Writer and director Darren Lynn Bousman was the guest on a recent episode of the No-Prize From God podcast, which features "conversations with creative people about belief, unbelief, and everything between." During the lengthy, in-depth discussion, the Saw franchise filmmaker talked about his fascination with the occult and how the evolution of his personal beliefs informs his filmography, which includes the horror-meets-The-Hangover film Death of Me and next year's Spiral: From the Book of Saw. Bousman spoke about growing up in Kansas; urban legends; "Satanic panic"; why voodoo was excised from the Death of Me script; strange on-set occurrences during the making of 2011's 11-11-11; the genesis of 2012's The Devil's Carnival; and what Death of Me shares in common with The Wicker Man. A portion of that conversation is excerpted below, edited for clarity and length. Listen to the entire No-Prize From God podcast episode here.
Growing up, what were some of your first introductions to concepts about life's biggest questions? What does it all mean? Where did we come from?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I grew up going to church every Sunday. My mother was very religious, but it was never at a point [that was] over the top. We were still watching R-rated movies when I was 10 years old. It wasn't oppressive. But the older I got, the more that I was able to access information, the more I began to question everything and found myself struggling [to find] my own moralistic core. I was in college when I started getting emails on a weekly basis, not even a daily basis; it wasn't a big deal. Now, I sit in front of a computer for ten hours a day. So, the more access to information [I had], the more that my beliefs in life and everything began to change. I would say the last four or five of my movies have dealt with my own shit as it relates to faith and religion. [Death of Me is] definitely one of them; it gets into the idea of belief. It's easy to look at any culture and think that their beliefs are absurd. But then you look [at what] I grew up believing, that if I ask wishes to a man in the sky, he'd cure my parents' cancer. How is that more ridiculous than some of these other things people are led to believe? Part of my fascination with what the internet has brought for me is that it's allowed me to go down the deep, dark rabbit hole of beliefs and religion, other cultures, what they believe. And it is a dark rabbit hole, because right when I think I have if figured out, I realize and read something else that invalidates my current belief or opens me up to something completely different that I wasn't thinking about at all.
That's great that you'll challenge your assumptions. I'm finding that I'm more comfortable in the mystery in arriving at some conclusion where it's like, 'Ok, here's what it all means.'
Darren Lynn Bousman: Well I think that's where you get fanatical sometimes. They're so sold on what it is they believe in they'll accept no other explanation. That's why I love the occult and esoteric. I collect old occult books, Freemason stuff. I just I love the aesthetic and look of them. But I love reading the text because you're like, 'Oh, shit, yeah, that actually makes sense. And it scares me that it makes sense.' I try to be as open-minded as possible anytime I read anything. I think the one certainty is that there is no certainty. You're not gonna figure it out in your lifetime.
When did you first become interested in the occult?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I've always loved the dark, the macabre. The earliest kind of introduction into it was the 'satanic panic.' It's the easiest doorway into it, because it's the it's the easiest thing to point at as 'evil.' Growing up in Kansas, there were always legends and rumors. There was a place called Stull, Kansas, where there was supposedly this demonic church that was torn down. There are crazy stories around it. As you get older you start to realize that things are skewed when you're a kid. I was a poseur for most of my life in horror [laughs]. I loved Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger and so I made horror movies. Then I started dealing with weird, occult kind of stuff, and I realized I knew nothing about it. I started researching. 11-11-11, which is a terrible movie that I made, I think I actually kind of went crazy making that movie. It was my first deep, deep dive where I was consuming as much information on the weird and unexplained as I could.
In retrospect, the whole experience of making that movie was crazy. We shot it in Spain. I am very pragmatic in my belief in thought. I've never seen anything supernatural. I've never seen a UFO. But there was some crazy shit that took place on that movie that is so unexplainable. Couple that with the lack of sleep, and my researching what was supposed to be researched in that movie, I kind of just lost my shit for a bit. The experience of making it was much more engaging than what actually ended up on screen. It changed everything for me in my belief system and researching things. I was changing years of belief based on new things that I was reading, because I had access to them now [with the internet] which I never had access to that kind of stuff before. It was when I started to see that my beliefs were changing at the same time.
There's a lot of classic film folklore about the strange occurrences on the sets of some movies that deal with the supernatural, like The Exorcist and The Omen. 11-11-11 seems to fit in.
Darren Lynn Bousman: I could do four and a half hours on that movie and the weird shit that happened. The whole experience was so batshit crazy it just propelled my research into the weird. A book I recommend, as a gateway drug into the strange, is Will Storr vs. The Supernatural.
The next movie you made was The Devil's Carnival. It's interesting that you came out of that experience and, rather than run from this stuff, you charged further into it.
Darren Lynn Bousman: It's a quasi-religious story. What if Lucifer was a good guy? What if he's a misunderstood person who is suffering as well? In some respects, it's extremely sacrilegious. But we wanted to make it fun and campy. [We often] deal with fear by trying to understand it. If I'm dealing with something in my life, that usually finds its way into my movies. I just lean into it.
Death of Me deals with the power of religious belief. How were you introduced to it?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I'm always a fan of any movie that deals with religion, belief, or faith. Some of my favorite movies growing up were The Omen, The Exorcist, and The Wicker Man.
The movie also reminded me of one another personal favorites, The Serpent and the Rainbow. And I love that you even acknowledge The Wicker Man with a line in the movie.
Darren Lynn Bousman: I loved the high-concept hook: a man and a woman wake up with no recollection of the night before, the search the phone, and they find a video of the man killing the woman, but they're both very much alive. It's a great hook, like a horror version of The Hangover. This didn't necessarily deal with religion so much as faith and belief. In the original script, it was voodoo. I have seen a fair number of movies that dealt in the Voodoo belief. I had a lot of logistical concerns about where we could set this film and make it believable. We found a book that talked about a belief, a thing in Southeast Asia a long time ago. That's where the idea came from. When you watch Wicker Man, the people of the island are not bad people. They are people who have a belief and it requires a sacrifice. Sacrifices are so prevalent in religion.
Without spoiling anything, there's a moment that reminded me of Rosemary's Baby. If you speak that language of film, you'll recognize it as a harbinger of something that's coming.
Darren Lynn Bousman:Rosemary's Baby is one of my absolute all-time favorite, not only books, but movies. Ruth Gordon's character in that is my one of my favorite. [The character played by] Alex Essoe [in Death of Me] is 100% ripped off of Ruth Gordon's character, the overly nice person that is manipulating. "Here have this drink. Wear this necklace."
The movie grapples with freewill, faith healing, identity. Hallucinogenics are part of the story, which I love, because it leaves the audience questioning everything we are seeing.
Darren Lynn Bousman: I love movies that give me an out if I choose not to believe in the supernatural. We wanted to make sure that you could watch this and believe that it was a supernatural thing at play, [but] we give you both versions. We try to give you two parallel things happening. When you look at movies like Jacob's Ladder and things like that, I mean, the coolest part of these types of movies is they allow the audience to think what they want to think.
Death of Me arrives in theaters, On Demand and Digital October 2nd.