Writer/Director Billy O’Brien cast Max Records as potential serial killer John Wayne Cleaver six years ago, after “I Am Not A Serial Killer” novelist Dan Wells saw the actor in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. “I can’t remember if I called Billy or e-mailed him,” says Wells, “I said, ‘Gotta get this kid he’d be so great.’” Producer Nick Ryan had already made a short with Records (BLINKYTM, a SciFi robot short shot before Where the Wild Things Are came out), a film in which Records also displays some sociopathic qualities.
Wells’ novel (a series of novels, the fifth one is due in May) concerns a sixteen-year old troubled teen who has become obsessed with studying serial killers, all in an attempt to prevent himself from being one. His mother and aunt run a morgue, and when a series of brutal murders turns up in the very small and isolated town of Clayton, MN, it is Cleaver who seems the likeliest to solve the case. “The book felt rich and interesting and quirky,” says O’Brien, “you had this combination of great wit, interesting characters, a real heart to it, and it was cinematic.” I had a chance to sit down with O’Brien, Wells, Ryan, Records and Christopher Lloyd, who plays the mysterious neighbor Crowley, when the film world premiered at SXSW last month.
O’Brien’s film plays like a really dark mash up of CSI and Dexter, but with a teen lead. Even with all these signposts, the film is completely fresh and original, with intense, layered performances and a phenomenal foreboding throughout. Records’ Cleaver is someone who struggles with empathy, but is smart enough to realize that there is something wrong with him. He is also proactive enough to try to fix it, or at least keep it at bay. In the end, it is his emotions that keep him a good guy, rather than crossing to the other side. “I think more than relating to the character, I related to the narrative,” says Records, “the humor of it and the tone of it and the overarching concept of love.”
Although the film does a great job pulling and pushing the tension, it is very difficult to write about without revealing some of the major spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, stop reading this article. Trust me, this is film is wicked awesome, and wickedly awesome, and if you want to be on the case with a sociopath that’s part of the fun.
With the primary team in place, they went to shoot some test footage in snow Michigan. “It was Robbie [Ryan, cinematographer], me, and Nick [Ryan, producer],” says director O’Brien, “we’re all from Ireland, we’re more filmmakers than straight up producers – so we just said, ‘Let’s shoot some film.’” They brought Records out to Bay City, Michigan (the final product was shot years later in Virgina, MN near the Canadian border), and ‘streetcast’ all the other roles. The odd thing about this was Records was 13 at the time. Knowing funding for a film can take a while to put together, O’Brien and his team grabbed their lead years before he would be old enough to actually perform the role.
Shooting was a blizzard, the team put together a few scenes to show to investors, including a pivotal scene where Cleaver phones Mr. Crowley and accuses him of being a murderer. “He was trying to make himself sound a little deeper,” says Ryan, “trying to make [himself]sound older, and I’m going, ‘Max, just be yourself,’ and he says, “Shut up Nick, I am being myself.” Even at that young age, O’Brien knew they had the right Cleaver. “I was directing him probably more suitable to a grown-up,” he says, “I would be blabbering on about stuff and then Max would say, ‘Sounds good.’ And then he would do it his way which was way better than anything I would say. … yeah, Max, he was too young for it, but it just shone out how he was John Wayne Cleaver.” O’Brien sent Wells the clip, who was really excited. “I watched it, every day, for years,” jokes Wells, “that’s what kept the hope alive.” …. And then five years or so later, they got to make the film for real.
One of the final pieces to the puzzle, Christopher Lloyd who plays the duplicitous Crowley, serves as a great foil to Records. Crowley may be a murderer, but he kills for love. He is actually a centuries-old creature that is replacing portions of his human form to stay around for his wife, who does not know his true visage. “I liked the fact that he, however thousands of years he’s existed one way or another, he had never experienced love,” says Lloyd, “and he meets this woman and he gets married and it’s just changed his life, except that he has to keep going out and replacing his parts.”
It is hard to view Crowley as evil, he just is, which is part of why it is so difficult for Cleaver to find him. Cleaver is looking at the killings with presupposition of evil intent. Says Lloyd, “it’s sustenance, he has to keep himself alive.” Really, the film is about empathy. As much as it’s about Cleaver discovering the killer, it is also about him discovering that he is actually worried about his mother. O’Brien says this character distinction is exactly what drew him Well’s original novel. “Mr. Crowley, the monster inside, could just move onto another body,” says the Director, “but then he loses Kay [his wife], I just love that as the boy who can’t love hunting a monster who’s killing for love.”
Whatever is below (or inside) Crowley, is not fully explained, although the mythology of the creature comes into play in later books in the series. “One of the great things that I didn’t have to worry about writing the book is that I never really described what it looks like,” says Wells, “Billy’s been mad at me ever since” To design Crowley, O’Brien called upon Toby Froud, whose parents were Brian and Wendy Froud, responsible for design of “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” (Toby was actually the infant stolen by David Bowie in “Labyrinth” as well as later working on “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Boxtrolls”). “Toby came out to Salt Lake City ComicCon last year and showed me the clay maquettes and all of this concept art,” says Well, “and, you know, it’s not the big horns and forked tail kind of demon, it’s not a typical monster, it’s an old man.”
The final showdown scene involved a half-scale puppet with five puppeteers (including Records lending a hand). “It has a kind of analog, organic quality,” says O’Brien, “there’s something real there and it has a weight to it.” Lloyd had the opportunity to see all the concept art before performing as the human form of the monster. “There was one drawing where there’s a torso that divides the man, there’s Crowley, and there’s the monster,” the actor says, “I loved that concept and I still have that.”
I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER world Premiered last month at SXSW. Watch a very young Max Records in BLINKY below…