One of the most unique films I saw at this year’s Fantastic Fest wasn’t some experimental flick about killer tires or a crazy Japanese movie about killer fish store owners, it was a little American indie called A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE. Written by Simon Barrett (DEAD BIRDS), directed by Adam Wingard (POP SKULL) and starring AJ Bowen (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL), Amy Seimetz (WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY) and Joe Swanberg (LOL), AHWTD is a thoughtful and haunting serial killer movie that strives – and succeeds – to be unlike every other serial killer movie.
Hopefully I’ll get off my ass and start working through my Fantastic Fest reviews so I can write about the film at greater length, but in short I think it’s damn good. It’s got a unique approach to what it means to be a serial killer, a very sharp script and a hell of a set of performances in it. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that it took home awards for Best Screenplay, Actor and Actress at the festival.
I wish I could have done it sooner in the fest before director Adam Wingard had to leave, but I did make sure to have a chat with the very cool Simon Barrett, AJ Bowen and producer Travis Stevens over some drinks before they left town. Anchor Bay has picked up their film for US distribution, so I’ll be sure to update things whenever I know when people will be able to see this gem, but in the mean time here’s a nice little interview about serial killers, killer land sharks, the studio system, nihilism in horror and AJ Bowen’s tits*.
*My quest to be the SEO king of the search term “AJ Bowen’s tits” begins!
HND: What was the evolution of A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE like?
Simon Barrett: The script kind of came about because Adam [Wingard] and I were looking to do a project together. We had a couple ideas, a couple false starts, but he was really interested in doing a serial killer project based largely on reading a couple books on Ted Bundy.
I wasn’t inherently too interested in that idea, but talking to him I got the idea of telling the story of a serial killer through his relationships to people who aren’t sociopaths. I felt like that hadn’t been done before, or at least that I hadn’t seen it done a million times like I have every other serial killer story. I thought I might have had something, so I kind of went off on my own and wrote it and then he read it and he was happy, so we kind of just took it from there.
HND: Is that how it came to you two? Through Adam?
Travis Stevens: I’ve been friends with these guys for a long time. Because I had someone experience taking smaller horror films and getting them into a good position, they asked if I wanted to be involved and I said hell yeah. It took a while, but Zak [Zeman] came on board and Evan [Katz] helped out as well.
AJ Bowen: I was the outsider. I didn’t know these guys.
HND: You were just the mercenary that came in?
Bowen: Evan sent me some of Adam’s work and I watched it and liked it. They had sort of an 11th hour passing shuffle and I was kind of close to where they shot it. It was a pretty big role to have to worry about – not as an actor, really, but as a production – that close in. Through a sort of series of happy accidents Adam and I got on the phone and it turns out I had literally just finished reading the same book on Ted Bundy as Adam had.
So we had a long conversation about serial killers and what interested us about them. It was never about the acts of violence, it was always about the minutia. They told me that Joe [Swanberg] and Amy [Seimetz] were set to do the shoot so I told them absolutely. That’s how we ended up in Missouri becoming [he sighs] best friends.
HND: Where did you film in Missouri?
Stevens: Columbia. Almost entirely within the city limits, but the cabin stuff was shot about thirty minutes outside of town.
HND: And when did you guys start?
Stevens: March . It was kind of a quick turn around.
HND: I imagine so because you guys played Toronto, right?
Stevens: Yep, the submission for Toronto was our deadline. Fortunately we got a favorable reaction and so we finished the movie off and it’s been a non-stop train ever since.
HND: So when you’re writing a serial killer movie that you want to tell through the relationships, how do you approach it? Do you have a checklist of “Don’t do this, don’t do this, this movie sucked so definitely don’t do this”?
Barrett: Actually, kind of, yes. Not that I really had to do any research. Travis mentioned this the other day, but we watch all these movies just because we love horror films, so it’s not like I haven’t seen the good ones – SE7EN, ZODIAC, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, DAHMER – and all of the excruciatingly bad ones. But the reality is it’s not just avoiding what the bad ones did, it’s avoiding the stuff the good ones did that’s gone on to be emulated by every other film.
It’s just trying to do something new. There are certain cliches you do want to avoid. There are basically two kinds of serial killer films. The procedural, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS kind and then the inside-the-mind-of-a-psychopath kind like HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and DAHMER. Both have really been done to death. Whether it’s a comedy or a serious film, it’s all kind of the same thing. Basically I felt by approaching it they way we did we already had something that hadn’t been seen a thousand times, so I didn’t have to go too far out of my way to avoid the cliches.
We didn’t want too much of the Nietzschean superhero protagonist thing going on for various reasons. We didn’t want to be too exploitative with the violence. Other than that it was kind of just what felt right.
HND: [To AJ] How do you approach a character like Garrick? You’ve played a number of darker characters–
Bowen: Thank you. I like “darker” because sometimes when you play people who have committed acts of violence a couple times – and I haven’t done that many, it’s just that’s what people see of my work – there can be a big difference between them. On paper it’s just a dude who hurts people, but when it came to this one all of the conversations we had…
Actually, I had to make a point of this when we were talking to someone earlier because they were wondering if I meant this negatively: We’re all in the horror world, but honestly, when we found out we were nominated last night for awards, we were surprised it was in horror.
Barrett: Yeah, we didn’t realize that.
Bowen: It’s fair and it’s not like we’re trying to escape the clutches of genre filmmaking at all. It’s home, it’s where we live. But we live so much in that world that, for this particular film, all of us thought we were telling the most fucked up love story genre. Really, that’s what we thought we were doing.
So when it came to that character, there were some things that were so transparently clear when we were getting ready to film… Sarah’s alcoholism, this fascination with celebrity, and some other parallels with that … the behavioral compulsive disorder and what if this guy knows what he’s doing and it makes him sick. He’s ill and he knows that he’s ill and desperately doesn’t want to be doing it, but there’s no 12-step program for killing people.
So from that angle, the trick was just to take it seriously. These were serious people with serious problems so glorify the act of violence… like a lot of the films Simon was talking about, those movies almost make the serial killer out to be, I don’t want to say it, but the protagonist.
HND: The centerpiece, definitely.
Bowen: Yeah. And what we tried to deal with was not so much the act of violence, but the moment before and the period after, so that you’re dealing with the concept of thrill kill and also someone thinking, “Oh, this isn’t going to happen.” absolutely believing they’re not going to do it. And then we’re gone for the time that he’s gone in the middle of this process and we get back to him. Even with the way Adam shot it, it’s kind of out of focus, and he comes back and realizes, “Fuck, I can’t believe I did this again.” It’s absolute self-hatred.
There’s no sympathy in society – and I’m not saying their should be – but we were trying to make our take on how fine the line is between reason and insanity. We thought if we towed that line and showed both sides of it, people might not necessarily sympathize with it, but at least understand it a little bit about how they ended up there.
Like I said before, to me that’s scary. A big shark, unless I’m in the ocean, that’s not scary.
Barrett: Well, I mean, if a big shark rolls up on you in a truck…
Bowen: I would shit. I would definitely shit.
Barrett: That’s pretty intense.
Bowen: What really scares me is when you hear about people like Bundy, who were so charismatic and so good to the people in their life who they loved and then you see on the 5 o’clock news their neighbor saying, “Oh, he was such a nice guy.” It’s these terrible acts of violence towards other people, this complete lack of humanity that can completely negate them being good to the people they love in their life. I’m not saying that’s unfair, but we were trying to figure out if you can just get rid of one and live in the other.
But that’s not how life is. So we tried to show both without passing judgment on either.
Stevens: I think to Adam’s credit and Simon’s credit, the reason why the movie focuses on what it focuses on is because that was the stuff that was most interesting to us. Maybe it’s because we’re such consumers of these films, but we thought if we were going to do it, what’s left that’s interesting to do?
I’m sure you’ve seen a bunch of the films here. We’re still in this cycle where people want to be The Most Brutal Film Ever Made and it’s like, “Fuck that, dude.” I want to be the movie that you’re thinking about, the one where you’re into the characters and not just a visual “That movie raped my mind!”
HND: That’s kind of my exact take on the film, actually. Particularly compared to this year’s Fantastic Fest programming slate, which is really nihilistic and in your face.
Barrett: I’m really sick of seeing people get raped and tortured and I’ve only been here a few days.
HND: I have to see I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE tonight and I am not looking forward to it.
Barrett: Oh, yeah…
Bowen: I don’t think I’m alone on this, but my whole life I’ve had a serious problem with nihilism. I can’t handle it in film. To me it’s not human, it’s an act, and so the concept of nihilism always gets reduced down to this act of violence that’s pornographic. It’s completely uninteresting to me because when it ceases to be human, I can’t identify with any of that.
Barrett: I actually really like violent films.
Bowen: I do too, it’s just when there’s bleakness and no hope and there never is hope that I don’t.
Stevens: Going in for us, originally there was a darker ending. We were all, well, like this.
Barrett: The thing is, it depends on why you’re doing what you’re doing. Some of the most violent films of the past few years – SERBIAN FILM, MARTYRS, INSIDE – I think are really great. But they were either trying to be entertaining or make some kind of political point or they had some reasoning behind them.
I guess I feel that trying to explore the brutality of an act isn’t without merit, it’s just that it’s been done and there’s no point in making a film the way we made this film – which is to say outside of the studio system with very little resources – if you’re not going to try to do something original that you couldn’t have made within the studio system. My goal when I started this was that there’s no project I’d want to do with Adam Wingard that I could give to my agent and try to get bankrolled and get paid. There’s no point, so let’s do something no one would agree with.
It is interesting what AJ said. I did think that I wasn’t really making a horror film, I was making more of a very dark love story. But our backgrounds are so steeped in horror that even when we make a love story, it’s still too much of a horror movie to be classified in any other genre. And that’s okay, man. That’s fine. At least we’re trying.
Bowen: I’m going to bring this other movie up, but not because in any way, shape or form do I think our film is anywhere near the same merit level of it. But to me… in retrospect, to be fair, I don’t think a lot of it was calculated. I don’t think we thought about how can we intellectualize this, it was just that we were naturally all interested in the same ideas and were having the same conversations. But you take a movie in contemporary cinema that deals with a hot button topic, like, say, homosexuality.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Nine times out of ten that movie gets made and it’s about an act of sex that has nothing at all to do with what the problems are. What I love about that movie is that it’s about the human consequence of being around something you can’t be around. It’s the least gender-specific movie, but so many people see it and go “Oh, that’s the gay movie.” But it’s not, really. It’s about when you give into your own selfish inclinations and the movie is mostly about the effect that has on the people you love in your life. And to that end I think there’s a fairly similar approach.
It’s not about this dude killing people, it’s about what happens to the woman he loves; it’s about what happens when that woman is now alcohol and can’t have focus in her life; it’s about what happens when you give in to these base desires without thinking what impact they will have.
Barrett: The amazing thing about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is that it’s a film we all loved. They found an original way to do a romantic tragedy. Tragic romance is like the most amazing genre, but they’re really not easy. The good ones tend to get remade over and over and over again, such as Romeo and Juliet, obviously. In my own B-horror steeped genre root ways, I was definitely at least trying to do a love tragedy.
HND: I think you pulled it off.
Barrett: Well thank you. I think my point is that, at least in trying, I know that I’d set out with page one of the script that at least it wouldn’t be DAHMER 2 or TED BUNDY 3.
Bowen: With a lot of indie genre filmmaking – and no judgment, because it works for some people – it can seem like, “Hey, you know what would look cool?” and they string together 35 of those ideas into a 90-minute movie that has no basis in the human experience. We never once said anything about what would look cool.
Stevens: Well, when you’re as cool us…
(laughs all around)
Barrett: Every now and then we talked about what we would do if we weren’t cool.
Stevens: Originally Garrick came into the cabin on roller skates, but it just wasn’t working.
Bowen: Yeah, he was dressed like roller girl; because I’ve got tits for days. We were trying to make that happen, but we didn’t have the budget for the roller skates.
HND: Aww, so we can’t expect to see that as a deleted scene? What about the alternate ending? Did you guys shoot that?
Stevens: No, we never did. Should we talk about the alternate ending in detail?
[Note: We did talk about the alternate ending for a few minutes, but considering A) the actual ending is much better and B) the film is still creeping its way into the public, I'm not going to drop huge spoilers here. Maybe after the film has been out for a while I'll transcribe this portion of the interview. Maybe not.]
Barrett: I think something a lot of screenwriters don’t acknowledge is that there is a difference between a script and a film and that when you’re writing a screenplay sometimes you have to say things that shouldn’t be said in the final version. Not that I think any script is a finished work of art, anyway.
Bowen: Most writers do.
Barrett: I know. I’m not David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin so I can’t speak for them personally, but I think it’s a very collaborative process and I’m very comfortable working with people and seeing what they bring to it. I don’t care at all if my dialog is improved and I can then take credit for it later. Not at all.
For me, as a screenwriter, I will sometimes explicitly write dialog that I know if I direct it or if someone else directs it that that line is not going to be necessary based on the performance. But it’s necessary as a screenplay that executives are going to be reading and rarely does that get talked about.
I don’t understand how screenwriters who demand that their lines be continually spoken verbatim write, actually. They definitely don’t write like I do. I’ve never read an Aaron Sorkin script, but I’m sure they’re wonderful. They just don’t write like I do, but I also write very quick.
Bowen: I would say that the structure of what Simon wrote is 100% there. When I got the script there was nothing that said flashback anywhere, it just read almost like a dream. From the beginning you can tell it’s on a collision course, everything is on a collision course: the alcoholism, the murdering; these two people, these other people– everyone is on a path that’s leading to a conflict and a resolution.
When we started actively shooting it we would go crazy far out and Simon would be there when we completely changed scenes and yet somehow, after we tried things out, we’d always be back pretty much right where we were. We’d go out on weird tangents- we always shot the whole scene, not just bits. Like the end of the movie, we shot that whole scene every time.
Bowen: We had to! Part of it was that we didn’t know what Adam was going for but we trusted him so much because he also ran the cameras that we knew he would get what he was looking for. So every time we were finding new things and it gave Adam the freedom to find what he was looking for.
Adam said it earlier and I think it’s brilliant, but basically what he was doing was that he treated the camera like a flashlight and we’re in a world where the camera is zeroing in.
HND: It’s funny you say that because I was going to make a similar comment. I’ve heard people complaining about the camera work and that it’s perhaps a little disorienting, but I actually found it really enhanced the narrative by being an observer that floated in and tracked this story but would occasionally lose it and then find it again.
Barrett: I think it forces the viewer to engage on a somewhat more intellectual level. He’s editing within the shot, making choices you have to consider. It’s not for everyone, but the script definitely wasn’t for everyone, either. I think it’s interesting to see how some people, like yourself, are responding in a very positive way while other people just aren’t willing to go for that ride.
Bowen: And seriously, on our end, no one’s upset. When you’re telling a story – and we’re all passionate about this as a concept – you have to tell the story you are trying to tell. However many people that are into it is whatever as long as you try to tell a true story. If it’s 5, great; if it’s 5 million, great. So people that have legitimate beef with the way the story was told visually, that’s totally cool. Because it isn’t for everyone, it’s just for people like us.
Stevens: Exactly. And we’ve hated on so many other movies, so we get it.
Barrett: If you want to know how I support other filmmakers just follow me on Twitter. Though I’ve been polite this festival…