By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Imaginary friends can help young children deal with all kinds of childhood issues—but what if that pal returns when you’re a young adult, and creates more problems than he solves? That’s the intriguing premise behind the emotional and scary new chiller DANIEL ISN’T REAL, and director/co-writer Adam Egypt Mortimer delves into it in our exclusive chat.
DANIEL ISN’T REAL, coming to select theaters, VOD and digital this Friday, December 6 from Samuel Goldwyn Films and Shudder, starts when its protagonist Luke is a little boy with the titular imaginary playmate. When Daniel becomes a dangerous influence, Luke and his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson)—who has emotional issues of her own—“lock him away” in a dollhouse. Years later, as a college freshman, Luke (Miles Robbins) begins fearing he’ll follow his mom on a path to mental breakdown, and “releases” Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) as a kind of self-therapy, only for Daniel, despite his charisma and initial encouragement of Luke, to prove even more sinister than before. (See our review of the movie here.) Scripted by Mortimer (whom we spoke with at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival) and Brian DeLeeuw, based on the latter’s novel IN THIS WAY I WAS SAVED, DANIEL ISN’T REAL is an engrossing study of a young man with a true devil on his shoulder who’s present only to him, and may only be in his mind…
What were the challenges of making a movie in which one of the characters is imaginary, and is in scenes with other people though only one of them is aware of his presence?
It’s such a unique thing for this movie, and originally when we were writing it, I wasn’t thinking about it from that point of view. Then, when it came time to start thinking about how to make the movie, I was like, “Oh my God, this is insane! Is the audience going to buy this, that you’re seeing this guy standing around, preening and talking, but supposedly nobody sees him?” It was actually during the auditions that it started to come together for me, because I like to make that process very intense, and I learn a lot about the movie that way. So we would put the scene on its feet, and have a Luke and a Daniel both in there, and I remember the first time we did that in an audition, I was like, “This is going to be awesome!” The fact that in what traditionally would be a scene where two people are talking to each other, in this movie there are often three people, creates so much more energy and kineticism. If we could get the audience to accept that nobody else can see Daniel, and they weren’t worried about that aspect of it, that would create a lot more excitement.
The next step was, I wrote a rigorous list of rules about how we would film Daniel. It had to with when he could be in close-up, who we could shoot over the shoulder of, how Daniel shouldn’t be clean in the frame but Luke could be. I developed that, and then I refined it with the cinematographer [Lyle Vincent], and he had this great phrase where he talked about “Buddha-vision.” Lyle is a Buddhist, and that was part of the reason I really vibed with him, because I felt there was kind of a Buddhist element to this movie—the idea that Luke’s perception of Daniel was how the Buddha would see the world if he had Luke’s perception. We thought about that a lot; when we would be setting up a shot, wondering, “Oh fuck, where do we put the camera?”, we were like, “OK, what would the Buddha see?” [Laughs]
We had all these rules—and I’m pretty sure we broke all of them at one point or another—but by having such a thoroughly structured idea about how to film the characters in relation to each other, I believe we created a world where it’s easy for the audience to accept that they’re looking at a character no one else can see. And I’ve noticed in screenings, every so often we’ll go to a sort of punchline shot where you can see the world as it really is, objectively, and that always gets a reaction from the audience, which is cool.
The whole movie was filmed with anamorphic lenses, and every so often, we have shots where it’s like, here’s what the world really looks like, and those are the only times when we used spherical lenses, just to give you that extra bit of difference between the visions—one that you might not even be aware of. So that was the number-one creative challenge of the movie, and I feel like it’s working. Nobody seems to be complaining, like, “I don’t get it, why can’t I see him?” And that had to work; if it didn’t, we would be so fucked [laughs]!
Did anything change between the time when you and Brian DeLeeuw conceived and wrote DANIEL ISN’T REAL and the way it is now?
What surprised me as we were editing was how much I was able to remove and still keep it coherent, and the right length. We shot so much more material about Luke and Daniel when they’re little kids, like a whole sequence where Daniel makes this giant sand castle that awes Luke, and visuals of that became a theme throughout the movie. And when we were editing, I just kept churning things down and down, and wanted that opening act with the kids to be really fast-moving, almost like you were remembering it rather than being in it, so so much had to go. It was also surprising, because on a shoot like this that was so difficult, we would wind up dropping scenes on the day. I would say, “You know what? We don’t need to shoot that scene; let’s just stay on this one thing we’re doing and make it great, and not do that other one.” And then when it was time to edit, I was like, “God, I hope there’s enough movie.”
But then our first rough assembly edit was about two and a half hours long, and we were like, “Oh my God, we have to cut out a ton. Not only did we get enough, we got way too much.” And that was great, because it allowed us to edit it in a way where the pace is really fast, and we could keep taking things out and compressing and make it feel like this manic rush.
Can you tell us about any significant scenes that got lost?
There was one big setpiece that was scripted, that we were set to shoot, that fell out of the movie, where Luke and Daniel and Cassie [Luke’s girlfriend, played by Sasha Lane] steal a tugboat and they’re tooling around the river. We just couldn’t do it because of weather and nightmares like that, but it’s the sort of thing where you don’t miss it when you see the movie. You’re not like, “I really wish there was a scene where they steal a tugboat.” It was a big moment that would have been exciting, but we made peace with not being able to do it, and it’s fine. There are other things in the movie that sort of serve the same purpose.
You were also going to shoot in Philadelphia, but then wound up filming in Brooklyn.
Well, it was originally written for Manhattan, where the book is set, and then we had the idea to go to Philadelphia. So we rewrote the whole script for that and went and explored there for a while, and totally locked it in conceptually. That created a filter, because we saw certain things in Philadelphia that we liked, and when we moved it again and came back to New York [for tax-credit reasons], that wound up making us want to transpose it into Brooklyn, so it mostly takes place there.
One of the main settings is Luke’s childhood home, which was a single-family apartment building in Brooklyn Heights. It has this kind of crumbling-mansion feeling in the middle of the city. We got a place that was completely empty because somebody was selling it, and we decorated it to be this decrepit nightmare. The exterior was under construction, so we had to go somewhere else in the neighborhood to shoot people coming in and out of the door, but that was fine.
DANIEL ISN’T REAL starts as a very interior movie, and gets “bigger” as it goes along. Was that planned from the start?
The idea that it starts where it starts, with the claustrophobia and isolation, and then opens up to total cosmic insanity at the end, was definitely the intention of the structure. That, I believe, is what helps to connect very personal horror, very emotional trauma, to a truly cosmic landscape. It was interesting to start very small—here’s one kid and his problems—and you end up with, here’s the universe. That’s an arc!
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