By Daniel Loria
A long-time platform for launching new talent, horror films have a tendency to turn filmmakers into genre directors. William Brent Bell knows the genre well, having made features like Stay Alive (2006) and The Devil Inside (2012). Bell returns to horror with this January's The Boy, a supernatural thriller about a babysitter and her unusual charge-a doll used as a surrogate for a couple's recently deceased child. BoxOffice talked with Bell about his latest film and what directing horror films means to him.
Let's start with The Boy. Tell me a bit about the film and how you became involved with the project.
Last year I really wanted to do a classic "haunted house" horror film. I wanted to do something spooky with things that went bump in the night. I first met with Gary Lucchesi, president of Lakeshore Entertainment; he sent me home with the screenplay for The Boy. I read it that night and loved it. It was exactly what I wanted to do-and then some. That week, I went back in to meet with him and Tom Rosenberg, the founder of Lakeshore. The three of us shared a passion and clear vision for this film and they brought me on to direct it.
On the surface, the film seems to have a Twilight Zone quality to it. Was that at all an inspiration for your approach? Were there any other inspirations you drew from when dealing with the material?
The Twilight Zone in general is a huge influence on my filmmaking. With respect to The Boy, an episode called "Living Doll" was a great inspiration when dealing with the material. Another terrifying doll story is from the made-for-television anthology horror film called "Trilogy of Terror." My older sister made me watch this, and it truly, truly haunted my childhood. Doll stories aside, I was inspired greatly by my own fear of Damien, the evil young boy in the film The Omen.
Going back to horror, The Boy is more in the supernatural vein-something you've shown a skill in tackling in your previous work. Why do you think supernatural horror films became so popular with audiences in the last half decade or so? How does The Boy fit into this era?
The supernatural is something the world has been fascinated with for centuries. In a recent poll, over 60 percent of people believe in some form of supernatural phenomena. A horror film, by creating highly visual images and sound of what the supernatural might be, allows us to see things that were only in our imaginations before. That is both captivating-and horrifying. To be honest, The Boy is quite different from comparable films in this era. I don't want to say much about it except to say I believe it will distinguish itself as a highly unique and entertaining experience for moviegoers.
It seems a lot of trends in horror reach a point of saturation. I think back to George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, a bare-bones production that works so effectively, and then I see where zombies are today: several shows on TV, Brad Pitt as a globe-trotting big-budget James Bond zombie killer, a world where "rom-zom-com" (romantic zombie comedy) is a very real thing. Is that a challenge when making a horror film-how do you keep the material from exploiting itself?
I know when I am making horror film it is a tightrope act when it comes to tone. For the most part, I like to create a world that feels real and believable-sometimes visually, sometimes emotionally, and sometimes both. Hopefully this believability makes the viewer feel less like an audience member and more like the story could actually happen to them. I truly believe when a movie is relatable the film stays with the audience longer. When that works, the movie experience can follow them home. And so can the fear.
Did you set out to become a "horror" director? Or is there a romantic comedy up your sleeve somewhere waiting for the right moment?
Horror is the only genre of film that consistently takes risks with emerging filmmakers, and I love that about it. In fact, many people will say that a studio's horror films pay for their Oscar films. I wouldn't say I set out to do only horror. Like most people, I am a fan of so many types of films so I absolutely want to branch out into other genres. But I must say the kind of excitement a horror film brings out in an audience makes it hard to want to do anything else. For me, bringing scary stories to life is such an exciting thing because of the audience. There is nothing more rewarding than watching my films with a packed house, because horror elicits so many reactions from moviegoers. It might be gasps or laughs or screams or long, horrible silences. It's like creating a roller coaster and watching park goers ride it for the first time.