In a world of never-ending financial obligations and responsibilities, it’s quite easy for artists to lose their way under the daily grind of 9-5 work. Not so with Brian Hanson, the co-writer, producer, and director behind Grind Entertainment/Lionsgate’s latest horror film The Black String (September 24), which made its regional debut last week to a sold-out crowd at the Atlanta Horror Film Festival. Originally conceived over 10 years ago, Hanson never wavered on getting the story made despite a stint as a US Army Ranger with 3rd Ranger Battalion at Fort Benning, GA.
The movie introduces us to Jonathan (played by Frankie Muniz of Malcolm in the Middle fame), a lonely 20-something store clerk who has his life turned upside down after an intimate encounter with a mysterious woman.
In this exclusive interview with BeatsBoxingMayhem, Hanson details the challenge of combining Lovecraftian-style mythology in a male-centered horror film.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: You really touched on a lot of themes with this film ranging from obsession and body horror to isolation and mental illness. When you initially wrote this, did you realize how many different concepts you touched on?
Brian Hanson: We knew we would have a two-sided type of movie. Like, is this all in his head or is it really happening? That whole Rosemary’s Baby thing. So, these two things are combating each other. But our [main] influence was this show called Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell and George Norris. For people who know, they know.
We almost had like a week of Coast to Coast AM influence in our movie. There are shadow people, sleep paralysis, astral projection, and portals. There’s so much going on that we recognize in our first draft that we had so many different mythologies and ideas that were worth their own movie. So we really had to tear it down to what you’re seeing now. You take about 20 minutes of this film and it could be an indie drama about isolation, not living up to your potential and being desperate for companionship and attention.
Being that there was a 10-year gap between the creation of this script and finally making it, how many revisions did you have to go through?
It’s been pretty similar. The horror ending was a debate point we were going for. The problem that I and Andy Warner had with the first outline was that it was only 45 pages. But then with Richard Handley and I teamed up when I was at Mt. Saint Mary’s 6-7 years after the initial script. The story has always been what we wanted but it was too skinny. We had to create a lot of content.
We know about the concept of the “final girl” in horror. We don’t have that with male leads and it’s much more difficult to put a male protagonist in vulnerable situations where the audience sympathizes. The most prominent one is probably Nightmare on Elm Street Part II and some people view that more as a comedy or a statement on male sexuality. Did you face that same difficulty in having Frankie Muniz (Jonathan) as your lead?
We talked about it and decided we’ll take that challenge. We’re two guys and we’re going to write what we know. We know the male psyche. It’s sort of a cheat in being able to build up that audience sympathy when you’re dealing with a 5’3, 100-pound female fighting an evil, gigantic monstrous foe over a man who’s more physically capable.
We really didn’t want our character to have any easy outs and it did make the writing more difficult. There weren’t easy tropes to go to like “Oh, there’s no cell service so you can’t call the police.” We wanted to be honest about the male experience of being lonely and looking for female companionship.
You see Frankie aka Jonathan go from kind of a pushover to fighting back in his own way. We had to make someone who didn’t seem like he would fight back and slowly develop this arc where he becomes more of a pitbull.
That fighting back moment is where we expect the character to completely triumph. Without revealing the plot or ending, I’m really interested to see how fans react to it since you’re playing with the concepts of what having courage can lead to when faced against more powerful forces…
First, I really appreciate these in-depth questions. We made this movie for guys and gals like you! The first point — when Jonathan starts standing up for himself, he’s actually reverting back to the way he used to be when he had other problems the film hints at. Yes, he’s getting stronger and more confident, but it happens when he runs away and has to face these desperate situations.
You start to see he’s trying to keep this big, violent personality under control. His friends and family are worried about him relapsing. He has all these self-help books. Oddly enough, his strength is coming from behaviors that got him in trouble in the past.
When he’s in the Blue High Shack from the midpoint movie on, you’ll see him in there smoking and it’s playing in reverse. The smoke is actually going backward and we deliberately did it like that because his past is coming back into him.
The second thing is that good old horror movie, Lovecraftian theme of facing cosmic forces beyond our comprehension. What chances does a pitiful human being have against those supernatural horror entities? We see one guy’s attempt to try everything he can think of. Unfortunately, you can’t call the Ghostbusters.
Another unique thing about the movie is the mysterious female character, Dena. Instinctively, we first look at her as the femme fatale or main woman of the story. But her role and how much it factors into the film is much different than expected…
One of the most important things to decide whether you’re writing a movie, short story or novel is the point of view. We knew everything had to be through Jonathan’s eyes. Somebody goes missing? They’re missing — we’re not going to use an omniscient point of view where we cut away to the other side of town and the bad guys are doing this.
That was a very intentional choice. Sure, it posed challenges because it’s always easier to show the ticking bomb under the table. But, we held firm. If the character doesn’t know about it, we can’t show it. Now, I did learn little cheats here and there as a first time director. Sometimes, you just gotta show the audience something and realize you have to make the more entertaining choice for the audience.
The Black String has given us entire mythology down to the detailed literature and illustrations we see throughout the film. Not to mention “The Man in Black” and a few others that we could see in future films. But, do you feel you’ve already said enough about this universe?
Definitely! Our goal was just to tell one story from Jonathan’s perspective, but this is not zombies or werewolves, it’s witchcraft and forces that border on science fiction. Hey, the movie is called The Black String and there are many interesting things that come up when you Google the term. You get g-strings on females, a musical band, String Theory and black holes. Once again, it goes back to that Coast to Coast AM world.
“The Man in Black” has different forms in many cultures. There’s a “Hat Man” you can Google that’s seen late at night. Is he real? We didn’t just invent everything in this mythology — it’s based on several accounts, like the shadow people.
There are more stories to tell in a loose way, maybe like Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy.” There is a way to stay in that world of witchcraft, portals and mental illness where their credibility can be questioned like Rosemary’s Baby. It might be fun to do a series of movies that way with a loose connection.
The reason witchcraft intrigues me so much is that it’s really about the power of suggestion. Now I’m not a witch [laughs], but whether someone is casting spells or not is not as important as if they’re planting seeds and manipulating someone. That is its own kind of magic. Stories with those two sides are fantastic.
You joined the military years after creating this script. Your artistic endeavors could have easily fallen to the wayside. How did you keep your focus?
Well, I joined the military when I was 30. I was very late and I had very specific reasons for joining: duty to country, patriotism, and doing my part. I came to L.A. when I was 21 and I didn’t want to just be here making up stories in my head sitting in my apartment.
I could’ve joined the Peace Corps, backpacked across the world for two years, or been a fisherman off the coast of Alaska. But the military checked all the boxes I needed. So I left with the intention of coming back to what I was already doing — in L.A. working on films.
Now I was a 3rd Ranger Battalion and I didn’t have much time to work on films when in the service. We trained non-stop and deployed every year. I had to let go of being a writer and filmmaker and I became a film fan for almost 4 years. I watched from a much different perspective. Watching movies in Afghanistan with a group of guys is a very different experience from being a deep dive film critic.
I became less analytical and began to enjoy the emotion the films would bring. When you’re deployed and constantly being tested and pushed by stressful situations, to be able to laugh was huge. It reminded me of why I wanted to make films and to appreciate the value of escapism.
So the army puts all this money in you and they want you to stick around. When it came time to re-enlist, they’ll make you a leader within the organization. I contemplated it, but I realized if I made that decision any hopes of filmmaking as a career would be over.
As much as I would’ve loved to stay with my military team and grow with them in continued service, I reminded myself of why I did all of this. I served my country, met great people, did things I never thought I’d do, but it was time to go back to the bigger plan and make movies with a new, invigorated point of view.
What would you say is the film that’s had the most influence on you?
Apocalypse Now just does everything I’d want to do as a filmmaker. It is so atmospheric with the music and visuals. It just puts you in a place. Then it introduces these characters that are so dynamic and coming from their own worlds and experiences. You don’t feel like they’re puppets of the screenwriter and director trying to hammer you over the head with certain emotions. Everyone is so vibrant, funny, dark, moody and ridiculous.
It tells such a heavy thing about the nature of humanity. We’re always facing barbarism as a civilization. We’ve come so far compared to 1-2000 years ago, but it’s a razor’s edge to falling back into utter chaos where horror and moral terror win the day.
For horror, I’d say Rosemary’s Baby. Again, such vibrant and dynamic characters. You question the movie the whole way through.
I’m a Nightmare on Elm Street guy over Friday the 13th. There are so many possibilities in the dream world. Jason is just there and what you see is what you get. Nightmare exists somewhere in the ether.
Any final thoughts for filmgoers before they see it on September 24?
The Black String was a very microbudget-type movie that many first-time filmmakers will relate to. I am them and they are me. We didn’t have any money and still said we’re gonna do this thing.
We put in our time as PAs, office assistants and making our own short films. So when it was time to call in favors, our friends we grew up with came right in. This really was a culmination of a decade of hard work. VME (Veterans in Media & Entertainment) was very instrumental as well.
For those looking to make their first movie, do the legwork. It won’t happen overnight. Don’t spend a lot of your own money. When the idea is right, people will respond positively and the complete strangers will actually say yes when you need money to fund it.
Don’t rush it and build the right team. It will all fall into place.