Arriving in theaters this weekend is Nicholas McCarthy’s The Prodigy, the latest addition to the pantheon of creepy kid-themed horror movies. Written by Jeff Buhler and starring Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott, Peter Mooney, Colm Feore, and Brittany Allen, The Prodigy is centered around a youngster named Miles (Scott) who exhibits some troubling behavior that causes his mom, Sarah (Schilling), to begin to suspect that there might be something sinister living inside of her son. Desperate to try and get her kid back to normal, Sarah will stop at nothing to figure out just what is going on with Miles, and her desperation leads the embattled mother to some very dark and disturbing places along the way.
Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with McCarthy about his latest filmic endeavor, and he chatted about the initial appeal of The Prodigy, embracing the darker aspects of Buhler’s script and how the studio supported the film’s nasty twists along the way, collaborating with his killer cast, and more.
Look for The Prodigy in theaters everywhere this Thursday night, courtesy of Orion Pictures.
Congratulations on the film, Nicholas. To be very perfectly honest, initially I was like, "Okay, it's another possessed kid story. Here we go." But I really loved the way that this completely upended any expectations I had by delivering something that I don't think we've really seen explored in the horror genre for a long time. And I'm curious, because I know you're no stranger to the genre, what was it about this project in particular, where you were like, "Yeah, this is something I really want to take on as a director"?
Nicholas McCarthy: Well, it was reading that script for the first time. What Jeff Buhler had done is take that evil kid subgenre, and at first create a real twisted, dark version of one of those movies that I was happy to read. And then he took it in a direction that really blew me away, because it's a horror movie that does not end with an exorcism, and what happens arises out of the choices that these characters make. And that got me just really, really excited. There was something that felt unusual about it, and I was surprised at every step of the way when we made the movie that the parts of it that were unusual were never questioned by the studio. So, yeah, it was a really great movie to make for that reason.
Sometimes there's this perception of studio horror that you have to play it a little safe, but I like the fact that this goes to some very, very dark places. And I'm curious, when you were looking at this script, were you ever concerned that you might get pushback? Obviously, I won't go into spoilers, but there's the scene with Miles and Arthur, and that gets really tense very quickly, and to me was very shocking, but I appreciated that you guys didn’t hold back. Were you nervous they would ever want you to tone things down or were they receptive to just how dark the story needed to be in order to demonstrate just how dangerous this kid is?
Nicholas McCarthy: I mean, I won't lie. There was some discussion about that scene—not only how appropriate it was, but how exactly we were going to pull it off. The studio at the end of the day understood that was built into Jeff's script and it’s that kind of dangerous stuff that really, we go to horror movies for. And it shocked me in a way, too, but also reminded me why the horror genre is such a great place to work.
When we previewed the movie, I sat down in the theater, and I'm looking around at the 500 people that are there. And I'm thinking, "Okay, how is this gonna go over?" I mean, this is this movie where some pretty dark things happen. And because it's a horror movie, I just think everyone accepted it. They did a focus group afterwards and the first question they asked is, "How did everyone like the movie?" And it's like 18 out of the 20 hands all went up, saying, "Yeah, I liked it." And so, I think as long as you know you're watching a genre movie, it provides cover for dangerous things. And that's one of the reasons why I think it's such a cool genre to work in, because you can essentially get away with all kinds of things.
Absolutely, and it's also a really great vehicle to explore those fears that are very universal for everybody. If you don't have kids, at some point in our lives, we're all going to be around kids in some capacity. And I think this really taps into these fears from the parental standpoint of, "Well, if there's something wrong with my kid, how do I fix it?" And anybody being around kids are like, "How do you deal with a kid who potentially could be harmful?" But yet it's still a child, so you have to have that weight to it.
Nicholas McCarthy: Definitely. And I think if you go back to The Bad Seed, which is the original evil kid movie, it articulates that pretty well there, and it's something that is repeated in so many films afterwards, where it asks you that question, "If you knew your kid was capable of something horrible, what would you do?" And that's the same story that's told in Village of the Damned, or even in The Omen, too. So, when we were shooting the movie, Taylor and I would talk about it like it was a parable, because films that are all part of this continuum have this moral quality, where the audience is being asked to consider our roles in our civilization. We are supposed to civilize our children, right?
But what would you do if your child was capable of these things? And I loved the idea that I got to make another one of these films, because this stuff is so provocative, and it doesn't matter if you have kids or not. That said, I might've directed this film in a slightly different way if I didn't have a kid who's the exact same age as Miles. But that was just helpful. It didn't really hurt [laughs].
You mentioned Taylor, and I love the determination that her character has in dealing with Miles, and I think there's a really interesting back and forth between Taylor's character and Peter's character, John, in terms of how to do deal with this, where she's ready to fight and he realizes that Miles is dangerous and he’s ready to bail. Can you talk about working on that dynamic between them as an onscreen family?
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah, it was important to me that Taylor and Jack spent a lot of time together, not just in rehearsal, but just hanging out. The first thing I did with Taylor and Jack was just put them on a little date together, and they went to the aquarium, because Jack really likes aquariums. And after doing a bunch of those things where I would just have them hang out, it became clear they were just comfortable with one another, and then we could get into doing the scenes. And that said, I kept Peter away from Jackson, because he had to be the one who was more suspicious of him, and less connected. And really, the story there is that this father allows himself to get put in a position where he just gets completely screwed, because of that disconnection.
I want to commend you, too, because I was really excited to see Colm be a part of this, and Brittany Allen as well, who has become a personal favorite of mine over the last few years. How great was it to bring in these performers to fill out these secondary roles and really give some meat and weight to these characters who aren't onscreen nearly as long as Sarah, Miles, and John?
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah, it's a cliché, but there are no unimportant characters, right? And Colm doing this movie was a huge win for us, really. That guy doesn't have to be in a horror movie like ours. But he had been in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and our producer Tripp Vinson knew him because of that. And Colin read it, and he just really liked this role. And working with him was so much fun as a director, because he's so confident.
The first day that he came in to shoot there were seven pages of dialogue that he had to deliver. And I had spoken to him a couple days before on the phone to introduce myself and to talk to him a little bit about the role, and I apologized and said, "I'm sorry that you're going to have to come in and be that guy who delivers all this exposition." And he cut me off, and he said, "No. Don’t apologize. I know exactly what I need to do with this, and I bet we're going to break early that day." And sure enough, that was the one day where we broke early. I think we left three hours early, and it was all because of Colm. He just absolutely nailed it every time.
Brittany was a revelation. She read for the role, and within 30 seconds I knew she had it. And that part was written really well by Jeff Buhler, and she absolutely just encapsulated and connected with who that woman was. My favorite scene in the script was always the one with her and Taylor sitting across from one another at this table. And I will never forget getting to shoot that scene because it’s such a powerful moment in the story. And they both are so strong in that scene. So yeah, I loved my cast on this movie. They were just all so terrific, and I was incredibly lucky.