[Interview] Marcus Dunstan for UNHUMAN

[Interview] Marcus Dunstan for UNHUMAN
UNHUMAN l Courtesy Blumhouse & Epix
In UNHUMAN, which is described as a high school field trip gone bloody awry, seven misfit students must band together against a growing gang of unhuman savages. The group’s trust in each other is tested to the limit in a brutal, horrifying fight to survive and they must take down the murderous zombie-creatures… before they kill each other first.

For the release of UNHUMAN digitally, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Sarah Musnicky spoke with co-writer/director Marcus Dunstan, where they discussed the universal hellish experiences of high school, how they found the all-too-memorable warehouse depicted in the film, and the process of experimenting with merging well-known genres together.

Reader: Be warned! There are spoilers…

How did the story of UNHUMAN come about? Because it’s not just a high school hell story. It’s The Breakfast Club meets zombies meets questionable warehouses. Why don’t you walk me through that?

Marcus Dunstan: Well, when it comes to our contribution to this one, by our I mean Patrick Melton and myself, we wanted to bring something back from our experience in high school. No matter how the clothes, the phrases, or even the tech of how we judge one another in that Coliseum known as the high school, there are still universal themes that always are overdue for a fresh coat of paint. And, in this case, I hadn’t seen an opportunity so specific to take these combustible adolescents, put them in a kennel whistle of a more reactive heart experience, meaning like, no, we stay with them. It’s not isolate one, let the horror happen, and then the cast kind of goes on for 45-50 minutes until they all realize they’re in a horror movie.

No. What I loved about this opportunity was after 15 minutes of lining up absolute stereotypes…[the actors] showed up and signed up to be in a teen comedy with, Oh, that’s a little brash, that might be one of those that’s under the subject of reexamination in 20 years for being a little too, ‘Wait, are you able to still say that?’. Then at that 15, 16, 17-minute mark, the horror movie shows up and says that was our ploy. To take all these people at a moment of confidence, either in their own dismay, confidence in their ego, or confidence in their nothingness, the horror movie is going to show up and say, what happens when we give the drama to your life? And we’re going to use horror as the catalyst. Then all of a sudden, these characters have life. That stereotype was merely Act One of their arc. Now the legs are taken out of them because all the rules are gone. The rules of their movie universe are gone. The rules of the genre they were supposed to be in are gone, and the horror movie’s taking over and just starting to poke.

That gave us a theme to start working with that focuses on how we’re in these moments, these four years of formation. You have the liberty to recognize what happens not only in high school, but throughout life, and that is the idea of bullying, the theme of bullying. I mean, gosh, the idea of sideline outrage doesn’t solve it. Actual violence doesn’t solve it. How are we contributing with our nothing? How are we contributing by trying? What’s the best way to do it? And the horror movie’s there to be like, well, what if we’re gonna hang around and stay in your face until you run out of hope or figure it out? And that gave us something.

Courtesy Blumhouse & Epix

Watching UNHUMAN reminded me of just how much I hated school growing up. Even though I’ve been out of high school for about 12 years now, things are slightly different. There are universal things, but it’s still a slightly different hellish experience now. So, thank you for taking away their phones.

Marcus Dunstan: Yes! Man, I loved it. Because that’s another thing, in just trying to engineer a frightening experience and the phone has really been a problem for horror movies. Well, if you just have this, why can’t everything show up? Well, in this case [in the film], there’s an organic way. It just happens. [laughs]

I was thinking of it like, man, would this even be an issue back then? We had the phones where you could flip it up and text. But we didn’t have GPS. We couldn’t access the internet like they do now. So, I liked how you went about getting rid of that here.

One of the questions that popped up while I was watching UNHUMAN was did you determine initially that it was all going to take place at a warehouse? Or were there drafts where you had it at a school? Because it would have changed your approach depending on the location.

Marcus Dunstan: Absolutely. And the thing is, we were in multiple locations, even though it is depicted as kind of an A to B to C. But we wanted something that felt big and immense and yet somehow touched. Somehow it is designed either by other art installations or other compounds or other things or just decay. This particular structure had been left unattended through the pandemic in New Orleans. It also was overgrown, so life was obviously here. But Mother Nature came back and was trying to reclaim it. And then, there’s that beautiful, big image of a lovely face, and half of it’s a skull with a sort of alluring, like, Come hither. That felt like that’s in line with what our movie’s trying to do already.

That was already there?

Marcus Dunstan: That was already there.

Ah! Convenience!

Marcus Dunstan: Yes. Oh, my God. This was a patchwork of many miracles that allowed us to hit those moments and even get that shot. For example, it had to be captured by a drone, and we had these two amazing pilots and we wanted to schedule like six hours to get the drone photography and go. But due to lightning, we had 45 minutes, Luckily, they were such good pilots that you just got it all. You can orchestrate these things and almost capture it with the adrenaline of assembling and editing. It’s a gift to how amazing the crew was down there. It’s just really awesome.

Since you’ve already mentioned a logistical challenge, what other challenges did you have to deal with in the entirety of UNHUMAN? Because you guys shot during COVID, yeah?

Marcus Dunstan: Oh, yes. I will say this, it’s a heck of a weight loss program. Because it was in New Orleans in the summer during lightning season, you had 100-105 degrees. 100% humidity. And so, we really did have to be careful that people were hydrated because of the mask and whatnot. And when an actor is brave enough to commit to a wardrobe, 100-degree temperatures don’t care if your character needs to wear a varsity jacket, and makeup and fill-ins and stuff. So, that was a constant challenge. One day, the heat rendered me dingy for a hot second. You just had to stay on top of it, so you would be safe and moving forward.

And it’s a real testament to the dedication of the cast and crew that we didn’t lose a single cast member to COVID. I didn’t fall to COVID. We were tested. From my point of view, I didn’t know when year one [of the pandemic], when things were really getting scary, if creating again, would it happen in the same way? Could it only be films like Mission: Impossible? Would we ever do it? What Blumhouse did was they figured out a way. There was instant peace of mind and I have never been more grateful to have the opportunity to create. In that, I don’t think you can put a price on it. And so, just with that sort of kettle whistle in my heart, yeah, I was gonna give this movie everything till I died.

Courtesy Blumhouse & Epix

This is a spoiler, but I just have to ask you this. How did you come up with the idea of essentially drugging the children as a weird revenge scheme? There’s no way of phrasing that without giving anything away. [laughs]

Marcus Dunstan: That was a wonderful seed planted by Paul Soter, and that was in the original draft. I can take no credit for that. What we did do is that we found it to be a much bigger moment and wanted to make it the anchor of the middle, so to speak, versus a couple of lines revealed towards an end. And because of what it did to the characters, it completed the theme of bullying, and revealed a whole separate layer of the onion. And what if you just clumsily tried to scare ’em straight? What if that methodology didn’t work? And then, when you look at the whole thing again, you’re like everyone’s trying to cure bullying this entire time. You’re seeing these methods and going whoa, whoa, whoa.

Because of UNHUMAN’s end credit scene, it made me concerned that maybe a PTA might actually do something like this, because of how schools handle bullying still to this day. I’m like, Oh, God. Hopefully, no one’s actually inspired by this. [laughs]

To wrap things up, what was your favorite scene to either write or shoot?

Marcus Dunstan: Man, you know what? There is a scene involving mannequins, and the reason it’s my favorite is that it was the hardest. That one had the toughest uphill climb, and that was the first time in this where we’re like, we’re not that typical movie. I know you thought you were going to see XYZ. But no, this one was influenced directly by the sequence of Cameron in the museum from Ferris Bueller, where all of a sudden this comedy, this thriving life story stops for a moment to listen to the quiet kid. And you’re reduced to a formative state again because it’s someone seeing himself in the photo of a blank vision, right? And I thought it’s an absolutely wonderful moment in movies where we project ourselves into there directly. Everybody probably sees something a little different at that moment.

So, what if, in this teen comedy that has been invaded by horror, it has this moment where the horror movie knows they are coming and was waiting for their stereotypes. It then set ups a room to see if the characters would maybe learn a little something about themselves or maybe see how they’re in the world, in these bloodied moments of stasis. I thought, Okay, if we get this scene, we’re different and we’re special. We’re saying we’re trying that much harder to punch above our weight and be something that resonates. And then due to a gifted cast and a wonderful crew, and a beautiful moment of score from Charlie Clouser. We got it.

You did, and it also shifts the story for the characters from that point on.

Marcus Dunstan: We were just so fortunate with that cast. They were just so wonderful, and they deserved arcs. Every character deserved arcs. So, tee up the stereotype, but then let the horror movie give them other layers, give them humanity, reduce them to the people that they actually are not the ones we’re all impersonating when we put on that varsity jacket or we hide ourselves under a members-only jacket.

UNHUMAN is now available for digital purchase from Paramount Home Entertainment. To learn more about UNHUMAN, check out our review.

This interview was edited for clarity, length, and teens.

Sarah Musnicky
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