‘Bag Of Lies’ Director David Andrew James On Getting Inspiration from ‘Se7en’

bag of lies

Some of director David Andrew James’ favorite horror films are ones that soar past cheap thrills and almost act as a drama. With his latest feature, Bag of Lies, there was a chance to pay homage to those types of films while saying something about life, love, and the secret goal we all share: Buying time to spend with the people we care about.

This topic is personal to David. He explained,

“Six years ago, my stepmother was diagnosed with cancer. Six months later, she passed away at the age of forty-two. I remember watching my father relentlessly exhaust all possible forms of treatment for her; even when the end of the tunnel seemed void of light, he never gave up. What I saw was someone chisel away anything that stood in his way of his goal: To buy more time with her. This is where art and life intersected for me, as I began honing in on the story of the main characters in Bag of Lies”.

In the film: 

Desperate to save his dying wife, Matt turns to The Bag, an ancient relic with dark magic. The cure demands a chilling ritual and strict rules. As his wife heals, Matt’s sanity unravels, facing terrifying consequences.

Dread Central spoke with James about his directorial debut, how David Fincher was his film school teacher (even without taking a class from him), and much more. 

Dread Central: You wrote Bag of Lies alongside Nick Laughlin and Joe Zappa. How did the three of you come up with the idea for the film?

David Andrew James: Originally, Bag of Lies was a no-budget short film Nick wrote and directed, that I (gasp) acted in. One year later, Joe and I rewrote it as a short film with a touch more scale and ambition; during that writing process, I worked as the Key Grip on a feature in Cincinnati, where I met one of my producers for BOL, who got me connected with Epic. Anyway, to make a long story long, Nick really liked the teeth that Joe and I gave to the short rewrite, however, I can’t take credit for the original concept of man’s-wife-is-dying-and-a-stranger-has-a-creepy-bag-that-might-help angle. Those were Nick’s shoulders we were standing on. For selling me the rights, Nick was rewarded handsomely. He can buy anything he wants out of his local vending machine.

DC: Can you talk about the writing process? How long did it take to draft the script?

DAJ: The feature-length version of the film didn’t take that long, and I give credit to the well of material the three of us had been brewing for some time. I will say, the treatment phase was extensive. If I remember correctly, Nick and Joe wrote about 18 treatments before writing their draft. Our producer wanted to make sure we got it right. After their first draft, they both got calls for other projects, and I took over from there.

To be honest, Nick and Joe’s draft was one of the creepiest, scariest, sickening drafts of a horror film I’ve ever read, but we just didn’t have the budget to execute it. It took me about seven days to write the draft which is the film the public will see, minus four scenes we cut during prep (the scenes were character-driven, however not quite relevant enough to the plot that they were worth keeping on the budget scale we worked within). It is a healthy blend of all three of our twisted minds. 

DC: Where did you get inspiration for Bag of Lies?

DAJ: I’m unsure where Nick’s inspiration originated with the short; for me, I drew from witnessing what my father went through when my stepmother passed away six years ago, from cancer. It rocked our entire family to the core, however, no one had it worse than my dad. Having been adjacent to such a tragedy in my personal life, I felt like I could bring some authenticity to a (yes, I’m aware) plotline that has been used and reused dozens of times per decade. Once the emotional center of the characters and story was set, then we were free to do the usual: Make the characters’ fears, and the horrors of the film, exploit their emotional states. 

We tried to push that boundary a little further on this one, by asking the question: What if the person you’re trying to save is used against you, possibly even terrorizing you along the way? The entire process of blending my life into my work left me dazed and confused, and it was the most selfish therapy session I’ve ever had. That being said, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m interested to see if we got so-specific-it’s-universal with it. Only the audience can reaffirm that. Anyway, I know I’m rambling, but the last piece of inspiration for some of the horror sequences came from nightmares Nick, Joe or I had. I think we eat too much cheese.

DC: Bag of Lies marks your directorial debut. What did preproduction look like for you? Did you storyboard?

DAJ: Although it’s my feature debut, I’ve directed a lot of short films (most of which will never see the light of day, intentionally, if you know what I mean) as well as corporate work. Yes, it’s true, nothing prepares you for directing a feature like directing a feature, however, I did feel quite confident going into the shoot due to the amount of prep I’ve done. In addition, in the low-budget world, I’ve shot a lot as a DP/cam-op. In the indie-budget world, I’ve been working as a grip for the past few years on bigger sets with bigger budgets. All of that work gave me a technical route to be more creatively efficient. Anyway, prep was about six weeks for Jake (my co-producer) and I. The rest of the team had about three. 

For me personally, prep was about creating the aesthetics with my department heads, locking it in with built-in accommodations for human error (the show must go wrong, as Andy Dwyer said). Simultaneously, I worked with the actors as much – or as little – as they wanted to during prep. I wrote backstories for all of the characters, we had phone and Zoom discussions, and I really just wanted to see how they were going to work. We had 13 days to shoot 72 pages, and the biggest trick in my toolbelt for prep is to be as involved with the scheduling of the shoot, as I am with a shot list. Working closely with the AD to make sure it was airtight was a fun challenge. 

To answer the second part: No, I do not storyboard. My work as a DP as well as being a grip has made me fluent in Cinematagrophese, as I jokingly call it. I shotlist extensively. Brandt Hackney, a wonderful DP as well as a lovely human being, was such a great collaborator. We were two peas in a pod on this one, working exactly the way we both like to work. He wanted a lighting plan that wouldn’t deviate, and I wanted the shots to be exactly how I created them. Again, accounting for human error, I’d say we dialed it in about 85% to our liking, given our budget and schedule. That’s a percentage I’m proud of, for a first time out. 

DC: What was the most difficult scene to film?

DAJ: I know this is going to sound ridiculous, especially in contrast to the bragging I did at the end of my last answer, but the most difficult scene was a moment when a hand is coming out of the Bag. For reference: Matt is chasing Peggy around, leading him back to the Bag’s room in the basement. Anyway, it comes down to this moment where Matt drops the flashlight, it rolls against the Bag, and a necrotic hand slowly emerges and rolls the light back to him. Shooting a sequence where an actor is tied up inside of a bag is tough, especially when they can’t see where they’re rolling a flashlight. It’s the one scene that’s a shoulda/coulda/woulda for me. Really wish I had that one back to do better with. Next time, I’ll do better. There’s going to be a next time, right?

DC: Why did you decide to make your first feature a horror film? Are you particularly a fan of the genre?

DAJ: I’ve always been a huge fan of the genre, although this marks my first foray into the scaritory (feel free to use that scary-territory hybrid in your next interview, no royalties needed). I looked up one day in my twenties and realized, Wow, a decent chunk of my favorite films scare me in one form or another. It’s not always about blood and guts (although who doesn’t love gore), either; anything can be made scary if you take the right angle in. People say they love to be scared, but I think what they’re subconsciously after is a little exposure therapy.

DC: What are some of your favorite horror films?

DAJ: The list is too long: Hereditary, The VVitch, The Shining, the ending of the original Oldboy is scary for weird reasons. Hmm. Signs always creeped me out when I was a kid, as well as The Fog. Seven, in some instances. The Silence of the Lambs. It. The Vigil is a low-budget modern masterpiece.  Honestly, my list is endless; if someone can make something ordinary scary, then I’m buying a ticket. 

DC: There is a scene in the film that is very reminiscent of the box in Se7en. Did you have that in mind with this scene?

DAJ: Busted! I absolutely did. I’m a huge David Fincher fanatic; he was my film school teacher from afar (his BTS discs taught me a lot when I was a wee lad). Every time I’m prepping a project, I have his movies on. We all know the classic ending to Se7en. I wanted to put my own spin on it. That’s all I can say, for now.

DC: Can you tell us any behind-the-scenes secrets about making the film?

DAJ: The biggest secret I can give away, is that I had the best crew and cast a midwestern guy such as myself could ask for. I called in a lot of favors to a lot of really talented folks that I couldn’t afford, and I owe them all so much for making this project come to life. It wouldn’t have been possible without any single one of them, from the producers to the production assistants. I know that’s not exactly what you’re looking for as a response, but I can tell you this: A great cast coupled with a great crew IS the secret sauce. 

Bag of Lies is out now on digital and VOD.



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