Marcus Dunstan is a well known name in the horror realm. Alongside Patrick Melton he wrote four of the Saw films (IV – VII), as well as directing both The Collector and The Collection. He steps ever so slightly away from the horror genre though with his latest film – The Neighbour. The film is an intense thriller with nods to horror. We caught the film at Frightfest and thoroughly enjoyed it.
The film stars Josh Stewart and Alex Essoe as John and Rosie, a young couple that have been downtrodden by life. They make their money by helping out John’s Uncle, a man with heavy criminal ties. To make matters worse, their neighbour Troy (Bill Engvall) is exceptionally creepy. Desperate to break out of their rut, the pair decide to leave town after one last job. However, after John returns home and Rosie is nowhere to be seen he realises that Troy has something to do with it. John then starts a rescue mission and discovers a dark and disturbing truth.
We spoke to Marcus ahead of the film’s release. He was in high spirits when we spoke to him and didn’t even mind that it was exceptionally early in his part of the world, telling us he was embracing his jet-lag. He was very chatty and happily discussed the filming process, and the importance of chemistry, as well as sharing some interesting insights into the Saw series.
Where did the idea for The Neighbour come from?
Well The Neighbour idea was born of a desire to see an adult thriller again. What I mean by adult thriller, is a thriller that centres on only adults. People above or around thirty that had already accepted their hand in life and were playing it. Then I added a few more layers to it that would be unexpected in the thriller area that we learned from horror movies. In terms of a plot we wanted to set something that was a little closer to home, to our back yard of the heartlands.
The concept and theme that has been fun to play with in The Collector movies, Saw and even God of War, was someone who clearly has committed a bad thing, or lived in the world of villains and maybe wanted to make good of that or get away from it, coming face to face with something far worse. Thereby it’s who the people are inside, deep down, what they’re willing to protect, fight for, kill for, bleed for, that defines them.
So it didn’t have anything to do with a former bad experience?
(Laughs) No, no, no! I mean I have a genuinely creepy neighbour now, but it’s handle-able (laughs).
Bill Engvall is known for his work in the comedy arena, what convinced you that he could inhabit this menacing character?
Well how about this, when it comes to someone with the skillset of Mr Engvall, he cut his teeth and put food on the table and provided for his family in the realm of comedy. But that starts with stand-up comedy. That starts with road tours. That starts with going to every possible show that will take you. To stand up, in a dark place with strangers who demand that they laugh. Whatever day Mr Engvall would have had, could have been the worse day of his life, could have been the day all four tires blew out, something hits him and he has to have a mechanism to become that affable guy no matter what. He has to make that room of silhouettes laugh. I thought – ‘okay, here’s a gentleman that has a switch’. He has to switch it usually to ‘Hey everything is fine isn’t it?’ and it was fascinating to consider the gentleman he could be if we flicked the switch the other way.
Personally I didn’t realise he was from a comedy background. I assumed he’d always been playing these dark roles, he does them so well.
The first dailies I showed, people didn’t recognise him. I think that is a testament to how dedicated and marvellous an actor he is. He was willing to go through all of that work to change his appearance and he became someone else. As a true joy to all of us, he was still the affable, humorous, gentle soul we all know him to be. In between every set-up and every shot he was joking, but when it was action, boy Troy came out.
So he didn’t go method then?
Thank goodness he didn’t so, because (laughs) life’s too short you know? (Laughs) If I were really going out there, and everybody went method on that movie, I think that none of us would have done it. We laughed the entire time we made it. It was a joy. This was the one movie where I really never wanted it to end. I could have kept shooting and shooting. It was such a wonderful time to show up and everyday just hang out with my friends. We had one common enemy and that was the clock. That was it. We fought the cause all day and laughed as we did it. It just doesn’t happen.
Every single actor… I’ll refer to them as a two-take actor. They’d do one just like the script is, and one however they’d like to do it. Time and time again we had all these things to play with and shape the narrative. They inspired us. Bill inspired humanity in a villain role. There were scenes that weren’t in the script initially. We were like ‘wait a minute… Bill in real life is a father, so let’s let him have some paternal moments’. Then we have John, Josh Stewart’s character, who we already have empathy for six minutes in because of how we see him interact with the woman and her daughter. These two people would both be villains in their own thriller, but you put them in a collision course and that thriller becomes horrific. That made it all the worthwhile. I wish that experience upon any filmmaker.
This is your third project with Josh Stewart, what makes him your top choice of leading man?
I think Josh Stewart is a diamond. I believe that he is not only a marvellous colleague, but this is a talented force who directs, who acts, who produces, who is also a father, but most gratefully, I am grateful that Josh Stewart is a friend. Josh Stewart is a friend that will do anything for you. I’m just so fortunate to be in orbit with a talent such as him. You can tell how much work he does in the subtleties and the quiet moments of each scene. Now that we’ve developed this short hand and we know that we can make fun of each other in a loving way. What it transforms to when we’re working together is well now we can get right down to it. We can then find more unique variations on scenes and moments. Gosh, he’s legit. He is absolutely legit and we are so lucky to have ever crossed paths with him.
He sounds committed to his craft too. We spoke to Alex Essoe and she recounted a tale of Josh finding a cockroach in his beer during a take.
(Hysterically laughs) Yes, and I have that clip on my phone. He has his back to camera… “you know what greed does, it makes people unlucky,” he takes a swig and then ‘cut’ and he shouts ‘oh man I just swallowed a roach!’ We were all laughing so hard and he’s just saying ‘oh that’s so gross.’ (Laughs) Alex was there in just a shirt and shorts, she’s so brave. They were both so brave to stay in that room. The house, it was an actual house we were shooting in, we didn’t realise it was infested until we turned the heat on. To even make it shootable we had to turn off the plumbing, because it would shoot off in every direction. But once we brought in the space heater, roaches started to crawl from everywhere, light sockets, out of the appliances and we were like ‘Holy Cow! Oh my Gosh! Well it’s the middle of the night, let’s just finish the scene’ and sure enough one of them sought shelter in Josh’s beer.
Alex herself ate bugs in her previous film Starry Eyes, so it seems they have a shared trauma, though Alex volunteered for it…
And does that not speak to how awesome she is? Alex Essoe and Josh together had…I had heard of this term chemistry. It’s a term that is applied in a lot of articles “I knew they were the right people for the roles because they had this instant chemistry.” I had an idea of what I thought that was, but I didn’t know for certain until those two worked together.
Chemistry is one thing where the camera can fake it. A camera can make two people feel like they are in love and we know that they both couldn’t be more opposite, One is a robot, the other one is in another part of the world, but you take the footage of each of them and put it together it looks like they’re in the same room having an emotional moment. But in this case the chemistry that I would like to emphasise is that these were two professional actors who worked together so easily it was as if they were from the same DNA of how they approached their craft. That chemistry is altogether different. That struck me as a vital chemistry to go for. You’re looking for a like-mindset. You’re looking for people who in their real lives defend without a blink, stand up for themselves, love this way, protect ruthlessly. Then when you say ‘hey, would you guys mind working together?’ they have chemistry.
There’s a lot of fight and stunt sequences in the film. I read that you used to throw yourself into stunt work, did you do anything on The Neighbour?
No (laughs hysterically). The last one I did, and hopefully it is the last one, was we had a little extra time and some extra breakaway glass, and I wanted to make a gag moment… this was years ago. In-between shooting the sequels to the Feast movies there was a weekend where a friend, whose name is also Josh, but not Josh Stewart, he wanted to film a Civil War era short. So all of us snuck out at the weekend to help Josh make this film – Josh Smith.
The film’s name was Thus to Tyrants. So we went out there all dressed in our Civil War attire. The story revolved around the audience thinking they were just watching some guys at a camp settling down for the night. Then you realise it is John Wilkes Booth when he was a solider hearing the critical speech that he needed to hear that would forever effect the way he viewed politics for the negative.
So now I’ve gone on this wild tangent, there we are finishing out The Collector. We were shooting some really cool stuff just for some inserts and opening credit sequence material and what not. I just had enough fake glass, and a door and a table and a shotgun. So I dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. I said ‘right just aim at the glass, roll sound and action!’ I had on the tuxedo, the hat, the big beard holding the shotgun and this was going to be the teaser trailer for Thus to Tyrant 2: Lincoln’s Revenge, So I kicked the door open, go running for the glass, my plan was to do a flip through the glass and land on my feet. I did not. I did a barrel roll through the glass and landed on my face. That was probably my last stunt (laughs).
The Neighbour is different to, but still feels similar to, The Collector. Was it fun to explore a new genre?
Well that question is a high compliment, thank you very much. That was the goal. I didn’t want to jump into a PG-13, and I didn’t want to jump into something that stops short of violence. I wanted to maybe move 15% back from gore into thriller, so what are the familiars? Well I don’t want to do anything without Josh Stewart, I liked the look, mood and the vibe that we create with our kind of cinematography and blended in vintage film stocks with modern and digital, but also vintage lens. Maybe we’ll set it in the Mid-West. It’s a Metropolis yes, but it’s got to look haunted and decrepit and have that same colour palette. Then finally and most assuredly our sound and our score, which is a character in the film in its own right. Let’s pull back as much dialogue as we can and live in the suspense as if this was the most savage movie ever, but when we get up to the punch, it doesn’t require gore. It will require an absolute no-holds-barred performance. That alchemy, all of that coming together, allowed that to happen and that was the absolute goal.
It meant certain sacrifices. If we were to call this movie The Collector 3 our budget would have been triple and we’d probably still be shooting (laughs). But we’re at that point where I don’t know that the adult thriller, the thriller that really is the bulls-eye we’re trying to hit is so, so tiny. The world isn’t at stake, no one has a cape, it’s not sequel, it’s not a remake or a reboot, it’s its own thing. This is a broken heartland suspense thriller. I thought ‘wow, the door is open just wide enough. I think we can make this great. We can take advantage of every experience that we’ve had in our previous collaborations – let’s go.’ I loved that that instinct inspired a lot. It is when Alex unleashes at a key moment. We were starting to get into this thriller mechanic where we chose horror versus thriller aesthetics and Alex really goes off on someone that is quite evil. (Chuckles) She came up with her own line just there and it was like ‘this is what the camera wants. It’s this great moment with Josh where she says ‘Let’s go Baby’ (laughs). That was our philosophy everyday! We’ve got all the machines here, we’ve got all the gasoline, let’s throw matches and see what happens – Let’s go Baby! So when Alex actually said that in the movie, I just thought ‘Holy Cow! There’s your Ripley moment.’
The other night we were at the Cinema La France in Paris and I have only seen the movie with an audience maybe three times, and this moment comes up, we’re in the biggest theatre we’ve ever played. I don’t know anybody there, I’m not fluent in French and I’m waiting and waiting, and sure enough Alex slams down her authority and says the line and the entire audience erupt into applause. In that moment, because I was covered in stress sweat and freaking out, that made every struggle worthwhile.
You wrote four of the seven Saw films, Saw Legacy is in development at the moment. Are there any plans for you to be involved again?
Oh no, they are doing their own thing. I’m really excited to see because that’s when Patrick [Melton] and I went into that world. We had just finished Feast and it was a new voice into that world. Now I’m eager to see what the next new voice does. It’s such fertile soil to grow many, many marvellous stories. I’m just as excited to see that as anyone else.
I like what those movies did do. They didn’t pick on teens. They didn’t reduce the female characters to damsels in distress, running around in tank tops. They… if anything there was an equal playing field for all. The only thing that was judged was what was the worst in each character. What’s the worst decision they made? In that there was a commonality.
I loved how Saw can be a social commentary as well. Gosh, I have a fantasy version of what this one could be (laughs) given like to all political instability, especially here [in America]. We’re not judging what’s great about our candidates anymore, we’re judging who’s less bad. It’s like a Saw game on TV and I can’t believe it.
At the end of Saw VII Doctor Gordon has some accomplishes. Did you know who they were and might they pop up in future films?
Yes, and it is shot and online somewhere. At the beginning of Saw VII there is a pretty big public trap, calling back to the idea of the public execution as a way of telling the town what not to do. It was called the Lover’s Triangle and had Brad and Ryan and the woman they were fighting for. Her duplicitous nature comes out and the two guys end up getting beat up and sawed, but they get out with their lives.
So at the end of the movie when Doctor Gordon reveals himself before the stunned Hoffman, the two accomplishes are either side. They take their masks off too and they are Brad and Ryan, then they formed a circle around Hoffman. Throughout any number of things that happened in the post process they elected to go with the take where the masks stayed on a little longer. But that’s what was shot, so we did know and yet at the same time that is not cannon. I like to think…I’ll tell you another secret, the first time we were brought in for Saw IV they showed us where Saw III was and Donnie Wahlberg – Detective Matthews, he was killed. He was killed in a hallway scene. Amanda finds him in the hallway, there’s not much of a fight, she kicks his ankle out from under him and stabs him in the throat dead. I remember Patrick and I passionately begging for them to not show that, ‘he’s vital, he’s a sequel. If we got him we got something to motivate a little bit more, please kill off everybody, but just give us Matthews!’ Fortunately one by one the powers that be agreed and we were able to have him.
So in this case I’m now putting on the executive mindset of ‘Wow you’ve got two people established in your through line that could be accomplishes, you’ve got a free mystery right there – who are they?’
The Neighbour arrives on DVD on Monday 31st October. Read our review now.