Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real is a psychological horror that pits a fragile young man against himself and the horrors of his own psyche. The film stars Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger as an odd couple on the verge of insanity. in my spoiler-free review of the film, I called Daniel Isn’t Real “[a film that] is unafraid to bulldoze your sense of safety and completely gut you from the inside […] a maze of mythos and metaphysical mystery that sets it apart as a truly unique piece of filmmaking.“. You can read the full review HERE.
We sat down with director Adam Egypt Mortimer during the Overlook Film Festival, at New Orleans’ Hotel Peter & Paul to discuss his cinematic head trip, the horror community’s obsession with fun (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and the specificity of the film’s depiction of mental illness.
“…the thing that really attracts me to horror movies is their ability to be both a traumatic experience and a story about trauma.”
Jonathan Dehaan for Nightmare on Film Street: So correct me if I’m wrong. You were part of the fantastic debates last year.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: Yeah, last year was my second- I did it two years in a row. The first year I exchanged blows with Josh Ethier, the editor/producer, and he is really big, and intimidating, and that was intense. Then I did it again last year with Elijah Taylor.
JD: You were arguing that movies should not be fun, right?
AEM: Well [laughs] yeah- I mean, that’s not something that I believe like, literally, but the debates are usually like Freddy verses [someone]. It’s usually two people fighting over a movie. One year Ti West was there, when he had done The Sacrament, and they were arguing “Are Found Footage movies bad?”, that kind of thing. I wanted to do something where I could talk about the aspect that movies have of being serious, intense experiences. Reviving bad movies that were forgotten is not my favorite aspect of the genre, in a way.
[…]There are so many great movies. Difficult, challenging movies in the past hundred years and I feel like, we culturally have a bias against movies that are difficult because more and more we’re watching things that are fun. So even when you’re like ‘I’m doing a deep dive in the archives and I found, Slime Bowl 2, you could have been spending that time watching a Robert Bresson movie. I know, that seems difficult but I thought it would be sort of fun [and] at Fantastic Fest too where- I mean, I love Fantastc Fest, it’s my favorite festival and it’s super fun so I knew I was sort of being the bad guy in a way but I wanted to talk about when you watch like a Gaspar Noe movie or Michael Haneke movie. You are feeling something that’s beyond fun.
Obviously, I don’t think movies shouldn’t be fun, but I but I did want to go super extreme to defend aspects of movies other than their entertainment, which in some ways seems so obvious, but to get up there with the actual boxing gloves was [laughs]- and it’s such a strange competition because you are on the one hand, preparing your arguments and having to think nimbly, and recover from the fucking insults of the guy hurls at you. And then you have to get into this totally nonverbal mode of punching. I trained for boxing. Both years when I’ve done that, I’ve gone and gotten a boxing coach and went to a gym in South Central LA and learned how to box.
JD: Actually I think I have a few photos on my phone of you landing some pretty solid punches.
AEM: Oh good! Definitely publish those.
JD: I think [that argument is] a good intro into Daniel Isn’t Real though. At the Q&A you were talking about injecting a little more empathy back into the story but it’s still quite dark compared to what we’re normally seeing. Especially at this festival actually. There have been a lot of “fun” movies.
AEM: And that’s cool, to be clear, but the thing that really attracts me to horror movies is their ability to be both a traumatic experience and a story about trauma. So that’s just what I’m interested in getting to in this movie in particular. But it has fun stuff too. My obsession with having bright colors in it and using pink and things like that was to make sure that there was also something seductive and energetic and kinetic. I guess, to me, I think about kinetic instead of fun. I want things to feel lively and crackling and real and colorful and bright.
JD: Which is interesting because [Luke] is being seduced by Daniel. Like, he’s in a manic mode with Daniel and he doesn’t necessarily want to leave until it’s too late.
AEM: Totally. I think all of us have that right? I mean, if somebody is having a manic episode, it’s really seductive when you lean into the energy of that, but even just staying up all night drinking Red Bull and vodka is a terrible idea that is so seductive because the more out of it you get, the more revved up you get, the more you love it. You don’t have to be like deeply mentally disturbed, I think, to be able to identify with the idea of making a mistake, or doing something bad because it feels really exciting and invigorating and seductive.
JD: Talking about lights and colors, was there something to the lens flares, specifically the blue flares, regarding Daniel’s presence in those scenes? It seemed like you were really going out of your way to make sure light was hitting the camera in those scenes.
AEM: Totally. I don’t know if we spoke specifically about lens flares when we were designing it, but the the design of the movie, visually, was that when Daniels not in it, something about it feels more isolating, less movement, less kinetics. There’s a shot early on when Luke is on the phone with his mom. We shot it from like outside the building, and you can see him in his little window, and the rest of it is like a brick wall. To me, that was the archetypal imagery for this part of the movie. But then once Daniel’s in the movie, there’s depth. Daniel’s always behind him or in front, or things are in focus and out of focus, and the camera is moving, we start using steady cams, and moving around.
The scene where Cassie shows up at his apartment with the wallet is just after Daniel’s come back into his life and the cameras like flying and it’s the first time in the movie that we use a steady cam. So it’s juxtaposing movement and depth, and also it’s bringing in the pinks, and the colors purple when his presence is there, so that creates more of that light feeling that you’re getting.
“The reason this movie works, if it works for you is because it’s so specific…”
JD: So what was the relationship between [Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger] on set like?
AEM: They were great. I mean, we spent a full week rehearsing so a lot of that was just the three of us, and then Sasha came and joined us and Hannah came in and joined us, but we would just spend a whole day together kind of going through parts of the script and hanging out. They had a funny relationship because they both the children of extremely famous people. They didn’t know each other but Patrick obviously is Arnold’s son and Miles is the son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. I could see they had a shared universe of what it’s like to grow up in that way where everything your parents do, people are aware of it. I saw them talk about that a little bit. They were really interested in working off each other and, you know, in real life they weren’t trying to kill each other.
JD: So toward the end of the movie, it gets pretty gnarly in a few parts. Was it like that in the book, or is that something that you were making a little more visual in the movie?
AEM: I haven’t read the book since we wrote the first draft of the movie, which was seven and a half years ago, so I don’t remember how it was very well. But the character of Dr. Braun, the psychiatrist who then has this very sort of metaphysical possession idea- he’s not in the book. In some ways, you can look at the movie like it’s a possession movie, and that’s not really in the book. That idea of demons and possession is not so in it. You do have this sense that Daniel is this entity, but the mythology is less specific. And you know, we have these cool creature designs, and that stuff is not in the book. That’s not described, or really a thing that happens.
JD: We cannot stop talk about your creature design, and we’re really looking forward to seeing it again.
AEM: So when we were working with the creature designer he sculpted out of clay first, as we were developing. And they gave me a cast. I have one of those in my house was super cool. It’s funny, because when I first met with Martin, he presented some suggestions, like a moodboard, just all of these pictures of different demons, some of which were these really insane ideas, and some of which were just your sort of run-of-the-mill, a couple bumps on the head like you’d see in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was like, “Martin, I hate these kind of things. It can’t be like this,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, I just put those in there to test you, because I don’t like them either”. But we talked about Cubism and about how, you know, as you rotate around it, it looks totally different spatially. Things of it seem to float, and you’re not really sure what the construction of it is.
And, you know, you don’t feel this quite as intensely the movie, but I had a whole thing about Trypophobia, which is this horrible-
Kimberley Elizabeth for Nightmare on Film Street: The fear of holes, right?
AEM: Yeah! We looked at a lot of these, kind of horrible pictures and it’s there a little bit, but I don’t think you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a horror movie about Trypophobia,’ but just using that porous texture. There’s a monologue in the book that the mother gives Luke, when he’s a little kid about being careful not to get dirty, because your body is porous, and things can come in, and they can affect you and make you sick. It was a really interesting metaphor about the psychology but I but I also thought it’s a really interesting physical metaphor to talk about how Luke is has being absorbed, and penetrated, and eaten.
JD: Just based on [one aggressive question asker] in the Q&A. Are you worried about the reception of the movie regarding mental illness? I definitely don’t see it as a negative depiction.
AEM: I don’t either, but we got one review that for the most part, liked the movie and then didn’t like it because of this. And I don’t know if it’s fair to decide on what you think the theme of a movie is, and decided that it didn’t do it right, and then not like the movie. You’re not quite letting the movie speak to you. I don’t mind getting better reviews but the cultural conversation is so unpredictable. I guess I would say, my honest belief is that when people have experienced certain kinds of trauma, difficulties, challenges, experience with mental illness for themselves, or people that they know, they will recognize truth in it. And I think that a lot of times when people are looking at something, or theoretically this movie, and say the depiction is offensive, feel like [these are] people don’t have an experience with it and they’re making an assumption about what might be upsetting to other people. That guy at the Q&A who was like, ‘I recently had a really crazy manic experience and this movie depicts what that was’. That’s the voice that I’m interested in listening to. That’s the person that I’m trying to talk to.
The reason this movie works, if it works for you is because it’s so specific, and it’s about this particular person. He has fears about mental illness and our society isn’t good at dealing with it, and so therefore, he can’t figure out what’s happening. Then these other crazy things happen that take it so far beyond mental illness and into some whole other horror movie world. I think there’s so much going on. It’s specific.
JD: How was the relationship with SpectreVision? Was this originally a darker movie when you were talking about your vision, or had you already injected that empathy back into it once [partnered with] those guys?
AEM: I mean, it was always super dark. They were great to work with and they helped bring out certain elements of the story. We did a lot of changes to the script since we first met them, because I think it was around 2015 that we met them and decided to start working together. The script went through a lot of changes. I don’t remember specifically, some of the things that changed since then but they understood the movie. This is the thing that’s so important- We all understood exactly the same movie we were making and so from the level of talking about the script to when we were actually shooting it, we all knew what the movie was so it was easy to make the same decision. I think sometimes you can get into a situation where you’re trying to do this one artistic vision, and you have somebody else being like, ‘but I thought it was going to be like Crank”. By the way, one of my favorites. I love Crank. I’d love to make a Crank movie, but this wasn’t Crank.
JD: Quick question- not to derail us too much but, Crank 1 or Crank 2?
AEM: I think two is even more insane than one. Like that shit with the fucking brain in the tank, and he puts the shotgun up the guy’s ass. It’s a wild movie, it sort of feels like Takashi Miike. I think it’s the first time I saw an American movie that really took the spirit of crazy Japanese films. But yeah, Spectrevision was great. It’s just four partners, and they all have a voice and they’re all really passionate about making [Daniel Isn’t Real]. And that they were especially good about music, and introducing me to Chris Clark who did the score and really working with him to bring that to life was awesome.
“…my honest belief is that when people have experienced certain kinds of trauma, difficulties, challenges, experience with mental illness for themselves, or people that they know, they will recognize truth in it.”
JD: What other movies were you looking at while you were putting yours together?
AEM: Well, definitely The Exorcist. There’s several shots in the movie that are duplicates of shots from The Exorcist, sort of repurposed. I mean, I just watch that movie over and over again, and also Fight Club. I think I watched Fight Club like nine times getting ready. I read that Orson Welles had watched Stagecoach, like 30 times before he shot Citizen Kane and I was like, I’m going to watch Fight Club 30 times. Then I [realized] Stagecoach is 89 minutes and Fight Club is two and a half hours so, fuck you, Orson. I did it eight or nine times and I absorbed as much as I could absorb.
I made a Vimeo link with all of these clips from all these different movies to share with everybody in the crew, and then we’d be like, this is about the way that they’re using lenses, this is about color. I extracted a lot from Requiem For A Dream. Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan are both really important movies to me and in Requiem, the way that it’s just like this non stop manic insanity and it builds and builds and cutting between different scenes- And the music of that was important for us when we’re talking about the score. Also Raw, that french movie from a couple years ago was the only very contemporary movie that I was looking at. She just shot it so beautifully and it just feels so real, like the life of those young characters in parties and stuff, it feels real, but it’s also like there’s something really dreadful about it. So, I was super into that.
JD: So is Daniel Isn’t Real playing any other festivals?
AEM: We’re playing in Dallas at Oak Cliff and then we’re going to South Korea which I’m super stoked about because I’ve never been. And then I think we’ll play at Fantasia in Montreal, which is one of my favorite festivals. The first film festival I ever went to was when my first movie went to Fantasia as a work in progress, and we just showed scenes of it during the market weekend. It was like, I showed the stuff Turbo Kid showed stuff, Spring the Benson/Moorehead movie- and that was when I just first started to meet people involved in festivals and things like that. It was really, really helpful. Like, that was a really important moment in my life and so then the next year when the movie was completed, we showed it there that was fun. It’s always really nice to go back to the places that you had other things at and just feel like, ‘ahhh, we’re all growing together’.
Daniel Isn’t Real was an official selection of the 2019 Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana. Adapted from Brian DeLeeuw’s novel In This Way I Was Saved, Daniel Isn’t Real is a production of genre-champions Spectrevision and stars Miles Robbins (Halloween 2018), Patrick Schwarzenegger (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), Sasha Lane (American Honey), Hannah Marks (Southbound), Mary Stuart Masterson (Benny & Joon), and Chukwudi Iwuji (John Wick: Chapter 2).