Interview: Director Adam Egypt Mortimer on Daniel Isn’t Real

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Daniel Isn’t Real was one of the star attractions at last year’s 20th Anniversary Frightfest. The film, directed and co-written by Adam Egypt Mortimer, stars Mile Robbins as Luke, a very troubled young man. Struggling to cope with his everyday life, he finds himself reconnecting with his imaginary friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), but Daniel isn’t entirely what he seems and Luke soon finds himself in way over his head. STORGY had the opportunity to chat with Adam about the original plan for the story and some other grisly details…

Synopsis: A troubled college freshman, Luke, suffers a violent family trauma. He then resurrects his charismatic childhood imaginary friend Daniel to help him cope, not realizing how dangerous Daniel is.

STORGY: Hi Adam, Tony here – how’s the publicity been going for Daniel Isn’t Real?

AM: Hi, it’s been lovely. It’s been great, I did so much of it when the movie was released in the US just a couple of weeks ago, so now we’re, you know, firing it up again. Let’s see who has more interesting questions, the US or the UK.

STORGY: Oooh, I do like a challenge. (Laughs) Well as it’s Friday and I know you’re probably looking forward to the weekend I’ll try and go easy with the questions but hopefully I’ve got some interesting one’s for you – so let’s dive right in, shall we?

AM: Please.

STORGY: So Daniel Isn’t Real is adapted from the novel In This Way I Was Saved by by Brain (DeLeeuw) DeeLeeLoo? How do you pronounce his surname? Do you say DeeLeeLoo?

AM: (pronouncing it correctly) DeLeuw (De-Loo)

STORGY: Okay, and he also co-wrote the script – I heard you consumed the novel in a weekend and the immediately wanted to make it into a film. What is it that drew you to the story and how was it writing with Brian?

AM: Yeah, it’s funny – in the book there’s a significant amount of time with them (Daniel and Luke) as kids and in the movie we do that as a sort of fast prelude, but in the book you’re with them for a long time, so the first thing that hit me was that it had the resonance of a modern day Pan’s Labyrinth – what sort of attracted me to the idea was this dark fantasy world that children can create and how that would reflect in their lives as they grow up, but then as we started to work on the movie, the aspects of the young adulthood became more and more interesting and then the stuff when they were children was diminished and there’s something that happens sometimes that you realise as you go, as your working on it, you sort of realise what was attractive about it, but the number one thing that I was looking for to turn into a movie and what the novel had done brilliantly was to tell a very interior story about one person’s inner conflict but do it in a way that was very visual and externalised – and in a way that the relationship between Luke and Daniel is a lot like the relationship we have with ourselves, but in the book it became this really exciting conflict between these two characters, and that seemed like such a brilliant thing that could easily become a movie – and working with Brian’s great – you know I asked him first if I could have the book and do the adaptation myself, and he wanted to work on it with me, so we started working together and we just found that we got along so easily and he wasn’t overly precious about preserving things from the book – I think we both had the same goal, we both loved the book and we both understood that if things had to change they had to change, and we were both aligned to making the same kind of movie, rather than being aligned about preserving every line and event from the book. So we got along great – we’ve now written four movies together…so I guess it’s working.

STORGY: Brilliant – you’ve kind of answered my next question because I guess sometimes writers can be precious about their original work and don’t want to kill their darlings in that respect, and adapting a book into a screenplay, there’s obviously going to be things that change along the way – with pieces of fat being sliced off, so yeah, you mentioned as well that Daniel isn’t just an imaginary friend – he’s someone that Luke aspires to be, and I was wondering as Daniel Isn’t Real has a few nods to David Fincher’s Fight Club and other films such as The Exorcist and I was wondering if there other films or sources that you wanted to capture onscreen?

AM: Yeah, and those two were clearly big ones for me. I watched Fight Club ten times before we shot this, because I read that Orson Welles watched Stagecoach thirty-three times before making Citizen Kane, so I was like, I gotta watch Fight Club thirty-three times but it’s such a long fucking movie, like, ten times seemed plenty enough to capture (laughs) what was going on there. Requiem for a Dream was a very important influence in the way that movie, y’know has this sort of intensity and manic feeling and the feeling of spiralling into the paranoia and capturing the interior psychological misery of the characters, and how that’s captured in such a relentless, exciting way, and that was something especially that I would talk about with my composer – we’d talk about Requiem For a Dream and how that music is this non-stop, relentless onslaught…and also Jacob’s Ladder was a huge one. Jacob’s Ladder was probably one of my favourite horror movies because of how well it depicts the feeling of trauma and how Jacob is living in this world that he feels very depersonalised from, and there was something about that movie that gives you this psychological feeling but it presents it in this beautiful and exciting innovative and demonic world. So that was something that I really aspired to – that’s not why I cast Tim Robbin’s son in the movie, but it sort of turned out to be a funny kind of coincidence, or maybe there was something else at play…I’m always looking for an actor who can do in a horror movie what Tim Robbins did in Jacob’s Ladder – which was to be so lively and sort of exciting, when the situation around him is bleak, so Miles turned out to able to do the same thing, you know – it’s a gift.

STORGY: I totally got that – when Luke’s at the Uni party and collapses seeing the entities, and I thought at the time that was a great link, but I didn’t really think too much into it. There’s a lot of horror films that will let remind you of other ones, but they’re subtle. From a foreboding opening shot of a cosmic vortex closely followed by a brutal mass shooting, Daniel Isn’t Real is a surprising film that subverted my expectations – How would you pitch this film to anyone that hasn’t heard of it?

AM: Well, I would say that it’s about a young man’s imaginary friend who comes back to him, when he’s struggling – Luke’s struggling to be part of the world and his friend takes him a wild, exciting ride that allows him to have an amazing friend and then the imaginary friend wants more to be just a friend…he wants to take over and that creates horrific conflict. I think that’s how I’d describe it. (laughs) I think that’s what’s happening in the movie.

STORGY: Yeah, so you have these two young actors, who are both sons of famous film stars as well, was there much direction on your part to harness the energy between Patrick and Miles or did they just naturally fall into it?

AM: We spent a significant amount of time rehearsing, rehearsal time is so important to me – I think we were rehearsing for about a week or so before we got anywhere near a camera – and we went through the whole script and a lot of that time was used to foster the relationship between the two of them, as they were playing people who used to know each other as kids, so you want to find ways to generate memories that they had when they were kids together, and take some of the scenes and play with them, what would be fun and how they interact with each other. It was really important for me to pick the intensity of a kind of young men’s friendship at this age that’s kind of different from any other age – friendships that I remember being part of or witnessing during college and I wanted to make sure that this really captured that, because you don’t really get to see that male friendship depicted in movies – of course this ends with sword fights and body horror and horrific things, I really wanted to have that feeling of the correct friendship, so that was the important part of getting the two together.

STORGY: You mentioned body horror – with regards to the CGI and practical effects, was there any hardships there?

AM: I like to do a special effects approach that mixes practical with things that are CG – I don’t fetishize practical effects in the sense of ‘that’s how they did practical effects back in the day’ I don’t fetishize it that way, but I think it’s crucial for the actors interact with the thing. For example, there’s a gruesome transformation sequence right in the middle of the move and when I designing of how it was going to work, part of it that was so important was me saying ‘I need to make sure we can take the actors and glue their faces together, like, I really need the two human beings stuck together with these horrific tendrils so they can interact with each other and push and pull and feel what they would be like and have a performance based around that, but some of the other aspects in that sequence that gets them in and out of it are CG or assisted with CG or have animated aspects so that a thing that would be impossible to make real becomes real. I try to work in a way that makes it seamless so hopefully you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not real, but there’s another…I don’t want to spoil what happens in the movie but there’s a part later on that involves mouth ripping and climbing metamorphosis and I wanted to build it like a magic trick, so we designed a whole thing, it was kind of like a theme park ride, I was the first person in the crew to show the actors – ‘here’s how a human would go through this thing.’ And again, it’s important to make something physical so that we could see the actors interact with it. I just did another movie that has a lot of gunfights and things like that and all the bullet shots are CG, you know what I mean, I don’t have preference one way or the other as long as the actors are doing cool things.

STORGY: I got a vibe from Society from one of the scenes in the steam tunnels, I don’t know if that was an influence or a happy coincidence

AM: Yeah, I’ve had people talk to me about Society, I’ve seen Society – I saw a screening of it several years ago in LA, I saw it on the big screen – I would not say it was an influence at all, but I love that consistently people bring it up, and that movie has some astonishing and weird 80’s practical effects of all time so that’s great – that’s cool, if it’s outsider and insane and people compare it then I feel that I’ve done something right.

STORGY: When I first started watching this I thought it was going one way and then you throw a curveball in there, and it took me off guard which is a hard thing to do with horror films these days, and you cover some heavy topics like schizophrenia and inner demons, Freudian psychology, and kind of like Brian Depalma’s Dressed to Kill and Raising Caine, and even with Todd Phillip’s recent success with The Joker – do you think there’s a responsibility for film directors to tackle some of these mental illnesses in a way that doesn’t come across as self-serving or as a plot device, what’s your interpretation of that?

AM: Yeah, I mean the responsibility is to tell the truth, you know that was something that really attracted me to this movie early on – when I was adapting it. What I realised once we started working on it, was that there were a lot of experiences I had in my life that were related to what was going on in this movie that I could draw on to make it truthful. My best friend growing up had an experience very much like this, a schizophrenic meltdown when we were at the age of these characters, so we had a sort of Luke/Daniel relationship in a way. It was one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever been around in my life and I really wanted to capture what that felt like and what that process was like, and what it’s like when you’re age specifically and you’re having that type of problem and how hard it is for people around you to recognise what’s happening and how difficult it is to get help, and how exciting it might be a first and how horrific it might become and I wanted to capture all of that truthfulness in the movie, and what I’m pleased by is when I’ve travelled around and screened it people would come up to me and say ‘I had an experience like this and I’ve never seen it depicted like this before.’ People were happy to see it, and see their own experiences reflected in that way. I think I have trouble with it when we talk about it in a generalisation – such as should we depict mental in this way or that way – there’s like a broadness in the way that people talk about things that I don’t understand or find helpful, for this specific story I was trying to be extremely truthful to a true experience but do it in a way, and this is why I love the genre, is you take a true experience and you externalise it in a way to make it a bit more fantastic and that makes it easier to relate to. Sadly people don’t go out and watch Ingmar Bergman movies anymore so you need to make a movie about demons and body transformation and it captures something in our experience that we realise.

STORGY: Yeah, there’s a poignant scene with Mary Stuart Masterson’s portrayal of Luke’s mother where Luke wakes up and finds her downstairs that resonates. With some of your other films like Some Kind of Hate and Holidays, it’s kind of evident that there’s a stylised filmmaking that you can see the next level occurring, so what’s next and can you talk to us about it?

AM: I actually just finished filming my next movie, it’s called Archenemy and it’s my take on a kind of psychedelic crime science fiction superhero movie – it’s very grimy and is about a homeless alcoholic who claims that he was once a superhero in another dimension. And he’s played brilliantly by Joe Manganiello and he gets involved with a young brother and sister who are involved in a crime family and it escalates quite quickly from there – and similarly to my other films and what you’re getting at, I was very focused on cinematic style in terms of a movie should not be reducible to its Wikipedia entry, you know? A movie is not about what happens, it’s about how it happens and how it makes you feel while it’s happening – and I think that’s what’s driven my exploration of style and how to shoot movies in a specific way, rather than waving a camera at actors doing a scene it’s how is the colour and the lighting and the camera movement and the blocking making you feel a certain way as the characters are going through these horrible things and I really want to explore that more – and I hope there’s enough momentum in my life that I can continue making movies and start to change my style – you don’t want to get comfortable with a style and I don’t, I don’t know if we culturally have enough memory to remember that Lars Von Triers first couple of movies were so stylish and he had to deconstruct that to get it into the weird handheld thing and then he had to deconstruct that and so on – I aspire to that kind of thing, where the style and the scenes are always working together that way.

STORGY: Adam, thank you for your time. How did that go with the America Vs. UK challenge?

AM: I loved it – so much fun. I really appreciate it. I appreciate thoughtful questions and what I’m trying to do and then we can have a fun conversation about it.

STORGY: Looking forward to Archenemy

AM: Thank you so much, take care man.

Official Credit:

DANIEL ISN’T REAL will be released in UK Cinemas 7th February 2020, and on

Blu-ray and Digital HD on 10th February 2020.

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