Interview: Sean Byrne; writer/director of The Loved Ones.

Interview: Sean Byrne; director of The Loved Ones. By Simon Miraudo.

There is an odd trend emerging in Australian cinema. Americans, Canadians and Brits are now telling us which home-grown features to keep an eye out for. Earlier this year, Animal Kingdom took home a top prize at Sundance, building up buzz for its local release five months later. Aussie western Red Hill opens in select American theaters tomorrow … almost four weeks before its Australian bow. And Tassie boy Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones has been burning up the blogosphere since it won the highly coveted Midnight Madness award at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2009. 12 months later, and The Loved Ones has finally arrived in our cinemas.

The film tells the story of a damaged teenager named Brent (Xavier Samuel) who is kidnapped by the psychotic Lola (Robin McLeavy) and forced to endure her torturous makeshift prom. I spoke to Sean about his devilish feature film debut, the sad truth behind Aussie film distribution (“Australian’s traditionally don’t always embrace Australian cinema unless it’s had some endorsement internationally), the process of getting a script to the screen, and his involvement in the film adaptation of The Secret (yes, that The Secret).

SM: I have to ask first up, obviously, did you celebrate Halloween over the weekend?

SB: We did actually. It actually wasn’t on Halloween, but we had a Halloween screening in Sydney with lots of zombies and some other home-lobotomised Loved Ones. Not real ones of course.

SM: You would hope not.

SB: Lots of good make up and effects.

SM: Have you dressed up in the past?

SB: No, no I haven’t. I’ve been wearing my Halloween t-shirt a lot, but I haven’t really done the Trick or Treat thing before. But I was in America – L.A. – last year for AFI, and we had a Halloween screening and that was absolutely amazing. It was all down Hollywood Blvd, just people dressed up like iconic horror villains as far as the eye can see; a horror Mardi Gras. I know we’re sort of starting to get into it in Australia, but it was just fantastic.

SM: We’ve got to lift our game, don’t we?

SB: Yeah, yeah. If you were a sociopath, it would be the perfect way to hide. Everyone looked like they were dangerous.

SM: Speaking of L.A. last year, it’s been over a year since The Loved Ones picked up the Midnight Madness award at TIFF. How does it feel to finally be able to show the film to Australian audiences?

SB: I’m really really excited about it. I don’t want to be turning 60 when the film comes out. I made the film for an Australian audience. I think in many respects it has one foot in commercial territory and one foot dangling over a cliff, and I see the foot dangling over the cliff as the Australian sensibility, and hopefully it has a certain wild streak that our films are famous for, in the late 70s and early 80s and harks back to Mad Max and Razorback. Also, I’m hoping the youth of Australia really embraces it, because it’s the type of film I wanted to see growing up, I wanted to see myself up on screen in a really slick looking film with the cool cars, and good fashion, and a really good looking cast that can act. So hopefully it provides that, but with a distinctly Australian sense of humour.

SM: Sure. Well I definitely want to talk about the distribution path that the film has taken over the past 12 months, but let’s start at the very beginning. I’m wondering, do you remember seeing a film when you were younger that inspired you to get into filmmaking?

SB: Not really. It’s a collection of films. My dad was a film critic, so I grew up surrounded by films. I think I kind of was unconsciously versed in the language. I used to play in a loop a handful of films including the original King Kong, Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, The Thief of Baghdad, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Zorro. I think like most kids kind of get obsessed with those films, almost like you would with a video game, and so that’s just kind of continued. I just always got to see films because I’d go on my dad’s Gold Pass. It was just a really nice, casual film school. I sort of learnt some of the formulas without even realising I was absorbing it.

SM: Tell me about your decision to actually become a filmmaker. To graduate from that fandom. When did the concept of actually becoming a filmmaker crystalise for you? And how did you go about it?

SB: I went to law school, and when I finished my degree I was at a bit of a crossroads, because I either do my articles and start getting money, and then once money starts rolling in I knew it’d be very difficult to follow any film dream. It’s not something that I thought that much about until the end of my uni life. It was like “Right, do I do this for a profession, or do I do something else? And if I could do anything else, what would it be?” Like I said, I’d always loved film, and I didn’t really have too high expectations. So I just decided to enroll in Rosny College in Tasmania; and I think it’s the only school in Tasmania that offers the production course and free equipment. So I went back to Rosny as a 25-year-old with the 15/16/17-year olds in Grade 11 and 12, and just started shooting stuff. I wrote a script in a day, then just using family and friends and whatever equipment I could find, I put together a couple of films. And amazingly, once I had a show reel together, that got me into the Australian Film Television and Radio School, so I’m still not quite sure how it happened. I’ve always had an approach that there are so many filmmakers out there, and it’s very difficult to cut through. So I’ve always just tried to go for the jugular, to reach out for the audience’s throat and not be shy. In a way, I like films that use shock, but only shock if it’s not contrived. As long as that shock is built into the fabric of a genuine story. Does it work? That’s kind of been my motto the whole way through.

SM: Going back to film school and the short films that you made at the time. Is there anything you learnt in that period that proved to be invaluable when you were making your first feature film, almost 10 years later?

SB: The whole experience was incredibly invaluable. It’s amazing to have your short films funded and to be introduced to other really talented people, and have the opportunity to learn how to collaborate with heads of department and go through the casting process. Film school is like a microcosm of the industry. I was just like a kid in a candy store. I was coming from making zero-budget short films, and suddenly I’m in this place that offers really great high production facilities. But teachers did drum into my head the importance of the one-percent details; as long as you’re focusing on the details, they accumulate. And then the overall experience is far more persuasive, and they also drummed into our head to just plan plan plan, and then when you think you’ve planned enough and prepared enough, keep preparing. You don’t get a huge amount of money or time in Australia, so you need to know exactly where you’re going from A-Z. And you’re always going to be confronted with surprises, so the more prepared you are, the more you’re able to adapt. I always thought about it like studying for an exam. If I study and try to get 100% and I’m obsessed with trying to get 100%, when the inevitable things go wrong, you might go down to 90% or 80% or whatever. If you’re just trying to wing it, just hoping you can pass, than you only need one thing to go wrong and you fail.

SM: Just on that, what was the shooting schedule for the film?

SB: 27 days.

SM: I want to get into your screenwriting process, but before that I’d like to ask about your earlier work. I looked at your IMDB page – and this is always a dicey area, I know it’s not always reliable – but it says you’re listed as co-director on The Secret.

SB: Yeah (chuckles).

SM: I was wondering what your involvement in that project was?

SB: They were running behind schedule. They needed a segment director quick fast, and a colleague of mine gave the production office my name, they gave me a call. I rocked up for 2 days work. I just read the relevant scenes. I hadn’t read the script, I hadn’t read the book. It was really just a gig. Everyone in there was really nice, and treated me really well, and were passionate about the project. I certainly am not the co-director on The Secret. I mean, to me, what I learnt from that couple of days about the ethos, or the philosophy of The Secret was just “think positively”. And that’s as deep as I got.

SM: Fair enough. Well I think a lot of our readers would be interested in the process of actually getting a script to the screen. Especially an independent or a smaller feature like The Loved Ones. I just wanted to ask, what was the original germ of the story?

SB: Desperation (laughing). It was born out of desperation. I’d written a few other screenplays that were perhaps a little too offbeat to get off the ground for a first-time feature filmmaker. I’ve always liked the horror genre, and I knew it was a starting point for many of my favourite filmmakers, including Coppola, Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg, you know John McNaughton – he did Portrait of a Serial Killer. And it became clear that really really interesting, stylish directors had made their start in horror. So I thought I could do a lot worse than that. I also wanted to find something that had a spot for it on the shelf. I’d already gone through the hard yards of writing a couple of other things, knowing how difficult it is to get a film off the ground. I thought if I’m going to do it again, I want to make sure there’s a potential pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and could actually sell. That’s why I decided to make a horror film. And then I just had to come up with a concept; so I thought: imagine if I fused DePalma’s Carrie with Raimi’s The Evil Dead, and brought the prom to the cabin in the woods and made the very rituals of the prom – the dress up and the dancing and the crowning of the king and queen – the structure of the horror within the cabin in the woods. It sounds ridiculous, but after I had that concept I woke up the next morning and I had this image of a kid – like a Kurt Cobain type – in a bloodied tuxedo tied to a chair in the middle of a balloon littered floor, and there was a glitter ball above his head. And it was just this great pop-horror image, and I thought “that’s my hero”, and I just had to work out who he is, how he got here, and how he’s gonna get out. And that led me to Princess [Lola], and Princess was – design-wise at least – based on my niece who was five at the time, and like most little girls was obsessed with the colour pink, and all things princes and princess and tiaras and fairy wings and glitter. I started to think it would be really amazing if you took that type of innocence, “someday my prince will come” fantasy, and transported that into the mind and body of an awkward teenager with messed up socialisation and raging hormones. I thought that would be a really nice mixture of sweet and sour.

SM: How long did you work on the screenplay for?

SB: The first draft was completed before the original Saw came out.

SM: Almost seven years ago.

SB: Six or seven years ago.

SM: Did it go through many incarnations? I assume you did many drafts, but did the story change much?

SB: It was initially written as a $50-$100,000 credit card film. I just thought: “I’ve gotta make something; I need a calling card if my career’s going to advance any further.” And then [producer] Marc Lazarus got a hold of the script via the agency that represents me, and he read it, and he was in a doctor’s waiting room at the time, and he said he just started freaking out when it got to the power drills and all the kind of mad moments and just started yelling out – because he’s American – he just started yelling out “Holy shit, oh my god! What’s happening?” He gave me a call, he came on board, and he actually encouraged me to add scope to the story because he said that would be easier to get financing for a film in that $3-4 million bracket than it would be to make a credit card film. I didn’t really want to spend 50-100 grand of my own money, so he didn’t really need to ask me twice.

SM: I’d like to talk to you about the film’s tone, and you’ve already mentioned Carrie and The Evil Dead which are great comparisons. There is that mixture of crazy, fun horror that we love, but with real emotional stakes, which is absent from a lot of horror films. Were you ever concerned it might trivialize the emotional drama in Brent’s life to have a crazy character like Lola? Or alternatively, did you think it would be difficult to find that balance, and it might be a downer in a fun horror movie to have a character like Brent who is weighed down by all these issues?

SB: No, I mean, I saw it as a hero’s journey. In a way, like a dark Bruckheimer hero’s concept meets Lynchian-madness story. I knew that concept formula and I knew that would give the film commercial grounding. I always wanted to create a hero that could survive hell, and I’m also a big fan of the Rocky films. And I feel as an audience member, you kind of want to know that you’re living in the hero’s shoes, you want to know that you can go through hell and still survive. I’ve also been a really big fan of the damaged hero, from Eastwood to McQueen to Donnie Darko, I just think it’s kind of sexier. I understand what you mean; I didn’t want to trivialise the fact that Brent is a self-mutilator. I wanted it to be grounded in a very good reason. In a way I think what separates the film from a lot of other films that are labeled “torture porn” is that I think it’s actually quite a cathartic story. This is a kid whose pain is his saviour. It’s about a kid with a death wish who’s forced to endure a literal hell and in the process realises he’s got everything to live for. I wanted to hang this great glam horror party, which can sound trivial, but I wanted the people who inhabit this world – the monsters or the sociopaths – to also be grounded in some kind of psychological reality. So I did a huge amount of research on serial killers and domestic violence, so as not to trivialise it. Horror can be an ordeal for so many people. I didn’t want this to feel like that. I wanted it to unashamedly be a fun hell ride.

SM: I have one more question, and it’s about the distribution journey that the film had. I’m wondering why it took so long to get to Australia.

SB: I mean, there’s a myriad of factors. It’s about finding the right date, and the release calendar is very crammed. There’s a lot of different pieces of the puzzle that has to come together. But Australian’s traditionally don’t always embrace Australian cinema unless it’s had some endorsement internationally. And horror is such a popular genre around the world, we thought “it’s playing so well on the festival circuit; it’s getting a really great buzz and building up a head of steam, so why not use that.”

The Loved Ones is now showing across Australia. Check out my review here!

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