“The horror movies that I like the most are the ones that are a little off-center, and ones that we haven’t seen a million times before,” explained director Darren Lynn Bousman as we discussed his latest movie, Death of Me. “I think that with something like this, it’s not a new or necessarily unique storyline as we’ve seen things like it in The Wicker Man and other movies, but what we wanted to do is try to present it in a way that you had not seen before.”
“Just taking it and setting it in Thailand, making half the dialogue in Thai and then not subtitling it, trying to put our unique spin on it, I think that is much cooler because it makes the audience pay attention more. And audiences are hungry for horror right now. Over the last 100 years or so, we’ve seen that when the world is a dumpster fire scenario, which 2020 is, we lean into that rather than away from it. You look at World War II and the horror movies and creature films that came out of that. It’s an interesting thing.”
The filmmaker is right there with them.
“I find myself as an audience member watching more and more macabre and disturbing movies, which sounds crazy.,” he confessed. “If you turn on the news, it is already so f***ed up, but I think it’s perhaps escapism and a darkness you kind of control or maybe you watch something like this and think, “Well, I guess life could be worse?’ I don’t know if there was anything that we did in Death of Me that is worse than what’s going on every single day, right now, when you turn on the news.”
In Death of Me, Maggie Q and Luke Hemsworth play a couple whose exotic vacation becomes a nightmare when they discover a video showing one of them killing the other.
“Last year I did a movie called Spiral, which was my return to the Saw universe, Bousman recalled. “You do a movie like that with a studio, and you have all the tools at your disposal, six weeks of prep, you have six weeks of shooting and then 14 weeks of editing. You have the time and ability to breathe and try and fail and then retry again. There is almost a safety blanket. With a movie like with Death of Me, there’s none of that.”
“I landed in Thailand, and we started shooting 14 days later. I got Maggie Q the day before we rolled cameras. There were no rehearsals, you’re running and gunning, you’re stealing shots, you’re working with a crew that doesn’t speak English, and so this is the true definition of guerilla filmmaking. Both of them are narrative films, both of them are movies that people will consume, but the experience of making those two movies could not have been more different. For me, as a creator, something is enthralling about movies like this because you have to think on your feet, you have to be quick, you can’t second-guess yourself. “
He added, “On something like Spiral, we would sit around for days and weeks discussing certain story points. Everyone got to have their voice heard. On a movie like Death of Me, there’s none of that. It’s like, ‘Hey, guys, this is what we want to shoot. Let’s go!’ and we’re rolling cameras five seconds later.”
With production companies and studios hunger for scalable and franchisable IPs, did Bousman consider his latest indie horror to be a standalone film or as the first in a series?
“I think when you go into any movie, you just hope that that movie works well enough that people would want to see more,” he explained. “Movies that I thought people would never talk about sequels for are the ones people ask for. A movie I made in 2010 with Rebecca De Mornay, called Mother’s Day, was always envisioned as a standalone movie. There was serious talk about a sequel when we finished it, and I was like, ‘How could this have a sequel?’ Then I got excited about the idea of doing a sequel to it. Death of Me always felt like its own individual story. Still, there’s something to be said about other cultures, other islands, different beliefs that could be an interesting and fun exploration.”
Bousman is no stranger to franchises, having directed three films in the wildly successful billion-dollar Saw series, Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV. With budgets ranging from $4 million to $10 million, they grossed $147.7 million, $164.9 million, and $139.4 million, respectively.
“I had a blessing and a curse in that doing Saw II, I was 24 when I shot it, and that movie spawned more sequels. Now I’ve done four sequels to Saw, and whenever people take a meeting with me, they always want their own Saw,” he mused. “There’s a lot to live up to there because James Wan and Leigh Whannell created a very cool movie that could have many, many sequels. Of course, everyone wants their own Saw, but not every movie can do that, not every movie has engaging enough characters or a villain or premise. Saw was lightning in the bottle.”
Saw is a world the director didn’t expect to return to.
“A decade ago, I said I would never return. By the way, that’s not because I didn’t love Saw, I did three of those movies back to back, but I felt like I had done my tenure,” Bousman explained. “I felt there was nothing left to for me say. Well, a lot can happen in a decade. I became a father, and then I became a father again. I grew up, lost my hair, and became fat, right? Then all of a sudden, I started thinking, ‘You know what? I could come back, and there could be an interesting take on it.’ It wasn’t until Mark Burg and Oren Koules, the film’s producers, called me and asked if I wanted to hear a take from Chris Rock. How can you turn that down? Chris Rock has a take on Saw? I want to do that. I met with him, I heard his take on it, and I was like, ‘Holy s**t. This is amazing.’ I had no intention of returning to Saw, but I had to do this.”
When the news broke that comedian Rock had come up with the idea for Spiral, it raised eyebrows.
“I didn’t see that coming. I had the exact same reaction as everyone else when the news broke, I just said, ‘That Chris Rock?’ It was such a weird moment in my career,” he recalled. “I was actually in New York to talk about doing a gargantuan immersive theater production on Broadway, and I was looking for places to stay. The exact same day that I got the offer to do that, the deal was being done, and Mark Burg called me about coming back to Los Angeles right away and meeting Chris Rock for lunch the following day. I got straight back to LA, and I had this weird meta moment that I’ll never forget.”
“There I am at my house. I am watching Tamborine on Netflix
Spiral, the ninth film in the Saw franchise, was due to land in theaters in May 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will now be released on May 21, 2021. The decision to hold the film back instead or releasing it on VOD is one Bousman understands and agrees with.
“This is the movie business, and so Lionsgate made a business decision, and that decision was, ‘We want to back this as a theatrical experience, not a VOD experience.’ They very easily could have dropped this on VOD, no question. Spiral could have been on VOD a month after you finished it, but they really believe in the project,” he said. “The thing we all agree on is that this is a movie that you want to see with a large group of people.”
“We did a screening of the movie back in February or March, right before the pandemic. It was a roomful of about 100 people. We knew it was cool, we’d watched it, but when you watch it with a roomful of people, the laughs when Chris Rock would say something humorous and the gasps when the violence would occur was something energetic and palpable. When you hear that kind of reaction, you know this has to be seen in the theater. Spiral is not a movie you watch on VOD for the first time. I commend Lionsgate for making that decision.”
While he wouldn’t be drawn on whether or not more Saw is in his future, it seems like a sequel to the aforementioned Mother’s Day isn’t on the cards. It had a limited theatrical release in key cities and grossed just $862,769 against an $11 million budget.
“I love Mother’s Day, but it was a colossal failure when it first came out,” he lamented. “We made the movie in 2009, it came out in 2010 and basically going the straight-to-video was the kiss of death. Releasing that way had such a stigma around it. It was very different from how we think of movies that debut on streamers nowadays.”
“Mother’s Day found an audience, and people still talk about it today. Once it garnered that cult following, we had an idea for this second movie called The Brothers Koffin, the criminals’ family name in the movie, which would have been a prequel. It never went anywhere. I also directed Repo! A Genetic Opera, and we intended for that to be the first film in a trilogy. Again, that never happened. Sometimes you have these lofty ideas for things, but it never goes anywhere.”
Death of Me is available in select theaters and on VOD.