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.
In conversation - SEAN BROSNAN ON MY FATHER DIE
NIHILISTIC VENGEANCE WITH AN UPSIDE: 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.
In conversation with FrightFest, Brosnan discussed discovering the unexpected joy of directing offset by an aversion to writing. He also spoke of MY FATHER DIE as being rooted in his youth and the transformative experience of making the film that offset his belief in God with a psychological inclination.
Why a career in front of and behind the camera? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
God, I never thought I would go into directing. I was always writing, but I never thought about going into directing. It wasn't until my wife (she's a producer) read a short story I wrote, and encouraged me to direct it. I said, “I don't know… I don't know the first thing about it.” Anyway I did it and I had so much fun. It was a short film so it was only four days of shooting and I just wanted to do it again. It's one thing acting where you are playing someone else's idea and it's another creating an idea, creating that world and the space where actors can walk into it and bring their craft. I think that is what really excited me and made me want to keep doing it. Good actors really prepare and when you see someone else bring a character you wrote to life there's nothing else, at least to me. It's so exciting and especially when they do it well and they exceed your expectations, and when they make the character three dimensional then it’s extremely riveting.
Screenwriter Jeremy Brock told me: “The only person who deals with infinite choice, which is the most creatively exhausting thing in the world, is the writer.” Meanwhile others have spoken of the need to listen to the story. What are your feelings towards the infinite choice of the writer, and do you perceive there to be a communicative dialogue between you and the story?
Oh my God yeah! The infinite possibility thing is just... I hate it! [laughs]. It drives me insane because I literally take months to streamline an idea. There are just so many possibilities and there's no real right or wrong way in the beginning. But the thing is once you start, like you and others have said, they start narrowing down and that's a problem. Once you pick one at the beginning then the story will start telling itself at some point, and it's just do you want to stick with that story for an X amount of months or years? So you have to be careful to choose which path you are going to take in the beginning, and which path you are going to lead your characters down. I think once I start feeling like the story is telling me what to do I really like to… Sometimes I have killed off a character just for the fun of it, just to see what happens [laughs].
What was the genesis of the idea for MY FATHER DIE?
It stems from THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD by J Synge, which I read back in high school. I remember thinking that it would make a great modern revenge film and that kind of stayed with me from a teenager. But I never thought about directing it or trying to write it, and it wasn't until I was in Canada living in a retirement home [laughs]… I was acting in a TV series and I was in this retirement home, and while I was there I had three weeks off with nothing to do. I thought: Why don't I tackle that idea I had when I was a teenager. I think because of when I originally read it, the teenage angst, punk rock rebellion and aggression came through when I then started writing it in my late twenties. So the seed was planted by this play I read when I was a kid and then I just thought where in America today could I set this? Taking on religious themes and violence, The South just seemed very appropriate, and that's kind of how it started.
When confronting themes is there a yin and yang relationship where one part is conscious and the other unconscious? In other words do archetypal stories and characters organically contribute to the themes?
Yeah, absolutely! I know a lot of friends who pick their themes first or they'll pick a story and then say: “What do I want to explore?” I find for me that is very limiting because I just like to explore a world and its characters, to see what theme comes out of that and to let the story dictate it. Then once those are fixed in I'll generally start to slowly try and carve that more. But I'm really impressed with people that say: “This is my theme and I'm going to go tackle it.” To me that still feels too confined.
Asher’s attempt to connect to the spirit world and in particular the wolf could be seen to suggest that the mode of performance breaks down on a metaphysical level. The construction of character in MY FATHER DIE takes place on two levels through both the actor (Joe Anderson) and the character as author.
Yeah it's really interesting that you say that and for me it is a mythological story. I talk about it at the beginning, about replacing his father and how all fathers raise their sons in order to replace them. I feel like the character of Asher is almost a little, he's way smarter than what you think. I feel that children are closer to God than we will ever be because they are literally just born. When my daughter was born I looked at her and thought: Wow, what's the big man upstairs saying. I believe in God, but I felt that there is a certain element of MY FATHER DIE where we should tackle the evil that is the super-ego. There is a Freudian element to it, certainly avoiding coming to it, but I just mean in terms of tackling the darker nature of man, and also the beauty of that because I do find beauty in darkness. I find a certain poetry in destruction and things being anti-fragile as well. I feel like the more we try to sugarcoat things and keep them safe that it's actually a detriment to us as a species. Some of the greatest things that have happened and some of the greatest minds have evolved after really horrible events. After The Great Depression there was a huge technological boom, but we look at it as such a destructive and terrible thing. But you have to look at the upside and there's always an upside. So even though MY FATHER DIE is extremely nihilistic, I do think there is an upside to it.
This taps into one of the themes of the film which is cause and effect. But thinking about the characters, they perhaps challenge noted philosophy on the subject of destiny, particularly in regards to Buddhism. MY FATHER DIE is an example of how our fate is not a product of our individual choice, but is a consequence of communal choices.
I don't necessarily believe in destiny; I believe you create your own destiny. I think you can really shape who you are as an individual and I also think that yes, other people have that first as well, where you're born, you don't choose your parents – maybe you do, I don't know. You grow up in a certain environment and nature versus nurture and all that. But I think the mind is so incredible that you can literally re-wire your brain and stop certain thinking patterns. So with MY FATHER DIE I felt that Ivan’s already been programmed and there's no changing him. I feel that happened to him in Vietnam and so that's the cause and effect. There's a line in the voiceover of the little boy that says something like: “My mother blamed America for sending him to Vietnam, I blamed Vietnam for bringing him home in a box.” And that to me was like men do come back from war changed and there is a cause and effect. Not only that, but you can then change the wiring in your brain.
Speaking with Carol Morley for·THE FALLING she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Oh yeah, one hundred percent. A lot of people say: “Oh, I don't write for the audience.” I'm like: “Who else are you doing it for?” And it's also good to know your audience. Touching back on themes I think the audience take away what they want to take away. You talk about the metaphysical and cause and effect, I love it when you talk about those aspects of the film because that's what rings true to you. I feel that once you're done and once an audience has seen it then it becomes their film. They'll either love it or hate it and with MY FATHER DIE I wanted you to either love it or hate it - there's no real in between. It's pretty polarising and that's been the responses to it. But yeah, I think you've just got to hand it over and to be honest. I try not to explain myself too much when people ask me questions about the movie. I'll ask: “What do you think? What does the movie mean to you?” I can watch it and take something completely different away from it than someone else.
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?
Yeah I think so because you're with it for so long, and especially an independent movie which is definitely taxing, challenging and rewarding. Now I'm talking about turning MY FATHER DIE into a TV series and to be honest it is a little bit daunting having to jump back into that universe. I am kind of reluctant to do it, but you know it's funny because I'm actually a little less angry after making MY FATHER DIE [laughs]. Even my wife told me: “You're a little calmer after making that movie.” I said: “Yeah, I think I got out some pent up teenage aggression.”
MY FATHER DIE comes to Digital Download 20th March and DVD and VOD·3rd April.·