UTG INTERVIEW: Sean Byrne – Director of ‘The Loved Ones’

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UTG is very pleased to bring you this exclusive interview with Australian director Sean Byrne!

Byrne provided the masses with The Loved Ones in 2009, his darkly comedic horror debut which immediately became a favorite and must-have for die-hard horror fans, including us here at UTG; evident in our recent UTG’s 31 Days of Halloween feature which focused on said film.

Byrne took some time to speak with us about how he got his start in film-making, some in depth information about The Loved Ones and some new ideas he has in the works. Read through and get the scoop from creative writer/director, Sean Byrne!

What originally inspired you to get into film-making?
Well my dad was a film critic in Hobart, Tasmania where I grew up. I think I just kind of fell in love with movies and didn’t really think about taking it seriously until after I finished my law degree and I had to go out and get a real job and I thought, “Well I should at least take a crack at film-making and see whether I can do it or not.” I went to this school in Tasmania called Rosny College which was the only middle school that offered any kind of media production training or film school. So I went back there as a 25 year old with all the 15 and 16 year olds [laughing], and basically just made a series of short films with no money, just using family and friends. Sent them off to the Australian Film Television and Radio School which is where Alex Proyas, Phillip Noyce and a lot of notable Australian directors went to school.

By some miracle, I got in. I think because my shorts were really provocative; there was no production value so I had to try to find a way to stand out from the pack so they were at least slightly shocking which at least got me the interview and then I got in and they only take four directors a year. It’s a very different system in Australia; the government funds the film school to the tune of about 10 million dollars a year. So I got to go in there and then I had some money to make some short films and then that got me an agent, then I started working in advertising, and kept making short films which led to The Loved Ones which kind of led to now.

What would you say kept you from developing a full-length feature for so long?
Well I was studying; I was going down the path of a different vocation. I was 25 before I realized I wanted to try to make films but I didn’t really know how to do it so I’d write some shorts. I did actually write and The Loved Ones is my third feature but it took me that long to write something that was overtly marketable. The other two feature scripts, I really love and I still want to make them but they were more difficult still for a first time director.

It’s different in Australia; there really isn’t the trickle down effect from scripts going out to find directors. There’s very few directors with that kind of power in Australia so writers tend to direct their own stuff. The scripts I was getting sent from my agent in Australia just weren’t good scripts so I realized that the only way I was going to get out of that hole [laughing] was to write something for myself. That actually formed part of the drive and the narrative of The Loved Ones because I had been battling away at it for quite a few years and I thought that it actually wasn’t gonna happen and it did kind of feel like I was stuck in that pit with no way out. My other scripts had been rejected and it was kind of a last roll of the dice and that’s why I decided to write The Loved Ones. There’s a lot of average horror films out there so I figured even if it’s passable [laughs], it should still rise to the pack of most, a lot of other horror films because usually the acting is not really particularly great, the writing usually lacks nuance. You know, they’re usually rushed jobs and there are some great ones out there but I figured it was a way to get fame quickly and I knew that it had worked for a lot of my heroes like Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and Spielberg. I mean they all started off with horror and then they kind of spread their wings a bit afterward. Although I love horror and I don’t think I’ll ever fall out of love with it [laughs].

The Loved Ones is about as impressive of a debut as you could hope for. Has this put any extra pressure on your following work or is it more motivation to make your next efforts even better?
There’s not extra pressure. The pressure comes from the market. It’s really brutal out there because I like to push the envelope. That doesn’t always fit perfectly in a mainstream context, so what excites me is starting off in a place that an audience is comfortable with and then pushing them off the edge of a cliff. To do that, there’s got to be some red flag issues on the page and that’s the difficulty that I’ve kind of been encountering more than the pressure to follow it up. I have a script that I love that isn’t ready to be picked up but I really want to do it, but it’s so much harder out there to grab attention. I feel like you’ve got to do something that grabs the audience by the throat and says, “I’m a little bit different,” but “different” can be a difficult word to sell as well.

On the set of The Loved Ones. From left to right: Director Sean Byrne, actor Xavier Samuel and actress Victoria Thaine.

I’ve heard you say that a motto you have is, “If you don’t care, you don’t scare.” Besides working by that standard, what were some of your focus points to make The Loved Ones come across effectively on screen?
I wanted it to work dramatically. Once the script was written, I knew that the framework was there, the horror was induced. There was no way of avoiding it because it was in the screenplay so I actually spent majority of my time trying to make sure the characters were three-dimensional and just watching a lot of my favorite film-makers that are really kind of exacting like David Fincher, the Coen brothers, Tarantino and Lynch. I just went back and tried to remind myself of quality film-making, you know? To not try to think about it as a horror film because I have this theory that if you treat your horror film like it’s Kramer Vs. Kramer, obviously you’re not gonna be laid down with the same amount of pages devoted to characterization but if you create really well-rounded characters and you genuinely care about them then when they’re put in a position of life or death, theoretically cinema shouldn’t get any more dramatic than that. If you care about a character the same way you care about yourself and you have a relationship with the protagonist, that moment that they’re about to die, or escape, to me that’s as suspenseful as film gets.

I’m a huge fan of real horror. Supernatural horror is interesting or would draw me but I always feel like I’m more likely to be abducted than I am chased by a ghost. I think real horror is more relatable. If you have something relatable then you can be scared more because you’re one step less removed from the horror.

Was it important to you to mesh the comedic tones of the film with the horror or did that just kind of happen naturally?
Yeah, it wasn’t something that I thought about to begin with; I didn’t think like, “This has to be a comedy-horror,” because I find that in hybrid genres one aspect usually gets sacrificed in favor of the other. I wanted the humor to just be situational and just come out of the plot that hopefully is unfolding organically. There’s nothing in there that I think is a deliberate gag. I think it’s just the perversity of the moment. I knew it would be funny, or at least I was hoping it’d be funny in a really black way, but more importantly I wanted it to be truthful and not feel contrived just for the sake of getting a gag. I really studied Tarantino’s films and I’m a huge fan of his and the way he juxtaposes violence and comedy so that it takes you by surprise and it doesn’t take you out of the movie. I was after that style of comedy rather than any kind of laugh track [laughs].

There are many moments in the film where you would assume that something isn’t actually going to happen, mainly in regards to the protagonist, but the scenes actually follow through and create that surprise. How important was it for you to break those boundaries and push it beyond the expected?
It was kind of out of respect to the audience because I’m a horror fan and I hate that feeling when you want to yell at the screen and you know exactly what’s gonna happen next, so you know, audiences are smart, they’re gonna second guess you anyway so I wanted to kind of third guess and fourth guess and again, the trick was to try to do it without contrivance. You know, if they’re expecting a left, take a right or maybe they’re expecting the right because they’re expecting you to second guess, so you come back and do the left [laughs]. It’s just trying to stay one step ahead and there’s plenty of films that do that but it’s just shocks for shock sake and it doesn’t really merge with the narrative perfectly so I just wanted to be dramatically honest but also really surprising and that’s where most of the work time-wise went into the script; just trying to scare the audience in unique ways and take things off balance.

What inspirations helped shape The Loved Ones‘ story and characters?
What sat me down to write was the idea of using Carrie and The Evil Dead [laughs]. Carrie just because it’s a film I really love but also the prom is such a seminal time in a young person’s life. There’s so much sexual pressure and peer pressure associated with that moment so I thought that would be something that’s relatable and allow the film to cross over to teenagers. Then I got the idea of using The Evil Dead model because it’s my favorite use of a single location and so I thought, “What if I bring the prom to the cabin in the woods?” The structure of the prom with the dancing and the crowning of the king and queen, make that the structure of the horror within a single room. Then I decided to try to work on characters and woke up one morning with an image of this kid, the Kurt Cobain type, bloodied tuxedo, with his feet nailed to the floor in the middle of a balloon-riddled kitchen. Who is he? How did he get here? How’s he gonna get out? If he’s gonna be the protagonist then who can be a good antagonist?

My niece was 5 years old at the time and she was absolutely obsessed with the color pink, and faeries and faerie tales and I thought, “What if I took that type of innocence and childlike belief in fantasy and transferred it into the body of a teenage girl with raging hormones and a really messed up socialization?” So that’s where the idea for Lola kind of came from and I just sort of worked backwards from there how Daddy came into it and the rest of the characters but what really sat we down to write was this fusing of Carrie and The Evil Dead somehow [laughs].

The happy prom couple <3[/caption] How difficult was it to find the perfect cast for the film?
It wasn’t difficult. I mean, we went through a traditional casting process. I had seen Xavier in an art house coming-of-age film called September which is shot in Australia and he had the right look. He had a really minimalist kind of quality to him where he could internalize a lot of his feelings and communicate a lot through his eyes and I’m a big fan of that style of acting. I always think that less is more. If I could make films where there was no dialogue I’d love it, because I think you should only have dialogue if it’s absolutely necessary. So I had seen him before but he still came in and auditioned and I was really relieved that he was as strong as I’d hoped that he’d be, but everyone else, I met them for the first time in the audition room and it was just a matter of whittling it down. The crazy thing is, is that you just know. If you know your characters and someone comes in and they’re bringing the character that you have in your head to life, or they enhance that character, it’s kind of a no-brainer.

There were certain considerations; I knew we were a horror film and we had to exist in that world of physical beauty [laughing] so I knew the cast had to be good looking but that was my second consideration after their acting ability. With good horror films, when they’re low budget, you have to shoot them incredibly quickly so you have to get really good actors that can respond to the blocking on the day quickly which can make your job a lot easier, so everyone that’s in the film is quite an experienced actor. They’re not as well known in the states but in Australia, they all have a lot of runs on the board and I also made a decision to cast up; rather than casting kids in their teens, I actually cast people that were in their 20’s so it was more like a John Hughes, The Breakfast Club style casting, where I went for kind of archetypes and people could look at the characters on the screen and go, “Yeah, I know that type,” in a heartbeat.

Any memorable moments on set while filming The Loved Ones?
Well we were going so quickly that there wasn’t really a lot of time to joke around but I remember at the end of the drilling sequence, we shot it from various angles and the power drill was actually quite heavy and psychologically it’s not really a fun place to go to for an actor, and at the end of that days filming, coming up to the last take, when I told Robin [McLeavy] that it was the last take, she was very relieved. Like all the blood had drained from her face and she went, “Too… much… drilling,” [laughing].

At the end of that scene when Brent gets up and throws the drill at Daddy’s head; that is one of my all-time favorite scenes in a movie.
[laughing] Thank you very much. Yeah, that was actually a prop drill but he threw it so hard that it actually broke through the prosthetics that we had on Daddy and cut him [laughing].

Just in the past three years since the film’s release it’s already become kind of a cult favorite. Has its success and popularity surprised you at all?
You know, in a completely selfish world I would have loved for the big wide release on 3,000 screens because I think it’s just a really wild, fun ride so I always hoped it would cross over and become a mainstream success as well but I think it’s more destined for the kind of path that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre went down; you know, word of mouth sort of helped increase the popularity. What does amaze me is the length that horror fans will go to find a film that’s a little bit different and just the opportunities there in social media, because to be honest, there hasn’t been a huge marketing campaign behind this film. I think it’s the type of film that’s easy to be scared of if you’re an executive but what’s been the real thrill for me is just watching how people found it and then they’ll recommend it to their friends and then their friends will recommend it to other friends and then you get groups of people that’ll watch it together. I just love the fact that horror fans are just kind of discovering it and owning it because it’s not mine anymore, three years ago it left me [laughing]. I’m just really glad that people are finding it and I just really hope that continues year in, year out. I grew up loving, like I said, The Evil Dead and Braindead (Dead Alive in the US), I loved Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I love those cult films. They’re kind of precious to me because you feel like not everyone knows about them [laughs]. I don’t know, I’ve just got a real relationship with those films and they’ve definitely informed my kind of thinking and what fun means in a film context.

That’s how I feel about The Loved Ones. Like you said, it didn’t see a wide release so I feel like it’s not as known as some others so I feel more attached to it but I always make sure that my friends have seen it. It’s fun to see the reactions from new people experiencing it.
Yeah [laughs], that’s good. I hope it gets played like crazy for Halloween. An absolute dream of mine would be to walk down the street and see someone dressed up as Princess or Daddy.

[caption id="attachment_435082" align="aligncenter" width="610"] “Princess” Lola and her supporting Daddy.

Do you happen to know why The Loved Ones wasn’t released here in the states until this year?
Yeah I do. I mean, the film premiered at Toronto, it played through the roof but there weren’t a lot of distributors in the audience because we were flying so far under the radar. There was one distributor, who I really love, and they made a really good offer but the company that owned the film always believed that it had crossover potential then mainstream potential. At the end of the day we had like 13 offers but the production company decided that they wanted to try to go with a studio and there were a lot of negotiations with different studios where the film was on the cusp of being released and they didn’t eventuate and eventually it got to Paramount, and for all intents and purposes it looked like it would be a traditional release but the MPAA slapped an NC-17 rating on it and it just started to make things a little more difficult. After that there were quite a few sections cut out of it and I think both versions work but if I could recommend one to anyone, please hunt down the unrated version because that’s my directors cut [laughs].

What specifically is taken out of the film in the other version?
Well, you know the moment when the knife is hammered into the foot?

Yeah.
Yeah, well there’s a little bit where you just see the foot being penetrated. It’s incredibly abstract, it’s so tight, the shot. So that was removed and far more disconcertingly, our hero, Brent, was removed from the drilling sequence so you see his face while the drilling’s going on and for me as an audience member, I know he’s hanging in there because I can see the hero hanging in there, whereas you kind of see some blood running down his face but I think that was too much for the MPAA and they wanted those moments cut so there’s probably about 25 seconds cut out of the drilling sequence compared to the unrated version, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but when it’s in one scene… [laughs].

Definitely noticeable.
It stings, yeah. Both of ’em work and in a weird way it might actual help the film’s release because there are a lot of people out there that can’t really stomach violence so the rated version maybe doesn’t take you quite so far down that particularly rabbit hole [laughing]. It might be more palatable. The unrated version definitely takes it, Spinal Tap to 11 and that scene in particular. I love that scene and for me it’s close to the most memorable scene in the film because, like you were saying, you don’t expect that to happen.

So I’ve heard you discuss some upcoming ideas in progress including a home invasion thriller and the possibility of a possession film. What can you tell us about what you’ve been working on?
I had to reduce the budget a little on the home invasion thriller but I’m more excited about that than I was in its previous incarnation so I’m not gonna say who’s involved at this point, and the possession thriller, I’m working on another draft for that as well but at the moment that’s all still on target. There’s a couple of other projects I’m in talks about that I can’t really say… it’s just a difficult climate. You have to have like five different things going on at once and you have to hope that one happens because after the kind of economic downturn it’s fiercely competitive and when things get competitive and not too many films are getting made I think it’s human nature to not take too many risks until the economic climate is better and that’s not a perfect way with the way I think about films, because I think that without risk there’s no reward. I kind of understand the marketing imperative and as an audience you like to kind of be challenged and see things that are a little bit different. That’s what’s exciting, so I’m still trying to kind of battle on down that road and make things that are hopefully surprising and I’ll get out of bed for the next two years and be passionate about it every day.


I’ve said it before and I’ll happily say it again; watch the trailer below and then do yourself a favor and buy The Loved Ones via Half.com.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBwd3Zl23HQ]

 

Written and conducted by: Brian LionFollow him on Twitter

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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