Imaginary friends are much more common than one might think. Up to two-thirds of children have them and, according to specialists, they provide comfort in times of stress, companionship when they’re feeling estranged, someone to give orders to when they feel impotent, and someone to blame for the broken vase in the kitchen. Most importantly, an imaginary companion is a device that young children recurrently use to help them fathom out the complexities of the adult world.
And whilst it certainly scares many parents when they see their children talking to someone who isn’t really there, historically, the hypotheses were much more intimidating than they are today as it was believed that imaginary companions were harmful or evil, and a sign of a social deficit, demonic possession, or mental illness. And this is certainly a conjecture that plays heavily in the narrative of helmer Adam Egypt Mortimer’s (Some Kind of Hate) second feature, Daniel Isn’t Real. Starring Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger, Daniel Isn’t Real finds a traumatised 8-year old, Luke (Robbins) inventing an imaginary friend named Daniel (Schwarzenegger) who leads them both into a world of fantasy and imagination. After Daniel tricks Luke into doing something terrible, Luke is forced to lock him away. Twelve years later, Luke brings Daniel back – and he now appears as a charming, manipulative young man with a terrifying secret agenda. With the film’s world premiere having just taken place at this year’s SXSW film festival, SCREAM’s Howard Gorman caught up with Egypt Mortimer to answer the question, who in the hell needs enemies when you’ve got pretend friends like Daniel?
SCREAM: Obviously you must be elated to have your film screening here, but what are your hopes and fears before the world premiere, especially at a touchstone festival such as SXSW?
Adam Egypt Mortimer: My hopes are that I hear a lot of reactions. As I watch the movie with the people, I want to hear them laughing and then I want to hear them saying, “Oh shit!”, you know? (laughs) And then I hope that when it’s over, that people have plenty of questions in the Q&A afterwards and that we’re all able to process what just happened on the screen. And then my fear is that it’s just crickets and that the film doesn’t make sense to anybody. But I wouldn’t be afraid of people being mad. If people suddenly reacted like, “Wow. How could you make something this way?” then I guess that’s probably OK. But the real fear is crickets. I’m terrified of crickets apparently.
I felt that when you really dug into the darker material in the narrative, especially towards the end of the film, it really felt as if it was coming from either a very personal place or from someone who had really done their homework in terms of researching the true nightmare of schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. I say this because there was a sense of empathy towards the antagonist, Daniel’s situation in the film, at least at times until things just spiral completely out of control?
I’m so glad that you picked up on those things because those are 100% what it was about. The idea of empathy is entirely what it ultimately becomes about. When we started working on the script seven-and-a-half years ago, I wanted to do something really nihilistic, but then, as I’ve gotten older and the world has changed, I think everybody realises what a dark world we live in so it became important for me to do a movie about empathy. The movie could be as dark and weird and fucked up as you want, but then what I really saw was a movie about Luke fighting to remain empathetic in this world and for Sasha Lane’s character, Cassidy, to save Luke through empathy. So that was really important but then, when I was in college, my very best friend had an intense bipolar experience and I’d never seen that before. I’d never been around it and it’s really tragic when that kind of thing happens, especially at that age. When you’re 19 years old, everybody acts like a weirdo and everybody’s kind of an asshole and unique and it’s really hard to notice when somebody has a real problem. And then, by the time you do you notice, it’s gotten really far, really badly. So that was something I was around a lot and it was something I wanted to make sure was represented very accurately, both emotionally and subjectively in the movie so it makes me very glad to hear that that was something that you picked up on.
The basic premise recalls films such as Drop Dead Fred and Fight Club in terms of an imaginary companion, but what I found most interesting was the fact that you tackled a number of central themes that made A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 such an important entry in that particular franchise. Was that film a conscious inspiration for you at all?
That’s so interesting that you should say that! That approach to how to do a possession movie and the relationship and the sexualization of him. I think that’s a really interesting movie and I think we all now understand how interesting a movie that is. I’ve really obsessed about A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 ever since I first saw it as a kid and one of the things that really makes it stand out in the franchise is the fact that it is about the vulnerability of a young man instead of every other slasher movie which is about the physical vulnerability of young women. In Daniel Isn’t Real, what Miles’ character, Luke goes through – we see close-ups of him crying, falling apart and being horrified – is something that I think is very unusual; unusual for a movie like this but not unusual for real life, so I really do appreciate you mentioning Freddy’s Revenge because although it might be an uneven movie cinematically, thematically it’s just so brilliant. For me, that movie is by far the most captivating slasher movie and then I guess my first movie, Some Kind of Hate was sort of my direct rip-off of A Nightmare on Elm Street and I’ll probably never ever shake its shadow because it had such an impact on me.
I’m really interested in the human interaction between monsters and people. For example, as much as I love Halloween, for me, the monster has to have a lot of depth and personality and dialogue and that’s why I think about films like Candyman all the time. The relationship between a monster and the victim of the monster is so fascinating.
Talking of which, the casting of the monster and the victim must have been so difficult in terms of ensuring you were able to create this relationship you mention. Particularly Daniel, which Patrick Schwarzenegger absolutely nails, by the way.
I know. He’s great, right? But it was a really hard to role to cast because he had to have this unbelievably physical presence. Daniel has to be a larger than life, beautiful and seductive man who we all want to be, and very few people have that. And then, of course, he has to be evil but also friendly. So then we looked at a lot of people and I wasn’t really familiar with Patrick but they talked to me about him and I looked at photographs of him because of his modelling career. So I thought, “Well if this guy can act as good as he looks, then he’s perfect.” So I talked to him on a number of occasions about the role in auditions and it eventually just clicked. Before casting this character, we were trying to design what the character was going to look like, what his fashion sense would be, his sensibility and how we could make him an icon. Once we had Patrick, it was all about how he was going to pull off all of these weird looks and how he was going to make it seem funny but also cool. And in the end he was just wonderful and I think his chemistry with Miles was remarkable. Miles was another person who literally just walked in off the street and had a conversation with me and I fell in love with him and saw that he understood the role and that he was going to be a great collaborator.
Daniel is very much the antagonist we haven’t really seen in horror movies before. What pointers did you give Patrick when it came to creating such a unique character?
I don’t think we thought of any specific characters to emulate per se. It always came back to this character’s life experience. As an imaginary friend he had all this access to imagination and ancient worlds so we thought about what that kind of person would be like and about what he wanted from his friendship with Luke. When Patrick first showed up for the role he was really interested in talking about Brad Pitt in Fight Club and Christian Bale in American Psycho. These are beautifully groomed, iconic people who are hyperreal. But then, talking to him about the physical appearance of the character helped him to step away from being Patrick, the known young man, and to become this character. I think that was something that was really helpful to him.
After the release of Some Kind of Hate, you posted a video which showed how, surprisingly, a lot of effects that appeared to have been 100% practical were actually practical effects mixed with CGI. Did you use the same approach for this film because there are some jaw-dropping body-horror sequences this time around?
Absolutely. Just like in my first movie everything is a mix of practical effects and VFX. A lot of the scenes were shot on that day using crazy prosthetics. It was really important for me to have both actors kind of locked together with these weird fleshy bits so that they could react to it and play off of each other. But in order for them to do what they needed to do, we needed the VFX so I was always interested in starting with something real on set but then manipulating it and augmenting it using something that couldn’t be done practically. I’m not afraid of it. I don’t fetishise ’80s practical effects. I just want the thing that gives the actors the most and what looks the most interesting. We had a creature designer named Martin Astles who’s been designing things since Event Horizon and he designed all that crazy stuff for us but then we would take the footage to our VFX people to “grow” it into what we wanted in the film. We are always looking to do things that are a little bit seamless so you are not quite sure which part of it was pixels and which part of it was some weird rubber thing that was actually real. It’s always a mix.
This time you worked with the cinematographer Lyle Vincent who I believe has worked on various SpectreVision films. Can you describe the working methods you employed with Lyle and how you came to work with him this time round?
Lyle worked on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Cooties and A Girl Walks Home is just so brilliant. And then I saw The Bad Batch and just absolutely loved the look of it. I talked to a lot of cinematographers getting ready for this movie and Lyle and I just clicked, particularly because I talked to him about Buddhism, which is definitely a thematic thing in this movie. He lived in China and Tibet and he understood Buddhism and he was into Lou Reed and he picked up on my obsession with having the movie be textural and grainy and to have this kind of sensual look. So in the end, we didn’t shoot on film but he came up with a way to achieve the look that I wanted so we just clicked. And since he’d had the SpectreVision experience and their blessing, it became easy to bring him on.
It’s always a pleasure speaking with you, Adam and we wish you all the best with the premiere.
Thanks, and I always appreciate Scream’s support.
Daniel Isn’t Real will enjoy an additional screening this March 13 at SXSW so if you happen to be around those parts, we can’t recommend this movie enough.