After scripting a ton of horror films with writing partner Patrick Melton including several of the Saw’s Marcus Dunston is now on his third feature a fantastic horror thriller entitled The Neighbour.
I got the opportunity to chat to this extremely talented and articulate individual about the trails and tribulations of making the movie, working for the third time with Josh Stewart as well as his theory on gore and much much more.
Love Horror: Hi Marcus how are you doing?
Marcus Dunston: Grateful. I’m so grateful that these interviews exist and these opportunities to get the word out on the movie are there and I’m thrilled that The Neighbour is playing in cinemas in the UK and now trickling out all over the world. Yeah we’re lucky man this is really cool!
Love Horror: We’ll I have to say I am a massive fan of yours. I loved The Collector and The Collection maybe even more and The Neighbour didn’t disappoint. Apart from knowing it was you behind it I tried not to read anything about the movie before watching it and that really paid off as it was very different from your past films.
Marcus Dunston: Thank you and that’s great. That was our intent to like say “Huh I know that we have some horror footing but can we sustain the same ride if we take a few steps into thriller?” I think we can as long as people are prepped and we give them a little bit of the goods at the beginning then okay they might be able to buy that 17 minutes to build up the characters threaten, threaten, threaten and then ohh! So when it happens you need to show a lot less to have an impact all the more.
Love Horror: Defiantly. You open on those excellent stylised credits and then it’s almost straight into a crime thriller and for me I really couldn’t tell at that point where the movie was going to go. How did the idea for The Neighbour come about?
Marcus Dunston: Absolutely oh great! The Neighbour that idea came about in really being fascinated with the idea of the secrets we harbour. I mean okay let’s say we’ve all been to that party where we go on a real bender and then the next day if you see a little kid or like a baby you instantly have the feeling of “What am I doing with me life!” [Laughs] You instantly wish to conceal all the evils that you have done that night before and how we hide cursing from kids as long as we can and help encourage the belief in Tooth Fairies, the Easter Bunny and Santa. [Laughs] We have this inherent desire to protect the vile nature of some worlds away from something we perceive as innocent.
So from that standing here was an opportunity to take a couple who are clearly working in the realm of villainy, if this was there thriller John and Rosie would be the villains. And we would wait for someone to call them out in the tragic circumstance and have their decision fold back in on them so their dreams of an escape would become a penalty. But in this case there is a parallel story to them and it’s a family further down the line in their decision making and their stakes are much higher. So this couple who’s working on the fringes of what’s right and wrong come across and collide with a force far beyond the diabolical things they feel that they have done. And by comparison they are straight up heroes compared to the villains before them.
So that’s the theme and I love that theme because I think we all judge ourselves a bit when we’re in an interaction and we’re all looking to hide and wear a mask. This is a movie about all the masks coming off.
Love Horror: That’s one of the things I found so fascinating it is evil vs evil in the film but you still tried to get some sympathy from the audience for everyone including the no good neighbours who go against John and Rosie. I found myself feeling sorry for them at some points especially when one of the sons is killed.
Marcus Dunston: Yes thank you that was the play. The more human they became and especially the reveals of what happens and your like “Oh my gosh he did it!” If the pillars we depend on to stand instantly crumble and life deals you a hand where it’s like “We’re going to expect you to die, you don’t have to but have at it” there is a moment of what mechanism is going to kick in here, what is going to be the end game. Well if you have something to protect well wow that brings out a certain set of instincts and in some cases that could mean love and in other cases that could mean violence. So we depicted both. [Laughs]
Love Horror: Yes you definitely did! The Neighbour is your third film as a director what are the key things you have picked up along the way?
Marcus Dunston: Oh goodness well full disclosure in this case it was the mistakes I made that allowed this movie to work. If I hadn’t have tripped I never would have known how to stand and so we didn’t have time for the mistakes on this one we had to get it right so fortunately over 10 years of working on movies and directing okay I kinda knew a few things I could kinda do because your always playing chess with an invisible opponent when your making these things and you know you’ve heard about a storm that’s coming in a tornado and “yep it might level us or it might skip to the next town. Tomorrow might be 72 degrees or it might be 27 we’re not sure. You should get this in 1 take by the way oh and that car that was supposed to turn up for the car chase yeah it died.”
When that happens you have ideally a set of skills that have been born of being backed into a corner and so because I had worked with Josh Stewart three other times and he is amazing and Alex Essoe is such a pro she’s like a walking talking version of Canada just absolutely a joy to be around, so funny and very much met Josh’s skill toe to toe their talent is chemistry itself. Mr (Bill) Engvall who could do no wrong and completely transformed into someone else. Then when you have a director of photography such as Eric Leach who could make a cess pool look like a rainbow wow. And then our silver bullet was Andrew Wesman the editor who while we were shooting was editing the movie and I must say the version of his assembly to the completed version isn’t that much different at all. He’s so dog garn good I have a feeling this is the first of many Andrew Wesman stories because he is also a filmmaker so he knows every hat at the pipeline much like Josh.
And then how about that if we ever really needed something impossible thank goodness we had the fifth collaboration with producers Brett Forbes and Patrick Rizzotti. There friends, I’ve held their children so if we really needed something we bonded we became a shared line there was no red rover game with anybody we were the entire line and that allowed us to get away with this movie to the quality, to the degree, to the ambition that we wanted to tell it.
Love Horror: Where there any major changes you made from your script when it came to shooting the film?
Marcus Dunston: The opening scene for instance didn’t exist 6 weeks prior to shooting it was a completely different scene that was about abduction and very much more a horror film. You see the kids get picked up and maybe a flash of savagery and we don’t really get to know them but oh well it will have some jumps.
Well that just didn’t serve the movie because although it becomes about John and Rosie we don’t have the mechanics to care. So I thought lets show a violent world arriving at the door step and that allowed for a knock out performance by Heather Williams. That opening scene was shot in an actual stable full of horses so we had a wonderful little girl actress their and her parents and it was cold and it was late at night and she was a one take child actor which is phenomenal [Laughs]
We just put the camera in and her reaction she was a reflection of the world and so you saw, which kinda circles back to what we were talking about earlier, she is the innocence in everybody. So masked people lean in to the child and they drop there masks when they see the child like “Oh I don’t want you to know of the world of masks yet little girl. I don’t want you to know that mum’s can die.” So in comes the skillset and everyone is reduced to what they really are and that means Rosie is the care mechanism and maybe has hopes for a child of her own one day but not in this life because look what mum’s in this life get they get shot in the gut and forced to drive all night.
Then you have Josh as John trying to move passed whatever terrors he’s sustained in service but thank goodness he did survive those because now he has the skillset that even in the backwoods even in secret he can patch someone up and give them even a chance to keep going about their fate, he’s not going to be the person to seal their fate.
All that and no dialogue that was the other goal just let it play out and observe because the child is the vessel the clear observer and every stare of that little girl to Alex, to Josh, to Heather was judgment and what it brought out of each character and us too. You’re thinking “This isn’t a horror movie, you’ve got a kid in their it’s horrifying but this isn’t a horror movie I care, I care about this person and she hasn’t said a thing.”
Love Horror: I loved the opening what was it like filming that scene then especially with the child being so young?
Marcus Dunston: [Laughs] There’s a modicum of guilt where everyone’s like “Gosh I hope this isn’t scarring this kid at all!” She didn’t see any of the gore but thank goodness there was a method in the madness in the fact that we were in a horse stable with horses because out she comes and I was able to hang out with her parents and her and this beautiful horse was there and there was the joy and the smile and it had a calming effect on the world was really neat. That allowed us to be humane and I want to give credit to the actress her name is Zoe Dean and that was the little girl.
Love Horror: My other favourite scene was when Troy is making the ransom video and he says that great line “it’s not what you do but what they think you’ll do.” Is that your theory in making horror, because although your films are very gory do you think the implication is more frightening than the actual action?
Marcus Dunston: Well that’s how we made this a thriller and so I thought “I’m not gonna ignore what my brains saying right now I’ll have Mr Engvall say it.” And in that moment you understand that there are actually a production. He is the director and his sons are the actors and they know how to work the set and the props and they have lights and cameras. So that was another scene that was added really within those last 6 weeks.
Man I am glad you are mentioning those two scenes because there where so many nice little moments that really came about that if we didn’t have such a smooth working relationship it wouldn’t have happened. Sometimes you can add a line in and it seems to throw a railroad track across the creative process but not in this. Everyone was always in the tunnel like we were a bobsled team rocketing towards the finish, it was great crew.
Love Horror: At the very end you have a dedication to Bruce C Fisherman which says “This is the one” what does that mean and what did the film mean to you to put that in?
Marcus Dunston: That is a hug and heart to Bruce who passed away way too early in life and his legacy of support for every endeavour that our Brett Forbes and Patrick Rizzotti have done. I had the good fortune of becoming a friend of his and he bestowed such an amazing friendship on me and he’s even in the movie, the last frames we have of Bruce he’s driving that car out in the beginning in silhouette. It was a wink to the past of the legacy of kindness and wisdom that he left. Every time Brett and Pat had a film coming out he would declare “this is the one” and so we added that on. The first time that came up the waterworks definitely turned on because this man was a super hero and his legacy of kindness ripples onwards.
Love Horror: That’s lovely to have that even in a horror film. You mentioned it before but it’s your third film with Josh Stewart after The Collector and The Collection. What is it about him that makes you keep wanting to work with him apart from what a great actor he is obviously?
Marcus Dunston: It’s just never an easy go in life or any time your reaching for something you love your exposing yourself to so many vulnerabilities and this is a person I have been scared with, who I’ve laughed with until the tears are falling and also shared an absolute stunned silence when we have seen something sing when we feel like all these hopes and wishes have come together.
What I know of Mr Stewart is that he is a fantastic father, that he is an absolute skilled artist and a gentleman who wears many many hats as a director as a writer as a producer and I am just so fortunate above and beyond it all to be his friend because this is a marvellous friend. This is someone who fights for what they believe in and man he shows up, he’s legit and he has an Adamantium heart.
Love Horror: I was lucky enough to interview him for The Collection and he mentioned he got his trainer to pound him with a broomstick to get him ready for the physical ordeal of that movie. Did he did anything that crazy for this film?
Marcus Dunston: [Laughs] For the real life physical demands and good lord nastiness of The Collection and what had to occur there I think The Neighbour was a pat on the back and a hug in comparison. Other than it maybe being cold and getting winded there wasn’t any physical destruction courted of Mr Stewart in this one! He had the same level of intensity a lot of physical contact and some scenes of knock down dragged out ouch but we didn’t trap him in a burning room and say “good luck.”
Love Horror: You must have felt bad for him after those two films and deliberately given him a break.
Marcus Dunston: Oh yeah! Anyone who has to super glue their own earlobe back to their head and still shows up that’s a friend for life.
Love Horror: You had a really strong heroine in The Neighbour but also a strong female villain as well with Jaqueline Fleming playing Officer Burns which made for a great subversion on the typical horror thriller sexists set up.
Marcus Dunston: Alex Essoe is so marvellous I mean she can bring a reckoning just as quickly as she can bring a laugh and it is just great. This is an entity of absolute kindness and I loved hanging out with her and Josh in character and out of character because, and I mentioned it before there is this term chemistry. [Adopts a ridiculous pompous voice] “Oh the actors had chemistry!”
Well I understand chemistry as in I believe two people are attracted to each other when I see them in a movie or on a show but another understanding of chemistry is this, I saw two colleagues who have the same work ethic and level of skill to this particular landscape. It’s almost as if you have two snipers and they both know exactly how to nail the bullseye you put them together great that’s chemistry, that is a good team one can be the spotter one can be the shooter they are absolutely fluid about how they go about their craft because they are both A pluses about how they approach it and absolute professionals. So I thought with that it opened up the door to stress push improvise like “Hay what if we try this, what if we try that?” and we ended up putting more and more in front of Alex to fight through because it was so much fun to see her torque up and take on obstacles.
It’s like for the entire first half of the movie is holding her at bay and you’re wondering “What is she going to do?” because this is the one who finds out about violence first, this is the one who has a wide open heart to care for life and when the movie really does try to put a grip around her throat figuratively and literally you see what she’s been holding back. And that is awesome. [Laughs]
Love Horror: Talking about the ending I was surprised how long you held off really showing anything until that climax considering the graphic content of your other two films and the many movies you have written with Patrick Melton before. Was it a conscious decision to move away from the splatter and gore that came before?
Marcus Dunston: Well I think The Neighbour had to be a thriller to reach and not overshadow performance and suspense and the mechanisms and the themes because a scene of overt gore almost trumps everything that comes before it and a few minutes after because your kind of reeling from its impact like “Wooooow!” Gore can almost land like a dark humour joke, if you hit the gore effect right sometimes you laugh in an oh my god way and then your like “Boy that exploding head performed that perfectly” when it was just a head.
So in this case we had that relationship, we are raising, raising, raising, we’re going right into the tension level now we’re splaying the nerves all right now we’re bringing even more in, the soundtrack goes up and the score matches and wham. It hits like a guillotine and that is how come we didn’t need to show the gore. But you know as a safe guard we shot it, there are moment’s we pulled way back on that went there. [Laughs]
Love Horror: That’s fascinating and I think you made the right decision to leave the gratuitous stuff out because there is such a huge sense dread throughout the film and you almost expect to see something but the fact that you don’t makes it more frightening and more real because there is no real release for the audience.
Marcus Dunston: Yeah and thank goodness we agree! We achieved our goal for me it’s like once you’ve sold something stop selling you don’t need to go back and show how dead this person is we know their dead.
Love Horror: Well thank you so much for talking to us Marcus and thank you for making such great films!
Marcus Dunston: Thank you I really appreciate you guys helping get the word out it means a lot so thank you.