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.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic-Total Wuss
You are trapped in a dark room with a gal driven to the edge of a mental breakdown. There’s an antique end table concealing a secret message. You open it.
“Don’t think it. Don’t say it.”
The chilling cautionary phrase repeats again and again and again, by her and the note.
“Don’t think it. Don’t say it.”
What does it mean? You see the chicken scratched note inside the drawer. You hear a coin drop. You see a cloaked figure and his hound coming out of a closet towards you. You hear a train horn. You are rendered inert from being scared sh*tless. You quickly toss that which is what’s in your hands (the drawer and half-dollar coin) at said shadowy figure. You’re yelled at to climb through a cabinet to escape. You do – only to barricade yourself in the bathroom, using a mannequin to block the entrance.
This was my experience mere seconds before I was shuffled off to interview THE BYE BYE MAN’s director Stacy Title and producer Trevor Macy. Though I was eventually retrieved from the bathroom and led to safety (where a bunch of audio-video guys got a hearty chuckle out of my trauma), this is the harrowing set up the characters in the film go through before their eventual demise.
At the film’s immersive press day, I spoke to the filmmakers about everything from not sh*tting my pants, to what this story creatively satisfied in them, to what terrifies them.
Let’s see if I can pull my act together to try to sound professional. I feel like curling up in a corner and rocking back and forth.
Trevor Macy: [laughs]
Stacy Title: Are you okay?! You’re so cute.
Where did you hear this story originally? What made you think you could make it cinematic and also this sh*t conjuring experience I went through today?
Macy: It’s based on a short story “The Bridge to Body Island” in an anthology called The President’s Vampire by Robert Damon Schneck. What drew my attention at the beginning was the warning of the chapter, which said, “Anybody who’s particularly susceptible to ideas that won’t leave your head, or susceptible to being scared, don’t read this.” So of course I kept reading. In that was the roots of the mythology. Some of the stories in there were fiction, but this was codifying a story that a friend told him based on true events. If we wanted to be forensic about it, we could delve further into it.
Honestly, the idea that it could have been true was more compelling to me than whether it was or it wasn’t. That’s a good kindling to how Bye Bye Man works, in general. I brought them [Title and her husband Jonathan Penner] on and we worked hard on it for almost three years until we felt like the idea and the script were on par. The idea of a villain that hears his name like a beacon and it draws him to you, pervert your worst fears with hallucinations and terrify you, that’s a pretty big idea. We were hoping to get a script that paid that off.
Title: We had to match the idea. We took some of the essentials of that story and we enhanced them. To me, it’s much scarier that wherever I go, whatever I do, the Bye Bye Man can be with me and torture me and treat me like a puppet and make me do things to ruin my life. He’s everywhere. He can be viral. I was very attracted to a modern Boogeyman that was unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s not a ghost story – it’s not a haunted house. It goes far beyond that.
This is more like an allegory for an illness, or obsession. How it’s always there, following you – a disease.
Title: Absolutely! One of the characters says, ‘It’s like a virus!’ I think the thing that’s interesting about it is you can’t stop it. We’re control freaks. It’s terrifying your own mind is inescapable and can hurt you.
Stacy, what were some of the inspirations you pulled from aesthetically or for the scares?
There’s a moment I love in REPULSION, where Catherine Deneuve opens a medicine cabinet and the rapist is behind her. It builds up to that moment for 35-40 minutes. That made me cry. I love the terror in ROSEMARY’S BABY. I love that she’s a dumb woman and she is alone and trying to fix something she can’t fix. That’s something similar that we have in this movie.
In terms of the palette, it’s forlorn. It lacks color – mirrors are very milky and pull the color out. We kept the palette tight. There’s not a lot of blue in the movie intentionally, just to give it a feeling of disease. The idea of using a palette, from the great masters, that’s what I take from them.
Trevor, is it easier these days to get a horror film made than a straight-forward drama about sickness, per-se?
The short answer is yes. Horror comes in and out of fashion in Hollywood. People look down on it. People say it’s done. When we made THE STRANGERS and released it in 2008, people had said for years, ‘Don’t make that. you’re going to lose your shirt. Nobody wants to see horror anymore.’ The fun thing about the genre is it’s a window into others. A good horror movie is usually a good drama. If you’re talking about any of the best ones, you take a protagonist in transition – they’re moving, they’ve lost their job, they’ve had a baby – and then you impose whether or not that element is supernatural or external on the situation. It’s a way of looking at what we fear and love. This movie, like a lot of other, shares DNA with those, but there’s a lot more to the execution than that. You’ve got to have characters people care about. You throw around the term ‘elevated genre,’ but the scares land because you care about the characters.
The job is more than that. People come for a ride; they’ve gotta have fun. If we’ve done our jobs right, you leave the theater looking over your shoulder.
What scares you?
Title: The scariest thing is the real world. I’m a catastrophic thinker. What scares me are the things that could happen to the people I love. It’s hard for me to control that. I’m in a constant state of anxiety so horror works very well on me.
Macy: In daily life, I think the thing that scares me is falling. I don’t like heights for that reason.
Title: Creepy dolls
Macy: If you look at all the movies I’ve done, apparently what scares me is losing loved ones.
If there is a running through line there, that’s totally true.
Macy: I could name them all – who’s losing what when.
Title: And then you’re seeking information of how to save yourself and save your world – and then you can’t do it. It’s like a Greek tragedy.
Macy: That’s the beauty of horror movies is that they allow you to work that out in a reality that’s once removed – and not too safe.
A lot of your stories, Trevor, aren’t exactly happy endings, I would say.
Macy: That’s true. I think it’s really hard to make a scary movie in which no one dies. There’s no stakes.
Title: And the Bye Bye Man is a powerful force and we’re ill-equipped to deal with him.
How do you defeat someone that’s supernatural?
Title: How do you defeat someone that can read your mind and sees your future and manipulate.
What was it about this movie that creatively satisfied you?
Title: Working with Trevor was the best part. He’s really, really on top of it and cares about everything as a producer. He’s not lazy.
It’s good to have a good producer behind you, believing in your vision.
Title: Oh my God. He’s a good producer from thinking about the story until how’s the advertising going. He’s wall to wall.
Macy: Thank you. I loved working with you. I think Stacy would agree with me: there’s no substitute for getting one of these movies for the first time and having it pay off. It’s really fun after years and years of work to get in there and go, ‘Oh my God. It’s okay. And they get it!’ There’s no substitute for that. It’s why we do what we do.
THE BYE BYE MAN opens on January 13.
Feature Photo: Douglas Smith in THE BYE BYE MAN. Courtesy of STX Entertainment.