There’s a shed that Don Burnside (Dylan McDermott) keeps for his contracting business that isn’t exactly off-limits to the rest of his family in “The Clovehitch Killer,” but nonetheless remains a mystery to them. His son Tyler (Charlie Plummer) has never shown much of an interest, already distant from his dad after being disenchanted with having to put on a Boy Scouts uniform to please him, while his wife Cindy (Samantha Mathis) is too busy inside the house striving to be a model of 1950s domesticity though they live in the present day, with Don appearing to be an aspirational figure in their neck of Kentucky for a past generation, but now looking like a man curiously out of time. While the carefully constructed bubble Don’s created for himself and his clan has proved exceptionally resistant to anything remotely connected to the 21st century including skepticism, questions are suddenly coming from within as Tyler begins to wander away from church, both literally and figuratively as he befriends a young woman named Kassi (Madisen Beaty), who emboldens him to start wondering what’s in the shed.
As it turns out, Don isn’t the only one who works hard at projecting a certain image in “The Clovehitch Killer,” though director Duncan Skiles and screenwriter Christopher Ford don’t show anywhere near as much sweat as they not only oversee Tyler experience a change in perspective about his father, but boldly recalibrate the point of view of the thriller when it happens for audiences. A product of meticulous detail, both in parsing out hints about what exactly Don may be hiding, linked to a trail of murders that occurred a decade before the events depicted in the film, and how he’s papered over that life in the years since, the chilling drama is unflinching and often static in its shot selection, allowing for every revelation about its central character to sink in with the same deliberate precision it’s suggested he might handle a knife with. Skiles, who previously mined discomfort for laughs in his debut “The Last of the Great Romantics,” brings an inspired take to a genre that often revels in blood, opting instead to get inside your head, particularly in casting the debonair McDermott against type as a dispenser of dad jokes who may or may not be protecting a dark secret.
Although most of the surprises should be kept under wraps, the one involving Skiles showing considerable talent behind the camera makes itself known from the first frame and on the eve of the film’s debut at the L.A. Film Festival in advance of a national theatrical run that’s just gotten underway, he spoke of what led him to create such a disturbing drama, how he drew on his Midwestern upbringing for the tale and what went into creating such a cohesive world with a history on screen.
How did this come about?
I was doing research on serial killers. I couldn’t stop thinking about them for some reason and I wanted to tell a story where the serial killer [wouldn’t be] the main character, butbecause some of them had families, I thought if I told it from the perspective of one of the family members, that would be a relatable entry point and I developed the structure of the story and collaborated with my good friend Christopher Ford, who’s a really good screenwriter.
How’d you wind up shooting in Kentucky?
It came up as an option because their tax credit was very good and [it was] before they had been oversaturated with projects, so the timing was good because they’ve been doing it for long enough that the crews were there, but it was before everybody in the community was sick of having films being made in their town. I went there by myself in the summer before we shot, and just looked around for a town like the town I grew up in — I grew up in the south Midwest and it worked out nicely. It was a great place to shoot because everybody was really excited and helped out.
I also worked with the church where we shot [because] I guess I don’t really understand religion. I grew up around a lot of religious people, but I wasn’t writing from experience in my own family, so I asked around if there are people that are this religious and I got confirmation that yes, people do grow up with families like this. I was very close with the pastor there and I just checked every once in a while that I wasn’t doing anything that was out of character. I specified what kind of church that they went to [in the script] and allowed [the actors] to spend time in Louisville a little bit before we shot and think some of us went to a real church service before we shot.
Were there aesthetic rules you put in place from the start?
Yeah, I was going for something that was minimal and very straightfoward. I worked with the cinematographer Luke McCoubrey and the production designer Latisha Duarte to create a world that just felt very normal and relatable and never too stylized because we wanted to establish that setting to get people comfortable and then introduce this darkness to create something that was truly unsettling.
What’s it like working with the art department to create this entire dark side with bondage magazines and fake licenses?
That was an incredible source of stress. I was very, very intent on having that stuff be realistic because if it’s not, that just loses me, so I was focusing on that early on and Latisha, my production designer, worked harder than anybody else on the team writing the newspaper headlines and creating fake magazines. We hired other people to work on that as well and that probably evolved the most consistently throughout the whole process. I was reviewing that stuff every day in preproduction and we also got my good friend Jon Ferguson, who is the husband to Cody Ryder, the producer, to create that creepy book that Tyler finds in the shed. It was Jon’s sole job to create this disturbing collection of images and I know that he creeped himself out a bit because he spent a month making that stuff, but it was amazing.
How did you find Dylan McDermott to play this shifty character?
We spent over a year in casting, and a lot of people turned it down because it’s a difficult role to cast for a leading man because of what the character does. Dylan was actually the only one who really wanted to do it. He sent in an audition and I was resistant to it at first because Dylan was so handsome and I wanted the dad to be believably middle American and I didn’t know if that was possible to do with Dylan. But the more I thought about it, the cooler I thought it would be to transform him. I also realized that it’s more important to have somebody who wants to do it rather than be begging somebody who’s reluctant from the beginning – I actually had another actor attached and he dropped out, but I’m very happy that it worked out the way that it did because I think Dylan did an amazing job.
Your background is more comedy-oriented. Were you looking to shake things up?
I fell into comedy because I was mimicking films I grew up with and I was also responding to the people I was collaborating with. I was part of a collective called Waverly Films, people that I met in film school, and we made a short every week. Our sensibilities just lended themselves to comedy and it evolved from there that I would start getting comedy jobs because of the stuff that I had made. But I don’t think anything was truly mine, coming from me and spoken in my voice, until I made “Clovehitch.” Everything previous to that feels like an exercise or an imitation of something else. I actually did make this short in film school called “J is for Jerry” that is pretty intense and scary, but was also funny, and I like when there’s a combination. I don’t think I’m ever going to make another pure comedy, but I think anything I’m going to do is going to have [elements] of comedy.
Horror always seems like it’s not so far removed from comedy. Was it interesting to subvert those skills to get a different kind of reaction?
We screened it many times with various audiences and from the beginning, I told the story in full several times and I could tell when people were hooked and when they were losing interest. I wanted people to gasp. We were editing in Hawaii – the people who financed the movie had a place there, so we showed it to the groundskeeper and the housekeeper, just anybody that we could get who knew nothing about movies and didn’t know anything about the story. I felt like if it was working for them, it was working and then we kept doing that in New York, bringing groups of people together, so I’m actually very sick of watching the movie [myself], but I am excited to see it with a theater full of people. It works best with a crowd.