Exclusive Interview: Pulling THE BLACK STRING
Best known for comedy roles, actor Frankie Muniz goes for a walk on the very wild side in the psychological horror thriller The Black String. The Malcolm in the Middle/Agent Cody Banks star plays Jonathan, a young man whose life spirals out of control when he shacks up with a mystery woman who may be tied to a demonic cult. Dread Central will be hosting a free screening of The Black String this Thursday, September 19 at Hollywood’s Arena Cinelounge Sunset, and you can get your tickets HERE.
With our star-packed screening fast approaching, Dread caught up with writer/director Brian Hanson and actor/co-writer Richard Handley to find out what strings these filmmakers had to pull to get The Black String made. (Lionsgate releases the film on DVD, Digital and On Demand September 24.)
DREAD CENTRAL: What attracted each of you to this project?
BRIAN HANSON: Back in 2007 when I was a bartender in Hollywood, my buddy Andy Warrener and I wanted to make a micro-budget horror flick, something we could shoot with our friends for a few thousand dollars. Instead of placing the story in a haunted house deep in the woods or a zombie invasion in a massive city, we wanted to tell a story about a lonely guy losing his mind in the relative safety of the suburbs. I had experienced some really intense sleep paralysis episodes that were hard to explain and even harder for other people to believe, so that set the stage for great conflict: What if something existential was terrorizing you at night, but nobody would believe you no matter how clearly you explained the problem? That experience inspired Andy and me to create the protagonist, Jonathan, as a lonely slacker who never left his hometown and is suddenly plagued by these terrifying visions. We also made Jonathan an unreliable narrator which makes for a more complex story; he’s frustrated, lonely and has a history of personal issues which cause friends and family to doubt him.
As we created this story, we were really excited to create a double-sided coin: some people would read the script and believe that Jonathan is being targeted by this evil curse, but there will be other readers that believe it’s all in Jonathan’s mind and he’s suffering from addiction, depression and sexual frustration. In the end, Andy and I didn’t make the movie so the 50-page script went into a drawer for many years. But it was resurrected!
RICHARD HANDLEY: Brian pitched me the story over lunch one day, during our first year of film school at Mount Saint Mary’s University. It stuck with me and resonated because I too grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, not that far at all from where we actually shot the film. I had many friends much like Jonathan. Guys that never made it out of my town for whatever reason and many of them did suffer from addiction and depression. I could immediately relate to this protagonist and world. It’s a horror film for sure, but I was also very intrigued by the psychological aspects of the story. It satisfied both my analytical, inquisitive bent, but also that part of me that grew up loving to binge watch the original Twilight Zone, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Fly. Brian and I were trained in film school to “write what you know.” A year later, we had to create a thesis film to graduate and I suggested that instead of making individual short films, we should team up and make The Black String as a feature film. So, we did just that.
DC: Brian, why did you decide on The Black String as your directorial debut?
BH: When Andy and I developed the story a decade ago, the goal was for me to direct and Andy to star in this little micro-budget film. But I joined the Army and Andy started a family in Florida, so I thought our little project was dead, just another old story to file in a dusty drawer. Five years later, I met Rich Handley in film school and he got excited about the story when I explained it to him during a lunch break. Rich’s excitement rekindled my excitement for The Black String. Our classmates (now producers) Charles Bunce, Kayli Fortun and Madison Stevens read the script and their excitement made me realize this story had real potential because people kept talking about it after reading it. I was inspired by their energy and followed the momentum that seemed to build on its own. When Rich suggested we rewrite the script to be feature-length, I said, “Let’s do it.” Not long after the script was written, my long-time friend Sharif Ibrahim got excited about the project and said, “I’ll find you the funding,” and he did. It was amazing to see how quickly The Black String caught fire… after sitting in a drawer for almost a decade!
DC: Are you both horror fans and did any films in particular inspire the movie?
BH: I am a big horror/thriller/sci-fi fan. My dad raised me on Twilight Zone episodes and I loved Carpenter, Lynch and Cronenberg films so my mind was trained to look for the bizarre and dark twists in everyday life. The Black String has been called paranoia-horror, psychological horror, occult horror, etc. and I think all of those labels fit. The Black String is a horror film where the protagonist can’t trust his own senses, so the audience begins to doubt what’s real and what’s not. The quick list of movies I was inspired by for The Black String include Rosemary’s Baby, Jacob’s Ladder, Hellraiser, Communion and Phantasm. I also have to recognize Donnie Darko, David Lynch’s films and Nightmare on Elm Street for taking viewers into the bizarreness of dream logic/horror.
RH: I’m also a big David Lynch fan. Surrealist films like Lost Highway, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive or even The Elephant Man, all play heavily on the pathos of humanity. And while these films are not categorically considered to be classic horror, my favorite horror films tend to be infused with morally gray issues, disorienting and abstract themes, and tortured souls. We did take inspiration from many different films. Brian mentioned Donnie Darko and Rosemary’s Baby, which I’d seen years ago. But there was also a whole other compendium that I was not familiar with, which Brian curated for me. I watched them all while we were writing the script. Now I’d consider myself a true horror convert with a discerning eye and selective palate.
DC: Did you find something novel about an STD horror film?
BH: Somebody smarter than I am said we should have used the tag line, “STD… Sexually Transmitted Demon.” We didn’t consider this an STD horror film when we plotted the story 10 years ago. We thought the intimate moment with Dena early in the film was just a catalyst/inciting incident for a bigger story, but as we kept writing and then got into production and art design (Jonathan is always drawing nude women), we realized that Jonathan’s intense loneliness and romantic/sexual frustration cause him to go on a blind date that haunts him for the rest of the movie. When I saw It Follows, I did notice similarities in that an STD initiates a supernatural threat. Although we move on to focus on occult conspiracies, I do think Jonathan’s STD paranoia is ever-present in scenes and images… like what exactly is that pulsating, dripping portal?
RH: As a clinician, I’ve treated many hundreds of patients with various STDs. I’ve seen this clinical scenario in our film play out over and over again in my practice. I also know STDs are quite common. In fact, you’d be surprised just how common. So, I knew at the very least the fear of contracting an STD would serve as an effective hook to keep people watching.
DC: Had you seen the similarly-themed Contracted?
BH: I saw Contracted when I was in the Army and I was blown away by the relentless tension, the grittiness and the visual/sound design that made the audience experience this poor girl physically falling apart. What an ending! Cut to a couple years later and I met Eric England at a production company I was working at. We traded emails and Eric actually became one of our mentors as we prepared for this project. Rich and I sat with Eric several times, and he gave us invaluable info on how to make a low-budget horror film.
DC: Was Frankie Muniz your first choice as Jonathan?
BH: Frankie came on late in the casting process. We had some great actors to choose from and had been auditioning for two weeks. We were 48 hours away from casting Jonathan when our casting director, Jeremy Gordon, called us up and said, “Before you cast somebody, Frankie Muniz would like to audition for the role.” Rich and I were stunned… Frankie Muniz? He’s a huge TV star who stopped acting to race cars. That’s all we knew, but of course we agreed to let Frankie read for the part. Frankie came out the next day and gave a great performance. On the second day, he owned the role and we realized that if he was this good with only 48 hours to prepare, imagine how good he’d be with two weeks to prep. As much as we really liked what our other actors were doing, it was obvious we had to go with Frankie.
DC: This was such a change-of-pace role for him. Was he comfortable?
BH: Frankie innately understood the character of Jonathan. He understood the shy side, but he also understood the scrappy/pitbull side of Jonathan. Frankie has a great sense of humor, sometimes a dark sense of humor, so he quickly identified the low-key jokes in the script. For example, after Jonathan’s parents call his work a “liquor store,” Jonathan yells back at them, “PS: It’s not a liquor store, it’s a lifestyle convenience boutique.” That’s ridiculous, it gets a big laugh, but in reality, it’s something a desperate person might say to defend their pride if they felt they had been insulted. Frankie played it with a straight face. He understood the subtext of that dialogue. Some people say this role is a change of pace for Frankie, but I think he brings a lot of familiar charisma and energy to the screen.
RH: I totally agree. Frankie just got it from the get-go. He was completely comfortable with the role and morphed into it with ease. But also, to his credit, he’s exceptionally good at taking direction. And I mean the smallest detail and nuance. That saved us at many critical moments where time and money were on the line. That level of professionalism only comes with years of experience, natural talent and keen intelligence.
DC: I am glad you went with practical FX over CGI. Talk about Erik Porn’s contributions to the film.
BH: Erik Porn, Chris Gallagher and Tim Jarvis at Bitemares understood that this film had a small budget (but a big heart), so they were excited to design clever practical effects that harken back to the good old days of practical makeup effects. Rich and I showed them some look book photos of gore/rashes, and they took over from there. Erik and his team always stressed doing the string pull, portal, rashes and demon practically to give them an organic feeling on camera. The demon was fun to design because I would show Erik some simple sketches and he would use this 3D modeling program (Z-Brush) to design the mask digitally so we were able to try different looks on the computer before we chose the final look. Once we agreed on the design, Erik and his team molded and painted the mask for our creature actor, Alexander Ward. The black string looks great in the movie, but we were rushed in principal photography so we had to do a pick-up day and enlisted Erik’s colleague Dan Gilbert of Necessary Evil FX to create the gruesome string-pull inserts. It was awesome to work with these guys as well as our makeup team Galaxy San Juan and Victor Rios. This team was small, but did the work of a 10-person makeup effects team. They kicked major ass.
DC: Were the FX days the toughest on the shoot?
BH: The string pull scene at Blue High Shack was the toughest day we had. We could only schedule four hours at the end of the day to shoot that scene, but in reality, we needed one full day to do that properly. We got some great shots with Frankie writhing in pain with Erik Porn’s string, but we had to add a pick-up day to get the really bloody close-ups with Dan Gilbert. Having worked on studio productions now, I see how much time they need to properly film heavy makeup effects scenes. Cleaning up and resetting blood and guts between takes can take 10-20 minutes easily. There might be 15 takes of that shot between all the different camera angles. That adds up to a lot of hours! We learned that the lesson the hard way. I must also mention that our cinematographer, John Orphan, and his team did such a great job lighting each scene to create creepy, disgusting and beautiful images. Additionally, we did use some great VFX artists (Bruno Ciccone, Paul DeNigris and Rachel Dunn) to composite, clean up and enhance our practical effects. We can’t have finger extensions or mask seams showing up on the big screen!
DC: Richard, had you always intended to take a supporting role in the film?
RH: Yes. It was a dream to be able to write this doctor character, especially knowing I’d be playing him. I’ve been a union actor for quite a while and really enjoy this part of the filmmaking process. As a physician, I wanted to bring medical authenticity to the screen, but I also had to keep it entertaining, which meant Dr. Ronaldi needed to have some “issues.” For example, he’s 20 years into his medical career and is suffering from physician burnout, which can lead to a loss of empathy and compassion. Fatal flaws, like these, are certainly more interesting to watch on screen and very thrilling and challenging to play as an actor. I’ve seen other real-life doctors play doctors on the screen to great effect. Ken Jeong, for example, is a master of the craft because he knows he’s not just “playing a doctor.” He’s playing a human being, who also happens to be a doctor. That’s why he’s so damn good in every character he tackles. The humanity of the characters we play have to shine through or it’s boring to watch.
DC: What was it like sharing scenes with Frankie?
RH: Kind of like getting into the ring with Joe Frazier or Muhammad Ali. You better know what the hell you’re doing when the camera rolls or you’ll get pummeled pretty quickly. Frankie was a blast to work with. He brings his A-game every time, so it was incumbent on me to bring mine. As Jonathan the psychiatric patient, Frankie was fiery and constantly clashing with my impenetrable Dr. Ronaldi. That character duel makes for good entertainment.
DC: Was it tough to cast Dena?
BH: Dena was originally intended to be a 40-something-year-old woman, a “cougar” who was 20 years older than Jonathan, which would make the whole blind date really weird and uncomfortable. We were auditioning some talented actresses for the role, but our friend Chelsea Edmundson volunteered to help us and read the Dena lines while we auditioned guys for the role of Jonathan. I sat in on those auditions and heard Chelsea read those Dena lines 50 times over two days and, all of a sudden, I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing that character. She played Dena so well—I could see each guy squirming in the audition as she stared intensely at them. It didn’t matter that we originally wrote Dena to be in her 40s, because Chelsea created her own version of Dena and we loved it.
DC: What else did Chelsea bring to the role?
BH: Chelsea brings a sultriness, a piercing gaze and a feeling of danger to the role. She’s truly a femme fatale. Once she jumps in the car with Jonathan, you just feel that she’s going to eat him alive. But very quickly, she turns into a vulnerable girl who is also lonely, maybe she’s just as lonely and isolated as Jonathan. Dena is a great character because she’s dangerous and confident, but there’s a sincere soft-side that makes us think she might really be connecting with Jonathan. Maybe they have a legit romance brewing on the first date. Take note of how she reacts when Jonathan sketches her and she says, “Nobody’s ever drawn me before.” It feels like she’s blushing and honestly flattered, or is she just manipulating Jonathan?
DC: How were the writing chores divided up?
BH: Andy Warrener and I outlined nearly 50 pages of the story long ago so the structure and characters were in place, but we were 40 pages short of a feature film. When Rich suggested we rewrite the script to feature length, I focused on the horror and angry young man portions of the script, and Rich really focused on the parental and the script’s medical moments. In reality, we both worked on every scene together, but there were many times when we individually specialized on certain scenes.
RH: We had to complete the script as part of our Mount St. Mary’s MFA graduate thesis requirement, so we went about completely dismantling and putting it all back together again, analyzing the story, scenes and sequences by index cards and corkboard methodology, writing and rewriting, talking about characters, plot, thesis, themes, etc., into the wee hours of the night, week after week, month after month, for a year, until every bit of it made sense and fully entertained. Until our friends in the business and professors really dug the script. Only then, were we confident enough to start circulating it among agents, investors, and other professionals.
DC: What’s next for you guys? More horror?
BH: Definitely more horror and twisted stories from the beyond! It’s what I feel in my bones and despite the “horror” genre label, there’s a lot of room to tell great human drama stories like Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. We are working on a project about a struggling single father whose son vanishes during a magician’s magic trick. It has a similar horror paranoia vibe to The Black String—can magic and the occult be real or is it just a missing child case? Rich and I are both military veterans so we’re also working on a really intense military flick that will certainly have some thrilling and horrific moments… because that’s the reality of life in the military.