Let’s face it, we’re all just trying to make it through life in one piece. Sure, we have goals and aspirations, hopes and dreams, but if you strip the specifics away, all we really want is to be happy. But what happens when one person’s joy results in another person’s death?
In A SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE, Lou’s world is transformed when she agrees to go on a road trip with the self-proclaimed life coach, Val. But what starts as a journey of self-discovery quickly turns lethal when Val is revealed to be more than she appears.
I had the chance to speak with writer/director Staten Cousins-Roe and actress Poppy Roe about this wickedly funny horror-comedy.
SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE is a quirky, funny, terrifyingly good time. Can you tell me a little bit about how the project came to life?
Staten Cousins-Roe: Originally we made a similar short film called This Way Out about a struggling euthanasia center. It was another jet black comedy with a similar tone, and Poppy [Roe] and Katie [Brayben] played the two leads.
The storyline was that the oddball owner of euthanasia center has 12 days to raise client numbers or face closure.
My gut [feeling] was that [the story] wasn’t right for a feature film. But I really wanted to take the characters Poppy and Katy had played so beautifully and reinvent them in something else. [At that time], I was writing another script, which I thought would be my debut feature film. We were having meetings with sizable film companies, household names, some of them, because the short had done so well. It won international awards, and was BAFTA longlisted, and sold to HBO Europe, and the Sundance channel in Europe. Which was amazing because we [did it] in our own flat.
Poppy Roe: This was our first film. We literally crowdfunded a very small amount of money and turned our flat into a euthanasia clinic, which was slightly disturbing.
Staten Cousins-Roe: We left the sign [for the euthanasia center] up by accident. We had very good neighbors who were very good about the joint hallway being filled with film gear.
But one of them told us the story that we left the sign up outside by accident and they saw a lady in her later years wander past, see the sign, stop, and then just shake her head in what I can only imagine was dismay, and carry on walking under the assumption that a nearby house had been turned into a euthanasia center.
So I’d been having these meetings, very lovely meetings, and very positive, but I just had the hunch that I wanted to make our first feature film in the same sort of way, with a similar team, and some of the same cast [as we did with This Way Out].
From a story perspective, I’d come across this notion of self-help and the [almost] epidemic-like proportions [in which] it’s being consumed. The nature of it is almost like snake oil being sold out the back of a Wild West horse and carriage, moving from one town to the next and perpetuating the notion of a quick fix.
And it just seemed very apt to do another satirical dark comedy with elements of horror, and take the characters that Poppy and Katie [created] and reinvent them into the new characters of Val and Lou and send them off on this new journey.
Speaking of humor, do you find humor to be important in storytelling regardless of the genre that you’re working in?
Staten Cousins-Roe: In a way, I think dark comedy is hard to have as its own genre. It sort of tags on to other genres. That’s the lovely thing with dark humor. You’re able to explore, on an intellectual level, something that might be a bit overbearing if you just deal with it head-on.
There’s a famous Italian playwright called Dario Fo. His famous quote was that when people open their minds to laugh, they open their minds to think. I think there’s some truth to [that].
It kind of comes from my past. I remember watching Harold and Maude, the Hal Ashby movie, back with my grandma when I was very young. That has that kind of slight twist to it. Almost like something you accidentally dreamt in the middle of the night and then woke up in a little bit of sweat, not terrified but just [feeling like] something was wrong.
That just completely puts it into perspective for me, because I’ve had so many nightmares in my life where the scenario is deadly serious when it’s happening in your dream, but then you wake up and it’s hysterical.
Staten Cousins-Roe: There are a lot of things in life like that as well. When you’re going through them they’re terrible, but when you look back you’re able to laugh. It’s a coping mechanism with humans, dark humor.
Even though this is a very funny movie there are several sequences where the murder is really chilling. What is the key to pulling off those tonal shifts?
Staten Cousins-Roe: I think in many ways it’s very simple. When we’re shooting we ask everyone to [not play] any comedy. We just play what’s written and deliver it openly and earnestly and head-on. We did that with This Way Out and we did that very much with [SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE].
It’s the same as when an actor starts playing something for a laugh, then you kind of kill it straight away. So certainly to me it’s very much about treating it [as if it’s] real.
Poppy, playing a serial killer seems like quite a daunting task, especially one that’s so funny. I’d love to hear a little bit about what went into creating the character of Val and how you find motivation for these very absurd situations.
Poppy Roe: At first we both watched loads of serial killer movies, from the classics to modern-day. And then I was looking at Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Christian Bale in American Psycho, and interviews with real serial killers. And I found it really interesting to understand that psychopath element, but the thing that really connected with me was looking into self-help people, the gurus and life coaches that do these webinars and Internet talks and sell their books and things. A lot of them have a very huge self-belief, a kind of unwavering – slightly unnerving to me – self-belief, which is kind of admirable and maybe that’s what’s so engaging about them.
I found it was really important to not play Val as a serial killer, but just to play someone who really believed in what she was doing. It’s almost innocence in its simplicity, [this] blank determination. I think that helped with the comedy as well. It was a lot of fun.
I like playing people who just don’t care. We’re really nice people and kind and lovely in life but it’s nice to play someone who is not.
I loved the self-help quotes that structured the film. I know you probably don’t want to name names, but were there any specific people that you were inspired by or specific quotes?
Poppy Roe: There are one or two.
Staten Cousins-Roe: The Chuck character, in a sense, is an amalgamation of several different self-help practitioners, and it almost slips into a cult element as well. In a way, there’s not a huge space between [the] very good hypnotic gaze of a fully focused self-help practitioner and that of a cult leader like Charlie Manson.
I won’t say precisely who, but Ben Lloyd-Hughes, who played Chuck, [researched] some…household names.
Poppy Roe: We’re going to get into trouble.
Staten Cousins-Roe: It was quite early on that we structured the film with those steps as well.
Poppy Roe: The idea was that the whole thing was a guide, a sort of self-help journey.
Staten Cousins-Roe: Hopefully in a way, it’ll be a warning. Kind of like [how] Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove is a warning about nuclear winter. This is a warning about too much positive thinking.
If you woke up tomorrow and you were a self-help expert, what would be your go-to piece of advice?
Staten Cousins-Roe: My advice would be like Chuck’s, I suppose. It would probably be something along the lines of, “If you pay me a thousand dollars I will let you know how exactly to live the best life and be the best you.”
Poppy Roe: That’s so unfair. Mine would be much more in-line with the film in a different way in that I would say, “Listen to your instincts.”
Staten Cousins-Roe: Oh, you’re going for actual proper advice.
Poppy Roe: I am, but that’s what’s in the film. It’s empowering. The film is saying “Everyone is a bit Lou and everyone is a bit Val,” and we have that in us. And be careful who you listen to and trust yourself.
Don’t go and kill people, though. For more on A SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE, check out Adrienne’s review here.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
- [Docu-Series Review] NIGHT STALKER: HUNT FOR A SERIAL KILLER - January 7, 2021
- [Movie Review] TRIGGERED - November 4, 2020
- [Movie Review] THE LAST EXORCIST - October 12, 2020