Adam Egypt Mortimer talks 'Daniel Isn't Real' and finding creativity in anxiety

Fly Fidelity sat down with director Adam Egypt Mortimer to pick apart his second feature Daniel Isn't Real. The latest release from SpectreVision is currently performing a festival run with an upcoming theatrical and bluray release from Arrow Video, to be announced. We discussed it's origins and production, working with Patrick Schwarzenegger, obsessing over it's visual design and more!

This is your second time working with author Brian DeLeeuw, the first time being your debut 'Some Kind Of Hate'. Can you talk about adapting his novel 'In This Way I Was Saved' for 'Daniel Isn't Real'?

The process started because I read the novel but even more so, the process started because I met Brian who wrote the novel and I just liked him as a guy. I thought, "This guy is cool, I think we have something in common, I like hanging out with him, so I'm going to read his novel because maybe it's good and it maybe something I would want to turn into a movie". That all happened seven and a half years ago and I read the novel and immediately called him. I said, "I want to figure out how to make this a movie" and he said, "Cool! lets do it together".

The first massive creative change we made was that in the novel, the story is narrated from Daniel's point of view. The story is for those who haven't seen it yet, about a 19 year old young man named Luke, who's childhood imaginary friend comes back into his life. In the book, which spends a lot more time with them as kids, then finds them at other points of their life as well. It's entirely narrated from the point of view of the imaginary friend, which is really creepy and strange and interesting. He has his own point of view about humanity and about their physical process and it's a really interesting novelistic device, which I think we immediately figured out would not work as a cinematic device. What we really needed in the movie was to be close to Luke, to be close to the human main character and experience his disorientation and confusion about what's real and what's not and what his paranoid or excited relationship with Daniel would be like. That was the first big step, in sort of figuring out what we were doing in adapting it.

My take-away after seeing it at Frightfest was that it's a film that says a lot about seeing people versus being seen by people.

That's such an interesting statement, that brings to mind a couple of things. The one big underlining theme that I eventually figured out, was that this film was about empathy, which is about feeling people and experiencing what other people experience and caring about that. It's interesting when you say, seeing versus being seen; there's a line in the movie where they're quoting from the book Ways Of Seeing and they talk about being seen.

As far as developing, the cinematic viewpoint, the movie was all about, "How are we going to see this invisible character? How are we going to visualise in front of the camera, imagined things or unreal things?". That was that main kind of technical and creative challenge of the whole movie. I think that you're idea about seeing operates on all these levels, like literally, visually - what are we seeing and what does it mean to be a subject versus an object. I think we were trying to play with subjective film making and what is weird, like when you feel the most subjective in your experience and things are swirling in closing everything around you, how would we best visualise that, so I think that all of those are different ways that give you the idea of the way seeing plays into it.

It's a relatable film for so many reasons, perhaps the most empowering being that what you believe should never limit what you can believe. A common hell for everybody, including Luke's character can often be mistaking their wounds for their identity. Did you feel any obligation to make a point to an audience that you can embrace your wounds as well as maintain an identity?

That's interesting. I think the film revolves around trauma and how we're shaped by trauma, which is another way of saying what you're saying; wounds. There's a line in the movie where the psychiatrist, who becomes a kind of metaphysical practitioner says something along the lines of, "What we call trauma, they used to call demons".

It's about the struggle to be the good person that you want to be, or be the good person that you're imagining yourself to be, despite the fact that there is a darkness within you, or impulses to do things that are wrong, impulses to do things that you'll regret. Even at some of the happiest moments in the movie there's a part where Luke will say, "I think I fucked up", and its because there's this real wavering path where he's trying to be this good person and he's also trying to take Daniel's advice seriously and of course that advice is the darkness. Where does a person begin and where do the wounds end as you said, is a fantastic way to think about it, that's exactly what we're exploring here. Maybe one of the ways you can look at this is by separating this one character out into two different aspects and you can maybe more easily feel a kind of compassion or empathy to him, one you see him in two different parts.

Do you sometimes think that your critics have a hard time seeing the empathy in you because they aren't able to separate you into two different parts, or do you feel that there's a power in being misunderstood by the right kind of people?

I'm terrified about being misunderstood. I make these movies that have violence and people doing terrible things but I'm trying to come at it empathetically. I always have this concern that people are going to misunderstand me and see me as lacking empathy, glorifying violence, glorifying chaos and mayhem. I feel like the more true I try to make something, the more dangerous it is for the possibility that it will be misinterpreted. You have to sort of say, "Well, I cant worry about that. I got to just make the thing. I got to be truthful" but in the back of your head your like, "Ahhh, somebody is going to be really mad, ha, ha".

You mentioned approaching Deleeuw over seven years ago with the proposal to turn his book into a feature. Did a lack of empathy in the world as a result of the 2016 United States presidential election shift the tone of 'Daniel Isn't Real'?

100%! When Brian and I were first writing this, which again goes back to 2012, I was imagining this as a kind of bolt of nihilistic truths. I was saying the world view that people need to have, is that I need to wake people up to the fact that the world is fucked up and we're going to die Nobody ever addresses the fact that we're going to die, nobody ever addresses the harshness of reality, the harshness of our culture and the violence inherent in it. I wanted to fuck people up with this!

In 2016, at which point we hadn't made the movie yet, there was the horrific election in the United States and soon after that I noticed that the nihilistic awareness became a mainstream point of view. You open up a food blog nowadays and people will say, "Top 10 Tacos because the world's going to end in three days and we're all going to die. Society is a dumpster fire but these Lobster Taco's are great", you know what I mean?. The currency of communication now. is acknowledgement that we got wrapped up into the worlds nihilistic point of view and its determining what's happening. That was also right around the time that it looked like this movie was going to happen. The financing was coming in and I sort of had to say to myself, "Oh, fuck, this thing that I thought was going to be a really interesting world view in the movie, is no longer interesting, so what's it going to be instead?", which is when I hit on the idea that, "OK, we're going to accept that that's the world view but the real challenge is how do you be empathetic despite knowing that the world is this way? How do you remain empathetic being in a sort of dark, material, death orientated world? How do you remain empathetic knowing that you, yourself are going to die? How do you feel empathetic if you feel like there's an apocalypse heading?"; any of these things, you know? That became a way to re-understand what the script was about, what the movie was doing and to re-approach it that way. That didn't trigger some massive re-write and change to everything but little places here and there got shifted into the direction of that scene, then I felt like, "Oh, now it feels relevant. Now it feels like it matters and it feels like it's going to do the work of comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable and I'm so much more interested in the comforting the disturbed part of it. 

How much did that experience teach you that there's a difference between holding an idea and being possessed by an idea, and the former can be dropped?

I'm a big believer in being both super foundational, like you have to build all of this preparation, you have to know every scene, what everything means, how you're going to shoot it, what it's all about, technically, theoretically, emotionally but then I will still show up on the day and meet with my actors in the morning and go, "What do you think we should do?", which drives my producer crazy. It doesn't mean I'm just constantly throwing everything out and undoing the preparation but trying to stay really open to the present, so you're not rigidly trying to force this thing into the movie that you imagined in your mind, and instead allowing it to be the movie that grows organically from what you sort of set in place for it. 

Can you talk specifically about some of that preparation versus improvisation?

I was obsessive about the visual design of the movie and created a 40 page style guide document that everybody involved in making the movie had access to. It talks about the colours and how we'd shoot an imaginary friend, the subjectivity and the different styles that the movie is going to move through and how we achieve them with lenses and camera moves, all of that's in place. I also obsessively studied certain movies and pulled clips from all these different movies that used the camera in blocking, in really expressive ways, which was shared with everybody on the crew. We all knew exactly what the specific influences were I was looking for. Every scene is story boarded and blocked and all of that. Before we started shooting the movie we went to the locations with just a handful of people and acted out the scenes, so I could take pictures and sort of have photo storyboards of them. We had all of this preparation but then on the day I would encourage the actors to improvise around what we were doing.

Miles Robbins who plays Luke is a hilarious actor and so far, mostly known for being in comedies, being a comedic actor, he would come on to the scene with a lot of ideas, just little extra things that he would do or say that would make it funny, or add a little life to it. Patrick who plays Daniel, I was all about him trying to feel free through the fact that he's a character that nobody can see, so he can do things that normal people wouldn't do in conversation, which woke him up to a freedom. So we would turn on the camera and see what he was going to do. Now we're shooting it in this very rigid way that we had thought through and I'm standing on the marks that they need to be standing on, all the pretty colours are there but we're still encouraging this lifeness.

One of my favourite scenes in the movie that happened was one of our second to last days shooting and Josh the producer came out and said, "Hey, I don't think we all recognise this amazing location right over here just a hundred yards this way. Look at this amazing view, we should shoot something here", so we ran over there with a camera and I talked to the actors and put together a scene that we invented on the spot but that becomes a thematic hinge of the whole movie. There is an openness to changing things around but for me it had to be based on this intense study of what the movie was going to be, so that when we were making things up, you're making them up within the rhyme scheme and the rhythm of what we've already got.

I used to be an improvisational musician, so I would get together with other people and we would just sort of turn on our instruments and start playing but it was within a concept or an established riff, or whatever you want to call it. I think there might be some relationship to the way that I used to play sonically, with the way that I want to experiment even while we're within something rigid.

Visually, it's a film that unconventionally draws a lot on painting. How challenging was it to maintain such a distinctive universe for the characters to inhabit, by way of use and navigation of colours? 

One of the important ideas in the movie and the style of the movie, was that it was going to evolve from feeling depressive to feeling manic. Part of the idea was that towards the beginning of the movie we're seeing Luke filmed in a style that I refer to as isolationist and things are a little bit flat and sort of bound inside of shapes and squares and brick walls and the colours are a bit muted. There's only a couple of colours but when Daniel enters his life and kind of wakes him up and goes, "Man, lets get out there. Lets add some energy to all this", we were motivated to add colour's because of that. Luke is in his college, he's at his home, he's on a subway, he's at his home; there's only so many colour's he's going to encounter there with Daniel. Suddenly Daniel is saying, "Lets go to this house party where they're projecting deep red beams of light into smoke. Let's go to this art gallery opening in Brooklyn, where there's going to be pink fluorescent lights outside and people playing music"; so it's sort of coming from the world and the characters but it's part of the intention.

The arch of the movie involves that there's going to be more and more colours and then you say, "Now that we're out in the world and we're hanging out, Ooh, we've met Cassie, lets go to her place. Oh my god, she's got a huge sheet of orange pink plastic hanging in the middle of her art studio, which is going to catch the light and create reflections and look cool. It's all coming from the situations and the characters. I love Dario Argento and I think that Suspiria and Inferno are two brilliant movies but I didn't feel comfortable doing something, where I would just shoot lights into places, because that would be exciting and dreamlike, it had to come from a world. It was about motivating the world to bring about these colours and movements.

Let's talk about Cassie, of course played by Sasha Lane. She's one of my favourite characters, who no pun intended, literally paints her conclusion and brings a texture to the world building here.

Absolutely. The idea that she has the eye of an artist and is what makes her the most realistic and also optimistic sort of character in the movie. She sees a certain thing about Luke and understands it differently than I think other people do. When you asked me your question about separating the person from their wounds and when I talked about empathy and things like that, I think that Sacha Lane's character is the one who is maybe a model. She knows when to stab you and she knows when to empathise with you. She has a clarity of mind, because she herself is fighting so hard to be in tune with her own authenticity. I can't imagine who else could have played her. I love Sacha for this role. Ever since I saw her in American Honey years ago, as soon as I was in the theatre watching that movie I thought, "I've got to cast her, she's got to play Cassie. Who else is going to be able to do this?".

At which point did Patrick Schwarzenegger come on board for the role of Daniel?

Well, Daniel had to be a character who is inhumanely good looking and charismatic. I'd already cast Miles as Luke and he's pretty damn handsome to begin with, so then you need to have this character of Daniel, who's going to sort of be his fantasy identity. At first, like you do with movies like this, we went out to some really big movie stars who couldn't do it. He did an audition, he taped himself and I went to the audition and I talked to him and we both made sure that we both understood the movie and what it was about. What's so wonderful about him is that he's such an experienced model, that he has this really great sense of where the camera is. Every time we would set up a shot he would say, "Which lens is this?" and "where is the light?". He could perform everything he was performing and look perfect, whilst he was doing it and that is an interesting skill. As soon as he came into the movie he started asking, " What are my clothes going to be like? What is my hair going to be like?". We said, "We should die your hair black, that would be interesting" and that was all a way for him to sort of escape from his day to day existence and identity and to become this new character and I really appreciated that point of view from him. Once we figured out a way for him to understand that his character was really free, everything came together. On the first day we were shooting a scene and I said, "Just start dancing, man" and he was like, "What? dancing?" and I was like, "Just dance" and he did it and he looked amazing and we all loved what he did, he looked so cool that from that moment forward he was always sort of dancing and sort of playing and making up sounds and motions, which was really exciting to be around. Once we filmed the sequence where he's holding a sword over his head, I couldn't help laughing at that, "Yes, your father is indeed Conan The Barbarian, ha, ha, ha."

Did he initially have any qualms about playing such a sinister character because of his reputation as a model?

I think his concern when we were first talking was thematic. He wasn't worried about, "Are people not going to like me?" but he was saying, "Are people going to understand this movie?". I think when you approach anybody about doing a horror movie that has themes and ideas, people will want to show up, understand that this isn't exploitation and this is a genre film that has meaning. Those are what our first conversations were all about in terms of what the themes of the movie are about and what are we saying, what does the ending mean. Once we both felt we were talking about the same thing and he was comfortable with that, then he was totally ready to jump into being this character. I think he really loved knowing that, even though it wasn't who he is, he was going to have a really good time playing that character. He had a good time being this guy for sure, wearing those cool clothes and saying those mean things and doing that crazy shit, he loved it.

How hands on were SpectreVision in the production?

SpectreVision are close creative partners of mine. I met them because I made this small tiny movie called Some Kind Of Hate, that had it's world premier at a festival in Colorado that was called The Stanley Festival, that is called The Overlook Festival now. I was there with that movie and SpectreVision was there with their movie and I just approached them. I first approached Josh Waller who is the head of production and I was basically like, "Man, I'm such a fan of what you guys are doing. I have a movie here, I hope you see it". It was essentially that, you know?. He saw it and liked it and showed it to the rest of his partners, which gave me the opportunity to go in and talk to them about what else I was working on and if they would be interested. I pitched them the first one that was completely different and I thought would be the kind of thing they would be into and they were like,"We're not really into that actually, that's not our thing. Do you have anything else?", which was always a lesson that you have to have multiple things. You never know what you're going to happen to attract somebody with. I did have Daniel written already, it was a movie that I had really thought that was ready to go and so I said, "It's about this imaginary friend that comes back" and they said, "Woah, that's a cool idea" and so that was enough for them to read it and so they read it and they loved the script enough to say, "Ok lets do this". That was as far back as 2015. I remember clearly I was at Frightfest in London showing Some Kind Of Hate, when I had my first phone call with Daniel Noah at SpectreVision, it was a notes call about the script and he had some thoughts and I had some thoughts, we started developing it together. I have this nostalgic memory of being at the flat that we were staying at in Kensington and I was on a Skype call with Dan and said, "Oh, I got to show Some Kind Of Hate to people in London but first lets talk about the script". That would have been exactly four years ago and we took the script as it was and we made changes to make it better and make it deeper and made changes based on budget, you know?. We can no longer afford to light this apartment on fire, then we got into it from a production point of view and we travelled. We location scouted, starting in Philadelphia, then we went to New York and we were just together in the trenches on it for a long time . They have such a great sense of aesthetics and taste. When I worked with them I was aligned with people who were trying to make the same movie as me. It wasn't trying to deceive them or make a different movie, we were making the same movie, which is such a nice feeling and they have this great sensibility for music, so they introduced me to Chris Clark, who is somebody that they had always wanted to work with. I wasn't familiar with him and they shared me his records and he did an amazing job with the soundtrack. The interface with SpectreVision was really from beginning to end.

You've been able to cultivate an imagination without a ceiling or walls, by way of bending into an insanity with this film. How have you survived horrors of your own imagination making this film?

When I got back from shooting this movie my feeling was overwhelming peace, like a feeling of peace that I have never experienced before in my life. Coming back from Brooklyn and getting back home to L.A. with all footage under our belt and the editors starting work on it, I felt peace, and that feeling has not entirely gone away. I feel like when I describe the movie sometimes I talk about it as a cinema of anxiety. I'm really interested in making the audience anxious, through the movement and the colours and the lights and the horrific imagery. I'm trying to keep people on edge and make them anxious because that's the way I often feel in the world and so it's the feeling that is at my fingers-tips that I can create. At the same time I found that doing the work of a film-maker and being a director means finding a way to not be anxious, so that you can be in the moment, you can respond to what's happening, communicate calmly and be creative. That dissonance between this feeling that I'm trying to create and the feelings that I feel. The amount of stuff I do to feel OK, when I step on a set right, right? I do yoga constantly, I box to exhaustion, I take Lexapro. It goes on and on and on! I meditate, I endlessly listen to David Lynch talking about meditation, you know? I talk about my feelings. When we were shooting, every free chance I could get I was getting therapeutic massages. Anything I can do to try to not be a tense ball of anxiety I do, so that I can produce the feeling of anxiety externally to my friends, who are seeing the movie. It's kind of a funny thing, right? The more I learn about film making, the more I've understood that this is a job. All of that preparation, all of the incredible diagramming and thinking through and aesthetics and all of that exists so that when you're there on the day you're not freaking out. I think life is this battle between freaking out and not freaking out. I'm talking about being a person that wrestles my demons and this move has a guy who is literally wrestling with his demons on a roof-top in Brooklyn. I think the process of externalisation is really crystallised for me as what I'm about.

How much of a necessity is it to be able to relax into a certain amount of chaos making a film like this?

The chaos of the set can be frustrating. When we were making this movie we were a little bit short on the amount of crew we wished we had, we were very short on time, so people are banging equipment around and there's a lot of noise and everybody is talking. Every so often you lose your head a little bit. The chaos within that I'm trying to communicate is the fun part! Sitting back before we started shooting and thinking about ways that we could shoot scenes in a way that would feel manic and thinking that through and getting excited about the possibilities is fun and why we do the creative stuff we do. You think about this feeling and then you think about re-creating it with the tools of a movie, which I love. I'm obsessed with how much fun that is.

It's its own language

Yeah, absolutely. I think I probably like watching movies more now than I ever have before. I mean, I've obviously always loved them but now that that I feel like I'm starting to understand what the language of film is and really think it through with a purpose, I think I like watching movies more now, like watching a Hitchcock movie and really digging on what the meister was doing and what's a modern update of that kind of thing like that, it's just so thrilling. I'm definitely a person who just got his Criterion channel streaming subscription and you just can't go wrong with that, ha, ha.

Speaking of Criterion, I was surprised to find out that Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Solaris' was one of the influences of Daniel Isn't Real. What was it about 'Solaris' that inspired this film? 

I think Tarkovsky's biggest influence on this movie in particular, his thing is very deeply meditative and this movie tries to replicate a manic feeling. My first Tarkovsky movie was Stalker, when I was a kid and I had exhaustedly been watching all of the movies and the horror and sci-fi shelf in my video store. Seeing all the movies about comets and mutants, somehow somebody put Stalker on the science fiction shelf and I brought it home and it ripped my mind apart. I had to just keep stopping it to write down what people were saying. It was in this like metaphysical zone that was so wild to me, like, "Oh! Science fiction can be about a real cosmology" and so when we went to create, I was constantly talking about this movie is going to depict the abyss, it's going to depict the void, the centre of the universe, or the centre of our hearts, or however you want to interpret it. I looked at the way they created the planet sized ocean in Solaris, the planet Solaris is an ocean that's essentially a mind, that kind of practical effect that every time it cuts, you know, it keeps cutting back to imagery of the planet in that movie. It just gives you this otherworldly feeling, like you're encountering something, sort of metaphysically awesome and so I insisted that we find a way to create our void practically. We used a cloud tank, like it was a real thing that photographed. My style guy probably has multiple images from Solaris, just of the ocean and that effect, not so much the rest of the movie.

Other films that were hugely important once it came time to talk about the style was Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, which I just think is like the great example of a melt down. It starts exciting and then it gets more exciting and more exciting, then it just gets more and more horrible and the way that it's ramped up . That was a big influence on the way that we thought about the music and the sound and how our soundtrack was this kind of relentless spiral. It's not something that jumps in and then jumps out and kind of tensions you along. It's there smashing with the story. That was a big part from Aronofsky. If you use the greatest stuff as your jumping off point you're not going to achieve what they achieved but when you fall short, you're still falling short ahead of. I would also look at Persona, the Borgman movie. I cut out all of these scenes of that to share with everybody. We would all vibe out and be like, "How did they get that shot.". We were trying to reproduce these shots from Persona, which would prove to be frustratingly difficult but we found our own way to do what we wanted to do with that.

Are there any plans to release Daniel Isn't Real in UK this year theatrically? 

We're on the exciting festival circuit right now, which is great. We just showed it at Beyond Fest for its opening night. It'll continue to be in festivals and go to Spain. We're going to Brooklyn next month. All over the place, from Spain to Brooklyn. You never know were you're going to be next when you make a horror movie that travels the circuit

Arrow Video in the UK has picked it up and they're an incredible distribution partner. I love those guys! They're going to be putting out what I think is the definitive home video physical media version of this. When I was in London I recorded a commentary track to go with it, that they'll be exclusively releasing. They're going to probably release it in some theatres in the UK . I'm not sure if their release date is going to be in December or in January, either way that's when they're going to be releasing it. In the US it'll come out in theatres and on demand in December with a release on Shudder next year.

I'm so glad Arrow Video have the rights! Have you thought as far ahead as starting another project yet? 

I have a movie with SpectreVision that we are currently working on night and day at this point. We're working on the script and trying to cast it. I can't talk about it until we know it's a go but I'll tell you, it is in some ways similar to Daniel Isn't Real, in that it is also something that is both intimate and cosmic but it is not a horror movie. It's a completely different genre. It's going to be an exciting and interesting challenge for me to try to see what I do with my language in a different genre. Aside from that, Brian and I also wrote another script. We wrote my first two movies together. He wrote the novel and now we've written another script that has to do with witches and capitalism. It's definitely a horror movie and we're out there trying to see if we can get anybody interested in that. I'm doing the fun thing now of going to studios and they'll say, "we have this cool exorcism movie. Do you want to impress us!" and then I'll say, "Ok let me try to impress you and see if I can get hired to do that". Those are all the exciting things that I'm working on at the moment but mainly I'm spending my time travelling the world. I really wanted to make sure as much as possible, I went everywhere with this movie and talk to people about it. I made that a huge commitment in the past 6 months or so.

Interview by Luke 'Menace' Bailey