Mental illness and the fear of the unknown have been a source of inspiration in stories for as long as we’ve been telling them. With research still trying to keep up, it’s not hard to fall back on the supernatural to explain what we don’t know. The ambiguous nature of mental illness and our perception of mental illness has led to the telling of stories that force us to think and reconsider everything we know. This is very much the case with the horror film, THE BLACK STRING.
I had the opportunity to interview the director and producer Brian Hanson and producer Richard Handley at FilmQuest Festival 2019, where we discussed everything about their observations concerning sleep paralysis and mental illness to what it was like to engage in physical stuntwork with actor Frankie Muniz in THE BLACK STRING.
THE BLACK STRING does a deep dive into mental illness and really plays around with the idea of whether or not what’s happening to Frankie’s character. But I’m curious as to where the source of inspiration for this film came from.
Brian Hanson: Ten years ago, I was bartending in Hollywood with my buddy Andy Warrener and we decided to write a micro-budget horror film that I would direct and he would star in. At that time, I had some intense sleep paralysis experiences and, being in Los Angeles, we were always seeing mentally ill homeless people standing on the street corner screaming at the sky, so we thought what’s scarier than being afflicted with that condition — seeing something that nobody else can see and no matter how hard you try to explain, nobody will ever believe you. We did research into sleep paralysis which has occult and witchcraft “old hag” mythologies as well as purely scientific explanations. At that point, we decided to create our protagonist Jonathan, a suburban slacker who has a history of mental illness and addiction issues. In the story, we decided he would have this mental breakdown that can be explained by occult mythology or real psychiatric health issues, but which is real?
That’s the scariest thing about Polanski’s Repulsion, Friedkin’s Bug or Aranofsky’s Black Swan — you can’t tell if the horror is caused by a fractured mind or real external forces. I’m fascinated by that type of psychological horror story. Andy and I never made the movie; he started a family in Florida and I joined the US Army, but we did come up with this great 50-page script I told Rich Handley about when I got out of the Army and moved back to LA.
Richard Handley: Brian told me about this old story he had worked on with a friend — set in the suburbs, a setting where the horror lurks in the shadows of the familiar. I was really attracted to the lonely guy and family dysfunction angle — I knew a few guys back home that never left our small town and either struggled with addiction and depression or both. As a clinician, I’ve treated patients with conditions who on initial assessment seem to have all their faculties, but dig a bit deeper and you quickly realize that there is something quite amiss. Delusional parasitosis comes to mind. With delusional parasitosis, once you’ve ruled out legitimate organic causes, like thyroid disease, B12 deficiency, cocaine intoxication or actual parasite infestation, you’re left with this rare psychiatric condition. Patients are absolutely, unequivocally convinced they have parasites living on or in their bodies. My heart goes out to these patients because their suffering is very real and they need help. Jonathan is experiencing this exact situation, but in his case, what if the delusion is no delusion? What if it’s real? The fun of our movie is that we get to explore this question and play with audience perception. It’s a two-sided coin: is he truly cursed or suffering from some form of mental illness? And we have tried our best to present cogent arguments that equally support either thesis.
This is your first feature film, right? How did you go about tackling getting this film off the ground?
Brian Hanson: This is our first feature film so looking at our resume it was blazing obvious we are first time filmmakers. We have no real track record so why would anybody trust us with their money, expensive equipment or their reputation? It’s just like the “Shark Tank”, we have this little movie/product we want to make and we have to convince Mark Cuban and the Sharks to take a risk and partner up with us newbies. That’s the challenge most first time filmmakers like us have to overcome. Rich Handley has run medical businesses, I was working at Vega Baby a production/distribution company so we had a good business background and we had made a lot of short films in film school to prove our artistic filmmaking skills. The real difference-maker that connected us with our awesome investors was creating a slick THE BLACK STRING concept trailer, a really strong script and a legitimate investor “pitch deck” that we put together as our thesis project at Mount St. Mary’s University. My long-time friend Sharif Ibrahim took that pitch deck and trailer to his connections and we eventually ended up meeting our primary investors that way.
Richard Handley: Yep, thank you, Sharif! Starting a film from the ground up required building an army of talented people, like our friends and producers Charlie Bunce, Kayli Fortun, and Sheldon Brigman, and then continuing to work closely with our film school, Mount Saint Mary’s University (Los Angeles). These decisions made our movie possible. My associate producer wife, Marisela, is also quite supportive, so that’s a bonus! Brian and I both worked full-time jobs during pre and post-production, so we were often working 20 hour days against all sorts of constraints. Time and money being the most obvious. But it’s very important to note that our ability to do this didn’t just happen overnight. It took years of working in the trenches on short films, going to graduate-level film school, joining the military, going to medical school, internships, raising a family, gaining real-life experiences, which set us apart, prepped us for battle, and informed our storytelling. Yes, we were newbies, but certainly not from out of nowhere. I call it a ten-year over-night success, requiring a village, which is certainly the case for most people in this business.
For THE BLACK STRING being your first feature, there must have been some special or surreal moments. Do either of you have moments that stand out from working on set?
Brian Hanson: The beginning and end of every day on set-was my favorite. I was amazed and thankful that this small cast/crew was so dedicated to show up every day after long long nights – and they’d be excited to tackle the day’s new challenges. Then at the end of working each 14 hour day, I had an incredible feeling of gratitude that the individuals on set worked so hard to turn this script we wrote into an actual movie. It’s like they are using their skills to turn our day-dream into reality, that is a very generous gift in my opinion. There is one specific scene I enjoyed filming in which Frankie fights a shadow on the ground, and that shadow was me. We realized on the spot that we didn’t have a stunt man for the role of “shadow” so I had to jump in and be that stunt man tussling with Frankie Muniz. I’m a director, not an actor, so it was great to get on the same side of the camera as Frankie. He’s an unbelievable professional and he loves to dive in and do his own physical stunts. Believe me. I wrestled him and he fought back hard!
Richard Handley: Yeah, that was hilarious and so effective. Brian’s just that kind of director. He’ll literally get in there and wrestle his actors to the ground. [laughs] Seeing the work we did on the script come to life on the big screen with amazing performances, John Orphan’s beautiful cinematography, and Will Drucker’s editing was incredibly exhilarating. Add the sound and music and it becomes this amazing feeling of accomplishment to look at the screen and say, “Wow, all that hard work paid off…it’s a real movie now!” One of my favorite scenes, which comes later in the film, is where Jonathan (Muniz) is trying so hard to explain to his buddy the “ERC” that he’s truly cursed, was just awesome and culminates in this frenzied experience. Frankie brought that performance, in all of its insanity and nuance, on the first day of production. That’s the level of craft I’m talking about. Just exceptional work! It was also a career highlight to also play Dr. Ronaldi and go toe to toe with him on screen. A total blast!
Because of the subject matter and how it is handled, I’m curious about what do you want the audience to take away from the film. Because the film’s ending and how everything develops is very ambiguous.
Brian Hanson: Andy, Rich and I really wanted audiences to debate the ending of [THE BLACK STRING] with their friends. Was this real occult/witchcraft or was Jonathan just suffering from mental illness/addiction? When going to a video store in the old days or picking a movie to watch on Amazon/Netflix, there’s always a type of dark, mind-bending flick I searched for and I wanted to make that type of movie for others to enjoy — a Jacob’s Ladder, Communion, Rosemary’s Baby or great “Twilight Zone” episode. We wanted to make something that evokes an emotion and gives audiences a reason to watch the movie twice because, believe me, there are a lot of easter eggs in there for second and third viewings.
Richard Handley: I just want our audience to not engage in unprotected sex! That’s it. THE BLACK STRING is actually just a very ambitious safe-sex PSA. [laughing] I’m kidding, of course. First and foremost, I hope our audience comes away fully entertained, but also feeling a strong connection with Jonathan who is clearly a troubled young man trying to improve himself and overcome his inner demons. I hope people watch this movie and ask questions about mental illness, addiction and yes, maybe think about the occult and mystic mythologies, in which viewers are certainly encouraged to debate around the water cooler the next day. I personally love ambiguous films like ours. Hoping our film resonates in the same way films like Shutter Island, Donny Darko, and Mulholland Drive stay with you.
Last but not least, are there any projects you are working on that we should be keeping our eyes out for?
Brian Hanson: Our team is working on another horror film that dips back into the occult and paranoia. In a nutshell, a down on his luck single dad throws his son a backyard birthday party with a magician who does magic tricks, but when the kid gets into the magic box, he disappears… permanently. Where did the kid go? The dad furiously searches for his son and dives deep into a quest with some dark places. It’s similar to THE BLACK STRING in that it considers two realities, is magic real or is this just a case of a runaway kid?
Richard Handley: We also have a military movie that’s quite dark. Because we’re both veterans who have seen the worst and best of what it means to be in the military. We hope to tell a visceral, hard-hitting military story that sheds light on details civilians don’t often know about. Once again, our personal experiences and understanding of this world should give it life.
In addition to its festival run, THE BLACK STRING will be released in the US on Digital HD and DVD September 24th from Grindstone Entertainment, a Lionsgate company. Make sure to check out our review of the film here.