I thought it would be so lame for everyone to find out about the film in a blurb in The Hollywood Reporter. That’s the big reveal?
An extra-dark spin on superhero lore, Brightburn’s conceit is simple and high-concept enough: What if a human-looking baby of extraterrestrial origin crashed to Earth and became a villain instead of a do-gooder? David Yarovesky’s sophomore feature—a follow-up to 2014’s The Hive—evokes the narrative of the Man of Steel, setting us up for an almost identical scenario before taking us in a nightmarish direction. Like the DC icon, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) crash-lands from outer space, into a Kansas field in the rural town of Brightburn. Deciding their prayers have been answered in a bit of magical thinking, he’s taken in by Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), a salt-of-the-Earth couple who had been desperately trying to conceive. But unlike Clark Kent, Brendan’s been sent to overtake Earth and harnesses his powers for evil.
By the time of his 12th birthday, it slowly dawns on Brendan that he’s unlike the other kids at his school. He’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive—you know it. He’s preternaturally intelligent and has never suffered the slightest injury—hallmarks to anyone familiar with the Evil Kid thriller genre that he’s bad news. The burgeoning anti-Superman grows increasingly violent, defiant, manipulative, and eventually homicidal. Donning a red “cape” fashioned from his own blanket and shooting destructive red beams from his eyes, he’s now setting up human body pins and knocking them down to the horror of all Brightburnians. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, Brendan’s empathy has eroded completely, and we’re up in the night sky with the boy, his mother and an airplane—a scene that’s as macabre as it is glorious.
Brightburn is now playing in theaters nationwide..
Brightburn is a collision of my two obsessions growing up: comic books and horror movies.
Then we probably had similar upbringings. [laughs] At the very least, we had similar interests.
The Guardian wrote a glowing review, calling Brightburn “the antidote to superhero fatigue.” It definitely adds to that universe in a way we haven’t seen before. Maybe this sounds macabre, but there’s a thrill in seeing the gore. You don’t see a drop of blood in the Marvel or DC universes, basically. Brightburn is graphic, and going beyond that, you’re totally working within the vocabulary of horror. This is a hard R, isn’t it?
Totally. This movie is definitely hard R. When we decided to move forward with this movie, we asked ourselves, what do you expect from a superhero horror movie? How do you fulfill that promise? As a fan of what this would be, I could not imagine leaving the theater not having seen some really crazy superhero horror violence. I felt like we had a duty to show people superpowers in ways that we’ve never seen them used before. The funny thing about gore and violence is that there’s a kind of stigma against them. The truth is that we all loved the crazy and gory violent kills on Game of Thrones that made our jaws drop. I do think there’s an appetite for it.
I learned a new acronym from one of your previous interviews, by the way. SMIVA: the single most important visual aspect. Is that an industry term?
[laughs] It’s certainly not an industry term. I’d never heard it before. Me and one of my producers were joking back and forth because, in pre-production, things eat time. When you have a big visual effects sequence and you’re spending all this time talking about x or y, you have to manage your time. The reason we started calling it SMIVA was to focus everyone’s attention to the fact that we need to dedicate time to do lighting tests, for example. We need to spend the time with this thing to make it shine because it’s the most important visual aspect of the movie. Autumn [Steed], the costume designer and also my wife, did an amazing job. She over-performed in every possible way. Along with that comes fabric tests. How does it move when wind hits it? How does it look when it’s lit from here and there? All these things are so important to making it look scary when it’s on film. It’s about directing your attention and resources to make sure all of that stuff works. So yeah, it’s a term I’d never heard before, but I’m sure other people have described it in a similar way. I don’t know if they walked around calling it SMIVA, though. [laughs] It really did help focus the crew’s attention like a laser beam. Part of my job is really just to be the captain of a ship, and to use words and terms to communicate where we’re going.
It’s a great shorthand. In your vision and with Autumn’s costuming, there’s something interesting about the idea of a kid putting a blanket over his head and that suddenly transforming him into a monster. It’s the very blanket that’s suppose to protect him from the boogeyman, which subverts the trope of horror movies.
I think there’s always something to the relationship between a boy and his blanket. I remember stuffing a blanket into the back of my shirt. Suddenly, I was a superhero. A blanket became a hundred different costumes for me as a kid growing up, as I’m sure it did for a lot of other people. There’s something to that, which we tapped into.
You’ve previously said that you were interested in the idea of shooting a superhero movie like how John Carpenter would shoot Michael Myers—in wide-angle, from a distance. A great example of that is when we see Brandon up in the sky, through the window from his mother’s perspective. Did you have a lot of concrete images in your head that you were hoping to replicate on film?
Oh, there were tons. The more I started drawing, the more excited I was to create these moments. The jump scare where he lunges at Erica [played by Becky Wahlstrom], which has been in the trailers a bunch—that moment of seeing his movement is scary. We’ve seen superspeed before and we’ve seen flight, but they don’t make it snap like that and I was really excited to see that. Also, that was obviously a marriage between practical and visual effects so I didn’t get to see it until way later. They had only shown me pieces of it. I mean, I could go down a whole list. [laughs] His cape flapping in the foreground, Noah’s [played by Matt Jones] headlights… There was a lot of playing around with horror imagery and superhero imagery, and finding cool and weird ways to merge the two into one genre. I mean, I grew up reading comic books. But there’s a difference between growing up on comics and then actually making a superhero horror mash-up. You go back and look at the comic book panels for the framing of it. What are the iconic superhero poses? What is the iconic horror movie framing and posing? How can I merge those in unique ways? It’s all a bit of sausage-making, you know? It’s all sort of “what happens behind the curtain?” as a director. Those are the things that I find really interesting and that’s where I tried to draw inspiration from.
I was surprised to hear Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” playing over the end credits. It totally fits. I just didn’t expect that.
I heard the song a while ago, actually. It was brought to me like: “There’s this artist. She’s amazing. She’s got this song and it feels connected in some way.” I heard it and went insane for it. I was like, “We need this song!” The song was incredible. This was before the song came out so no one knew if it was gonna be massive or not. I mean, I felt like I knew it was gonna be massive. You hear it and it sounds like a hit, immediately. For us, to make a movie that explores the fun of being the bad guy and to have this song that totally embraces being a bad guy, and for it to be such a good song as well, we needed it.
From what I understand, you’ve been a horror movie fan since elementary school. You were drawing creepy things, which is so often misunderstood, at that age especially. What triggered that fascination in the first place do you think?
It’s hard to say because I was always drawn to it. As a kid, I would walk into the video store, which for people who don’t know—
[laughs] You know! So they categorized VHS tapes by genre and I would immediately walk into the horror section. My parents would be like, “Come on—you can’t rent any of those!” But that’s just where I wanted to be. When I was really young, I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street. That’s the first one they let me rent and it was kind of a deal. If I did my chores, I could rent any movie I wanted. So I went in there and asked the person behind the counter what the scariest movie they had was. A Nightmare on Elm Street totally changed my life. After that, Sam Raimi and the Evil Dead movies quickly followed. So did Peter Jackson and Dead Alive. Those are the movies that, going from being quite young to a teenager, I was just obsessing over. There was something about them where I could see that they were doing something different. And I love the fact that they’re guys who started making crazy, weird, gross horror movies and then went on to make the biggest movies in the world like Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings, and King Kong. I love seeing that and being a part of that journey as a fan. That was always so inspiring to me and what I wanted to do.
Also, I didn’t just draw scary drawings. I would cover my friends in fake blood or make cuts on them and film them running down the street. I would scare people living on my street. That was it, all day, every day, just shooting scary movies in my backyard.
When Brightburn was first announced in December of 2017, it was being teased as an “Untitled James Gunn Horror Project.” People had preconceived notions about what it might be so the revelation was all the more exciting. That’s seldom seen. The anticipation is gone—on the level I felt most intensely after watching Scream and Scream 2 was announced. You would wait months to just see that first image in Entertainment Weekly and then wait many more months to see a teaser poster in a theater lobby. Is that something you long for in our digital age, especially now as a filmmaker yourself?
Well, I think there have been certain people who’ve done a really good job with changing up marketing and rethinking how we do it. J.J. Abrams often pulls these moves that leave me in awe as a fan. I remember what it was like to go watch the first Cloverfield movie. Walking in, I had friends with me who thought that they were going to see a Voltron movie. [laughs] There was something so cool about that, you know? When we started talking about this concept for Brightburn, I thought it would be so lame for everyone to find out about it in a blurb in The Hollywood Reporter, and then it would get picked up by some people on Twitter and they would argue about it. That’s the big reveal? I thought it would be such a bold and crazy movie to make that the only way to possibly do it justice would be to show what we wanted to do—not tell it in some blurb in an unexciting way. So I hear what you’re saying and I feel the same way. With every movie that I loved growing up, I remember the experience of being excited for that movie. I remember counting down the days for that movie like, “There’s a new photo!” and staring at it, seeing what I could learn from it. I never had an hour and a half relationship with a movie. I always had a six-month relationship with a movie where, just like you described, more and more and more marketing materials are coming out and I’m getting more and more and more and more excited about the movie. I really wanted Brightburn to carve out its own path in terms of marketing and to embrace the fact that we’re doing something different and we’re doing something new, so let’s introduce it carefully and make it part of the design of the experience of the movie.
Since we’re talking about film marketing, what are your thoughts on Brightburn’s title change in different territories? For instance, it’s called The Boy in South Korea. Although it’s a minor aspect in something much greater, it does change your creative vision in a way. Also, there’s already a horror movie called The Boy from 2016. So what happens to these movies in our memory database? The way in which audiences collectively situate and relate to films become rather muddled.
I don’t have many thoughts on it, and I don’t know the name of the movie, country to country. It is called different things in different places and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the name is vague and weird in some places. It just has to do with how words translate from language to language. I have these great partners at Sony who have done a really good job with the movie in terms of spreading the word and marketing and localizing the movie for different countries. They’ve done a really good job with it and I feel very fortunate to have Sony with us.
A big draw for me personally was Elizabeth Banks, and I know now that she was your top choice to play this role. What did you want Tori to be, and not to be, in Elizabeth’s portrayal?
We wanted her to be current. She lives in Kansas, but we filmed in Georgia. The influence of fashion and culture does get everywhere now. She’s totally capable of ordering a shirt that she likes online. So I wanted her to be of now. She’s cool. She’s an artist. I kind of wanted to break the mold of a “farm story” where it’s overalls and sundresses. A lot of the credit goes to, again, my wife Autumn who did an incredible job bringing those costumes to life. We wanted her visual style to be reflective of the environment in that Breyer house, and this is something that Elizabeth talked to me about, too. This is originally Kyle’s house that he grew up in so there are aspects to it that feel really old. Then Tori comes in and marries him, and she’s more eclectic. She likes rock music. Her style sort of infects this very old farmhouse. You can see that story being told in the production design. It’s an old Americana farmhouse that’s been modified: Tori’s loud aesthetic intermixed with the more antique stuff. That’s all there.
Also, I think Elizabeth is so strong and I really wanted Tori to be strong. I was so excited to work with her. I’ve been such a big fan of hers for so long and working with her made me a bigger fan. She was just incredible to work with, she really was. She’s someone who’s smart. She has made so many movies and knows her way around a set. She was a teammate. She was a creative partner.
Before Brightburn, which is your first studio movie, you had previously directed some 80 music videos and commercials, and your first feature The Hive. What I find rather unique about your timeline is that you also creative directed a VR experience, Belko VR: An Escape Room Experiment—a job you’ve described as “like a cousin to film directing.”
The VR experience that I created was really a 30-minute experience, but it was in built-in engine and totally interactive. So it wasn’t like a filmed 3D thing. It was basically a short video game. I’d never done anything like that before. While I was working on The Hive, during all of pre-production, I was really into VR. It was right around the time the early Oculus Rift was coming out and I was hacking all my favorite games that worked on the Oculus Rift. It was something that really excited me and I was really passionate about it so we started working on it. Through the process, I realized that when you make a game or an interactive experience, you really create this game design document, which immediately felt like a music video or commercial treatment. It’s sort of laid out in a similar writing style and you walk people through what the experience is. When you break it down even further, it webs, and it starts to have an interactive component to it. At its core, it started to remind of me of some of my work with music videos and advertisements. It was fascinating because it was totally the same creative muscle and it excited me in the same way. It used many of the same terms. Basically, the fundamentals are very similar to me and I found myself really comfortable and happy in that space. I really do hope to make more interactive experiences in built-in engines. My dream career is to take my love of movies and video games and find a way to bring them together. And I don’t totally know what this means or what that is, I really don’t. But I know what it isn’t. It isn’t your choose-your-own-adventure movies or full-motion video games. I don’t know what technology will look like in 10 or 20 years or what that path is, but if I can find a way to spend my life making those two things intersect, I’d have a pretty happy life.
What about in terms of genre? What realm are you likely to stay in moving forward?
I just want to work on things that I’m passionate about. I love the world of Brightburn and I’m also open to many other worlds. We talked earlier about how not fun it is to announce something in a blurb or in some text for something. I really like making that reveal a part of the experience so I would say that whatever I do next, I hope to be able to catch people off guard and surprise them with a trailer that they’re not expecting.
I hear that you wrote a spec script for a supervillain origin story prior to Brightburn coming into the picture. Do you have plans to bring that to the big screen at some point?
Who knows? All I can say is that the two movies couldn’t be more different.