Out in limited theaters and on VOD this Friday from IFC Midnight is The Devil’s Candy, which was written and directed by Sean Byrne (the creative force behind the equally fantastic thriller The Loved Ones). The film stars Ethan Embry as an embattled father who will stop at nothing to keep his family—and particularly his daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco)—safe from devilish forces in the form of a possessed man named Ray (portrayed by the always engaging Pruitt Taylor Vince).
Daily Dead recently had the chance to speak with Byrne about how his latest film became a way to explore his own fears and insecurities—both personally and professionally—and how he enjoys trying to subvert horror fans' expectations whenever he takes the directorial reins. Byrne also discussed his thoughts on celebrating heavy metal culture for The Devil’s Candy, collaborating with his cast, and more.
I really enjoyed The Loved Ones and I was so excited for this just from hearing that you and Ethan were working together. And what I love about both of these films is that they're very familiar premises in terms of genre films, but the way you present the material is very different. I love the energy and the attitude to them, and what you did, especially with The Devil's Candy, it really hit me hard.
Sean Byrne: Oh, thank you. Yeah, that's good. Audiences are so smart and they're usually ten steps ahead of the filmmakers. So I always just try and be as surprising as possible. I'm consciously versed in the language of cinema, so I get to the point of trying to second-guess the audience. Do I try and take a left turn here? Are they expecting a left, so I'll take a right. It's all a bit of a puzzle.
We don't really get stories from the perspective of a father that much, especially in horror, and I was wondering if you could talk about your approach to the story? When I spoke to Ethan, he mentioned there was a sub-storyline to his character that ended up getting cut out, and while I don’t feel like the film really misses, I’m curious about that decision.
Sean Byrne: Yeah, the inspiration was basically my fear of fatherhood. My wife was pregnant with twins at the time, and I was terrified of bringing children into the world because the world seemed instantly a more dangerous place the moment that I knew there were kids on the way. So I've let my imagination run wild, and the story is basically an allegory for parental fears. At the same time, I was pretty disenchanted with my career. I'd been stuck in development hell, couldn't get my own stuff off the ground, had done several page one rewrites for production companies in Hollywood, wrote an endless stream of treatments, and none of it stuck for various reasons.
And so I started channeling that frustration into the lead character of Jesse, by making him an artist who is basically making rent by doing bland commissions that he wasn't very happy with, and he kind of lost his dream in a way. That gave me a way in. So that was the main inspiration for the story.
And there was just an implied backstory that we had in one version, one of the early rough cuts that went into Jesse's backstory through his paintings. You got to see his paintings that led up to him having to paint commissions, where we saw the darkness inside and the type of artist that he really wanted to be, and it inferred that maybe as a child he had potentially been interfered with and had danced with a type of devil. And so Jesse being chosen, almost like being the metal Neo, was a way of him confronting his own demons, but then as the edit deepened, it seemed like his own tortured past gave no more motivation for Jesse to tackle the darkness than protecting his daughter did, if you know what I mean.
Yeah, absolutely. You just mentioned when you were doing this, you were at this point where you were a bit frustrated with things in your career, and then having that pressure of impending fatherhood hanging over you. Was making this movie a really cathartic experience for you?
Sean Byrne: Oh, yeah. The Devil's Candy is, I think, far more from the gut and probably more psychologically true to who I am than The Loved Ones is. The Loved Ones is basically an homage to my favorite films, like Carrie meets Evil Dead, and I wanted to make a really fun, midnight movie, whereas this I think is far more of an exploration of someone's psyche. I didn't know the rules of the supernatural genre as well as I did the slasher genre, and I tried to use that freedom just to see where it would take me. So in a way, the narrative possibly isn't as simple and clean-cut, and there are certain abstractions in there. Hopefully it's something that feels relatable, like a relatable nightmare.
I was inspired by the classic Robert Johnson at the crossroads myth which presents a question to everyone: if you could have the life that you always dreamed of, what would you be prepared to sacrifice to do that? And also, what is most important in life? At some point, everyone has to choose who they are and what means the most to them. So there are a lot of deeply resonant questions in the film, but it comes in a slightly more Lynchian package than The Loved Ones does.
I already mentioned Ethan, but you have a really fantastic cast in this across the board, especially Pruitt Taylor Vince—it was really great to see him in this. Obviously, there's something wrong with his character, but there's also a truly heartbreaking aspect to him, too.
Sean Byrne: Yeah, exactly. I'm glad that you said that. I'm glad that registers. Pruitt was always my first choice. I had initially seen him in James Mangold's Heavy, and it's still one of the most delicate, heartbreaking performances that I've ever seen. I don't think there's another actor on the planet that actually manages to capture a lost child within an adult the way Pruitt does.
That's a really great way of putting it.
Sean Byrne: Yeah, there's something so beautifully vulnerable about him, and the character of Ray in a way is a victim. He just doesn't have the life tools to protect him when the forces of darkness tap him on the shoulder. So, in a way, he's kind of an easy target to be a vessel for something far more sinister. It was interesting, because Pruitt was always my number-one choice. We offered him the part straight away, and he actually turned us down because he was worried about being typecast as the villain. So I wrote him a really impassioned letter saying, "Look, I don't want to just make another cardboard-cutout antagonist, either. I need an actor with exemplary craft who's actually capable of playing the man inside the monster. I'm more interested in showing the vulnerability and conflict within the character than I am trying to just paint him as a monster."
To me, a villain is far more interesting when they're relatable in some way because then the audience has a relationship with them. When it's just someone walking around, stalking and killing—I don't mind it for a while, but it doesn't stretch too far.
And for Ethan, I knew his work as a teenager, but didn’t know much about what he had been doing lately. But with Ethan, if you look at his IMDb page, he's just worked constantly ever since he was nine years old. Keith and Jess Calder, who produced the film, they had co-distributed Cheap Thrills, and they knew that I was looking for an alternative father figure that was capable of playing tormented as well as having a lighter touch. And they said, "We think Ethan would be great for this." So they had a preexisting relationship. Then I watched Cheap Thrills and I loved it and I saw some of his work on television, too. His work in Brotherhood with Jason Clarke is just superb, heavyweight acting. I could see that he just had amazing dramatic chops and could easily go to dark places.
I watched Can't Hardly Wait Again, Empire Records, That Thing You Do!, and his warmth is so apparent in those films as well. I just thought that combination was the perfect mix for Jesse, and we hung out together for about nine months before shooting, just grabbing coffee together and talking. I learned that he's a giant metal fan himself, so it just seemed like it was his destiny to play this character, and then he just prepared like an absolute madman. He wanted this real snake hips kind of look of somebody who is painting, which is obviously a very physical activity, but someone who deals with stressors in a very particular way, which again harks back to that backstory we were talking about earlier. He had a very clear picture of how his past and his present would lead to having that kind of physique.
You mentioned the heavy metal stuff, and I love the fact that this has that heavy metal swagger to it. I grew up in the ’80s amidst the whole Satanic Panic, where if you listened to heavy metal it became this huge thing, and my mom actually sent me to different conferences about how music was evil, where they played stuff backwards and everything. So I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but I'd love to hear about your thoughts on infusing this film with that heavy metal attitude, because I think it fits perfectly.
Sean Byrne: Part of it was wanting to subvert the cliché about heavy metal being the devil, and rock and roll being the devil's music. And I'd only really seen characters that loved metal being treated in a kind of buffoonish or comic way on screen.
So, I wanted to show you can basically have a nuclear family that is just the same as the more traditional family in terms of love for the child. In fact, in a way, it's even more refreshing that this guy is still so in touch with who he was and his passions. That was one reason for having a heavy metal foundation. The other was I just think heavy metal is the most purely cinematic type of music because to me, it's so driving and heroic and primal, and it gets the blood pumping. Even in terms of the Jesse character, the fight within him, I thought that was really interesting. Plus, the fact that he is an artist and so in a way, he's able to tap into these dark, subterranean forces that are out there, I thought that the metal armed him as a warrior to face the darkness.
One of my favorite moments is when he's dropping his daughter off at school for her first day, and he throws the horns at her. It's just little moments like that that really can help you tune into a story more.
Sean Byrne: Yeah, and metal is such an intimate, lovely sub-culture, even though the music is quite aggressive. It's a great shorthand between a father and a daughter. You don't need reams and reams of exposition. You basically just need to see them head-banging to a song together and meeting eyes and smiling or throwing the devil horns at each other, and suddenly you just get a picture of this father-daughter team. It's done in an authentic behavioral sense, rather than just having to force it through dialogue.
In case you missed it, check out our previous coverage of The Devil's Candy: