In an exclusive interview with Villain Media, filmmaker Brian Hanson talks about his maddening supernatural thriller, The Black String, starring Frankie Muniz and Chelsea Edmundson. The Black String director reveals how to build the dramatic tension within an effective mind-bender.
Jonathan (Muniz) is a lonely twenty-something, stuck in his home town working night shifts at the local convenience store. When an unexpected encounter with a mysterious woman (Chelsea Edmundson) turns his life upside down, Jonathan is stricken by illness and nightmarish visions. Paranoid and desperate, he launches on a quest across the suburbs to find the seductress who started it all. Friends and family believe he’s losing his mind, but Jonathan is convinced he’s the target of something far more sinister.
With The Black String now available on VOD and DVD, co-writer/director Brian Hanson reveals how the premise came about, developing Jonathan’s character arc with Muniz, and the casting behind Dena (Edmundson). Check out our review as Hanson and I head towards the director’s studio to discuss the craft the filmmaking.
VILLAIN MEDIA: Tell me about how you and Richard Handley came up with the concept for The Black String.
BRIAN HANSON: The story was originally conceived almost 10 years ago, when I was bartending in Hollywood with my buddy, Andy Warrener. We were inspired by Shane Caruth’s $10,000 feature, Primer, and decided we could do the same thing. Andy and I love psychological horror movies and we wanted to explore a protagonist that was struggling with mental illness vs. supernatural haunting. I had some intense sleep paralysis episodes and realized how hard it is to explain the feeling; so that was the jumping off point for the conflict between science and psychics.
We were also seeing a lot of mentally ill and heavily addicted people in Los Angeles standing on street corners screaming at the sky. It’s frightening, but also makes you wonder where they were six months before this psychotic break. Black String takes a look at a character six months before he might end up homeless in the big city, but through the lens of a horror film. Andy and I didn’t have time to make this movie; he started a family in Florida and I joined the Army.
5 years later, I was back in Los Angeles using my GI Bill to attend film school at Mount St. Mary’s University (Los Angeles). I met fellow veteran Richard Handley who loved the idea of The Black String and suggested we team up to make a feature as our thesis film. His excitement got me re-excited about the script and we agreed to heavily rewrite the script, and expand it to feature length. Rich’s experience as a dermatologist and father added expertise to the many elements in the script.
VM: You really get a sense that Jonathan is lonely and stuck at a dead-end job in the opening minutes. Tell me about working with Frankie Muniz.
BH: We had been auditioning actors for a few weeks and were ready to hire a “Jonathan” when our casting director Jeremy Gordon called us and said, “Frankie Muniz wants to audition for the part.” This was a total surprise — we thought Frankie retired from acting and was racing cars. Of course, we agreed and the next day Frankie auditioned, and did a great job, even though he only had the script for 24 hours. He instinctively understood the dark sense of humor and loneliness inside Jonathan. After one more audition, it was clear we had to cast Frankie — his charisma and skill as an actor were unmatched and his enthusiasm to play the role was sincere. Frankie prepared hard for the role with a lot of help from his fiancée Paige. He was organized with this big binder of script notes and was totally committed to doing all the physical running, jumping and brawling. Frankie has a high standard for himself, like an athlete, he wants to win. If he thought he could do better on another take, he would politely ask for one more take. And of course I’d say yes. Frankie is a total pro; he sets the bar high.
VM: Dena is charming, seductive, but deep down, she’s a lost soul. Tell me about working with Chelsea Edmundson.
BH: I had cast Chelsea in a short film I shot in film school. It was a similar femme fatale type role. When we had to audition 50 actors for Jonathan, I asked Chelsea if she’d come out and read for the guys, just as a favor. She said yes and was very good at being seductive, and making all these actors squirm in their seat. Now it was time to cast Dena who was supposed to be a 45 year old cougar, way older than Jonathan. We had a lot of strong actresses, but I couldn’t stop hearing Chelsea’s voice from her days of reading for the guys. Chelsea’s piercing gaze, and her shift between sweet and sinister were too good to pass up. Chelsea took the role seriously, and did a lot of extra work coming up with Dena’s history, wardrobe, and many other aspects of this femme fatale. Just like Frankie, Chelsea was a total team player. I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing Dena now.
VM: Jonathan’s mind slowly peels away as he becomes paranoid and starts to see hallucinations. Even Jonathan starts to doubt what he knows is reality. Tell me how you and Frankie Muniz developed his character arc.
BH: Jonathan’s character arc was well defined in the script. When writing we took a lot of time to ensure Jonathan had this arc. When Frankie got the script, he understood that the movie was about Jonathan’s descent into madness, but Frankie had to figure out what Jonathan actually believed in each scene. We talked about it a bit and Frankie decided he would play every scene as Jonathan firmly believing in the sinister occult plot. There are a few key scenes in which Jonathan momentarily questions his own sanity, which is realistic, but for the majority of the film, Frankie believes all the occult stuff is really happening to him. Editor Will Drucker made sure the arc was well defined in the final cut.
VM: There is a crucial and unsettling scene where Jonathan has to cut out his arm and pull out what’s inside. Frankie Muniz sells the scene as his character is in excruciating pain. Did you storyboard this scene? Tell about how you collaborated with Frankie Muniz to get to that moment.
BH: This is a good question! The scene was storyboarded, but we only had 4 hours at the end of a long day to shoot it. In reality, we needed eight hours to do it right and did have to go back, and re-shoot some inserts many months later. It was late and we were so low on time that I had to bail on the storyboards and just get your standard wide, medium, and close coverage. Our DP John Orphan was able to get some cool handheld “floating” moments in all the madness.
Back to Frankie. It’s hard to direct an actor how to cringe, scream, and pass out. It’s so intense they kind of know how to make that look real or they don’t. Frankie knows how to make it look real. I would give small directions like, “look at closer and then show disgust” or “it hurts so bad you fall to the floor and start to pass out”. There were levels of screaming we agreed on. But mostly that’s Frankie being a great actor and knowing how to make horror, pain, and shock look real.
VM: How did The Black String change you as a filmmaker?
BH: The Black String has been a long process. Years and years. It has taught me patience and how to keep pushing until you achieve the desired goal, but also being aware of overworking something. When your gut tells you it’s wrong, fix it, but it’s important to step back and ask other’s opinion or you might work on something that doesn’t need fixing.
I’ve also learned that directing is about directing the entire cast and crew, not just actors. Communicating clearly with your costume designer, make-up artist, or cinematographer is just as important as communicating clearly with your actors. Everybody is trying accomplish the mission, but they need clear and concise instructions. Books and sketches are very useful!
Lastly, I realize that this process is so demanding and long that you need a great business partner and family/friends. Rich is a fantastic producing partner, always supportive and both of us have endlessly supportive wives, Marisela Handley and Yani Navas Hanson, who both worked as associate producers, and helped us get through some really rough days.
VM: How can the readers of Villain Media find your movie?
BH: The Black String is available on VOD, DVD and Digital HD. Amazon, iTunes, Xbox, RedBox and many others as well as cable Video on Demand. Last but not least ,you can buy a DVD with special features on Amazon or at Walmart.
VM: What are you working on now?
BH: We are finishing up the script to another occult paranoia script about a single dad who’s hires a backyard magician for his son’s birthday, but his son vanishes during a magic trick. It’s similar to The Black String in how it flirts with what is real and what isn’t and takes this troubled protagonist on a dark and twisted journey into some unknown realms. I also am working on a military script about US Army Rangers deploying to Afghanistan. It’s basically Whiplash meets Full Metal Jacket. It’s based on a lot of true experiences…not all mine!
The Black String is now available on VOD, DVD and Digital HD.
[Writer’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Links are highlighted in bold.]