Director Daniel Stamm Confesses His 13 Sins
Talented director Daniel Stamm, previously known for helming The Last Exorcism, has a new film that delves into how far a person will go for the almighty dollar. 13 Sins is a tale of transformation and obsession, and Stamm recently sat down with Dread Central to talk about it.
Stamm talked about the importance of keeping the audience in tune with the main character, Elliot Brindle (played by Mark Webber).
"It's always important when the audience can stay with the protagonist and identify with the protagonist," Stamm said. "And in a movie like this about how far will you stretch your morals for financial gain, it was important to us to suck the audience in, to make them go on this journey with him and not reject the journey too early on, so by the time they realize what they've gotten themselves into and what the protagonist has gotten himself into, it's too late. There's a point of no return."
13 Sins is a remake of the Thai film 13 Beloved. In both movies the main character is asked to perform 13 increasingly difficult (for one reason or another) tasks for increasing financial gain. And although it begins rather innocently, the toll on the contestant's person becomes immense.
"That was a tough balance to strike," Stamm said regarding the 13 tasks. "You want to make every task just one step further. So you're going, 'Well, I've come this far; I can do this one additional step. It's not stretching my ethics too far.' But it's cumulative. In the end it has all piled up into this monstrosity that he never dreamed was coming. That's what we were attempting to do."
Stamm discussed an interesting influence on the character of Elliot: "When we first wrote the screenplay, we wrote it in two stages of character. We modeled it after drug addiction," the German-born director said. "We met with a drug addiction specialist, and she walked us through the stages of drug addiction. In the beginning there's an empowerment happening. There's only positive effects you get from the drug. You get more assertive and you like your new persona. Then, slowly, the addiction is creeping in and the negative side of things start to happen, but you can sort of make up for those for a while. Then they really kick in and there's nothing you can do about it."
"It was really important that we milked the empowerment stage because everything else is darkness and doom. But there is a phase where we want him to be more manly and assertive, like kinda, 'Come on! Get your act together and stand up for yourself and stand up for your fiancée and your brother. Don't be this whiney guy.' We thought that if he got out of the game around mission seven or eight, he'd be fine and be stronger for it, but by that time he is so hooked on the game and so addicted to this new persona - he's basically a badass - that he misses the point where he should get out and we miss the point where he should get out because we enjoy this new persona also. And there's a big downhill spiral of darkness from there that sucks him down into the past, and we realize the game is much bigger and older than we realized before."
Mark Webber plays the lead role of Elliot Brindle, and Stamm discussed the difficulties of the part. "It was such a hard part to cast because he has to play the whole spectrum," Stamm said. "From whiney underdog that we identify with and don't despise his weakness…we have to like him in the beginning. Then he has to do this whole transformation into this badass character and we still have to identify with him when he does despicable acts in the end. There are very few actors who have that kind of range."
Additionally. Devon Graye gave an outstanding performance as Elliott's mentally-challenged brother, Michael. "He is the most incredible actor," Stamm said of Graye. "I have no doubt we'll hear a lot more from him because he is amazing. The way he came in, I had nothing to do with it. I wish I could take credit for his performance. He came into auditions with that character fully formed and such a tricky thing… that whole Tropic Thunder, 'never go full retard' thing. That can drift so easily into parody. A lot of people who came in did a much more careful take on it, and I was really scared to go with a take that was as ballsy as his was. But the energy he brought in was so refreshing and so high-energy. The Michael that he built was so likable that we had to go with it. He kept it up the entire shoot. He remained in character. We'd be at lunch and he'd be at the next table rocking back and forth. And he's the smartest guy. Whenever I'd walk up to him with some adjustment, I could see it in his eyes as he's digesting it. He'd run through his entire backstory that he's made up for the character and fact check if that works with everything, adjust things and just deliver so precisely. It's really incredible, what he does."
Although not overly loaded with F/X work, 13 Sins does have a few very large effects that audiences are sure to love. Stamm talked about some of the challenges of making everything work just right to capture movie magic.
"Sometimes the step from great and 'it looks ridiculous' is only a day," Stamm said. "With one particular scene, we still had a scene that looked absolutely ridiculous, completely fake and digital just two days before we were supposed to lock the movie. Sometimes it's stuff the company you're working with has never done before. So you're having discussions like, 'How much does the human head weigh?' so they can type that into the software so the software can calculate how the head bounces off the pavement. It was a real adventure to get that all down. Then, one day before we had to lock the movie, they sent me the clip which was what we have now and I was really happy with it. Same for the head half sliced off scene. What does the brain look like when it's cut in half? How much blood do you want? What's realistic? And sometimes, what's realistic in real life is not necessarily the most powerful narrative so you want to stretch things. Like with a gunshot. If you hear a real gunshot…when the sound people are in and they put in a real gunshot, it doesn't sound like a gunshot. It's a little, disappointing pop. It's not what you expect at all. Then they beef it up and beef it up, and when they reach the level where they say, 'Okay, this is ridiculous,' that's about where it sounds right to you and me."
The ending of 13 Sins is one you certainly don't see coming. Stamm discussed some alternate ideas and why they decided to end the film as they did.
"We wrote a lot of different endings and shot two of them," Stamm said. "The other one is on the Blu-ray. When we were making the movie and in casting Mark Webber and seeing what he did with the character, there was something really interesting happening to me that I never had happen before, which was I really wished that character well... with anything else I've done before, I always went for the darkest, most negative ending because it always felt the most authentic and appropriate. I never wanted to do the Hollywood happy ending twist that you don't really believe. But the alternate ending was just so nihilistic that it almost wasn't fun anymore. The message would have been that we can be corrupted and there is no way for us as people to protect ourselves from that because we are greedy and weak and anyone with enough money will be the controller. It seems like a strong message and maybe, unfortunately, a truthful message, but it just felt a little one-dimensional. The message I wanted is that we are fragile and we can be easily corrupted, but we can do something about it."
Although 13 Sins and The Last Exorcism seem very different on the surface, in closing Stamm discussed a similarity he found between the two films. "They're not that different because the backdrop of The Last Exorcism is the battle between good and evil, as big as it gets, God and The Devil," Stamm said, "but we take a very, very small snippet and it's all about one girl on one farm that the world doesn't really care about and we investigate this one case. In 13 Sins it's the same thing. There's this huge thing that's been going on for centuries, presumably, but we only take a look at the case of Elliot Brindle. The Last Exorcism and 13 Sins take one person and try to get as involved with that individual as possible, and we see the entire backdrop through their eyes."
13 Sins is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.
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