Pink Glitter and Blood: Horror goes Glam in The Loved Ones
An interview with writer/director Sean Byrne
by Rochelle Siemienowicz
A twisted waltz with Princess (Robin McLeavy)
and Daddy (John Brumpton) in The Loved Ones.
“Pretty in Pink meets Wolf Creek” – that’s the quick pitch on the poster for The Loved Ones, a rollicking teen horror film from writer/director Sean Byrne. The debut feature already has a legion of international fans, thanks to winning the Midnight Madness Cadillac People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, and most recently, the Best International Feature Award at the 2010 Lund International Fantastic Film Festival in Sweden. But for the film’s creator, Sean Byrne, the ultimate fantasy would be to see
local audiences embracing the film’s release in Halloween-primed style: by dressing up like ‘Princess’ – the psychopathic teen torturer with a penchant for hot pink.
“I’ve always had the idea of a villainess who was in this shiny pink dress,” says Byrne. “Pretty much every little girl is into pink and princesses and fairies. I thought it would be a very interesting mix to take a character who was still stuck in that operational stage of development – thinking that their prince would someday come – and import them into the body of a teenager with raging hormones.”
The villainess in question is played with demented glee by Robin McLeavy, while the hapless object of her affection is depicted by Xavier Samuel, who gives a wonderful performance, especially given the fact that he spends most of the time nailed to a chair. The cast is rounded out by John Brumpton (as the truly scary ‘Daddy’) alongside Victoria Thaine, Richard Wilson and Jessica McNamee.
Made for “just under $4 million – a tight mainstream budget”, The Loved Ones was funded by Screen Australia, Omnilab Media, the MIFF Premiere Fund and Film Victoria, and is distributed by Madman in Australia, with Darclight handling international sales. Produced by Ambient Entertainment and Mark Lazarus, the film was shot in Melbourne and country Victoria’s Kyneton in November/December of 2008.
Sean Byrne, writer-director of The Loved Ones.
But who is Sean Byrne, the 37-year-old writer/director of this stylish, sexy, scary and perhaps slightly sick film? Here we talk to Byrne about his crooked path to filmmaking via law school, his childhood as the son of an obsessive film critic, and the search for the perfect pink dress to use with a Red camera.
AFI: Congratulations on the film. I’m not a horror fan at all, but this was a very entertaining ride – one that may appeal to girls as well as boys. Was that always the plan?
Sean Byrne: Yes, that was part of the plan for us, to try and get both sexes along to horror, which doesn’t always happen.
AFI: There’s definitely a glamour element here, with the prom night theme and the pink dress as the defining image.
Sean Byrne: Definitely. I think in marketing terms, the horror films that excel usually do it based on some kind of signature horror figure. So I’ve always had the idea of a villainess who was in this shiny pink dress. The idea initially came from my five-year old niece, who was totally fixated on the colour pink and princesses and fairies. And I just started looking around and noticed that pretty much every little girl is into pink.
AFI: Are there other films with this ‘glam horror’ element? Is this a kind of sub-genre?
Sean Byrne: I don’t think so...I’m hoping we’ve invented glam horror! Undoubtedly, there are a lot of references and consciously and unconsciously channelled those references during the writing process, and also while I was visualising the film. Structurally, the film’s closest to Misery, in terms of being a claustrophobic horror and then having to find a way to get out of the claustrophobic setting, so the audience can take a breath and relax for a moment, before catapulting them back into the horror. There’s a kind of gleeful,
deranged quality to the film, which probably owes a lot to Sam Raimi’s early work and Peter Jackson’s early work. Brian de Palma’s Carrie is obviously an influence. I mean, he really started the prom sub-genre of horror. Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is my favourite teen film of all time. It’s got this really great kind of stoner, laid-back atmosphere to it. That was a big inspiration for the B-story [where the Richard Wilson character takes gothic outsider Jessica McNamee to the school dance]. Also, I very influenced as a child of the
80s by John Hughes, and even by Disney. David Lynch was another major influence with trying to give a film an edge, and probably more than any other filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino was an influence – just the way that he so deftly balances violence and humour, without sacrificing one for the other.
AFI: How did you become a filmmaker?
Sean Byrne: Well, my father is a huge buff, and he’s a film reviewer in Tasmania, so I was surrounded by films growing up. He had one of the first U-matics [video recorders] in Australia.
Director Sean Byrne on location with young stars
Xavier Samuel and Victoria Thaine.
Sean Byrne: Yeah! We lived in Hobart and he’d actually drive to Launceston, book a hotel room, just to tape a movie that was on in Launceston, because at that stage, they had different channels. I think that the obsessive part of my personality probably came from him. I grew up unconsciously versed in film language, just because Dad used to bring so many films home, and there was never really any censorship in the house in terms of a viewing routine. I remember growing up loving films like... Actually, my earliest memory of film was being at the drive-in and seeing a
double feature, and it was Burnt Offerings, which was kind of a re-working of Psycho, followed by The Pack, which was about a pack of rabid dogs that ripped campers apart. I don’t want to make it sound like my parents were irresponsible, because I was meant to be asleep in the back seat at the time, but I kind of couldn’t help but keep my eyes open. I still remember images of those films, even today. But that’s basically where my love of film came from.
I ended up going and doing a law degree, and didn’t really think about it much other than the fact that I loved going to the movies. It was only in my last year of law school that I thought, unless I figure out something else to do with my life, I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life. I enrolled in Rosny College, a course called Media Production. Rosny College is a matriculation college in Tasmania. It’s really the only place that offers any kind of film course. So I had to go back to school as a 25-year-old with 15 and 16-year-olds, which was really great research
for The Loved Ones. Then I just started to get a show reel together from there. It was very basic, the editing was in-camera, or putting it together on a linear editing suite – the equipment was that old-school! So you could get three quarters of the way through your film, and then when you actually made a mistake, you had to sort of start again. I think that really helped me just in terms of...
Sean Byrne: Yeah, with Australian filmmaking, you’ve really got to try and reach for exactly for what’s going to be in the film, because there’s not enough time and money to shoot everything from a thousand different angles. And basically, I got a half-hour show reel together from my time at Rosny College, applied to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and even though I was really raw, I think they liked the fact that I coloured outside the lines a little bit. They invited me into the Graduate Diploma program. Then I left with my Masters
degree and won – actually shared with Tony Krawitz – the Australian Directors Guild Award and the Screen Sound Australia Award for Excellence in Drama Directing, and that helped set me up to get an agent and find a producer and the rest is history!
AFI: Do you want to continue working in the horror genre?
Sean Byrne: Oh, I’m a fan of all genres, so I’d love show my range a little bit. I think part of what makes The Loved Ones work is that it has some dramatic depth and you kind of care about the characters, and that aspect of filmmaking really excites me. Unfortunately, dramas are pretty dead at the moment on the international stage. Hopefully, that’s just a cyclical issue and it will come back in fashion. I would like to continue in horror, but I’d also like to mature as a filmmaker.
AFI: Do you think that we’re on the right track in the Australian film industry with this move back towards embracing genres of all kinds? There certainly seems have been a shift in the rhetoric towards embracing genre.
Sean Byrne: I hope so, but really, it comes down to the filmmakers and the decision makers pitching quality material, because a good film is a good film. I don’t think it’s going to work if we just try to make ten tick-the-box replicas of Wolf Creek, for example. A film should excel based on its own merit. It’s totally dependent on material. But as a methodology, I think it’s very smart to be open to genre, because we can’t really ignore the fact that there are audiences out there, and audiences need to be satisfied. If you’re a
completely inward-looking filmmaker and making films just for yourselves, chances are that the film won’t make money and the investors won’t be happy and then the government won’t keep supporting the local industry. So I think we’re on the right track. It’s just about making sure that material has been left to simmer for long enough and that it’s ready.
AFI: How long did the idea for The Loved Ones simmer for you?
Sean Byrne: I finished the first draft of The Loved Ones just before Saw came out [in 2005]. And at that stage, it was going to be a $100K credit card film, because I was really desperate to make a movie, and I kind of realised there was a spot on the shelf for horror. So I thought, well, I’ll do what John McNaughton did with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and make something that’s basically confined to one setting and shoot it on video and at least that would work as a calling card. Fortunately enough, the script got in the hands
of an experienced producer, Mark Lazarus, and he really loved it and thought it would be easier to get the money if the film had more scope and was a 3 to 4 million dollar film.
AFI: Can you talk about your decision to shoot on the Red camera? Was that always the plan, or was that something that your Director of Photography, Simon Chapman, came to you with?
Sean Byrne: I worked with Simon on my previous short film [Advantage], which really helped us getting The Loved Ones off the ground, because it showed that both Simon and I knew our way around the genre. And that was actually shot on 35mm, but we went for a really shiny, poppy look. It was sort of a dress rehearsal for The Loved Ones. We realised that we didn’t have enough money to shoot on 35mm, so it just became a matter of testing the other formats, and of the digital formats available at the time, the Red was the slickest and most
closely resembled 35mm, so that’s why we ended up going with it.
AFI: You always envisioned a brightly coloured world for The Loved Ones?
Sean Byrne: Yes, at times [the story] can be quite extreme, and to get away with pushing those boundaries, I really felt like we needed to contrast that with a candy-coloured world – the sweeter the sweet, the sourer the sour. It just wouldn’t have worked if it was shot on Super 16 or 16mm, because it’s kind of an aspirational teen horror film. Even the actors look like the type of kids that teenagers want to be, as opposed to say, a Larry Clark film. So yeah, it’s slightly melodramatic in that sense, and I wanted it to feel like a Bruckheimer
film, so that that screen looks like it tastes sweet, and you wanna go up and lick it!
AFI: Is it true that you had trouble getting the right pink that would photograph properly on the Red camera?
'Need a lift?' Victoria Thaine in The Loved Ones.
Sean Byrne: Yeah, I’m not sure whether anyone reported that back to Red, but it’s just as well it’s called the Red, not the Pink camera! Yes, it struggles with pink. So that was a complication. We were testing many, many different styles of fabric at the last minute. But as I’d imagine happens on most films, there’s always a sort of last minute trip before you start the marathon and everyone pulls together and manages to correct the situation.
AFI: So you had to test a whole lot of different hues of pink to make sure they came out as pink on film?
Sean Byrne: Yeah, it was kind of a pink satin, but I think it was more red to the eye – this is going back a bit. You’d probably I have to ask Xanthe [Heubel, Costume Designer]. I was just so relieved when the camera test came through that read as pink! We basically had just a whole heap of different fabrics, about twenty different fabrics and then one of them worked, showing up red as pink. Thank god.
AFI: You had a very experienced Production Designer on The Loved Ones, Robert Webb. Can you talk about what he brought to this project?
Sean Byrne: Well, he made the production company and investors very happy to start with, because Robert has considerable experience in horror. He did Wolf Creek and he also did Rogue, but what interested me the most was that he’d also production designed Caterpillar Wish, and it showed that he had a real grasp of teenage life and that he was a really nuanced designer. I thought marrying those two elements [horror, and teenage life] was a perfect fit for the film. Also, he’s very, very character-based and we talked a lot about not
wanting to fall into the same traps and cliches that so many horror films do, which is, for example, if you see a doll in a horror film, it always looks like it belongs in a gothic museum. You can see the hand of the filmmaker and the designer far too easily most of the time. If there’s a haunted house and there are kids missing in a town, where’s the first place the police are going to look? They’re going to go to the house that looks like Satan lives there! I think a lot of the time, those kind of horror tropes aren’t particularly logical, so we wanted to subvert the
form a little bit and make it more of a colourful doll house.
AFI: The film has shifted its Australian release date back a number of times. Can you talk about what’s happened there?
King of the prom. Xavier Samuel in The Loved Ones.
Sean Byrne: I’m probably not the best person to talk to about that, but it certainly has nothing to do with the quality of the film. On just a practical level, it’s about picking the date that has the most available screens that fits with the release model of The Loved Ones. And it is a very crowded market, and it’s not always that easy to find the right space. In general, the delays have been caused by really positive reasons. It’s just trying to figure out, especially in regards to North America, exactly where the film sits, because on one
hand, it plays as quite a subversive horror film that could work as a successful limited theatrical release film. But on the other hand, it’s not so far away from standard mainstream horror fare that guarantees a wide release as well. That’s where the protracted negotiations have come from and I think, that’s been a part of the reason for the delays. So even though the delays have been frustrating, they’re actually a result of interest in the film.
AFI: The film has a US distributor?
Sean Byrne: That’s something that’s still being worked out at the moment. There are offers, it’s just a matter of the size of the release, and that comes down to which company, and the nature of the deal.
AFI: One last question: what does your film critic father make of The Loved Ones?
Sean Byrne: He loved it, which was a huge relief, because horror is his least favourite genre. He particularly hates stalker horror, because there’s no one to really barrack for. In a way, you have to barrack for the monster, because there’s no other character development. You don’t usually care about the people in peril and there’s not really any suspense, because you know that the monster will survive for a sequel. He was very pleasantly surprised that we played against type. And yes, I mean, he’s my dad, he’s probably going to say
“I loved it” anyway, but... [laughs]. Still, I don’t think he’s lying, because the reactions have been uniformly positive.
AFI: Thanks for your time and best wishes with the film.
The Loved Ones releases nationally 4 November, 2010.
Official website: http://www.thelovedonesmovie.com/#videos