For over a decade now, Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton have collaborated on bringing crimson-stained nightmares to the big screen, and while horror fans may associate the creative duo with gore galore due to their inventive Saw sequels (parts IV–VI) and creepy Collector films, their latest project, The Neighbor, opts for atmospheric tension over buckets of blood.
With The Neighbor coming out on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, and VOD from Anchor Bay Entertainment on September 6th, I had the opportunity to talk with Dunstan about directing his third film, casting Bill Engvall as a charming villain, re-teaming with actor Josh Stewart, and the possibility of a third Collector movie.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today and congratulations on The Neighbor. I'm a big fan of what you and Patrick have done in the horror genre, and this film, being more of a southern thriller, is a bit of a different direction for you guys.
Marcus Dunstan: Thank you very much. That was our goal, to not feel as repetitive of anything we've done in the past and to also set a story closer to where we were from. And the closest we could get to Macomb, Illinois or Grand Rapids, Minnesota—it felt more natural in the south. We were chasing all the true stories and based-on-the-true story vibes that we could to make these characters feel as close to real as possible. That drove us to the south.
It was marvelous. There was such a generous community there waiting and helping at every turn. I can't believe how fortunate we were. One, not to get smeared by tornadoes, but two, to have pulled off as much movie as we did for the resources and the kindness that we had at our disposal. It really was the most fun experience I've had working on a movie. This was one I didn't want to stop working on. I don't think any of us did.
Our goodbyes, we had to scatter because yes, a tornado was coming in. John Gulager, our friend all the way back from Feast, was shooting some film outside, and the moon was so bright and the tornado was coming in so fast that you could see the inky dark clouds starting to wipe across the giant diamond medallion in the sky, and we ended up using the shot in the movie itself. That was right after we left and we were just watching the thing roar in from the dark to take us out [laughs].
How long had this story been brewing within you and Patrick. When did you initially get the idea for The Neighbor?
Marcus Dunstan: Gosh, it was conceived a while ago. This one has been a tough one to make because the thriller isn't as easily categorized or marketed as the horror movie where you can set up your shots and your scares and the kids. Most of the ones we worked on, a heavy gore factor would come into play as well, whereas this was against all of that. It wasn't a ghost set in a house, nor was it attacking teens, nor was it found footage. This was actually a movie about compromised adults trying to hide the worst of themselves, but discovering something far more evil next door. It was a difficult high wire to maintain and get off the ground. The first version of this was even darker and nastier. Over the years, it became more and more a story of survival and reflecting different landscapes. This was conceived, concocted, and executed over the course of many years, only when almost a decade of friends, favors, colleagues, and blind luck came together did we get a chance to make this story correctly.
I don't know that I could have walked in and have this be the first movie I had ever made with Josh Stewart that had the same experience. This was our third [movie together], and in-between working with Josh on the second movie and this, he had written, directed, and produced his own movie [The Hunted]. We were shoulder-to-shoulder throughout this whole process. Who'd have thought that we'd be so fortunate to get Alex Essoe to come on board. Josh and Alex had an instant chemistry that allowed us to really push the script further. There were a lot of scenes that were straight-up inspired and changed because of the resources we had. By resources, I mean these marvelous performers. It was just the best. Every single casting inspired a rewrite to tailor it to be more human and relatable, like someone who may live right next door to you [laughs].
The nightmare next door in this movie is played by Bill Engvall. It's a tremendous performance and so unique for him because he's never played a part like this before. What made you think of Bill for the role and what made him the right fit to play Troy?
Marcus Dunstan: It was kismet. If the story was set in a border town, a city, or another country, the alchemy would had to have been different, and it wouldn't have lined up as perfectly as it did. Bill's history and knowledge of the landscape in which we were shooting—he knew every accent depending on the county. He knew how to slot it into a character that he knew all too well through his life. He was so eager to play somebody with a different side other than the kindness, affability, and the generosity that we know him for. It was a wellspring of absolute menace that came out and what made the menace all the more effective was that he could play it though the visage of someone who is inherently kind, who is a father, a protector, and a devoted husband. When you switch the engine behind that persona with someone with a darker goal, wow! It was marvelous. We knew right away this guy was going to be amazing because of his passion to do it and how much he really wanted to come and play it. It was really revelatory.
He inspired a number of moments to give Troy not just points of villainy, but, "Hey, we've got this guy who comes with a reputation and already a persona of generosity, of kindness, of humor. Why don't we try to put little moments of that in through the prism of how he keeps his family in line, how he observes the world?" Give moments of kindness, because then when the menace comes, it'll sting twice as much. It'll have that much more impact because it feels like, yeah, that's what maybe one of us would do if we were trying to calm a little brother or a son or a daughter: "Yes, we're about to do something violent, but you've got to trust your dad here, it's the best thing to do, we need to survive. We didn't ask to be dealt this hand, but we were dealt this hand, and we're going to play it and we're going to beat it."
He's very convincing and charming.
Marcus Dunstan: You nailed it also with the word "charm." He had an entire crew, when it was 27 degrees outside, laughing and going on without a care in the world, despite the fact that if you stood in one place too long, you'd stick to it [laughs]. It's marvelous.
What was it like for you as a director to step out of The Collector universe and try something different in this rural Mississippi environment?
Marcus Dunstan: That was the nice thing. The Collector, the familiarity I had, was just the love for the movies which inspired it. When it came to The Neighbor, the anchor, the familiarity I had consisted of the people I was collaborating with. It was Josh, he's such a marvelous actor, a generous collaborator. I'm just grateful that he's also a friend. On this project we were never wanting of anything. We only had enough time to do it [takes] maybe once or twice, but we didn't even need that much time in some cases. There was an ease to it that made it marvelous. Where it did feel unusual was in, "Huh. Guess we don't need several buckets of blood today, do we? Okay guys, we all get to go home without needing to be hosed off. That's cool [laughs]."
It was almost as if we were stepping behind the things we could hide behind before, and that is the special effects, the gross-out moments, or really the horror entity, with the sudden abrupt end for characters who are introduced and offed before you really get to know them. Whereas, the whole key to the alchemy was being able to marinate with each of these people, see the different layers, and allow them to scare you and become more impactful because you care for them, because you see they're capable of such wretched things, or hold the promise to maybe redeem themselves over the course of a savage evening. Josh, Alex, and Bill—what they brought to the table then inspired the entire environment and the whole set to keep getting more and more into this. It had that inch-from-the-skin reality that we so desired, so it felt like a thriller that could actually happen to you, a thriller that wasn't too far into the realm of fiction, but more felt like a camera was left behind in this environment and it happened to capture the movie. That was the goal.
I'm so glad we were able to do it and nobody knew. We were the most anonymous production out there. I can't believe that. We've been trying to get this thing going for years, we had three weeks' heads-up to get out to the south and start getting ready for it around late October, early November. We shot it in December and now it's already done and out. That doesn't happen anymore.
I'm excited to see what's on the horizon for you and Patrick. Is there anything coming up that you can tease? Is there a potential third Collector film in the works?
Marcus Dunstan: There's potentially a third Collector film all the time. Every now and then it gets floated. We know the story that we would like to tell. Everybody's game to come back and do it. At this point it's just getting the right budget to deliver. That's the other thing our experience has taught us, "Yeah. We've had a chance to make a Collector movie for a modest amount," but in our heart of hearts we know that the movie wouldn't have a chance to live up to where it should or ideally be the stimulus that it should. The Neighbor brought us all together and put us in the trenches again, working, working, working, and the result is the best collaboration we've had yet. It's re-sparked and intensified the fire to want to give that one a proper last knock-down, drag-out, burn-it-all finale that could really honor all the effort and really also be a wonderful hug to the serendipity of all these friends coming together to try to give some people in the world a good scare.
In case you missed it, check out our interview about The Neighbor with Bill Engvall: