SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Don Simpson | March 29, 2010
I met up with writer-director Sean Byrne and lead actress Robin McLeavy at the Austin Convention Center to chat about their film The Loved Ones – which screened as part of SXSW 2010’s “Midnighters” series. A brilliantly creepy feature-length debut from Sean Byrne, The Loved Ones is sure to please some of the more discerning horror fans in the audience with its brains, creativity and visual panache.
So here is our discussion about, among other things, the horrors done with household utensils and tools; the psychotic yet empowering character of Lola; Jeffrey Dahmer and Dr. Oliver Sacks; and the visual design of the film. Sean and Robin were incredibly friendly and down to Earth; it really felt like our conversation could have gone on for much longer…
DS: How did you approach the violence and gore of the film?
SB: We wanted the audience to have a relationship with instruments of torture; so everyone has held a knife – and it’s just a standard kind of eating knife – and a fork, and I wanted the kettle to be an ordinary everyday kettle. So often in horror films, every single object belongs in a gothic museum and the audience is one step removed. That was sort of the idea with the instruments of torture – the audience will think “yeah, I’ve touched that.” We shaped each scene so it would have its own personality. Some moments would bring the gore, so the audience would get their fix; other moments, when it’s about to get really hardcore, it is good to cut away and let the audience’s imagination work its magic. I was just trying to mix it up because there are not many locations and I didn’t want the film to feel repetitive.
DS: Where did the idea of the drill through the skull come from?
SB: I can’t take credit for that because it’s based on what Jeffrey Dahmer used to do to his victims. He used to pick guys up at a bar and bring them back to his apartment and give them a cup of coffee – he drugged the coffee – and once they were out cold, he got a power drill and drilled into their frontal lobe. Then he’d use a syringe and he experimented by injecting hydrochloric acid. That killed too quickly, so then he started using boiling water until he got the measurements just right. And someone actually stayed alive for a couple of days, so there are legal records of a living human zombie. I didn’t want to put “based on a true story” because our version is so heightened – it’s this crazy disco pop horror. The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer by Brian Masters is a pretty incredible book – its not a fun read, you wouldn’t read it to your kids – but there is a lot of juicy information in there. Even the injecting of Draino into the vocal chords is a serial killer trait – it’s faster than taping over someone’s mouth and less messy than knocking them out.
DS: Who is your intended audience?
SB: The cult midnight audience would be fantastic. I grew up loving the Evil Dead films and Peter Jackson’s early films; but also, in a perfect world, it would cross demographics and get the girls into the theaters. It feels like it a crazy derived date movie – it has been described as a mash-up of Misery and Pretty in Pink. Horror isn’t traditionally a genre that girls show up to in droves, but I think this could be the film. It is similar to Misery in that it is about a girl getting serious payback for things that might not have gone well in high school.
DS: How did you prepare for the role of Lola? Were you privy to any additional back story?
RM: Sean actually wrote a really detailed back story for me to either use or not use and there was a whole bunch of stuff in there – like the history of the kidnappings and how they started. So there was a rich tapestry of details already in the works. The dynamic between Bright Eyes and Lola is so brief but I just sense that there is a huge jealousy there and the battle for daddy’s attention is pretty paramount at the dinner table. And the resentment of not being noticed in school weighs into this situation as well. As far as preparing for the role, I read about Jeffrey Dahmer and a book by Dr. Oliver Sacks. Dr. Sacks describes his patients’ mental conditions in a really creative and non-judgmental way rather than a medical way.
SB: And I think daddy is almost like Dr. Frankenstein. He probably grew up with his own twisted form of socialization with really dark urges but didn’t have the courage to act on them until his daughter Lola was born. Maybe he could never really feel anything, he never really felt like he had a conscience, until his daughter was born. So Lola is sort of a vessel for him to act out his darkest desire. Maybe the first boy who ever turned down Lola at school was the excuse for daddy to create some sort of punishment – and he could justify it because he was protecting his little girl. Then maybe Bright Eyes tried to go to the police or something and he had to knock her out and give her…her medicine.
RM: Yeah. She was ruining all the fun.
SB: So there had been a long standing jealousy there. It could be a prequel…
DS: Did you purposefully avoid giving Lola too much back story in the film to make her less sympathetic?
SB: There are some sympathetic traits there that are built in to make the character three dimensional, but this is the type of film that there is a good guy and a bad guy and the good guy has to escape and the audience wants blood.
I also think there’s something about not knowing where people come from – or why they are the way they are – that can actually stay with you. If there are unanswered questions the mystery will live on, but if you always explain exactly why characters are the way they are then people feel much safer.
RM: Apparently the audience loves to hate me. When I see the screenings and everyone cheers when I get kicked in the face or injured, I think “you really hate me that much?”
DS: I was wondering what you considered as an actor when choosing this role – because it is unsympathetic and I could see the audience reacting that way against you. Do you think that playing Lola might pigeon-hole you as a bad guy?
RM: No, I’m not worried about that. I was just really excited to play the bad guy. You don’t get to do that very often, especially as a girl. It is a rare opportunity to play the psycho who gets to tie people up and torture them for pleasure. I just hope that people are excited to see a female character behaving like that without apologizing.
SB: It’s really sort of a high wire act because there is loneliness and bratiness and genuine derangement and sexiness – so it’s very hard to get pigeon-holed when playing such a multifaceted character.
DS: And it definitely felt like a very empowering role for an actress to play.
RM: Yeah, and in horror it is especially common to see girls running through the forest screaming with blood on their white dress. I was just thrilled that Lola wasn’t anything like that.
DS: Dave, my editor, and I were just talking about the visual elements of the film – primarily the set design, costume design, the use of color, the cars were such perfect cars – how much time did you spend with the design?
SB: I have a thing about most horror – it always too horror. There is a house on a hill that just screams “The devil lives here!” So if there is a problem in the town where is the first place that the police are going to look? I wanted Lola’s house to really blend in. We had this theory that we would use color to give the world life, and then we would strip the color away from everybody – essentially taking their life away – to give the audience further to travel. Other than Brent who is obviously far more muted and downcast; the rest of it is all balloons, glitter and mirror balls. If you start off in a shiny happy place and end up in hell, then it is certainly a more interesting road for the viewer to travel.
DS: Just within Lola’s house itself you have the bright and cheery upstairs, but then the basement is so dark and dirty – with very muted blacks, grays and browns.
SB: We thought a lot about that basement. What is the worst possible basement that you could end up in? And in the end it was just this concrete slab of nothingness with no windows, it’s boring.
RM: With the dress, we had quite a few test dresses because we couldn’t get the right pink on camera. A lot of them looked to red and it was very important that we found the exact pink–
SB: –that would just go “Ping!” That was very scary. We didn’t know that the Red digital video camera has such troubles with pink – I wish the camera was called a Pink. So we had to experiment quite a bit.
DS: What is up next for both of you?
SB: I’ve got a few projects boiling away. One is a twisted home invasion film which, like The Loved Ones, will hopefully put the loops of the roller coaster in different places than people are expecting. I also have a medical thriller that I’m working on.
RM: I just finished A Streetcar Named Desire in New York – I do a lot of theater as well as film – and I’m headed home to do Measure for Measure, so I’m doing my dose of Shakespeare. A Streetcar Named Desire was with Cate Blanchett and Liv Ullmann so I thought that would be my last theater gig for a while and I would just focus on film…but that kind of didn’t happen because I’m a sucker for theater.
DS: Who did you play in A Streetcar Named Desire?
RM: Stella. It was pretty cool working with Liv Ullmann because she quoted Ingmar Bergman quite a lot – though she would never admit it. It was a great experience to work with a film legend in a theater context.
For more info on Sean Byrne, Robin McLeavy and The Loved Ones, please visit www.TheLovedOnesMovie.com
Don Simpson’s review of: THE LOVED ONES