This week, Freestyle Digital Media is getting into the holiday spirit early with director David Del Rio’s psychological thriller with a yuletide twist, Sick For Toys, which just recently premiered on VOD and various digital platforms. Starring Camille Montgomery, Jon Paul Burkhart, David Gunning, and Justin Xavier, the story follows a troubled young woman named Emilia (Montgomery), whose obsession with Christmas and playthings goes way too far, all with the help of her older brother, Edward (Burkhart), who has been catering to his sister’s whims ever since their parents died.
Daily Dead recently had the chance to catch up with Del Rio for a Q&A with the director, in which he discussed being at the helm of his first feature, collaborating with his cast and crew, and more. We also have a clip from the film for Daily Dead readers to enjoy.
Congrats on your first feature as a director. I noticed that you had done some shorts prior to this, and of course, you have been acting in the industry for about a decade now. Was there a reason in particular that you felt like now was the time to take the leap to feature filmmaker, and what was it about this script where you felt like this was the perfect fit for your debut feature-length project?
David Del Rio: Thanks so much. It has been a thrill ride from start to finish, and working with Jon Paul [Burkhart] and David [Gunning], who are friends and my first professional bosses in hiring me to direct the short films, made the experience just as fun. The real answer is that I’ve always wanted to direct. I directed a film entitled Cover Blown with my brother and cousins when I was 14, and it was a bunch of young teens playing FBI agents and mobsters. We had no idea what short films were, so we put together an hour feature film. My parents were always supportive and still are, they rented out a movie theater screen and invited the whole family and friends, so I was hooked at a very young age.
In terms of my acting career, when I was on set, I was always paying attention to the directors and their process. The way they communicate to actors and crew, when and how they decide to move on, and when they decide to give up their idea or fight for it. So, a lot of my methods come from what I’ve learned. On set, it’s always important to remain the student. It was the right time, the right meeting, and the right circumstances when it came to funding, that got me involved in directing Sick for Toys. I am incredibly grateful for that. So, when the producers asked me to direct, I jumped at the chance. I was excited to dive in because when I read it, as messed up as the actions and decisions these characters make, it didn’t read as a horror film to me. It read as a psychological thriller that was reaching to be understood why and how these siblings came to be. Diving into the character background and mindset was what drew me. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? was our inspiration for this piece.
Coming into this, did you work with the writers on the script at all, or was everything in place from the beginning?
David Del Rio: The first step I always concentrate on the minute I get hired is to work with the writer or writers. The reason is that everyone has a point of a view of the story and the person who has the compass of where the story goes is the director. So, I always try to communicate where the story can go and logistically, where it falls flat and needs more color and/or action. Justin did an incredible job in taking my notes and making it his own.
The core four characters of Sick For Toys have an interesting dynamic on screen. Can you discuss putting this cast together, and your approach to collaborating with them on their characters?
David Del Rio: The advantage of being actors who are also producers is that you can cast yourself. Lucky for me that the producers were exactly right for the roles they played. That’s a big challenge as a producer, to really believe that you are right for the role for reasons other than having the advantage of being in a superior position. So, that’s speaks volumes for David, Jon Paul, and Justin, because they completely immersed themselves in their commitment and really trusted me in guiding them through the arcs. They just let go, which is not an easy thing to do.
Camille was a breath of fresh air when we got her tape. To see an actor completely understand the depth of Emilia without playing the “villain” card sounds like it makes sense, but not everyone understood. Camille was genuinely having fun with torturing the character and yet she didn’t have that awareness that she was doing anything wrong. Which is exactly the scary part of the psyche of Emilia: she doesn’t know and yet she is dangerous. I’m an actor, so I collaborate with them the way I’d like to be collaborated with. I approach them with what I’m thinking, my ideas, then I ask what they think, then we even/cancel out from there. Sometimes I guide them, and sometimes I let them explore on their own. Because you want to witness the character discover things, so you have to let the actors explore.
It felt like visually, a lot of this movie was shot in colder colors until we get into Emilia’s domains (the house and the warehouse), which both had these warm colors, especially considering the Christmas lights being used, which almost lulls you into this false sense of security. Was that conscientious on the part of you and your DP?
David Del Rio: You’re asking about the man who saved our film, Ryan Verbel—quite the leader on many aspects on set, which allowed me to lead in other ways. We balanced each other out beautifully. The mood lighting was very much a conscious decision and was discussed from the very beginning. The contrast of mood and meaning was how we wanted to tell the story. Not for the sake of un-intentioned or forceful style, but it was the truth of Emilia’s world. All she sees is Christmas. She sees bright lights and a joyful world, and Ryan and I wanted to honor the character's point of view in that sense. The world outside her domain is contrasting and a cold world, so that was something we were going after in the subtlest way possible. We always decided that the look of Christmas wasn’t one of the holidays, but of this broken girl’s life.
What was your favorite part of the process of making this film, and do you feel like there will be more features in your future (particularly in the realm of genre movies)?
David Del Rio: That’s a hard question. But for the sake of the question, one of my favorite parts was directing my wife, Katherine Del Rio, who was my girlfriend at the time. We’ve always had this vibe in always getting deep into the arts, whether it be plays or films. So, it was nice to play on set with her, having that artistic trust in each other. My other favorite part was diving into post-production with [editor] Mimi Snow. She is brilliant and a great collaborator. The final cut, as they say, is the last draft of the script, so to make an entirely new draft of the story along with Mimi, through her skill and patience with me, was a thrill. We are in the process of finalizing funding for our next feature, with the same crew and production team, and I’m really excited and grateful for them to have me back.