by Carrie Harris (@carrharr)
The elevator pitch for Bloodline was, “A serial killer has a baby, and hilarity ensues.” The end result isn’t your standard serial killer slasher film. It’s a movie about murder and family, fear and marriage. It’s funny. It’s brutal. It’s unexpected.
Bloodline stars Seann William Scott as Evan, who values family above all else. Anyone who gets between him, his wife, and his newborn son learns that the hard way. But when it comes to violent tendencies, it seems the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
LA Screenwriter’s Carrie Harris sat down with director/co-writer Henry Jacobson and co-writer Avra Fox-Lerner to talk about some of the film’s unexpected surprises.
Carrie Harris: So one of the things that surprised me was that we say that the movie’s dark humor, but I think that it’s more than that. It’s gory; it’s funny. But it’s also heartwarming and emotional at times. It’s tense, and when you’re working with all these different elements, how do you keep it all balanced?
Avra Fox-Lerner: I think for both of us, the things we like to watch the most balance all those elements. So when we started talking about the way we wanted to tell this story, we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just pure satire. That there was a little more to it than that. I think you can get away with a lot of gore and a lot of silliness, especially in the horror world, but horror comes with this beautiful gift where you’re allowed to delve into metaphor a little bit deeper and also play with tone a little bit more than if you’re doing just straight comedy or straight family drama, where a lot of the time you have to hit the tone and stick with it the majority of the movie, right? With this, we felt like we were being given this great opportunity to almost Trojan horse a story about family with a depth of emotion into this highly stylized—
Henry Jacobson: Super fun—
Avra Fox-Lerner: Slasher movie.
Henry Jacobson: And I’m actually glad that you find it funny, because that’s always our biggest fear is that people don’t get that it’s funny, you know? That’s an element of it, at least. We both are not particular fans of the subgenres of horror that don’t use humor. Horror sort of lost its sense of humor for a while and got kind of dark and torture-y and all that stuff.
Carrie Harris: I am nodding so hard.
Henry Jacobson: Yeah, yeah. And also, when we went in to work on it, Seann was already attached, so we knew that we had somebody with a comedy background and that people would bring an idea of who he is as an actor to that experience of watching that character, so we could play with those expectations, both by veering away from the comedy, which we thought could be an interesting shock to audiences, but also realizing that he could land the comic aspect that is there.
Avra Fox-Lerner: Yeah, Seann was already attached when we found out that we would be able to work on this project, and I thought about Punch Drunk Love, which is actually one of the best movie experiences I ever had, because it was the first time Adam Sandler had ever delved into something really different, and it was at the peak of his hilarious career, and I went to the theater opening weekend, and like two-thirds of the audience walked out, and over the course of the movie, people went from laughing to laughing really uncomfortably to, like, sitting in stony silence. And that taught me so much about the power of an audience’s expectation of an actor who’s been aligned with a particular type of role, right?
And so we knew we had Seann, and Henry and I talked really early on about how excited we were to take how likeable and silly he is and slowly subvert that as we got deeper and darker into the story.
Carrie Harris: That’s super interesting. I don’t remember where I heard it, but I remember reading or hearing somewhere that the best satires have heart. I never thought about applying that to horror, but it sounds like that’s what you did.
Avra Fox-Lerner: Oh yeah.
Henry Jacobson: Oh, that thing about family – that element of it, and particularly the element of early parenthood – we both wanted to really feel true, you know. And brutally true. Because it can be brutal for a lot of people.
My wife was pregnant when we started working on this script, and my first son was born right before we finished the last draft, I guess, and the first few months were pretty brutal, and his mother had also gone through her trials and tribulations about it, so we didn’t want to gloss over that. We wanted to use that to be very truthful and to sort of feed the motivation of Seann’s character and the feeling of horror in that stage of the film.
Carrie Harris: Oh yeah. I have twins, and I watched with my husband, and we looked at each other, and we said, “The next time someone asks what it’s like to have twins, we’re going to say, ‘Watch this movie. It’s that.’”
Avra Fox-Lerner: I have to say that that was my biggest fear when I found out that I was pregnant. I had a hard time with one. I could not even imagine two.
Carrie Harris: I think it was probably okay, but I don’t really remember the first six months at all.
Henry Jacobson: That’s biology convincing you that you can do it again.
Avra Fox-Lerner: I saw my family recently, and I feel like I was a pretty okay pregnant person, and everyone in my family was like, “Oh, no.” And then my mom was like, “That’s biology convincing you that you can do it again.”
Henry Jacobson: Yeah, it was rough.
Avra Fox-Lerner: I have one. I didn’t repeat the experience.
Carrie Harris: So it really was grounded in reality is what you’re saying! So I’m sure I’m not the only person who did this, but I read the pitch, and I immediately thought of Dexter. I think it’s probably an inevitable comparison. When you’ve got such a huge comp title in your genre, how do you handle that?
Henry Jacobson: We obviously were aware of this. Other people have made the comparison. I was a fan of the show; I watched a lot of the show, but I think we tried to reflect the research that we did, which is that psychopaths in general – and serial killers in specific – do build their own morality. Their own sort of ethical universe. And they use that to justify their behavior in some way, whether dishonestly or otherwise. So we obviously took liberties to help our story. We didn’t want it to be just about a sexually driven serial killer killing women, you know? We’ve seen that so many times. Creating this sort of moral structure allowed us to create something a little more interesting that reflected that familial theme that runs through everything.
Avra Fox-Lerner: I will also say that I actually read the book of Dexter before they even made it into a TV show, and so when they created the show, I watched the first season, and I too liked it a lot. I liked the Miami-ness of it. So when we first got offered this project, we talked again about how there are so many things you can do with a serial killer in terms of subgenre. At this point, there’s been a lot in that world that’s been put out for consumption for a pretty long time. So when we were trying to figure out what our take was going to be on it, what we settled on was something that was going to make sense within the containment of a 90-minute structure.
There was no way we were going to be able to delve into motivations and the intricate workings of the violence of the psychopathic mind the way that Mindhunter can, and so what we built – as Henry said, based on our research, and the family frame story that we had been constructing – was that because Evan’s first kill is the one that he’s trying to replicate, that the men he kills are direct reflections of his father. And sort of in that way we’re trying to establish the self-contained morality that he was operating within.
But you cannot live in this world and not draw connections to Dexter, I think. If we’d done a cannibal, people would say it’s something else. I think it’s just sort of taking what we gathered from our research and picking the one that’s more interesting for the story that we wanted to tell.
Carrie Harris: Right, right. And you’re creating your own beast, so to speak. So one of the things I noticed after I watched the film is that it sounds like both of you have worked behind the camera, and one of the things I noticed in the film is that it does some really interesting visual storytelling, especially in the new parent material, which like I said felt really true to me. Was that something that was in the script? Did you develop that later? How did it come about?
Henry Jacobson: Definitely. We knew I was going to direct it. I have a background in cinematography; I’m a photographer. So I definitely have a background in visual storytelling, and I’m a strong believer in the idea that film is a visual medium. Outside of everything else, you can’t make a movie without light, right? I mean, that’s the one thing that guarantees that it’s a movie. Light somewhere on a piece of film and on a subject. So there’s a lot that you can communicate that has nothing to do with story or character or any of those things that people typically think of as quote-unquote storytelling that are just about how, for example, people are placed within a frame, or their relationship to each other, and the feeling of sort of claustrophobia that you can create with that.
That said, when we started working on it, Avra and I got together one night. We have been friends for forever and ever, and we have the same references, so we talked about a lot of movies that we were thinking about, and a lot of the conversation that went into that went into the later stages of actually shooting.
Avra Fox-Lerner: But I will say that I think, on the page – when we were actually writing it – the main thing we were trying to convey was the emotion of those moments and that feeling of borderline-insanity and claustrophobia. But it truly came together in the way that it is now in the edit and sound mix. I think that what Henry and I did and the conversations that we had were an important step, but I have to give the credit to him, our editor, and sound mixer for that, because the first time I saw a cut of that, I was like, “Oh my god, it’s even more effective than it was in my mind or on the page.”
Carrie Harris: That’s really interesting. What other things really morphed between the script and the final picture where they turned out differently than you’d originally expected?
Henry Jacobson: Luckily, a lot of it did come together the way that we’d expected and hoped on the page. The biggest changes were just things that I had to lose in the edits. You know, a big part of editing is killing your babies. So, losing things that on the page and in your imagination and while you were shooting you loved but that, in the end, are too far in the direction of just style or just emotion and don’t ultimately serve the story – and you have to make the decision, and they can be hard decisions.
There are a few moments that were our favorite moments in the script that ended up on the cutting room floor because we couldn’t find a way to fit it in that didn’t in some way slow down the narrative or take us out of the moment in a way that didn’t help us. And that could be my limitations as a filmmaker, or also I think that’s a common dilemma that lots of directors have.
Avra Fox-Lerner: And from the beginning, we had talked about what we both really loved was having the 90-minute movie, which sort of is a lost art at this moment.
I went to go see Midsomer, and I have lots of things to say about it, but it’s really long, and they wanted to make it even longer. And one of the things about horror movies is, you sit down and watch a 90-minute horror movie, and it just feels so right.
So I think that stuff that we ended up losing, as sad as I was to see some of it go, I felt overall that it served the larger goal, which was to have this bullet kind of a movie that you sit down, and an hour-and-a-half later, you walk out, and you’re kind of like, “What did I just watch?” and “I’m not sure how I feel.” And I think that some of the stuff that we’ve really lovingly placed in the script that ended up getting filed away was in the greater service of that.
The other surprise, at least for me, was in some of the casting – some of the actors who ended up coming to us and ended up in the movie. When we had initially written Lauren, she was kind of like a girl next door, the North American girl next door. And when Mariela came to Henry, and when he saw her audition, he called me and he said, “I think I found our Lauren, and it’s really different.” And we talked a lot about what that decision brought to the movie without us having to change anything in our script. This whole other layer of meaning and…
Henry Jacobson: Backstory.
Avra Fox-Lerner: Backstory, right. And the feeling of claustrophobia and confinement that comes from having a person of color in that part.
Henry Jacobson: Particularly an immigrant in that part. It implies that this is someone who doesn’t have a familial network to fall back on.
Avra Fox-Lerner: And the audience is going to bring all of this with them when they hear an accent or see a particular type of character, and we don’t have to do some of the explaining. Or maybe [we could] even play with some of the assumptions about these people that maybe the majority of people are going to bring with them when they come to see a movie like this. And that’s a really beautiful and valuable thing that comes with bringing something to life off the page.
BLOODLINE will be in theaters, on demand and digital on September 20, 2019.
Carrie Harris is a published novelist, game designer, and aspiring screenwriter. She lives in Utah with her husband and kids and is probably drinking caffeine right now. Learn more about her work at carrieharrisbooks.com.