If you missed it on the festival circuit, Sean Byrne's The Devil's Candy, starring Ethan Embry (Cheap Thrills, Fashionista, Can't Hardly Wait), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Heavy, Monster), Kiara Glasco (Maps To The Stars, Bitten) and Shiri Appleby (Unreal, Roswell) is coming to a theater or TV near you this Friday. You can see the film in select theaters and on VOD and digital platforms on March 17th from IFC Midnight.
Byrne, who previously directed the fan favorite cult horror film The Loved Ones, is back with another fantastic piece of filmmaking. Far from your typical home invasion flick, The Devil's Candy makes you care deeply about its characters. They're not your typical family, for starters. They love heavy metal and weird art, and the family's dad Jesse (Ethan Embry) is a full-time painter. After they move into a new home, Jesse's art takes a sharp turn into darkness, and a previous resident wants to come back home.
I'll keep it short by saying that The Devil's Candy is a crash course in how horror should be written and directed. At no point do you NOT care about the characters or what's going to happen to them. They're not disposable; you care about the harrowing situations in which they find themselves. "Who will survive and what will be left of them," truly.
I had an opportunity to chat with director Sean Byrne about empathy, filmmaking, his brilliant cast, and the fantastic bands and art featured in The Devil's Candy. Check out the poster art by kickass illustrator Ken Taylor and the trailer for The Devil's Candy below the interview.
ScreenAnarchy: The film is terrifying for parents, children, and anyone with a shred of empathy, frankly. Are there any events or memories that influenced your script?
My wife was pregnant with twins when I started writing, and that definitely was a major influence because I was terrified of bringing children into the world. Once kids enter the equation, the world suddenly seems a far more fragile and dangerous place. At the same time, I was feeling frustrated with my career because I was doing rewrites for production companies rather than my own stuff and nothing was getting off the ground. I started thinking about the nature of sacrifice, not only in terms of career versus family, but also how sacrifice in films is often literally depicted as an innocent child offered up to the Devil, much like in Rosemary’s Baby. So the script somehow became a strange confluence of professional and parental fears and the key question that presented itself was: if you could have the career you always wanted and be the person you always dreamed of being, would you choose that over family? In that sense, it’s a crossroads story.
Your cast is impeccable. I'd love to hear about how you found each of them and what you saw in them that ultimately got them cast.
I had a saying I kept repeating during the making of my last film The Loved Ones: “If you don’t care, you don’t scare." Horror theoretically should be the most dramatic of all genres because you’re literally dealing with moments between life and death. The stakes are incredibly high. But so many horror movies treat characterization as disposable, and all that potential is wasted. So I was blessed to land a cast who are not only naturally talented but were determined to do all the hard work necessary to bring the characters to life. To them, this wasn’t just another horror movie, it was a movie about a family who love each other deeply and are forced to confront some unimaginably awful things.
The producers Keith and Jess Calder brought Ethan to my attention. I think they’d helped distribute Cheap Thrills, so there was a pre-existing relationship. Anyway they knew we were looking for an alternative type of father figure who could convey the soul wrestle between heaven and hell that the character undergoes, and thought Ethan could capture that. I watched Cheap Thrills, loved it, then checked out the rest of Ethan’s filmography. It was clear from Brotherhood he could play damaged and it was clear from his early films like Can’t Hardly Wait and Empire Records that he also had a light, playful side which would be integral to his relationship with Zooey, his on screen daughter. So he ticked all the boxes.
Kiara Glasco who plays Zooey just hit her audition out of the park. She auditioned opposite Ethan and the chemistry was instantly recognizable. They were just warm and effortless and cute together. Plus Kiara would go from doing an incredibly dark scene to singing "Let It Go" from Frozen as soon as I called cut so I knew she could emotionally cope with the material, which is obviously important for a child actor. Shiri is just a whip smart, funny, pragmatic New Yorker and a doting mom which was the perfect mix for Astrid because, while Jesse’s often got his head in the clouds or the canvas, she’s the breadwinner. She’s the multi-tasker, the more capable one. I knew I wanted an individual not a movie wife. Astrid and Jesse had to believable as friends first and foremost and as soon as we put Shiri and Ethan in the room together they were riffing off each other, improvising jokes as if they’d known each other for years.
Pruitt was always my first choice for Ray. I’d first seen him in James Mangold’s Heavy and his performance was and is still is one of the most delicate, heartbreaking performances I’ve seen. He was worried about being typecast as the monster so initially turned us down but I wrote him a letter stressing I needed an actor capable of capturing the lost child inside. Ray’s actions alone would take care of the monstrous side of things, it was the internal conflict I was more interested in showing. We met for coffee a few times, swapped thoughts, Pruitt got more and more excited about the challenge so decided to sign on. So, yeah, we got lucky!
How long did it take to get the production rolling, from screenplay to wrap?
I can’t even begin to tell you how long the screenplay took. There were countless drafts. What I ended up with bears no resemblance, not even a single word, to what initially sat me down to write. I just kept going until someone wanted to make it! I guess all up about five years went by after The Loved Ones before I got a green light, but in between I did several page-one rewrites for other companies and wrote multiple treatments for jobs that never came to fruition. Your classic stuck-in-development-hell story. Wrap was probably a year after the initial green light because we waited until Keith and Jess finished a couple of other films on their slate, which gave me a chance to continue honing the script and prepare thoroughly for the shoot.
Was it difficult to get such great metal on the soundtrack (Metallica, Slayer, Pantera), and have you heard from any of the band members who've seen the film?
Well it wasn’t difficult for me, I just wrote the songs into the script! But it was no doubt difficult for the producers and our music supervisor Jonathan McHugh, who did a remarkable job. I can’t think of another indie film with this number of heavyweight bands on there. We had an "in" with Metallica’s manager, which helped open the lines of communication. Metallica asked to see the film. It was only at fine cut stage, so I was shitting myself. But they dug it and came to the party in a really generous way. And once you have the Beatles of metal, it’s hard for other bands to say no.
Please tell us about the painter who created the disturbing canvases used in the film.
Stephen Kasner is his name. He’s represented by the same agent as HR Giger and has done some amazing album cover work for a lot of underground bands including doom legends Sunn O))) who are also on the soundtrack. It was getting to critical stage because we just couldn’t find a painter who could genuinely capture the darkness required. If the paintings are bad the film becomes comical so with time ticking away were were all worried. Then I happened to come across this amazing painting of a black snake on Google images that was so elegantly Satanic and I thought this is the guy we need. We reached out, he dug the script, agreed to do it and so, like with the actors, we got lucky. What made the choice seem even more destined is Stephen's a member of the Church of Satan. So in a way we were going straight to the source! If you want to know more he’s got a very cool book out of his collected works.
What were the logistics of filming with fire, and how difficult was the end result to achieve?
It took a while to figure out. We obviously couldn’t encircle a twelve year old girl in flames so we shot with fire lighting then our visual effects supervisor Johnny Han and his team reassembled the bedroom set and set portions of it alight to match the exact frames captured on the day. So the practical fire was composited with what was captured on the day.
You have a fantastic editor; what can you tell us about working with Andy Canny?
I’ve known Andy since film school. We’ve done shorts, ads and now two features together so there’s a natural short hand. He’s got a great sense of behavioral authenticity, knows when to hold back versus when to be aggressively stylish, and he hates to waste a frame. The Loved Ones and The Devil’s Candy come in around the 85 and 80 minute mark respectively. A lot of people in the industry seem to get scared if a film is under 90 minutes. I’m not sure why. The edit is about finding the film’s natural length. Both Andy and I would rather have a film be 80 minutes and taut than 90 minutes and slow. Some of my favorite songs are around the 2-3 minute mark and the same thing can apply to movies. Be last to arrive and first to leave, that’s our motto.
A good director builds a strong team. Likewise, your composer Michael Yezerski and your cinematographer Simon Chapman are top notch. I'd love to hear more about each of them.
Simon and I also came up together through film school and he’s shot everything I’ve done since Advantage Satan, the Sundance selected short that helped get The Loved Ones off the ground. He’s got a great eye, puts story first, knows how to make things look glossy on a budget, loves all types of cinema, and is a great problem solver on set when the sun’s dropping fast. Michael’s just a class act. Seems to be able to do anything and do it quickly. We were running out of time to have the film scored for Toronto. He barely slept for a week but somehow pulled it off, seemingly without breaking a sweat. All these guys --- Andy, Simon, Michael --- are well known in Australia, having done lots of features and TV there. Hopefully The Devil’s Candy will showcase what they can do to a wider audience.
What have you felt that you learned from both The Devil's Candy and The Loved Ones?
Prepare as much as you can then once the train leaves the station hang on! Surround yourself with the right producers and heads of department who not only share your sensibility but are also decent, passionate, supportive and great at what they do. If you understand the tone of the film, do your best to communicate it clearly and work with the right people then you’ve at least got half a chance! Oh, and don’t think too much about the finish line. Just tackle one obstacle at a time and eventually you’ll get there.
What's next for you?
I’m writing an action movie. That’s all I can say for now.