Interview: Director Darren Lynn Bousman Talks ‘Abattoir’

In his new horror-thriller, Abattoir, director Darren Lynn Bousman gives us a dark and disturbing film that poses many questions and puts the characters through the paces. Known for directing Saw II – IV, Bousman is no stranger to the macabre and creepy. Darren spoke with Unger the Radar recently and here’s how that conversation went:

What is it about horror that fascinates you so?

I mean, I think for me, horror is a feeling that is visceral, and it’s something that gets under your skin and stays with you. I think that we as a society deal with emotions every day. We deal with laughter and drama and anxiety, but true fear is something that is not something that is inherent in our everyday life, and I think that when it hits you, when it’s done correctly, it stays with you a lot longer than a tiny smile or a tiny laugh. The time that you are truly terrified is something that imprints in you. I can tell you the last time I was truly scared. I can’t tell you the last time I smiled or had some anxiety, but the last time I was truly terrified, yeah, I can tell you that. I can also tell you that growing up as a kid, movies that affected me, literally stayed with me, and they’re not comedies. They’re not animated films. They are movies that terrified me, and so I’ve always wanted to be a part of that world.

Personally for me, one of the scariest moments as a kid, one of the earliest memories that I have from a movie is in E.T. when they’re in the woods, and you first see E.T. He just pops out of the bushes. It was just the tension in that scene and the actual surprise. I guess it’s like an emotional scar that sticks with you.

Yeah, it absolutely is. It’s funny, I have a two-year-old son, and I shared E.T. for the first time. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but he loved it, and yeah, it’s great.

Yeah. So, how did you get involved with this project?

It was an original idea that I had years ago that, you know, I’ve always loved haunted house movies, and I’ve always loved ghost movies, but there was never a way in that hadn’t been done a million times before, and I think that in my career, I tried to make movies that are – I don’t want to say unique, but maybe that other people wouldn’t make, such as Repo or Devil’s Carnival. The type of strange things that, again, I don’t want to say niche, but aren’t necessarily mainstream, and so when I was trying to make a haunted house movie, it was like, how can I make a movie that is unique and original and a new stand on something that has been used since the beginning of cinema? And I couldn’t figure it out, and then finally, the idea hit. Instead of a movie about a haunted house, what about making it about building a haunted house? I always thought that was an interesting take into it was a character who went around and collected crime scenes, and I hadn’t seen that done before. I also always – for me when I make movies, I always want it to be about something different, and so while I wanted it to be a haunted house at the base level of it, it needed to be about something different. So the idea of this murder-mystery of a woman’s sister who was murdered and the investigation leads to this town harboring a very dark secret of killing a kid. To me, that was another way into the movie that wasn’t – so that it was about more than one thing. It wasn’t just about a haunted house but that the mythology was dense, and that was important to me as well.

Nice, nice. What were some of the challenges you faced on set?

There’s a million challenges. I think that there is never enough time and never enough money, having to re-work the script on the day, the small amount of time we had left or the small amount of budget we had to actually do it. You have to be creative when you write something. You don’t realize the environmental issues that you have to face, the wind, the rain, the cold, the sun rising in one hour when you have seven hours left to shoot. I think also on top of that, with this, you’re dealing with the dialogue, this dialogue is stylized. Nobody talks the way they talk in this movie. It was a very harsh thing to try to get the cadence down, and that was one of the big things was the cadence in this. It had to kind of sound real, but I also wanted it to sound more fantastical than real dialogue, and so it was a cross between modern and noir. They talk in a cross between 1940s and modern day slang. You know, people aren’t used to hearing that, and I think that I love that about the film. You can easily watch it and say, “Oh, the dialogue is terrible, they don’t talk like that.” Well, that’s the point. That’s the exact point of what I wanted to do. I’m a huge noir fan, and if Humphrey Bogart had continued to make movies and Lauren Bacal had continued to make movies and they were horror films, what might they look like today? That was kind of the idea, how they spoke in it.

It definitely had a very retro feel to it, especially in the beginning scene with the newspaper office and then the detective. Very 50s-style and even earlier, you know, 40s noir, and I really appreciated that. I thought that was awesome.

Here’s my thing. I want to take risks with everything, and to me, playing it safe is not cool. Playing it safe, anyone can do that. I think that one of my mantras as a filmmaker is that I always want to be dangerous in anything that I do. I want to make a rock opera where they don’t say one word. They sing everything. I want to make a horror movie where they speak in noir. I want to do things like that because I think there is so many of the same out there. This morning, I got up at 5 AM. My son woke me up, and I was going through Netflix, and this is not an exaggeration, I think 2 hours of going through every box, and I don’t want to watch any of it. It’s all the same. I’ve seen all of these movies, and so to try to find something that at least takes a risk and is something that is not stereotypical and not within that box. Those are the types of movies that I appreciate and that I like.

Yeah, no, I totally agree. As an artist, you have to take risks. If you don’t, then what’s the point? Are there any filmmakers that have influenced your style in any way?

A ton of filmmakers. When I grew up, it was Jim Jarmusch. It was David Lynch, and again, people that take risks in their movies and their careers. Terry Gilliam, I think Terry Gilliam is one of my favorites because here’s a guy that has had commercial success, and then he goes and makes the weirdest fucking movies you’ve ever seen. They’re insane, and I love that. I love that he got that I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. To me, that’s what I respond to. Now, I guess more recent directors, Darren Aronofsky. Again, Darren Aronofsky and P. T. Anderson, and when you’re seeing things like Requiem for a Dream or Magnolia or those types of movies, I’m blown away. I’m blown away by them, and so more recently, guys like that.

Nice, nice. What do you look for in your actors?

A few things. One, I can get along with them. To me, it comes down to relationships. It comes down to – more than anything – because if they are good at their job, I can get the performance I want out of them. What I can’t do is gel with them personally, and I have to, and I know that maybe it’s a weird thing, that I shouldn’t let personal get involved with it, but I do. I have to like them and have to be able to connect because I think that when you’re spending that much time on set, you sort of enter a relationship where we’re requiring a lot out of each other. I’m requiring you to be there long hours and sit there and do lots of nothing. I require you to give me your creative input if things aren’t working, and so there’s that trust, so for me, I’ve got to trust them and have some sort of relationship with them, and that’s the very first thing I look for. Then after that, it comes down to can they say the words and do they look the part, but I think more so than anything, that there is a relationship and a trust there.

Nice. Awesome, awesome. So, what do you hope audiences take away from this film?

I mean, it’s a hard one. I don’t know. To me, why I made it was I wanted to create a mythology against mythology, and I wanted to do something that was familiar yet completely different than what they’ve seen. In the very end, I don’t think I’d call Abattoir a horror film. I think it’s a hybrid. It’s a macabre thriller noir. There is nothing horrific about Abattoir, but it is something that I do wish that I did see more of, which is, this is dialogue-heavy. This is tons of talking, and you have to listen to what they say. They’re not just talking for the hell of it and saying flowery words for the hell of it. The exposition is all said in the lines, and one of the things that we get a lot of in there is they might say a plot point only one time, one time in some weird cadence dialogue. If you’re not listening, if you’re not paying attention, you will miss it. It will fly past you, and so I wanted to demand more of the audience, that the audience is a lot smarter than sometimes they are given credit for. To me, Abattoir is a movie that you have to pay attention to. You have to listen to what they’re saying. You have to read what they’re reading, and I think that more movies that treat the audience, I think, with a little more respect and give them more credit is the type of movie that I love, and so I hope within this, they see past the crazy dialogue and the weird things that they’re writing on typewriters, and they can see that maybe it’s a more adult horror film. I set out to make an adult fairy tale, so I hope that people walk away and see that.

Yeah, definitely. It had a very mature feel. It didn’t go for those cheap scares or gross-out gore. It was subtle, and I think audiences will love it. Are there any film genres that you haven’t done that you’d want to do in the future?

You know, what’s crazy is that I have a two-year-old son now, and I watch movies with him, and you watch his face light up. He’s so excited by certain things. I would love to make a Goonies-like movie, like a young kid’s adventure movie. My kids aren’t going to be able to see my movies for the next fifteen, twenty years. I’d really like to make something that he could see and we could watch together.

Nice, so I take it Spielberg had a heavy impact on you as a kid?

You know, it’s funny. Yesterday, we watched The BFG together, which is a Spielberg film, and one of the very first movies I showed him – and I told you, maybe I shouldn’t have – was E.T., so yeah, Spielberg, absolutely.

But you know what, kids, they need to experience fear early on so they’re kind of prepared for it later on.

I think that’s where I got my creativity from and where I succeeded as a filmmaker is that my parents never shielded me from that. They let me watch what I wanted to watch, within reason. But I can remember when I was little and my dad and I watching Fright Night together and watching Gremlins and all these things that really introduced me to the macabre early on and made me have a love and admiration for the genre.

Nice, so you would want to do basically a modern-day Goonies. Are there any young actors out there that you’d like to have in the film or maybe for the older parts?

I don’t, but I do have a story that I’m working on right now, and it is a darker version of that. It’s a darker version of a kid’s fantasy. It’s like a Pan’s Labyrinth-like movie but not as dark as Pan’s Labyrinth. You know, when I watched Stranger Things, I was like, that right there is my ultimate goal. That’s a perfect show, and I think that being able to create something like that would be amazing.

Maybe you could link up with those filmmakers or screenwriters and come up with something really cool.

Yeah, I agree. I think that, to me, the older I get, the more mature I get, the more I want to delve into other genres like that. Always have that dark, nefarious twist, but still be something that a kid could watch.

That’s great. Last question. In your opinion, what makes a good story?

I mean, something that transports you out of your daily life for the time you’re in that story, and something that is immersive, and I think that we as an audience, we are so passive in what we do, and I don’t know if we’re ever truly there. What I mean by that is that every time I go to a movie or see a movie or watch a movie, I’m doing other things. I’m text-messaging, I’m checking Twitter, I’m looking at Facebook, I’m going to the bathroom, I’m talking to my kid, all of these things, and lately, we’ve had the ability to pull you in, suck you in, and make you forget about everything else. For those two hours that you’re there, you’re just there, and I would like to see more films that do that, and I remember the times I’ve been sucked into a movie. I remember the first time I watched Amelie, I was so entranced by what I was looking at and what I was watching that I wanted to be nowhere but there. Now, I find myself distracted. I think part of it is my attention span is shorter with technology, but I think to me what makes a good story is something that can pull you away from the bullshit of your personal daily life and for two hours, completely suck you in and make you forget about everything.

Right. That’s awesome, and that’s what a good story can do and should do, and I totally agree. Thank you so much for your time, Darren.

Thanks a lot, man.

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