. I love movies where you walk away and you talk about them and people can have conflicting ideas of what actually happened. In this movie, as well, where was she? Has she been hallucinating due to drug misuse in the beginning or was there supernatural elements, and you try to provide the audience both ways to go. In this movie, if you notice, every time that something weird happens to her, she’s just got done eating or drinking something. They’re giving her a smoothie, giving her soup, they’re giving her drugs at the hospital. Or maybe none of that is what’s causing it and it is what the mythology is, that she’s hallucinating the supernatural images. I just love giving the audience an out and not forcing them to believe one thing or the other.
What inspires you creatively? What makes you come back to the horror genre?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I just think it’s the visceral reaction that one can get off horror, which you don’t really get off other films. I talk about this a lot in my work, I don’t remember where I was the first time I saw a comedy. I love the movie Groundhog Day, I don’t remember the first time I saw Groundhog Day, but I do remember where I was the first time I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street. I do remember where I was the first time I saw Friday the 13th because those movies elicit a reaction. And I think that any movie that can elicit a reaction of fear and disgust just stays with you longer. And to me, those are my favourite types of movies.
Obviously, you’re returning to the world of Saw next year with Spiral. It’s a big franchise, a lot of money involved. Do you find that creatively limiting or exciting when working within a franchise?
Darren Lynn Bousman: For me, it’s exciting because you get the proper tools. When you do a movie like Death Of Me, you don’t have the proper tools. This is very much guerrilla-style filmmaking, which is awesome. And I love guerrilla filmmaking. But if I just had five more hours on this day, I could have done this, if I just had one more shoot than I could have done this. With a movie like Spiral, you get that. You’re able to have that type of freedom. The problem with something like Spiral is there’s a lot more risk and at stake, and there are a lot more people involved. To me, there are trade-offs. Because you’re dealing with a lot more people involved. There are so many more cooks in the kitchen, it’s not going to be a movie like Death Of Me.
And now that I think of it apart from probably the Saw films, your films are really sort of female-led and female-focused. Is that intentional?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Absolutely. I grew up with strong women, with my sister and my mother, my wife and my daughter. And I just love seeing strong female characters. I think there are too many movies out there already that have the masculine leads are the heroes that save the day. And if you go back, even going back from Saw with Amanda or Repo! with Shilo, Mother’s Day with Rebecca, to St. Agatha, which is all-female cast. And before that, I went to Japan and I shot a movie or a TV series there with 12 Japanese pop stars. And I think that there’s just something if you can do it correctly, cool about that. It’s not something that I’m trying to do necessarily, I just gravitate to those stories more.
Looking past next year and Spiral, what’s next? What do you look forward to in your career next?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I’m huge into immersive theatre now. You basically construct narratives where the audience is the star, they are the star of the story. And the closest example I can give is the David Fincher film called The Game. So basically, I have a company and we put together real-world experiences for real people. You sign up, you fill out a very lengthy questionnaire and a waiver. And then once you sign the waiver, we begin to put you in the centre of a narrative that you control. I’ve done one of those every year. I’m doing one right now for Halloween called One Day Die. And that is something that takes place in your own home. You do it all at your own house, but you are the central star of the story. And I think those to me are just really, really cool.
Film Inquiry would like to thank Darren Lynn Bousman for chatting with us.
Death Of Me is In Theaters, On Demand and Digital October 2nd.
Watch Death Of Me
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