Billy Senese at The Dead Center of genre cinema

Billy Senese at The Dead Center of genre cinema was first published by SciFiNow, 27/2/2019

After creating plays for radio and also making a series of short films, writer/director Billy Senese helmed his first feature, Closer to God (aka A Frankenstein Story) in 2014, updating the Frankenstein myth to the age of genetic science and cloning. Now his latest, The Dead Center, explores mental illness and demonic possession within a modern clinical context. Both are excellent. I caught up with Senese ahead of the UK première of The Dead Center at Glasgow FrightFest 2019.

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If I were to characterise what unifies your two features, I’d say that they both start with familiar genre tropes, and then give them a very modern spin. What interests, if any, would you say unify them?

Billy Senese: Yes, I can say they both make this attempt to paint very real environments and characters. And then slowly, as the story unfolds, something supernatural or supernormal is introduced – in literature, it would be a magical realism approach. One of my favorite authors is Haruki Murakami. Murakami does an incredible job of presenting real worlds and characters and then bending them into otherworldly strangeness. He’s been a huge inspiration for me.

The main character in The Dead Center, the psychiatrist Dr Daniel Forrester, is played by Shane Carruth, writer/director (and star) of Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013). What led you to cast him?

Billy Senese: When you watch Shane in Primer and Upstream Color, he has such a natural quality. Honest and unaffected. This is what I believed this character needed. Once I got the idea to cast him, we found a way to get a script to him, and luckily, he really loved it and agreed to come on board, not only as the lead actor, but also as a producer on the project. It was an amazing opportunity to work with him – he’s a true artist.   

The Dead Center is a divided narrative, split between medical examiner Dr Edward Graham’s efforts to investigate the background of a John Doe (played by Jeremy Childs) missing from the hospital morgue, and Dr Daniel Forrester’s attempts to work with a disturbed John Doe in his psych ward. What motivated you to introduce this circling bipartite structure? 

Billy Senese: I stumbled upon this structure in Closer to God and wanted to expand on and improve upon it in The Dead Center. At the heart of it, it creates suspense through inevitability. By having these two story lines happening concurrently, the audience feels the connections getting closer and closer. They feel the walls closing in as the events slowly and steadily spiral toward this entity becoming fully realized. 

Whether because he is dead or catatonic or amnesiac or possessed, the John Doe at the film’s dead centre is never fully himself. Was it important to you that he should be as much an absence as a presence?

Billy Senese: Jeremy [Childs] and I worked really hard on each state of consciousness and the timing of them. As this entity forms inside Michael Clark, it attacks his core self – his identity and his memories – so it can take over his body. It’s a slow process that extends over the course of the film. I wanted the audience to experience this with him and feel the transformation happen. So yes, feeling that wave of in and out of awareness was very important to achieve that effect. 

You’ve worked with Childs previously in Closer To God (2014) and in your short films The Suicide Tapes (2010) and Intruder (2011). How did you meet, and what is your working relationship?

Billy Senese: I first hired him to play a role in on of my radio plays back around 2009, called Flu. We were immediately a great fit. My writing and directing sensibilities lined up perfectly with his acting style and approach. And with each new project we’ve worked on together over the years, we push each other, so it’s bigger and better than the one before. And I think this has paid off in The Dead Center for both of us. It’s our best work yet, in my opinion.  

The Dead Center begins with a babble of clashing voices, inducing in the viewer something akin to a schizophrenic episode – or a demonic possession. From there on the film equivocates between being a tragic psychodrama in which a skilled doctor succumbs to the madness both within and around him, and an apocalyptic horror in which a body-hopping devil steals people’s breath. Neither of these two explanatory frames – one natural, one supernatural – works by itself. What were the challenges of maintaining this ambiguity?

Billy Senese: To me, this can be one of the biggest challenges working in the genre space. The less you say, the more cinematically elevated it is. The more you say, the dumber it is. Don’t say enough, and people are confused and become bored. There’s no magic formula for this. You just roll your sleeves up and work on it until you think it’s right. And cross your fingers you found that delicate balance. 

How do you go about dealing with mental illness through a genre frame without becoming exploitative or disrespectful, or indeed without demonising patients? Was it difficult to find a sensitive balance?

Billy Senese: I think it’s a combination of good research and working with your actors. I started with this book called Danger to Self, by Dr. Paul Linde. This book went into real accounts of the Dr. Linde’s work in an emergency psychiatric unit in San Francisco. I reached out to him, and he agreed to be a consultant on the script. Paul would read through the script, give me notes, and help me make it more authentic. And as far as working with the actors, it’s important that you call them out if it doesn’t feel grounded and honest. It was very crucial to me to get this part of the story right. So I wasn’t going to let up until it felt genuine. 

In a sense The Dead Center is about a collision between the rational and the irrational, with either vying to control the narrative. In the end, do you think it matters whether it is a psychiatric condition or a demon that wins out and takes the reins from the rational? Is demonic possession just a metaphor for mental trauma and the surrender to the irrational?

Billy Senese: A ”collision between the rational and the irrational.” I like this, very well put. All decent horror films work in metaphors – especially when it involves the supernatural. I think it was Stephen King who said, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

What’s next? 

Billy Senese: I’m collaborating on a couple of projects right now. One is an Iranian spy adaptation that I was commissioned to write. The other is hopefully my next directing project. It’s a little too early to talk about the details, but it’s an American thriller in the vein of Straw Dogs and Deliverance.

© Anton Bitel