With scripts under his belt like The Babysitter, Underwater, and the upcoming Love and Monsters, Brian Duffield is no stranger to horror or movies that break outside of their genre. In SPONTANEOUS, Duffield writes and directs for the first time, making one town’s high school a matter of life-and-death.
In SPONTANEOUS, Mara (Katherine Langford) is a student at Covington High School, taking it day-by-day until one of her peers spontaneously combusts during class. Inspired by the idea that they may not make it to graduation, she is approached by Dylan (Charlie Plummer), who confesses that he has a crush on her. The two begin a relationship as more of their classmates die and their future becomes uncertain.
For the release of SPONTANEOUS, I got to chat with Brian about his directorial debut, the struggles of dealing with unpredictable winter weather, and the timing of the film’s release during a pandemic.
[SPONTANEOUS] was your directorial debut. So how was that different when you were working on the movie from when you’ve just written the script?
Brian Duffield: You mean for other things or just in general?
How was directing, like how did that influence when you were working on the movie?
Brian Duffield: The movie has such an unusual tone, and especially because you’re dealing with things that visually could be upsetting really quickly… and that reads on the page in a particular way that probably isn’t as graphic as seeing it happen in front of you. So it’s one thing to write “and the kid explodes” and we’re onto the next scene, and the directing side of that, you know, was working with the crew and kind of really being conscientious of, you know, if a kid explodes, what does it look like, how violent can we go without losing, you know, the teen audience that probably doesn’t normally watch gory horror movies. It was a lot of trying to wrap our heads around how do you make a movie where 40 kids explode not depressing, but you’re also honoring the grief and you’re asking the big questions without being too silly or broad or offensive. The directing side was figuring out visually how to walk that tightrope, as it were.
Besides balancing the tone and making sure that it wasn’t too overwhelming for the audience, were there any other struggles that really challenged you while you were filming?
Brian Duffield: The weather was terrible (laughs). We were up in Vancouver in like January, February and it was basically either raining or snowing or blizzarding every day. We even got snowed out of a really big scene in the movie that takes place at a graveyard, which we wound up, like the only way we could finish the scene was finding a warehouse floor and putting down a bunch of fake grass and making it seem as much like an outdoor graveyard as possible (laughs)… You’re spending a lot of brain time trying to figure out how to solve problems that no one would ever know was a problem, is the goal.
I didn’t notice, at all any of the weather stuff you mentioned, so you guys did a good job!
Brian Duffield: We shot [the graveyard scene] on three different locations… If you’re watching the movie, there’s no shot of Katherine seeing the graveyard. She kind of looks at something and then is walking through the graveyard (laughs) and it was literally because the graveyard that we were shooting in was covered in snow and we were like, “Well, that won’t match.” That’s part of the nightmare and fun of making movies, where you work so hard to make people never notice the Frankenstein’s monster stitches all over it.
You guys finished filming, and then it was in limbo for a while, right?
Brian Duffield: The studio that made the movie sold, didn’t sell the movie but sold their entire studio shortly after we wrapped filming and so then I was literally in a situation where it was unclear… who owned the movie and then, of course, if people don’t know who owns it, they don’t wanna spend money on it (laughs). It’s not even the only movie of mine that I’ve worked on that a situation like this happened to, it’s just a part of the kind of shifting industry. It’s really frustrating but it has nothing to do with the movie itself. Sometimes you get thrown these curveballs and you figure out how to keep going: very emblematic of what the movie’s about, in a weird way.
Since it’s been a bit since you started and finished [SPONTANEOUS]… has your perspective changed since then?
Brian Duffield: I’ve changed naturally as a writer and a director, where it has a little bit of that feeling of looking at old homework you did three or four years ago where you’re like, “I’m so much smarter now!” (laughs) I would do a lot of things differently just because I’ve evolved personally. Since the movie came out I’ve become a dad, and so even that alone I bet Rob and Piper [playing the parents] would’ve had a bunch more scenes in the movie because I think my perspective has shifted from Katherine’s point-of-view, to now I empathize or at least relate more to Rob and Piper’s characters. I think that’s kind of the fun thing about making stuff, is that they kind of become these Polaroids of where you are in your life at that time.
Is there anything from the book that you wanted to include in the movie that just didn’t really fit?
Brian Duffield: The book has a larger scale and you can kind of really get a sense of how the world outside of the town is reacting to it. If it wasn’t something that wasn’t happening directly to Katherine, it really wasn’t in the movie at all. I would have probably loved to have a little more scope in terms of like how the world is reacting, but I also think in hindsight it probably helps laser focus the movie a little bit more.
Both right now, because it’s impossible to watch the movie and not think about what’s going on right now, but also in the future, what do you hope audiences take away from the movie?
Brian Duffield: We’re essentially a pandemic movie coming out during a pandemic. For us, it was important that the combustions could be as much of a stand-in for whatever people need them to be… These bad unexplained things are going to happen, and I didn’t think there’s a lot of movies that address that, especially for a younger audience. It really kind of end[ed] up being a catch-all of how you process and deal with something that you didn’t plan for and didn’t expect that is just absolutely terrible and devastating. If people have a friend that passed away or gets sick or moves away or whatever that heartbreak is in their life, if the movie can help them out in terms of wrapping their heads around how to deal with grief, I think that would be really cool and that the purpose too was, how to make a movie about grief that was not depressing (laughs).
SPONTANEOUS premiered with a limited theatrical release on October 2nd and is now available via Digital and On-Demand. Want to learn more about the film? Check out our review!