A potent blend of It Follows and Jacob's Ladder, The Black String follows convenience store clerk Jonathan (Frankie Muniz), who is plagued by a vicious rash and disturbing visions following a one-night stand with a mysterious woman from a singles hotline.
The Black String is easily one of my favorite films of the year, and with the movie now on DVD, Digital, and On Demand from Lionsgate, Daily Dead had the great pleasure of catching up with co-writer/director Brian Hanson to discuss working with Frankie Muniz on his feature film debut, keeping the movie's horror ambiguous, teaming up with fellow military veteran Richard Handley to help bring the film to life, and the many cinematic influences behind The Black String.
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, Brian, and congratulations on The Black String! It’s one of my favorite films I’ve seen this year—it feels like Jacob’s Ladder meets It Follows. What was the genesis for this movie? How did the idea for it originally come about?
Brian Hanson: Thank you for the compliment—I’m a huge fan of Jacob’s Ladder and was really impressed with It Follows when I saw it a couple years ago. The Black String was originally conceived ten years ago when I was bartending in Hollywood with my buddy Andy Warrener. We were motivated to make a tiny micro-budget film after seeing Shane Carruth’s Primer. At that time it felt like a lot of horror movies were set deep in the haunted woods or in a big city infested with zombies, so as contrarians, we wanted to tell a small story about a regular guy in the suburbs who has his life turned upside down by a mysterious woman, but we wanted to create a story, like Jacob’s Ladder, that has two interpretations and an ending that can be debated.
Psychological horror films are all about sanity vs. insanity, real vs imagined, so we knew that we’d have to put our normal guy, Jonathan (Frankie Muniz), in a situation where he’s seeing horrific visions and tries to explain them to his family and doctors, but logically they’d never believe him. With that premise in mind, we basically created an indie drama about a 20-something slacker who never left his hometown and has a history of addiction and mental illness. We wanted to create a small suburban drama that feels real and reminds people of their own hometown or people they know. Of course, this being a horror movie, we had to infuse elements of a Lovecraftian cult and strange portals terrorizing poor Jonathan. We did a lot of research on Aliester Crowley, witchcraft, shadow people, and all that fun Art Bell type stuff. Andy and I never made that micro-budget movie—Andy started a family in Florida and I joined the US Army. Five years later I was attending film school at Mount St. Mary’s (Los Angeles), where I met classmate Richard Handley (Navy veteran) and he was really excited about The Black String when I told him about it one day. He suggested we re-write it to feature length and make the film as our thesis product. His motivation fired me up. We dove into the script and Rich’s experience as a medical professional and father added expertise to our scenes that deal heavily with medicine, mental health, and parenting.
When you and Richard Handley were writing the screenplay, did you ever envision Frankie Muniz as Jonathan, or did that come about organically? What was it like having him audition for the role and bring his enthusiasm to this film?
Brian Hanson: We never imagined that Frankie Muniz would be the star of The Black String. We were two weeks into auditioning a lot of great up-and-coming actors when our casting director, Jeremy Gordon, called us and said, “Before you hire anybody, I have a name for you to consider… Frankie Muniz.” Rich and I were shocked. We didn’t know Frankie was acting anymore—we thought he was a race car driver. Of course we invited Frankie to audition with us and his first read was really strong even though he only had the script for 24 hours. Frankie came back the next day and he was even better and was picking up on the little jokes and subtext that we had written into the script. Frankie inherently understood Jonathan’s loneliness and dark sense of humor. Frankie’s talent, charisma, and ability to improvise were obviously top notch. It was a big switch for us because we had imagined Jonathan as more of a quiet, depressed guy, but Frankie’s charm and electric energy made us reimagine Jonathan and we’re glad we did. That’s the fun of casting, you never know how a specific actor will change the way you see a character. In a sense, this is Frankie’s Breaking Bad.
How many days did you have in your shooting schedule, and where did filming take place?
Brian Hanson: We filmed for 18 days and filmed all over Los Angeles. We wanted to depict a typical suburb with tract-housing, apartments, gas stations, and woods on the edge of town—so Pasadena, Santa Clarita, Northridge, and areas of Hollywood were perfect to create that environment on camera. Over the next six months we added seven pick-up days to get all the exterior and insert shots needed for the edit. Our DP John Orphan was amazing, he’d grab his camera on a moment's notice and we’d jump in my car and drive to Santa Clarita to get an establishing shot at sunset or other necessary 2nd unit inserts. Those pick-up days really were guerrilla filmmaking.
I heard that you put together a proof of concept short for The Black String before the feature film was made. How similar was that short to the full-length film?
Brian Hanson: While at Mount St. Mary’s University (Los Angeles), we put together a look book and filmed/edited a concept trailer. I’m not gonna lie, it was a kick-ass concept trailer. John Orphan was our cinematographer for that, too, and he had an awesome actor, Andy Cohen, play Jonathan. We spent three days filming that two-minute trailer with six crew members piled in a car driving around LA. Everybody that saw the trailer was really impressed and it definitely led to us finding our investors. I can say that our trailer and look-book are very similar to our feature film—we stayed consistent from start to finish. There were even some things I think we did better in the concept trailer!
In addition to being a filmmaker, you also served in the military in the 75th Ranger Regiment. First of all, thank you for serving our country. Did your military experience influence you at all while creating The Black String? Jonathan’s arc seems like it could be interpreted as how some military veterans are treated when they return back home.
Brian Hanson: Thank you! I left Hollywood to serve in the Army for patriotic and professional reasons. I needed to go experience the world outside of Hollywood if I wanted to be a more complete and honest filmmaker with real-world experiences. Serving in 3rd Ranger Battalion and deploying to Afghanistan with my buddies was an eye opening experience that changed me for the better. The Black String was written before I was in the Army, but yes, I did see the story with a new perspective when I got out of the Army. For a few months after I got out, I was living back home with my mom in my hometown and felt the isolation and boredom of sitting in the suburbs, unsure of my future after living an exciting four years in the military.
Many veterans can’t relate or communicate with civilians when they get out of the military because they’ve lived a life that was all about living and dying with a team in some very tough and high-stakes situations, and then suddenly they’re just on their own, sitting on a couch and nobody cares what you do or don’t do. So yes, there is an element of veteran anxiety depicted in Jonathan’s desperate attempts to communicate with his family and doctors. I have had good experiences with the VA, but I know many veterans who are very frustrated with the VA and probably feel like Jonathan who has to yell at his doctors to be heard.
With The Black String being your first feature film, what lessons did you take away from this experience that you’ll remember for your next time behind the camera?
Brian Hanson: So many important lessons learned. Most importantly, have a good script and great actors and half your job as a director is already handled. Talented actors like Frankie know how to read a script and add depth immediately, so as a director, I had a collaborator that was actively moving the film in a better direction. In order for a good actor to contribute good ideas, they must have a solid script, a structurally solid script that constantly pushes their character toward obstacles and decisions. Strong scripts make it easy for actors and directors to make strong choices. There are a dozen more lessons I could talk about, but the last one I’ll mention is that a director should keep his/her communication very concise. If you say too much, you’ll confuse your cast and crew. Think about what you want to say, say it clearly and don’t be afraid to use visual examples (look-book, mood-board, story-board) to ensure that everybody from DP, Art Dept, Costumes, Make-Up Effects, etc. is clearly understanding your vision—once your vision is communicated, it’s time to collaborate!
I love how The Black String is very ambiguous in its story structure and performances, to the point where you don’t know whether or not what Jonathan is experiencing is real. How important was it for you to keep the film as ambiguous as possible?
Brian Hanson: The goal was to always have an ambiguous ending and keep the audience guessing about character motivations and what’s coming next. Admittedly, we knew that a lot of people dislike ambiguous movies, but we decided this was our first movie, so we were going to make the kind of movie we enjoy watching. Since the film is experienced completely through Jonathan’s subjective point of view, and he’s totally paranoid, we had to create paranoid atmospheres—everything and everybody seems slightly suspicious, because that’s how Jonathan is feeling—he doesn’t know if he can trust his friends, family, or doctors. We also embraced the Lovecraftian theme of an insignificant human being (Jonathan) being targeted by cosmic/metaphysical forces beyond his comprehension. Much of the movie he has no clue where the threat is coming from or how to fight it, because if some trans-dimensional evil was really trying to destroy you, what in the hell can you do about it? Then again, maybe it’s all in his head! So yeah, this movie was always intended to keep audiences guessing up to the very end.
Were you influenced or inspired by any other movies, TV shows, or books while making The Black String?
Brian Hanson: We knew we were in the shadows of some great psychological horror movies. Our goal was to be a psychological thriller with heavy Lovecraft undertones. Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” was a huge influence—Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant are the gold standard for paranoia thrillers that blur the line between occult horror and mental illness. Other big inspirations were Jacob’s Ladder, Donnie Darko, and Communion, starring Christopher Walken. Again, all of those films deal with protagonists struggling to deal with their fractured perceptions. On a purely horror tip, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Phantasm, and Nightmare on Elm Street were all big inspirations for hallucination horror, as was the heavy mood of David Lynch films. We were also inspired by some great indie films like The Void, They Look Like People, and the homeless/drug use films Heaven Knows What and Toad Road. I also read a lot of Aleister Crowley to understand why a group of people would so desperately want to open portals and summon demons into this world.
Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?
Brian Hanson: I got to wrestle Frankie Muniz on set. We were shooting the scene where Frankie is walking through a dark house looking for his buddy Eric, when he’s suddenly attacked by a shadowy figure. When we got to that moment, we realized we didn’t have a stunt man to attack Frankie, so I had to throw on a black T-shirt and jump in front of the camera to wrestle Frankie. I’m not an actor, but it was my opportunity to jump in and be in a scene with a bona-fide celebrity. Frankie fought hard—he’s a good athlete and he hates to lose, even if it’s a staged fight on camera!
Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from The Black String?
Brian Hanson: I hope viewers debate the ending of the film with a friend and think about the movie the next day. We worked hard to craft a movie that juggles the sanity vs. insanity debate going to the final frame of the movie. I love those type of movies and I hope somebody out there watches this movie late at night and wants to watch it a second time to look for more clues. Believe me, we sprinkled a lot of Easter eggs and clues throughout the movie that are easier to spot the second time through. I also hope people appreciate how much pride and effort Frankie put into his performance. He didn’t have to work on a movie as small as ours, but he loved the character and script and wanted to do something special, something different from anything he’s done before, and he succeeded 100%. Lastly, I hope people connect with that feeling of isolation that Jonathan feels and realize that we’ve all been there at some point and it can be very difficult to dig oneself out of that state of loneliness. Jonathan just wanted to connect with somebody, unfortunately this is a horror movie, so he connected with the wrong people.
With The Black String now on DVD and VOD from Lionsgate, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers follow your work online?
Brian Hanson: We’re working on another psychological horror story in which a down on his luck single father hires a sleazy magician for his son’s backyard birthday party. When the sleazy magician puts the boy in the magic box, the boy never comes out… the kid literally disappears! The sleazy magician has no idea what happened, because magic isn’t real, right? So the dad has to go on this dark adventure to find his son—did the kid magically disappear or was he kidnapped? Stay tuned! Also, since Rich and I are both military veterans, we’re also working on a military screenplay that follows a young soldier on his first deployment to Afghanistan—it’s like the US Army Ranger version of Whiplash. That’s a horror movie in its own way.
You can follow me Brian Hanson on IG and Twitter @hanson375 and The Black String @blackstringmovie—send us a message and let us know how you interpreted the ending of the movie!
In case you missed it, check out our interview with Frankie Muniz.