Interview: Bryan Bertino from “The Strangers”
The Massie Twins sat down with first-time writer/director Bryan Bertino to discuss his new horror/thriller “The Strangers,” starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman – just moments before he took the stage at Hall H during the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con.
The Massie Twins: This is your first time at Comic-Con right?
Bryan Bertino: Yeah I walked around last night and I was kind of blown away. I don’t particularly like thinking about how many people I am going to have to talk to or see because it’s pretty overwhelming. Still it’s fun. It’s a town right now that’s build on loving movies, especially scary movies and action movies, which are the bread and butter.
MT: Can you tell us about Strangers?
BB: Basically it’s a horror thriller about a couple that goes to a wedding. Scott Speedman brings his longtime girlfriend, Liv Tyler, back to his home and they get attacked by three people. You kind of follow these two characters and say what would happen if you were in this situation. It’s really simple because I wanted to keep it as base level as possible. You hear something outside, what would you do?
MT: So this is a thriller then?
BB: Personally I think it is thriller, because you spend more time thinking about the psychological aspects of who these people are. I think sometimes horror gets over looked, I think most people don’t want to think of it as an intelligent genre, and that it can’t have this kind of character development. If it makes people more comfortable then they can call it a thriller, but I tend to look at it more as horror.
MT: What are the inspirations you drew on for it?
BB: I am definitely influenced by seventies genre films, the way they build up, like Alien and Jaws. I like the fact that you can spend time with the characters before they get hit with these intense situations. I used to live in a house in the middle of nowhere in Texas on this road that you could call out in the middle of the night and no one would hear you. It would be frightening if something came at you and you had nowhere you could go.
MT: You made a pretty big jump to director in a short period of time, can you elaborate on that?
BB: I am very fortunate the way things broke down. I had only written four scripts in my life and I was still working as a grip on a low budget movie. I ended up calling in sick twice, then I had to quit because I was meeting with a manager! Four days later I sold the script and never had to go back to that life ever again. I got to give my friends my grip equipment as a present.
That happened so fast. I had never even thought about directing, and I had to take a meeting. So I had to figure out how to talk about story. So for two years, because I was working with Jerry Bruckheimer, I got trained on story and how to fight for what you believe in. When I got to meet with Rogue just to talk about the story again I never thought they’d ask me to direct. I was driving home and my agent called and said “they want you to direct.” I told them that I didn’t know how to do a lot, but I know what the story is and if all you guys can gather around me and we can talk story we can make up for the limitations that I have. I still had to buy books on directing and I practiced saying “action” in the car the first day. (Laughs) It’s a big deal! There are a lot of people looking to you. You do get past those kind of fears and it is really touching when you see all these people working together on an idea you wrote down on a piece of paper.
MT: Now that you have directed for the first time, do you want to continue doing that?
BB: I’ll always write. I write 5 hours a day, everyday. Even on Christmas. I miss it a lot. I miss the blank piece of paper. Everything about directing is great, but the one thing I miss the challenge of working things out on your own. If I can help the story and offer something as a director to help the story come out than I will always want to do it. I don’t imagine directing stuff I didn’t write though. You do get that bug though.
MT: Yesterday Ridley Scott was at the Blade Runner panel, and someone asked him what advice he would give to an aspiring filmmaker. He is so far along in his career though that all he could say was “try, try, try.” You’re just starting out; what advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker or film student?
BB: I still have a lot of friends that are trying to make it. I think they take some inspiration from me, right or wrong. They watch me make mistakes. My advice would be, if you are a writer, keep writing. So many don’t do it and they stop after the first act. You just got to keep pounding. Beyond just working hard and trying it’s figuring out what kind of stories you like to tell. Don’t just say you like scary movies; figure out what matters to you, what voice you are going to bring to scary movies. What is going to separate you? Then you just have to go as hard as you can. It’s hard and it’s scary, I mean I didn’t even have a bank account when I sold my script. While some of my friends moved to L.A. and left after a few years, I never did. I just kept going and going, even when shit got bad. I guess “try, try, try” is a good answer. You get tired of not having money though, and nobody reading your scripts. Believe in yourself and make other people believe in you, because nobody gives a shit. Somebody once told me that Hollywood is an animal and what it eats is good scripts, so keep working on that.
MT: What rating did this film receive – is it R? What problems did you have with the MPAA, did you have to cut things out?
BB: No, it was always going to be an R-rated picture. I’m not that interested in PG-13 horror movies. I want bad things to happen to people. It doesn’t have to necessarily be gore. I cuss, I drink and I want all those things to be in there. As much as I want younger people to see my movie, that’s what we’re always trying to do, at the same time I write adult characters. I wanted that level of realism to be there. It’s not necessarily Hostel or Saw, but if you’re scared about what’s behind the door and you think something is going to jump out at you, I want it to have that realism. It is very intense and I think that is why the R was easily handed down without asking us to cut anything out.
MT: What is your screenwriting process? How do you organize the story?
BB: I do an outline. My first drafts I can crank out in three or four weeks. I set up the three-act structure, get it down and then I plow through. Then I spend months tweaking that, but I think that’s why the outline is so important. Then you can tweak.
MT: When is the release date?
BB: Sometime early next year.
MT: Do you have footage to show here at the Comic-Con?
BB: We’ll show some stuff.
MT: Are you excited about that?
BB: I went to Hall H last night. There were a lot of people in that room. I’ve never spoken to more than seventy-five people, and that was on the movie. This is thousands.
MT: Usually they are pretty acceptive of you if you’re straightforward with them.
BB: I hope so. If things start going bad, you guys got to help me out. Yell “He’s great!'” or something. Say, “He’s so cool … why do you have to make him cry!”
MT: I think with the lights you should be OK. You can’t see too far out there.
BB: It’s a little scary but I think it will be fun.