Stringing Together a Nightmare: How the Black String Pulls Horror from Suburbia

We caught up with writer/director Brian Hanson and actor/co-writer Richard Handley to discuss The Black String, a film which recalls the hey day of the American paranoia Thriller, featuring an authentic inner howl and a collapsing of soul performance from Frankie Muniz. 

How did the script for The Black String come about?

Brian Hanson: It was originated almost 10 years ago when I was bartending in Hollywood with my buddy Andy Warrener, kind of caught up in the micro budget craze. Even back then people knew that even Robert Rodriguez rebelled without a crew concepting movies, which had inspired us and we said "lets do it!". We loved horror and set out to write a psychological horror thriller that we were really into but instead of these movies set in the big city like Manhattan, or out in the haunted woods, we decided to do it right in our backyard, a place we're familiar with, which is the suburb. We just created a story for someone not unlike ourselves, 20 somethings, who were maybe floundering in our home town, had potential but afraid to move out, afraid to go try something new, and that's the character Jonathan played by Frankie Muniz. We just had fun with that idea but we were also taking very seriously this idea of mental illness or drug addiction. Maybe that's the reason this character Jonathan is afraid to move on. There's baggage and he's had serious issues in the past that he's always afraid will come back to haunt him, so there was this double edge character that is the kind of guy that we see here in Los Angeles standing at a corner with no shoes screaming and screaming at the sky. We thought "Wow! What if we were in that persons shoes? What if what they were seeing was real?" or what a scary place to be that you can't trust your own mind. We've known people that we're in the situation and it's all around us here in Los Angeles and all over the world. We expanded in order to make it a horror thriller and said OK, we understand the mental illness side but what about the horror side and what might be happening to you, which is where we get into the genre we all enjoy. We just dove in and we wrote something. It was very thin, maybe 50 odd pages. I went into the army and Andy started a family in Florida, we never made that movie.

When I came back from the army I went to Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles and through their MFA program, met Richard Handley who's also a military veteran and on some non descript lunch break I told him the idea of The Black String, this thing that Andy and I had put together years ago. Six months later he said "I still keep thinking about that idea you told me, that story. We should do that as our thesis project", which is when this idea I had worked on years ago turned into "Oh, wow! Someone else is really interested in this. This might be something". That was instigated by Rich's enthusiasm, so then Rich jumped in and we agreed to not making a 40/ 50 page feature film, so we said we've got to double the length. Rich who is a dad and a medical professional, so we were able to add deeper layers into the script that were necessary to bulk it out to a meaningful feature film.

As a script and narrative that had been in your mind for so long, did that affect your mental state, so much so that it changed over the years, especially after serving time in the military and carrying experiences that are heavy in their own spaces?

Brian Hanson: It kind of was laying dormant. I always liked it but I had a lot of ideas, so it wasn't something I was obsessing over every single year and really depressed that we hadn't made it. It was just one of many ideas. When Rich brought it up and said "I really like that idea", it actually felt fresh ...again. I guess it's a testament to when you write something, you never know when it might resurface, so it had resurfaced, and then yes you're right there were new elements that I had a different perspective on to a certain extent. It was exciting to pull the script out and polish it and then Rich had a lot to add to that, a lot of the missing elements. We were able to dive in deeper this time around. Rich sees it from a different perspective, this was new to him. To me it was an older project. Having served in the military and understanding somebody who is just very isolated and cut off from everybody. People in our hometown are people that are recently leaving the military having to find a new home, if you will, or they're kind of out on their own isolated. I guess there was a little bit deeper of an emotion in a lot of things because I was getting out of the military to and having to start all over again. I went back to my hometown and stayed with my mom for a few months and I saw these guys working at the 7 to 11 who I'm sure were doing fine, but I kind of wondered at times if they had bigger dreams than just being here. It was an interesting time to reconnect with The Black String for me.

Richard Handley: Like Brian had said, we met at film school and we had worked on a number of short projects together prior to tackling this. I had a few shorts and Brian had some shorts as well. We had quite a simpatico when we would work together and I was impressed with Brian's work ethic, his passion for film and his experience. Prior to film school he had studied film quite extensively prior to his military background. When we got to film school we were pretty hungry to tackle our first feature. We believed that we could make it happen. We were ready and committed to it like we were going into battle. We immediately went to work on completely revamping the script as Brian mentioned, which took us about a year to plow through that process and worked very intently on that. I focused on the medical and parental aspects but we both worked an extensive index card outline and re-wrote every scene at least a dozen times. 

Once we finished the script we gathered our team. We also enlisted the help of our director friend Alan Ripp who produced a feature film called Devils Whisper that Brian and Ii had worked on as co-producers. Alan gave us hands on experience on his film, which was similar in size to ours and in fact we hired many of the same crew from that project giving us a built in familiarity and solidarity for The Black String. We also enlisted the help of the very talented producers Kayli Fortun and Charles Bunce. I starred in and also co-produced their thesis film for a TV pilot called Finding Fortune. We worked together really well and so I brought them in to help Brian and I produce The Black String. We were also extremely fortunate to have found an amazing co-producer in Sharif Ibrahim who connected us with our primary executive producer Shawn Loutsis who's belief in us made our journey possible. We also enlisted my wife Marisela and Brian's fiancee, Yani, who also came into help as associate producers. We had a really good friend who came into help us, Sheldon Brigman came on board early as producer and strongly guide us toward to distribution finish line. We essentially just drafted a dream team to use a sports reference. Brian is a huge sports fan, so he'll appreciate that. We're extremely fortunate to have found other very supportive executive producers, which increased our financial run way to make the film possible.

Going back to your time in the military, I'm interested in the space discipline has occupied within your role as writer, actor and producer.  Adam Driver was once in the US Marine Corps, which he credits for giving him the courage to become an actor. Would you also say that your background in the military has given you the confidence to act as well as serve your role as writer and producer?

Richard Handley: That's a great question. Yeah, absolutely! I'm a huge fan of Adam Driver and even more so knowing that he does have a military background with the Marine Corps. I would say both, it's a combination of my military experience and my experience as a physician, a recently trained physician. I've worked as a PA for 20 plus years but recently finished medical school, and I've talked to ten's of thousands of patients over my career, which has given me experiences. We're all actors in our own way on a day-to-day basis. In the clinic setting it's interesting how similar acting and being in front of patients, or just public speaking for that matter are very similar. 

The cool thing is that I was able to go deep into the Dr. Ronaldi character. Like every other well written character he needed to feel as authentic as possible, and so I'm quite familiar with this breed of doctor and these types of clinical scenarios. I've seen position burn out and Jonathan's character reflect that sort of in the trenches been at this way too long vibe. Without giving away any spoilers Dr. Ronaldi has been at his job as a psychiatrist for 20 years and knows the routine, he's very frustrated that Jonathan won't accept the fact that he's suffering from mental illness. Dr. Ronaldi also has seen this sort of patient a 1000 times and he's running the same warn out protocol he's been through a 1000 times. Much of the fun in writing and acting out these characters is building just enough realism to sell the illusion that what is happening is real and authentic, but then playing sufficient artistic licence to infuse fatal flaws into these characters, which serves the neurotic tension I believe. In the case of Ronaldi his fatal flaws create burn out, he's a bit arrogant and jaded, both of which lead to the assumption that things will always go as planned as they have gone before. He's asking himself will Jonathan follow the rules, take his meds, do the work etc, but when things don't go as planned it starts to become very, very interesting to watch. As an actor I love working with these kind of torturous souls who become their own worst enemy. 

Balancing the producer / actor duties was a huge challenge, which was made only possible after our team spent weeks meticulously planning each production day. I dig it when a finely tuned plan comes together and everyone wins. Truthfully this kind of effort only works when your team if wicked talented and unified towards one common goal. 

Did you feel any responsibility as a doctor to want to raise any awareness around mental or sexual health to the audience?

Richard Handley: Absolutely, yeah. That was a major concern of mine. We took a lot of artistic liberties. It rides the razors edge of what is real in clinical scenarios and clinical practice, and again, it's from Jonathan's subjective perspective, which allowed us to veer off of what you would typically see in a clinical setting. I mean, you got Jonathan running around seeing things that aren't necessarily there, or are there, but you're asking a question as an audience all the way through trying to figure out what's real and what isn't. 

On one hand I tried to paint Dr. Ronaldi as accurate of a physician as possible, but there's still some room that where these things wouldn't necessarily happen in a clinical setting and therefore would be quite dangerous in a clinical setting, but it would be boring if I were to write him absolutely accurate from a clinical standpoint. It wouldn't have been fun to watch, so that was part of the fun to make him believable but he's got to break the rules, and so has Jonathan, which makes is very interesting.

Were you conscious of the link between Jonathan as a character and his recovery for the future and Frankie Muniz's recovery to remember his past, since his car accident in 2009?

Brian Hanson: Yeah. Frankie was a last minute addition. He came to our attention on the day we were going to cast Jonathan with a lot of really good actors auditioning. We thought we had made our decision and then our casting director was like "Hey, wait a second. Out of the blue Frankie Muniz would like to read." All of sudden we really had to rethink things, he had an incredible and clicked with our other actors and the supporting roles. You've got someone who's coming with decades of characters that he's played and Malcolm in the Middle, which everyone knows him as. We wondered if that was simply going to outshine the movie where people can't watch our movie and see it for anything else but Malcolm from Malcolm in the Middle. 

We had to think about that for a moment but when we saw how he was embracing this character and understood Jonathan as a 20 something that was floundering and trying to start their life in a different direction, which I'm not saying that's where Frankie was at that point of his life, but there was this kind of correlation. Frankie went off the grid and stopped making movies and TV shows and he really enjoyed himself racing cars and playing drums in a band, but that was off the grid for America and the way people around the world knew him. We started to see how well Frankie played this character, a very dark yet still funny tortured person, but in an odd way kind of was like an alternate version, the same way Bryan Cranston was this chemistry teacher in Breaking Bad selling meth. Walter White kind of could have been the dad from Malcolm in The Middle where you just check in with him 15 years later and life hasn't panned out the way you would have thought. There's still a similarity there and similar with Frankie you could say "Where did Malcolm go? Oh, that's where he went, he's working at this liquor store". There is like a correlation between the persona you knew before and the character that you see on screen. I think that people kind of see that now, there's a much darker, very deep and unexpected thing but there's a familiarity there. I think that the essence of Frankie is there and he is as you said dealing with ramifications of being a professional race car driver and getting in a lot of accidents, so he connected with material, he'll tell you. Immediately he was like "I get it. I get this." He's straight edge, the first cigarette he's ever smoked was on our set for the character Jonathan. You have to watch the movie and maybe in another interview Frankie can talk about it, but there's something in the character that he connected with.

Outside of Frankie Muniz, you've managed to put together a great assemble. Can you talk about the casting process?

Richard Handley: We got ourselves a professional casting director, Jeremy Gordon. He has worked the higher echelons with guys like Rob Reiner. He's a great guy and Brian and I were working with him for some time and finding our cast. We had gotten down to the 11th hour of our casting process and call-backs and he had sent the script out to Frankie's agency APA. Frankie read the script and he absolutely loved it. Jeremy was like "what do you guys think of Frankie Muniz?" and we were like "Wow, Frankie Muniz, that sounds fantastic!". Of course we wanted him to come out and have him test, see how it worked. He came out off the book and crushed the audition like you would expect him to because he's a trained professional of the highest level, and he just blew our minds. That's how it started in the case of Frankie's casting.

Brian Hanson: For any up and coming film-makers who read this interview and think we had a ton of money and all the connections in the world, quite a few people that we cast were people I bartended with a decade ago. They've gone on and made it in their own right but it's important that people know that's from doing time in the trenches, starting from ground zero, and even having a really great casting director like Jeremy Gordon, when we got him he mostly was an associate casting director for Rob Reiner. He was associate casting at a high level, which means he's a guy that's ready to strike out and make a name as a casting director in his own right. You find these people that are coming up at the same time and everybody is able to call in favours or just really reach much further than some big budget automatically buys you. 

Through Jeremy Gordon's hard work, he was able to get our script out to places Rich and I could never do by ourselves, which again is how we got to Frankie. We got all-sorts of great actors, that's how we found Blake Webb who plays Eric 'The ERC'. He was amazing! Chelsea Edmundson who plays Dena and is an amazing actress going on to do great things was cast in a short film we did in film school. When I needed a female to read in auditions with Jeremy Gordon because we were reading all these guys coming through, I called up Chelsea. I said "Chelsea, would you mind spending a few hours with us? I'll take you out for lunch", which isn't something an actress would normally agree to do and say "oh yeah, let me just read lines for people off camera". Chelsea said "absolutely, I will do that" and after days of hearing Chelsea read this role of Dena, when it was time to cast, all I could hear was Chelsea's voice, and we had some great actresses! Dena was originally supposed to be a 45 year old woman way older than Jonathan - very dangerous, up-to-something, no good. There's someone in Chelsea who went the extra mile. She didn't have to do that, you know? She could have thought it was beneath her and think "why am I going to just go and read for other people", but it was in doing that led her to play Dena, and we couldn't have been happier with what she did.

We had Cullen Douglas who I shot a short film with many years ago. I'm talking when I was a young pup! He's the man in black. That is a long time relationship. I bartended with Ravi Patel who has a cameo playing a doctor. That was a bartending relationship of many in the film. I guess the lesson here is that through casting efforts and a decade of being in L.A. and working in the trenches, we were able to call in a lot of favours. We've got this great mix of talented working actors that came in because they met us through casting, and our friends who we've known for 10-15 years. I appreciate the compliment on our casting, we did work hard but it also came from working in the trenches.

To quote a line from The Black String, for the most part, it seems that it was very much a process that involved "staying in the circle", specifically your social circle

Brian Hanson: Ha, ha. Right, the in-circle. 

Were there many days, if any, where you felt crazy or cursed due to battling between distinction and expectations as first time film-makers?

Brian Hanson: Well, we definitely were every bit producers as we were a director, or actor or writers. I would say we probably got on average 4 hours a night during production, sometimes just 2. It was absolutely necessary and had to happen. With a small team you're going to wear multiple hats, everyone does, so there were times where yeah we felt cursed because Rich and I are building special effects the night before something, or we're doing call sheets when we should be sleeping, or working on re-writes the day before a shoot because you shoot something and it's performed differently better and now you need to mirror that change in pages that follow. It was brutal without a doubt. We kept waking up and coming back for more, but there was definitely an element of "are we cursed" but then we were like "well, we asked for it". You get what you ask for! There was no other way it was going to happen than that. There's these master classes that these great directors are out there advertising online, and Spike Lee has one for either Do the Right Thing, or She's Gotta Have it, and he's like "I was the director, I was the PA, I was the craft-services", he's just listing all these things, and you're like "well, if Spike Lee went through it, we certainly can also go through it". It was never not fun but there was times where there was a mountain of work to do and not enough hours in the day, but we did it.

Richard Handley: I would say that we had the benefit of Devils Whisper prior to our project. The strongest players on that crew were able to transfer their experience on to our set, and so we kind of hit the ground running with that. We had just literally finished Devils Whisper a few weeks prior to The Black String. 

Brian Hanson: We didn't pick the most strongest, we picked the most available.

Richard Handley: Ha, ha, ha! 

Brian Hanson: They were all strong but not everybody was available when we were going to shoot.

Richard Handley: That's a good point. There was a familiarity once we hit our production. I use razors edge again in this capacity because every day, it was a question of "are we going to make this day?" and if we don't we lose the set. We had quite a few locations, I think we had 13 locations. Every dollar and minute counted. We had Liam Finn who is also an amazing producer, the first assistant director that came on board to help us out. He kind of saved our butts more than once in terms of our schedule. He knew how to really build a schedule to the smallest detail, which was very helpful. He was there as our first AD all the way through. We had Julia Camara-Calvo who came in to help us as well. We surrounded ourselves talent more experienced than Brian and I and that was a wise thing to do. I don't think we would have gotten through the project as well as we did with friendships intact having not handled our pre-production the way we did, and surrounded ourselves with not only super talented people but just good people. 

Were there times where you resisted being so restrained thematically out of fear that audiences might not want as much ambiguity as you present them with?

Brian Hanson: When I told Rich the story a couple years ago at film school, the ambiguity in The Black String was exactly the point.  Fortunately Rich got excited about it, we re-wrote it and then we showed it to Kayli Fortun and Charles Bunce and a few other people. They got excited about it as well, so we were getting a really good reaction from readers. As we went further down the road and showed the script to even more people, we started to shoot and realised that we could have a scene where we could make some adjustments and make it 100% concrete in ending one direction or the other with a very obvious resolution. Some people weren't so keen with the ambiguity at test screenings, but we realised we had to trust our instinct and that this is the kind of movie that we like, there's enough people in the world like us. Like at Frightfest, there's a crowd that likes this kind of movie, even if you get three people in a row who think it's too ambiguous, we've got to remember all the positive comments we got in the past. We did make small adjustments in the edit here and there to give a little more information, but in the end this always intended to be a 50/50 movie and we're going to live with it. We kind of accepted the risk because that's the kind of movie we like and again we know there's more than just us out there who like this kind of movie. It's not intended to be a Universal Studio's wide release. This is a niche movie, Frankie knocks it out of the park.  We wanted to stay true while we can, first movie out, really independent. 

There's a lot to be said about the way fear travels around suburbia. How important was it using the suburb as a major character to illustrate that fear?

Brian Hanson: That again was a case of write what you know. They took I Am Legend, which originally was in the suburbs of Compton in the Matheson novel. He was just going around the suburbs, and then they changed it of course to Time Square. Everything seemed to be big or way out in the woods, you know, in a haunted house that anybody with half a brain would know you don't go out there. At that time when Andy and I were putting this together we loved Blair Witch but when we saw Paranormal Activity, they basically made Blair Witch in a house in the middle of the suburbs. That is what we wanted to do. How can you have the most horrific experience in your life in a house where your neighbours are 15 feet away? Polanski's apartment trilogy, that's all in an apartment where your neighbours are 18 inches away. It was important to Andy and I as we grew up in the suburbs, and to be honest look at the movies from the 80's; Goonies, E.T. and Poltergeist, right? ...

I think The Burbs transcends that vibe as well

Brian Hanson: Oh, I love The Burbs! The Burbs was an influence too, like the neighbours - no trust. Corey Feldman loving and watching all the mayhem go down. That feeling of the suburbs at the summer time was very important, it's how I grew up and Rich grew up in a similar environment, so he immediately understood that. We wanted that to be a specific environment. It doesn't feel so original at this point because we're in this whole resurgence of 80's Horror, from Stranger Things to IT to Summer of 84 to I'm not a Serial Killer, they're all based in the suburbs now, so now we're kind of part of that zeitgeist if you will. In the mid-2000's when we were dreaming this up, it was a reaction to everything that we were seeing, which was either isolated in the woods or Zombies in the big city.

Can you talk about depicting dread within the encounter Jonathan experiences, where the horror is so slow but the pain is so relentless

Brian Hanson: We knew the movie was the movie based on the screenplay. The whole point is almost a final shot, it's kind of like what's going on, what's going on? Is it mental illness or is there something occult going on? We really wanted to play with people up until the final shot. We knew that was the way we were going to build it but to make that work, we had to give people another arch to follow, which is where the family drama unfolds and his relationship with Eric. We had to fill it with other stories because it's not just a haunted house thing where it's just cats jumping out of closets and Zombies hammering down the door. We needed these subplots to keep people engaged, but really we knew the main thing was us building dread, this sense of dread that was building and building. We intended to hook everybody by the 20th minute of wanting to know "oh, boy, is this in his head? or is this really happening?", so from there we followed the steps of building good suspense, which is to create a feeling of unease and then you move to dread, which is now that creepy feeling a character has when they now believe it's directed at them, but they don't know where, then from dread you go into terror, which are normally your jump scares, or your really horrific moments, all of which builds the on-going scale of horror that you can't trust your surroundings. There's horrible things happening all around you. 

We were very, very methodical about building a sense of unease and then stepping it up to a feeling of dread and then erupting it with moments of terror, which then builds this base-line feeling of horror. I think it's worked pretty well from the music selection to the colouring, to the framing shots to the edit. Everything that we did we wanted to keep an on going feeling of dread. We obviously also wanted to have moments of levity, or non sequiturs because life is pretty random at times. Jonathan says some things during some intense moments that are actually quite funny, which was intentional because people say the funniest things at the most random of times. We were always conscious of trying to build the appropriate atmosphere and stretch it out to the very last frame.

Who was it that came up with the line "It's a lifestyle convenience boutique store" that Jonathan says when describing where he works at?

Brian Hanson: Ha, ha! That was me. There's this great comedian that I take a lot from. He's a radio legend, his names Phil Hendrie. He has done brilliant stuff on the radio here. He's definitely in his twilight years as far as best stuff but he was almost a ventriloquist on the radio. He would play multiple characters at one time and just the most ridiculous stuff, but actually close enough to reality where if you tuned in and you didn't know the show you were listening to you would believe it. I would credit Phil Hendrie for a lot of absurd humour that I appreciate into dark places. 

It's very much a woke film with a social commentary that's on beat as well as nostalgic. It's also undoubtedly a product of body Horror and echoes the influences of David Chronenberg and Clive Barker. How much do you credit them influencing you?

Brian Hanson: We're just carrying the torch for the things that we've seen. I personally was on a chase for super originality and what has never been done before, but after coming back from the army I realise we're all artists in a time and place and you can't fun away from you influences. Without a doubt Hellraiser and Chronenberg's body horror influenced me. Videodrome and The Prince Of Darkness are 2 movies that hugely influential! I always told Rich that in a sense he's the doctor from Hellraiser 2. If you went in on a conspiracy tip with the Black String and read into it, you could be like Dr. Ronaldi is that doctor from Hellbound. With Videodrome you got televisions talking to people and this sensuality coming from television screens, the lonely guy investigating things in the wee hours of the night. David Lynch is also a huge influence among so many more.

I know Roman Polanski's got some major baggage, he's not a beloved guy anymore but as far as his works go Rose Mary's Baby and Repulsion were huge influences. The apartment trilogy, too. All of those were big influences and we actually tried to check ourselves at times and not go so far into paying homage that we're just remaking these things. Paranoia and body horror, and technology morphing into evil creepy, oozey, slimey things. Those guys paved the way and are kind of what we have to reference. 

What's next for Brian Hanson and Richard Handley?

Brian Hanson: We're working on a project that is in a similar space. It's an occult horror thriller about a single dad that throws a back-yard party for his son on the weekend, and he hires a kind of low-rent greasy magician, puts his son in one of those boxes but his son doesn't come out, which begins the journey. Suburbs, magic, is it real? Is it not? Maybe it is? We're working on that and a couple of other projects, including a cool little military project that might be the 3rd, or 4th movie as it would require a more substantial budget.

The Black String is out today on DVD, VOD and HD Digital via Lionsgate Films

Interview by Luke 'Menace' Bailey