Sean Byrne on The Loved Ones

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
The Australian director talks horror movies and teen flicks.

Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones starts out as a typical teen melodrama. A high school hunk (played by Twilight’s Xavier Samuel) deals with emotional trauma while trying to maintain a relationship. He rejects the school wallflower (a brilliant Robin McLeavy) and life goes on, inexorably it seems, towards the school ball. The narrative then shifts into horror territory, at which point The Loved Ones becomes a rollicking ride—one indebted to genre staples Misery, Carrie, and Evil Dead. Byrne’s debut feature has garnered a cult reputation on this basis, and as the gore and laughs pile up, it’s easy to see why audiences have enjoyed the film so much.

Byrne was interested in film from a young age. “My Dad has always been huge film buff, and he still is a movie critic in Tasmania. I grew up surrounded by films. He would drive from Hobart to Launceston, which had a different television station at the time, just to actually tape movies. He would drive two hours, check into a hotel room just to tape something. I grew up unconsciously versed in film language.” He also confesses that his father is going to have to review this film. “I’d be dirty if he gives it a bad review. He really likes it. I was worried because horror is his least favourite genre.”

Byrne went to law school, but at the age of 25 decided to have a crack at making films. “I enrolled in this college in Tasmania, which is the only place that actually had any video cameras. It was a matriculation, so I had to go back to school as a 25-year-old with these 15 and 16-year-olds.” From there, he got accepted into the Australian Film Television and Radio School, whose past luminaries have included Phillip Noyce, Gillian Armstrong, Alex Proyas, and Jane Campion.

After two scripts that never managed to get off the ground, Byrne realised he’d have to think smart. “I thought I’d write something for a very distinctive market. I know there’s a spot on the shelf for horror films. I know if I’m going to do something with a label on it, I know I’m going to have to bend it to get away with it.” He was also inspired by the fact that many of Hollywood’s top directors—Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson—got their break making horror movies. “It’s great because it’s low budget. In a way blood is the star along with the cinematic imagination. In a way you can be quite flamboyant and show off your chops. It’s one of the most stylish genres and it doesn’t get done that well that often. It was also really exciting because there are so many bad horror films, [that] if I can make one that’s decent, it’ll get noticed quite quickly.”

Byrne, however, is quick to emphasise his love of teen movies, such as Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, or the high school classics of John Hughes. “I really wanted to broaden the market, and make a horror film that would appeal to girls. It’d be still extreme, [but] it’s really about wanting to be loved, and obsessive love gone wrong. She’s no different to any other girl, who has a crush on somebody and gets turned down. It’s just her response to the situation is a bit more extreme than the usual teenager.” The teen story is the source of horror in the film. “It’s bringing the prom to the farmhouse, and making the rituals of the prom and dress up and the crowning of the king and queen—making that the structure of the torture.”

Bryne adds: “The idea was to start the audience out in a comfortable multiplex place, where they go ‘yep I’ve been here’, we introduce the teenage archetypes, which isn’t that much different from The Breakfast Club, and then drop a tab of acid into their cinema Coke.” From there, his film veers into much darker territory.

And Byrne doesn’t hold back in depicting the horror. “Horror in the ’80s and ’90s was just a bit more flamboyant and interesting. There’s a sad trend at the moment towards PG kind of horror, quadrant horror that’s meant to appeal to everyone. When I was making it, I didn’t expect to make another film, so I thought I’d just go for the jugular and try to make something that was fun and would freak people out. That’s the brief. If you’re not freaking people out, then you’re not really a horror film.”

One particularly notorious scene involves a driller, and audience reports have suggested that this was the hardest one to watch. “It’s one of those films where the audience thinks there’s a lot more blood than there actually is,” Bryne explains. “Hopefully it’s engaging the audience’s imagination and getting them to do a lot of the work. It’s like the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs. You don’t see anything. Engaging the audience’s imagination is far more disturbing than actually seeing it. In a way seeing it actually lets you off the hook.”

The Loved Ones also deals with emotional pain, and Byrne was conscious of allowing for well-developed characters. “I wanted it to actually mean something. To me the lead character’s pain is his saviour. He’s self-mutilated because he’s trying to deal with the loss of a family member, which he feels responsible for, and he’s trying to block out emotional pain through physical pain. Ironically, it’s the tolerance to physical pain that makes him the only kid on the planet to deal with what he has to go through. In a way it’s almost cathartic, in that he feels like he deserves to suffer.”

The film also tries to empathise with the so-called ‘freaks’ of the story, presenting them as people you wouldn’t ordinarily notice and judge. “If they’re normal people and you can have a relationship with the villains, then you can understand them. Suddenly you’re on the inside of the horror rather than on the outside, which I think stays with you more. I wanted to create the feeling these people could be behind you in the supermarket. I think that’s what’s chilling about it. I did a lot of research on serial killers—Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer—guys [who] don’t get caught for 20-25 years, and usually when they do it’s because they want to. It’s almost because they get lazy. They’re usually sociopaths who slip through the cracks, and have very little identity. They have no social skills, and they’re almost invisible. I thought that was really interesting. It was kind of the opposite of how villains are usually portrayed in films—sort of larger than life, the clichéd monster or the bogeyman is so one dimensional.”

Byrne is assisted by McLeavy’s wonderful performance as the main antagonist. “She’s such a well respected theatre actor in Australia. She’s just won a Hays Award for A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Cate Blanchett. And a Hays is Washington’s equivalent of the Tonys. When she came into the audition, she was just brilliant. Such a huge weight off my shoulders. She’s done the homework, she knows the character, she’s playing the person not the monster. She also completely got the fact that this is a popcorn film and she rides this delicate line between loneliness, shyness, insecurity, bratiness, sexiness, and total schizoid insanity. Her performance is so fun to watch, and total credit to her because it’s not an easy thing to do—to make it fun, actually be genuinely insane, and let the audience in on why she’s insane.”

The Loved Ones won the Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto Film Festival, and has become a cult hit. Byrne admits that the audience reaction was surprising. “I had no idea. I hoped. I guess no one sets out to make something that’s not going to work with an audience. There are a lot of surprises built into the script and [I] take them left when they expected right, and subverted the conventions of the genre wherever I could. People started talking to the screen, laughing, covering their eyes; girlfriends burying into their boyfriends shoulder; people were yelling at the screen, and moments of applause broke out.”

Through this success, Byrne has become acutely aware of being pigeonholed. “That’s the difficulty. I love horror but I love all genres. I wasn’t totally influenced by horror films—Tarantino, the way he juxtaposes violence and comedy, David Lynch, Walt Disney, and even films like Tim Roth’s The War Zone. It was just the soup that was made up of all of my influences. I tried to distil it for a very specific market. There is the pressure to get to a second film really quickly. [With] the filmmakers that I admire the most, their second film really sets the tone. It’s usually a change in tone to show that you have a range, then hopefully you’re not pigeonholed for the rest of your career.”

‘The Loved Ones’ screens in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin at the New Zealand International Film Festival. For dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, please visit nzff.co.nz.