The Devil’s Candy is Sean Byrne’s follow-up to his celebrated horror debut The Loved Ones (2009). It focuses on a family of metal fans who move into a new house with a terrible secret, and swaps the gory kills of Byrne’s previous film for atmosphere and suspense. It has screened at both the Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival this year. We spoke to Sean about the time spent between his two films and his approach to the horror genre.
You’ve been doing the festival circuit with this for a while now. How do you think it’s been received so far?
Yeah, it’s been received well. We premiered at Toronto, and we played Fantastic Fest and Sitges [Film Festival], and now we’re on the Australian leg of the circuit. The critical response has been really positive—I think we’re 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, though it’s still early days. I approached this film with a bit more trepidation just because there’s so many great examples of supernatural horror from the 60’s and 70’s; films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. The bar is much higher for supernatural movies than it is for slasher films, so while The Loved Ones got a lot of critical acclaim, I felt like that was in part because slasher-horror is a sea of mediocrity, where it’s sort of easy to stand out.
There’s a tradition of film makers using early success with a horror movie as a springboard for more ‘serious’ dramatic projects. Are you in for the long haul with horror now? What brought you back to it?
My two favourite genres are horror and action, and I’m currently writing an action movie, so I think I’ll stay within those genres. I also love world cinema and drama though. My idea of a good genre film is when dramatic nuance is brought to the table, so you actually care about the characters in peril. In a way, I don’t see horror and drama as mutually exclusive. I think horror is always stronger if the drama is stronger. So I’ll stay within horror, and hopefully action cinema but try to keep it firmly character-based.
This film felt especially personal. The relationship between the family seemed very heartfelt, and it was hard not to read some biography into a film about the struggles of being an independent artist. Did you structure the film around these personal elements or did they find their way in as you wrote it?
This film, far more than The Loved Ones, ended up being a reflection of my own creative frustrations and parental fears. It’s far more abstract than The Loved Ones in terms of narrative, which is a lot cleaner. Part of that is the supernatural element, but there’s also the crossroads struggle; the clichéd struggle of the artist. Would you sell your soul to become the best version of the artist you can be, and at what cost?
That’s funny because even though the film is about literal satanic possession, the characters with the most satanic signifiers attached to them are the art dealers. I laughed when it was revealed that Tony Amendola’s art agent character was named ‘Leonard Belial’. I have to assume this speaks to your frustration with creative industry on some level?
Yeah, totally. I mean, The Loved Ones got me a US agent and a manager, and it’s very difficult navigating that sort of terrain. I’d never been through it before, so you sort of trust the word of your advisors. Everybody said you have to have five projects on at once, and I did that. I did a couple of page one re-writes, and years of my life disappeared where I felt like nothing was happening. I just ended up coming back to my own work and writing something myself that I think channelled that creative frustration. The lead protagonist Jesse is painting butterflies for a bank, doing soulless commissions to pay the bills, and there was very much a direct parallel between what I was going through professionally—in terms of doing all these jobs, not being happy with where my career was—and longing to do something that I actually wanted to do. So that’s sort of where that character came from.
Another major difference between The Loved Ones and The Devil’s Candy is that The Devil’s Candy was made in America. Part of what I loved about The Loved Ones was how uniquely Australian its creepiness was, with the Kasey Chambers song set to the power drill and the echoes of the Australian ‘deb ball’ experience. Were you thinking about the Australian-ness of it as you made it, or was that just incidental?
It was mostly incidental. The starting point for me was “how do I make a low budget horror film?” which lead me to the idea of merging Carrie and The Evil Dead. I wanted to bring the prom to the cabin in the woods, with the theory that the fewer locations, the lower the budget. Because I’m Australian, and we’re dealing with isolated outback locations and hills hoists, the innate Australianness started to bleed into it. Kasey Chambers was number one for how-many weeks, and it really could have been written specifically for the character [Princess in The Loved Ones]. So from the original concept I started to explore the Australianness, but it just sort of found its way in there.
How did you end up working in the States on this one?
I think this film could have been made anywhere, but the prevalence of religion in the States made it a good fit. I wanted a sense of heat and hell rising, so we ended up shooting in Austin, Texas, which also gave us the best tax breaks. To be honest, the bottom just fell out of the horror market in Australia. Australia is the worst market for horror in the world, in terms of returns. Australian horror films do well internationally, but Australians just don’t come out and support horror. So I wasn’t sure whether I’d get a second film of the ground in Australia, and it’s hard to get a film off the ground anyway. I wanted to open my avenues of employment, and it was good to be able to double my territories, so that was part of my thinking—just opening that Hollywood door.
You still managed to put a Spiderbait song on the soundtrack.
(laughs) Yeah, still had to represent.
Speaking of the soundtrack, the heavy metal aesthetic really is at the heart of the film, and the same was true to The Loved Ones, to a lesser extent. What’s your personal relationship to this music, and how did it become so ingrained in this film particularly?
I grew up loving metal, and it’s just sort of a mutual point of interest between myself and my group of friends. I love the music from the perspective of the hero. I find it kind of propulsive and adrenaline-charged and defiant. It represents a sort of strength beyond strength. In cinema, metal can represent pace and fierceness. The darker sides of metal, like doom metal, capture the sound of darkness better than anything else. I was inspired by the Gregorian chant in The Omen, but I thought “well, I can’t do that again, but what is something I’ve heard that really feels subterranean?” Sunn O))), a doom metal band on the soundtrack, really are the best exponents of that sense of hell rising that I’ve ever heard, so they literally became the voice of Satan invading the antagonist’s mind. I always try to think of music not as soundtrack choices but as intrinsic to the narrative. I think, if you pick songs correctly, you don’t always need dialogue. Music in the right context can just have far more meaning than is usually given to it on a Hollywood blockbuster, where the music supervisor has just gone “what’s in the charts right now can give us extra exposure?” That’s why I’m a huge Tarantino fan—I think his song choices are just a huge part of the personality of his films.
There’s a lot of the ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ Reservoir Dogs sequence in The Loved Ones.
Yeah, it’s a real film school thing where you almost want to mirror that effect of going against the grain with music choices. It’s just so deliciously fun, seeing visual carnage accompanied by pop music. I almost have to consciously go “am I just aping Tarantino too much”, because it’s almost become a cliché now. I mostly just try to pick music based on “well, Princess [the antagonist from The Loved Ones] would listen to this sort of music anyway”, and just try to have my cake and eat it too.
This film is a lot less brutal than your first one, and a major plot point has Jesse horrified at the violence of a particular painting he’s made. Do you have some of that ambivalence about working with violence?
I think it’s just horses for courses. The Loved Ones is a slasher film, and the tone is more heightened. The very nature of the genre means you can go for the jugular a little more. Because The Devil’s Candy’s premise deals with children in peril, it’s just too unsavoury to go there. The treatment needed to be far more delicate, and play on the audience’s imagination more, because nobody really wants to go to that place. I mean, the violence question is a tricky one. It’s just about trying to be true to the style of the piece. I didn’t think that The Devil’s Candy warranted anything explicit, and I don’t think it would have got off the ground if it was explicit. It is a Catch-22, because, for me, those moments between life and death represent drama at its absolute zenith. If violence isn’t on the agenda… well, then I’m not a horror film-maker, am I? It’s a very difficult question morally, and I don’t have a good answer because if I did object I wouldn’t have a career. I also just think violence has been a part of storytelling from the campfire onwards. I think people like to be spooked out and live vicariously through other experiences within the safety of the cinema.
So it sounds like the use of violence was a secondary decision.
Yeah. It’s just about the best way to tell this story. Sometimes that’s about restraint, and other times it’s about being far more attacking. Also, horror can become quite one-note; just the same type of horror set piece after set piece, and after the one-hour mark it’s run out of steam and it’s basically a nameless, faceless monster chasing a damsel in distress through the woods for the last half-hour. I’m a big believer in using the full toolkit when it comes to horror. Sometimes it’s attacking, sometimes you need to creep, other times you need really long takes where the audience is starting to question whether the film is over or not. You need all the different colours of horror to sustain interest.
Part of what’s great about this movie are the details in colour and costuming. Are you responsible for them? At what stage do you put them in?
It’s from script stage. I wrote the songs into the script, even though I was told I was insane and we were never going to get the tracks that we did, and it was kind of a miracle. It’s the same with the T-shirts, I just write them in. I don’t know if it’s a writer/director problem, but I do tend to overwrite, because my scripts are also like a treatment for the finished product. It also becomes a shorthand that makes the read fuller for all the different heads of department. They get a better picture before you get to the finish line.
Some of the music would have been really tough to get, particularly bands like Sunn O))) and Metallica. How did that come together?
With Sunn O))), we just contacted them directly through the music supervisor and negotiated. We wanted to use a third Sunn track called ‘Big Church’ but they were like “that’s never going in a movie”. They wanted to see the script, and they were fine with it thematically. The Metallica story is amazing—one of the tracks we used, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, is like the second-most played track at their concerts. They let Project X, the Warner Brothers film, use it for $500,000 ,and they gave it to us for virtually nothing, which was kind of a miracle. Our producer’s father knew Metallica’s manager, and he contacted Metallica on our behalf. We had to send the band a rough cut for clearance, which mortified me because we wanted to put our best foot forward for Metallica. The film’s sort of a love letter to Kirk Hammett, and maybe because he doesn’t get as much love as the rest of the band, they ended up agreeing. I also think they’re just big supporters of independent film. They gave four of their big tracks to Hesher, and for the documentary on the Memphis Three [West of Memphis], they provided music for nothing, even though they’re this massive band. The amazing thing is that, once we had Metallica on board, it was like getting the Beatles of metal—suddenly, Queens of the Stone Age and Slayer and Cavalera Conspiracy and Pantera signed on, and they couldn’t set their prices higher. No one could ask for more than Metallica.
Where did the title derive from? It seems like a very specific reference.
I always come up with titles at the end, when I feel like I’ve explored the script enough to know what it should be called. At the moment I’m writing something that’s been through twenty different titles—I’ll get closer to actually understanding what it’s about and go “nope, can’t be called that anymore”. To me, The Devil’s Candy is just representative of innocence, as something that a metaphorical or literal Satan feeds on. I think it’s something that we’re all born with, and then the world and its various temptations strips that away as part of our armour, through corporate greed or political greed or something darker. So for me, the devil’s candy is innocence, and the symbol for that is this child that’s at the heart of the family. I always try to think of a title that literally makes sense but has another layer to it if you want to think about it deeper. It’s the same with The Loved Ones. The ‘loved ones’ represent the sort of emaciated kids in the basement, which are Princess’ loved ones, but also, the ‘loved ones’ is representative of [the protagonist’s] loss of his father, and his re-birth comes from needing to survive; to get back to his girlfriend and mother.
I read in an interview that your dad was a film critic. How did that shape your film-making?
There was no censorship in my family. I was immersed in film language from a very young age. My first memory of going to the movies was seeing The Pack and Burnt Offerings at Elwick Drive-In. I was meant to be asleep at the time—I was about four—but there are still images from that that are burned into my brain. Dad had one of the first U-matics in Australia, and Tasmania had two different TV networks—Hobart had TVT6 and Launceston had Southern Cross. He would drive to Launceston and hire a hotel room just to tape something that was on in Launceston, and then he’d bring it back. So yeah, I’ve always watched films from a very young age, and it became, unconsciously, a sort of film school. I think that’s part of what filmmakers try to do: recapture that feeling of loving stories and being lost in them; that feeling of being a child again that first time you saw a film that terrified you—just trying to recapture that feeling.
I don’t know if you know this, but Pruitt Taylor Vince [the antagonist in The Devil’s Candy] was in an X-Files episode with a similar plot to The Devil’s Candy.
Wow, I had no idea about that, and Pruitt didn’t mention it. I guess that was like the entrée before the main course. (laughs)
It’s a great episode.
Yeah I bet. I picked him because he’s a great character actor, but one of my favourite performances was him playing Vincent in James Mangold’s Heavy, and I remembered it as such a heartbreaking performance. I always have a problem with horror films where the bad guy just plays the monster. You need an actor good enough to play the man inside the monster, because I’m sure even serial killers don’t think “I’m so evil I’m going to do this thing”, because they’re all grappling with their own questions. The solutions that they find are awful, but they’re still existing in a genuine place they’re not cardboard baddies. I always find it far more chilling when the character feels three dimensional, and Pruitt did that. He also has that Nystagmus, an eye condition where your eyes involuntarily dart around, so he doesn’t have to do that much to make you go “what the hell is this guy thinking”. He also wears the red tracksuit well. (laughs)
Yeah, he kills the tracksuit.
It’s funny, all the crazy stuff that goes into characters like he’ll wear a red and black tracksuit with a little white strip that will represent the innocence of this child because he’s really just a vessel. It might make it make the viewing experience richer, but all these painstaking conversations are never necessarily transparent on screen.
I think an unanticipated benefit of the colour work is that initially when you see the red tracksuit you read Ray as the devil character, but that changes when the art dealer appears in a black car wearing all black.
I was very influenced by the Nick Cave song ‘Red Right Hand’, which is a little about Satan’s inability to exist on an earthly plain so he has to pick vessels. To me, Ray is just a vessel; he’s an easy target. In a way, Jesse is an easy target as well, because he has ambition and he’s not satisfied. The art component is just through research. I don’t think it’s crystal clear in narrative terms, but I was inspired by Anton LaVey from the Church of Satan, who would just send notes to different people saying “Satan approves”. People like Marilyn Manson would just get a note like that in their mailbox. It’s trying to express the idea of a wider web of evil. Obviously this is a simplistic way to talk about it, but the art dealers do represent the idea of a grand dark conspiracy. At the point that Jesse decides he’s going to choose his daughter over Belial, it’s like the forces of darkness conspire to say “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”. I’m just giving you a window into my internal logic, because the other part of this is I wanted it to feel a bit Lynchian, like an unfolding nightmare. I wasn’t necessarily trying to make all of this explicit, but it has to make logical sense to me.
You do a good job of keeping the nature of the film’s evil ambiguous throughout.
Yeah I think that’s the real nature of the supernatural. It always drove me mad in all those Hollywood supernatural movies, when all this weird shit’s happening and the audience is terrified, until someone jumps on the net and searches pentagrams and says “oh, this is because of this column from 1862…” It’s like, oh well, right, that was easy. (laughs) Yeah, I’m a big fan of not tucking the audience into bed at the end of the night. I think the unknowable lives on. It’s more than just closing the book on it going “well, you know you were scared for a little while but now it’s all over”. As soon as you have an explanation, it’s just not scary anymore.
With Princess and Daddy from The Loved Ones, there’s a huge amount of backstory and research. There’s enough backstory written that there could be a prequel. All the actors knew their backstory and did a whole lot of research. We talked about it ad nauseum so they knew who they were, but it was very deliberate not to go into exactly why this girl is the way that she is, and exactly why her dad has these sociopathic tendencies. I know all the reasons—I just find it more disturbing as an audience to believe a character but not know why they’re unhinged. I think that’s also what’s terrifying about real world violence. If you’re walking down the street and someone starts going crazy, it’s kind of terrifying. The question mark is terrifying.
Well, you could definitely put me down for a Loved Ones prequel.
(laughs) Well, [The Loved Ones] has done well in an underground sense and on DVD, but it was a disappointment at the box office, so I shelved the plans for a prequel. I think it’s a real kind of horror fan’s film, where people discover it and tell their friends about it. Hopefully in a few years, if people are still telling their friends, I’ll be allowed to do it.