FANGORIA asked acclaimed filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Spring, The Endless, Synchronic) to chat with Adam Egypt Mortimer about his new movie Daniel Isn’t Real (premiering today on Shudder). In Mortimer’s film, a young college student (Miles Robbins) is stunned to find he’s been reconnected with his imaginary childhood friend (Patrick Schwarzenegger), only to discover he’s maybe neither imaginary nor a friend. It’s one of the best horror films of the past year, rich with intelligent subtext delivered by a wholly original voice.
The epic conversation below finds Benson, Moorhead, and Mortimer engaging in topics ranging from mythology and magic, to overcoming budgetary challenges, to empathetic representation of mental illness onscreen. (We recommend it as a post-viewing read.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and contains spoilers.
Tulpas, Egregores and Imaginary Friends
Aaron Moorhead: So in Tibetan mysticism (and Twin Peaks), you had this idea of the tulpa, right?
Adam Egypt Mortimer: Right. Totally.
Justin Benson: And in occult circles, you have an idea of an egregore. And egregores and tulpas are sort of the same thing in that they're thought forms. If you have an idea of an entity or something like that, and it’s intricate enough, it becomes an actual external being that exists outside you. And maybe you share that, maybe that was formed by many people, but in Daniel Isn’t Real, it'd be a single individual (Luke, played by Miles Robbins) making a tulpa or egregore.
Adam: I guess the difference would be, in Daniel Isn't Real, it is not something Luke desires. It's not his will manifest, it's actually against his will, at least his on-the-surface will.
Aaron: But a tulpa can have an origin in somebody's will, but be well-executed enough that it continues to exist, right? I think the whole point of a thought form is that it will continue to exist outside of the person that willed it into existence.
Adam: Right. There's an insane book -- An Unlikely Prophet, by Alvin Schwartz, a guy who wrote Superman comics. In his book a Tibetan monk comes to his house and turns out to be a tulpa. I mean, this is a non-fiction book, he was like, "Here's my memoirs of a thing that happened." A Tibetan monk comes to his house, and eventually is revealed to have been a tulpa. And he's come to this Superman writer for help because he thinks only this guy will understand what a tulpa is, because Superman is very similar to a thought form also. So it's, "I've been combing the world trying to find somebody who would understand what I am, and it's you, because you wrote Superman for 17 years." And then at the very end of the book, he sees Superman on a rollercoaster or something, after having this whole sort of Tibetan awakening experience. Right at the end of his life; he wrote the book 10 years ago, and he wrote the Superman stuff in the '40s.
Justin: Do you see the connection that we're making between external figures and occult magic and all of that? Do you find that to be related to the mental illness side of this?
Adam: It's a funny thing where you sort of work back. I write a thing, and then when I approach it as a director, I kind of pretend I didn't write it, so I have to re-understand it. I'm not writing it with (Daniel Isn’t Real co-writer) Brian DeLeeuw really imagining how it's going to be filmed when writing the story. But then, going back, I’m trying to figure out, as if somebody handed me the story, "What is he?"
And a big idea, is obviously he's a tulpa. And the other idea is that there is a demon called Choronzon, and Choronzon is this demon who will seduce you by giving you everything you want, and then take you over. And I was like, "Holy shit, that's what Daniel is." Also, that's what mental illness is, right?
Adam: With some of these demons we used as inspiration, you can never tell if these things were just invented by some Victorian opium smoker or if they actually are ancient. But that's what makes it cool. I think that's what makes you feel like you can be creating mythology now, too. People look at this movie and they talk about, "Oh, do you have a Daniel? Are you a Daniel?" And it’s like now a Daniel can be our understanding of what a certain kind of demonic force could be.
Aaron: With our movie Spring, we were talking about the fact that, "Oh, you could just invent a myth," and maybe someday someone will make a movie with, or even just a fan film or fan fiction with the Spring monster in it. And you know, when you get to actually sit down and create some kind of a new mythology, especially when it ties into human experience, like, like a mental illness, like Daniel does, because I read something yesterday actually that was saying that mythology is actually the only thing that gives anything we do meaning. But they were using a really broad definition of mythology. Mythology meaning a story. So money changing hands is mythology. The myth being, of course, that a dollar is worth something, you know. And so I can actually imagine how you can tie Daniel's genesis into other stories.
Adam: Right, totally. Well, that was why has a line where he talks about William Blake, and he's like, “come on man, you're kinda like William Blake.” And the intent in that line is that he literally knew William Blake. He was there with William Blake, he was probably the thing appearing to William Blake.
Justin: That's incredible.
Adam: And I don't know if that comes across. I mean people don't really pay attention to that line. But it was also just, I don't think Patrick knew who William Blake was when he was saying the line. And I would try to explain to him, “he's this artist, he's this poet.” And it's funny how sometimes an actor can create the image, the line kind of slides by, and you don't feel the imagery of it. But that was the intent was; William Blake is the original occult artist who derived his work from occult practice and visions. And so we connect that to the mythology of Daniel.
Aaron: Another interesting thing is that when it's revealed in the film that there is evidence that within this story that Daniel is totally something exterior, that he’s had an impact on other people who also see him, that you start using more and more imagery, that seems to be from the esoteric occult that you don't see maybe ever in others films. And that was really, really cool to see that you went there in the third act. Justin and I have talked a lot about trying to just develop stories about Aleister Crowley and trying to visualize how do you, how do you make these sort of esoteric, occult things? How do you, how do you design that? Because obviously in horror or genre cinema, we tend to just sort of recycle the same mythology.
Adam: Well it’s like sometimes you put 10 people in a robe and you draw a circle and that's the extent of it, right? And sometimes when you're writing esoteric occult things, you feel like you're the idiot. You start to feel like, "Oh, I'm just writing a Dungeons & Dragons adventure-"
Aaron: That doesn't make you an idiot, that makes you cool!
Justin: So when you're sitting down and you're trying to just invent a demon or you know, a weird castle-cake-head man, do you pull from William Blake? There's an artist that got popular recently...Zdzisław Beksiński?
Adam: Yeah, he was a huge influence.
Aaron: Beksiński was a huge influence?
Adam: When they're in the fortress at the end and it's all amber-colored directly, my style guide and lookbooks had a fortress he painted, it's this orange landscape, this big towering thing. That was in the lookbook and when we were trying to decide what our interior would be, Lyle the DP was like, “it's like that.” And I was like, "You bet it is!"
And it was an influence all the way back when I met with Martin (Astles), who is our creature designer. A year before we did anything else on the movie, I met with Martin. And he showed me 11 pages of lookbook ideas, whatever, some of which were like Buffy the Vampire Slayer demons where it's just a guy with fangs, a guy with bumps on his head. And I was like, "I hate this shit. I hate when demons look like this." And he was like, "Me too. I was trying to trap you to see if you were cool." And then you turn the page and it was a Polish frame. And it was also like Cubist shit. And we were like, it needs to look different from every angle, so that it feels like it's physically impossible.
Aaron: That's great.
Adam: And the main idea with it was that it should feel like architecture. It should feel like a huge castle. Like it's a domain. So that's why the horns look like spires and the jaw looks like a spiral staircase. And we were supposed to end the movie with a shot of the fortress, where we would finally reveal that it looked like his head. But we did not pull off the VFX for that. (laughs)
Preparing and Preparing To Not Be Prepared
Justin: Something that we really connected with about your film as filmmakers was how well you use the resources you have at that level of budget you're working with. Almost every movie around that budget range, you can see the seams of it. You know exactly the little tricks that they had to get around, and for you I was like, "And you shot it in New York?"
Adam: Thanks for saying all that and if it's true, I think it's just because of the obsessive amount of worrying about it, worrying about it on paper. I'm about to start a new movie now and I'm treating it differently, and I'm worried that that's a mistake.
Aaron: How so?
Adam: Well on Daniel, I had this very specific concept of style sections. There were five sections in the movie and they each had a different style, because those styles reflected the feeling of the movie. So when Luke is a little kid it's about wonderment, and when he's a depressed college student, it's about isolation. And you'd write out what does that style mean? It means wider and more static camera, and he's in a lot of square spaces. And then when Daniel comes in, it's manic, and that's the first time we go into a Steadicam, move the camera out. I didn't go to film school, so I'm always kinda like, "What's a director do?" And for me, what a director understands what the story's about and translates that into a style, in every scene. And that's the main work you have to do. And if you do that work all the way through, it'll feel really coherent and it'll have the feeling you want it to give you. This next time I'm doing it less, I'm still struggling with what it is. But do you guys do that? Is that what defines your style?
Aaron: Absolutely. We spend something like two weeks in or whatever it is, just him and I just talking through the theory behind different sections and why it's shot in a different way. And I'll give you one example, in Synchronic, the big thing was like, "Okay, whenever he goes to the past it'll be verite and handheld and even more naturalistic lighting." And then the present will have more dolly or Steadicam. Things like that. And then it all goes to total hell on set or in the edit or something like that. (laughs) But at least it keeps you grounded.
Justin: I color-coded all the pages in my script by what section it was. So if something really falls apart, and there you are and you've got 20 minutes and I didn't even think about the scene and you're like, "Oh, orange." Okay, we at least know to use this lens and not that lens. But there's at least going to be some level of coherency.
Aaron: And with our actors, that's basically what rehearsal is. That's what drilling stuff into your minds is; even if you blank out on your lines, you know the backstory of your character. You can still lean into something instead of just getting a blank expression on your face and having no idea what's going on. That's kind of what it is. Where it's like, "Oh hey, we just found out we have to wrap in eight minutes and I need two more shots." And because you did the legwork, even if it's not exactly what was planned, it'll be in the spirit of what you planned and it'll still feel like the same movie and you'll be able to bring something up. So yes, yes, Adam, that is what a director does.
Justin: You like rehearsal with your actors. You don't do the thing where it's like, just get the camera up and then we'll figure it out. You like to be rehearsed.
Adam: I mean the thing happened with me sometimes where, because we had five days of rehearsal, very in-depth, and we really got to do a lot with that. But then still in the morning, people would show up and I would say, "What do you want to do?" And that would freak everybody out. I've learned now that I need to, I'm not gonna not do that, but I need to prep people that I'm going to do that, because crew, producers, everybody lost their mind a little bit because they were like, "I thought we had this all dialed in?" And I was like, "Yeah, but today's a new day." Right? Because you have to let that spontaneity happen.
Justin: I feel bad for your First AD, but everyone else needs to roll with it.
Adam: Yeah, he was fine.
Justin: Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger give two amazing performances. Is there an initial resistance when it's like, “Miles is the son of Tim Robbins and by the way, Patrick is the son of Arnold Schwarzenegger.”? Again, both are amazing. There's no getting around that. But when it's first presented to you...?
Adam: With Miles, it was the opposite. He kind of came out of nowhere. I'm obsessed with Tim Robbins. And Susan Sarandon is such a great actor that I was sort of like “I bet their son is a good actor.” But any other time I would talk to somebody about that role, I would have talked about Jacob's Ladder the whole time and I couldn't do that. Because I didn't want him to think I was just casting him because I liked his dad.
With Patrick I was like, “now it's getting silly. Really? It's starting to be like Muppet Babies.” So with Patrick I had a little bit of resistance, but he's so spectacular, like genetically spectacular that you're like, “okay, you were forged by gods.” And that's relevant for this character.
Aaron: Yeah that's fucking fortunate.
Adam: There’s a mythology there, with him being Arnold's son and also being a Kennedy - (his mom) Maria Shriver's a Kennedy. He goes every year to the Kennedy family reunion. So when you're seeing the scene in the movie in the tunnels where his naked ass is slapping into that girl, that's a Kennedy ass and it's probably the first time we've had a Kennedy ass in a crazy scene like that.
Aaron: That's incredible.
Adam: Which in itself, that's a mythology. The Kennedys are our Greek myth. I mean they call that shit Camelot. If he couldn't act, we wouldn't have been able to cast him, but he could act really well. But without actually being a movie star himself, he has a movie star thing around him, which is kind of that reality distortion field. You walk into an elevator with him and everybody around the point starts to melt. That's really cool. He's got that thing.
Literal Movie Magic
Aaron: Did you have any rituals that you would do to prepare yourself for the day or after the day or with the crew or anything like that?
Adam: Right before going into the movie, I went to Tijuana and I bought a necklace. It's cool, it's got a skull face on a cross. And I said this is going to be my spirit protector for the movie. This is going to be my imaginary friend and she's a deity, a demigod or what have you, that she lives in the world of the dead, but she grants everybody wishes. Super popular in Mexico.
And so every morning when I was getting ready to go set, I would take this necklace off of my night table and talk to it about what we were going to do that day. In a very conversational way. And, and on days when we're shooting like a murder or violence or something, I'd be like you're going to really like today. Today we're really entering your world, you know, and like sort of explain what we were doing in terms that I thought she would care about. And I wore it for the whole shooting of the movie.
Aaron: I was shooting a movie in Florida 15 years ago or something as a kid. We have three weeks and it was hurricane season. It was like, we're gonna get rained out. And we're a low budget film, so getting rained out's a huge problem.
I was the cinematographer, and so me and my friend the director, we blessed a feather, an egret feather, and we put it in my hat. And we blessed it saying, "May no rain ever touch this hat, or touch this feather." Somehow, there was no rain for the first week and a half. And then, week and a half in, just rain dumped on us out of nowhere, just out of nowhere. We're soaking wet and laughing at how ridiculous, how incredibly ruined the day is. And he goes, “Aaron where's the hat with the feather?” And I go and I touch my head and I realize I'm not wearing it and I look, and it's sitting perfectly dry on the windshield of a car! The ritual was too literal, I Monkey's Paw-ed it, you know?
Adam: Well, didn't you guys, didn't you guys pray for sunshine on Spring?
Aaron: We did everything for sunshine. We prayed for it. We asked an old fishing legend man to give us dry skies. And it worked.
Justin: Making movies really, you need magic, right? People talk about movie magic is like such a common phrase, but you need... Something has to go right that's so improbable in order for it to turn out well.
Adam: Our most expensive day got rained out and we didn't shoot the scene at all.
Aaron: Oh geez. I'm sorry to hear that! Wait, tell the story!
Adam: Cassie (Sasha Lane) and Luke are on a date and Luke steals a tugboat out of an industrial harbor. And he and Sasha and Patrick are tooling around on them, and there's water crashing up on the sides, very romantic and hectic and the whole of New York City is lit up behind them. You can see the Statue of Liberty. And it's going faster and faster and they go underneath a crane and the hook hits Daniel in the head and knocks the top of his head off, exposing like weird brains and shit. And then it heals back up and then Luke takes all these amazing photos of her, and then that's the scene that leads them then to go and have sex.
And we got there and it was a lightning storm. I mean, and we had three boats, it was one of our only two-camera days. We had divers, stunt people. It was by far our most expensive day.
And the union was like, “not only can we not shoot, we are not allowed to touch the camera. We can't take it out of the truck.” And we just lost the day and there was no insurance that could cover it. Like it was just gone. We just lost the whole day of shooting. And so the scene where they go in and they're playing around on the school buses is something we added, you know, an hour of overtime one other day just to make up for that narrative thing that's missing.
But you know the joke I have now, like nobody has come out of my movie and been like, "I loved your film, but if only there had been a tugboat!"
Elevation and Empathy
Adam: Something I keep coming back to -- and I'm doing it on my new movie too because my characters tend to be disturbed, or they have some trauma -- is making sure that I'm, instead of reducing mental illness to its diagnosis, I'm elevating it to its mythology. When people have reacted sort of negatively against what they think I'm saying about mental illness in this movie, they're reducing it to a diagnosis. What I was trying to do is to expand and expand and expand until it becomes a mythology that we can all relate to across our lives and across history rather than, this is a person who’s ill and this is what happens to ill people.
Aaron: Normally if a movie is made about mental illness, it's either a hard drama and it goes deep in a different way, or it's just basically like a psychological thriller where it's very, very pop-sci, very easy. You know, it's just like, "this is why the person's evil," you know?
Adam: A psycho. Specifically, a psycho.
Aaron: So when you say, rather than reducing the diagnosis, you're building a mythology because everything that Daniel does gives your mythology new rules; not rules exactly, but-
Adam: A story uncovering more truth about the mythology of it.
Aaron: Yeah. And it's a minefield to step into. And I think that you did that extraordinarily well, because I'm sure that you had at least some kind of trepidation about doing it wrong.
Adam: Or I had the confidence that I would do it right?
Aaron: Yeah, sure.
Justin: There's a great nobility in trying to say something meaningful in a movie about something that affects everyone in their life, whether it's mental illness or even if it's something like politics, whatever it is, but I think that obviously where you always run into trouble is when it becomes so conspicuous. Within the third act, if you are explicitly commenting on whatever that thing was you started with, that's when you get into trouble and that's preaching your point of view to a bunch of people.
I was raised by a mother who did have mental illness, and so those scenes were hard to watch in the beginning. But as the story grew and took off, I never once felt offended by what was happening. I just felt like I was watching it. A really interesting story that was rooted in something that is fundamentally human. But I didn't feel like it was activism about mental illness. It was just a good story rooted in something that people recognize.
Adam: I wanted it to have the feeling of a real manic breakdown, because I experienced it by proxy. My best friend went through something like that when we were 19 years old and my lifelong trauma of being around that kind of mental dissolution and the way that it felt and all of those stages of the depression, the excitement, the horrific realization that it's so much worse than you thought it was - I was dedicated to representing that feeling more than anything else.
And if I can represent the feeling, and then on top of representing the feeling, also have a supernatural element, that's valuable. Because I think telling a story about mental illnesses is limited because not everybody has mental illness, unless you say that, metaphorically speaking, the human condition is a mental illness. Or the thing I keep thinking with this movie is, modern masculinity is a mental illness. And like, you know, those are bigger ideas than “you are a manic depressive...You are schizophrenic.”
Aaron: I think you've nicely differentiated between having a moral and having a theme. A theme explores and a moral tells you what's good and bad. And so, I didn't come out of this thinking people with schizophrenia are bad or anything like that. I came out of it thinking that seems really difficult to deal with. And it seems like an absolute monster that can eat you. And that was, there's no, there's no moralizing on any of that.
Adam: If there's any place in the film that it's really on the nose, it's when they're having a discussion about empathy and Luke is saying, "you know, I have empathy" and Daniel's like, "whatever, man." There's a part where Daniel tells Luke to lean into his vulnerability. He's like, yeah, yeah, yeah, be vulnerable (around Cassie). Which is, that's some nightmarish game.
Aaron: That sounds like the pickup artists manual though, you know, like, that’s what Daniel would say.
Adam: So is there a connection between empathy as you presented it in art form? And they talk about white magic and black magic- the right hand and the left hand. The left hand, you're just manipulating people. Using the illusion of empathy and vulnerability so that you can take a shortcut to sleeping with someone that would be a left hand path, black magic thing, right? It's not empathetic. But if you're entering into the minds of past lives and like seeing humanity from a higher level. And then that's an empathetic practice.
Aaron: And the right hand path would be truly having empathy and seeing how simply you can just connect with another human being.
Justin: And you can connect with yourself with something like ritual magic. A lot of it goes into deep states of meditation and all of that. And you are understanding things about yourself and forgiving yourself and that sort of thing. And sometimes that's going to feel like wrestling a demon, not a one-off with a sword.
Aaron: So yes. To sum up, Adam, you did perform magic. That's what you wanted. There you have it.
Adam: There it is.