Co-written by director Brian Hanson and producer Richard Handley, The Black String is one of the more interesting psychological thrillers to come out in recent years. It stars Frankie Muniz as a lonely young man whose life (and mind) completely unravels after a bizarre one night stand goes horribly wrong.
With The Black String leaving me with so many questions by the movie's end, I thought I'd speak with director Brian Hanson about the project and found out some interesting behind-the-scenes facts about the psychological thriller.
The Black String isn't quite like any other movie I've seen before. I've got to ask - where did the idea for this story come from?
Brian Hanson: We'll take that as a compliment! We wanted to be different, but understand true originality is impossible. The movie may or may not have witches, portals and a convenience store so it's like Coast to Coast with Art Bell meets Clerks. The Black String was conceived by Andy Warrener and myself ten years ago when we were bartending in Hollywood. We wanted to make a micro-budget film that explored the thin-line between reality and insanity and we wanted people to debate our film's ending. Working in Hollywood we saw mentally-ill homeless people everywhere screaming at the sky or a bus stop. It was frightening to think what they might be experiencing in their head and it also made us think, what were they doing six months ago?
So Andy and I decided to create a story about where a mentally-ill homeless person may have been one year before they hit rock bottom. We also knew we wanted to make it a horror movie, because we love horror movies and losing your mind is horrifying. As a protagonist we created a guy that we are familiar with-a lonely twenty- something slacker who never left his hometown and has a history of addiction or mental illness. Much like Polanski's Repulsion or Aronofsky's Black Swan, we wanted a protagonist who starts obsessing over something that nobody will believe them about. In The Black String, Jonathan thinks he has been targeted by a mysterious cult, but what parent or doctor would believe that? That sounds like paranoid delusions, but is it?.
Andy and I never made this movie, he started a family in Florida and I joined the Army. It was after the Army that I met my producing partner Richard Handley in film school at Mount St. Mary's. I told him about The Black String and he liked it so much that he suggested we co-write a revision and make it as our thesis film project. Richard is a doctor and has worked with mentally ill patients and he's also a father so he was able to add a lot of depth and expertise to many aspects of the script. In the rewrite Rich and I were all about staying true to the original vision and making sure this movie towed the thin line between reality and insanity, but also had some fun with the horror elements.
When watching The Black String, it's difficult to determine if what Jonathan is seeing and going through is genuine, or if he's merely hallucinating as a result of his insanity. I was constantly switching from one side to the other, but never really sure. Was the goal to keep the viewers guessing in this way?
Brian Hanson: Yes that was our goal! Andy, Rich and I along with our editor Will Drucker worked hard to craft a story that kept audiences guessing between two options - either Jonathan is really cursed by this cult or he's slipping into insanity and hallucinations. This was a fun challenge and we relied on script structure and editing to keep this debate alive. Our strategy was to create a sequence that would support the occult curse and then follow it with a sequence that supports insanity/hallucinations. We continued to alternate sequences throughout the movie until the very last scene. Like a coin flipping through the air, we want audiences trying to figure out which side of the coin will land face up. Is he cursed or mentally ill? Even with our ending, people still debate what was real and what wasn't. It's exactly what we wanted to accomplish and we love hearing these debates and discussions.
Frankie Muniz does a fantastic job in this movie, and the role may seem unexpected for those who know him best as the child star from Malcolm in the Middle. What led to his involvement in the film, and how was he to work with?
Brian Hanson: We had been auditioning actors for two weeks and were ready to hire a very good actor as Jonathan when our casting director, Jeremy Gordon, called us up and said, "Before you hire anybody, I have a name for you to consider-Frankie Muniz." Rich and I were shocked to hear Frankie's name. We thought he had quit acting and was racing cars and playing drums in a band. Of course we agreed to meet with Frankie and he auditioned with us the next day. He did a great job having only had the script for 24 hours.
Frankie came back the next day for a second audition and blew us away. He seemed to innately understand the character's loneliness, frustration and moments of dark humor. It was a bit tough for us to change course on casting Jonathan after seeing the same great actors for two weeks, but when we saw what Frankie Muniz did in two days, we knew we had to cast him as Jonathan and let his charisma and talent create a new version of Jonathan... a better version of Jonathan! Working with Frankie for three weeks on set was an amazing experience.
He came prepared every day the way an NFL quarterback comes prepared to a game, he had a gigantic binder with all his actor/character notes and he knew the script backwards and forwards after just one week. Frankie wanted to do all his own stunts and he was 100% committed to the role. We were a very small production compared to the movies and TV shows he's worked on, but he treated all of us as if we were the biggest movie in LA. He loved the role and this was the indie film he wanted to do something special with and I think it's obvious when you see his performance that he succeeded in doing something special and very different. I know that Frankie is proud of his work on The Black String and so are we.
So as to avoid spoilers, we don't need to get too detailed here, but did you and your co- writer always know where you were going with the story during development? Or were multiple endings or story directions considered?
Brian Hanson: Rich, Andy, Will and I always knew how the movie was going to end. The script was almost written in reverse because we were always sure of that ending. That being said, we did film some alternate final scenes to help answer questions our test screening audience had. We shot three different scenes, but we only used one. This scene doesn't change the ending we always had in mind, but it might help some people better understand our ending.
The Black String is a rather dark film, but on a lighter note, do you recall any amusing behind-the-scenes stories, bloopers, or anecdotes from your time working on the set?
Brian Hanson: We were a very small production so often we would start filming a scene and realize, "Uh oh, we don't have something important on set, what are we going to do?" We always found a creative solution. One late night we were filming at my buddy's house, it's the scene where Jonathan (Frankie) walks around a dark house and then gets attacked by a shadowy figure. We realized we didn't have a stunt man on hand to be the shadowy figure, so I jumped in with a black T-Shirt and wrestled with Frankie on camera. I'm not an actor, but it was my chance to act/fight with a celebrity actor on camera. It was a fun scene to do and Frankie fought hard - he's strong and fast and he doesn't want to lose.
You've done great work here with The Black String, and those who agree may be curious to see what comes next. Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
Brian Hanson: Thank you! 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. Unfortunately, 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 it's own way.
The Black String is now available on DVD and Digital HD from Grindstone Entertainment, a Lionsgate company.