‘Only The Good Survive’ Director and Star On Their New Punk Film [SXSW 2023 Interview]
In Dutch Southern’s new film Only The Good Survive, genres collide to create a kaleidoscopic punk experience about found family, terrifying cults, and legendary gold. Starring Sidney Flanigan (Never Really Sometimes Always) and D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (Reservation Dogs), Southern’s film is like a DIY Scott Pilgrim meets Juno, with its own unique flair.
Dread Central spoke with Southern and Flanigan during SXSW about punk rock, Stephen King, and more.
Dread Central: Dutch, I wanna start with you. I just wanna hear a little bit about where Only The Good Survive came from.
Dutch Southern: There was a producer named Justin Dupree, who’s from Texas, who I worked with before on a movie called Bad Turn Worse, and we go way back. He had an idea, which is a great idea, that we didn’t pull off. So if anyone wants to take it, they can. But the original idea was what if you started a movie where The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ends? So if you remember that movie, she’s running away from Leatherface, she’s covered in blood, and she’s obviously been through hell. She gets in the back of a truck and finally escapes heading for the horizon literally while leaving Leatherface in her wake. The idea was what happens if we start the movie there with her getting picked up, which would be a local sheriff, and then she has to tell him what had happened.
The other part, which is the last half, is I’ve never been a big fan of Hercule Poirot. I hate him in books. I love him on the screen. Like, I love David Suchet, Peter Ustinov, Kenneth Branagh, Albert Finney, you name it. But in book form, he’s always arrogant, smug, I just can’t stand him. So the idea was what if you do one of his summation gatherings like he famously does in the last chapter. He gets all the suspects that are still alive, and he points him out and he goes, this person did that. And he’s always right. I was like, “What if he does a summation gathering and he’s completely wrong and he’s mansplaining this entire moment, and we see that this guy is not as smart as he thinks he is?”
But he doesn’t know it. So it was those two disparate elements, putting them together and then shooting a movie in Texas. When I wrote Only The Good Survive, I had no interest in being a director. This was a little while ago. I met with Blumhouse, I met with different places on it, but there was no director attached. And I was fully a writer, I had no bandwidth to get a director attached. I think I was commencing on a pilot or something at the time. Then quarantine kicks in. I am about to commence the third pilot for the third network in my life. And I knew just like the other ones, it wasn’t gonna get green-lit. But I didn’t care. I honestly was cool with it because I got paid. I liked what I was writing, I liked the people I was working with.
But then COVID happened. And I always say that COVID was, for a lot of people, the accelerant for the inevitable. And for me, that inevitable was filmmaking. Suddenly enough wasn’t enough anymore. That forced me to want to direct this. So I dusted off this script because I knew that with the limited resources I could get, I could make it work. And I did. Then, we started to cast the movie, doing all that stuff. There’s a woman named Rachel Mangione, to who I owe everything. She works at Gersh. She’s the one that introduced me to Sidney and helped me cast this movie. Of course, when I met Sidney, I was like, this is the coolest person I’ve ever met in my life, and I can’t wait to work with this person. That’s pretty much the entire story of how this thing came about.
DC: Amazing. And then, so Sidney, how did you get involved in Only The Good Survive? What did you think when you first read the script?
Sidney Flanigan: The script came through my agency. I found it to be really compelling and exciting. And I love Brea. I loved all the characters. It was definitely enough interest for me to be like, well, yeah, I’ll meet with this dude and <laugh>. And then we met, and we got to talking about screen printing and punk music. Honestly, at that point I was like, I don’t even care what we make. I just want to work together <laugh> It was a great decision to hop onto Only The Good Survive.
DC: Hell yeah. Well, so you mentioned punk music and I feel like Only The Good Survive like a very punk sensibility to it, and I really love that. And I wanted to hear from you, Dutch about the animation sequences that you included throughout the film. I wanted to hear more about why animation and the process behind making the decision to have the film.
DS: One of my backgrounds is bootlegging t-shirts. So I had a little company and some of the artists that worked on [Only The Good Survive] are people that I worked with on that. There’s a guy named SKO who did all the graphics, all the designs on the shirts. There’s a guy named Lunchboxbrain who did all that hand lettering. The animator I hadn’t worked with before. But he was a guy that I became a fan of on Instagram, Dax Norman, and he’s an animator in Austin. He does this very surreal stuff.
I had done a short and some other stuff previously as a director, cause I went to AFIand, and that was my backstory before reality set in. and I started bootlegging t-shirts to make a living. I always incorporated animation whenever I could. But this was the first time that there was only one animator that I could use and that was Dax Norman. He does this very surreal stuff for the Transitions. So I had to wait until we shot the movie before I even contacted him because I didn’t want him to think it was some BS. So he ended up jumping on board. He’ll be there when we screen at SXSW. I’m really excited.
One of the movies that was the biggest influence on this was a movie called Smithereens by Susan Seidelman, which was her first film. And that movie, when I saw that as a kid, it opens with a little bit of animation. It’s like a little hand that comes in. And I remember watching that movie waiting for more animation and it never came. For me, anytime that you see animation incorporated into cinema, whether it’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or anything else, there needs to be a justification of some sort.
But I’m always taken back to that moment in another moment when I saw John Cusack watch his hamburger come to life and start rocking out to Eddie Van Halen in Better Off Dead. And that’s the only time there’s animation in that entire movie. I realize that the only justification that you need is that it’s fun and it’s rad.
So for Only The Good Survive, I could sit here and go on, well the animation’s there because of gaslighting and what’s real and what’s not real. But at the end of the day, it’s there because it’s fucking cool. But the idea of it being punk, Sidney is the most punk, most authentic person you’ll ever meet. She’s in a punk band called Star Juice. They have a song at the end of Only The Good Survive.
DC: No way!
DS: She screenprints her own stuff. She’s great. I’ve watched her, she’s amazing at it. She does her own gear for her own merch. For me, punk rock, everyone thinks it’s like three chords and an attitude. For me, the real definition is do it yourself. So when I first met Sidney I wrote her a letter to beg her to be in this movie. That’s what I wrote. She’s DIY and so is Brea. And so this movie is a punk rock movie. A hundred percent. It’s lo-fi. But it’s not punk for punk’s sake, it’s just authentically punk. So for me, even though this movie doesn’t have The Fabulous Stains playing, it has punk in its DNA.
DC: That’s so cool. You screen print and you’re in a punk band and you’re in some incredible films. <laugh> Sidney, I know you said you really liked Brea a lot, but what was it like getting into the mind of her character?
DS: Yeah, one thing I can say real quick about it and then I’ll let her finish and not interrupt, is what’s cool for me watching it is Sidney at the very end of the movie. It’s one of my favorite parts because that’s a hundred percent Sidney <laugh> whereas in everything else she has to play different parts. What’s really fascinating is I now know Sydney’s face better than her grandmother does because I’ve had to watch this movie so many times, so many takes, and put it together.
Seeing what she did like to build that character up and how she’s one version of herself at the beginning and at the end I get to see the real version of Sidney, which is the real version of Bree is amazing. I don’t know how she did it, but what she does is she’s so authentic that every version that she comes out with is grounded and authentic. But anyway, sorry to interrupt Sidney. How did you do that Sidney? How did you make that happen?
SF: It’s definitely weird because there are a lot of layers [to Brea]. It’s like you’re acting someone who’s also acting, you know? I try not to think about it the layers too much. I just try to think like, “Okay, I’m just gonna play this moment as innocent because she wants to play it as innocent.” So, I just try not to overthink it because otherwise, I will overthink it and then I feel like that shows. I’m just like, “Don’t overthink this Syd” <laugh>.
DC: Sidney, what was your favorite scene or favorite moment that you were able to pull off in Only The Good Survive?
SF: I liked getting to murder people.
DC: <laugh> Hell yeah. You wield a giant ax at one point. I mean, come on. That’s incredible
SF: That was pretty great.
DC: Only The Good Survive is horror movie adjacent. There are horror elements going on here and there’s also a lot of comedy and surrealism. But for both of you, but starting with the Dutch, are you a horror movie person?
DS: I have friends of mine that are true Gorehounds, like true horror. I was much more into stuff like psychotronic and I love the genre. But I know purists, like my comfort food movies aren’t horror films. I have friends that literally put on Halloween. Now, I love Halloween. It’s a masterpiece. But, I am not a true horror fan. I feel like if you say that, you better be it or you’re a poser. So I don’t wanna be poser, but there are people in my life that would probably say I am a horror fan. But I just can’t say it.
Only The Good Survive, though is, you’re right, horror adjacent. It’s not a horror film. And one of the things I told everybody before they signed on it is, I have no interest in shooting a low-budget horror film in the middle of Texas in the middle of nowhere. Like, I just don’t because we can’t pull it off. So this was never set out to be a horror film. Having said that, it could read much more horror. The genres from me are much more compartmentalized. The first act is a heist. When we get into the second act, it’s a horror thriller, but more of a psychotronic version of that. And then when we get to the last act, it’s a mystery that builds to the climax.
Yeah. I don’t know what to call Only The Good Survive, to be honest with you. And I made it.
DC: Sidney, what about you? Are you a horror genre-adjacent kind of fan?
SF: I’m more of a fan of ghost stories. I read almost exclusively Stephen King books. Dutch and I actually raced to read one of my favorite books called Insomnia. We had a race, I think I lost.
<laugh> Anyways, when it comes to like film and TV, I really love what Mike Flanagan’s been doing, and not just because we share a name or anything. <laugh> Then anything in that kind of supernatural paranormal realm, I’m a sucker for that shit.
DS: But I would say like the two of the films that did influence Only The Good Survive besides Smithereens by Susan Seidelman was Messiah Of Evil by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck and Carnival Souls by Herk Harvey.
DC: So wait, Sidney, you said Insomnia is your favorite Stephen King book?
SF: It’s definitely the one I’ve read the most.
DC: Wow, that’s an underrated pick. I feel like people don’t talk about that one as much.
SF: Yeah. My dad’s favorite is The Tommyknockers, which is not his best, but it’s also one of his best.
DC: Wait, how did you get introduced to Stephen King? Did your parents introduce you?
SF: My whole family reads Stephen King. I’m not kidding. Everyone is obsessed. There was just a big box of Stephen King paperbacks in the house when I was growing up.
DC: So if you had to be in any Stephen King adaptation, what would you be in, besides Insomnia?
SF: Maybe Bag of Bones.
DC: Dutch, just going back to Only the Good Survive, the editing is kinetic and fun, especially paired with the animation. What was it like working with your editor to create that feel?
DS: So for me, there are two styles of editing. There’s the Walter Murch, which is the cut gets lost when you blink an eye and he wrote a whole book on it. Basically, you don’t notice the editing. Then there’s the Godardian, new wave style which is almost tactile where you can feel the cuts. We were going for something that’s in the middle ground. A big hero of mine growing up was Nicholas Roeg. I had one of our editors Allie watch Don’t Look Now, which is a perfect movie. That and The Man Who Fell To Earth.
So you notice the editing, but it’s still fluid. It’s what I call sense memory editing. That’s kind of what we’re going for where something triggers the cut so you feel the cut, but you want to be taken there regardless. You don’t get pulled out of the film. A lot of that was written in the script and then some of it was stuff that I stole along the way, knowing that we would need and then use as a bridge to connect things that we might be lacking otherwise because we’re a low-budget movie. So with the material being so heavy and the performance being so grounded, everything else needed to be a little more artificial, a little more light.