Brightburn clip

This weekend sees the release of Brightburn, a movie that flew mostly under the radar until they dropped their first trailer and people realized the little genre movie James Gunn was producing was a superhero horror film.

Gunn’s longtime friend and protege David Yarovesky directed Brightburn from a script by Brian and Mark Gunn and they all aimed to do something new in the both the horror and superhero landscapes. This mashup of genres has already inspired tons of fan art and piqued the interest of cinephiles. (Read our review here.)

The story follows young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), who crashed to Earth as a baby and was raised by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman as their own. He begins to discover he has superpowers, but unlike other similar origin stories there’s something not exactly right with Brandon, which becomes even more troubling now that he can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes.

I was able to talk with director David Yarovesky for half an hour and we dove into a lot of interesting stuff, like the inherant parallels between superhero stories and horror stories, the striking design and execution of Brandon’s mask and how this gory, R-rated movie is ultimately a bizarre love letter to his mother.

You’ve directed a low budget feature before this, The Hive, and have made a ton of music videos, including the Guardians Inferno video, so it’s been a long road to Brightburn, your first studio-released movie. Can you talk a little about the road you took to get to this point?

You summed it up pretty nicely. There’s been a long road of work that’s lead here. I’ve done something like eighty music videos, commercials, I did a movie called The Hive, which swallowed a good two to three years of my life and then Guardians Inferno for Disney.

Also there this, which is funny because you wouldn’t think it’d go on that list, but I did the VR experience for The Belko Experiment. That felt like another step on the road because it was me working with a studio, pitching them something creative, walking them through it, blowing through the expectations and I did find, strangely enough, that creative directing a video game felt like a cousin of directing a movie. They feel very related.

James [Gunn] and I have been trying to make a movie together for a long time. Before the original Guardians came out he and I were trying to make a film together. The timing never worked out or the project wasn’t right and then suddenly I’m talking to Brian and Mark [Gunn] and they’re telling me about this script that they’ve been working on and I was like, “This really could be the thing that we get made.” Shortly after that we were making it.

James, the writers Brian and Mark, and myself met up at James’ house in Malibu and we went through the cards and bashed out the direction of the script and Brian and Mark went off and wrote it and we made that movie. It came together incredibly fast.

I’ve always been attracted to villains and stories about people who want to do good, but end up doing bad. I had just written this spec that was a super villain origin story, so these were the kinds of ideas that were already percolating and fresh in my mind and I was really hungry to tell a story like this. At the same time Brian and Mark had been writing this stuff and James was a big believer in me and had been a big fan and supporter of The Hive and he really wanted to find something for us to make together. All those things came together in this way.

Not all directors who don’t write their own material get to be as involved as early in the writing process as you seemed to on this film. How do you walk the creative line of pitching ideas without stepping on the toes of the writers?

We were all fortunate because we’re all quite close. James and I have been friends for a very long time and I’ve known Brian and Mark through James for a very long time. I think we all respect the concept of “The Best Idea Wins.” Brian and Mark will come in with this great idea and it wins. James will bring up something and it wins. There’s a culture of comfort in that we all want to make the best thing. James was very good about trusting in me to create the vision and was supportive of my vision and at the same time he was good about trusting in Brian and Mark to bring that script to life.

The thing that we could get involved in was the intangibles. Where are we tonally in the horror space? How does the horror play out? There’s a weird, thin line between how the action is written on the page and how it gets shot.

I think if you were to ask them they’d say we all had a pretty good working relationship. But listen, the script which all of us are really proud of, those guys wrote it and they should absolutely get the credit for it.

It’s been pretty crazy seeing how people have reacted simply to the premise. It’s not a new thing to mash up genres, but this particular flavor, the superhero movie and a horror film, seems to have grabbed people. That must be fun, creatively, to explore some new ground.

It’s interesting, right? When you start working on something you have a concept. What would it be like to shoot a superhero in a scary way? I had an image in my mind of Brandon floating out the window and watching his mom. That’s in the trailer and it was the first image in my mind. Can you shoot a superhero how John Carpenter would shoot Michael Myers? Wide-angle, him watching from a distance. That was the first thought in my mind and things just grew from there. You keep walking down that path. These are the conversations we were having in that first meeting in Malibu. What are the tropes of a superhero story and then how do you tell it through a horror lens?

I’d always watch Batman movies and think that Batman is probably terrifying to a burglar. He’s robbing a store and then hears something in the room and a cape whips around and they get beat up, end up hanging upside down. It’s probably a terrifying experience for that guy. If you were to just tell his story you’re in a horror movie!

You start exploring that. You push it and see how the world shapes up and then you end up seeing the thing as a whole and realize it’s really different. You back up for a minute and you realize there isn’t much else like it. You’re somewhere new and it’s really exciting.

It’s also really exciting to see the fan reaction. It’s been overwhelming to me and to Autumn (Steed) who designed the costume and to the cast and crew. Everyone has been freaking out at the quantity of really amazing fan art.

Not only the concept, but the design of the mask, too. The red eyes, the handmade mask… It really walks between both the horror and superhero worlds. It’s a little The Town That Dreaded Sundown/Friday the 13th Part II creepy slasher mask and also like Spider-Man’s first handmade mask.

Absolutely.

So that was the thought process when you were designing Brandon’s “superhero look”?

Yes. That’s exactly right. Let me take it back to what I was saying before about Brandon hovering out the window being the first image in my mind. That image… I felt so passionately about what that image is that I repeated this all throughout preproduction, I repeated it to Autumn, I repeated it to Mike D(allatorre, cinematographer) who was going to be lighting the scene… I said “This one image is going to define whether or not the movie works.” In one image you will need to look at Brandon and you needed to understand that what you were looking at was an evil superhero and that he’s scary. If an audience watches that and gets it from one picture, one frame of it, if they get that concept then I think people will get really excited about it because I would get really excited about it.

If it didn’t work, if it didn’t look scary, if it looked a little stupid, if it didn’t connect as “superhero”, if it didn’t check every single box then the idea falls flat. Then it’s ambiguous and people won’t get it.

When Autumn first started designing the costume we called it S.M.I.V.A. Single Most Important Visual Aspect. We did that so everybody knew that this mask and this cape, the idea of his costume, was so intregal to the DNA of the movie, which is to see a superhero scary and evil, that it would be entangled in the marketing, in the thought process of the movie… it was essential.

I went to Autumn and told her this costume she was making was the single most important aspect of the movie and to picture it someday being a Funko or a toy or something on mantel sitting next to a Freddy and a Jason and Michael Myers. It needed to be distinct and have that superhero DNA. It had to be something you could make for your child for Halloween.

All these things were boxes we needed to tick and she nailed it. She managed to do everything I asked her to do! She deserves a standing ovation.

brightburn review

It seems to have worked. People are getting it tattooed on them already!

Without seeing the movie! The original thought was true. The original belief I had at the start of the movie was true. This is a fresh, cool idea. We just had to execute the hell out of it and deliver on the premise.

There’s also something to keeping the character of Brandon young. He is in an R-rated horror film, so I could see there being an argument to age him up, but it feels more effective even in the marketing that this threat comes from a kid.

That’s a good point. I think in the future, based on the initial reception of this, that we’re probably going to see more superhero horror. While there has definitely been dark superheroes like Spawn and grounded superheroes like Unbreakable, this really is distinct in that it’s the first time a superhero story is being told like a horror story. It’s a scary movie.

There was something interesting about a kid and his blanket. He puts his blanket over his head and suddenly he’s a monster. Another angle to the movie is that when I read Brian and Mark’s script there was a piece of what they had written that really stuck out to me. There was this mother who believed she was raising someone important. She’s right and she’s wrong. Her impression of what her son was going to be was wrong, but she has this faith and love in him in this interesting story between mother and son.

That really connected for me and it became the heart of the movie for me. When I was growing up I was a weird kid. I’d go to horror conventions, I’d watch horror movies, I loved violence and gore in movies. All those things I loved growing up. I mean, I was in elementary school watching these movies. All the parents around me thought I was a weird kid and the teachers thought I was weird because I’d draw scary pictures.

My mom would have to go in there and go “No, he’s creative. He’s special!” So that started to ring really true to me. I know this relationship very well and I can tell this story in a way that’s kind of a love letter to my mom. Obviously I didn’t go around killing people…

Or at least they didn’t catch you.

[Laughs] They never found the bodies! But the movie is an interesting way of saying thanks to her for believing in me all these years, telling an alternate version of our story where she was totally wrong and I could have been a monster of some epic proportion!

I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t tell if you pulled it off or not, but all that stuff seems to be coming across.

If you’ve seen the trailer and think this is a cool idea, then I feel like you’re going to like the movie. It’s a movie that knew what it was and aimed to fulfill the expectation of that. It really plays with the genre.

It’s so interesting to me how even before this modern superhero films have had roots in horror. Sam Raimi did Spider-Man, James Wan did Aquaman, James Gunn with Guardians, Zack Snyder with the DC stuff and David Sandberg just did Shazam, which has some horror elements in it, too. The two genres are so closely connected creatively.

Yarovesky: It’s not easy to do creatively. It’s not easy to navigate. We were fortunate that James put his weight behind it, which gives us the kind of credibility to get away with dangerous ideas that haven’t been done before. We’re fortunate that H Collective got behind us and invested in James and myself to deliver a crazy idea. We’re also fortunate that Sony got behind the movie and is giving it the kind of push that we’re getting for this wild movie.

What you’re saying is exactly right. I’m a guy who grew up idolizing Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Those guys to me were just the coolest people. They both started out making these wild indie crazy gross-out over the top movies that I’ve probably seen ten million times and then went on to be making Lord of the Rings or Spider-Man.

I remember being a guy sitting in a theater going “I can not believe the guy who directed Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness is directing a Spider-Man movie and it’s coming out in three thousand theaters!” Or even better, that guy from New Zealand who made Braindead, which you had to buy a weird VHS copy of at a convention to see the unrated version of. That unheard of super violent movie is directing Lord of the Rings and it’s the biggest thing ever! I just thought that was the coolest thing in the whole world.

So when you put it like that, and I never thought of it like that, yes I’m surprised Sam Raimi didn’t make that connection already. I will say, though, if you go back and watch Spider-Man 2, that scene where Doc Ock becomes Doc Ock… that’s a horror scene. That’s straight up a horror scene.

Maybe the reason these directors have so much success in these bigger movies, especially these bigger movies that can be geared towards kids like a Spider-Man or a Lord of the Rings, is because their knowledge of horror and how to make something scary allows them the ability to create stakes in movies that often don’t have stakes.

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Brightburn hits theaters this Friday.

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