By ROCCO THOMPSON
A twisted nightmare with touches of body horror, THE BLACK STRING stars former teen television fixture Frankie Muniz (MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE) as a directionless young man whose life begins to unravel after having ill-advised casual sex with a strange woman. Below, we chat with director Brian Hanson about his colorful past, how you make practical effects work on a limited budget, and what it was like getting a recognizable name for his debut feature!
You have a pretty colorful background. How did you get started as a filmmaker?
I guess I do have a colorful background! I was a Playboy Mansion bartender and US Army Ranger. Aside form those exciting jobs, I’ve been obsessed with screenwriting and filmmaking since I was a teenager. My dad raised me on THE TWILIGHT ZONE and Kubrick, so I was really into mind bending tv/films from an early age. Down in San Diego, my high school buddies and I were inspired by Robert Rodriguez’s book Rebel Without A Crew and were making short films with our camcorders, but it was when I transferred up to Cal State Northridge’s film program and working studio internships that I started to understand that film/tv production was a real business, with real structure and real opportunities to learn the craft and make a living doing it. I’ve worked as a production assistant, office assistant and many other entertainment jobs, but telling a story is my true passion.
What draws you to the horror genre?
I love horror because it explores dark, twisted and unpredictable places. I’ve always had extremely vivid nightmares and horror movies are the closest thing to experiencing those dreams while awake. I like to venture into bizarre and dangerous realms late at night and filmmakers like Lynch, Cronenberg, Barker and Carpenter have taken me to those places through their films. I want to contribute to the horror genre and take audiences on wild trips that make them feel something unique and make them think. I should add that my producing partner and co-writer Richard Handley has a hell of a background too, he’s a US Navy veteran and medical doctor who finds the time to make movies!
What was the process of co-writing THE BLACK STRING like?
Ten years ago, when I was bartending in Hollywood, my buddy Andy Warrener and I fleshed out the story of THE BLACK STRING and even shot a few scenes on a camcorder. That was great because we would sit around this campfire at night and bounce ideas off each other which speeds up the process of generating ideas. Plotting a story moves faster when you can get immediate feedback from another person and they add to the idea or suggest a better direction. When we taped a few scenes Andy played Jonathan so we had a chance to see the character come to life and even improvise dialogue and action. It was like rehearsing the movie ten years before we made it. Andy started a family in Florida and I joined the Army so we never actually made THE BLACK STRING. Five years later I was out of the Army and met Navy veteran Richard Handley in film school at Mount St. Mary’s University (Los Angeles). I told Rich about THE BLACK STRING and he immediately liked the idea. He suggested we do a rewrite on the script to make it feature length and make then make it as a feature film. Rich’s enthusiasm reinvigorated me on the project. Rich and I worked hard on structure, theme and adding needed pages to the script. As a medical professional and father, Rich was able to add expertise to the mental illness and parental aspects of the script. As co-writers we were able to once again bounce of ideas and dialogue much faster than most writers could alone. Having a co-writer was important especially since I was directing and producing the film. Time was very limited so when revision were needed on the fly, two brains worked faster than one!
What was the seed that developed into the story of THE BLACK STRING?
Originally the film was much more about sleep paralysis. I had experienced some really intense sleep paralysis episodes that felt otherworldly, even evil. My logical mind knew that sleep paralysis was a medical condition, but what I experienced was horrifyingly real in a supernatural way. As I researched sleep paralysis more, I learned how sleep paralysis has affected people around the world for thousands of years and they often explained it as a witch or demon entering bedrooms at night and sitting on their victim’s chest, stealing their souls or suffocating them—watch the documentary THE NIGHTMARE. So we created a protagonist, Jonathan, who was experiencing nightmarish visions that were so horrific, his challenge would be to convince his parents and doctors that these evil things were really happening. Of course the moment he mentions witches or portals, his family and doctors would immediately assume he was on drugs or mentally unstable. Working in Hollywood we see a lot of homeless people screaming at the sky and we dismiss them as high on drugs or mentally ill, but what they are seeing is real to them. This inspired us to write THE BLACK STRING as a movie that can be interpreted two ways, either Jonathan (Frankie Muniz) is really being tormented by an occult curse or he’s a normal guy who’s slipping into insanity and may soon become that homeless guy screaming at the sky. We wanted people to watch the film and then debate the ending and find their own interpretation of the film.
What horror films did you draw inspiration from?
We wanted to be original, but we also knew we were following in the footsteps of some great psychological horror movies. Our goal was to make a psychological thriller with heavy Lovecraftian under tones. Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” was a huge influence — REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE TENANT are the gold standard for paranoia thrillers that blur the line between occult horror and mental illness. Other big inspirations were JACOB’S LADDER, DONNIE DARKO and COMMUNION starring Christopher Walken. Again, all of those films deal with a protagonists struggling to deal with their fractured perceptions. On a purely stylistic level, HELLRAISER 2: HELLBOUND, PHANTASM and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET were all big inspirations for hallucination horror as was the heavy mood of David Lynch films. We were also inspired by some great indie films like Eric England’s CONTRACTED, THE VOID and the homeless/drug use films HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT and TOAD ROAD. And for all the hardcore cinephiles out there, I’m always inspired by REFLECTIONS OF EVIL!
How did Frankie Muniz get involved in the project?
We had been auditioning actors for two weeks and were ready to hire a very good actor as Jonathan when our casting director, Jeremy Gordon, called us up and said, “Before you hire anybody, I have a name for you to consider—Frankie Muniz.” Rich and I were shocked to hear Frankie’s name. We thought he had quit acting and was racing cars and playing drums in a band. Of course we agreed to meet with Frankie and he auditioned with us the next day. He did a great job having only had the script for 24 hours. Frankie came back the next day for a second audition and blew us away. He seemed to innately understand the character’s loneliness, frustration and moments of dark humor. It was a bit tough for us to change course on casting Jonathan after seeing the same great actors for two weeks, but when we saw what Frankie Muniz did in two days, we knew we had to cast him as Jonathan and let his charisma and talent create a new version of Jonathan… a better version of Jonathan. Working with Frankie for three weeks on set was an amazing experience. He loved the role and this was the indie film he wanted to do something special with and I think it’s obvious when you see his performance that he succeeded in doing something special and very different. I know that Frankie is proud of his work on the film and so are we. I like to think that THE BLACK STRING is Malcom’s version of BREAKING BAD. There’s the familiar Frankie Muniz charisma and energy, but it gets very dark and Frankie does some things you’ve never seen him do before on screen.
There’s some awesome effects work in the film. Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating the film’s effects?
Our goal was to use all practical effects, to make things on screen feel organic and disgusting—we knew our movie was pretty much an indie drama so our camera work, locations and effects all had to feel “real”. I’d say 90% of our effects are practical, but we had some great VFX artists that were able to paint out seams and wires or add textures that helped bring the practical effects to life. Erik Porn and his company Bitemares (MTV’s TEENWOLF) handled the bulk of our effects, but we had some additional help from Dan Gilbert (NECESSARY EVIL). The string pull and rashes were created by Erik and Dan who used good old fashioned prosthetics and black gooey twine and a lot KY Jelly to make it look wet and disgusting. John Orphan’s moody cinematography also helped those rashes and nasty string pulls look even nastier on camera. The demon/entity that is seen in the film was also practical, an actor (Alex Ward) in a mask with body paint and some VFX textures added to the skin. Erik and I worked for weeks to design the right demon look and then he went to work with his team and made a bad ass mask — it’s probably the make-up FX highlight of the movie. Rich and I got involved in the effects too — we created the portal with some very special ingredients that can be found at any arts and craft store and spent a couple weeks in Rich’s garage testing the portal ooze on a small screen screen until we thought we had the right look. That demon hand breaking through the portal was Rich’s hand with finger extensions reaching up through a hole in the green screen table. Then I rotated it 90 degrees in After Effects to make it look like it was reaching out of the wall. Our VFX artists added grime and cool shadow effects to the wall and viola! We had a demon hand emerging from a portal on the wall.
Did this particular project present any unexpected challenged?
We quickly learned that this movie wasn’t as small as we thought. With over fifteen characters and twelve locations, our small production team was stretched to the maximum and everybody was wearing multiple hats all the way through post-production. We were moving locations twice a day and trying to schedule a dozen different actors which turned into more work than we expected. I feel like I was 50% director, 30% producer and 20% production assistant every day on set because we all had to pitch-in or there was no way we could complete this movie without total commitment from everybody. Rich was similarly spread thin as a producer, actor and default PA. We had Executive Producers loading equipment into trucks at the end of the night and producers bringing grills to BBQ lunch on set. Spike Lee talks about all the jobs he had to have on his first feature so we understood this is the independent film gauntlet most first time filmmakers must endure. It’s the test we had to pass! I will also add that Rich and I spent our time in the entertainment trenches as interns, production assistants, office assistants and co-producers, so we had a group of mentors we could reach out to for advice. Sheldon Brigman, Adam Ripp, Liam Finn, Mark Stolaroff, Joe Lynch and Eric England are just a few names of industry pros that helped to guide us in the right direction when we hit difficult cross roads. We were lucky to have them on speed dial as well as the mentorship group Veterans in Media & Entertainment (VME). We learned the importance of building a talented and loyal cast and crew which happened organically from the relationships we had built over years. Oh yeah, Rich and I also have wonderfully supportive wives, family, friends and investors. A strong support system at home is needed to survive 2-3 years of making a feature film while also working that day job!
What do you hope people take away from the film?
Rich, Andy and I wanted to create an atmospheric horror movie that causes people debate the ending with their friends and perhaps watch it a second time to look for more clues. Believe me, there are a lot of Easter eggs or clues weaved throughout the movie that will be noticed on a second viewing. Our cinematography, editing, score and soundtrack, were all designed to put the audience in Jonathan’s head and feel his dread and hopelessness build. We understand that THE BLACK STRING isn’t a deep dive into the topic of mental illness, but we did want to make people at least think about how a lonely character like Jonathan might revert to destructive habits once he feels his life is spiraling out of control. It’s a movie about a guy who’s trying improve his life, but because of addiction and mental illness (or evil cults!) he struggles badly to find the emotional support he needs to get better. Frankie Muniz brings this character and struggle to life in an electric performance supported by other fantastic actors. We hope it’s a stimulating movie that creeps audiences out and makes them think about it the next day!
THE BLACK STRING is available now on Digital HD and DVD from Grindstone Entertainment, a Lionsgate company.