Last year I caught a showing of the film Blood Brothers (formerly Divine Tragedies) and was blown away by it. In celebration of its VOD and limited theatrical release I got to have a chat with writer/director Jose Prendes.
Anthony Trevino: What I really like about the film is that it’s a straight forward story told in a very surreal style. Did you hit all those surreal beats in the script too or did that come out more during shooting?
Jose Prendes: It’s something that was inherent in how I wanted to tell the story. It’s based on the Leopold and Loeb murder trials in 1924. These two guys realized they were lovers and shared this huge IQ. So they figured, “Let’s test this and plot the perfect murder.” They kill an eight-year-old boy and ultimately go to jail which is great, but the story always fascinated me.
I didn’t want to tell the ugly story of a little boy dying or anything like that. So, I decided from the beginning that if I were to tell this story I wanted to tell it in sort of a dream like way—I wanted to do it like a David Lynch or Cronenberg movie. So the surreal element was always a part of it and, for me, that was the most fun part of writing. It’s also how I found the voices for Thomas and Charles. They almost seem to exist out of time. If you watch the movie there’s no establishing shots. We never really see the outside word; we’re usually inside. The only time we go outside in the daylight is when stuff starts to deteriorate—as we’re ramping into the third acts and stuff starts falling apart. The whole movie almost exists within their heads, so when crazy shit happens you’re almost accustomed to it. Coming up with the lighting cues, working on certain camera moves with my DP, Kyle Stryker, was the fun part of making the movie.
We were working on a small budget, small amount of time, and it’s not even a serial killer movie. You don’t’ want to make Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, that’s been done. You want to do something that will hopefully elevate and stand above and beyond, and to some degree, add something to the genre. That’s really what we attempted to do.
AT: How’d you go about casting Graham Denman and Jon Kondelik?
JP: I’d seen this movie called Compulsion with Orson Welles and Dean Stockwell – it’s basically the Leopold and Loeb case told very straight forward. The acting is great and it’s a powerful film and hell of a story. I’d watched it and I invited them over to come see it because it had moved me so much. So, I invite them over and we watch the movie. Halfway through I said, “I’ve always wanted to remake this, or at least tell this story if I ever got the chance, and I’d love to cast you guys as brothers.
In Compulsion they were friends and they [Dir. Richard Fleischer] stayed away from the homosexual aspect, but I told Graham and Jon, “I’d cast you as brothers because I’d like to approach it as nature v. nurture.” Jon had been looking for something to produce and he’s an actor as well. So, he said, “I like the concept and I trust you. I think it could work, when can you get me a script?” which blew my mind. So basically, after watching a movie and casting my friends, one of my friends said, “Let’s do it.”
That’s how those guys got cast. So in my head they were always Thomas and Charles. When writing the script, I wrote for them, they’re body language, and how I knew they’d deliver lines, which is important.
AT: On the topic of characters, did you always know that whoever played Genevieve (Hannah Levien) was going to pull double-duty as Vanity?
JP: Casting Genevieve and Vanity was tricky. We were thinking about going out for a name, but we didn’t have as much money as we needed for a name. The usual stumble of who can we get, who can we afford, who can maybe do five days, etc. I realized almost always from the beginning that Genevieve and Vanity were similar. They’re images of each other. Genevieve is innocence and Vanity is the perverted version of the woman. She’s the opposite – whore and mother. So, I sort of plugged it to the producer as that and said, “Hey, we’re saving money by casting one actress, but that actress is going to get two lead parts, and it works poetically for our movie.”
It was a hinky sell and that’s how we got Hannah. She was intrigued about playing two very different women. On the first day of shooting she was Vanity. So, she starts as Vanity and then we shoot the diner stuff a couple days later and she’s Genevieve. I thought she was very effortless in both portrayals. Although, she would agree that Vanity was probably her toughest role in terms of the kind of dialogue, and how far away it is from who she really is.
AT: They’re seamless performances. I had to double-check both times I watched it.
JP: I’m a big old movie fan so I wanted to give them a distinct look. I was thinking Donna Reed for Genevieve and then Louise Brooks, the silent film actress, for Vanity. That’s why we did the 1950s vampish appearance. Ultimately for me it was the looks, but it also works poetically for our story. If this movie isn’t really happening in reality, if we’re seeing it through their [Thomas and Charles] eyes, then every woman is a reflection of their ideal.
*Spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned.
AT: The scene where Genevieve dies, was that as hard to shoot as it is for me to watch it every time I see it?
JP: Well, you know it’s funny, because for me—like the movie theater scene—which I won’t go into because I don’t want to spoil anything, that scene alone was the reason Barbara Crampton almost didn’t do the movie. To her, it was so violent and awful in her mind that that she thought, “I don’t know if I want to be in this thing.” Luckily, she eventually said yes.
You know I have a real disconnect, and I don’t know if that’s healthy or not, with the level of violence in my movies. It’s one of those things where yes it was brutal, but it was supposed to be brutal. I don’t look at the act. I look at what it means for the characters. So for me while it is awful—and I threw the element in there that she’s a mother and the little girl that plays her daughter is my daughter, so there’s a lot of connections to that situation that effect you and are supposed to affect you—it’s hard to step away and say,” Is this too much?” Maybe it is too much, but I feel it needs to be. It needs to be so that the switch that comes, the mid twist, becomes visceral and you understand why things switch.
AT: Did you always want to maintain the balance of humor and horror?
JP: I feel they go together. You shouldn’t be watching Last House on the Left every time. I’m not a fan of torture porn. I’m not a fan of cruelty in general. So, while the movie is dark, bleak, and deals with heavy topics most of our kills sort of happen in a very dream like way, and as soon as that midway point comes we introduce Ken Foree who’s basically our comic relief. He comes in and lights up every scene with his smile and his psychic detective style. It’s great. It infuses the movie with new life and while things are getting darker he’s always there—sort of that lifeline.
For me, the movie’s theme is hope. Despite everything I consider myself a very hopeful person. I always hope for the best. Not always positive, but it’s hard to be positive in this industry. The theme is there’s always a chance, you know? It’s never as bleak as it looks. The end of the movie has these speeches that reorient the view and perspective of the characters. I almost feel like it’s as happy of an ending that we’re going to get for them.
At the end it’s raining because that’s reality coming down on them now and sort of washing this world away. I love symbolism. I love Korean movies and they do that all the time. So, I wanted to jam pack this movie [with symbols] so maybe if you re-watched it, you would see things and notice connections that on first glimpse you wouldn’t notice because you didn’t know where it was going.
AT: Totally selfish question. How stoked was Barbara Crampton to hear that most of her scenes were going to be in that huge bed?
JP: [Laughs] She loved the fact that she didn’t have to be very mobile. She could kind of hang out and drink quote unquote wine. For her, it was mostly that the lines were so rough, she was like, “Oh, man, this is going to be a workout acting wise.”
She’s such a sweet kind person. I told her I want Bette Davis and she gave it to me, and I’m very happy about that.
AT: What’s going on with you next?
JP: There’s quite a bit of stuff. My next movie is called Unspeakable Horrors: The Plan 9 Conspiracy. Tom Holland appears in that—he’s one of my celebrity guests. Basically, we take the concept of Room 237, but instead of The Shining we turn it toward Plan 9 from Outer Space. The idea was to sort of analyze the secret messages hidden in Plan 9, and we have genre celebrities chiming in on how the government sort of fucked over Ed Wood. It’s a mockumentary, and I needed something light and airy after Blood Brothers.
So I’ve got that and I just published two books recently. One came out in June called The High-Concept Massacre and it’s a series of interviews with 13 genre screenwriters about the ins and outs of their career. You know, living the screenwriter life and how difficult it can be. I’ve got every from Carl Gottlieb who wrote Jaws to my buddy Shane Bitterling who wrote Puppet Master X. It’s a nice swath of guests—pretty lengthy interviews with them from the beginning of their career to now. I was able to get some really amazing people like [Doug Richardson] who co-wrote Bad Boys and Die Hard 2 and S.S. Wilson who co-wrote Tremors and Short Circuit 2—we also got some really exclusive pictures in there too. The second one came out in October. It’s called the Are You Afraid of the Dark Campfire Companion it’s an episode guide/interview book about AYAOTD.
AT: Awesome, man. I’m looking forward to checking all of that out! Well, thanks for doing this.
JP: Thank you! Take care, brother!