Exclusive: Stevan Mena Talks Bereavement and More
DC: You mentioned Alexandra. I’m curious about your cast: Alexandra, Michael Biehn and John Savage. It’s the highest profile cast you’ve worked with. I’m wondering about how that process went and what you thought they would bring to the film?
SM: That’s a really interesting question because it requires some hindsight. I say that because when we cast the film, I didn’t want to bring in these “gong show” genre vets. I wanted somebody who I thought could bring a lot of class to the movie. So, I’m thinking to myself, “Who’s the coolest genre guy I know out there?” I’m thinking certainly Michael Biehn from ALIENS. I’ve never seen him in a movie that I didn’t like. For me, he’s definitely one of the kings of cool when it comes to genre vets. So, I said, “I want to get Michael Biehn because him in this role will allow me to pull some strings that I couldn’t otherwise pull. I mean, strings in regard to plot points in the movie that, by using him, I can kind of trick you and pull the rug out from under you because certain things happen that you don’t expect. He was a great casting choice. He and John Savage were our big stars. When we started, Alexandra, Nolan Funk, Spencer List… these were all guys who came in from a regular casting call and weren’t really anybody at the time.
In the time since we shot the movie, Alexandra Daddario is now, far and away, our biggest star. She’s this huge up-and-comer. She was just named by V Magazine’s Eight Faces To Watch in 2011. I won’t say we lucked out. I certainly credit Adrienne Stern, our Casting Agent for bringing them to the table, but there was certainly a lot of serendipity and luck because Alex turned out to be just an unbelievable talent. And we knew it. We knew it when we were on the set with her. The mumblings and grumblings by everybody was, “Holy shit! This girl is going to be huge.” She’s got a great work ethic. As one person put it, she’s freakishly beautiful. And she’s really, really talented. Like Jennifer Connelly talented. She’s got everything going for her. She’s smart. She’s beautiful. She’s talented. She’s going to be a huge star. So, to have her in our film… We knew we were lucky then, now we realize just how lucky we were after seeing her in PERCY JACKSON and now in HALL PASS coming out and she’s got a couple of other movies in the pipe. We were extremely happy with how that all turned out.
DC: I’d read someplace there were some… discussions… between you and Brett Rickaby about character and that sort of thing.
SM: Oh, yeah... yeah. Brett was a very late casting choice and, again, another one of those things where they heavens shone on us because his performance was one for the ages. For me, anyway. I couldn’t possibly be happier than I am with what he did with the role. He comes to the table with a very voracious appetite for wanting to know EVERYTHING. I warned him in the beginning. I said, “Listen, I’ve been living with this for like ten years, so… if you want to know everything, it is a LONG story and there is a lot to this character that no one will ever get even if they watch the film twenty times. Do you want to know all of that back-story? Do you want to know all of the things that make Graham Sutter tick?” And he said, “Yeah!” So, we would sit for HOURS and hours just talking about the character, talking about the back-story… all those intricacies that usually go over people’s heads. He was interested in that and he used all of it in developing this character and developing his performance. If you were to add up all of the time we spent just talking, it’d be something like three weeks.
DC: And you have a couple of really young actors, Payton and Spencer List. Do you find working with younger actors challenging… especially with material that is violent?
SM: Another really good question… I really don’t know how to describe it except that they were amazing. They never complained, never got tired. They always knew their lines. I mean, I can’t think of one time where I ever got frustrated with either of them. They were always spot on and just amazed me with their level of talent and persistence and consistency, especially with Spencer. Both of them are just amazing kids. I have to say that even Chase Pechacek, who plays the younger Martin in the movie and is six, was also involved in a scene that was horrifically violent. Of course, we went to great lengths to make sure that he didn’t see or hear any of that, more to the point. He wasn’t really frightened by what he saw, but when he heard the girl scream, he would curl up into a ball, terrified… which speaks to the point I was making before. We were very careful to protect him, but still… there were times where he felt uncomfortable and we had to acknowledge that and be very receptive to his needs. But the kids in my film were as good or better than all of the adults. I had no problems whatsoever. So, as far as that goes, I think it all depends on which kids you work with because I have nothing but superlatives to say about those kids.
DC: I also read that you scored Bereavement. Do you have an extensive musical background?
SM: Yeah, I’m a frustrated rock star. [laughs] I actually have an entire studio that I do recording in. Initially, I did not want to score BEREAVEMENT. I worked with several composers on this movie, but in the end, my own… I wouldn’t call it impatience, but… I’m very tough to please, so in regard to the other composers, it’s one hundred percent my fault not theirs. They all brought great stuff to the table. It just wasn’t what I was looking for. So, in the end, it was a creative decision on my part to score it again, but it wasn’t my first choice.
DC: It’s so hard sometimes to distill your idea down to someone else, especially when you have the chops to do it yourself.
SM: Absolutely! You just hit the nail right on the head. What you just said is exactly it. I’m a musician, but I didn’t have the knowledge of music theory to distill exactly what I wanted to these guys. And there’s no way that they can read my mind, so therein lies the frustration.
DC: Because music in the film is so important. I mean, witness people like John Carpenter whose music sometimes sets the whole mood of the film. I think that would be frustrating especially – and again not through any fault of their own – when they’re not “getting it.” I would think it would be like, “Ok, move over and let me in there.”
SM: It’s really more along the lines of everything they gave me was good, it’s just that they’re trying to find a needle in the haystack of my brain. I’m looking for something very specific and, when I don’t get it, I do get frustrated. And that’s it exactly, “Let me try this myself. I’m going to have to do this myself.” I’m a huge fan of music in movies. I’m a huge fan of Goblin. I feel like if I’m going to credit anybody… I learned everything I know about scoring movies from Goblin. They’re a huge influence. I mean, I’m one of those guys who drives around with the theme music from DAWN OF THE DEAD playing in my car. I’m crazy like that. Music is such a huge piece of it, especially with horror. The music tells you everything you need to know about how you’re supposed to feel at that moment.
DC: In my opinion, there are two really important parts of a horror film (other than script) and they are sound design which you seem to have hit on and music which you also have covered.
SM: Absolutely! I’m such a proponent of it that, as we’re going through the theatrical release, one of my harshest stances that I put on the requirements is I want to make sure every theater the film is playing in has an excellent 5.1 sound system because such great pain went into the scoring and the sound mix of this film to make it as good as it can be as a horror film. To experience it the right way, you can’t see it in a theater that’s got two speakers in the front. You have to get the entire experience.
DC: I always hold up the Alejandro Amenabar film The Others when I get to talking about sound design. There’s an example of sound design that totally makes that film.
SM: Brilliant. And also, Alejandro Amenabar did the score on that film as well.
DC: Right! You told Fangoria that the MPAA banned the poster you initially made for Bereavement. You said that it was “hugely disappointing because that poster really encapsulated the plot of the film.” How frustrating was that? I mean, it’s a great poster.
SM: [sighs] It was like a kick to the balls.
DC: You can already hear the frustration in your voice. [laughs]
SM: Especially because… when that poster was created, which is like a year earlier, it was one of those moments where I had the idea for the poster and I went to my artist, this guy named Carl Timpone who is also from Long Island and is fucking brilliant if anyone ever needs a great artist, and I said, “Here’s what I want. Can you try and do something with it?” And I went back three days later and he had gone out and done a photo shoot and came back with this image that just blew me away. I was like, “That’s it! That’s the image for this movie. Done!” So many times in my experience and in my journey making movies, I never, ever get what I want. [laughs] This was like the one freakin’ time when I sent somebody to do something and I got exactly what I wanted. The first time out, this guy hits a home run. We loved it. I loved it. So, when the MPAA banned it, it was just like, “Of course!” [laughs] “Of course, because I frickin’ love it. Of course they’d ban it.” So, yeah… I was totally beside myself. Then, Michael Gingold [from FANGORIA] called me for something unrelated and he was like, “What’s the matter?” and I told him and that’s how he ended up breaking the story. In the end, the MPAA did compromise with us. We ended up moving the knife to Sutter’s hand which tells a completely different story which, to me, is ten times fucking worse. It looks like he’s taking the kid into the woods to kill him. The kid was in control of the knife before. I totally don’t understand it.
DC: You would think that because… it seems like the old joke about the man leading a kid into the woods and the kid says, “Wow, this is scary” and the guy says, “Scary for you? I have to walk back alone.” [laughs]
SM: Right! [laughs] Yeah, exactly! I just don’t understand the logic behind it. It was explained to me, but I still don’t understand it. Everyone always brings this up, but… I look at a poster for like KICK-ASS which I hadn’t really contemplated, but then someone showed it to me and I thought, “Shit! Well, there you go.” I understand… it’s a thankless job. They have people they have to answer to as well. Fine. They did compromise with us. It’s not the poster I wanted by a long shot, but I can only hope that they’re as generous with us with the rating. Of course, I’m terrified about that, too because that’s something that, as we’ve seen in the recent past, can completely nuke a film. So, we’re hoping for the best.
DC: It’s like the old Clive Barker story with Hellraiser. Supposedly, the MPAA told him that two hip thrusts in a sex scene was ok, but three was obscene.
SM: I don’t know how you apply those mathematics to art and I don’t envy them their job. I just don’t know how you do it. I don’t understand any of it.
DC: Based on that, with the film coming out on March 4, 2011, once it makes its theatrical run, you’re talking about the obligatory DVD and Blu-Ray release. Have you guys talked about what you’re going to do with whatever the MPAA doesn’t allow, what gets cut? Is there talk of an unrated cut of the film being made available? Will there be any Special Features?
SM: Well, I will tell you this… This movie was based on a book that I wrote, so there’s always going to be a tremendous amount of material that doesn’t make the movie. In this case, I am very, very happy with how the movie turned out and the final product, but there is a tremendous amount that didn’t make the movie and not necessarily because it shouldn’t have, but there’s a time constraint for everything. I think the DVD for BEREAVEMENT is going to be very, very interesting because there are entire subplots that were deleted that people may be able to experience on DVD. Will it change the movie for them? I don’t think so. The stuff that was taken out is stuff that takes what they already know a little bit further. So, they’re not really missing anything. It’s like if you wanted to know more about the story, more about the characters than you already do, then the opportunity is there to do that.
DC: I’d read that in post-production your original cut of the film was something like three hours.
SM: Not exactly three hours, but it was in the two-and-a-half-hour range, yes.
DC: Then this other stuff that you’re talking about was some of the stuff that got trimmed.
SM: Yeah… I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s significant stuff with John Savage that didn’t make the movie. I don’t think it changes the movie dramatically. I just think that there was a lot about him and his back-story that did not make the movie. There’s also a lot of stuff about Sutter, but it’s not stuff that changes the movie in any way. It’s just more information, that’s all.
DC: Once the film’s out and put to bed, is the plan for you to go on to the third part of the story, or are you going to take a break or do something else?
SM: The short answer to that is that I have certainly been asked to do the third one in a very immediate sense, but I do have other stuff that I’m planning too, so I don’t know if that’s going to be my next film. I know a lot of people want that to be my next film, but I’ve not made that final decision yet.
Our thanks to Stevan for taking the time to speak with us. For more visit the official Bereavement website.
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