Editor’s Note: Jayson talks to director William Brent Bell about making The Boy and its sequel Brahms: The Boy II. Plot elements from the first film are discussed in detail. An audio version of this interview is now available on your podcast service of choice.
Jayson (BGH): I don’t think the conversation should start with anything other than Brahms so can you talk a little bit about the design and how that came to be?
William Brent Bell (WBB): I like things to be kind of subtle and not too over the top, I suppose. So there were questions about how scary looking he would or would not be. For me, I was more inspired by real little boys from scary movies like Damien from The Omen. He was an angelic, adorable little child but you knew he was evil in there somewhere and so my perspective was to create a beautiful, semi life-like little boy, but he’s holding a knife behind his back. He’s definitely evil, it’s just that you don’t see it.
We started with concepts and an artist and then we started prepping the film up in Victoria, [British Columbia]. Every little detail was considered from the size of eyes, his haircut, his clothes, to how tall he was. His eyes are actually real [prosthetic] eyes like humans would use if they lost one. So much time was spent trying to get him perfect. Even two nights before we did the camera test, I was worried his hair was completely wrong. He looked like a male ice skater, a figure skater, it was hilarious! But once we did that first camera test it just all came together perfectly. I feel completely great about how he turned out.
BGH: Craigdarroch Castle is such a presence in the first film. What was it like filming there? How much did the location influence the direction of the film?
WBB: It greatly affected it. In the script the house was more of an old farmhouse. When we were scouting in Vancouver we [visited] several places, even though Craigdarroch castle is very grand. I’ve never seen a silhouette quite like it in a horror film. It just seemed highly unique, and I thought if we had a chance to shoot there we could adjust the movie and still make it believable. Once you’re in it, everything about it is incredible.
The place itself is a museum so, as far as shooting goes, we ended up recreating some of the location on stage so we could have fun with the violence. When we would film in the actual castle we had to be very careful because we couldn’t touch anything or lean against the walls. Someone who works for the museum would have to come and move anything for us. It became very slow so we had to recreate some of it like I said on stage.
Craigdarroch castle became a huge character. Part of what was fun about going back there [for The Boy II] is that we know this family is stepping into a trap almost now. They have no idea they are going into this property that houses this castle. They are just going to get away and stay in a guest house, away from the rest of the world. Unbeknownst to them its on Heelshire estate
BGH: There is a huge turn in The Boy. Can you talk a little bit about how you bridge that gap coming into the sequel and how you tied it altogether?
WBB: When I was first reading the script [for The Boy], I was like oh this is great but coming into the second and third act I was thinking, “What is going to happen here?” This is really going to change the tenor of the story. And then when the adult Brahms comes out of the wall it was awesome. We questioned, “Can we make this work?” There was talk about not having a twist, just revealing him in a room somewhere. But it worked out really well and it was so fun to see audiences react to him coming out of the wall and not seeing the twist coming.
So, I can’t really say too much. But, definitely part of what was cool about the first film was that we were introducing two new characters into the horror lexicon; the doll and then Brahms the man wearing the mask. And, so for me, this is going to be great because if we move on, we can move in a lot of surprising or unique directions.
BGH: Can you talk a little about how Katie Holmes got brought into the project and what it was like working with her?
WBB: It was kind of surprising the way it all came together. When we first decided we were making this sequel we put together a list for Liza and Katie was right there on that list. And then I got a call from Gary Lucchesi at Lakeshore and he said Katie’s people really love her for this. We were thinking we really want to send this to her for the weekend to read it. It was Labor Day weekend and I was thinking, “wow that sounds amazing.” But then I thought, there is no way she is going to read it over the weekend. It takes people forever to read, and then they never read it and you get a pass or something. Then on Monday or Tuesday he called and said she loves it so if you’re cool with it we are going to make an offer and seal the deal and then by the end of the day it was done. It was very fast. A pretty provocative, very cool addition to the family of this movie is Katie Holmes.
She is just the sweetest, kindest human you could ever meet. She has an ability to go exactly where she needs to go right when we are ready to roll. We talked about this some, but her daughter is sort of the same age as her son in the story so I can feel her bringing a lot of her maternal instincts. In the film she is protective of her son as I know she is of her daughter. So it was really cool to see how affected she was by this story. She’s just great. I’ve been a fan of her’s for a long, long time. I’ve never seen her carry a movie like this. She’s incredible. And, I don’t think it’s going to surprise people, but we just don’t get to see her enough and it’s nice. She was a perfect fit.
BGH: You brought another very well respected actor; Ralph Ineson. What was that experience like?
WBB: Incredible. Ralph’s a genre legend. I mean what an incredible addition to the cast. He was very involved in the details of his character. His family background was similar to the character he plays.
There’s this scene (and it’s in the trailer) where he is talking about the mythology of the movie. It’s pretty long and it’s one on one with Katie. I never had crew members pull me aside and say, listen, ‘we do a lot of movies in Vancouver and we see a lot of great actors but we are not used to seeing somebody like this doing what he is doing right now.’ It happened many times that day, I was like, “go tell him”, you know! It was just mesmerizing to see him do this scene. At least three people separately came to let me know how transformative and impressive his acting was. He’s amazing.
BGH: I would love to hear the major influences that you think have driven your career and passion in the horror genre.
WBB: All the films I can think of when I was really young, were all horror films. Like Trilogy of Terror. I remember my sister showed me that. And of course, there’s the short film with Karen Black and the little Zulu doll. Until I was about 10 years old after I’d seen that I would not sit on the couch with my legs down. I would always have to put my legs up because I thought that doll would be under the couch and cut my feet off. For years I believed that. I wasn’t a dumb kid but I believed it.
And I used to think a witch would come into my bedroom, so I would hide under the covers and the witch would come into my room and go shopping for my stuff and if she saw me she would buy me and take me away. I had a vivid imagination about scary stuff. Movies like The Omen and Halloween are important to me. I don’t know if you know the movie The Other. Love that movie and it was a big inspiration for the Boy sequel. Those movies are pretty elegant.
As far as making horror films, it’s a pretty fun world to work in if you are a filmmaker. You aren’t beholden to some of the same confines as other movies. You don’t necessarily have to have big movie stars. Sometimes that actually gets in the way. So it’s an exciting space to work in, where you can be very creative. It’s a small family that really understands genre movies. A lot of times producers, especially the good ones, and studios get that and give you room to work. It's a great space to work in today and as a kid it was a great place for my imagination to go to.
BGH: I know that a lot of the work you’ve done in the past has been from your own scripts. What’s the difference in the approach you take working off someone else’s work versus your own?
WBB: When I did The Boy, I was looking for something like that. I edited my own things, wrote, produced and did the visual effects sometimes. It just depends on the project. I kind of wanted to perform an exercise; take a step back and be the director only and really populate the crew with super talented people.
What’s interesting probably for me not writing is that I am interpreting another writer’s intentions. Stacey [Menear], the writer of The Boy, was on set for the first film. There is a scene where Lauren [Cohan] is alone in the kitchen and she is really thinking she is going nuts. She isn’t sure if she’s seen [Brahms] move or not. She asks if there is a presence in the house. It’s written in the script as kind of funny. Lauren and I decided that this is a really heart wrenching scene for this woman because she might be going insane. If you watch that scene, when she asks that question she can hardly even get it out. She’s tearing up. Stacey came up to us after and he said, “I never saw that scene that way. That was so cool, so different from what I expected.” I guess that’s the difference. If I wrote it I would have known. But I am interpreting his words and his action in a way he wasn’t quite expecting...It's great, it takes a lot of pressure off if the writing is great and Stacey is an amazing writer.
Brahms: The Boy II opens nationwide on Friday, February 21