In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
YOU HAVE GOT SOME BALLS TO MAKE THIS.
In conversation - GARY STRETCH ON MY FATHER DIE
Shots of an Alligator open Sean Brosnan’s feature directorial debut MY FATHER DIE. The rage associated with the predatory reptile is fitting for a film that has such venomous emotion coursing through its veins. A “nihilistic” film in the words of its writer-director, it is a powerful vision of self-expression in a genre that has worn a path amongst the many tombstones of its fallen characters. An assured debut it is an amalgamation of the poetic and mythological, action and characterisation that feels unique, even if it does deal with age old themes of vengeance, transformation and fate.
Ivan (Gary Stretch) is the human incarnation of this rage, a man forged in the fires of Vietnam who enters into a destructive duel with his son Asher (Joe Anderson). If Brosnan crafted a film with the deliberate intention to cultivate the polarised reactions of love and hate, Stretch’s own words about his character echo his director’s sentiments: “It's not my job to make you like him. I'm not capable of that. You either do or you don't.”
In conversation with FrightFest, Stretch discussed the making of MY FATHER DIE as a process of freedom with parameters, and the manipulation of the director as controlling yet flexible. He also reflected on his lack of control over the audience’s response and the impermanence of the spectatorial experience, as well as the inevitability of change through the artistic and human experience.
What was the appeal of the character and the story when you first read the script for MY FATHER DIE?
When he sent me the script what intrigued me was it was smart, different, very original and brave. I thought to myself: You have got some balls to make this. He's a very close friend and I figured: I'll go with you, so let's do it together. We'll either live or die by the sword. I felt the camaraderie before it all and it was something brave.
Filmmakers and actors have spoken to me of the experience of making a film as a journey, with some filmmakers suggesting that you only know the film once you reach the final cut. Picking up on your point about going on this journey with Sean, how much of an evolution did the film undergo over the course of the process?
Certainly my job is to just deliver what I am expected to deliver and hopefully a little more. There's the prep which is probably the hardest part, then there's the shoot and then there's the recovery. Then I think for Sean there's the fucking beginning of where the work starts, the exhausting task because it can be left on the floor. He went through a few editors on this and fired a bunch, and then pretty much edited it himself. So he had many different choices and the original film didn't start the way it started. The script remained the same, but the order in which he edited it was different. But yeah, I just knew that Sean would, I'm going to say get it right, but there's no right in art. He'd make his choices and I always trusted him, and I think he made some pretty good ones.
You’ve spoken about how Sean extensively storyboarded the film. Speaking with filmmakers and actors, instinct is an integral part of your respective crafts. Does such excessive prepping stifle your ability to work instinctually?
Well it can if it’s executed incorrectly. What Sean does is he gives you the freedom to explore. However, I'm smart enough to realise he's manipulated the situation we are exploring. He's still in control. He sets the ring around us and he can put you in a twenty foot ring, or he can put you in a ten foot ring. He manipulates very cleverly and he knows what he wants, and what he's trying to achieve. However, he's really kind and open and I think he tries to choose actors that are maybe going to give him a little different view - you have your idea of it, I have my idea of it and then what happens is it changes. And then you interact with other actors and it changes again. He boarded it, he prepped it the best he could and then you pretty much throw it out the window.
People talk to me about my past career in boxing and acting, and how they parallel. They are very similar because you do a massive amount of prep and training, and then the bell rings. But the prep is the purge of what is about to happen. So if you own it and it changes you're fine. For me it is the prep to be on the same page in essence, to be instinctual and to be free, but you are still working in the parameters of the story. You can't suddenly change the fucking script, but there's a million ways to love someone, there's a million ways to hate someone, and there's a million ways to kill someone. If I'm going to kill whoever and the scripts written that I'm a fucking animal, then I am not going to do it from two hundred yards, I'm going to get in and do it up close. The parameters are created and then you are free to do it anyway you want to. What makes Sean a very exciting new filmmaker is that coming from an acting background he understands the work we do and he knows the work he has to do. Then there's a certain amount of freedom in the context of you can't leave the building now. You can do whatever the fuck you want in this building, but don't leave it. This gives an actor a great safety blanket. So it's a very fine balance, but of all the directors I've worked with, and I've worked with a few, I think he's got it more right than anyone else. I believe he's the best I've worked with so far.
Picking up on your point about setting up parameters I consider film to be on one level organic. But is this an illusion you create?
It can change slightly, but it's still the same horse. Yeah, it can change and you can adjust, but you've still got to get to the same finish line. So I'm a very open and instinctual guy, but you have to be a pro too – it isn't The Gary Stretch Show, it isn't The Ivan Show, it's MY FATHER DIE, and that's the story you've got to tell. You can tell it differently, but you've got to tell the story. There's a million ways to tell a joke and some people can tell jokes that are extremely funny, other people tell jokes that you don't laugh at, but it's the same fucking joke. What you bring to it is the magic because we all get the same material. A performance is what's not written, it's what we bring to it that elevates it or makes it fall on its head. But I think smart directors create an environment and guide you along to help you make the right choices, and I think that's what he does. I had my point of view and he had his, but I think in the work, in the prep, in the rehearsals because you know we sat, Sean dreaming every shot, and we would talk. He had no clue what I was going to read, but he knew I owned the script. So he knew I understood it and then he wanted me to do whatever I wanted. So it's great, it's free, but you have to understand it is what it is, and there are many ways to get there.
Ivan in comparison to Asher is a more ambiguous character. By not giving the audience every piece of the puzzle and therein creating ambiguity, does this force a higher level of engagement? And is it important to have that question mark present in moments of the film or in relation to characters?
I used to love Monte Clift. Monte was very shy and he would almost turn away from the camera a lot. It was after he was hurt and he felt ugly. He was beautiful still, but in his mind he was ugly. With Ivan I don't have to explain why I am the way I am. I know and I don't have to tell you - it's not my job. You judge me if you want to judge me. You might be right, you might be wrong, but I was never explaining stuff. When I went into the role I thought: I can’t go there. As long as I can justify it in my mind. I mean there's a million ways to say he did this, he did that. The shit I could have gone through to give you a fucking life, and to come back, and the one little thing in the world I love you fuck. There's a million things. I've fucking seen my best friend die to keep you alive, to come back and have nothing, and the one thing you're fucking banging her. There's a million ways to do things and it's no one’s fucking business. If you want to find out ask me, but you never do, so I ain't fucking telling you. So yeah, I found freedom in that. Again it's not my job, that's Sean's job if he feels the need to and the audience’s job if they want to fill in the gaps. I've just got to go and do what I need to do and not apologise for it. And it's also interesting as I often watch films a few times because I could have done an action in a scene, and in the next scene there may be a clue to how he felt about it that you will have missed - maybe, maybe not. But if there is and you subconsciously see it, at the end of the performance if you kind of like him it's because maybe you saw some little bits, or one glance that's a subconscious thing. But at the end you either like the guy or you don't, and that's based on the subconscious. It's the little things you do throughout the role and people either get it or they don't, and it's fine. But my job as an actor in everything I do is to just do what I am supposed to do, and it's not my job to make you like him. I'm not capable of that. You either do or you don't.
If watching a film is an instinctive experience for the audience is it important to give them the freedom to understand their own emotional responses, both conscious and subconscious?
You are going to have a different experience every time you watch it, based on where you are coming from. I can't control what you are bringing in and that’s what is wonderful about film. Audiences are much smarter than most actors and you know the other thing is that audiences have been through a lot more than most, so don't underestimate them. There are guys in the audience that have been to war. I always respect or I try to respect that because you have no clue who's watching what you do, so don't underestimate. For me I just do it and the way it's received is going to be different by everyone that sees it, and that's the beauty of the business. Screening something that's different, it's always going to be different, and the same guy on a different day is going to be different.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
No, I think you grow because it's an experience, every time. You will leave me today different than how you found me, and I will too. You have asked me a question and I will have to go and think about it now. So I was given a gift. You're smarter for the experience or you are not, but you certainly have more information, and so something is definitely different. I think you learn every day and on a film you do. As you get older you get smarter, well I did, and I have more experiences that I can draw on. There's no right or wrong in anything, it's just choices you make. Some are good, some are bad and some of them don't matter. But I think as an artist and as a human being you grow with everything you do - that's just reality. Does your fundamental core change? No. But does your experience level advance? Sure. And based on that experience would you take a different action than if you didn't have the experience? I would think so. Does that mean you're a little bit different? I guess.
MY FATHER DIE comes to Digital Download 20th March and DVD and VOD·3rd April.·