Bryan Bertino Interview, The Strangers

Posted by: Micheal
At Comic Con we had a chance to sit down with Bryan Bertino to talk to him about his new hororr thriller The Strangers which he not only wrote but also directed. Now that it is hitting theatres it only made sense to re-visit this early interview. So with that in mind some of the comments are a bit out of date, but here we have our interview with Brian Bertino for The Strangers.
 
The Strangers is a A terrifying suspense thriller about a couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) in a remote suburban house who are targeted by three dangerous masked strangers. The resulting clashes force the couple to go well beyond what they thought themselves capable of in order to survive. Here is what Bryan Bertino had to tell us.
 
So is this a first for Comic Con for you? What do you think?

Bryan Bertino: You know I walked around a lot last night, I was kind of blown away. It’s—I don’t particularly like thinking about how many people I’m going to have to talk to or see because it’s pretty overwhelming. But no, it’s still it’s fun, I mean it’s a town right now that’s built on loving movies. Like all these, you know, hundred thousand people or whatever come to just talk about liking scary movies, liking action movies. So it’s the bread and butter so it’s pretty cool.

Can you tell us about Strangers a little bit?

Bryan Bertino: Basically it’s a horror thriller, thriller, you know, about a couple that went to a wedding and, the whole movie takes place from the time that they come back to--he’s brought—Scott Speedman’s brought Liv Tyler, you know, his girlfriend, his long time girlfriend back to his house and that he wanted to show--that he’d grown up in. And the movie’s about them walking in the door and then, you know, getting attacked by two people or three people that they have no concept of who they are. And you just kind of follow them and you can say, what would happen if you were in this situation.

So it’s a very simple story because I felt like it was important to keep it as base level as possible. If you hear something outside, you know, what would you do?

Is this along the lines of a thriller that builds to a horror ?

Bryan Bertino: I think of it as a thriller just because I think that you spend more time thinking about the psychological aspects of who these people are. Like what’s going on with them. But, you know, I think horror sometimes gets overlooked and I think that people don’t want to think of it as an intelligent genre, don’t want to think of it as something that can have this kind of character development.

So if it makes people more comfortable to think of it as a thriller, then that’s fine with me. But, you know, I still think that at its core, it’s a scary movie more than anything else.

Were you influenced by the original movie or other films?

Bryan Bertino: I don’t necessarily think that I looked at, you know, I’m definitely influenced by like seventies genre stuff in general, structure wise, in the way that those kind of things built up. Whether it’s Alien or Jaws or whatever because I just liked the fact that you could spend time with the characters and then put them in situations.

But as far as where the story came from, I didn’t think of movies like Stranger Calls probably at all. I mean when I was a really young kid, I read Helter Skelter, when I was like eleven. That to me was where I think I first started getting interested in the idea of people just walking into a house that you didn’t know. I lived in a house in the middle of nowhere in Texas on this road where you could call out in the middle of the night and nobody would hear you.

And so I was scared by that and I thought that this would be frightening if something came for me, you know, there would be nowhere for me to go. And so I think that what we try to do is just think about those things and concentrate on that more than any other movie.

So you made a pretty big jump to a director in a short period of time. Can you talk to us about that?

Bryan Bertino: Yeah I mean I’m very fortunate the way things broke down. I mean, even when I sold the script, it was the first thing I’d ever done. I’d only written four scripts in my life, and I was still working as a grip on a movie, a low budget movie that was paying nothing.

And to think that, at first I called in sick, then I had to quit ‘cause I was getting to meet with the manager and I. And then four days later I’d sold the script and never had to go back to that life ever again and got to give my friend my grip equipment as a present. To say, "Cool, I’m never going to need this anymore. I’m never using a hammer again.”

That happened so fast and then all of a sudden, you know, I never even thought about directing at that moment. Like I’d never taken a meeting so it was, okay how do you learn how to talk about story? How do you learn how to do those things? And so for two years because I worked with Jerry Bruckheimer it was like, I got trained on story. I got trained on how to communicate your ideas and fight for what you believed in.

So when I was lucky enough to come in and meet with Andrew Rona at Rogue, just to talk about the story again. While I didn’t think that he’d ever ask me to direct and I’m driving home and my agent calls me and it’s like, "He wants you to direct it.” I already kind of had some of the background that I needed and was able to say, "Okay look, I don’t know how to do a lot, but I know what the story is and if all you guys can gather around me and we’ll talk about the story, then we’ll make up for the limitations that I have.”

I still had to buy books on how to direct, I still had to practice an action in the car that first day. ‘Cause it’s a big deal. There’s a lot of people staring at you, it’s like I want to say it real masculine and cool and like, "Cut, cut,” you know

But you get past those kind of fears and—but it’s been an amazing process to be to get to do it and it’s real touching when you see all these people working together for an idea that you wrote down on a piece of paper. It’s something that I don’t think that every writer’s ever going to get to experience and so I try to take it in and enjoy those moments.

Seeing Liv Tyler, connect with the material and see these moments where, between her and Scott, where it was exactly what I wanted but more. Because they—that’s the great thing about actors is that when it all connects and the camera moves in the right way, it’s like they took something that was here and made it ten times better. The line changes because Liv is not the same person. She brought something to it,  she’s more than what I could have created. So it was—I loved it man, it was a dream come true.

So now that you’ve directed for the first time, do you—and you said you’d never really had aspirations to do it. Do you want to continue doing that? Or do you want to keep writing?

Bryan Bertino: Oh I mean I’ll always write, it was the one process, the one part about directing the movie that was crazy to me, is I had written—after I sold the script, I write every day. So it’s like I would write five hours a day at least every day. I mean even on Christmas I wrote. You know, it just became part of what I was and so I missed it a lot. I missed the blank piece of paper. It’s a different experience than directing. It’s not about talking to anybody.

It’s like, everything I said that was great, the one thing that I missed was the challenges you dealt with on your own. So as far as--whether I’ll do it again, if I can help the story and I can offer something as a director to help what I’m writing come out, then I’ll always want to do it. There’s certain things—I don’t imagine directing a lot of stuff that I didn’t write though. That’d be like, you know, as much as I love it, that’s what I love more is making my story. So but no, I’m—you get that bug man. It is nice.

Cool. How much control did you have over casting? Did you get to get the people you wanted to?

Bryan Bertino: I always knew that Liv was somebody I was interested in and when I met with her the first time and she connected and I knew that she understood what I was trying to do. I mean Scott was somebody that I thought about and knew. But it was through a process that we worked together, talked about it, went through and read and broke it down. And that’s when I really knew that he was right.

But with Liv, it was, you know, off the top, she had been somebody—I think that the thing that’s great about her is that from my group at least, I grew up with her, saw her from the time she was sixteen, I was like sixteen. So I knew that those were the qualities I wanted. You know, James and Kristen are, for me, hopefully the kind of people that, you know, you work with at your accounting office. You work with, you know, I said Liv’s the most beautiful bartender at your bar, the most beautiful lawyer. Because she’s accessible. Like as gorgeous as she is, you also don’t believe that she doesn’t relax, sit on the couch and hang out and drink a beer and whatever.

And I think that’s—that was important so, you know, I think that the studio is great about, you know, and the producers, like we all knew what we wanted these people to be and I was blown away that Liv wanted to do it. Because she’d never done a horror movie before. But I think it’s cool that she wanted to challenge herself as an actress to go in a different direction and so yeah, I was very fortunate.

When you write your script and direct your own script and your actors arrive on set, does the tone and the project evolve based on what they bring to the project?

Bryan Bertino: I feel like scripts are blue prints. As much as I take in as a writer, it’s like I always thought of it that way. It’s not writing a novel. Like it’s not the finished product and so I told Scott and Liv early on, it’s like change a line if—like here’s the core of what this scene is, here’s the core of these relationships. We’re working and we’re developing that. If that means that this line needs to be this, you know, or if in that moment you change it, then do it. I hate in horror films and thrillers that you feel like you’re watching a movie. Like I wanted to tear down the fourth wall. The best ones to me, you don’t feel like you’re watching something.

So in a movie that’s as confined as this, it’s a horror movie about two people walking into a house. I want the audience to think they’re in the house and so there was no line that I had or beat that I had that was more important than that.  And so, you know, we had to think of it as I’m directing the script. Not that I wrote the script. I had to separate myself some to let it expand to what it needed to be. So I let it go and I’m glad I did, and I don’t think I would do it the other. I know some writers and writer directors you have to say it the exact same way. But that’s not me it’s more core essence of what it is.

So yesterday, Scott Speedman was at the  panel. Someone asked him what advice he would give to new talent. You’re just starting out. What would you say to someone who’s aspiring to make a film? What advice would you give to them?

Bryan Bertino: I still have a lot of friends that are trying to make it and so, you know, it’s been good on some level for them, I think. They take some inspiration from me right or wrong and they watch me make mistakes. But, I mean the thing that I try to do and I guess my advice would be, is A) if you’re a writer, keep writing. Write all the time.

So many people don’t do it and they stop after the first act. They stop after the second act. It’s like you just got to keep ploughing through I mean, and just go, go, go. But beyond just working hard and trying, it’s figuring out what kind of stories you like to tell. Like don’t just say you like scary movies. What actually matters to you? What voice are you going to bring to scary movies or sci-fi or whatever? Like what’s going to separate you and why do you want to do it? And then just go as hard as you can, ‘cause it’s hard, it’s scary and, you know, I didn’t have a bank account when I sold my script. I had to—because I didn’t have any money.

While some of my friends moved to LA and then left after two years  I never did. I just kept staying and kept going and kept going and kept thinking of new things to do. So I mean I guess try, try, try is pretty good ‘cause, I don’t know man, it was a very scary time, you get tired of not having money. You get tired of nobody reading your scripts and you send in those letters and—those form letters about how, you know "per our conversation, I’m sending you my draft of this.” And then they don’t read it and—or they send you the form letter back that says, "You suck,” basically.

So it’s like that was really hard and a lot of my friends quit doing it. But I just kept sending the letters and sending the letters and I would, you know, save up money to enter into the contests so that I thought there was a chance somebody’d read it.

A lot of determination then.

Bryan Bertino: Yeah I mean, you know, believe in yourself but also just make other people believe in you. ‘Cause nobody’s going to—nobody gives a shit who you are. The good thing is that somebody once told me, "Hollywood’s an animal and what it eats is good scripts.” So long as you’ve got good scripts, you have a chance. Like as long as you’ve got a good story. So work on the story.

What rating did this film achieve? Is it R?

Bryan Bertino: R.

Did you have any problems with the MPAA? Did you have to cut scenes out or did you--?

Bryan Bertino: No. I mean it was always going to be an R, I knew it would be an R. Like I’m not that interested in PG-13. Horror movies are scary movies so I want bad things to happen to people. Like I don’t necessarily feel like it has to be incredibly gory but like, I cuss, I drink, you know. It’s like,  I want all those things to be in there. As much as I want kids to see my movie and young people to see my movie, you know, because that’s what we’re always trying to do, at the same time my characters are adults and so I wanted that level of realism to be there and then within the scary kind of qualities, I want it to feel real. It’s not necessarily Hostile or Saw or those kind of things, but if you’re scared about what’s behind the door and you think something’s going to jump out at you, I want it to be able to have that realism as much as possible.

But no, I mean it’s not an incredibly violent movie. So we didn’t deal with it. But it’s very intense and I think that that’s why the R was easily handed down, while at the same time not asking us to cut stuff.

Were there any scenes or concepts you really wanted to put in the movie that didn’t make it?

Bryan Bertino: No I mean I’d written the script so I was really fortunate that everything I wanted to do, I think that we shot it. I mean during the editing process, it grew and changed and different beats maybe weren’t as important as other beats and things, you know, it became a different thing.

Once again it grew and changed. But I mean my cinematographer was a great, you know, Peter Sova, he shot Good Morning Vietnam, he shot Diner, he’s been shooting for thirty years. I mean he shot Gangster Number One and I leaned on him a lot in pre-production to understand what capabilities we had and how we could push forward and do things that were different but at the same time knew—knew what we wanted. So I didn’t lose a lot, no.

When you approach screen writing, do you usually go the textbook route? Or do you just sit down and--?

Bryan Bertino: I’ll do an outline and I follow the outline for at least for the first drafts. I can write a first draft in three or four weeks. But it’s about—you know when I used to be a lighter, a grip used to have this—or electric used to have this expression that, like you spend—what is it, you spend ninety percent of your time doing—or you spend ten percent of your time doing ninety percent of the work. Just seeing up all of those lights, bam. But then you spend ninety percent of your energy doing that last ten percent.

Well it’s the same thing for me. So it’s like set up your story, you know, bam, three-act structure which I believe all movies deep down kind of follow three-act structure whether they admit it or not. And then you lay that outline out and then I just plough through and just get it out on the paper.

And then I spend months tweaking that. But that’s why I think the outline’s so important. Is that, just follow that, get it on paper and then you can tweak. That’s the way I do it but—

What’s the release date on this film?

Bryan Bertino: It’s going to come out—right now, early this—next year. Like that’s going to—

Excited about showing the film at Comic Con?

Bryan Bertino: There’s a lot of people in that room man. It’s kind of freaking me out a little. I went there last night and looked at it. I’ve never spoke in front of more than, like seventy five people and that was on the movie. So yeah, I mean, it[seats really thousands of people I think. So, you know.

Usually they’ll be pretty accepting and just be straightforward with them, you know be yourself, I think you—I think it’ll be fine.

Bryan Bertino: If it starts to go really bad, you guys need to help me out. Be like, "He’s great.”

Well give you a couple of hoots and hollers.Just think of it as a bigger film shoot. Just got a lot more people working for you.

Bryan Bertino: I think I’m just going to think of it—I don’t see these people at all. Stare down now, but— No it’s a little bit scary but it’ll be fun.

Interviewer: Did you—do you start with doing any short films before you got into lighting?

Bryan Bertino: When I was—when I was in college, I was a cinematographer. That’s what I wanted to be. That’s what I thought I wanted to be. And so I worked on a lot of grad pieces and then different things like that. Because like, I got into cinematography because at the University of Texas, whoever’s the director, has to pay for everything. So I didn’t have any money so it’s like, okay so I can’t make any movies. But how do I get to learn how to tell stories?

And I liked lighting and I realized by being a cinematographer, I would be there for auditions and rehearsals, like I could learn to visually tell a story and so I worked on a bunch of movies like that and the reason I got into writing when I came to LA is I missed doing that. Because I wasn’t doing it in LA. I was, you know, getting coffee or, you know, pulling cable and none of the—there was no story telling anymore. It was just, you know, doing the day to day activity.

And so I thought, "Well okay, I’ll make a movie in my head but I’ll do it through writing.” And so I wrote my first script on, like Word, having to do the tab over and stuff like that. That’s really -- it’s really enjoyable. But by doing that, it like—I got hooked. I was instantly like, wow, like I got to see it and I got to feel it and it wasn’t—you know, I didn’t get to make it. But, like I started to learn how to do it that way and then after that I just kept writing and then eventually, for whatever reason, people like the way I write. So, you know, I like that.

You said you have a vision for whatever you’re doing creatively how do you visualize it?
 
Bryan Bertino: Oh I think so yeah, I mean I think—you know, even though I’ve never directed, like I’ve edited for, you know, ESPN a little bit. Like I, you know, I’d shot so much that at least I knew how to visually put together my ideas and I had some concept of story telling, you know, on a production side. And so that—I think that worked well for me even though I hadn’t said, "Action and cut,” that much. I guess that’s it. Huh?

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