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SXSW '15: Vinyard questions director Craig William Macneill and writer Clay McLeod Chapman about THE BOY!

THE BOY started out as an early chapter in a novel by Clay McLeod Chapman. He and director Craig William Macneill adapted the story into a short film, which they then expanded into a feature. Now, their tale of a boy, his father, and the motel they both run is doing the festival circuit, and they have even more plans for this story.

THE BOY is apparently the first film in a trilogy about the titular child, 9-year-old Ted, who hates the deserted motel he lives in and dreams of living with his mom in sunny Florida. It’s a broody, low-key film with little dialogue, containing a slow-burn pace that keeps you riveted as the title character (played excellently by Jared Breeze) develops into something increasingly more sinister and dangerous.

Talking with Chapman and Macneill immediately following a screening of their film, I had a bunch of questions regarding the progression of the story, the symbolism in the film, and several of their aesthetic choices. Be warned that we go into spoiler territory after the second break, so if you want to go in fresh (which, for this film, is the best way to see it), skim the back half at your discretion.

VINYARD: Let’s start with you, Clay. Were you involved with the short that the movie was based on?

CLAY: Yes.

VINYARD: Was it your idea to adapt the short story to begin with?

CLAY: Like 2003, I wrote a novel, and nobody read it. It was like five people, four of which are my family, and Craig. We just had these long conversations of what a movie version of what the novel could be, but Craig always gravitated towards one specific chapter in it. In all honesty, that’s probably the only thing worth reading in the book. It was always like, “What is it gonna take to do that movie?" And we made a short in the meantime, it was called LATE BLOOMER, and that went to Sundance, and it was kind of a great trial run for us, in terms of what is it gonna take to make a movie and what does it take to hit up the festival circuit and get people’s attention. We were very fortunate. And then that led to, are we any closer to making the feature version of the chapter of the novel that we were excited about? Craig thought, “Well, let’s do like a stop-gap, like a half-measure, and do a short.

So basically, we kind of cut the chapter in half. We did a Jerome Grant, there was Kickstarter, friends and family, credit cards, and we made 10 minutes worth of that. And it was called HENLEY. Same scenario, we hit up the festival circuit, we got into Sundance, it was a whirlwind. Then pretty much the week after Sundance, our managers reached out and said SpectreVision saw it, and they wanna talk. It was basically the Cinderella story. But Craig was definitely the driving force from getting from the page to the screen.

VINYARD: LATE BLOOMER sounds like it was about a kid, was it also about a kid?

CRAIG: It actually was. It was about a seventh-grade sex ed class that goes horribly wrong.

VINYARD: In the same kind of horror style?

CLAY: Pretty tongue-in-cheek.

CRAIG: Mostly inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s more of a music video in a way. It’s a bizarre piece.

CLAY: Like if H.P. Lovecraft wrote a short story about being in a sex ed class.

CRAIG: And then throw in A CHRISTMAS STORY.

CLAY: Yeah. Narrated by Daniel Stern from THE WONDER YEARS. WONDER YEARS met A CHRISTMAS STORY met H.P. Lovecraft.


VINYARD: Tell me this is on Vimeo.

CLAY: Youtube!

CRAIG: Yeah, you can watch it on Youtube. Absolutely. (he’s right)

VINYARD: The producer said that the short and the original draft were a lot more tongue-in-cheek. Can you tell me what you softened up?

CRAIG: The short was a dark comedy, and then we wrote a feature script that was a dark comedy, a black comedy. But it was a little silly, it was a little crazy, and we really wanted to tap into the darkness of this character. The idea of turning that into a psychological horror, and away from dark comedy was exciting because those are the kind of films we actually love. It was just as simple as someone at SpectreVision suggesting the idea that, “Oh a lightbulb went off.” “Yeah, that makes sense!” ‘Cause a lot of people who saw the short didn’t see it as a dark comedy. They actually saw it as the genesis of a serial killer.

CLAY: Yeah, the reaction of the short was very varied, but there’s be a kind of bad vibe to it. People wouldn’t be like, “Oh my god, that was hilarious!” They’d be like, “Oh my god, that was the most horrifying thing!” There was an unease to it that made it hard to articulate how you felt about it. So when the conversation started with SpectreVision, it was like this strange intersection. It’s true, they were having their own kind of conversation independent of us about what it would be like to have an origin story of a serial killer. Because I think we’re inundated at this point with that kind of FRIDAY THE 13TH mode where it’s like the origin story is the first five minutes. A pre-credit teaser of “This is what happens, and now that paves the way for the rest of the 90-minute film you’re about to see.” It would be a crazy idea to take that five minutes and flip it, subvert it. And turn it into a trilogy.

These three specific periods of childhood- like 9, 13, and 18, are totally different. You were a different person at each of those stages in life. So I think to have a movie that focuses on those age ranges, it allows us to tell that story and really microscope it, really focus on exploring it for all its gory detail.

VINYARD: So would you really want to follow through with a trilogy with this character?

CRAIG: Oh, absolutely.

VINYARD: But it wouldn’t be based on the book.

CLAY: No, no, no.

VINYARD: So a Rob Zombie HALLOWEEN 2-style new take?

CLAY: Totally.

VINYARD: Okay, cool. Let’s talk about the visual aspect of the movie for a second. You guys shot in Colombia?

CRAIG: We needed a hotel buried in the mountains of the American west, that’s what we needed. So we started looking toward the west: Arizona, Utah, California, New Mexico. But we couldn’t find anything that was like in the middle of nowhere with a highway in front that just fit the story in the right way. Of course, I had always wanted to build one. Straight out of the imagination, into the dirt. But we could never afford to do that. That’s when the idea of shooting in Colombia came up, because they were offering some great tax incentives, and we discovered while we were budgeting that we could actually go down there and afford to build it. So we got down there, spent about a week trying to find a spot, and then one afternoon, we just drove by this location, I was like, “Stop the car!” And we all got out, and walked up this little hill which is the driveway, and we got to the spot. We all looked at each other and went, “This is it.”


CRAIG: Literally six weeks that thing was built.

CLAY: And that’s how Las Vegas was made.

VINYARD: I was very curious about the pacing of the movie. The first half an hour, maybe even longer, I was really just trying to get a grip on what was going on, but I was very intrigued, which is very tricky when you don’t have a firm grasp of where the story’s going. All you have is the title, THE BOY. How did you guys handle that balancing act of keeping all the plates spinning? What was the hook in your guys’ mind? It’s kind of an all over the place question.

CLAY: We were very methodical in terms of mapping out Ted’s trajectory. More in this scenario than anything I’ve ever worked on, there was a conscious decision to show each step as a progession. So that first 30 minutes that you’re talking about, it’s us laying down a foundation that’s gonna lead to bigger things, bigger events. You kind of see the evolution, but it’s starting at this minute, very specific, and almost kind of invisible point. It’s perversely patient, you know?

CRAIG: And it’s that way in the script. That was something we wanted from the beginning. Very tense, very strained, very meticulously paced out film. So the tone, no matter what happens, even at the end, that tone is fluid throughout.

CLAY: But you see it as this like…it’s almost like you’re on the roller coaster, but it’s that ascension more than it is the descent-

CRAIG: We slowly get under the skin.

VINYARD: And the inciting incident is the car crash with Rainn Wilson. I guess that’s where the short ended?


VINYARD: And that’s really where the movie starts to take off. I’m very curious here what you think Rainn Wilson’s character represents in the plot. Not to go too much into spoilers, but I love Rainn Wilson, and his presence and his relationships with both the son and the father. Obviously he’s a big part of the movie. What is his role? What does he catalyze? What does he bring out in the kid that wasn’t there before?

CRAIG: Hope.

CLAY: Hope, and also kind of danger.

CRAIG: I think the character certainly brings an element of danger to the story. He’s very mysterious. But they do form a friendship, and I think it’s that friendship that leads to the ultimate metamorphosis of Ted.

CLAY: Then there’s the tug-of-war between Wilson’s character and David Morse’s character and Ted in the middle. In a funny way, in the novel, Rainn Wilson’s character, William, is the lead guy. The Henley Road Motel, Ted’s story, is only a pit-stop on this longer trip. So by flipping it, you kind of see William…in a weird way, he brings in death. Like with the car accident with the deer, it gives Ted the actual understanding of the ability to kill something. It’s the first time where he can control forces that are not necessarily moral. It’s a real ephiphany point for him, and in all honesty, he provides Ted his first victim.

VINYARD: And that’s cut great. The reveal of that is great because you don’t know that until he’s ready to…get back in the saddle, so to speak. I know Rainn Wilson has a relationship with Elijah and the SpectreVision guys, so I’m assuming that’s how that came about, but did you guys always envision David Morse for the part of the father?

CRAIG: Yeah, we wrote the part for him, but we didn’t think, in our wildest dreams, that he would do it. We got the script to him, and he read it and he was intrigued, it was the most scariest day of my life. But somehow we convinced him.

CLAY: The inside scoop is that Josh Waller, one of the producers, had directed a movie called MECHANIC that David was the lead in. It was written by Daniel (Noah), the other third of SpectreVision, so they had a relationship with him. It was that moment of, “How much of a reality is David Morse, and what would it take to make that a real real reality?” It took sitting with him and kinda…I feel like I auditioned for him.

CRAIG: We auditioned for him.

ViNYARD: Well, you booked it

CLAY: We were shittin’ in our pants.

VINYARD: In regards to the child actors, you guys talked in there about using mattresses and stunt doubles for the stunt scenes, but there are still a million practical issues when dealing with child actors. Jared’s the lead of the movie, he’s in every scene!

CRAIG: Pretty much every frame. I knew time was gonna be tight, so I knew I had to come in prepared. One of the things I had was a thing where we made faces. So If I yelled, “Stone face!” or “Concrete face!”, he’d have to just make a dead face as he’s talking. Or there was, “Cold face!” So we had certain faces, and that saved so much time, because I would just call them out if it wasn’t working, and he’d just lock into it. Another thing was if I needed him to appear distant or lost in thought as he’s doing dialogue or just sitting there, I would have him count trees in the distance, or cracks in the wall, as he’s talking, and when we cut he’d have to tell me just how many trees or cracks. And I told him in advance I knew the answer, so if he got it wrong we’d do another take. That proved tremendously successful for carving out a great performance in the edit, I think. It was really helpful. He’s also amazing. He has a comfortable screen presence.

VINYARD: Was he actually dunking the other kid in the pool? ‘Cause the way it was shot…

CRAIG: No! There was like the playful one, but the one where he actually went down, he was holding an adult down there.

VINYARD: In terms of the gore, you start out with the deer, and I guess it’s not a very gory scene, but it implies a lot. None of the deaths in the movie are particularly gory, you kind of let the psychological be the meat of it. Was there ever a desire to go full SpectreVision?

CRAIG: No, the plan was always to keep it offscreen, to not show it.

CLAY: And those are the best movies! You think of ALIEN, even TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, you swear you saw something. Like I totally saw deer intestines fall out, I know I did. No you didn’t! If it’s implied, your imagination takes over. The sound design on that, the deer gutting scene, that scene is kind of hard to watch, it’s hard to listen to, because you’re kind of seeing it in your mind’s eye. And that’s far, far worse.

VINYARD: I have another writing question about that scene. What is that scene doing for him? Is it giving him some sort of familiarity with death? Is it demystifying the blood for him?

CLAY: Generally, this is a negative space movie. There’s the action, then there’s the thing that happens just outside of the action, and in that particular scene, you have this deer, but you have Ted bearing witness as well. There’s the life and death of it, there’s the internal workings, and the kind of viscera of it, so you have this bonding moment. The scene ends with Ted’s dad giving him his first pair of antlers, so in strange way, it’s kind of this bequeathing of the mantle, like, “Now you have the gauntlet.” It’s just another seed that will progress, and the fusion of the antlers and the pieces of the car wreck will make this headdress…but it is another step along the way, it’s a map point along the road.

VINYARD: I saw a credit for creature effects.

CRAIG: The deer was built. That deer was built and designed in L.A., and flown out to Colombia. Got stuck in customs for weeks. That particular scene kept having to get pushed, and pushed, and pushed, and everyone was getting all crazy because the deer was in customs.

VINYARD: Were there any live animals on set?

CRAIG: The bunny. There was the deer walking on the highway. The creature we built was part deer, at one point, I think.

CLAY: Really?!

CRAIG: The pelt was real, I believe the head was.


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