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Exclusive Interview: Director Adam Egypt Mortimer speaks the truth about “DANIEL ISN’T REAL,” Part Two

Monday, December 9, 2019 | Exclusive, Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

With DANIEL ISN’T REAL now in select theaters and on VOD and digital courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films and Shudder, we continue our talk with director/co-writer Adam Egypt Mortimer that began here.

DANIEL ISN’T REAL, which Mortimer scripted with Brian DeLeeuw from the latter’s novel IN THIS WAY I WAS SAVED, stars Miles Robbins as Luke, a college student with severe emotional issues. He tries to deal with them by “releasing” Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), an imaginary friend from his childhood who at first helps boost his confidence, but then begins exerting a dangerous hold on his life and actions. (See our review of the movie here.)

The relationship between Luke and his girlfriend Cassie (Sasha Lane) incorporates very modern issues of consent. What that a particular concern when you were writing DANIEL ISN’T REAL?

Yeah, though that stuff wasn’t in the script, but it was very important to me once we started choreographing how to do the scenes. There are two big sex scenes in the movie, and I was very interested in using them as part of the storytelling, where you can see the differences in points of view between the characters. There’s something that changes or drives the story in both cases, because a lot of times, sex scenes don’t matter to the story, and I felt these had to be dramatically important. I thought about how David Cronenberg’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE has a pair of sex scenes that really inform how the characters have changed throughout the film.

The idea of consent was something we don’t ever see in movies. I really can’t think of another film that shows that, and there’s been so much discussion about it. People are always so concerned about that, like, “How can you do that? How can you get verbal consent when you’re in the heat of the moment?” It’s something people are really anxious about, and I thought it would be helpful, in a movie about young people, to depict it in a way where it’s like, you can just do what these characters do. It’s hot, it’s sexy, everybody’s happy. That was something the actors were stoked to explore. Horror movies have so often revolved around sexual violence, and I’m sort of tired of seeing that, and even in the second sex scene, which is a very dangerous moment and one where things go terribly wrong for Luke, Hannah Marks’ character is also tacitly giving consent. There’s a whole thing where she takes out a condom, and you understand that this is consensual. They’re much more impassioned and rushed than in the other scene, but consent is still an important aspect of it.

Miles was also interested, however, in making this a movie about toxic masculinity and this sort of modern-day incel problem. He was thinking about it in terms of, how can we deconstruct young men to be more vulnerable, and play on them as being aggressive. He had all these thoughts, and he performed them emotionally. So everybody was on board for what I wanted to do in those scenes. It’s tough, because you have to be honest; I was like, “I’ve got to be honest; it’s awkward to figure out how to film stuff like this.” I remember I first said that to Hannah, and she was like, “Yeah, it’s awkward for everyone, it’s fine, we’ll figure it out.” And the actors really came for it. We carefully choreographed it; when we were in rehearsal, it was like, “OK, she lies down, and you kiss her, and then what if you go down on her, and then she touches your head…” You have to get so specific and tell them what to do, so that they don’t feel awkward, and then they can really embody it. And once you do that in a rehearsal, it’s like, now we’re all friends!

Then there’s the sequence where Luke and Cassie are in the school-bus depot, and they’re playing around there, and that was also a lovely evening where that stuff was so improvised. We would just find an area in the depot, turn on the camera and let them do all these things, and they found so much to experience together.

It sounds like you had more rehearsal time than is typical for an independent film.

We had a good amount of it. I mean, for a movie like this, having any rehearsal time is amazing, and I had a full week with Luke and Daniel, and then Sasha came in a couple of days into that. She’s so wonderful; she’s such a live actor, and the first thing she said when she walked into the rehearsal was, “Hi, guys, I’m here, basically I’m bad at acting, so don’t hold that against me.” And we were like, “What are you talking about?” We started the scene, and she immediately did something very awesome and inspiring, and we were like, “Ohhhh…” It’s not that she’s self-deprecating, she’s just so in the moment that she doesn’t even think about it as acting. When you have somebody like that, it makes it really easy for the other actors to connect to her.

It’s also great to see Mary Stuart Masterson back in DANIEL ISN’T REAL as Luke’s mother.

We were very lucky to have her. She lives in New York, so it was easy to put her in the movie. I keep thinking about how cute it is that she was in SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL, and my first movie was SOME KIND OF HATE, so there was some kind of spiritual connection there! She’s so experienced and so smart, and she’s been directing for the past few years, so I could rely on her in a way that was different than the younger actors. With them, you’re wondering what they’ll do, it’s really spontaneous, and with Mary, I could tell her what the scene was, and she would do it four different, amazing ways, and we would have it. I just wanted to keep filming her. We shot a lot more of her for the opening scenes, the childhood stuff, than we wound up using for pacing reasons, but it was so much fun to film somebody of that skill level.

Was it difficult finding the right kids to play the younger versions of the leads?

It wasn’t like an endless nationwide search. It was more difficult to find the stars, the perfect people to play the main characters. Griffin [Robert Faulkner], the kid who plays young Luke, tried out for both roles, and he was so sweet and adorable that it made sense for him to be Luke. What’s interesting is that the two little boys are exactly like their older counterparts, the way they approach acting and what they look like and what their conversations are like. Miles and Patrick are very different kinds of actors, and the kids playing their younger selves turned out to be that way also.

DANIEL ISN’T REAL has been described as a horror version of DROP DEAD FRED. Was that film actually an influence on DANIEL in general, or any specific scenes?

It’s funny—I will be honest and say that I did not see DROP DEAD FRED until right before we started filming DANIEL, because people were telling me that even based on the script. My agent in particular was saying, “It’s like DROP DEAD FRED!” and I was like, “Why are you saying that?” [Laughs] It’s interesting that that’s a movie that is so important to people who might see this one. I feel like DROP DEAD FRED has this great concept, and I love Phoebe Cates, but it doesn’t quite look like the kind of movie that excites me; it’s got this very flat, ’90s, “I don’t know, we’re just going to point the camera at some people being goofy!” quality to it. It’s true that there are a lot of similarities, just totally not on purpose; maybe that’s just what happens when you make a grown-up-imaginary-friend movie. You know, a lot of the story structure comes from Brian’s novel, and I don’t think he ever saw DROP DEAD FRED; he never knew what I was talking about when I mentioned it. I guess there’s just this universal truth in both DROP DEAD FRED and DANIEL ISN’T REAL. We should do a crossover: Daniel vs. Fred! That would be insane.

What’s next for you?

Well, I have a script that I wrote that I’ve been talking about with SpectreVision. It’s a science fiction, crime, gritty, cosmic superhero deconstruction that I’m extremely excited about. I wrote it a couple of years ago before doing DANIEL, and it explores things I’m very interested in about comic books and superheroes that I don’t think have ever been expressed in the way that people are doing superhero movies now. I think there’s a completely different way to approach that material, and that’s what I’m trying to do. And I’m also looking for scripts; I would love for someone to give me a fucking amazing screenplay that plays to my strengths, so I’m reading them all the time now, trying to find something.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.