Films exploring mental illness can be an absolute crapshoot, with many public perceptions of mental illness and the systems in place being obscured by a lack of knowledge on the subject matter. However, some of my most favorite films, especially within the horror genre, have dealt with tackling the more grounded and real cyclic aspects of mental illness. This is part of how I came to really love THE DEAD CENTER when I saw it last year at the Los Angeles Film Festival because, although it had a supernatural element infused within the story, the film explored the cyclic aspects of death, mental illness, and trauma’s impact on the human brain. As someone who has just gone back to start getting treated for C-PTSD, revisiting the film had an almost cathartic effect on me during my second viewing and I needed to know what went into developing such a grounded film.
For the upcoming theatrical release of THE DEAD CENTER, I got the opportunity to interview writer and director Billy Senese about the film. During the interview, we discussed everything from how deeply personal events happened to inspire the deep-rooted thematic material of THE DEAD CENTER to how the book Danger of Self came to inform the realistic portrayal of a psychiatric ward in the movie, as well as the discovery of how flawed our system of treating mental illness is in this country.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Billy. To start things off, can you tell me how you go the idea of writing THE DEAD CENTER?
Billy Senese: Sure. Well, you know, I’ve had some people close to me who have had some mental health issues. I mean, so it came from a personal place in the beginning. A dear friend of mine, who should have gotten more treatment, but didn’t, died from an accidental overdose. And I think it affected me. You know, he was a young man. He was like thirty-five at the time and it affected me quite a bit. I started making this connection to deal with it, to cope with it. You know to deal with these horrible losses or mental health or trauma or whatever and the aftermath of that. You kind of see that in the film a little bit. Like Daniel, right? He sees his mom hanging from a rope at eleven. And what does that do to someone? That doesn’t just go away. That lives with him forever in some form or fashion and it’s sort of a darkness. Or that madness that comes with seeing that kind of thing, or experiencing that kind of thing.
And, you know, I hear a lot of people talk about grief. They talk about the deep sadness that you deal with and that’s all true. But I don’t think we talk enough about the madness that we feel, the craziness that this person is all of a sudden so close to you is just gone. Poof. It’s over. Especially if you lose a spouse or something, it’s even worse because it’s someone you see every day and you expect to see them in a doorway, right? And you look up to see them in the doorway and they are not there anymore. It’s ghostly and it’s crazy. I’m sure it stretches with people who deal with loved ones with mental illness too. You know, with that madness as well. So, madness is the center of the poetry of the piece for me is sort of where I tried to explore those things. And, of course, it expanded into other things.
Well, one of the things that I was curious about was the creation of the Death God. But because you just gave the explanation about the madness of grief and how we deal with the concept of grief, I’m wondering how that went into the creation of that Death God. Was it meant to represent the cycle of grief where it’s kind of just never-ending?
Billy Senese: Well, insanity is more like it. The Death God, you know, what was important to me there was that in searching around mythologies of Death Gods and stuff, I wanted it to come from a place that wasn’t evil. You know what I mean? You know, I didn’t study demons or demonology or anything like that. I did a lot of research on black holes. That served as inspiration for me because the insanity of the infinite. Or the inevitability of death. I didn’t want evil. I wanted inevitable. And I think that was the way I structured it too. And also, the fear of death and fear of the unknown. I wanted the audience to feel that inevitability, so I really designed the whole movie around that everything sort of a downward spiral leading to that. And so, you could feel the walls closing around you.
I think a lot of this stuff you don’t know why you’re doing it as an artist sometimes. You just know. Like a lot of the times when I’m done making a film and I have to go talk about it, I go, “Oh. What was I thinking?” [laughs] Cause you are just drawn to this. You know that you don’t want this. You want this. And you know this is where you want to go. Like, for me, when I was trying to do the special effects with him at the end and what he was going to look like when he did become fully realized was like Boris Karloff from The Mummy. You know, the 1930s or the ‘40s. That real ancient look. I wanted him to feel ancient like it’s been around forever. Infinitely. It’s a cycle. This keeps coming back. Keeps coming back. Keeps coming back and you can’t stop it. And there’s nothing you can do to stop that and that’s terrifying.
I definitely got that. So, that was definitely very much conveyed. The existential millennial in me was like, “Yeah. The inevitability of death. Got it.”
Billy Senese: Oh good. I’m glad. [laughs]
Moving away from the more thematic aspects of the film, the primary setting of the film takes place in the adult psychiatric ward of a hospital. First off, I wanted to let you know the general chaos of the ward seemed very accurate. I was curious about what research was done to capture that particular chaos in that part of the hospital, but also how difficult was it logistically to secure the location?
Billy Senese: Well, the location was tough. This is a hospital that was shut down. It was in Nashville here where I’m based. I think it shut down in the ‘80s or ‘90s and some real estate was going to turn it into condos or something and we had found it. And it needed a lot of work, but what was great about it though was that if we could fix this one floor off. The kind of work that I wanted to do, the steady cam that allowed 360s and stuff like that, so I needed the space to move around. So, there was a lot of work for us. We had to re-paint. We had to do a whole lot to fix it and we only did this one section. You couldn’t even get to this one section. You had to go through all the stuff that wasn’t fixed up all the time. And it’s a super creepy building and it’s huge. We called it ‘The Towers’ because there were two towers full of stuff. We got lucky. We got lucky that they let us shoot in there and all of that.
And we tried to get it right. Authencity was really important to me. Anything I do, my work tends to be very grounded and very real. I’m very naturalistic. The reason why I did do the emergency side was because I read this book called Danger of Self. Some psychiatrist in San Francisco wrote it called Paul Linde and I didn’t even really know it exists. It was sort of a deep dive. The bandaid notion really drew me. You know, people trying to come in and trying to fix these really intense mental health problems, you know, like they do in the emergency room. They put a bandaid on it to get through it. It seemed crazy to me.
So, I ended up reaching out to the author of the book and he came out as a consultant for me. And he really read through several versions of the script. He really worked with me on the technical stuff and the authenticity of the dialogue at times. He was a really huge help. I got really interested in the systems and rules. I’m a huge fan of “The Wire” too and how David Simon dives deep into the strengths and weaknesses of these systems and where they are failing. And this idea of danger to self and others that came around was very educating to me. And what he was saying in his book that I didn’t have any idea about it becomes a game. It is a part of the system. If people off the street know that they can go to emergency or the psych ward and say I’m having suicidal thoughts, they’ll get a bed. And the doctors a lot of times, they know the game too and they are like, this person is never going to get treatment if I don’t play by this rule. So, they go yeah. I think this patient is suicidal and I’m going to admit him and get him some proper treatment. It’s sort of a flawed system and stuff. And, of course, it’s a perfect setting for me for a horror film. [laughs] I am drawn to those things.
Well, the research definitely paid off. I could literally talk to you for hours about this film, so the final question. Do you have any upcoming projects that we should be keeping our eyes out for?
Billy Senese: Independent film stuff, you try to get funding for your next thing. I’m not really ready to talk about the actual content of the story, but I do have a new film I’m trying to get off the ground that I think is very timely. It’s a Southern thriller. No supernatural. No anything. No witches or ghosts or anything. Just a straight thriller, but it’s very much inspired by Deliverance and Straw Dogs and stuff like that that is very hard-hitting. But also dealing with immigration in this country right now in an interesting way. So, I hope to get it off the ground. I do have more money this time. [laughs]
THE DEAD CENTER will be released in select UK and US Cinemas, and on 4k Digital HD, on October 11, 2019. It will also be available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from October 22.