Recently, we (along with our friends in What’s Your favorite Scary Movie (WYFSM) podcast) had the chance to speak with DANIEL ISN’T REAL director Adam Egypt Mortimer and his co-writer Brian DeLeeuw, who also penned the novel it’s based on, In This Way I Was Saved. DANIEL ISN’T REAL is a SpectreVision film (Mandy, Color Out of Space) and tells the narrative of a young man named Luke (Miles Robbins) who brings back his troublesome imaginary friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) from his childhood to help him cope after various traumatic experiences. The pair discuss their horror influences, differences between the novel and the film adaptation, their previous collaboration Some Kind of Hate, and hint at a possible sequel to the film (!) in this Part 1 of our fun conversation.
Nightmarish Conjurings: When reading Brian’s book, was there a specific moment that you immediately envisioned for the film?
Adam Egypt Mortimer: There were a lot of things, but none of them made it into the movie. There’s this scene where, in the book, he does the thing where they go on a family vacation, and Luke takes Daniel and crunches him up, and puts him in the trunk of a car –
Brian DeLeeuw: Suitcase
Adam Egypt Mortimer: Oh, in the suitcase, in the trunk. And it was such an interesting idea about the physicality of Daniel, and how Luke was manipulating the physicality of [his] imaginary friend that was really cool. And there were a couple of other things like that – wasn’t there one where he sleeps in the bed underneath him or something? And he like crunches himself into a drawer?
Brian DeLeeuw: Yes, there were a lot of [written depictions of] him fitting into spaces and his body doing very strange things.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: And it’s described with crunching bones…so none of that made it into the movie, but the idea of the way that he’s physical, and there’s something really gross about his physical transformation, and how physical it is…is what carried over into the movie.
WYFSM: When you were converting the novel to a script, and working together – how was the dynamic? [To Brian]: If you could talk about sharing something that you’d been working on for so long.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: You let go of [your story] so easily.
Brian DeLeeuw: There are two things: I do fully believe that – people always say this, and I actually mean it – but, the book is the book. You don’t have to cling to what the book is when you’re making something else. So I don’t think I was ever really precious about much.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: [To Brian] But you were so easy. I mean, I didn’t come in and say, “Let’s turn it into a stoner comedy” or something like that; but we had the same vibe.
Brian DeLeeuw: That’s what it is. I knew that he understood what the book was, and the heart and soul of it. So the specifics of what made it in and what didn’t weren’t as important. If I had thought that we were trying to make really different things –
Adam Egypt Mortimer: We also knew what the tone was. And we didn’t really talk about it; we just did it. We didn’t even watch movies for references. We watched one movie – we watched that Elijah Wood movie –
Brian DeLeeuw: The Good Son. Which was my fault (laughs).
Adam Egypt Mortimer: And we watched Single White Female for some reason. I don’t know why those were the two movies – we were like, “Ok, let’s write a movie based on Daniel – let’s watch Single White Female.” I have no idea why we did that.
Brian DeLeeuw: Very ’90s.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: And then we were like, “Maybe we don’t need to watch movies for references anymore. This is not helping.” (laughs). And when we wrote Some Kind Of Hate, we didn’t watch slasher movies either. Looking back, maybe we should have watched more slasher movies.
Brian DeLeeuw: We had seen a lot of them, but it would have helped to revisit. We were more, like, thinking about our memories of slasher movies.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: And then we finally watched them after making the movie, and we were like, “Oh, they’re actually scarier.” (laughs).
Brian DeLeeuw: So, anyway, this movie…
WYFSM: [Based on the response at the post-screening Q&A] It seems like a testament to the timelessness of both nostalgia and [contemporary] energies of the movie that people are able to [pick up on] so many references within the movie. We were talking about The Shining –
Nightmarish Conjurings: Suspiria, for me, color-wise.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: Oh, that’s interesting. There were certain things that were very specific influences that I would rip scenes and show them to everybody working on the movie. I was like, “Look at how William Friedkin shoots dialogue in Bug.” And then there are other things that I think are just influences, like we didn’t ever talk about Donnie Darko, but I was just talking to Daniel Noah the other day, our [SpectreVision] producer, who was like, “I love Donnie Darko, and when I read the script, I felt the [same] way about this as when I first saw Donnie Darko, and people don’t make movies like this.” But we were never referencing that.
Brian DeLeeuw: I didn’t see Donnie Darko ’til after we had written the final drafts to the script.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: But then, Fight Club – I had watched Fight Club fifteen times before we started shooting. I was like, “How do you shoot Fight Club?”
Nightmarish Conjurings: [To Adam] You’ve cited Pan’s Labyrinth, The Exorcist, and American Psycho as influences for human drama stories firstly before the genre elements kick in. What specific horror films about mental illness did you draw from?
Adan Egypt Mortimer: Requiem for a Dream was a really important one for me, because [dir. Darren Aronofsky] creates that sense of anxiety and losing your mind, and that sort of spiraling feeling of that. So when I would talk to the composer, we would talk about Requiem for a Dream a lot. And [Ingmar] Bergman’s Persona. So those two movies are things that were like, I would show stuff like that from those movies to everyone – costume department, camera operator – everybody was watching clips from Persona and Requiem.
WYFSM: Working with SpectreVision, I am wondering how much influence they had for the aesthetic and the coloring of the film.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: It’s interesting because I didn’t see Mandy until after we finished this movie. And when we showed people this movie, people were like, “Oh, there’s this whole SpectreVision thing.” But the idea of the way the colors were in this movie was entirely the style I developed. [I thought that] modern horror needs to be more colorful. Violet is such an important modern color and then I saw Mandy and I was like, “Weird, I guess we had the same thought process as the kind of directors that SpectreVision likes to work with.” But then I saw Cam, which is not a SpectreVision movie, and that has a similar kind of color. I think a part of it is a reaction to the movies, like the mid-2000s or 2010s horror movies, that were all de-saturated. I think about Mama, and they just put gray-blue over everything because they’re like, “That’s scary.”
WYFSM: Like The Ring.
Adam Egypt Mortimer: Yeah, and for me, because [DANIEL ISN’T REAL] is about the seduction of mania, it had to feel really colorful and energetic, and [I thought] it would be a fun challenge to make a movie that has bright colors, instead of darkness…
*The remainder of our conversation contains spoilers, so look out for Part 2 of this interview after DANIEL ISN’T REAL is released in theaters, On Digital, and On-Demand on December 6. For more, check out our spoiler-free review of the film here. To pre-order the film on iTunes, click here.*