By RYAN COLEMAN
The Boy (2016)…in the words of YouTube rant queen Alex from HRH Collection, “if you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t. If you know, you know. And if you don’t know? I honestly feel bad for you.” William Brent Bell’s (Stay Alive, The Devil Inside) strange, hilarious, overwrought mishmash of 2010s horror tropes — brunette heroine trying to outrun her traumatized past, the re-embrace of the classic haunted gothic manor setting, spooky old people with a secret — remains, to my mind, one of the most overlooked horror films of the past decade, and the directorl hopes to recapture some of the magic that Brahms let out of the bottle in his latest release, SEPARATION, which features a lively gang of haunted doll-adjacent characters.
The film follows Jeff, a comic artist with a stalled career played by Rupert Friend, who also executive produces. Jeff is going through a rocky separation with Maggie (Mamie Gummer), who once worked on comics with him, but has since grown up, gotten an adult job, and has come to resent Jeff for his inability to do the same. Caught in the middle of their hostilities is their young daughter Jenny, who escapes into a dark world of fantasy, populated by the characters of her Dad’s one and only hit comic —The Grisly Kin. As their lives get rockier and more uncertain, the controlled malevolence once safely housed on Jeff’s pages threatens to leap off, blurring the line between reality and make-believe, and Jenny’s safety hangs in the balance.
Rue Morgue sat down with William Brent Bell ahead of the release of SEPARATION, the director’s most personal film to date, to talk haunted dolls, working with studios, and the horror of divorce.
First I’d love to hear a reflection from you. You’ve done a lot to establish yourself as a bankable studio horror director over the past twenty years. Looking back at your credits, you started out doing visual effects, set decoration, editing, you’ve written quite a few screenplays. When you look at your career from the perspective of the past, is this what you imagined? Is this the direction you thought you were heading?
As a kid, all the way through high school, I was always making movies. Growing up in a place like Kentucky, though, I never thought I’d be making them professionally. It didn’t seem possible. At some point I thought I had to come out here and at least try. I had a friend who moved to Vegas who helped me with my first movie, but aside from him, I didn’t know anybody for 2,000 miles. At first I wanted to learn everything I could, because I wanted to be able to speak everyone’s language on set. So I learned how lighting works, how production design and art direction works, and once I felt like I had learned enough it was time to try and make my own movie. That led to this one tiny movie – a screenplay, Mercury, which was bought by Universal but never produced – and that movie got me signed. As things went on, I fell into a niche that I’m still in today — high concept horror ideas told from a grounded, personal perspective.
Was horror always the end game?
I always loved horror. Not in a way like I had Friday the 13th posters all over my room, but a fascination started early. After my parents got divorced, when my mother had us on weekends she would take us to go see scary movies. My sister would also show me scary movies. My whole family is kind of macabre. My aunt would read from these old Gothic novellas, which were terrifying. I think as a kid that just soaked in, so I’ve always had a really active imagination about scary stuff.
Starting out, some of the movies that we wrote, me and my writing partner Matt Peterman who worked together for years, they were huge Matrix-type movies. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes they were thrilling. But none of them went anywhere — that’s the Hollywood system. Eventually it was like, I didn’t come here to be a writer I came here to be a filmmaker. And that’s when we made Stay Alive. By that time we were well known enough, I had already made one small film, and we were able to put Stay Alive together from the ground up. It was supposed to be a tiny movie but it ended up going big – $27 million global gross on a $7 million budget. That was the first studio film that I did.
In between movies, if I’m working with producers or studios they sometimes ask what I want to do next, and I’ll kind of point to the top shelf and say, “I want to do that.” Some ambitious, big-budget movie no one’s picked up yet. But I’ve learned over time that those projects can be so political. Working with studios, it’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen. And the best horror films always came from auteurs working on shoestring budgets. You look at Halloween or Friday the 13th, they started off as these grounded yet fun, smart, small movies. Eventually the filmmaker steps away from it and five sequels later they’re just caricatures of themselves. That’s the hard part about making movies like The Boy. Working in that bigger space with bigger producers and studios, they honestly don’t get horror at all. But they certainly have an opinion. And they have a lot of control. They can really screw up what you’re trying to do with the movie. I could go into what happened with each movie on a case-by-case basis but, ultimately, I’m very grateful for the lane that I’m in. SEPARATION was a very personal project for me, and that posed a creative challenge. Finishing the film that I just worked on, Orphan: First Kill, now that’s another big creative challenge for me, but it’s an even more ridiculous challenge for Isabelle Fuhrman to play a child at 24 years old.
What would you say was the biggest creative challenge on the SEPARATION set?
Working with the producers on this one, for them it was a pretty big movie, but for me it actually felt a bit tight. Shooting in Brooklyn was awesome, but it was super challenging. The power that the crew and the unions have — it’s real. The cost can stack up very quickly. Our lead, Violet [McGraw] was amazing, but it’s always a challenge working with such a young actor. You have four hours a day to shoot with them, tops. This is kind of a bigger movie in a little movie’s body. So those things are challenging. You know I really appreciate the producers and financiers who took a chance on this one, because it’s pretty personal for me.
Another challenge, but it was a joy, was bringing to life all of Jeff’s world. That was never in the script, ow it all came together during production, which was really exciting for everyone.
When you say it wasn’t in the script, do you mean the visuals weren’t in the script, or he wasn’t originally a comic artist?
In the film, Jeff and and Maggie [Mamie Gummer] meet through comics, but I think originally it was that they were in a band together. Over time and rewrites, we wanted to make sure it wasn’t derivative of anything, Jeff’s character became a comic artist, and it was that Maggie had gotten him a job. Though she’s moved on, he can’t bring himself to. The comic aspect was always there to a degree. Josh [Braun] who co-wrote the script comes from that world, and the whole Grisly Kin thing I had actually already created. It wasn’t until we really got there that we had to bring those characters to life. I had the idea to just bring in this whole world I had already created, so I licensed it to the movie, and then we really brought it to life. Before it was all on paper. We had an amazing art department and visual effects team, and we essentially cherry picked the characters that we wanted to develop and brought them into three dimensionality.
You’ve mentioned how personal the film is for you. There’s a lot to be entertained by in this film — the big horror set pieces with the comic characters, there’s quite an involved plot, lots of visual flair — but the meat of the story is really heavy. Divorce, death of a loved one, custody battles. How did you strive for that balance between the personal and the creative?
The film is ridiculously personal to me. I was turned on to the idea of the script a few years earlier, someone who knew me approached me and said, “I know you like Kramer vs. Kramer.” I don’t know if they realize that that’s basically my life. I said that I loved it and they said “It’s like that but the wife dies and comes back as a monster,” or something like that. I immediately felt that I love that movie, because I know that movie. But when I read the script the thing that excited me most was the setting in the comic book world. It isn’t something I would have thought of myself, that being the backdrop.
As we started shaping the script it hit me even more, how close to home the material was. I mean literally most of my memories of my parents together were them fighting. Through the divorce I kind of retreated to my bedroom and into dark stories. It’s not just a movie about loss or divorce but really about how irresponsible parents can effect their children in a negative way, because kids hear everything. I’ve been so grateful for this whole process. I think if it had gone a more traditional studio route a lot of that stuff would have been gutted, but it wasn’t. At the end of the day they let me tell the story the way I wanted to.
It’s funny, I remember early on the producers saying, “Okay, but how are you going to make it scarier?” I said, “I’m going to make it scary by getting the audience to care more about all the characters.” If you care about the characters, anything that threatens them is that much scarier. It wasn’t just about creating scares. I’d say I’m pleasantly surprised that the studio has let it stay the way it is. They even changed the marketing to be more reflective of what the movie is. Originally it was more Rupert’s story, but now it reflects that it’s actually Violet’s story. The original story was about a comic book artist whose creations are coming to life, but it’s become a much more personal horror story of growing up in that environment of divorce. I hope people respond that way to it, to the heart of it.
SEPARATION his theaters April 30th, 2021