Exclusive Interview: Writer/Director Stevan Mena Talks Bereavement, Trilogy Plans, Real-Life Serial Killer Joel Rifkin and More!
In 2005 up-and-coming writer/director Stevan Mena set the indie horror world ablaze with his feature film debut, Malevolence, which introduced us to the twisted world of serial killer Martin Bristol, who made a living of capturing and torturing innocent people. For Bereavement, the prequel and second film in the filmmaker's planned trilogy, Mena takes us back to where it all began.
For Martin (Spencer List) that would be the day he was kidnapped by deranged sociopath Graham Sutter (Brett Rickaby) and taken back to Sutter's farm, where the youngster would be groomed over the next five years and molded into a killing machine just like his captor.
Last week Dread Central had the opportunity to talk exclusively with Mena regarding his experiences making Bereavement after assembling a top-notch cast including the aforementioned Rickaby and List as well as Michael Biehn, John Savage and Alexandra Daddario. The writer/director also discussed how his approaches to telling the story in both films were very different from each other and when we can expect him to complete his trilogy.
Even though a significant amount of time had lapsed between Malevolence and Bereavement (Mena took some time away from the series to write and direct the 2007 dark comedy Brutal Massacre), the filmmaker said his prequel had always been planned, even since he first began working on Malevolence in 2004.
"Both Malevolence and Bereavement are part of a trilogy of stories I wrote around this serial killer named Martin Bristol a few years back," explained Mena. "So I definitely always intended for there to be a follow-up to Malevolence, or two other films rather, that completely tell Martin's story. But I knew Malevolence had to come first and then Bereavement would be made afterwards as a prequel. As a fan of the genre, I think that sometimes not really knowing the origins to characters like Martin are what scares me. Like you saw in John Carpenter's Halloween with the character of Michael Myers- what you can't understand or see is often far more intense than something blatant. So that was my approach for Malevolence- to really scare people by not giving them all the answers to Martin's character, and that's why I wanted that film to be first."
"Bereavement is different, though, because I'm sort of breaking my own rule here and giving the back-story of the killer now. But that's why this movie had to be made second- it's intention isn't really to scare you the way Malevolence did, but rather crawl under your skin leaving you rattled while I give you an unsettling look into just how a serial killer like Martin comes to exist in this world. What I think is kind of cool is that I feel like because Bereavement exists, it makes the story in the first film all the more stronger now," added Mena.
The one thing Mena wanted to make sure that he avoided at all costs on Bereavement was creating either characters or situations that would feel outlandish or over-complicated, two problems that seem to plague a lot of modern slasher flicks these days. For the filmmaker, the fear and the audience's response to it all needed to be firmly rooted in reality.
Mena said, "Something else I wanted to make sure happened in Bereavement was that everything we did felt like it was based in reality- sure, it's still a movie at the end of the day so there's always somewhat of a 'fantastical' aspect to movies in general, but I knew that I didn't want to make an over-the-top slasher flick because that's not believable to me. This story had to have subtlety to it so you'd actually care about what's happening, rather than just rooting for the gruesome deaths of a bunch of young girls. As both a storyteller and a horror fan, that approach just doesn't interest me at all."
"Part of what makes Bereavement such an incredibly strong story is that under these circumstances, this could all happen. If you lived in a desolate area where your nearest neighbors were a quarter-mile away, think of what you could get away with. No one would have any idea, and I think that's what makes the idea of a guy like Graham Sutter scary- people know him and see him all the time, but because of our own tendencies as humans to sometimes distance ourselves from others, you can completely not realize that a serial killer is living in your community. I mean, it happened to me even- I grew up near Joel Rifkin in East Meadow and no one had any idea until he was caught that he was a savage killer that killed numerous women over the course of like four years. And that was happening all right down the block from me. So I guess you could say that seeing that unfold almost in my own backyard was somewhat of an inspiration behind my need to tell these stories," added Mena.
The filmmaker went on to discuss how both being a horror fan and genre fans in general helped shape his approach on Malevolence and Bereavement. "Honestly, I think that horror audiences don't get enough credit for being as smart as they are. It's easy to make a big, dumb horror movie, but is that what the true fans want all the time? Usually, no. And that's what I wanted to do with both Malevolence and Bereavement- to give true horror fans a taste of something different that I hope appeals to them. Could we have gone a different route and been gratuitous with the gore? Sure. But that wouldn't have done any service to the story, and the quality of the story is what will keep horror fans engaged time and time again. I think they're ready to be challenged in ways that don't involve seeing how much torture they can endure when enjoying a horror movie. They're intelligent- they want to think sometimes, too."
Even though Mena was conscientious that he was taking a risk with casting both relatively unknown actors for the leads in Bereavement, he discussed his feeling on how his gamble paid off once he saw Bereavement coming together on-set while filming.
"Brett wasn't actually my first choice for Sutter, but let's just say that I'm incredibly lucky that things worked out the way they did because I couldn't be happier with his performance in this movie," explained Mena. "But yeah, his reel magically came across my desk and I saw him being a creepy guy on an Altoids commercial that was trying to kidnap a kid using Altoids, and I knew that had to be fate in some way. All joking aside, though- Brett absolutely deserves every accolade he gets for his work in Bereavement. He was a total team player while trying to get the movie made, carrying lights sometimes even, and I think his dedication to the project shines through in his performance."
Mena added, "Spencer was so great to work with, too- I really think he's going to grow up to be the next Brad Pitt or something. His talent exists beyond his years, and I just remember watching the very first scene he did on-set and I got goosebumps. What he did as Martin in Bereavement still continues to blow me away when I think about it even now."
Now that Bereavement is set to make its home release bow this week, we asked Mena what the status is on the final installment on his Martin Bristol trilogy. "I have a final shooting script ready to go for the third part of this trilogy; the only thing that has held it up for this long was that it was just a matter of me having the time to be able to really start moving it forward. And now that Bereavement's crossing the finish line, I think this may be the perfect time to complete Martin's odyssey and reunite him with his family in the final film, which should prove to be rather entertaining for those who have followed the series this far."
Special thanks to Stevan Mena for taking the time to speak with Dread Central. Look for Bereavement on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment!
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