LA Film Fest Interview: Director Chris Sparling and Actor Mike Donovan of the horror thriller "Mercy"

A few weeks ago, I was able to sit down with director Chris Sparling and talk with him and actor Mike Donovan about Sparling's latest horror/thriller "Mercy."  For those of you who aren't familiar with Chris Sparling he wrote the 2010 film BURIED starring Ryan Reynolds, for which he won "Best Original Screenplay" from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, as well as a Goya Award in the same category.  His Black List script, ATM, was produced by Gold Circle Films and released by IFC Films in 2012.  Chris's feature directing debut, the supernatural thriller THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE, was released in early 2015 by Universal Pictures.  THE SEA OF TREES, which he wrote and produced, starring Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, and directed by Gus Van Sant, was nominated for the Palm d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where it received its world premiere.  Chris wrote and directed MERCY for Netflix which makes it premiere at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival.  He is currently adapting author Jo Nesbo's bestselling crime novel BLOOD ON SNOW for Warner Brothers and Leonardo DiCaprio, and is adapting the book DOWN A DARK HALL for Lionsgate Films.  He is currently producing the films BED REST for MGM Studios and INTRUSION for Good Universe, the latter of which he also wrote.  

SM:  Hi Chris!  Thank you so much for meeting with me today.  To start things off what interests you in the horror genre?

CS:  With the horror/thriller genre there’s always high stakes.  It’s not a simple “boy meets girls” story, it’s truly life or death.  You are automatically thrust into this super high stakes situation and it instantly grips you.  You can’t help but be somewhat invested in the story.

SM:  In regards to your film “Mercy”, did you know you wanted the antagonists to have a religious undertones?  

CS:  I didn’t ever really view the characters as a cult.  I kind of always viewed them as not necessarily a mainstream religion but also not absolute fanatics.  I wanted their beliefs to be slightly off the beaten path but Christian based.  They are faced with a circumstance that they would not normally be involved in so it’s clear that these people are out of their element.  

SM:  As these individuals are committing these crimes we are shown that they stumble a lot along the way.  You’ve in a way humanized them and it’s hard for the viewer to see them as entirely evil.  Did you do that on purpose?    

CS:  Absolutely!  It’s not like they are sending Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers to commit these acts, instead it's just people like you and me who have collectively decided that they have no choice but to act.  These individuals in the film didn’t want to break into the home or to see anyone get hurt but unfortunately mistakes were made and things go horribly wrong.

SM:  What inspired you to want to make “Mercy”? 

CS:  I was intrigued with the idea of showing different perspectives, and I’ve seen it done in a lot of other films, but I hadn’t seen it done in a home invasion type film.  What that also allowed me to do was not only show different perspectives but different motivations.  These were not a bunch of people who were blood-thirsty and in a way I wanted to make them seem like they were a little more adept to this and a little more “okay” before then revealing their side of the story.  There is motivation and there may even be justification for their actions. What I also wanted to show was that in horror movies there’s always that scene of someone hiding in a closet (or something similar) and when you stop and think about it you wonder, how long did that person stay in that hiding place before their victim comes along?  Would they have been there until tomorrow if no one came to the closet or the attic?  I wanted to show that if the person went to hide in the closet or in the attic we as the viewer see why and we are shown why it makes sense. 

Director Chris Sparling

Director Chris Sparling

Actor Mike Donovan (image courtesy of Getty)

Actor Mike Donovan (image courtesy of Getty)

SM:  How did you go about casting the roles of the brothers? 

CS:  First we casted James as Brad who essentially is the main character of the film.  I had a very specific idea for Brad's character because I wanted him to be someone that we naturally liked and rooted for but at the same time you had to have doubts about him.  There had to be something about him that you just questioned.  I was then lucky to get Tom, who played Travis, and even though his character was the “screw up” of the family, he’s the one who at least has the truest north in regards to a moral compass.  He’s the most honest with himself.  With the two other brother, Michael Godere (who played Ronnie) and Michael Donovan (who played TJ) I just really lucked out with them as well.  When it came to the casting I was just very lucky because this is the sort of movie that if you don’t have a strong dramatic through-line and strong supportive actors it kind of falls apart.  

SM:  This is actually a perfect segway into my question for Mike (Donovan).  What interested you in the role of TJ?  

MD:  I’m from Buffalo and shooting was going to be in Buffalo, NY so I thought, well that’s cool, but before finding that out I had initially talked to Chris about the script.  Being from Buffalo, you get a sense of this world that I think has this eeriness to it and already the atmosphere is creepy, you are essentially in the middle of nowhere.  So it was interesting to pick up the script and already be familiar with the place and then have the interaction with the other ‘brothers’.  I loved how the characters and their drama happened right at the beginning and then all of sudden it’s twisted on it’s head and that was the most interesting aspect.  Then you have the invasion and after that the glass ceiling breaks so to speak and you are just along for the ride.  

SM:  Mike, how did you do to prepare for your role? 

MD:  A lot of steroids (laughs) we were just hitting the gym like crazy!  I just did the same thing that I usually do which was fully immersing myself into the material as well as reading and asking questions and getting those answers.  You have to prepare yourself to jump right in.  So it was just a lot of reading and asking questions.  Because the other actors on set were so talented it made things easier especially when crafting a relationship with someone who is set to be your brother in the film.  

SM:  Chris, do you plan on having “Mercy” travel to different film festivals?  

SC:  I think that’s part of the strategy.  We got into the LA Film Fest and we were super excited about that and that became our deadline, we literally didn't finish the film until three days before it premiered!  I want people to see this movie and I want people to hopefully appreciate the film.  I like going out and talking to the people who have seen the film and hearing the good and bad.  I like to think that this feedback is stuff that I can grow from.  

SM:  What can we expect from you both in the future?  Would you like to continue in the horror genre?

SC: Yeah, I think that space is more thriller than just horror for me.  I kind of feel like that's a little niche I’ve carved out for myself.  I would love to continue working in the thriller/horror genre.  

MD:  Yes, however, I’m the kind of person that likes just about anything I watch so ultimately it ends up being about where the good projects are.  

SM:  Last but not least, what would you like audiences to take away from this film? 

MD:  Buffalo, NY is a wonderful place to go (laughs)

SC:  I guess the slightly cliche answer is there is always more than one side of a story.   Also, examining human nature and how money and greed can impact us into making horrible decisions.  I know it sounds cliche to say but it’s the root of all evil and maybe this movie will make people see that money isn’t the only singular drive in life.  

SM:  Thank you to you both for sitting with me today.  It's been such a pleasure speaking with you and we here at Nightmarish Conjurings wish you nothing but success with "Mercy" and your future endeavors!