Long hours weren’t uncommon on the set of “Enter the Dangerous Mind” (originally titled “Snap” when it debuted at SXSW in 2013), as filmmakers Youssef Delara and Victor Teran tinkered with everything from the lights to the dialogue, but at least Thomas Dekker, one of the film’s stars, knew his time wasn’t being wasted.
“It’s a very Hitchcockian kind of approach these guys took where every shot and every line means something,” said Dekker, looking over at the film’s co-director and writer Teran before a devilish grin crossed his face. “I’ve never seen a writer so meticulous – I could say fuck you and he’d be like, ‘No, that’s not right. It should be go fuck yourself.'”
The profanity and the precision were both necessary for the immersive thriller, which made its debut last week at the SXSW Film Festival. It’s evident from the final product that the fine-tuning during the shoot became crucial to fully plunge audiences into the mind of Jim Whitman (Jake Hoffman), a dubstep musician who is able to filter out his many frustrations with the world through his incongruous beats. Naming tracks after tragedies he’s seen on the local news, something is obviously wrong with Jim when we first meet him, a man with nearly 20,000 followers online, but with no actual friends to call his own, despite a sweet, seemingly self-effacing nature. While such qualities are what makes him attractive to Wendy, a social worker (Nikki Reed) he meets while doing some freelance work, it also is at odds with a violent past personified in the form of his chief consult Jake (Thomas Dekker), who like a sick-and-twisted Cyrano de Bergerac aids Jim in an effort to bed Wendy, an attempt that leads to horrific results, particularly on Jim’s fragile psyche.
Delara and Teran aren’t content, however, to simply get inside Jim’s head, but to get inside yours as well, creeping in with the throbbing electronica music that’s Jim’s sole comfortable form of communication and letting it take over the experience of watching “Enter the Dangerous Mind” as the disconnect between reality and Jim’s warped mind grows further apart, but the film only pulls you in closer with its almost chemical synchronicity of sound, image and psychology. Shortly after the film premiered in Austin, Delara, Teran and Dekker spoke about creating such an experience, why it was important to have experience on the set and why sometimes an actor’s best work is off camera.
How did this movie come about?
Victor Teran: Well, it started as a kernel of an idea about a guy who is disturbed and hears voices.
Youssef Delara: There was a story that fueled that…
VT: Yeah, in L.A., there was a guy that came to his ex-wife’s house on Christmas Eve and went on a shooting rampage in a Santa suit and killed like nine people. It was just one of those things that make you scratch your head and think, what was going through this guy’s brain? So I took that idea and really just immersed myself in the thought experiment of it and this is what came out of it. I pitched it to Youssef and we started talking about it and breaking it apart, and we wound up shaping these characters together.
The film’s very sensory-oriented, so was the experience of the film something you thought about more possibly than the words on the page while writing the script?
VT: When I was writing the script, I definitely had a clearer idea of what the sound would be than the picture. Youssef, if you look at his previous films either where he was the solo director or the last film “Filly Brown” [which he co-directed with Michael D. Olmos], there’s a visual distinction that he had that married with the ideas in the script. Then it wasn’t until we were deep into the process of preproduction that we really began hatching together the visual stuff.
YD: We kind of put ourselves in a tough bind because as independent filmmakers on a low-budget film, you really don’t have a lot of resources at your disposal, so to create a film that had a look and a feel and a vibe and having the tools and organization and crew to pull that off became a challenge. You could just pick up a camera and shoot something verite and cut it up and say it’s raw, but to give design for it to be a moment, a scene, to have much steadicam to approach the scenes the way that we did really required an incredible amount of planning and a lot of favors from really talented people. Luckily, we were at a certain level in our careers where we could pull that off, but I don’t think we could’ve pulled this movie off as first-time filmmakers on this budget.
Thomas was saying last night during the post-screening that his character was initially going to be introduced as a twist closer the end, but now you meet him early on in the film – I thought it was actually one of the most interesting elements of the film, to have a second voice grow in your head after experiencing a traumatic experience and I couldn’t imagine that not being there from the start, so how did that evolution happen in the story?
VT: I think the only thing that changed is…
Thomas Dekker: It was a long process! [laughs]
YD: The exact nuances of exactly what [Thomas’ character is] saying changed, but Victor wrote a brilliant script [where] our foundation was there, but we had to color it all in through the process of the movie. There were certain scenes that work and then don’t work when you’re editing, so what exactly the voice is saying and not saying gets altered a touch. And major kudos to Thomas for coming in again and again and revoicing it and revoicing it, doing temp tracks. We kept calling him every three weeks. “Are you in town? Can you come and do these nine lines because we wanted to take the story in this direction” Then he would come and do that. We did an entire eight, nine-hour ADR session, which is a monster amount of time and his level of skill and craft is unparalleled.
TD: I’ll pay him later.
YD: He will. But you really see how talented and skilled an actor is in post because we make them show up and they kill it in front of a microphone with nothing else around…
VT: And sometimes even elevate.
Thomas, your character’s interesting because he’s at a remove. Was that an interesting thing to play?
TD: We’ve been doing press with Nikki [Reed] all day and it’s so funny because Nikki and I are now close, but we didn’t have a single scene together on camera in the movie. I realized I only did scenes with Jake Hoffman, which was really cool because we got to work on our own little weird, private bond and I looked at it as a fully-fledged character even though I wasn’t necessarily present in the majority of what takes place onscreen because I felt like I was his friend in certain scenes and then the devil in others, which was awesome.
Was that duality there for your as filmmakers? You’ll shoot a meet cute scene between Nikki and Jake one day and the next, Jake is immersed in a private hell.
YD: It was definitely interesting, but there was always an undercurrent of [a common] theme and what was really going on there. We never strayed too far from the voice that was in [Jake’s character Jim’s] head or his general discomfort with the world, so even in the kind of cute scenes between them, you see Jim as awkward, you see Jim is uncomfortable in his own skin, in his own experience of the world and there’s something that’s kind of sad about that. It kind of breaks your heart a little bit as you see him taking these deep breaths and doing these things to muster the strength to just be normal.
TD: Seriously, I’m going to kiss these guys’ asses right now, but having seen [the film] finished last night, I think it’s virtually impossible to make a movie where it’s uncomfortable and unsettling from the first frame to the last and yet doesn’t put you to sleep. There is no frame in “Snap” that’s sweet or happy or comfortable and that’s because of Victor’s writing, Youssef’s editing and their combined talents as directors. It really is very, very rare to get that and I think that’s a feat that only some of the greatest filmmakers are capable of. Anyone else would’ve not had the balls and would’ve said, “Well, let’s make this a sweet scene.” You guys didn’t do that. It’s a tone movie. That’s what I really like about it.
As a tone movie in a literal sense as well as a figurative one, did you actually come up with a lot of the ideas for the musical score before even writing the script or listen to music during the production that would make it into the film?
VT: We definitely weren’t listening to the score during filming. The score got done very fast. For a movie like this, but probably for any movie, you can’t really score until you have a locked picture, and we took a long time editing, and so [Reza Safinia, the composer] didn’t come into the process until maybe a month ago, which is kind of shocking…
YD: Yeah, it’s shocking. He did all the music and score in three weeks time, which is phenomenal. There was also a lot of back-and-forth as far as music that I like and Victor liked. [Reza] would send us samples and [eventually], we’re like “Okay, this is the soundscape that we’re going for.” But there was a year-and-a-half conversation of what exactly we wanted and on top of that, Jake Hoffman, our lead, went and actually sat in with Reza and they made a song together that ended up in the movie, so Jake got a sense of how to make a song, the meticulousness that goes into it, and that’s one of the songs that fueled us in the process in making the film, so we had one song and a crapload of temp songs and we felt comfortable moving forward.
“Enter the Dangerous Mind” will open in limited release and on demand on February 6th.