Interview With Director Sean Byrne
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by: Jerry Smith
First winning genre fans over with his 2009 film, THE LOVED ONES, director Sean Byrne is set to return on March 17th with the heavy metal-filled, Satanic possession meets home invasion flick THE DEVIL'S CANDY. The film, which is set to be released to limited theaters, VOD and iTunes follows Jessie (CHEAP THRILLS' Ethan Embry), a metal-loving painter who has to fight to save his wife and daughter from various forces, both spiritual and physical. It's a wild ride, filled to the brim with one hell of a soundtrack and quite a few memorable performances.
We recently had a chat with Byrne to talk THE DEVIL'S CANDY, it's themes and his love for metal.
There's an interesting light vs. darkness theme that's going on in THE DEVIL'S CANDY. What inspired you to take that approach?
It was partly inspired by what I didn’t want to do. As much as I love all the supernatural sub-genres, I’d seen enough of zombies and vampires to last me a while. I knew I wanted to explore a less overt and more personal supernatural struggle, harking back to classics like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and The Shining but with a modern, metal edge. I just didn’t know what framework to use. Then my wife became pregnant with twins and I was gripped by this fear of bringing children into the world. Suddenly the world seemed a more dangerous place. It’s the job of a parent to preserve their child’s innocence, to protect them from the dark. So I guess in an allegorical sense Pruitt Taylor Vince's Ray character became representative of the dark and young Zooey, played by Kiara Glasco, became representative of the light. And Ethan Embry's Jesse, Zooey’s dad and hero of the story, symbolizes the struggle all decent parents face to make sure our children aren’t swallowed by the dark in its various forms.
Back in 2015, when the film screened at Fantastic Fest, one of the producers mentioned how many versions the script initially went through before deciding to focus on the story of a metal loving painter father and his love for his daughter. I'm curious about what led you to want to inject the very unique angle of Jesse and his art into the film?
I was unhappy with my career at the time. I couldn’t get the version of the film as it was off the ground and to pay the bills had taken on a few page one rewrites which chewed up a couple of years to no avail. I’d also written treatment after treatment and nothing was sticking. It was a classic case of being stuck in development hell. So I decided to come back to my own script and channeled that frustration into the Jesse character. By making him an artist unable to sell his own work and frustrated with the bland commissions he’s forced to take to on I had a way in. I also thought the artist angle would help sell the idea that Jesse is somehow capable of tuning into the surrounding darkness and the maddening puzzle it represents. I’ve always been fascinated by artists like Francis Bacon who manage to capture a genuine hell within. Where does that come from? What takes them over to the point time disappears and all that’s left is this compulsion to expel a nightmare from your system? I also thought making him an artist would equate to a kind of crossroads story: what would you sacrifice to be the best at something, to fulfill your dream? In many ways the film is about career versus family, the love and primal fears of a father, and choosing what’s most important in life.
THE DEVIL'S CANDY is not only a Satanic possession film but also a very terrifying home invasion film as well. Were you ever nervous about combining the two subgenres into one story? It works perfectly.
Thanks. It’s come up a few times, this balancing of subgenres. To be honest it wasn’t a conscious decison. It’s just where the story led me. Ray’s hearing voices, he’s scared and defenseless against them so he returns to his old home, the only comfort he knows. There he sees Zooey and the voices are telling him she’s the one so of course at some point he’s going to return for her. Hearing voices and acting upon them could be described as possession and coming after Zooey leads to home invasion. Luckily I wasn’t nervous about the blend because I wasn’t aware I was doing it!
The casting of the film is great, it's awesome to see Shiri Appleby and especially Ethan Embry who I think gives his best performance to date. What inspired you to approach them?
The producers Keith and Jess Calder had recently co-acquired Cheap Thrills starring Ethan. They knew I was looking for an alternative type of father figure who the audience would believe as both a loving father and a haunted soul. I watched Cheap Thrills and loved it then checked out the rest of Ethan’s filmography. It was clear from both Cheap Thrills and Brotherhood he could play damaged and his early films like Can’t Hardly Wait, Empire Records and That Thing You Do! showcased the warm, playful side integral to Jesse's relationship with his daughter, which is the emotional cornerstone of the film. Then I met him and found out he was into metal so it was like the planets aligning!
We cast Shiri pre-UnReal. I wan’t super familiar with her work before meeting her. She’s lovely, pragmatic, whip-smart, and a wonderful mom so naturally ticked all the boxes for Astrid and then some. When they read together, Shiri and Ethan were immediately riffing off each other, improvising jokes like they’d been friends for years. It just felt like a real relationship rather than a movie relationship if you know what I mean.
You're obviously very into heavy metal, something that the film wears on its sleeve very proudly. As a fan, were you ever blown away by how many great bands contributed songs to THE DEVIL'S CANDY?
I think I’m still in a state of disbelief. Not sure I can recall another indie with such a heavyweight soundtrack. Jonathan McHugh, our music supervisor, did a remarkable job. I mean Metallica, Slayer, Pantera, Queens of the Stone Age just to name a few. It’s crazy.
Sean Byrne hit the horror genre hard with his cult classic film, THE LOVED ONES. A fun and energetic ride, that film established Byrne as a very unique voice and while the film itself suffered from a long delayed distribution issue, when it did arrive, genre fanatics loved it. Now with his followup, the heavy metal meets Satanic possession/home invasion film THE DEVIL'S CANDY hitting VOD/iTunes and limited theaters next month, I thought it would be a good time to talk to you readers about some of the themes found in the film, all of which come together to tell one of the best father/daughter tales in horror.
There's a part of each artist that yearns for that youthful approach to creating that causes a lot of people to be under the false assumption that we're all in denial regarding growing up and becoming "normal adults." Whether it's the art we created, or appearances or just the need for people to put human beings into a bubble of what it is to be an adult and what it is to have a family. I ran into this early on in my adult life when I had my first daughter. I was immediately expected to look a certain way, grow out of a lot of the music and films I had always been into and look a certain way, to help push the white picket fence, suit and tie life that is so force fed to kids growing up that it becomes a dream killer to any kid who might not just have dreams of their own, but also looks up to their artist parent.
In THE DEVIL'S CANDY, we're introduced to Jesse (Ethan Embry), a heavy metal-obsessed painter who is in a creative rut due to the need to paint pretty art for banks and so on to support his wife and daughter. While Jesse is still 100% who he's always been, with tattoos and long hair and wearing his favorite Bukowski quote on his shirt, his wife Astrid (Roswell's Shiri Appleby) is somewhat moving away from their rebellious past, all while their daughter Zooey is a full on Jesse mini-me, in the most adorable of ways. Obsessed with early Metallica and Flying V guitars, Zooey is an outsider who only needs one friend, her father. There's a heroic worship and a very heartfelt relationship between Jesse and Zooey, she loves her father and loves who he is. It's that acceptance between a child and their father that makes the film so special and their mutual love for all things metal is endearing, the bond they share regarding their adoration for Pantera and all other rockers is one of the many facets of their bond.
and now... Jerry's review/discussion of The Devil's Candy!
When the family moves into a house that was the scene of a double murder and supernatural, demonic forces begin to influence Jesse and his art, it begins to infiltrate the relationship between Jesse and Zooey, causing a wedge that prior to these Satanic happenings, never existed between the father and daughter. Typically reliable and always there for Zooey, Jesse begins to paint horrific images and is so caught up in the darkness that he misses picking the young girl up from school, putting her in danger due to a possessed murderer (and former occupant of the young family's house) becoming obsessed with Zooey and setting his sights on her. We know how much Zooey adores her father so to see the young girl so devastated by the fact that she, first the time, can't rely on him, it's heart wrenching. While Jesse tries to be the father he's always been, the dark presence threatens everything he loves, causing him to lose touch and possibly put his family in jeopardy. Any father who has had a hard time being both themselves and a responsible parent can relate, there can at times be such a struggle to maintain your artistic endeavors all while doing your best to not only be there for your kid but to show them that you're someone they can rely on. Though there's quite a bit more going on in THE DEVIL'S CANDY, it's that core relationship between Jesse and Zooey that provides the backbone and heart of the film and as the situation and danger escalates, we find ourselves asking "Will they get out of this and if so, will things ever be the same?" Jesse is a character that shows such a grounded and realistic portrayal of an artist father and it's that vulnerability in Embry's performance that really helps you as a viewer feel for Jesse, Zooey and Astrid as their family is constantly affected by evil, both in supernatural and human forms. The desire to overcome evil and to be there for each other is a strong one and the battle we see in THE DEVIL'S CANDY is one to root for, illustrating that the love between a parent and their child can be so strong and willful, that even the darkest of forces can't compete with that. Such a great example of that, one that should be required viewing for any horror-loving parent and their child.