How Gus Van Sant Influenced The Filming Of Spontaneous

The screenwriter behind the films "Jane Got a Gun," "Love and Monsters," "Underwater," and "The Babysitter," Brian Duffield made something truly magical with his explosive 2020 directorial feature debut, "Spontaneous." Adapted from Aaron Starmer's book of the same name, "Spontaneous" is a coming-of-age romantic black comedy horror film about a girl named Mara Carlyle (Katherine Langford) whose friends and classmates begin spontaneously combusting. Knowing that any moment could be her last, Mara begins living life as she sees fit, which includes starting a romance with the adorable Dylan (Charlie Plummer of "The Clovehitch Killer" and "Words on Bathroom Walls"). As their romance grows, Mara and her best friend Tess (Hayley Law of "Riverdale" fame) try to maintain normalcy despite the circumstances. But people begin exploding again, forcing the government to quarantine their senior class, run preventative drug trials, and completely change all of their lives forever.

Duffield has described the film as David Cronenberg meets John Hughes, and between the blood rain of exploding teens and the heartfelt love story, his comparisons are eerily accurate. Shot pre-pandemic, the film was released in the heart of 2020 and went criminally underseen because of it. What truly sets "Spontaneous" apart from other contemporary coming-of-age films is its perfect blend of tones and genre. While the Cronenberg and Hughes inspirations are obvious, Duffield also pulled from an unlikely source — Gus Van Sant, auteur of the New Queer Cinema movement.

The inspiration of Gus Van Sant and Sufjan Stevens

"We talked about Gus a lot [during filming], actually," Brian Duffield told Looper. "Because there's the 'To Die For' Gus and his film 'My Own Private Idaho,' which is one of my favorite movies, and then there's our worst nightmare — that 'Spontaneous' would be like 'Elephant,' [which chronicles the events surrounding a school shooting] and is so upsetting and dark." Given the allegory "Spontaneous" could serve for the epidemic of school shootings, it would have been easy for the film to slip into the bleakness of a film like "Elephant" and lose the lighthearted charm that makes it so endearing. "I mean, 'Elephant' is an amazing movie, but I feel like when we say, 'Oh, it's a movie about kids exploding in high school,' a lot of people go to [the premise of] 'Elephant,'" said Duffield. "And we're like, 'No, we want to go for 'To Die For' Gus, a little bit more than the 'Elephant' Gus,' but he's so great."

Duffield has also cited Sufjan Stevens' album "Carrie & Lowell" as an inspiration for the film, as Stevens wrote the album about his parents and tackles topics of love and death. "I listened to it on loop, basically, and the movie ends with a song from it," he said. "So that was really a big touchstone, because it's a movie about grief but it's not supposed to be depressing, which was an interesting tonal challenge." Duffield wanted the movie to take the tragedy of spontaneous combustion seriously, but without the film becoming a total drag. Safe to say, he accomplished his goal.