When the two were working day jobs in the same building on Wilshire Boulevard, Jonah Ray had wondered how Joe Lynch could be such a fan of “Wrong Turn 2,” a film that may be a beloved deep cut for horror geeks yet might seem like a run-of-the-mill direct-to-DVD sequel to those not in the know, that he decided to hang a poster of it in his office.
“I directed it,” Lynch recalled telling him, with a huge grin, at the recent Los Angeles premiere of his latest film “Mayhem” at Beyond Fest.
The fact that Ray, now a popular comedian, and Lynch, who has directed three features since, could laugh about this was a triumph in and of itself, but they weren’t telling the story as some acknowledgement of the success that enabled them to ditch the corporate life. Instead, it reflected the cold truth that professional and personal success and making a living aren’t necessarily aligned, something that has long been a topic of The Movie Crypt, Lynch’s extraordinary, long-running podcast with fellow filmmaker Adam Green that has become one of the most revealing places to learn how the film business really works, and now the director’s wildly fun new film about a mid-level employee named Derek (Steven Yeun) who isn’t all that miffed that he’s contracted a killer disease when he’s already been stuck in the living hell of becoming an anonymous cog of corporate conformity, working at a consulting firm likely doing the bidding of evildoers the world over. Still, the ID-7 virus, which unburdens those afflicted of their civility, has made Derek’s eyes a little more bloodshot than usual as he finds himself trapped in his company’s high-rise due to a quarantine. With little to lose in what may be his final hours, he decides to team up with Melanie (Samara Weaving), a young woman whose home is set to be foreclosed by the firm, to feel human again by taking power back from the bosses who made him feel less than zero, even if that becomes impossible biologically.
“Mayhem” more than lives up to its title, offering up a deliriously entertaining, blood-splattered fantasy to anyone who’s ever felt confined by a cubicle as Derek and Melanie scale the Towers and Smythe Consulting skyscraper floor by floor, taking out ghoulish upper management (naturally played by the formidable Steven Brand, Caroline Chikezie, Kerry Fox and Dallas Roberts) who consigned their underlings to death by a thousand cuts long before the outbreak. Yet it is unexpectedly soulful, no doubt owing to Lynch’s own frustrations with once being a 9-to-5er even after proving himself at his real calling, and impassioned, with such craftsmanship shining through the skillful execution of sweeping 180° camera pivots and clever scene transitions that you feel the joy that comes with Derek’s own rediscovery of his abilities. In following up the criminally underseen Salma Hayek thriller “Everly,” which also brought new dimensions to a single-location action film, Lynch seems to have outdone himself with “Mayhem” and as the film rolls out into theaters and on iTunes, he spoke about how a chance encounter with “Die Hard” director John McTiernan influenced the film, the trick to making visual effects look natural on screen and getting a measure of justice for his time spent toiling in the corporate trenches.
I couldn’t help but notice John McTiernan in the special thanks section for the film, and having rewatched “Everly” recently and this film, where the action geography is so well done within a confined space, you never feel like you’re just in one office building, was he a big influence?
I think if you listen to the show that we do, “Movie Crypt” on GeekNation, you’d know that I love “Die Hard.” It’s one of my top five favorite movies of all time and I know that it’s everyone’s favorite Christmas action movie that they can get away with saying, “Oh, we’re watching a Christmas movie” and it’s really one of the most amazing action movies. There’s just so much in “Die Hard” that meant so much to me, even as a little kid, and so many things that I’ve found as being influential in my own work in that film alone, whether it be more extreme bloodletting that you don’t normally get in a movie like that at the time, the very fallible protagonist, the bottle episode-type of geography where everything happens in one location and what that pressure cooker is like on characters and situations. So John McTiernan was one of my early on-set heroes and between “Predator” and “Last Action Hero” and “Basic” and “Nomads,” so many of his movies have really impacted me.
Weirdly enough, I had shot “Everly” in Serbia and I was really blown away by how great the crews were and how great the people were there, so [while I was] reluctant to go back [for “Mayhem”], only because I didn’t want to be so far away from my family and I just had another kid at the time, I thought if there’s any way I could get this done with people that I really enjoy collaborating with, it was Belgrade. Funny enough, when we called them, they’re like, “Oh that guy with all that blood that we had from the last movie? We still have some. You should come back and use the rest.” So it was really like getting the band back together where I worked with a lot of the same crew and it just so happened that there was this Serbian Film Festival that was going on and they just so happened to have John McTiernan coming in for a lifetime achivement award. They were going to show a very special print of “The Hunt for Red October,” which again is one of my favorite fucking movies. So I thought this is serendipity. I was like Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters,” “This MEANS something!”
I used every bit of clout that I had, which was not much, to talk to anybody who had any connection with John McTiernan while he was there in Serbia. Luckily for me, the head of production at this one production company Work in Progress also was very connected to the film festival, so she made a couple phone calls and next thing I know, she says [in Serbian accent] “So you’re going to have dinner with John McTiernan tonight.” And I’m like “whoa, whoa, whoa, what?!?!” And at this point, there’s not many people I would fanboy out for, but John McTiernan was one of those guys. He was that 800-lb. gorilla that I was just like, “Oh my God, I cannot fucking believe I’m going to meet the man.” And we have this dinner and it was probably about 15 people at the dinner, but they sat me right across from him, and I swear to God, I could not contain myself. In all the years that I had been such a fan of his and his filmmaking skills, I had to get it all out in that one fell swoop.
So [I was peppering him with questions like] “Okay, in ‘Predator,’ what lenses were you using for all those low-angle shots?” or “In ‘Hunt for Red October,’ that moment when they change from Russian to English, was that on the page? Was that something you were inspired by on the day?” I’m sure that he was looking at me like, “Who the fuck is this weird geeky fanboy and why are we sitting together right now?” But by the end, he was sitting there going, “Wow, this guy really knows my shit,” and [then] he started asking me for advice because at the time, I think he was scouting locations for a commercial and he was just curious about what it was like to shoot in Serbia and do it effectively because I guess somebody had told him, “Oh, he already shot a movie here and he’s doing another one now, so he came back.”
At the end of the dinner, he came up to me and gave me a big hug and said, “Hope you make your days.” And oh my God, I had the biggest cineboner that one could possibly have for another filmmaker. But it [also] felt like that good omen that I needed for this movie [“Mayhem”], which isn’t as directly tied into “Die Hard” as I see “Everly” was, but it still felt the same way. It still had that feeling that we need to escalate this big building, there’s all these archetypal characters that we have to thwart and we have this believable everyman. He’s not a machine. He’s not a superhero from the ‘80s. He’s just a normal guy, like John McClane, so it could not have been a better omen for me to be able to [meet McTiernan] because this was my lowest budget movie. This was the movie that I had the least amount of prep time on and it made me say to myself, you know what? Go with your gut. You don’t have to overthink or overprep things. Just do everything that you normally do, but don’t beat yourself up and don’t be so slavish to the process. Just let go. It was an edict that I traveled throughout the whole movie [with] because I was very much just following my passions like Derek was and thankfully for me, John McTiernan was one of the people that helped me kind of let go a little bit and just go with the flow. And that thank you doesn’t come from “He’s one of my inspirations.” No, I really thank him for there at that dinner and to this day, think if I didn’t have that meeting with him the movie would’ve been the same.
You mentioned at Beyond Fest that while you use physical effects whenever possible, it just wasn’t possible with the red eye that all of the infected had and you created a 360-degree ball that would make the effect look natural when it appeared onscreen. How do you figure something like that out?
The Phantasm ball, as we called it? The impetus for the whole red eye thing was not in the script, but I felt very strongly from the beginning — and I think at the time, somebody in my family actually had pink eye — that there was just something striking about this one eyeball being like bloody and red and gooey. And I thought I need something in there that would at least allow the audience visually to see who’s infected and who’s not. One of the things I really responded to about how unique the script was to me, even though it’s using very familiar tropes that we’ve seen in other movies before was the fact that our two leads were also infected, so that means both are going to be doing some fucked up shit, and it’s part of the story. It’s not like, “I hope they don’t get infected” or “Maybe they’ll get infected at the end and somebody will have to make a sacrifice” — we’ve seen that before. When we did that, on paper, [to show who was infected] seemed like an easy enough idea and I just thought you know what? We’ll just get a bunch of contacts and everyone will be fine. But that’s not how it panned out at all.
Thankfully, because I’d been working more and more with visual effects and knew what the technology had in store for me, I thought there’s a chance I could do this in visual effects because I had just worked with [a company] who did all the visual effects many times before and I knew these guys were fucking geniuses. So I sent a couple seconds of a shot of Steven [Yeun] from “The Walking Dead” halfway around the world and said, “How can we do this? And [our VFX guy] shot back this e-mail that had the footage three hours later that had the red eye in it. Now, it was pretty crude, but it showed it could be done. And the only thing that we had to do [during the production] was make sure that we got all of the light resources in the room captured because that’s what makes or breaks any kind of organic effect in a movie — visual stuff like blood, eyeballs or anything that reflects light. That’s the thing that’s going to look real or not. So every single [camera] set up that we did, we’d have to bring out this Phantasm ball that was 360 degrees — I expected Angus Scrimm to come out like, “You’re not making your day, Boyyyy!” [and] you’ll be able to see it in the behind the scenes doc that we have on the digital release and also on the Blu-ray.
If we didn’t have that, I don’t think we would’ve been able to pull that effect off. I would’ve had to strip that idea and I truly don’t think the movie would be as successful as it is if the audience doesn’t realize that this is a little bit fantasy. [If the film is] just sweaty white people just beating the fuck out of each other, I think it would’ve come off a little more mean, [but to have a] high-concept kind of step to stand out that allows people to separate themselves from real life a little bit and go, “wouldn’t it be crazy if this happened?” I wanted there to be a slightly heightened sense of reality in this just to allow us to have fun with it because if it wasn’t, it would just be mean-spirited. So [the red eye was] a worthy investment and looking back at it, I mean, thank God, we came up with that concept as we did because there was a moment where we were just like, “Ehh, don’t worry about it. We’ll be able to get all the information that we need based on the camerawork we already have. We don’t need that fucking ball coming out” — and believe me, there were plenty of days where I’m like, “Get that fucking ball out of there because we have to shoot now and just killing my day — but if we didn’t have it, the movie would’ve been different.
I also became obsessed with the extras in the backgrounds of scenes – there’s one lady who gradually accumulates post-it notes on her clothes, so I wondered, did you actually have unspoken little narratives for them?
What’s funny is that all the extras in the movie are Serbian locals and I’d say a good 80 to 90% of them did not speak English. Very early on, we thought we had to prepare ourselves for that and another thing is that when you’re the director, you’re not allowed to talk to the extras, especially if it’s union. If you do, the actor can go to SAG and say, “I got direction from the director [which classifies one as an actor],” so then you’ve got to pay more. So all the action has to be dictated to the first [assistant director] team and then the first AD team ends up being the ones that transfer the information to [the extras]. Sometimes it works out great, sometimes it doesn’t, but [as far as the direction to them], Matias Caruso, who wrote the script couldn’t be on set and because we were half a world away, it was hard to relay information or ask questions or even ask for quick rewrites, but he was so cool knowing that myself and Sean Sorensen, one of my producers who’s like my other writing collaborator on set had a very good handle on what the script was that he just said, “Look, do what you’ve got to do.”
So with Matias involved, we made a phase chart [for the spread of the infection], like Phase One, Phase 2, Phase 3, Phase 4, Phase 5, just so that we can track, where people were infection-wise on the day and at that point in time [in the story]. That would prove invaluable because we were able to say, “Okay, it’s 11 o’clock in the movie and if people are infected at 8:30 or 9 o’clock in the morning…let me look at the chart. Here, they’d be phase three, so they would do this, this and this.” And all the way through prep, we had a tip jar [on set], [where] it would be a list of all the fucked up, crazy things that we would think someone could possibly be doing in the background and we would just make a list. Everybody contributed, from the producers to the ADs to the actors, like, “What if we did this? What if somebody did that?”
For example, the whole Post-it notes thing was something that I remember someone just came up with in the office and then next thing I know because we put it on the list, there’s somebody in the background with a bunch of fucking post-its running around! [laughs] I just thought that was so fucking funny and to be able to track that with the ADs and with the extras was so exciting because we always knew there was something exciting that happening in the periphery. That was so important to the movie itself. We needed to make sure people knew how much chaos was going on at any particular moment and if you don’t have anything going on, there’s got to be a good reason. There’s just so many moving parts in the movie already and sometimes the last thing you think about is the extras, but there are certain scenes in there where if you didn’t have any chaos going on, I don’t think the movie’s point would’ve gotten across.
Were there any details from your own corporate life that were important for you to get in there? Or was it all already in Matias’ script?
When I got the script, I was already well-marinated in all the minutiae and all the bullshit that a corporate job comes in that I look back at it now and I’m like, that was all research. That was like me being Cameron Crowe while he was writing “Fast Times.” I was, uh, yeah, doing deep cover. [laughs] When I was just trying to make ends meet. But when you have a job like that, you fall into the mechanics of what it’s like to have an idea and then you need to get 18 approvals via e-mail or hear the dreaded words, “Let’s discuss,” which is the most passive aggressive way of saying I’m mad at you. No one wants to piss anybody off anymore. And while this wasn’t directly in the script, I have a real issue with passive aggression. It’s just such a lazy and weak way of dealing with situations and being confrontational – and I’m not the most confrontational person to begin with, but there’s something to be said about the days when people could just fight it out or scream at each other — and then you’d get it out and have beers later and you’d be fine — because everyone’s so fucking sensitive these days. Everyone’s scared of a lawsuit, so you don’t fight anymore, you sue. And that’s a shitty culture to be in.
In a world like we live in today, there’s a reason why people go “postal,” so to speak, because everything’s so pent up, there’s just no outlet for that aggression. So I looked at that script and there was already so much on the page that was there, but there’s a lot of me in there — even stuff that was on the day. Because I knew those characters, we were throwing lines back and forth at each other like improv style because it just felt right, and because we were so inspired by what Matias did, the dialogue would change, but that’s just because the character dictated it. Not like, “Oh this’ll sound cool because I’m putting a stamp on it.” It was purely because I’ve lived this life and I know certain terms — like everything the Reaper [played by Dallas Roberts] says, [such as] “I’m going to have to file that under ’N’ for ‘Not My Problem,’” how many times I heard that at work just made me nauseous. So it’s like I got to have my little revenge on all the bullshit that I had to deal with vicariously through this movie, which was very cathartic.
“Mayhem” opens on November 10th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica, New York at the Cinema Village, and Chicago at the AMC Woodridge, among other cities. A full list of theaters is here. It is also available on iTunes.