An interview with director Bryan Bertino
Next to violation of the self, the idea of an intrusion upon one’s home – the most personal embryonic space – taps a deeply chilling nerve. Often, the reluctant viewer is positioned as a witness to the aftermath of cinematic violent invasions (Manhunter), whereas other not-so-lucky participants are given a front row seat to madness from beginning to dismal end (Funny Games).
Texas native Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers falls into the latter category introducing us to Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), a couple who, one night, are victims of a home attack enacted by a handful of masked “strangers.”
Rogue Pictures intends to release the film in early 2008 – a slight change from a planned summer ’07 bow. ShockTillYouDrop.com met Bertino – a slender, tanned and tattooed figure whose accent is unmistakable – on a sunny afternoon at the San Diego Comic-Con where he previewed The Strangers before a packed hall with stars Tyler and Speedman.
Shock: Where did this story come from for you? Were you inspired by a true account in particular or was it from a deeper reverence for these kinds of films?
Bertino: This was the first thing I’d ever written that was scary. I love drama, I love writing drama. I love characters but what I wanted to do was create complicated characters. Create a base. I think what scary movies allow you to do is you can take any character that has a background and cut them to the core. Like, at the end of the day, no matter whether they’re a good person or bad, we’re all going to react instinctively and I love the concept of being able to do that. What I love about horror films is if you go to see a great drama, you’re going to leave emotionally exhausted. You go to a great horror film and you’re going to leave emotionally exhausted, so when I decided to make something like this, I said, “What if I took both and put them together?” Could that reach people even more? Because I don’t think people do it enough.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: And it’s purely a home invasion film?
Bryan Bertino: The core idea is, you wake up in the middle of the night and you hear something outside – that was the inspiration more than anything. You go down into the living room and you turn on the light, what if somebody was standing there? From the beginning that’s what I wanted to do. Take characters that you cared about and felt like you were in the house with them, put them in a situation and for no rhyme or reason bad things started to happen.
Shock: Being a first-timer in the realm of feature directing, was sustaining what sounds like consistent tension difficult in any way?
Bertino: To me, I like to think of my scripts as really small, but really big. And that you find the hugeness of the situation in the fact that it’s very real. It wasn’t difficult to sustain energy in that as long as you felt like you were with Scott and Liv, then hopefully you’ll find it exhilarating too. A car doesn’t have to explode to make it thrilling and that’s not going to happen to us in this film. But you could have a situation where someone comes at you.
Shock: It’s quite a coup for you to land the cast that you did. Minimal cast too. Can you talk about that?
Bertino: Liv, Scott and I…it was every day for us. I was talking about it to Scott yesterday, looking back on that experience, there wasn’t a day on that set where somebody wasn’t screaming or crying about something. For them as actors, I think that’s what drew them to the project, but at the same time, we were all worn out. There was never a light moment, never that “easy” scene. It was always something where they had to be ready. With actors like Scott and Liv, they come from such an organic place – they had to put themselves there. I think in horror films you find yourself in situations where people are phoning it in. But this was so much about being there, feeling it, that those guys never got time off emotionally.
Shock: Did that make your job slightly easier knowing they were willing to commit wholeheartedly to the material?
Bertino: It was one of the reasons I really pushed them. I always knew I wanted actors that were accessible. But I loved the fact that Liv had worked with Robert Altman. I mean, she had done ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Armageddon’ but she had done giant, ensemble situations where it was like improv for forty-five minutes and Altman was able to just move around with the camera. She was able to bring some of that to the table. With Scott, whether it was looking back at ‘Felicity’ or whatever, he had gone long hours of building characters so we were able to jump in. It was great for me – I’m glad I pushed and wanted those people.
Shock: Were there any instances during shooting where everyone stepped back and wondered if you were all going too far? How do you approach the “strangers”? As humans? Monsters?
Bertino: The climax of this movie. As the movie boils down to what’s going to happen at the end – are people gonna get attacked? – it wasn’t a flashy thing, it was done in a realistic way. I think it was very frightening and terrifying for everybody. For the Strangers, I didn’t want to think of them as monsters, I wanted to think of them as people. That had its good benefits and its bad because they had to explore what it would be like to kill somebody, hurt somebody. Not in a cool slasher way but in a “this is what it’d be like to beat a man” or stab somebody. I think that’s hard for anybody. I never saw the Strangers as glorified extras, they were the key to the whole thing. There were definitely moments when it was too much.
Shock: The masks presented on the poster and in the film are curiously amassing a fanbase all their own on the web before the film is even released…
Bertino: I love the masks, too. We worked so hard on them. In the script there was some base concept description of them. I wanted them to feel like something these people could have bought at Wal-Mart or wherever. The “man” wears a bag, and I imagine it’s something he made thirty minutes before he got to the house. What I think is great is that people are connecting to them the way they are because it doesn’t feel unbelievable, it feels real. To me, in a movie where you have masks, you want them to work and I think we’ve been fortunate that we lucked out. I had a great artist that would with me for hours and I’d make her draw and draw, but she helped me find what I was looking for.
Shock: Well, some of the best films lean in either direction – Rosemary’s Baby is heavily reliant on character. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre plays to more primal, visceral scares.
Bertino: The thing of it is, even if you go back to the original ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ – the purity of that movie actually works the same way ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ did. I grew up in Texas, I knew what it was like to be in a van with 105-degree weather. The fact that slasher films have become what it is, to me, is so different than what it initially started out to be.
Shock: And that was?
Bertino: Put a bunch of kids in a van and you’re saying you understand what it’s like to be them and that’s why I love ’70s genre. It gave you the time. Other than a hiccup, nothing happens in ‘The Exorcist’ for the first thirty minutes you just feel like you’re in this house with this woman whose daughter is not feeling right. I want ‘The Strangers’ to push how far you could go with character development. Liv, Scott and I always talked about how we wanted the audience to give a shit about these people even if nobody’s coming through the door. I don’t think a lot of horror films don’t do that.
Shock: Have you had time to tinker with the film now that it’s no longer coming out this summer?
Bertino: No, we’ve basically been finished and it got pushed mostly because in today’s Hollywood, these movies are coming out in 4,000 screens. ‘Spider-Man,’ ‘Harry Potter,’ it’s not like it was four or five years ago where you counter-program whatever. You go to the movies and those two films are like the only things that are playing. I’m happy the studio didn’t bury it, they believe in it. So if that means pushing it to the beginning of the year so it will have a chance to let people see our movie, I was thrilled to not get killed by ‘Harry Potter.’ I was going to go see ‘Harry Potter’ so… [laughs]
Shock: I’ve always thought summer was a bad time for horror…
Bertino: Yeah, and I think of this movie as a cold weather kinda movie anyway. It felt better to me to see it in the time period it’s meant to be seen. You want to snuggle up next to the girl or guy you care about. When the characters light a fire in the film, it’s going to feel right.
Shock: Did you make any alterations in post-production to give the look a ’70s feel?
Bertino: My cinematographer [Peter Sova] shot ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ and ‘Diner,’ so one of the things we didn’t want to do was not hit people over the head with the ’70s with this super-contrasty, grainy thing people are doing now. We wanted it to be clean. What people will see is something incredibly dark and warm. We wanted it to feel like you’re inside the house, so we purposely stayed away from greens and blues and bleach bypass and said let’s shoot it as clean and real as possible. Light with practical. We tried to break down that fourth wall. I think with so many horror films now, you’re aware you’re watching them. Don’t overwhelm with a score, believe in your characters. Let’s put them in a room and let the camera flow.
Shock: Are you going to continue down a path of horror in your career?
Bertino: Yeah, I’m working with Scott Rudin on something I wrote a while back, so we’ve still been developing it.
Source: Ryan Rotten