Director Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, based on Dan Wells’ book of the same name, follows John, a young psychopath (Max Records) obsessed with the town’s serial killer. John is a misfit, picked on for being weird, a freak, working in his mother’s (Laura Fraser) funeral home. She is protective and does not know what to do about her troubled son.
John, you see, has the Macdonald triad found in murderers, and he talks this over with his psychiatrist (Karl Geary) without too much concern, somewhat bemused. As the movie unfolds and the killer is revealed, John’s razor focus on trying to stop the body count begins to reveal his efforts to try to banish or escape what is seeded in his temperament. What John does out of fear and curiosity, his quest, the killer, manifests a purpose his pursuer may not be able to understand–that is to say, genuine love. A killer is not always a psychopath, and a psychopath is not always a killer.
Before us are the select words of some of the cast and crew with a balance of Dan Wells, the novelist, and a special dash of Christopher Lloyd, who plays John’s next door neighbor, Mr. Crowley, a kind old gentlemen with an ancient past. Interspersed are a few photos from the NYC premiere of I Am Not a Serial Killer, which took place this past Thursday, August 25th, at the IFC Center and featured an in-person appearance from the legendary Lloyd.
DREAD CENTRAL: Billy, how did this book find you?
BILLY O’BRIEN: The book found me through a person, Irene Ilia’s – her job title’s a reader, which is strange to me, but she goes around to production companies and suggests projects. I’d met her for coffee in Foyle’s Book Shop on Charing Cross Road in London and it was to kind of let her see inside my head, ’cause I’ve got quote quirky sensibilities, and a producer told her to come and meet me because he couldn’t figure out what to do with me in terms of projects. She walked out of that, put her hand in the bookshelf, found the book, emailed me – I bought it the next day, read it, absolutely loved it. I wrote a letter to Dan Wells – and Dan responded.
DAN WELLS: Yeah, we had been trying to shop the book around in Hollywood and not really getting a lot of interest, and then out of nowhere I got an email directly from Billy – it came straight to me rather than through an agent – and it was not just the typical, ‘Hey, I’d like to adapt your book’ – which is what I usually get. This was about two pages long and went into all kinds of different topics, and he talked about Russian literature, and he talked about all these other things – and I knew instantly that he loved the story for the same reasons that I loved the story, which is why I knew that he would adapt it right.
DREAD CENTRAL: What was the heart of the story that you found then, that you fell in love with?
BILLY O’BRIEN: I work instinctively – I think it was ‘love’. This boy, who kind of loved hunting the monsters – killing for love – which might give stuff away, but who cares? –But also it was the wit, it was the humor. I did a very grim horror film years ago, it was called Isolation – and maybe it was a black period in my life – but I just appreciate humor so much, and black humor; it really just gets me going. The whole book is riddled with wonderful wit, and that just excited me. Plus, it’s a film: it’s so cinematic. Strong, interesting characters. I got sent – at the time, especially, I’d get sent so many Hollywood horror films – where they forget about characters. It’s plot and it’s dull. But this was anything but. And it’s that word that the industry seems to hate, which I love, which is it’s quirky. And that’s, to me, everything I do, so…
DREAD CENTRAL: How did the casting happen? How did you find Max Records?
NICK RYAN (producer): I made a short in 2009 that I’d actually produced, in L.A., and we’d seen Max –
BILLY O’BRIEN: –called Blinky–
NICK RYAN: –called Blinky – about a killer robot, who Max wants, more than any in the world it turns out. But basically we’d seen the trailer – Ruairi Robinson, the director for that film, and myself – we’ve made many films together – had seen Max in the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are – and we went, ‘He’s perfect.’ And we got in contact… I’d just made that film, met Billy the following year through Robbie Ryan, the cinematographer, who’s my cousin. I read the script and thought, ‘This is an amazing script’ I think Billy and Chris Hyde had just done a wonderful job on it. And I said, ‘The kid I worked with last summer would be perfect. Probably a little too young.’ – and he was – [To Max Records:] You were twelve then. – So from that process forward we decided to try to get the funding for the film. We made a short, a little promo piece for this in 2011, when Max was 13 or so –
BILLY O’BRIEN: –Basically, Robbie, me, and Nick were developing it – we’re filmmakers more than we’re producers, which is probably why it took so long to get off the ground – and we said, ‘Well we’re filmmakers: Why don’t we go and make a little film that feels like the book?’ Nick had done another short in Detroit, so he knew the area, so we all hopped on a plane. – We had 35mm cameras and 35mm stock – Max flew up from Portland with his dad because he wanted to play in the snow ’cause it’s rainy in Portland. We found this town, Bay City… it was just great. It fit the book and everything, and we just spent three or four days playing in the snow and shot this little – it’s more stream-of-consciousness than anything, or a music video, and that started getting interest then from financiers. And even though Max was too young, he just lit up the screen. And then my biggest problem was, as each year passed and we still couldn’t get it financed, would he still be interested and would he be twenty stone and his voice would be deeper – But no.–
DAN WELLS: My fun story about this as well is that I watched Where the Wild Things Are after we’d already signed the option for the book and thought he was perfect. Thought he was too young, but by the time we raised the money, Max Records would probably be about the right age. So I emailed Billy and said, ‘We have to get this kid!’ And he said, ‘Well, okay I’ll look into it, but my producer Nick has got another kid in mind’ – and it was the same kid! I love the inevitability of that: that we both independently picked – Who would be best? This one! – And we were right.
DREAD CENTRAL: Max, what did you do when you first read the script?
MAX RECORDS: I read the book first.
DREAD CENTRAL: Did you know about the book before you were offered the role?
MAX RECORDS: I’m not sure. My mother at the time was a children’s librarian so it’s totally possible.
DREAD CENTRAL: Did you make any early notes or have any initial insights into your character then?
MAX RECORDS: No, I can’t think that way. It’s all just – it’s in my brain.
BILLY O’BRIEN: I remember directing you and I would go into this big long – I talk so much – I’d go ‘Blurhblurhblurh,’ and you’d go, ‘Sounds good.’ [Laughter.] And then you’d do it your way, and it was perfect! [Laughter.]
DREAD CENTRAL: When was Christopher Lloyd attached to the production?
BILLY O’BRIEN: It was quite close to starting –
NICK RYAN: Yeah, we were in Minnesota.
BILLY O’BRIEN: – Actually the connection there was Robbie; Robbie’s not just a D.P., he read the book, loved the book. He helped out with the option fees. He’s sort of like the person behind us all. He’s at Gersch, and Chris is with Gersch. He just said, ‘We love Christopher Lloyd.’ He didn’t know if there was any chance of getting him. And through his agent we just pitched the script –
CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: Yeah, I just really liked the character, liked that it wasn’t the same as previous roles. If I can backtrack, when you say ‘horror’ I don’t think that really describes it.
BILLY O’BRIEN: It’s a borderline film, covers several things. Could be in the eye of the beholder.
CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: I just thought it was a very intriguing book.
MAX RECORDS: Yeah, that’s what attracted me too.
BILLY O’BRIEN: It’s very original. Not like a lot of studio pictures – not to kill my studio hopes – [Laughter.]
DREAD CENTRAL: You’re independent, man.
BILLY O’BRIEN: Well, so far…
NICK RYAN: And will remain so after this comes! [Laughter.] It’s really original, not like anything else. And in cinema today, there’s not enough of that.
BILLY O’BRIEN: I’ve always loved Stephen King… These characters are living, breathing, flawed, interesting characters. And whenever they do adaptations, you kind of miss that a bit – I think Misery did it brilliant – but you know, films that go, ‘Oh, it’s by Stephen King.’ I watch them and it’s like a bunch of pretty teenagers running around, and there’s none of that [here]. With Dan’s work, it was so from the heart.
DAN WELLS: We had a couple of pretty teenagers. [Laughter.]
DREAD CENTRAL: How did you approach the style visually?
BILLY O’BRIEN: Well, a lot of that would be Robbie Ryan. I was in film school with Robbie and we did all our shorts together, and he did my first feature, Isolation. If you look at a lot of Robbie’s work – he works with directors like Ken Loach and Andrea Arnold – Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights – and it’s very – what you were just saying. And we all agreed… this is a small Midwest town – a paint-peeling, mining town. We wanted to shoot on 16mm from the word ‘go’ because it captures that – Robbie and i just liked that kind of filmmaking, 1970s filmmaking kind of. On film. On location. Available light, and let’s see what we get. So in that sense it is quite documentary. Plus it’s such a small production, we could move fast. If the sunlight was in the right direction, we could get over there and get it. If the snow was falling, we could grab that as well.
DREAD CENTRAL: What was the photo-chemical process that you used to get the beautiful grain and color for the film?
BILLY O’BRIEN: It’s natural. This is what we forget, because everything in digital, you have to do it all in post. But film is natural, so the rushes coming to us from the lab looked exactly like the finished film. We just had to tweak things very slightly. Like, for example, on a digital, look at the reds. They’re always kind of magenta now. We had those 1970s neon reds in the mining town.
NICK RYAN: Reds are really important in this film. If you look at some of the key scenes, like Max on the phone – the red around that – the lights on the car –
BILLY O’BRIEN: Only film can reproduce that so well. We shot on Fuji, because Robbie always likes shooting Fuji, but they stopped making film in 2013. They closed the doors. So Robbie simply bought enough for two features – one for Andrea Arnold because he does all her films – and then he rang me, and said, ‘Can we store it in your garage?’ Because I live out in the country, I’ve got a big garage. They threw it in the fridges. And so the stock sat there for two and half years while we raised the rest of the funding. My kids’d walk in and out, kind of looking at it like, ‘What’s all that stuff?’ At dinner parties we’d bring people down to see the Altar of Film in the garage. As each month went by, another lab shut. So we had – when we were in Michigan, we managed to process our stock from the trip in 2011 in a local lab – that’s gone. There was one in Minneapolis – that’s gone. There was one in Seattle – that’s gone. They’re all gone. We had to process it in L.A. There’s hardly any left. That was my biggest fear. And Robbie said it years ago: ‘Once the labs start going, you’re screwed.’ There seems to be a little bit of a comeback with Kodak, so even though it’s not Fuji, there might be a film after us, but we’re, at the moment, the last Fuji film.
DREAD CENTRAL: Why was it so hard to raise the money?
NICK RYAN: Yeah. It was really hard, because as [Billy O’Brien] said, we’re a square peg, you know what I mean? It’s really hard to market a film like that. People want it to be – studios like ‘four quadrant’ pictures, so you get everybody in.
BILLY O’BRIEN: If you’re a straight horror film, it’s much easier. But there’s no main hero role. There’s no A-list Hollywood actor in their twenties or thirties that all the financiers were asking about. So it was that we’re not a straight horror film, it’s a bit quirky. The book is well-loved, but it’s not Twilight or The Hunger Games – Yet. [Laughter.]
DAN WELLS: We’ll see what we can do. [Laughter.]
BILLY O’BRIEN: So all of those factors. Plus, as I said, we’re filmmakers. I’d obviously say, at setting it up, I’m not the best at playing the game of getting financing, all that side [the producers] and they’re bloody good at it and I’m not. I’m rubbish… Plus the fact was that at each year, we’d get very close and the snow would run out. With independent financing, they have money at a certain time. They want to invest in film; if you’re not ready, they’ll put it in another film. So it would collapse at around April, and we’d start all over again and get back there. That happened three years in a row, until finally in 2015, we managed to get there.
CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: Also, there are no car chases. There are no big shoot-outs. There’s no huge… I think the studios want something to catch you with. It’s kind of a quiet film.
DREAD CENTRAL: What was your process of developing your character?
CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: I think the key was that — Max discovers that it was love. Love had sustained this guy’s life, the love for his wife. He never knew what love was until he met her. I just hope that was an interesting thing to play.
BILLY O’BRIEN: Kay [played by Dee Noah]… Yeah, she was wonderful. She did that in her audition. ‘Cause again, the beauty of an independent film shooting in Minnesota was, with the exception of these two [Christopher Lloyd and Max Records] and Laura Fraser, I think we cast everybody else locally, so I could sit in the room with them, which is so rare these days.
DREAD CENTRAL: How did you contact Froud about the demon design?
BILLY O’BRIEN: I live in his [Toby Froud’s] town, basically. It’s the weird little town of Dartmoor… It’s full of writers and artists, and most of them fantasy… my neighbor is Alan Lee, who designed and painted Lord of the Rings – he’s such a lovely gentleman – Brian and Wendy Froud. Toby grew up there, he’s now in Portland. So I’ve just known him for years. And William Todd-Jones was the main link, he’s the main puppeteer – he’s been friends with Froud – he did my short years ago, The Tale of the Rat That Wrote, he was my chief puppeteer, and we became good friends. We ended up moving to that town, me and my wife, because of Todd and the Frouds and everything. So they’re all these friends. We did the whole puppet shoot in my garage.
DREAD CENTRAL: Was the design at all related to what’s in the book?
BILLY O’BRIEN: Dan got to see it: Toby brought the clay sculpt to a comic con in Salt Lake City two months before we were shooting, he flew me over for it, and I remember sitting there in the bar in the Marriott, and he unfolded it, and I didn’t know what Dan made of it, so Dan can tell it – [Laughs.]
DAN WELLS: Even earlier than that, at the time the money finally showed up and we said, ‘Okay, we can make this: All hands on deck!’… I was living in Germany at the time, and he was in England, so it was very easy for him to just pop over. He and James [Harris, one of the producers] came over and stayed at my house, talking through a million different things, and the one that they kept coming back to was, ‘What did the thing look like?’ How did it function, like, biologically?’ And I didn’t have good answers for them –
BILLY O’BRIEN: You’re a novelist; you don’t have to! [Laughter.]
DAN WELLS: Yeah! I didn’t have to! I didn’t care what it looked like! I’d never once described, for example, John. He never gets a physical description at any point in the five books that I’ve written about him. Because that’s just not how I write. So Billy – I just left him hanging. So then Toby came in, and he designed this creature – and honestly I thought it was brilliant.
I Am Not a Serial Killer (review) is currently available in select theaters as well as on VOD and digital platforms from IFC Midnight. It’s directed by Billy O’Brien from a screenplay by O’Brien and Christopher Hyde. Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, and Karl Geary star.
Sixteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver (Records) is not a serial killer—but he has all the makings of one. Keeping his homicidal tendencies and morbid obsessions with death and murder in check is a constant struggle that only gets harder when a real serial killer begins terrorizing his sleepy Midwestern town. Now, in order to track down a psychopath and protect those around him, John must unleash his darkest inner demons.
- Jack Derwent I thought the film was great. I didn't get the impression that the film was misogynistic at all. Martyrs I could see the argument but in this film it was ultimately about the two sisters persevering...
- Twist Of Kane She received a paycheck for doing the new Halloween also. Let's not pretend she did it solely for the fans.
- One-Eye ROAD GAMES is great. Although it's no secret Curtis had a bad experience shooting in Australia, so I guess that colours her memory of the film.
- Christopher Parker Howard I'm curious what people found so scary, or even original about this film. It's a 2 hour family drama with 15 minutes of supernatural horror all at the end. There was some great disturbing imagery for...
- Andrew Lyall I love stuff like this, keep em coming!
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