By MICHAEL GINGOLD
From the grim, oppressive environments of his SAW films and ST. AGATHA, director Darren Lynn Bousman moved on to the lush tropical climes of DEATH OF ME, now in theaters and on VOD/digital platforms. The saga of a vacation that becomes an occult nightmare gave Bousman a new environment to explore, which required careful handling in a couple of different ways, as Bousman discusses with us here.
In DEATH OF ME, scripted by Ari Margolis, James Morley III and David Tish, Maggie Q and Luke Hemsworth (who discusses the film here) play Christine and Neil, a couple whose trip to an island off the Thailand coast is thrown frighteningly sideways after they spend a night out that they can’t remember the next morning. Examining video footage on his camera, they’re shocked to see Neil murdering Christine, and their quest to discover what really happened plunges them into the midst of the local black magic, while a record typhoon bears down on the island.
Bousman shot DEATH OF ME before SPIRAL, his game-changing SAW reboot starring and based on a story by Chris Rock that was delayed by the pandemic from this past May 15 to May 21, 2021. Currently, he’s overseeing an immersive theater company called One Day Die, which you can learn more about by heading to its official website. (Note: SPOILERS for DEATH OF ME follow.)
How did you become involved with DEATH OF ME?
I had taken a couple of years off and was doing immersive theater, and these two producers I’m a big fan of, Lee Nelson and David Tish, contacted me about the DEATH OF ME script. I read it and dug the idea, but it dealt with voodoo, and I told them, “I don’t want to do a voodoo movie, there’s too many of them out there. Can we take this idea and set a different mythology around it?” And when it turned out we were going to make it in Southeast Asia, I said, “Let’s try to adapt the mythology so it makes sense in that region,” and that began to shift it from being a voodoo movie to what it is now.
How much of what we see in the movie is based on actual folklore, and how much was invented for the film?
Well, everything regarding the symbolism and the parades, all of that we embellished. The idea of a person being buried to protect this village, though, was based on old folklore. You look up something called city pillars; these villages used to sacrifice people and bury them in the center of town, and those people would then look over the village and protect it, the harvest and crops. There are many stories about people digging up city pillars and finding the bones of pregnant women and small children. We took that idea and developed the rest from there.
There’s been a lot of sensitivity recently to the depiction of other cultures in movies. How much was that on your mind when you were making DEATH OF ME?
Completely. The first thing that was important to me was not doing something that would be offensive to the culture we were depicting, so we didn’t want to base it on any modern religion or belief that is currently being practiced. The second was, the last thing I wanted to do was the cliché idea of the islanders being savage people doing horrible things. So the next part came with the casting: We wanted to make sure the island was a mixture of nationalities and races. Throughout the film, whether it’s Kanda [Kelly Bronwen Jones] or another of the characters, they say, “We are an island of nomads; we come from everywhere.” That’s personified by Samantha [Alex Essoe, who talks about DEATH OF ME here], who is a Westerner and one of the main people manipulating the couple. And then you have the guy in the beach cafe scene, for example, who ends up being one of the main people in the ritual at the end. We wanted to make sure this was portrayed as a wide variety of nationalities.
Another important thing was, these people are not evil to me. One of my favorite things about DEATH OF ME is that these are not villains, they are people who are doing what they have to for the belief they have been raised with and believe in. In the same way that, if you look at something like THE WICKER MAN, I don’t take those people as being nefarious; that is their belief system, that is their faith, and it is to protect their elders, to protect their children, to protect their way of life. It poses the question of, if one person has to die to save 1,000… I always love movies that have that as a backbone: it’s one sacrifice required, but many will survive. We tried to play with that a lot.
Were you specifically seeking an Asian actress for the lead role?
Again, that was going with the idea of making the casting as diverse as possible, and when Maggie Q’s name was floated to us, she made a lot of sense. First off, what I love about Maggie is that she doesn’t play weak, and she doesn’t play a victim. She’s strong, she’s defiant in who she is as a person, and that shines through in the role of Christine. Secondly, I started noticing as we were shooting these great opportunities where she would blend in and people would mistake her, like the doctor. When he starts talking to her, it’s in Thai, and then he says, “You don’t know Thai?” and she says, “No, I’m English, I’m American.” I felt there were some interesting things to do with that. I’m also a fan of Alex Essoe from STARRY EYES, and one of my favorite shows is WESTWORLD, so I was very lucky and excited to work with these actors.
What was the process of casting the local actors?
I’m a huge fan of trying to find charactery-looking types who don’t appear like they’re actors. So we would literally walk down the streets where we were filming, looking for people. Thailand is such a unique and beautiful place, and it was unlike any filming experience I’ve had. If we knew we were going to be filming on, say, the dock, where the doctor is–if you look out the window, it’s literally on the water, and it’s like 12 or 14 businesses on the docks, facing the ocean–we would have to get permission from literally everyone in the village before we were able to film there. We would go there and find local people, and be like, “Oh God, we need to use this person, this person, this person…” Which you could never do in America, not like this. We had a great opportunity to cast interesting faces and interesting people in the movie.
DEATH OF ME has turned out to be kind of prescient, considering all the hurricanes recently…
Yeah, it ended up being a timely thing; we shot the movie a couple of years ago, and now there are hurricanes and all sorts of natural disasters hitting everywhere, which sucks.
What were the challenges of staging storm scenes on an independent production?
This was probably the smallest movie I’ve done in a long time, and while I was excited about the opportunity to go to Thailand to make this film, and jumped at the opportunity to do it, I then realized the uphill battles I’d have shooting there. In America or Canada, getting a rain tower is nothing, getting a wind machine is nothing; acquiring those kinds of things is very easy. It’s a little more complicated when you’re on a small island off Thailand. It becomes more cumbersome, and trying to battle the elements in the kinds of remote locations where we were filming definitely became challenging.
One of the other things we had to deal with was monkeys, which was insane. There was a place where you would look up, and there would be 12 or 13 monkeys on a roof, and they would run down and snatch our cell phones and run away with them. So you couldn’t have anything like a computer or cell phone sitting out, because they would jump down and take them. That’s not something you have to deal with when you’re filming in the States!
With the delay of SPIRAL’s release, have you been taking the time to give it another look and maybe make some changes to it?
No, I don’t think that will ever happen. SPIRAL is the opposite of DEATH OF ME. There is a huge team behind SPIRAL, from producers to financiers, and we were rushing to make our original May 15 date. And when we finished it in Toronto on the mix stage, everyone high-fived and popped champagne and was so excited, because we were so proud of the movie. I think we’re all very happy with it, and that’s the first time that has happened in a long time. Usually there are reservations about “I wish we did this, I wish we did that,” but on this, we were all really pleased with the film. Even when the pandemic happened and it got postponed, we felt like we had completed it to our complete satisfaction, so there’s been no tinkering with it.
Did SPIRAL evolve in any significant ways as you were working on it, or did it keep to the initial concept throughout?
I would say that, obviously, post is where things changed the most. When you get into the shooting phase, even with a movie like SPIRAL, you’re still going as quickly as you can, and there isn’t a lot of time to rethink. In post, that changes a little bit; Chris had some great ideas when he saw the first cut, as did [producers] Oren Koules and Mark Burg and Lionsgate, so things shifted and changed a little bit. But if you go back and read Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg’s original script, and then look at what was made, it sticks pretty closely to it. We might have deviated 10 percent, 15 percent, but it pretty much is the movie we all set out to make.
Have you been thinking about follow-ups to SPIRAL, or are you waiting for it to come out before making those decisions?
I’m waiting. I had such a great experience working with that team again on SPIRAL, the producers and Chris, and I don’t want to jinx it. Let’s hope the audience embraces it and enjoys it, because it’s different; it’s not a movie that I believe a lot of people are ready for, and that’s awesome; that’s my favorite thing about it. So I’m just going to sit back and wait, and hope that fans and critics embrace it.