Perry Blackshear is a New York based filmmaker who has worked as a Cinematographer, Editor, Writer and Director. He has a number of shorts under his belt including Act of Bravery and Serenade and his feature They Look Like People is outstanding.
In the film MacLeod Andrews plays Wyatt, a man suspecting that people around him are turning into evil creatures. He is joined by his best friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel), a troubled man who questions whether to protect his only friend from an impending war, or from himself.
Ahead of this year’s Film4 FrightFest our very own Jon Dickinson sat down with Perry Blackshear to discuss They Look Like People, what inspired the story, his collaboration with his cast and his reactions on finding out that his film was selected to play Film4 FrightFest.
SCREAM: What was your reaction after hearing the news that you had got They Look Like People into Film4 FrightFest?
Perry Blackshear: We were extremely excited. We’ve been touring the States after Slamdance and we were going to Premiere at Fantasia. We were not expecting to get into FrightFest but we got the email from the people involved. It was really sweet, extremely unexpected and extremely exciting.
What inspired the story of They Look Like People?
The original inspiration behind the film is that I wanted to work with the actors because they are all my old friends and we have been wanting to make a movie for a very long time. So I bought them plane tickets, because they live in LA and I live in New York, even before I had a script. I said to them that they were coming over to New York and we’re going to do something. I had a different script that I trashed right before we started shooting and I wrote this one very fast. It is sort of inspired by a good friend of mine and I’ve had a few friends who have undergone some really bad stuff. One of them, he was having a really rough year and he started to think people were spying on him through his computer and he started to hear voices. He told me later on that if he didn’t have some really good friends and family that he would have either been in jail or dead. We thought we could make a movie about those two friends and that one week would become a very important week so that became the main idea.
What was your driving force behind making the movie?
I think really it was wanting to work with my friends. I worked as a freelance photographer and editor for a number of years and I worked on a lot of my friends’ features and films. It was great but sometimes I found it tough to make a movie with all these people on set so I thought let’s do things differently with just actors and me on set, it will be great. I always said that and then finally I thought we would try that out. It was really hard as it was basically me and the actors so it was really hard sometimes but it was also fantastic as we got to focus on each other and the stuff and the things that we cared about which was the story, the acting and the directing.
Considering the small scale of the film and the limited time you had prior to the shoot, was it completely scripted or did you allow your cast to improvise their scenes?
Almost all of it was scripted. I worked with the actors very closely and there are a few scenes where we let them free. I used to do comedy in college and played piano for our improv team, I was always too shy to do improv myself but I was heavily involved in that world. So yeah, most of it was scripted but it was a real collaboration between myself and the actors. I wrote it so fast because the setting was so intimate and they took me to task on the dialogue and I thought it was much better because of it.
I really love working with actors because as a writer/director you can sometimes see things from an eagle-eye view or even at a worm-eye view at ground level. Having their perspective on the creative process is so valuable as you can get lost in the bigger picture or overall flow that you lose the small moments that matter. Working with these actors who at the same time are my good friends is just really great.
Fantastic. Please tell me about your cast…
MacLeod Andrews plays Wyatt. His character starts to receive phone messages that tell him to prepare for war and that people around him are turning evil and will start to reveal themselves soon before taking over the world. He is torn between wanting to protect his only friend from this upcoming world or himself as he might be psychotic and could possibly hurt people. Evan Dumachel plays Christian. His character has a lot of history as well and is sort of dealing with his own stuff but he is the sort of straight man. These two are my old friends from college and we used to make movies together so working with them was great as part of the movie is this friendship happening with these two characters so that made it really great. Margaret Drake plays the love interest for Evan’s character Christian. She is also an old friend of mine and there is a scene where she teaches Evan judo and I wrote that for her because she is fantastic at it as she has worked with some of the best. So yeah, I wrote all the characters for the actors so the casting process was super easy. The other people in the movie are basically me and people that I know personally. Even my cousin is in it but my mom is not (laughs)… I feel that for true indie movie cred you need to have your mom in the movie so maybe next time…
I bet she’s proud of you.
Yes. I sometimes think she wished I had a normal job but I think every mom kinda wishes for that deep down.
Okay. Considering how close you are with your cast, did this cause any difficulties during the shoot?
I think it was mostly positive. I don’t know if you have but a lot of people have been in a band. I was in a band and I say being in that position is kinda like being in a relationship with four people at the same time. There are a lot of emotions in play at all times. With us on set we came up with a code of laws and a lot of them were very silly like we took mandatory twenty minute naps after meals (laughs) of which I recommend anyway. Even if one of us got hungry on set or got angry because they were hungry we made sure there was a lot of food on set. So if one of us got hungry and got angry then the other would call them out and say stop what you’re doing and eat but the other person would be, “No, I’m fine… whatever…” but we would be like, “No, you have to eat…” They would usually eat and be all, “Sorry guys you were right…” So yeah it was almost like… I dunno… some kind of…
A Snickers moment?
(laughs) Yeah, exactly. I think that we are different people and we were very careful about choosing who would be on set so yeah it could have been rough but thankfully it was because our relationship was so strong that the film happened.
Speaking of relationships. They Look Like People uses the concept of friendship as a main source of motivation for survival. Has shooting changed your relationships with your cast members now that the shoot is over?
No. One of the toughest parts of the movie was that I was editing it. I work a normal nine to five at a digital agency and they were in LA so it was a kind of long distance thing. I don’t think that when we started this two years ago we didn’t think it would ever come this far but it has and I think it has brought us even closer together. We’re actually making another movie pretty soon which is a little secret and a bit of an experiment. We’re all going to go onto different things eventually but for now it’s great. To make a feature film is a tough thing to do. So when you speak to other filmmakers and tell them that you have made a feature you say congratulations because you survived the process. So to do that and not hate each other after the process is a big achievement I think for anybody.
Your film does deal with aspects of mental illness. You’ve touched upon this briefly before, can you tell me about how you prepared yourself to handle this subject matter respectfully?
I’ve had a few people in my life, close people to me, who have undergone some things. I took a lot of inspiration from the movie Take Shelter which is a wonderful film. What I loved so much about that movie is that there is one scene where this guy may be turning schizophrenic thinking that there’s a storm coming that’s going to erase everything that he cares about. He begins to build this bunker which begins to destroy his life. He goes and gets checked out at a psychiatrist’s office with his daughter I believe because he knows that he might be in trouble but then at the same time on the way back home he goes and buys canned goods for his bunker. It is those simultaneously knowing that he might be crazy but still doing the things he has to do because what if he was not. I thought this was so complicated and confusing.
I did a lot of research into schizophrenia after being inspired by this video on what I think was PBS, I could be wrong, about a virtual reality simulator that you could put on and feel what it would be like to be schizophrenic. I saw it when I was younger and it was the scariest thing by far that I have ever seen. It wasn’t because people’s faces were becoming demonic or there were rats everywhere, voices you know but there was also a woman who told her secret that she thought her organs were made up of snakes and they were trying to get out. The fact that you could never know when it would be on or off. The waking nightmare part of it was so frightening and the more research I did the more people went through was more scary than anything that I could ever come up with.
I think some movies use mental instability a lot and it is treated differently across the different genres. I wanted to make it as right as I could and really respect where people were coming from and how frightening it actually is for the person going through it.
I think you did a great job. Thinking about the shoot, what was your favourite scene to shoot?
That’s hard. I don’t think I have even been asked that before. If you were to ask me what my favourite moment I had was it would be during the judo scene. One character teaches another character and I told one of them to do something and the other actor did not expect it so everything you see in this one scene is totally real. We had to redo the sound on that one as the cameraman and I screamed from behind the camera (laughs).
My favourite scene in the film is the last ten minutes of the movie. We spent a lot of time working together on it to do it right. As you mentioned, the film is about loyalty and friendship, we were going through that process together whilst making the movie and that last ten minutes is really what the film is about. That was the best experience I’ve ever had as a filmmaker on a movie set.
Your film is terrifying but it does not rely the usual horror tropes, do you agree?
Yeah. I’m really glad you brought that up. We struggled at first after we had released the film as to how we should classify it. We thought of calling it a psychological thriller and we’ve even heard it called a psychological bromance which I thought was funny. Then we got into a bunch of horror festivals and it was the critics who were calling it horror and we are still conflicted about this, even with sales agents and everything. Our favourite films kind of span two genres. There’s a movie called Absentia which I love. It was Mike Flanagan’s first film and a drama about two sisters but it also has really strong horror elements. Also the movie Let the Right One In which a lot of people know and a film that I have mentioned which is great. I actually read your review a long time ago for Spring which is a film that I also loved. Even films like The Babadook, the films that combine what I love about drama and genre movies where if you really care about the characters and it is based on the human experience then the genre elements are more impactful. You care about the people involved. So yeah, the drama gives teeth to it so these two run parallel with one another making each other stronger. So that is what we are going for here with They Look Like People. Sometimes it is rough from a definition standpoint and I still don’t even know how to classify it so we’re letting audiences figure that out for us. So for now it is a dramatic psychological thriller with strong horror elements thrown in.
Why should our readers check out the film at FrightFest?
I’m also glad you brought this up. We have received so many positive reactions and our trailer and some of the language we use will set people up in the mood to watch our film. If you like buckets of blood, zombies and that kind of stuff then this movie might not be for you but if you liked Donnie Darko, Jacobs Ladder, Black Swan… these much slower and a little bit art-house psychological movies then you might like our film. There’s some really intense horror moments especially within the end but we are really excited about the movie and we’re excited to show the audience at FrightFest.
So what’s next for you?
I work a nine to five job. I work at a digital agency so I’m doing that but I am teaming up again soon with Evan, MacLeod and Margaret to make another movie which is a bit of a secret for now so we are really excited for that. They Look Like People is going to keep playing and we’re going to be in Australia and Mexico and a few other places soon so we are pumped about it going to places within and hopefully across Europe. So yeah, it’s been a great year and I’m really excited about FrightFest and the future of this film.
Words: Jon Dickinson (@marvelguy)