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I am not a serial killer film
Stills from 'I Am Not A Serial Killer', 2016

The story of a sociopathic teen hunting a smalltown killer

Billy O’Brien’s eerie new film ‘I Am Not a Serial Killer’ is being compared to Donnie Darko and tells the story of a murderer loose in midtown America

“Story and character are the key ingredients to a good film,” says Irish filmmaker Billy O’Brien. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful it looks or how strange, if the audience isn’t on the edge of their seat, story-wise, you lose them.” We’re discussing his forthcoming feature I Am Not a Serial Killer – based on the Dan Wells book of the same title – which arrives in UK cinemas later this week, and certainly succeeds in holding you in its thrall.

Wonderfully eerie (in a 1980s, Stranger Things kind of way) and darkly funny, it tells the story of John Wayne Cleaver, a brooding, sociopathic teenager in midwest America, who is obsessed with serial killers and the idea that he himself possesses the potential to slay. His daily routine comprises sessions with his soft-spoken therapist Dr Neblin, shifts in the family mortuary, and the adherence to a set of self-imposed rules that he believes prevent him from falling prey to his murderous instincts. But everything changes when a real serial killer starts stirring up trouble in the small town of Clayton, brutally massacring his victims and stealing their body parts – a mystery that John is determined to solve, with little concern for his own personal safety.

The film’s superb cast is spearheaded by Max Records (of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are fame), who conjures up a young Jake Gyllenhaal in his captivating embodiment of the oddball outsider – “he’s got this brilliant, very unnerving little smile he does,” O’Brien notes, “which makes you think, ‘Woah, maybe he really means this’” – alongside Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd, as John’s erratic next door neighbour Mr Crowley. In fact, the film has drawn many comparisons to Donnie Darko over the course of its festival run, praised for its deliciously offbeat nature and genre-bending plot. This, paired with striking cinematography from O’Brien’s longtime collaborator Robbie Ryan (think: I, Daniel Blake and American Honey) and a searingly atmospheric score by composer Adrian Johnston, proves a winning combination. Here as the film hits the big screen, we sit down with the warm and effusive director to talk the seven-year process behind the film, the references that inspired it, and shooting in Coen brothers territory.

What was it about the Dan Wells book that inspired you to reimagine it on film?

Billy O’Brien: It was two things. Firstly, the sense of place: the small, midwest town in the snow was just so cinematic. It had a real character about it. And likewise the actual characters of John Wayne Cleaver and his mum April, and all the different relationships, like the one with Dr Neblin. The dialogue just jumped off the page and made me laugh, and yet it had this great darkness about it. I loved that combination; it’s rare you find something like that.

And John’s such an unusual protagonist...

Billy O’Brien: Exactly. We’ve all seen loads of stories about the nerdy kid who’s terrified of the bullies but I’d never read one where he’s afraid of killing the bullies. That was really exciting! John’s problems – his lack of empathy and sociopathic tendencies – would be terrifying for a parent, but for a teenager it creates a strange kind of armour in that he’s not afraid of anything. There was a conversation I had with Dan Wells early on where I asked how come the bully didn’t come into it more, because I’d just read the book and was still feeling my way through. And he looked a bit irritated and said, “Haven’t we all done that before with the bully? This is about so much more than the bully,” and that’s John’s attitude, that the bully’s just an annoyance because he’s got a real killer to deal with.

“We’ve all seen loads of stories about the nerdy kid who’s terrified of the bullies but I’d never read one where he’s afraid of killing the bullies.”  – Billy O’Brien

Did you have Max Records in mind for John right from the start?

Billy O’Brien: Well our producer Nick Ryan had worked on a short film with Max when he was about ten, around the same time he did Where the Wild Things Are, and a couple of years later Nick read the I Am Not A Serial Killer script and suggested him for the role. So we flew Max and his dad Sean over to Michigan and did a test film with Robbie Ryan – our cameraman, who’s Nick’s cousin – and straight away we could see what Spike Jonze saw in Max; he just had it. The camera loves him and he was a natural. That was 2011, and we didn’t end up shooting until January 2015, by which stage he was 17. We were all worried that he’d have put on 20 stone or something – his voice hadn’t even broken when we first met him! But over the years he stayed interested in the project and it all worked out perfectly. If we’d had to wait another couple of years he’d have been too old.

How did Christopher Lloyd become involved?

Billy O’Brien: Christopher was on our list for Mr. Crowley, but the problem with actors like that is getting to them. We had an amazing stroke of luck though because Robbie, our cinematographer, is with The Gersh Agency in New York, who also represent Christopher, and they gave him the script and, lo and behold, he loved it! He rang me and we had a very long chat about it and I could tell on the phone that he really loved the character.

So it all just fell into place?

Billy O’Brien: Eventually, after seven years of trying to get it off the ground! Put it this way, by that point we were due a bit of good luck!

The film is really powerful visually – what were your key reference points in creating its look and atmosphere?

Billy O’Brien: All of us – me, Robbie, Nick – grew up on 70s and 80s films, films shot on film, which have been a big influence since our time at film school. Specifically, for this film, I remember we spoke about the Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge with Keanu Reeves. It had a kind of paint peeling quality about it; it wasn’t pretty, it was just very striking. Robbie and I also talked about William Eggleston’s photographs because a lot of the mining towns where we were shooting were off the beaten track and hadn’t really changed since the 50s, so they already had that feel to it – the old bars with the red neon signs and so on – and there’s a great quality to that, a richness.

And then there was the landscape and the light out there, which was so inspiring in itself. In the UK and Ireland, we get really grey winters, but even though it was minus 20 over there, they get an awful lot of sunshine and the sun reflects off the snow which creates a light that is amazing on film. The other thing about the town that was great visually is that it’s all heated through central heating plants, which we included a lot in the film. It’s like New York, with steam billowing from the streets, and that gave a real David Lynch sense of foreboding to everything which was remarkable. You couldn’t pay for that!

How long did it take you to find that location?

Billy O’Brien: I made about six different trips out to the midwest in total because it’s so vast. But the plans kept changing because every year we’d reach certain point in the calendar where the snow would start to fall in one location but we wouldn’t have the film fully financed so we’d have to put off shooting till the following year, by which time it had disappeared! Someone had advised us early not to make a seasonal film, but we had to because the cold weather is at the heart of the story. I found out later that Fargo, the Coen brothers’ film, was made when there was very bad snow in North Dakota and Minnesota where they were shooting so they had to film quite a of bit in Canada too. Anyway, we looked at a number of places over the years as the finance situation changed but we finally landed back in Coen brothers country, and ended up with a couple of the same actors too.

“We looked at a number of places over the years as the finance situation changed but we finally landed back in Coen brothers country, and ended up with a couple of the same actors too.”  – Billy O’Brien

That’s a great overlap – which ones?

Billy O’Brien: The amazing preacher leading the funeral at the end was played by Bruce Bohne, who was Marge’s assistant, the one that always brought her coffee, in Fargo. He was wonderful, he only had three lines in the script – the normal priest spiel, “we’re all gathered here today” – but when he came in to meet us he brought a page-long speech he’d written. He said, “I’ve read the script and you’ve got loads of action going on in this scene so you’re going to need me to say a bit more,” in that classic Fargo accent. So he did this wonderful speech – with a great joke about a Greek temple in it, which always gets such a laugh from audiences – and it was remarkable. He told us that he’d never acted in his life before Fargo and that his audition was basically a two-hour chat with Frances McDormand over a cup of coffee and then he got a phone call saying he’d got the role, and he’s been a full-time actor ever since.

The soundtrack is brilliant too – could you tell us a bit about that?

Billy O’Brien: Adrian is amazing; this is my third film with him. He does a lot of Stephen Poliakoff stuff for the BBC, but he doesn’t do a lot of horror – I’m kind of his cult corner; I let him off the leash. He has a chapel that he’s made into his studio, a nest with all kinds of different instruments from Indian singing bowls to didgeridoos to trombones, a huge range of drums and all these organs. He projected the film onto a sheet on the altar and laid the instruments out and recorded all these live sessions, which he just improvised and then started piecing together, picking out the good bits. He did six or seven sessions that way and therefore it has this real live, energetic feel to it. For the lake scene in particular he came up with what he called “ancient hunting horns”, which I think was a trombone played through a didgeridoo into three different amps to create this great echoing sound. We listened to things like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man soundtrack where Neil Young plays a simple guitar score that has a real echoey, in-the-woods quality to it – a lo-fi, analogue approach. Then when we got to the mixing stage, the quality of Adrien’s score matched up very nicely with the 16mm picture and there was a real analogue feel to the whole thing.

I Am Not A Serial Killer is in UK cinemas now.