IN CONVERSATION WITH DEAN DEVLIN
“I am not really interested in changing the world and making giant bold statements” explains director Dean Devlin, whose latest thriller BAD SAMARITAN sees a small-time crook inadvertently stumble upon the sadistic serial killer played by David Tennant. In conversation with FrightFest, the filmmaker discussed his approach to storytelling, the value of second viewings, the troublesome nature of marketing and the cautionary wisdom of Roland Emmerich.
FrightFest: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Devlin: I was raised by a filmmaker and an actress, and I remember at a very young age asking my father about filmmaking and storytelling. He said to me: “You know, we just create these wonderful bedtime stories and people see them in movie theatres, or on television. But at the end of the day they are bedtime stories.” That was a beautiful way of putting it, and it gave it a context that made me very excited about it, and I thought: I would love to tell good bedtime stories.
FrightFest: From this initial desire to the present day, how have your various projects shaped your perspective of storytelling? Are there any projects that were important milestones or has each project been individually significant to cultivating this perspective?
Devlin: Well I look at it differently. I think it is very important as a storyteller to be honest with yourself about what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Quite a while ago I had an epiphany on what I really cared about, and I am fully aware of how shallow this sounds, but it is honest. I realised that I only cared about three things. The first is that I felt life for most people is hard and so I wanted to make entertainment that was fun. What I wanted to do was to take you out of whatever problems you were dealing with in your life, for however long you are watching my movie or TV show, and hopefully get you to forget about these problems and to just go off on this adventure for a while. The second thing that I realised was that I am very much addicted to the cheer moment. I love in entertainment that moment that is almost like a sporting event where I just get cheers for my hero. But the third thing that I care about is I like to be moved emotionally, and number three tends to temper number one and number two. So if you get too silly or have too much rah-rah, then you tend to not be as emotionally invested in the characters and the story. So for me, whether I am making a documentary or TV show, a movie or a web series, it is all about can I accomplish all three things? And if I can, then I really don’t care about what the format is. But I am obsessed with trying to get those three things in everything that I do.
FrightFest: Interviewing Leigh Whannell, he explained: “What I try to do is use myself as the barometer. So if it is moving, scary or funny to me then I'll go with that. Ultimately in a lot of ways we are all very similar in terms of our hopes, fears and loves. So if you use yourself as the barometer it is probably going to effect someone else.” When you are faced with the uncertain reaction of the audience, is gut instinct the only thing you can rely on as a storyteller?
Devlin: Well yes, and in fact I would modulate that slightly to personal passion because I think you're right. If you are making something to try to get somebody to react a certain way, chances are you are going to miss that target more often than you are going to hit it. But if you can do it so that it makes you feel those things, and you feel passionate about telling that story, then I think there is a possibility that passion will become infectious, and other people will share it. How many times have we seen a movie and you can literally hear the story conference in your head. When we cynically make these films, when we do these things because we think other people will like it as opposed to the filmmakers themselves genuinely liking it, for me those pretty much never work. But if it comes from a place of genuine passion and love, then you have the possibility of it working. The film may not, but it can.
FrightFest: I always recall reading Roger Ebert discussing how we can appreciate a film for its moments, while also hearing that Robert Rodriguez had spoken of how we re-watch a film for certain moments. Even if a film is not perfect from start to finish, if as an audience you can sense a passion and belief from the storytellers, then this can be infectious.
Devlin: Well that's a hundred percent of my belief system, and what you are saying about second viewings is very interesting because the first time you see something is when you get your first raw impact. But I have often seen movies years later, or recently after seeing a second viewing those things that bothered me I don't have to worry about because I know they are coming. And I can actually see other things that are quite wonderful that I might have missed the first time. I think about Francis Ford Coppola's DRACULA, which I didn't like the first time I saw it. I just thought it was a misfire entirely, but a few years later I watched it again, and I was actually able to concentrate on the other things he did in that film, which I found quite masterful, and was able to appreciate it on another level. So if there are aspects to a film that you like, even if you don't like the entire film, then it is interesting to watch the film later because there will be moments and other things about it that that you may have missed the first time, that you will come to appreciate.
FrightFest: The festival text I read for BAD SAMARITAN compared it to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and AMERICAN PSYCHO, which is questionable. On the subject of the expectations of the audience, as a filmmaker do you hope that the audience is flexible in terms of these expectations, and are willing or able to adjust to the story you are telling them?
Devlin: There is always the problem of marketing, of how do you get people to pay attention to your film when there are so many choices. So often you will hear studios say: “Well, we don't care what we give away in the trailer if it gets them to go and buy a ticket, because at the end of the day they are going to like the movie or not like the movie. The question is if they don't sample it, then it doesn't matter if we saved everything if they don't go and see it.” I understand that because it is very hard to get people to taste your wares so to speak. But it's tricky if you don't have control over that marketing because you can sell the greatest pizza in the world, but if what you actually made was really good Chinese food, no matter how good that food is, someone came there expecting pizza and they are going to be disappointed. So it is tough to manage expectations and sometimes the expectations come from your previous work. I remember when we made GODZILLA, people came thinking it was going to be like INDEPENDENCE DAY, and it was a very different kind of thing. People were expecting us to make the biggest hit movie of all time and they were really disappointed [laughs]. But that's also one of those kinds of films that over the years, how people have reacted to it has changed. I get a lot of calls from people saying: “Jeez, I remember thinking that was a really awful movie when it came out and I saw it recently on television and I actually enjoyed it.” Second viewings allow you to see other things.
FrightFest: Is there merit to not focus on creating a game-changer of a film, but to just take a familiar story and tell it well?
Devlin: Well I have always divided cinema into two categories: films and movies. To me a film needs to be groundbreaking, and if you are going to present yourself as doing something truly artistic, then you have to do something that has never been done before. Or at least say something that hasn't been said before, or say it in a way that it hasn't been said because it holds itself to a much higher standard. Movies on the other hand have only one obligation; they have to be entertaining. They have to be worth your time and your money, and I make movies, I don't make films. I look at my job more as a craftsman than as a genius. I am not creating work of art that is going to be put into museums. I am hoping to make a really comfortable chair that feels great and you are happy you bought it, and you enjoy sitting in it. But I am not really interested in changing the world and making giant bold statements. My interest is to entertain and to make something that is compelling, that's interesting, funny, scary or enjoyable. Again, to create something that takes you out of whatever troubles you are dealing with and for that amount of time allow you to escape.
FrightFest: Interviewing Larry Fessenden, he spoke of how a film is ultimately abandoned. Is this a sentiment you would share?
Devlin: Before I ever directed I called up Roland Emmerich and I said to him: “Can you give me any advice, words of wisdom before I go off on this journey?” And Roland said: “Directing is a series of disappointments. You start off with this perfect movie in your head and day by day you have to make compromise after compromise, until you no longer recognise what you have done.” [Laughs] I think that as a rule of thumb that is fairly accurate, but it really depends on the experience of where you do it, how you do it and who you do it with. There are films that I wish I could take my name off, and there are some that I am proud of, and that has nothing to do with how they performed at the box office. This film BAD SAMARITAN, I am more proud of than anything I have done, but I also got to do it a hundred percent independently, with no one else to steer the ship in any way. So for better or for worse, this movie represents what I wanted to do more than anything I have ever done before.
A lot of that feeling of having to abandon something comes out of how many battles you have to fight, who you have to fight them with and when you have got it as far as you can take it under the circumstances. Then the flip side of that too is if you have ever done any repairs in your home, everyone comes in and says: “Oh, what a lovely kitchen you have done.” All you can see is where the nails didn't go in right, and if filmmakers had their way, they would never stop working on their film. I am still trying to re-edit films we worked on five years ago [laughs].
BAD SAMARITAN is out now on Digital and is released on DVD October 8 2018 courtesy of Signature Entertainment.
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