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/co-star Richard Handley to discuss acting opposite Frankie Muniz, keeping the movie's horror ambiguous, teaming up with fellow military veteran Brian Hanson to help bring the film to life, and the cinematic influences behind The Black String.
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, Richard, 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. I understand that Brian Hanson had already been working on the screenplay for The Black String (based on a story idea by Andy Warrener) when you met him at Mount St. Mary’s University. How did you initially get involved with the film, and what attracted you to its story?
Richard Handley: Brian and I met in film school at Mount Saint Mary’s University where we were working toward a Master in Fine Arts in film and TV. It was our first year that Brian told me about The Black String. The idea stuck with me. When it came time for our thesis projects, I reminded Brian about that conversation we had the year before. I suggested we tackle that for our thesis film. He and Andy had worked on formulating the basis of the story in the mid 2000s, and Brian had already written about 40 or so pages back then. Fast forward to film school, where Brian and I immediately went to work completely rewriting the script from front to back, using the knowledge we gained from our professors, plus I infused my medical expertise and experience as a father into the script. I’ve seen patients in my practice who suffer with delusional parasitosis, so I was able to bring a certain authenticity to those aspects of the story. Our script writing process took Brian and I a year. We turned the final draft of the script into our program as partial fulfillment of our MFA degrees.
When you came on board to work on the script, did you write the role of Jonathan with Frankie Muniz in mind, or did that come about organically? What was it like having him audition for the role and bring his enthusiasm to this film?
Richard Handley: We originally crafted Jonathan to be a loner, down and out, socially awkward archetype. When our casting director, Jeremy Gordon, presented the possibility of having Frankie audition for us, we had to wrap our brains around the idea and keep an open mind as to what he might bring to the role. We agreed to bring him out from Arizona to audition and were so glad we did, because he completely blew our minds with his performance and take on the character. Once we decided to hire him, we had to shape-shift the character to match his sensibilities and persona. In the end, we were able to strike a good balance between what we originally intended and what you finally see on the screen.
In addition to being a filmmaker, you served as a Lieutenant in the US Navy. 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.
Richard Handley: Yes, I did and appreciate the complement. That’s an interesting parallel. It’s hard to imagine any writer’s previous life and professional experience not having an impact, at least in some way, on the work they create. So perhaps that came through in our script, albeit unintentionally. I’ve known people who have had a tough time transitioning back to civilian life after their time in service. The physical and psychological impacts of combat certainly weigh heavily on one’s ability to reintegrate. Jonathan had no prior military background, but yes, in some respects he’s looking to find connection with others, but is having difficulty doing so for a myriad of reasons.
You also have experience as a doctor of medicine, which is perfect for your role as Dr. Jason Ronaldi. You have some really great scenes with Muniz in the film, especially the moment when he tells you that he’s going to die because of you. What was it like working with Muniz in those scenes?
Richard Handley: It was a blast working with Frankie. He’s a true professional—always prepared and always giving 110 percent. As a producer, that makes my job much easier. He was always extremely positive, upbeat, and ready to roll. As an actor, it sets the stage for all kinds of fun and exploration of these characters. To have written the Dr. Ronaldi character and then play him alongside a star like Frankie was admittedly a bit surreal.
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 and Hanson to keep the film as ambiguous as possible?
Richard Handley: Very important! It was the entire thesis of our project. It’s how we conceived it, wrote it, pitched it to investors, and ultimately executed it. Brian and I dig stories that rely on this type of ambiguity, two-sided coin, unreliable narrator technique. Films like Shutter Island, Rosemary’s Baby, and Black Swan play this game as well. It’s fun to present this kind of challenge to an audience. It invites them in to help solve the puzzle. It engages them in a more concrete way and hopefully makes the film all the more enjoyable to watch.
Jonathan’s worst nightmares come to life through the palpable effects in The Black String. How did you and Brian decide how to portray the horrors of Jonathan’s infection, from the string in the arm to the demonic creature?
Richard Handley: With regard to the body horror, our goals were to make them as realistic as possible. Well, at least as realistic as it might be should a giant mass of string come to live inside a human body! As far-fetched as this idea is, there are actually diagnoses associated with this condition, wherein sufferers consume mass quantities of undigested foreign material, which often include string, twine, or hair. The mass is called a bezoar. In the case of hair, a trichobezoar. These patients present quite a challenge for physicians in psychiatry and gastroenterology for very obvious reasons. Jonathan doesn’t have a bezoar, but from a psychological perspective it does beg the question. Delusional parasitosis, bezoars, and demonic infestation are all on the table for debate.
Our process of arriving at what is finally presented on screen was in many respects an iterative process, where we’d try this, then that until we achieved what we wanted. Major kudos to our makeup effects and VFX teams for pulling off our effects with incredible skill. Erik Porn and his team over at Bitemares are amazing. So too is my buddy Dan Gilbert. The demon creature was the end result of an amalgamation of hundreds of various creature ideas curated from the web, our own imaginations, and then fully realized through the iterative process of Erik’s team. Add that to the wonderful performance pulled off by physical creature actor Alex Ward and you end up with very satisfying results. We liked the idea of something other-dimensional, demonic, but not demonic in the traditional sense. Upon viewing, we wanted the audience to wonder, “What the hell is that thing? Demon? Alien? Alien-demon? Where does it come from?” And we wanted to only provide quick glimpses of the creature and only at the end of the film. We also integrated graphic art work of the demon earlier in the film to build anticipation for what’s to come. Our goal was to build intrigue, not overexpose the creature, and then sell it in a way that is both satisfying and terrifying. Hopefully we achieved those goals.
Were you influenced or inspired by any other movies, TV shows, or books while making The Black String?
Richard Handley: Many films influenced our work. Donnie Darko, Polanski films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant; then there’s Black Swan, Jacob’s Ladder, Shutter Island, and even The ’Burbs with Tom Hanks. I also really enjoyed Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon losing their shit in William Friedkin’s Bug as well. Not to mention, who doesn’t like It Follows and some of Ari Aster’s work?
Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?
Richard Handley: No particular moments, but I’d have to say at the end of every day I’d run a little victory dance, because we were working very hard against very real constraints of time, money, resources, and the elements. We got it done only because we were surrounded by incredibly talented and dedicated professionals.
Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from The Black String?
Richard Handley: Don’t have sex without a condom. It’s actually just an exceptionally ambitious public service announcement. I’m kidding, of course. Although one can’t help but think that when they see what’s come to be called our, “STDemon movie.” At the end of the day… or night… we want our audience to come away fully entertained and challenged by the question of whether or not Jonathan was suffering from mental illness or was he truly cursed. We hope it’s one of those movies that people will watch late at night, when they are down for some thrills, scares, mystery, and intrigue.
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?
Richard Handley: We’re working on another psychological horror story in which a down-on-his-luck single dad hires a greasy magician for his son’s backyard birthday party. When the magician puts the boy in the magic box, the boy never comes out… he’s gone! The sleazy magician has no idea what happened, because magic can’t possibly be 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 Brian and I are both military veterans, we’re 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 find me on Twitter and IG at @drhandley and @babyyurarichman. Feel free to reach out to me on my website: www.richardthandley.com. I’d love to hear what you think of our film and your take on which side of the coin you’re on: is Jonathan mentally ill or cursed?!