Interview: Director Billy O’Brien and Actor Max Records, ‘I Am Not a Serial Killer’

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Gemma Creagh talks to director Billy O’Brien and actor Max Records about their film I Am Not a Serial Killer.

Billy discusses how 3 Irish filmmakers ended up making Dan Wells’ novel about Middle America into a film and Max reveals how he got into acting and Where the Wild Things Are. Along the way, Billy talks about Christopher Lloyd’s subtle acting technique and, of course, there’s chat about the weather and Trump.

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Irish Film Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

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DIR: Billy O’Brien • WRI: Billy O’Brien, Christopher Hyde • PRO: James Harris, Mark Lane, Nick Ryan • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Nick Emerson • DES: Jennifer Klide • MUS: Adrian Johnston • CAST: Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, Max Records

 

Lurid title aside, here’s a film that needs to be taken seriously. Even if this surprisingly thoughtful horror contains a seam of spry and wry humour that insures that it doesn’t take itself too serious. And therein lays a vital distinction and a winning quality.

Beautifully timed as a release at the time of year that puts a chill in our bones, this film achieves the same ends serving up familiar genre tropes with a seam of personality and humanity that moves the film beyond simple or easy classification.

Presided over by the supremely assured touch of Irish director Billy O Brien, ‘IANASK’ is thoroughly a slice of Americana as John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) navigates the snow-caked roads of his small provincial town with a forensic detachment that is exemplified by his unsettling eagerness to assist at his mother’s funeral home.

Painfully aware of his own morbid fascinations, John has long since adopted a code of conduct to keep his macabre tendencies in check. However, when dead bodies start to crop up around town, the audience is kept on a knife’s edge when striving to interpret John’s passionate yet inscrutable desire to track down the killer. Is it admiration? Jealousy? Or is he seeking a mentor? It certainly doesn’t read as a typical hero’s crusade for justice but that’s exactly the atypical territory this film drops us into – shorn of the standard issue map of the hero’s journey that we are all so fatally over-familiar with.

Occasionally the film seems in danger of playing out as a riff on ‘Juno’ with just way more disembowelments. (An element that would only have only improved ‘Juno’ by the way.) Disaffected youths not being understood can stray into hipster whining in a heartbeat but the film clicks up several gears when John starts to focus on his elderly neighbour played by Christopher Lloyd, in a beautifully calibrated performance steeped in the weariness of a long life lived. Yet underpinned by a burning, enduring desire to keep living.

Which ties into the true horror at the heart of this film and it is merely this – the horror of ageing. The indignities it can contain as our bodies betray us. Our bones crumble. Our organs collapse. I struggle to think of a genre film that has so adroitly tapped into this rich theme. There’s a scene of Lloyd in the snow backlit by headlights that throbs with both rage and humanity as he lurches around in a manic bid to survive. The sequence literally bristles with a palpable primal urgency – it’s the howl of a dark soul facing its’ mortality. And it is bloody powerful.

Frankly, this is not the type of film that ends up on the Academy’s radar but it should, with Lloyd worthy of recognition to crown not only a widely divergent and impressive career but also this specific performance. A win for this role would not be some sop or the equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement award – he would deserve it for how honest, raw, tender and fiery his portrayal here is.

And so to the Irish talent at the heart of the film. Frankly, such is his virtuosity,  Robbie Ryan’s cinematography would only be newsworthy at this stage if it inexplicably turned shit overnight. Which may sound like the most Irish compliment of all time so let’s be clear – his blistering icy and inky visuals are central to the thematic success of the film. Hankering back to a ’70s aesthetic while capturing a rare sense of naturalism elevates everything here. Giving it gravity and making the film seem vintage and timeless simultaneously.

The film represents a career high-point for Billy O Brien too, with the film’s director also sharing writing duties. And on this front, the film is no less accomplished, managing to intermittently defuse mounting tension with some bitterly funny lines and moments.

It’s not flawless. Some of the surveillance central to the plot stretches credulity. The ending probably over-explains when there may have been more potency in just cutting away with some mystery intact. There also appears to be a lull in the middle of the film as John appears to freeze into Hamlet-style procrastinating after he learns the killer’s identity. Still, considering what he’s up against, John probably has more genuine reason for delaying than the Dane.

If the festive cheer is leaving you cold or the incessant barrage of cosy commercials doesn’t chime with your world view right now, this film can serve as the perfect antidote. It’s original, oppressive and impressive. What an unexpected and enjoyably unpleasant surprise this film is.

   James Phelan

104 minutes

16 (See IFCO for details)

I Am Not a Serial Killer is released 9th December 2016

I Am Not a Serial Killer  – Official Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: I Am Not a Serial Killer

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Loretta Goff is on the hunt for Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, which screened at the 2016 Cork Film Festival.

Deftly blending genres—part thriller, horror, comedy, drama and romance—I Am Not a Serial Killer is a unique film full of surprises. The teenage protagonist of the film, John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records), is fascinated by serial killers and has been diagnosed with sociopathic tendencies, leading him to create a set of rules to live by in order to prevent him from hurting or killing anyone. However, when a series of linked murders occur in his small Minnesota town, John becomes obsessed with discovering and understanding the killer, testing these rules.

John works in the family funeral home, helping to embalm corpses, and thus has access to the bodies of the murder victims. Rather than shying away from their wounds, missing organs and limbs, John studies them closely and goes to the crime scenes, working on a profile of the killer. Despite the concerns of his mother (Laura Fraser) and quirky therapist (Karl Geary), and the fact that John doesn’t feel emotion in the normal sense—in fact he is repeatedly labelled as abnormal—he is also a very likeable, and even relatable protagonist.

Director and co-writer Billy O’Brien (Isolation) clearly frames John as an outsider and an observer. Numerous voyeuristic shots through windows, trees, grass and binoculars are all from his perspective, at times innocuously observing the girl he seems to like and family life, and others more seriously tracking the killer. We also see shots from John’s perspective lingering on the blood draining from bodies as they are embalmed and on their wounds. These, and his fascination with serial killers, lend a sinister tone to his character, particularly when paired with close-ups of him slowly cutting chicken meat from the bone during his dinner. At the same time, however, John is repeatedly seen doing the right thing and is a large source of the humour in the film. Similarly, though his reactions and emotions don’t always align with what is “normal”, his emotionless face always appears pleasant.

In part family drama, I Am Not a Serial Killer explores relationships. Within the Cleaver family there is an absentee father, strained mother-daughter relationship, and of course John’s relationships with his family, therapist and people at school, affected by his inability to feel. On the other hand, contrasting with this emotional lack in John, is the abundant love between his elderly neighbours Mr. and Mrs. Crowley, through which the theme of aging is also explored. The key relationship in the film, however, is between John and Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). While the film is well-acted all around, this pair of actors (Records and Lloyd) in particular do a superb job in their nuanced roles.

The film is able to quickly shift between light-hearted, serious and chilling moments, and even blends naturalism with the supernatural as the killer is unveiled. Moments of sudden shock are juxtaposed with slowly built suspense and terror as the film moves into horror territory, assisted by clever editing and a solid soundtrack. The theme of darkness within us is explored  throughout the film in terms of John suppressing his own dark urges, but as the horror in the film grows, this theme also take on a more literal embodiment. In a particularly poignant scene regarding this, Crowley recites William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” as he sits with John in the dark by a glowing fire, contemplating darkness and light rooted in the same source. Ultimately, the film is a rollercoaster of emotion, full of sudden dips and turns, offering a bit of everything, but seamlessly fitting together.

Following the film’s screening in The Everyman, Billy O’Brien and producer Nick Ryan participated in a Q&A. O’Brien spoke about Dan Wells’ novel of the same name, from which the film was adapted, noting that he was attracted to its dark humour. As the novel is very much a first person narrative, O’Brien explained that Max Records’ face filled that role in the film, reflecting John’s perspective. Both O’Brien and Ryan praised Records and Lloyd for their performances, noting their collaboration, dedication and chemistry.

Though the process of funding the film was a struggle, taking six and a half years in the end, Ryan noted the continued support of the Irish Film Board throughout this process, providing a backbone of funding. The film, which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, has been doing the festival circuit since and has been particularly well-received by European audiences. O’Brien remarked that I Am Not a Serial Killer is “an American film [set in Minnesota] with a European heart”, and that it offers something different.

 

I Am Not a Serial Killer screened on 17th November 2016

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

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