In my seven years of doing this, I can count on one hand the number of times I've inadvertently deleted or otherwise lost audio from an interview — literally one of the worst things that can happen to a journalist. Unfortunately, I was forced to tick off one of those fingers just last week, when I settled in to transcribe my chat with Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton — the longtime creative partners who collaborated on a total of four entries in the Saw franchise and two films in their Collector series — and discovered that our nearly 30-minute chat had been wiped out entirely.
Luckily, Dunstan was kind and understanding enough to respond to a set of emailed questions in the aftermath, and while I lament that our much more extensive previous conversation will never see the light of day — among other things, you better believe I dug into the duo's feelings behind their now-scrapped Halloween sequel, which was rendered obsolete after Dimension lost the rights to the franchise back in December — he nevertheless sent back an eloquent set of answers to my questions about he and Melton's latest film The Neighbor, the first of their efforts that veers just far enough from outright horror to merit the label of “thriller.”
Co-written and solely directed by Dunstan, The Neighbor stars Josh Stewart (Criminal Minds) and Alex Essoe (Starry Eyes) as John and Rosie, a couple who discover the “dark truth” about their next-door neighbor Troy (an against-type Bill Engvall of Blue Collar Comedy fame), including the “secrets he may be keeping in the cellar.” Adding another layer to the setup, it's quickly established that John and Rosie are high-volume drug dealers, and one of the more interesting facets of the film is the way in which the protagonists' own relative corruption ultimately comes to pale in comparison to Troy's legitimately twisted preoccupations.
Below, you can find my brief email Q&A with Dunstan, in which he talks about casting Essoe in the wake of her fearless and fearsome performance in Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer's Starry Eyes, the compelling third-act monologue delivered by Jacqueline Fleming as the more-than-meets-the-eye Officer Burns, and Carpenter's involvement in the new, Blumhouse-produced Halloween, which he's charitably upbeat about despite the fact that it meant the dissolution of he and Melton's own take on the franchise. You can also watch an exclusive clip from The Neighbor above.
Bill Engvall does very good work as the absolutely horrific main antagonist Troy, which is interesting because he's best known as a stand-up comedian. Can you describe how he got involved?
We were very fortunate to have a shot at Mr. Engvall. I credit our producers Brett Forbes and Patrick Rizzotti for creating the opportunity. It only took one meeting to understand the level of dedication and transformation he was bringing to the table. It was inspiring on the level of raising our collective game, but also inspiring in terms of further being able to flesh out the character of Troy into a human being first… villain second. Every single force in the story is depicted in moments of dark and light, and it was a joy to capture the shades of gray as they emerged not in moments of violence, but in moments of sympathy for the violent.
In real life, Bill Engvall is a caring husband, father… and loyal protector… He effortlessly balanced that real world grounding into the role, and that was the seismic shift. Editing can create menace, but being able to hang on a shot and catch micro-details of affection, cunning, and manipulation is a rare and wonderful gift to the story. It brings soul, reliability and those ingredients add metric tons of impact to the dirty deeds unleashed.
How did Alex Essoe's involvement come about? She was so great in Starry Eyes.
Alex Essoe is a comet. This project was beyond lucky to have such a talent come aboard.
Starry Eyes is a wonderful film.
Ms. Essoe”s arsenal of skill unleashed opportunity after opportunity to place more and more obstacles before her character, Rosie. Her character”s name is inspired by the Riveter… and in the case of Alex… she”s ready to bring the fight all on her own.
It is thrilling to witness her in action, and in humor. This is a funny, genial heart who can flip the switch to sledgehammer in a blink.
It is a pure life bonus to be able to work alongside people who spend every moment bringing light to the atmosphere.
This cast and this crew did such each and every day.
I similarly enjoyed Jacqueline Fleming's performance as Officer Burns, and her monologue when she has John tied up gives her a lot to chew on. Can you talk about crafting that moment for her character, and why it was important?
Jacquline Fleming is an ace! Officer Burns evolved into an intimidating force once Ms. Fleming arrived.
The monologue didn”t exist before she was cast. It was, again, inspired by the talent of the actor involved. Ms. Fleming”s eyes tell a million stories.
It was a thrill to witness that moment… we only had a couple of hours to finish the scene, and Ms. Fleming nailed it on the first take.
It was vital to have that monologue because we were all pushing ourselves to speak to the laws of the land, moral decay, and the perspective relating to bringers of life vs takers of life.
Understanding each characters goal with violence, tolerance of violence or justification of violence was the high-wire act.
Ms. Fleming made it look easy.
It is the make-it or break-it sequence of the story, and she brought it home!
The film puts a twist on the “killer next door” sub-genre by establishing the ostensible heroes of the story as big-time drug dealers. The opening scene in the barn is I think critical in establishing our investment in John and Rosie as characters, because it demonstrates that they're essentially decent people who have made some very bad choices. Was that always intended to be the first scene?
The opening scene was one of the last scenes written before we shot. In the initial drafts of the screenplay the vantage point began with the victims of another crime.
It was the scene that would”ve started a horror movie. Jumps. Screams. Terror.
However… and this is a credit to everyone across the board for allowing us to make such a change in the weeks leading up to production; we took the leap to enter the narrative from the vantage point of our lead characters at their most criminal, compassionate, and clever.
That was the opening of a thriller.
Thanks to the chemistry of Josh Stewart, Alex Essoe, and a haunting performance by Heather Williams as the gunshot mother… we had the moment to define the film”s ambition to humanize a monstrous set of circumstances.
This feels like a small step away from the outright horror films you're known for writing and directing. Do you have plans or aspirations to direct, say, a comedy or a drama?
Thank you! That was the goal with The Neighbor; to put an upper-case on THRILLER with a few pinches of horror as the suspense collides with terror.
I love the films that strike a balance or bring ingredients of other genres into the mix.
Comedy or drama would be an enormous amount of fun. Should the right project come about; absolutely.
Horror/Action is a fascinating beast. Every now and then the two flash into a film and the result is exhilarating. That would be grand challenge to be a part of.
I do want to ask you briefly about Halloween Returns, which unfortunately fell by the wayside when Dimension lost the rights to the title. What's one thing you brought to the franchise that you're bummed the fans aren't going to see?
I”m grateful for what the fans will see; John Carpenter”s involvement.
His return to Halloween is a cause for celebration.
The Neighbor is out now on DVD, Digital HD and VOD.