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Q&A: The Creators of the Psycho-Child Film “THE BOY”

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The tone of Craig William Macneil’s THE BOY (now in theaters and debuting on VOD today; see review here) is one of the grave. It rarely flinches from its remorseless silence—the silence of a 9-year-old child (Jared Breeze) watching from a tree with binoculars, having left scraps of food on the road to lure animals to their deaths.

Young Ted is neither excited nor upset by these incidents, and we can only assume fascination brings him back to these rituals. He claims each roadkill as a trophy to show his father John (David Morse), who runs an isolated motel in the middle of nowhere. THE BOY, by design, takes on the stare of a psychopath, one not concerned about the living or the dead. The movie is about a blank slate under an open sky, practicing with death, and how it is to be alone with your thoughts and how deafingly alone those thoughts can be—left unattended and almost forgotten, existing under the cold stare of neglect.

At this year’s SXSW festival, FANGORIA sat down with director/co-scripter Craig William Macneill and co-scripter Clay McLeod Chapman (upon whose writing the film is based) to discuss THE BOY’s unique photography, the genre and where the series will lead us—for this is just part one of Ted’s descent into psychopathology…

FANGORIA: How did this project come about?

CRAIG WILLIAM MacNEILL: It all started with Clay’s book MISS CORPUS, which I loved. There was a chapter called “The Henley Road Motel” that I really wanted to turn into a feature. So we started with a short, and based on the success of that, we landed in our producer’s hands, and they wanted to develop it into a full-length movie with us.

FANG: What attracted you to this story?

MacNEILL: This young boy’s isolation, and how he’s unchecked by the bounds of parenting and has to fend for himself out there in that lonely summer. It kind of reminded me of my childhood in many ways.

FANG: What made you decide on the film’s particular pacing?

MacNEILL: We always thought of THE BOY as a haunting meditation on these internal and external forces that lead this kid down a dark path. It was very important to me to create a piece where the tone was consistent throughout, even at the end—to keep that mood and pacing throughout, to really get under the skin and go from there.

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CLAY McCLEOD CHAPMAN: I think it’s because Ted is probing. He’s at a place where he hasn’t reached that level of self-discovery yet. You take away everything from proper parenting to social skills; he’s basically handicapped by his environment, and I believe Craig made a wise choice by letting Ted organically discover his sociopathy. We wanted to lay down a kind of foundation, like a map for what he’ll eventually become. To do that, it needed to be methodical. It’s the difference from “He finds the mask and suddenly he becomes Jason Voorhees.” There’s great value in just watching a kid learn about death.

FANG: Because it’s two parallels: It’s Ted becoming a sociopath, but it’s also a child’s natural interest and even fascination with death, and where that goes over the line.

MacNEILL: There’s no one defining moment that contributes to Ted’s “awakening,” if you want to call it that. It’s a series of events that just so happen to become a kind of constellation. If the post-prom party didn’t happen, there’s an argument to be made that Ted wouldn’t be who he is at the end of the film.

FANG: How did you find Noah Greenberg, your DP?

MacNEILL: When I first moved to New York City, I started working at a photography agency as an office manager. They represented about seven photographers, and Noah was one of them. He hadn’t done motion, just stills, but I had been doing film work and responded really well to his images. So I met with him outside the office and said, “I’d love to see if you can transition and shoot this film I’m about to do.” It was a short we shot in Spain, and it was great. I’ve also worked as a DP, so for me it was important to find somebody who knew how to create beautiful compositions, knew light and knew exposures.

FANG: How did he handle that transition from still to motion-picture photography?

MacNEILL: You’d have to speak to him, but I come very prepared, and I give him very specific examples. I storyboard everything. I shot-list everything. For certain scenes of our film, we actually went to the set early and shot them all together with a little point-and-shoot camera, and then I would get back and edit them, so we would go in knowing exactly what we wanted and how we were going to shoot.

FANG: Did you find any narrative inspirations in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO?

CHAPMAN: Totally, totally. I think PSYCHO is totally in THE BOY’s DNA, and CARRIE is totally in its DNA. It’s our ability to embrace homage—maybe homage is not the right word, but I do believe it’s saying, “This is our family, and we love being a distant cousin.”

FANG: What was that like, writing your own version of those narratives?

CHAPMAN: I think of it as like a family tree: You realize, “Oh my God, Norman Bates is your uncle! Carrie is your cousin twice removed!” It almost becomes…invigorating? Our hope is that we created a character who will kind of grow into that family. We don’t have a hockey mask, but the antlers become our iconic thing; you have to have that element that speaks to the eye, and does it in such a way so that it will always adhere itself to the boy, to Ted.

FANG: How was it working with David Morse?

MacNEILL: We were thinking of him as we were writing, but never thought we could actually get him. When we found out he was interested, it was a dream come true. In terms of directing him, you don’t really do much. He comes so prepared, and you just sort of watch and maybe occasionally give a note or two. You don’t really want to interfere with what he does!

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CHAPMAN: He was very helpful. We had long conversations about the script, and he brought a lot to the character that we didn’t really have on the page.

FANG: What was it about Morse that made him right for the part of the father?

MacNEILL: He has a very specific capacity to express and repress emotions with equal nuance and force, and that was important for John.

CHAPMAN: Yeah—John’s a wounded giant. We overwrote the script, and then you get someone like Morse in, and he allows you to take everything out, because he’s acting in…the negative space, I guess. What he does with a glance or just a passing look tells so much more story than some heavy, exposition-based dialogue that gets you nowhere. We’re very lucky. We got our dream cast.

FANG: How did you find your young lead, Jared Breeze?

MacNEILL: Our casting director, Monika Mikkelsen, called in a lot of kids, and Jared just stood out. He had the right energy; we wanted to capture that pure essence of childhood, and he had that.

FANG: How did the rest of the cast come together? Not only does the film have a very consistent style, but so does all the acting.

MacNEILL: Yeah. They’re very quiet, internal characters. Rainn Wilson [who plays a mysterious stranger who befriends Ted] had worked with our producers in the past, so it was a choice we all thought would be great, because we hadn’t seen Rainn do a character quite like this. He has a sort of powerful, magnetic screen presence, so if you pull that back and internalize it a little bit, he can have a terrifying quality on screen.

CHAPMAN: I remember seeing him in HESHER and thinking, “This is amazing! This is not the Rainn Wilson I’ve grown up to know,” so it’s nice to see him going further in that direction.

FANG: What led you to make THE BOY a period piece?

MacNEILL: Honestly, we didn’t want to deal with cell phones in the script—that was one thing. It just complicates the story sometimes. We did have a dream to create a trilogy out of this story.

CHAPMAN: What’s cool about the period [the 1980s] is that you’re not necessarily 100 percent aware of what era you’re in, until it’s overtly stated by the end. There’s something very jarring about that; it’s discombobulating. You’re almost out of time for a lot of the film, and that’s because they’re so far off the grid.

FANG: What attracts you to genre work, or was it just this particular project?

MacNEILL: What we were talking about before: I love horror films where you can take away the more blatant elements, and you’re left with a drama at the fore. Those are my favorite kinds of films to watch. So having read Clay’s book, and then starting to write the screenplay…this was the exact kind of film I love to see. It’s my thing. So we just went for it.

CHAPMAN: [to Macneill] You’ve always kind of said that the genre films you hold in high regard, like Polanski’s The Tenant, are usually those that challenge the audience to find the horror. There’s sort of a wolf in sheep’s clothing thing going on.

FANG: What are you both doing next?

MacNEILL: We’re working on a couple of new scripts that we’re super-excited about. I’ve been told we’re not supposed to talk about them, though.

CHAPMAN: We’re definitely excited about continuing the trilogy of THE BOY, so that’s something that we’re wholeheartedly going to do.

MacNEILL: In the next one he’s 13, and in the third one he’s 18. At the end of the last one, he’s the full-grown Charles Manson…

CHAPMAN: He’s the man!

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About the author
Heather Buckley

Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank’s Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley

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