When Australian horror film The Loved Ones had its world premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival I had the chance to sit and talk with director Sean Byrne about his loving ode to the high school years. I've been sitting on the interview ever since, waiting for the film to actually go into wide release somewhere, but it's a good one, I'm tried of waiting and with the film about to screen at SXSW, now seems like a good time.
TB: So I'm guessing from this movie that you really liked high school.
SB: (laughs) Oh, I hated high school, yeah. I think high school is such a pressure cooker environment, and there's a need for acceptance, and there's bullying. It's a really complicated, confusing part of everyone's life, which hopefully we can all relate to one way or another. It's a launch pad for all sorts of psychological damage.
TB: How long was THE LOVED ONES in the works for?
SB: Four years from when I first started writing.
TB: I'm curious: when you started into the process, did you have concept first, then write your characters into it? Lola is such a striking character - I wonder if that came first and then you built the story around her?
SB: No, I was looking for a low budget horror idea. I had written a couple of scripts beforehand and was struggling to get them off the ground. Horror seems like a good sell, traditionally it' a good place to start. So I was thinking about locations. EVIL DEAD is one of my favourite horror films. It's so playfully inventive in one of those claustrophobic settings. So I thought "What if I take something like CARRIE and moved it into a single location like EVIL DEAD and use the rituals of the Prom and turn them into the instruments of torture." That's how the idea started. Then I had this image of a bloodied teenager in a tuxedo with a bloodied party hat on in the middle of a ballroom with a small puddle of blood around his feet and knives through his feet. And I just had that image. Then it was asking questions and moving backward from there. Who is this kid? How did he get there? How is he going to get out? Lola came from that one image and then just worked back as truthfully as I could.
TB: I looked up the actors, particularly the young actors. The girlfriend has a little bit of a resume, and Xavier - everyone is about to know who he is because of Twilight. It was pretty much an unknown cast when you were working with them. Are they seen in Australia? Are these people who work in television?
SB: Yeah, television and film. They're all really well-respected Australian actors and I cast them because of their experience. It's hard to get international recognition. They all have serious dramatic chops. Xavier has been in three features before THE LOVED ONES, Victoria Thaine who plays his girlfriend was the lead in CATIPILLAR WISH and she's been in another three or four films. Richard Wilson who plays James was in THE PROPOSITION, he's been a child actor, had constant work since then. Jennifer McNamee is in a television series in Australia called Packed to the Rafters. So these guys all had a lot of on-set experience that's pivotal in giving the film a bit of depth. There are some typical characters as they always are in horror films: they're good looking, it's a part of the genre. But I really wanted to find a cast who actually knew how to act.
TB: That's probably part of the answer to this.... When you're approaching the horror stuff, the horror elements of it and the torture element to the film - there's a certain amount of torture porn fatigue happening, which it seemed like you were very consciously avoiding some of those traps. How did you approach that element of the film? Did you establish guidelines for yourself: "I'll go here, but I'm not going to go here?" What kind of limitations did you put on yourself?
SB: I started writing THE LOVED ONES before SAW had come out, and then horror just exploded and the whole torture porn and the stigma association with that started to peak. I was conscious of the fact that the whole torture porn thing is running out of steam but it never changed what I was doing conceptually because THE LOVED ONES was always going to be a redemptive horror. I think the fact that it is redemptive is actually a point of difference now. And it works. To me, I like the characters so much that I wanted it to end on a note of hope. In that sense it's no different to any kind of positive filmmaking, whether it's ET or THE WIZARD OF OZ. In a way it's just about finding your own way home.
TB: With the screening here, have you seen it with an audience before, or is this your first time?
SB: It premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and it played twice. The reactions were really similar; it had the crowd laughing and screaming and clapping in all the same spots, which was great. It was comforting for me to know that it's working for an international audience as well as it is for local audience. The film has Australian accents but it's a universal story.
TB: I've joked with Colin that between this and ACOLYTES he's cornering the market on Australian teen serial killer movies. It seems like there's a real wave of smart genre film coming out of Australia now after a long, long period of silence.
SB: Yeah - it's fantastic! We've got that great history of Australian genre from MAD MAX to RAZORBACK and it's good. I guess with funding bodies there's always that shifting in terms of goals or what's going to work, what's not going to work, and I think we're going to enter another phase of Australian genre filmmaking. There are a lot of us out there who grew up at the same time watching great 70s horror films. I think that always happens with filmmakers, when you see the influences start to come through. It's the same as with Judd Apatow and his stable of films: you can see the John Hughes influence. It's the same with me. There's a group of filmmakers that have grown up watching cool films and now it's persisted and it's finding it's way out there.
TB: Has there been some kind of change in the industry within Australia that's allowing this to happen? Has there been a shift in the funding system?
SB: I think the bottom line has become more important. Australia's a small industry. In a way, it's actually a safer bet to put the money on the. If it's a smaller industry, then I think it's better to pick really interesting, personal films that are going to push the envelope a little bit. It's that boldness that can help a film find an audience. It's the same with PRISCILLA and MURIEL'S WEDDING and CHOPPER - they're films that all have a very distinctive vision and they don't play it safe. And that's why they find an audience. The print and advertising money in Australia is trifling compared to what happens in the States. We don't have a trailer on television every five seconds brainwashing you to go and see this film. There's gotta be other ways of getting the word out there. That's what I tried to do with THE LOVED ONES: create a film that leans forward and meets the audience and says "Look at me, goddammit!"
TB: I want to ask you about your cinematographer and your art direction, the guys that you worked with on that, particularly in the house. That stuff is impeccable! Are those guys you had worked with before? Where did you come to them?
SB: The cinematographer Simon Chapman I'd worked with before on a short film I made called ADVANTAGE, which played at Sundance. ADVANTAGE was a big reason we got THE LOVED ONES off the ground. We kind of created a template in terms of style with that film, which was creating a really glossy, welcoming, Bruckheimeresque look and feel, trying to get the audience comfortable - and just when they're comfortable, pulling the rug out from under their feet. It's very hard to create a glossy, Hollywood look on very little money. Simon totally feels it. He pulled it off - and it would have been embarrassing if he didn't - but he did pull it off, on a modest budget. I knew he would be able to do it again and I think he did an incredible job. THE LOVED ONES is a glam-horror film: colour is such a huge part of it. It's a candy nightmare, and I think that separates it from a lot of other horror films out there that can tend to look as bleak as the material. We took the opposite tact, which was to give the world and the characters as much colour and life as possible because then I felt like there's more to strip away from them.
TB: Yeah, it adds a layer to Lola: as twisted as she is, she wants to be that bright pink, candy-coloured high school girl. She wants to be the princess.
SB: Yeah, yeah, exactly! When I first started to get the idea of Lola, in terms of design - you can't walk down the street without seeing little girls in pink: they're all little princesses. At the time I had a five-year-old niece, and I was thinking about her speech patterns and her obsession with being a princess, always dressing like a princess with the fairy wings and such. So I thought "Wouldn't it be amazing to take this girl because of her damaged socialization, she's still stuck in that little princess phase, hoping that her prince will come. At the same time, she's also an adolescent with raging hormones, and she's a teenager just begging for acceptance." Put both those things together and it could be quite unhinged, but also really good fun.
TB: You said you premiered at Melbourne. Do you have an Australian release set up? Are they starting to do sales for the rest of the world? When will people be able to see it?
SB: Yeah, that's just starting to happen now. It'll be released in Australia in January or February. We're looking at possibly Valentine's Day, which is -
TB: That's a good choice! (laughs)
SB: (laughs) It's all happening at the moment. We're at Midnight Madness, so there's some offers on the table. We just gotta see how it works out.
TB: I'm sure you'll end up with a good home. The buzz has been great.
SB: It's so exciting! After the screening, I got home and had a look on the Midnight Madness Twitter page, and it was just - some of the responses were just fantastic! Such a great audience. And Colin Geddes is so important to the landscape of horror. Where else can a low-budget film manage to get their voice out there? I'm really, really thankful.
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