Known for directing such horror films as Saw II-IV as well as the horror musicals Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Devil’s Carnival, there is no subgenre within horror that Darren isn’t willing to dive into. In his latest film, DEATH OF ME, Darren Lynn Bousman takes on the exploration of religious mysticism and black magic. For the upcoming release of the film, I had the chance to speak with Darren where he discussed everything from the challenges of filming in Thailand to incorporating the local talent and culture into the film.
In DEATH OF ME, Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil Oliver (Luke Hemsworth) awake hungover and with no memory of the previous night while vacationing on an island off the coast of Thailand. They find footage on Neil’s camera, and watch, horrified, as Neil appears to murder Christine. With twenty-four hours until the next ferry and a typhoon threatening the island, Christine and Neil attempt to reconstruct the night’s events – and are snared in a web of mystery, black magic, and murder.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Darren! So let’s start by talking about filming DEATH OF ME in Thailand. How was that experience?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Honestly, I want to say it was awesome but it actually was not awesome and not because of Thailand. Thailand is awesome but I had an infected root canal that was going to need to be pulled. I told my dentist I was about to go to Thailand for this location scout and I would be back in two weeks. He said don’t worry and gave me antibiotics for two weeks. I went to Thailand and stayed there for 2-1/2 months. I was terrified about getting my tooth pulled in Thailand because I didn’t want it to get infected so I ended up having an infected root canal for the entire time I was there. Then I got a parasite. I didn’t know it was a parasite so I thought I was dying. I ended up starting to get sick and I started throwing up. I ended up losing 18 pounds in about 2-1/2 – 3 weeks. My tooth is hurting which makes my brain hurt and then I was throwing up and losing weight and I was shooting the movie.
Another thing about Thailand that I didn’t know and I think it’s because I’m a stupid Westerner and just didn’t realize this…When I got off the flight I was taken into the forest to see some locations. I get out of the production vehicle and it’s so hot and humid and I’m wearing shorts, a short-sleeve shirt, and sandals. I’m literally punching what looks like bats in the face but they’re just mosquitos but they are so huge. I didn’t realize there is something called dengue fever over there. If you get bit by a mosquito you bleed from your eyes. To complicate matters, we were then told after that that you have to wear long-sleeved pants and shirts and basically cover every inch of your body. Not only am I running a fever because of my tooth, it’s hot and I’m on medication and hallucinating – it was just insane. I’m lucky to be alive to tell you the truth. Besides that, it was fantastic! (laughs)
While you were there, were you able to incorporate a lot of the locals and their culture into the film?
Darren Lynn Bousman: One of the things that I was really excited about with this experience was…First off, Thailand is amazing. It’s one of the most insanely beautiful, old, crazy places that I’ve ever been. When we were walking around location scouting, I started falling in love with the locals. They were so friendly. The scene where Maggie Q and Luke Hemsworth go to see the doctor and the doctor is in this little building on the water, that was all real. We cast all the people that lived there in this little community. We ended up casting so many of the locals in the community because you can’t find people like that, they were just perfect. A lot of the people you see in the movie, from the guy that brings fish in the very beginning to the cab drivers to whoever, they were the actual people in that community. It was awesome.
Regarding the mythology, David Tish, who is one of the writers, actually dug through a lot of mythology of South East Asia. He found this insane belief from a long time ago about something called Pillars. It was this terrifying thing about this town that would basically bury the pregnant women in the sand because nothing was more powerful than a woman with child. Not only did she have her own soul, but also the one of her unborn baby. They would bury them and a lot of times the women would willingly do it because it was a sacrifice for the community. They would do this thing to bring good fortune and watch over the village. When we saw this passage we kind of used that as the backbone of what this was. Originally, it was scripted as Voodoo and I had just seen so many movies about Voodoo that I didn’t want to make it another The Serpent and the Rainbow because that already existed. We changed it from the Voodoo idea to take it to more of a unique kind of look at a belief system on this island.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about the practical effects. One of my favorite scenes had to do with the grass coming out of Maggie Q’s mouth, was that all practical?
Darren Lynn Bousman: The thing about Maggie is she is the strictest vegan. Originally we had other stuff [we were going to used] and she had to know every single compound and chemical in it. She went to the market and ended up going through all of these night markets to find organic wheat grass and she had to concoct and make her own stuff to be able to put it in her mouth and do that. That was all Maggie Q right there. That [the practical effects] was also a tricky thing that I was not prepared for. I’ve shot all over, from Japan to Barcelona to Canada and the thing with Thailand, which made it difficult, was a lot of our effects were made in the United States and carried over with us due to the lack of prep time. I think we only had a few weeks of prep on the movie. We didn’t have time to have things built in Thailand so we brought it over but what we weren’t counting on was the heat. A lot of the appliances that we had would just slide off the people cause it was so hot and you’re sweating so profusely. They’d be in the makeup trailer for three hours and then they would walk outside and 3 seconds later it would just slide off the body. That was another challenge.
Speaking of Maggie Q, can you talk a bit about bringing both her and Luke Hemsworth on for the project?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Before I bring them in I want to talk about one of my favorite people in the world, which is Alex Essoe (who plays Samantha). I loved her in Starry Eyes, which was one of my favorite movies when it came out a few years back, I though she was great. This is going to sound ridiculous but I was a huge Maggie Q fan from Balls of Fury. One of the things I pride myself on is the movies that I’ve made recently that have a strong female cast, from St. Agatha to Crow’s Blood. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have whoever was playing Christine play a victim. I wanted someone that was strong, that was strong-willed, that was forward thinking and not just running around scared the entire time. Upon casting [the film], I needed someone that could play that and Maggie Q is a badass. Luke I knew from watching Westworld. I wanted an actor who had no baggage and was kind of assuming so I scheduled a meeting with [Luke]. We went for coffee and I immediately got a man-crush on him, he was so funny. That was one of the things that was important to me – if we’re going to go to Thailand and be stuck on a small island, you need to work with people that are cool and fun. For me, Luke was my comedy relief every day.
I noticed that there seemed to be an homage to The Tension Experience (an interactive immersive experience and ARG co-created by Bousman) with some of the symbols presented throughout the film. Was that intentional?
Darren Lynn Bousman: It’s funny you said that – yes and no. There was such a language barrier on this film and I think a lot of it had to do with the lack of time we were there, everything moved so quickly. With a movie like Spiral, you get like 40 days; with a movie like DEATH OF ME, you get 18-20 days, so you’re moving rapidly. When I went out there, I tried to explain to them what a sigil was and they didn’t understand it, they thought I said symbol. I pointed to my arm where I have a tattoo of the sigil from The Tension Experience. Cut to the first day of shooting, they brought out their sigil and it was The Tension Experience logo and I was like no, no, no, no, no (laughs). I had to break it on-set to make it not identical but you can absolutely still see pieces of it around because it uses shapes that were with the Tension thing.
When you’re in a place like that and you’re dealing with a storyline based in faith and culture, you want to be respectful but you also want to move it far enough away from whatever it is to not offend anyone. While the idea is based in a real belief, a real mythology, we wanted to shift it far enough that we weren’t actually talking about something real. One of the things I requested was I wanted to make up a whole series of symbols that religion basically has such as the Cross, Star of David, etc. I challenged them that I wanted there to be this symbol that every single person that is involved in this cult has somewhere within every shot. If you look [at the film] again, you’ll start to notice it was always there, you just never looked at it because you didn’t know to look for it.
DEATH OF ME will arrive in theaters and On Demand and Digital on October 2, 2020. For more on the film, check out our review here.