Exclusive Interview with DANIEL ISN’T REAL Director Adam Egypt Mortimer
We all need a break at times from reality and from the hardships of living in our own heads. Director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real (hitting theaters and digital On Demand December 6th) takes that concept and gives us Luke (Mile Robbins, Halloween), a young man struggling with his own mental health and dealing with that struggle by relying on Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), his arrogant and dangerous imaginary friend. While the existence of Daniel is one that initially helps Luke, the “friend” eventually attempts to take Luke’s mind over for good.
A very profound look at mental health and the things we do to battle ourselves, Daniel Isn’t Real is a film that should be required viewing for horror fans looking for something deep and lasting. We caught up with Mortimer to talk about the film and the themes within it. Read on!
A troubled college freshman, Luke, suffers a violent family trauma and resurrects his childhood imaginary friend Daniel to help him cope.
Dread Central: Daniel Isn’t Real is a film that really affected me. It’s been a while since I’ve seen something that just got a hold of a lot of things I deal with myself.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: Thank you! I really wanted to make a movie that would get under people’s skin. Especially people who are emotionally sensitive to a lot of things. I actually thought of you when I was making the movie. It’s important for people to see their own psychology represented and on screen. I’ve been really looking forward to getting your point of view on it.
DC: You worked on the project for quite some time, right? Wasn’t Daniel Isn’t Real a project you were planning on directing even before helming Some Kind of Hate?
AEM: I was looking to direct a movie, I had never done a feature film before. I met Brian DeLeeuw at a dinner party in LA and he told me about a novel he wrote. I liked him as a person so much and the idea of the novel so much, that I read it that weekend. I instantly called him up and said, “Let’s make a movie, let’s work on this!” We started doing that and that was eight years ago now. We thought it was a great script but we really didn’t know how we could get that movie made, so we wrote another movie, Some Kind of Hate. We wrote that together and did that, to kind of show that I could direct. All of that really led to a great partnership and friendship and now, we’ve written four movies together. After seven years had passed, we finally came back to Daniel Isn’t Real and really sat down to work on it. What’s funny is that throughout those seven years, I’d get so anxious and depressed about it, saying “Life sucks, I’m never going to get this made,” and when we finally did do it, those seven years of waiting just evaporated and felt worth it.
DC: From an early age, we’re taught to pretend that we’re all okay. We’re taught not to talk about our feelings and emotional struggles, whether it be your mental health or feelings of isolation. Daniel Isn’t Real speaks on that so profoundly. As children being told that we don’t talk about our struggles, some of us did create imaginary friends, to escape from the realities of life. Was that important for you to address in the film?
AEM: Absolutely and I think one of the things that was very important to me to have when we were building the story was to have a section where it feels like Luke is asking for help everywhere he can, but he just doesn’t know HOW to ask for help. None of the people he talks to knows what the problem is. So you get this spiraling of not only loneliness but helplessness because he doesn’t know how to get help. The only help he gets is from Daniel, who has at this point, completely malevolent. I think that’s something that is true. I witnessed it, when a friend of mine went through a major mental health crisis when we were younger. When you’re the age that these characters are at, 19 years old, you’re constantly experimenting with your identity, so when something goes very wrong with your identity, nobody knows that. It’s hard for YOU to know when that happens because, at that age, you’re constantly changing. It’s like, “Today I’m into black metal, today I’m into My Little Pony, I’m an asshole, no, I’m nice!” There’s such multiplicity there at that age. So how can you tell if one of you has a broken identity?
DC: There is constant evolution at that age.
AEM: I’m really glad you recognized that loneliness and helplessness to the story; it’s a very big part of it.
DC: People who struggle from mental illness can be at odds with themselves and have a very yin and yang battle at times. The casting of Miles (Robbins) and Patrick (Schwarzenneger) as Luke and Daniel shows just that: The two sides. How did you decide on casting them?
AEM: Miles, when I met with him, really understood the movie, thematically and understood being caught up in incel culture, where this sense of entitlement in young men was coming from and where violence came into that. He could see how the movie could possibly be important. Miles is like an empathy machine. You instantly love him. The first shot of the movie, with the close up on his face, it’s impossible NOT to love him. So, he had that but at the same time, he understood what it took to also play Daniel, when certain things unfold later in the movie. Patrick has this otherworldly charm and beauty and has to play his almost demigod of charm but also be very sinister. He has the look and the charm, but really was interested in finding that sinister part, because I don’t think he had the chance to play that before. He really wanted to step outside of that usual romantic, good-looking side of him and play the flip side to that.
DC: There’s a stigma placed on individuals who have or do wrestle with the thought of suicide. There’s a scene in Daniel Isn’t Real, where the imaginary friend, Daniel, toys with wanting to make Luke kill himself. In real life, there’s always a blame placed on those who struggle, without realizing that it’s a struggle and a battle with yourself. You and Brian (DeLeeuw) did a great job showing that.
AEM: You’re right about that and the thoughts of suicide being important to it. Suicide has always been a big obsession of mine in my work. When I was 15, I made a film that was just about someone committing suicide. I shot it on black & white super 8 film, it was my first movie. I’ve always wrestled with that and there was a suicide in my family, when I was a small child, it really traumatized the hell out of me. Suicide ideation, as opposed to depression, is a separate thing. I think a lot of people don’t realize that even when things are going well in your life and you KNOW things are going well in your life, you can still have suicide ideation and obsession. It’s exactly what you were describing, something that is completely out of your control. It’s an intrusive voice and an intrusive entity, that is not YOU. So, I felt that this concept was a perfect way to express that, visually. You can be two different people and of two different mindsets and one of those people will want to push you to do things that you are not aware of. Things you don’t want to do, but are inseparable from who you are. That was something that was so important for me to infuse into the story as we were writing it. The book is from Daniel’s point of view, so when we decided to switch it to follow Luke’s point of view, it became such a good opportunity to show imagination and demons as embodiments of your own mind being out of your own control. I always appreciate your sensitivity to these things, and it’s always lovely to speak to you about it.