Darren Lynn Bousman doesn't care to be pigeonholed, but take a look at the writer/director's impressive career so far and you're naturally going to draw a couple of conclusions:
1) he's a prolific artist with a passion for the supernatural and other speculative themes
2) he knows his way around a Hollywood blockbuster - Mr. Bousman wrote and directed "Saw II", then directed "Saw III" and "Saw IV", and each film hit number one upon its debut
3) he's not afraid to experiment with different formats (short films, remakes, musicals!) to keep things interesting.
This month, Anchor Bay released the director's latest film, "The Barrens", and it's yet another departure: a stripped down and self-contained horror throwback that focuses on performance and stages scares in the most primal of places: the deep, dark forest. Starring Stephen Moyer ("True Blood") and Mia Kirshner ("The Vampire Diaries"), "The Barrens" is the story of Richard Vineyard (Mr. Moyer) and his family, who set out on a weekend camping trip in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. It soon appears that the Vineyards are being threatened by something. It could be strained tempers and fraying relationships, or Richard's deteriorating sanity – or it could be the legendary Jersey Devil.
I recently had a chance to talk to Mr. Bousman about "The Barrens", and I asked him about the filmmaking process, his approach to working with actors, and how he feels about film marketing and audience expectations.
[Fair warning: some of this interview may contain mild spoilers.]
Big Picture Big Sound: I'm wondering about your inspiration for "The Barrens". How did you first hear about The Jersey Devil? Was it organic, like hearing about it as folklore, or were you doing research and looking for something to focus your story around?
BPBS: You're known for the "Saw" movies, which include large set pieces and were filmed in a controlled environment. How was it shooting "The Barrens", which takes place primarily outside?
DLB: Harsh! This was my first on-location experience and I realised that I had been spoiled as a filmmaker working on soundstages. This shoot was 16 days, almost all of it was outdoors, and it was a challenge because you can't control for sound, or weather. We would shoot Stephen's coverage and it would be against a beautiful blue sky, and then it would start raining. All those differences in the weather made it difficult to get the footage to converge, but we just had to go with it. At one point we needed to bring in rain machines to shoot footage so it would match, and that meant lots more manpower and effort.
BPBS: What was behind the choice to shoot in Montreal?
DLB: I had been trying to get this movie made for 10 years. I had looked into New Jersey for shooting but there were no tax incentives, and we didn't have enough of a budget... [but] then we found out we could piggyback on another movie in the Montreal area, and I realized I would have to make concessions if I wanted to get the movie done. We ended up shooting in an area that looks nothing like Barrens, but there's really a small number of people who will know it looks nothing like the Barrens, that we're showing the wrong kind of pine trees.
BPBS: The movie has a distinctive look, with a lot of primary colors . How did you design the look of the production?
DLB: That was done in consultation with my director of photography, Joe White. When you're shooting in the forest, against all green, the color scheme is important. I wanted the actors to "pop" against the green, so they're wearing red, yellow, blue. The idea was for the overall aesthetic not to distract but to help tell the story. I also wanted a 70s look – I love that era – so I shot on super 16 instead of digital or 35mm. Most of it was shot from low angles, with the characters always dwarfed by trees, so the trees are a constant source of tension in the look of the film.
BPBS: I noticed that there is a lot of water imagery in the film.
DLB: Well, rabies, the disease, causes hydrophobia, a fear of water. There are scenes where Stephen angrily pushes away some bottled water. And [with the water themes] all the rain helped.
DLB: I've really grown as a filmmaker, and I've learned that it's not all about the gimmick and the action. I'm thinking more about actors and performance. Particularly in a horror movie, the audience has to care about characters who are going through the action. It's the most important thing, and it definitely carried over into "The Barrens", which is all about Stephen's performance, and he gives a great performance. It has to be believeable, not a characature, for it to work.
BPBS: The Blu-ray/DVD release includes a deleted scene, one that would go at the end of the film. In the commentary you talk about how you didn't want to put that scene in the film but the studio wanted it. How often do you deal with external input that conflicts with your vision on a project?
DLB: Movies are shaped by criteria that don't always agree with the filmmaker's artistic vision. In this case, we had to add nine minutes for the movie to align with overseas specifications. We shot to add time for German TV, but I didn't agree with it. I think it's better to end in the middle of the action instead of showing the aftermath. As an example, think of "Reservoir Dogs", which ends at a high point, these guys with guns pointed at each other – and then it goes right to the song, "Put the Lime in the Coconut"...
BPBS: Are there any preconceptions that people bring to your work that you wish they wouldn't?
DLB: Yes, there are, and it sucks. I wish I wouldn't be promoted as the director of "Saw". I'm enormously proud of those movies, but it's hard dealing with audience preconceptions. People go in expecting one thing, and they get something else. [To describe the problem,] I use the analogy, "sushi vs. steak": If you tell someone you're taking them out for a steak dinner and then they get sushi, it might be good, but it's not what was promised, and they're not going to be happy. So much about movie marketing is just aimed at getting asses in the seats. A good example of this is my film, "11/11/11"; it's not a horror movie, it's a slow burn movie about religious beliefs. But the marketing was, "From the director of 'Saw'...", so people expected a horror movie, and they were disappointed. With "The Barrens", it's not a monster movie; it's a psychological drama about a man's descent into madness. It just happens to have a monster in it.
BPBS: For my last question, I can't resist asking about some of your other work. I loved "New Year's Day", the segment that you contributed to "Fear Itself". How was it to work within the constraints of network television? Would you do it again?
DLB: Thank you. But, directing for TV, I think it isn't for me. It's so hard to shoot in seven days, and a lot of it felt like directing by committee, with a lot of executives. I think it's just easier to work with one vision.
"The Barrens" was released in October by Anchor Bay and is available on Blu-ray DVD Combo and on DVD. It's also available via Video On Demand, and audiences may be able to experience "The Barrens" on the big screen in November, through a combination of a limited theatrical release and additional theatrical showing – available wherever fans demand them – through a partnership with Tugg.
The Blu-ray and DVD releases of "The Barrens" include commentary from Darren Lynn Bousman and the film's director of photography, Joseph White, as well as a deleted scene.
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