Writer-director Bryan Bertino is living the film-geek dream at the moment, with his first movie, the creepy horror-thriller The Strangers, hitting this coming weekend. The picture stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a young couple who, during a stay at a vacation house in the woods, become the targets of a trio of relentless and murderous madmen.
The situation very quickly spirals out of control for Tyler and Speedman's characters as they seek to beat the odds and escape from these Strangers. But the fact that The Strangers got made at all is a triumph in and of itself over the odds. For not only is the movie Bertino's first feature film as a director, but it's also his first sold script.
"It's a lot of firsts!" the helmer recently joked while talking with IGN. A former photography student who moved from Texas to Los Angeles, Bertino soon began writing scripts after his arrival in Hollywood. The third one he penned would turn out to become The Strangers. "I entered it into the Nicholls Fellowship. It's a competition where like 7,000 people or something enter, and I finished in the top 300. So you got on a list that went out to agents and managers, and a manager called me and a week later I sold it. So all of a sudden I quit my job and everything took off from there."
Not surprisingly, the plan at Rogue Pictures, where the script had been sold, was to find a more experienced director to bring Bertino's story to the big screen. But the project hung in limbo for a couple of years while the search for a helmer was underway, to no avail. Eventually, Rogue returned to the "source material," you might say -- Bertino himself -- to get the film made.
"They never found a director for The Strangers, so for two years that project kind of hung there and at some point I think I imagined it was dead, like so many other Hollywood scripts that just get bought and then you never hear about them again," he recalls. "And Andrew Rona at Rogue called me and said, 'We're still trying to find somebody because we really want to do this but we can't find a director. I want to understand the movie a little bit more, so come in and meet with me and let me ask you a bunch of questions.' And I did, and a 45-minute meeting turned into a two-and-a-half hour meeting, and next thing I know he called and said, 'I want him to be the director.' And so, bam, it was a whole new world of things I didn't know."
Tyler, who is well known to fanboys not just for her general hotness but also for her turns in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, took an instant liking to the Strangers script. Having taken a break from acting to have her son Milo, Tyler was looking to get back into the game and Bertino's tale of horror was just the thing for her.
"It's amazing because I just had such a gut reaction to it," remembers Tyler. "I know that maybe sounds sort of silly talking about a movie script but I had taken a couple of years off from working because I had a baby, but I guess I just decided it was time for me to start reading scripts again and focusing on getting another job. And I went through this stack of scripts and The Strangers just kind of jumped out at me. And I thought, 'Oh, I want to read that.' I didn't even know what it was about, I didn't know if it was a comedy or drama or what. I just couldn't put it down, I just loved it and blasted through it, I read it so quickly. I don't know, I just was like, 'I have to be in this movie. I have to play this part.' I don't know why. It was so strange. It was sort of no question. I just loved everything about it."
Interestingly, it was more or less Bertino's spec script which attracted Tyler to the film. After a long spell of development at Rogue, which saw the film get the expected rewrites and revamps that is pro forma in the studio system, Bertino wound up essentially reverting to his original screenplay once he was hired as the director.
"The script changed a lot after I left it during the two years that they were looking for a director," recalls Bertino. "And then what eventually brought me back was them returning to my original spec. So then I was hired back in to direct it and I tweaked things more than anything. I'd spent two years writing, so I think I'm a better writer now than I was four years ago. It's a very similar script. It was almost identical to what the spec was."
Although her resume up until this point doesn't really indicate it, Tyler says she's always been a fan of the genre: "I just loved all horror movies when I was a kid. I really loved them and they were my favorite thing ever," she laughs. So when it came time to take the job on The Strangers, the actress wasn't concerned at all about -- or even aware of, really -- any possible stigma that might arise from working in the genre.
"I don't think about that," she says. "Somebody said [to me recently] that horror movies are like B-movies, but there was no question in my mind that I wanted to work on this film and be a part of it. Also, it's fun. It's great. I mean it was the hardest work I've ever done in my life and it was beyond emotionally stressing. It was difficult physically and emotionally, but it was also just really fun."
Tyler is of course referring to the intense situations that her character found herself in when encountering the Strangers. Stabbings, dead friends, grueling terror, and so on. But for the director Bertino, he was faced with an almost equally punishing task: directing his first Hollywood feature.
"The biggest challenge for me was probably learning to direct actors so I felt that I could give them everything they needed so they could give great performances," he says. "I was really fortunate that Liv and Scott reacted so strongly to the material because they were great actors as far as bringing those qualities that I really wanted, which was dramatic actors who did a lot more drama than they did genre. So we were able to get on the same page and just talk about [their characters] James and Kristen as people, and then I concentrated on the fear."
Speaking of fear, the title characters of the film are certainly capable of evoking that particular emotion. Called Pin-Up Girl, Dollface, and The Man in the Mask by the filmmakers -- and so named after the masks each killer wears -- this triumvirate of cold-blooded killers are about as mysterious as you can get, with their true motivations and identities barely even hinted at by Bertino's script. Bertino says that though he did have a vague idea of the motivations behind the three, he purposely kept it as up-in-the-air as he could.
"I definitely thought about them quite a bit," he says. "I always knew this would be a perspective from the victims' point of view and I always knew that there would be no, like, FBI profile read. But I think that I always did think about who these people are. [If you take the ideas that] sometimes you make up in your head of, 'Oh, wouldn't it be cool to rob a bank,' or whatever -- late-night Denny's conversations -- I ground it in that sense, trying to imagine that while these people are doing something very evil, I don't think anyone is evil but I think everyone is capable of evil things. So in that sense I think I grounded them, but I wouldn't go so far as to say I ever laid out full bios because I liked the fact that the actors playing the Strangers filled in the blanks on their own. It helped define the way they stood when the masks were on, how they wore the clothes, the things that they felt. I remember the day we started with Kip [Weeks], The Man in the Mask, he poked his head in and said, 'I hate my boots. These would not be the boots he would wear.' So I took my boots off and he wore my boots, and I wore the prop boots. Because he got it. These wouldn't be a brand new pair of shoes!"
In fact, the overarching approach of the film's plot comes from the less is more school of thought, though not in a bad way. Take for instance the opening sequences of the movie, prior to the arrival of the Strangers, where we learn that Tyler's character has just said no to Speedman's marriage proposal. The reasons for this (and even the actual "no" itself) are never revealed, but the overall effect is that of a more realistic situation for these two characters.
"For Bryan and I, we always talked about that," says Tyler. "Why does she say no to him when he proposes to her? And we had a whole bunch of ideas but the truth is we didn't want there to be one set reason because she's still trying to figure that out. She had a gut reaction in that moment and she doesn't know exactly herself. I think in life everything isn't black and white and it isn't all perfect. Everything is changing all the time."
The Strangers themselves have changed too, in terms of how they relate to the many other killers of the overpopulated slasher genre. Unlike the Jasons and Freddys and Michael Myers of the world, the Strangers are much more grounded in reality – which makes them that much more scary.
"Honestly it's like, even with Jason and Michael Myers -- more so than Freddy, because Freddy has got a supernatural element -- when you look back at the first or second films that they did, often those guys were a lot more normal," says Bertino of his decision to make these villains relatively human. "It was only as the sequels moved on that they got bigger and bigger and bigger. And I think that's in some ways why the slasher genre has lost some of its charm and you don't get the sense that there's a realness to it anymore, you don't get the sense that these are real people. So it wasn't so much that I wanted to make a commentary on the slasher genre, but I wanted it to play with the idea of masked men and monsters but never lose the idea that they are still fighting men."
As for whether or not The Strangers is itself the first in a new horror franchise, Bertino is taking a wait and see approach, though he says he certainly hopes to continue to work in the genre no matter how this film does at the box office. But Tyler adds that the finished theatrical film is pretty trimmed down compared to what was shot, so don't be surprised if a longer and more involved version of this story eventually shows up on DVD.
"I have to say they definitely pepped the movie up in the sense that they made it into more of a classic horror movie," says the actress. "It was more of a thriller, more dark, and more bleak I guess. There was more of the relationship between Kristen and James. And the ending changed in that they just took a lot of stuff out because I think it was really just too realistic and too disturbing. It wasn't too gory or anything but it was a lot longer. We basically set up a couple of cameras and they put us in there and we had the whole thing choreographed where the Strangers, um, do what they do!"
So if you're wondering what exactly it is that the Strangers do, then be sure to check out the film when it opens this weekend. But take our word for it: They do it very, very well…