Film-maker Perry Blackshear caught attention in the horror world with his directorial feature film debut They Look Like People.
Teaming up with actors Margaret Ying Drake, MacLeod Andrews and Evan Dumouchel once again, Blackshear is bringing his new film The Rusalka to Arrow Video FrightFest Glasgow for its UK Premiere. The film puts a new twist on a familiar myth and it’s one of the highlights of the festival.
I called Perry to find out how the The Rusalka came to be, discuss turning convention on its head for the film, and talk about the talented cast.
Where did the concept and inspiration for The Rusalka come from?
I love mythology. I grew up reading Greek mythology and as I got older I started learning about more of the myths from around the world; not obscure but just ones that they don’t teach you in grade school. When I found the story of The Rusalka I thought it was such an interesting new spin on this idea of a kind of a vampire. Vampires need to drink blood, they need to kill others and hurt others to to live, which leads to so many great things you can talk about… addiction and co-dependency and all these things. What was interesting and really tragic to me about the story of The Rusalka was that she didn’t need to kill people to live like a vampire she just really wanted to, which in some ways is so much worse (laughs). Like an addiction or certain kinds of terrible love stories, you just are so drawn this obsession and you’re compelled. I thought what a great thing to put in a love story (laughs).. a person that is forced to really, really want to hurt others like she’s been hurt.
In the hands of a lesser film-maker, The Rusalka would have been very different. You made lots of creative decisions that others simply wouldn’t have made and you refused to go down the obvious route. On the one hand the film is very simple but at the same time it’s incredibly complex. How did you achieve that?
The four of us had just made They Look Like People and it hadn’t come out yet and we didn’t actually know what would happen with it at that point. We just decided that we wanted to make another movie together. Just like we did with They Look Like People we wanted to really go to our strengths, which we knew was character and relationships. With with a movie like this, and in fairytales in general, there’s so many wonderful great things like sexy people and bad ass warriors and monsters and femme fatales… all these wonderful things from fairy tales. Those were great but it can also quickly fall into archetypes (laughs). I think that horror is especially guilty of that sometimes but I think what’s exciting is a new wave of horror filmmakers.
By using a genre you can actually really go quite niche so there’s been this wonderful wave of horror movies about the gay experience for example. You can use genre in exciting new ways and I thought, ‘oh let’s really try to do something with that and be a little brave in some of our decisions’. Instead of the sexy girl monster – she’s sexy but not in the way that is often portrayed – so we thought, ‘what if we make her stare at the sexy guy on the shore instead?’ and make him mute instead of the mermaid like is usually done in this sort of fairy tale, like The Little Mermaid kind of situation. We tried to take the best things from fairy tales and the premise, and also take other things that we maybe thought were in need of some updating (laughs) and flipped them on their head a little bit. I also wanted to make sure we really saw it from Nina’s point of view because our first film was very kind of bro-centric and I wanted to make sure to try something different this time.
I noticed those little details and I really appreciated them because said to me that you were trying to do something different and show a completely different perspective, which I thought was really refreshing…
Oh thanks man!
You mentioned that you’ve worked with The Rusalka’s three leads before. What is it about this group of people that you enjoy writing for and directing?
I think everyone has their people (laughs). I went to NYU graduate school and we had many people from our year that have done well. My old colleague Chloe Chow did a movie called The Writer last year, it went to Cannes and there’s been a lot of success. Our year was sort of known as the ‘Year of Love’ (laughs) and we really all supported each other and I think that one thing that we always mention when we hang out is that none of us have ever succeeded by ourselves. These people… they were good friends before we started making movies and we found a really good spirit of collaboration with each other and also a devotion to trying to, not just fun movies, but to try to make something that’s bigger than all of us. When you find people like that it feels kind of magic.
I’ve been hanging out with Mike Flanagan a little bit, the director of The Haunting of Hill House, and some of his group and what’s been exciting as we moved a little bit more into the industry is finding other people that also feel like that (laughs). It is rare but also it’s definitely everywhere as well. We’ve also been really excited about expanding our horizons and meeting new people. The other thing that I will say is that it’s a little bit cheating because they are good friends and wonderful collaborators but the reason I say it’s cheating is because the other reason I want to work with them is just that they’re just really good actors (laughs). That’s an advantage as well.
Are there any disadvantages to working with friends? Were there times you got frustrated with each other?
Absolutely! I think that is a very important point. I don’t know if you’ve been in a band but I’ve been in a few bands throughout college and stuff and we always joked that it was like being in a relationship with five people at once. As such it was pretty dysfunctional. The first few bands I was in and it’s rough and there’s always some drama. We shot a third movie where we brought in a few new collaborators and we found the same thing with them, is if you get the alchemy right then it does work. Although I will say that it’s always maintaining the relationship and listening really carefully when problems do come up. It takes a lot of work to fix the problem but also make sure the relationship is OK.
One of the things we said after They Look Like People is our proudest achievement was making a movie we were happy with and remaining not enemies (laughs). Like any good relationship it does take work and it isn’t effortless but I think that when believe in what you’re doing and also believe that maintaining relationships is extremely high part of the priority list, then you can do it. I also think that there’s, just like in a band or even in a relationship, a certain group of personalities that that do click.
The shorthand the four of you have shines through in the chemistry you see on screen. There are many scenes that don’t rely on dialogue at all, especially for the character of Tom (played by Evan Dumouchel) who is mute, but the chemistry adds to the way they communicate with one another, which is really good…
Yes. Thanks man. I think when you do work with a very high level of trust, really great things happen and people are willing to take risks and to really be present in a scene rather than moving through their dialogue. I have to give a lot of credit to Evan for this one. He did a lot of work beforehand and we wanted to make sure we did this character right. A lot of that I credit him. What I did in the script is I wrote the dialogue but put it in parentheses and then actually it was up to him to figure out how to try to communicate that. I never did any of the hand gestures or anything. Sometimes in rehearsal he would be trying things and the other actor would be like, ‘what are you saying?’ (laughs).
We thought about that but I think that his experience, and the actors opposite him, is when you have a hurdle like that within a scene it just forces you to listen really carefully and pay a lot of attention, which I think was one of the reasons I did it. I give a lot of credit to Evan for making it feel natural but also believable. We didn’t want to have a situation where he just did something and then the other actor would be like, ‘oh I totally get it’ and the audience is like, ‘what is he saying?’ (laughs). It took a lot of due diligence on our part. Working with a high level of trust… it bleeds through in the scene work and in the final film in subtle ways.
I was completely unprepared going into this film for the moral dilemma I felt about which of the three leads to sympathise with. Was it your intention to put the audience into that dilemma?
Yes. There’s one character who’s out for revenge and there’s two characters that could both be bad guys. It was important to me to show everyone’s perspective. I used to joke that the scariest movie I have ever seen is Toy Story 3 (laughs), which is not true but you know the scene where they’re all going to get incinerated? What it speaks to is, and I talked to Mike a lot about this, the idea the horror that I like the best comes from when really care about characters and relationships and you feel very close to them, and they’re put through very frightening situations whether that’s death or damnation or dismemberment. You feel like you’re undergoing the same thing. I think that the closer you can get to the characters in movies, at least for me, the more it feels like a movie I want to watch.
In the climax of the movie there’s a lot of bad guys and there’s no bad guys at the same time. That was really important to me because each character has a real story that makes them feel rich and complete and not just sort of a one-sided trope. One of the themes of the movie is that love is beyond good and evil. The older I get, the more I realise how complicated this stuff is (laughs). There were some versions of the movie that were sort of happily ever after and there’s super dark. It’s so complicated and there isn’t necessarily any right answer.
Towards the end I really wanted to wrestle with some of those things myself. One of the central themes is can people change? Can other people help other people change into different people and get them over addiction or change them into someone that they weren’t before? That idea of someone saving someone else in a relationship or with love or something like that. If they can’t what do you do then? (laughs) Do you try anyway? The movie definitely wrestles with a lot of these things and I hope provides answers to some and leaves it up to the viewer in other ways. Thanks for saying that. I’m glad you reacted the same way that we did to that part of the story.
The film spends a lot of time examining the grey area. Every time I thought I knew where this film was going it took a different turn and it surprised me…
Oh great man I’m glad. We want to make movies that we would want to watch (laughs). We’re just trying to make movies that are very humanist and part of that is really delving into all the characters as much as we can. We’re trying to do something that really feels based around character and the human experience. It’s really easy to get caught up in all the awesome stuff of the genre. In our third movie there’s quite a lot of violence and some fight scenes, and fight scenes are awesome, but we had to be like, ‘violence is not great! This movie shouldn’t be like let’s make violence awesome’. It’s sometimes a wrestling match with genre to do something that is very heartfelt while also enjoying all the exciting aspects of the genre. We like it when a movie manages to do both where it takes you on this big journey with scary monsters and all this other stuff, but also really makes it at the end about family and about love, and about things very relatable to people.
How are you feeling about coming over and showing the film at Arrow Video FrightFest Glasgow 2019?
I’m so excited. We met Alan (Jones) when we were at Strasbourg and had a wonderful time with him. There’s other people at FrightFest that we exchanged emails with over the years and I’m really just so excited to put faces to names. My grandfather’s Irish and my mom’s British and so it feels in some ways going back to the rain and the hills feels like home for me. This feels very natural (laughs) so whenever I go over there I feel like I’m coming home. I’m really excited to see the film with audiences there and to also check out some of the other premieres and meet the other filmmakers.
The Rusalka receives its UK Premiere at Arrow Video FrightFest Glasgow 2019 at 10:45am on Saturday 2nd March 2018.
Arrow Video FrightFest Glasgow 2019 takes place from Thursday 28th February to Saturday 2nd March 2019. For more information and tickets visit http://www.frightfest.co.uk.
The Rusalka will be released by FrightFest Presents in May as The Siren.