“Please leave my kids out of this,” says a father of two in “The Aggression Scale,” a line that might be clichéd if it wasn’t so gloriously ironic. On his knees in front of a group of hitmen seeking $500,000 they believe are hidden somewhere in the house he just moved into with his wife and his teenage daughter and son, Bill (Boyd Kestner) clearly doesn’t know the power of his children. But thankfully neither do the hitmen in Steven C. Miller’s thriller, which debuted recently at SXSW, where the world was introduced to Lauren and Owen, a girl who speaks too much and a boy who doesn’t at all, though both prefer action to words as they plow through their attackers with a series of booby traps and weaponry that was designed as if “Home Alone”’s Kevin McCallister had found “The Anarchist’s Cookbook.”
In more ways that one, it’s also an explosive introduction to Fabianne Therese and Ryan Hartwig, the young actors who play the killer siblings and hold their own against older, more grizzled counterparts. Although it was clear in person that neither shared the murderous capabilities of their onscreen alter egos, the braid tucked under Hartwig’s thicket of blond locks and Therese’s mischievous smile belied a wild streak in both that makes it hard to look away from their scenes in “The Aggression Scale,” even when they’re engaged in some particularly gruesome activities. With Therese also starring in the SXSW midnight flick “John Dies at the End” and Hartwig both a star and an associate producer (at just 14) of the upcoming vampire tale “The Thompsons,” the two can already be considered horror vets and while at the festival, they spoke of their experience on a production that sounds as crazy and resourceful as the main characters.
How did you get involved in the film?
Ryan Hartwig: I actually worked on another film with the producers Evan, Joe and Travis called “The Thompsons,” a vampire movie. It’s a sequel to “The Hamiltons” and we filmed it in London. [The producers] Travis, Joe and Evan were also working on this project at the time and they never got a kid, they said, “Ryan, we want you to meet Steven the director and go over the script.” I was really fascinated. I thought it was a legit script. So I met with Steven and Joe and Evan and Travis – they were all there with me and he liked me for the role.
Fabianne Therese: I had a meeting with them and talked about where I kind of saw my character and it was right on point with them and I was excited to just jump into it. I never knew that my first projects [“John Dies at the End” being the other] were going to be horror films, but both of them in such different ways were so much fun to make. Definitely, everyone should do a horror movie at some point.
Was the physicality appealing to you in this film?
FT: Oh totally. It’s so fast paced and the atmosphere on set was the same [as it is in the film]. There wasn’t a moment to stop and we shot it in 12 days. It was like go, go, go, go, go, go. But I liked that. I work better like that.
RH: I remember saying I’m probably done working out for a good three years. Because we shot the movie in 12 days, we had to hustle. We had to get it perfect on the first shots. If not, we did so many more, so running back and forth 300 times is pretty exhausting.
Fabianne, I understand the scene where your character punches through a glass window resulted in some real pain for you.
FT: [holding out her right forearm with a scar] It was like six o’clock in the morning. There was actually a stunt right after where I jump out a window. I had gotten trained for that stunt, then we went to the bedroom and I’m just supposed to be running to the window because the bad guys would come in the door and try to open the window. I had three Red Bulls and was doing my jumping jacks to get my heart pumping, then I went running and I was screaming and then I smashed my hand straight through the window. I pulled it out and there’s blood everywhere and then we just worked with it. We wrote it in and I was back the next day with 24 stitches and running with a bloody rag. [laughs]
Were the cameras still rolling?
FT: The shot you see in the film was the real thing. It’s what happened to me. They have another shot where the hand comes out, which was somebody else because my hand was all wrapped up. It wasn’t even close to being as bloody as the real thing. You could see it because it was an artery, it was crazy.
Was it hard to watch that scene during the premiere last night?
FT: I had opted out of seeing it before because I was a little scared to, but it wasn’t too bad. I was kind of proud. Battle scars are sexy.
Ryan, did you actually have to do much training for the role?
RH: Steven, just because he’s an awesome director, he knows exactly what he wants and he always gets it. The way he put it together on film, I didn’t need to because he made it look like I had this practice, but no, not really.
It must’ve been tricky for you since you have no dialogue.
RH: It’s definitely a challenge as an actor because it’s not as easy as saying the line. Without words, you have to do everything with expressions on your face and your body language like smiles and smirks and little gestures that put your story across.
FT: It’s funny because he talks so much. He’s such a funny, cool kid, but he has a really spooky, intense stare. I think the fact that he never talks is really cool.
But obviously Ryan clearly doesn’t share the sinister side of his character.
RH: I was a little scared when I saw [the film] for myself. But it was awesome.
FT: They were like playing pranks the whole time. On his days off, Ryan and his dad came to set one day in camouflage outfits. They went to a store and bought squirt guns and hid out while we were shooting something. The second it was cut, they came and attacked us. He’s the funniest kid.
Ryan, as the youngest one on set, was it refreshing to be the one in control onscreen?
RH: That’s another thing we were talking about. You never get to see the kids actually come out and win against 30, 40-year-old men. The odds are against you. One of the cool things about Steven, he made this happen because he grew up in the ‘80s where the kids were the heroes like “The Goonies” and all that. So he got to bring that back where the kids beat the older guys. It was a pretty cool thing.
“The Aggression Scale” was acquired by Anchor Bay Entertainment shortly before SXSW and will be released on May 29th on Blu-ray and DVD.