[Interview] Director William Brent Bell melds malevolence with mythos in ‘BRAHMS: THE BOY II’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Everyone’s favorite disturbing, British porcelain-faced murder doll is back – and creepier than ever – in BRAHMS: THE BOY II. And back in the director’s chair sits William Brent Bell, returning to helm the sequel to his successful original gothic horror feature. This follow-up has a young susceptible boy, Jude (Christopher Convery) discovering the antique plaything after traumatic events led him and his family to take up residence on the spooky Heelshire Mansion property. Naturally, mayhem ensues once the doll begins to insinuate itself into the family’s life and, in particular, begin to drive Jude’s mother (Katie Holmes) mad.

My read on these films’ connective through-line is that it shows the lengths moms would go through to protect their sons. In the first film, we see the consequences attached to Mrs. Heelshire hiding her murderous son away. This sequel looks like we see the manifestation of the malevolent  intent, manipulating the kid and his mom. Is that correct?

You’re exactly right. That was part of the big inspiration to move into the second story was to better understand what that family in the first film went through. It’s not telling the same story – it’s telling a similar type of story. What does this place, this doll, do to these children and how do these parents, specifically mothers, handle that – or are they all crazy? That’s the kind of the fun of the storytelling in both these movies now.

You never know if things are gonna hit with the public. But I’m curious if you had the idea for where you could take this story as a franchise early on?

Yes and no. For sure, the first film paints a tapestry with this mysterious doll. But then when we reveal the adult Brahms living in the walls, it introduces a slasher kind of killer. I knew that we just opened up a door, a world, where we could explore so much. What I’m happy about is that we didn’t think too far in advance other than to say, “We’ve got a couple rich storylines  to explore after the end of the first film.”

We were still trying to do a movie that’s more elegant and psychological and strange than just a serial killer movie. I didn’t want to just do a movie of that guy who survived the first film and he’s terrorizing families. Being able to bring a family back to Heelshire Manor unwittingly, and discovering the doll themselves, and seeing from beginning to end how that affects that family, that was great.

Was it a challenge to keep the backstory for this lean so that you could continue to build?

I felt really lucky that we got to do a subtle, slow burn first film. It just touched on these mythologies. That was fortunate. Even with the second story, same thing. It’s not close ended. It opens up more stories. It wasn’t really a challenge. I didn’t get a lot pushback since everyone was happy with the first movie with the amount that we learned. With the second we get to answer certain questions and pose new ones.

Was there ever a creative inkling to make the doll talk, or scurry around, a la Chucky?

In the first film, no. When it builds to the third act, I thought, “Is he gonna start running around?” And when the twist happens, it was like okay, great. Generally speaking, I design the doll that was a beautiful – and not an evil looking – doll. He’s up to no good and holding a knife behind his back, but he seems like a child. I’m a fan of not going too over the top with those kinds of elements. We stayed away to keep this an elegant counter to a Chucky kind of story, which is funny and tongue and cheek. It was nice to be able to do something that tried to lean into not doing something silly, if possible.

How many Brahms dolls exist – and did you keep one?

[laughs] We have four dolls. The President of STX has one in his office that Brian Henson of Jim Henson Productions made animatronic so he looks around if you’re in a meeting. I thought I would get a doll after the first movie, but then they said, “We wanna wait and do a sequel. We’re gonna hang onto the dolls.” Then they were like, “We made a couple more dolls. We’re gonna give you a doll, for sure.” And then, I found out today, they were like, “We’re not gonna give you a doll. We’re gonna wait and see if we’re gonna do more movies.” I’m excited to get one. I have pieces of the dolls. I have things, but I still don’t have a doll. Someday, I hope.

Crossing my fingers. Hopefully, this will get you your doll.

[laughs] I mean, I know the guy that actually manufactured it. Maybe I can just pay him to make me a new one.

Owain Yeoman, Katie Holmes and Christopher Convery star in BRAHMS: The Boy II. Courtesy of STX Entertainment.

Casting is obviously extremely important. Did it take long to find Christopher Convery?

We went through a ton of ten-year-old male actors. But he stood out immediately. He was perfect in the audition. Once I got to know him and see how he could use his face and realized how doll-like he was, it was more about his acting. Everything about the casting fell into place quickly.

Katie Holmes also seems perfect, as does Ralph Ineson. I can’t imagine getting anyone better suited.

Yeah. Katie, it was kind of surprising that she would do a sequel to a horror film. She was just perfect for it. She’s a mother of a similar age child in the story. And so much of it is about her being a strong, protective mother, but also damaged herself. She was so sweet with Christopher. In scenes that didn’t call for it, she’d kiss him on the forehead, or embrace him.

Ralph is a legend in the modern-day genre space. He’s such a powerful actor. There’s a great scene where the two of them talk for a very long five minute scene. Crew members pulled me aside – and I’ve never had that happen to me. I remember one guy in particular saying, “We do a lot of movies in Vancouver. But we don’t get to see acting like this very often. Thank you.” I said, “Go tell him!” He’s a powerful on-screen presence. The first day of shooting with him, the President of Lakeshore, Gary Lucchesi, and others, we all huddled and said, “We have to think about where his character goes in this story. We need to think about whether we kill him or not.” They were blown away. Any scene he was in, we were making sure we were getting every ounce of what his character can do. It’s very captivating.

You’re reuniting with production designer John Willett and editor Brian Berdan. Was that easy to have people who understand the atmospheric nature of Brahms’ world as an asset during prep and production with John, and with Brian in the post-production process?

It was amazing. I was just finishing a movie in Brooklyn called SEPARATION. I’m finalizing a cut now. In the middle, we had to pause post-production on that movie and I went and shot THE BOY II. We had a slightly shorter pre-production period. When I showed up, everything was up and running. John was there with his team and it felt like we had just wrapped the first movie the day before. Same producing team and we’re exploring the same location and same character. It was a very collaborative process trying to understand what other areas of this property can we explore – and then creating and designing them. It made everything a thousand times easier.

In post, Brian came and visited the set once. He would cut at his studio in his house on Bainbridge Island off Seattle. He was just so happy because it was cutting together so easily. I think it wasn’t just that the footage was working so well, but it was also that. But that he understood the language of the story and where the scares were and where the heart was. Initially, it made it really smooth.

What were some of the cinematic inspirations you pulled from? Looks like there’s a little bit of THE BAD SEED.

That’s kind of what we were calling it when we were pitching the story, Stacey Menear and I. “It’s a BAD SEED film.” It comes from that family of movies. For me, probably the biggest inspiration was THE OTHER, from 1972, about these two twin brothers. One’s very mischievous and evil and the other is weak and scared of him. Then the bad brother pushes the other to do bad things and people start to die. I saw that as a little kid and it still gives me chills at the reveal. That was a big inspiration for this sequel.

Who would win in a fight: Annabelle or Brahms – and why?

That’s a really interesting question. I think Brahms, for sure. [laughs] Mostly because he’s able to control more things – or maybe not “he.” The evil behind what he is and what it leads to. It would be a good fight, for sure.

I’m assuming y’all have ideas for a third film?

Yeah. I would say there’s easily two more movies. There’s things where this story goes. There’s even a scene that – I don’t know – kind of slipped through the cracks almost literally. It’s going to be available after the theatrical release as a deleted scene. I think it will be a part of my cut. It’s a coda – a scene that happens after the credits – that sets up another piece of the mythology. It’s not in the movie, but it still exists and will be released. What’s fun is every time the story branches into two and now it’s branched into four. I think there’s great stories to be told with these characters.

‘BRAHMS: THE BOY II’ opens on February 21.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.