Adam Egypt Mortimer on keeping Daniel real

Adam Egypt Mortimer on keeping Daniel real was first published by SciFiNow Magazine as a discursive essay with select quotes, but here is a much longer transcript of the original interview (conducted in 2019).

APB: Who the hell is Adam Egypt Mortimer? What were you before all this movie stuff happened, and how did you become a filmmaker? 

Adam Egypt Mortimer: Ok, broad, large and epic, I like it. I’d been trying to make Daniel Isn’t Real for about seven years. So that takes us back to 2011 when I was directing music videos, and making the occasional strange short film, and trying to figure out how to get into making feature length movies. So around that time I was reading every book that I could read, talking to every writer that I could meet, in the hopes of finding something that I could figure out how to turn into a movie. So Brian De Leeuw wrote the book [In This Way I Was Saved, 2009] that it was based on. I met him randomly at a party, where he was like: “I’m a writer, I wrote a book.” I liked him, and I was so desperately looking for cool ideas that I read his book that weekend. So that started the process on how that went down. 

Before I was very serious about making movies, I was a musician. So way back in the day I was living in New York, and I was in an experimental band called Egypt Is The Magic Number, and I was playing, like, the electric sitar and singing through plastic tubes that were run through analogue delay boxes – playing instruments that were basically like metal boxes that would give you a horrible shock if you touched them wrong. So that went on for a little while and I put out some releases and I toured, and sort of felt like I had accomplished within that what I needed to, and I remember I was on a tour at some point and I was reading that book about Seventies film, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls [Peter Bisking, 1998] – I mean, i had always been interested in film, but I read that book and I was on tour playing my electric sitar, and I thought I wanted to shift my point of view from electric sitar experimental music to filmmaking in a much more specific way. But I was filming the band that I hung out with, and I was doing music videos with them in like this experimental noise world in New York, and that led incrementally to doing, you know, more commercial music videos, and doing film in that way.

I guess what you’re saying is that you’ve had an  artistic temperament since you were young, and it’s just found different means of expression.

Mortimer: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I made my first short film when I was 15 years old, and it was actually in some ways very similar to Daniel Isn’t Real because it revolved around ideas of suicide, and it had a doppelgänger aspect, and it was a black-and-white Super 8mm film, but it had colour animation in it, so I guess I’ve been doing the same thing for some time.

Does that mean that when you came to read Brian De Leeuw’s In This Way I Was Saved, that it resonated with something you already had, so to speak? That it spoke to you?

Mortimer: You know, it’s funny, what I think is interesting to me about that is that you kind of get attracted to something for one reason, and you realise what it’s really about later. So, when I first read it, it starts with the kids for the first 100 pages or so of the book, and it had all of this beautiful, very visual dark fantasy stuff. There were parts where they were getting chased around by a dinosaur,  and parts where Luke packs Daniel up into a little suitcase and pinches him into the shape of a suitcase, and there was all this stuff with sandcastles and giant’s castles. All of that dark imagination world was originally [what made me think] this is a cool idea for a movie, because it’s very visual, and it’s telling its story in a way that’s sometimes unusual for a novel in that it will translate into movie pictures. And then, as we were working on it, the themes kinda emerge while you’re going, and this story about how a person is struggling with his own self and his own identity, and he wants to be one way but another part of himself wants to be another way – I started to see how that was something that was relevant to everybody. Oh, this is a way of visualising a story that we can all relate to, you know, anybody feels like they’re in struggle with themselves. And then, even further to that, we were developing, and I started to think about my own experiences and what was happening when I was that age, being involved with somebody that had a very serious mental illness/mental breakdown sort of situation, and realising that I could present very truthfully what the vibe and the feeling and the reality of that experience was like – and that was when I started to really understand how the movie would feel, and what it would be about. 

Some Kind of Hate (2015)

Just backtracking a bit, you had the idea of making Daniel Isn’t Real many years ago, but in between, you and Brian write a script that wasn’t based on a book, called Some Kind of Hate (2015). So why did you do that first? 

Mortimer: We started writing Daniel Isn’t Real together, and then we got to a certain point on it where it was a script that we really liked, but I think,  This is too crazy to try to do as my first movie and independent film, like, it’s going to be very expensive, like, I don’t know if people are going to trust me to make this movie. Let’s make something else that would be much less expensive that we could get made more quickly, and do the thing of developing a pedigree of having made movies. And so that was what led to Some Kind Of Hate. I said to Brian that I would be really interested in doing something like – you know, we’ve developed this way of writing or this style of storytelling in Daniel, and being based on a novel, it has this attention to the writing, and the emotional reality of the characters. What if we applied that kind of aesthetic to a slasher movie. What would it be like if we took an indie film art approach to a slasher movie? That was the genesis of Some Kind Of Hate, and we had visions of, like, We’ll write this movie and immediately get it made – but then even that took years. But it did ultimately do what it was supposed to do, which was that Spectrevision saw that movie at a festival, and they liked it, and they came and asked me what else I was working on. I was working on Daniel, and then we all got to do that together. And that’s sort of a good example of why things take years to get done. 

Both Some Kind of Hate and Daniel Isn’t Real use genre or genre elements to reify and give monstrous form to your characters’ conflicted psychologies. Did you turn to the horror genre just because you like horror, or because you think that horror is specially placed to frame and explore mental illness?

Mortimer: It’s really both. I mean, not mental illness specifically, but yes to both. I grew up with horror, I vividly remember winning a Fangoria convention costume contest when I was 12 years old, and my mum knit me a Freddy Krueger sweater, people would come over to my house when I was a kid and I was reading the Tom Savini book, people would come over to my house and I would cast their face or I would dress us up like zombies and we would stop cars outside of my house acting like zombies, I was always super into that. So I had that as a background, and around the time that I was doing music videos, I was thinking a lot about how experimental film and horror movies are both on two axes of the same thing, which has to do with exactly how you put it about reifying. Experimental films use  cinematic form itself and kind of break it apart to communicate an idea, and horror movies take something that is an emotion or a feeling or an idea and make it really super literal and external. So I started to realise that horror movies were a way that I could tell dark emotional dramas using a cinematic form that I understood. So that was definitely the excitement for me about horror movies. 

Daniel Isn’t Real (2019)

There is a tendency in horror simply to demonise pathologies, but in Daniel Isn’t Real mythic demonology and psychological trauma are put on a level footing, as two ways of saying telling the same story. Could you talk me through your strategies for ensuring that you treated your themes of mental illness with sensitivity?

Mortimer: I just find this confusing, when people are like, Why would you demonise mental illness? Because mental illness is fucking horrible. I don’t even understand what that means. Yeah, you don’t demonise people who are ill,  but if you have a debilitating mental illness, of course it’s bad, it’s like saying, “Why would you demonise a broken foot?”. Like, I don’t want my foot to be broken. That sucks. People talk about mental illness in this careful way, where I just don’t understand what the fuck they’re saying. Of course you don’t want to be a manic depressive – you want to be treated for it, and accepted as a functioning member of society, so I get a ltitle confused about that, but that’s not exactly what you’re asking. The answer to what you’re asking is a couple of things:  

One, I became very careful about performances, and working with actors and making the characters real, and giving them not just a full emotional life, but elevating then to being interesting people and interesting characters. I think there’s a mistake you can make where you reduce characters to their diagnosis, but I find the right thing to do is it to elevate them to mythology, like the way Shakespeare worked. All of Shakespeare’s characters are crazy. King Lear, mentally ill. Hamlet, mentall ill. All mentally ill. But they’re elevated to a fully-formed human, and beyond the fully-formed human into mythologically interesting characters because of how theme and its execution play around those characters. 

The other thing is… I feel like Daniel is a movie that is focused around empathy, the idea of empathy, and this was something that I came to late, because when I originally was working on the movie I thought of it more as something that was a very nihilistic point of view, it was sort of saying you need to wake people up to see that the world is a really dangerous and bleak place, and we’re not paying attention to how we exist in that world. Then the election happened in the US, the 2016 election, I was like, Oh, now everybody – literally everybody – is aware of the world as a nihilistic place, so the thing that is the really important question is how do you remain sympathetic despite the bleakness of the world, and that was when the idea of empathy, and making sure to treat that central argument of empathy vs non-empathy, was like a really important part of it. 

Then the third thing in answer to your question is to be true to the reality of it. So this was where I wanted to make sure that the movie unfolded and felt like what it is truly like to go through a manic episode and have a psychic break from reality, and what it’s like to be around somebody who’s going through that, in a way that it can be exciting and seductive at first, and then you realise that something really out of control has happened. And that was an experience that I had had when I was the age of these characters, being around my best friend who was going through this exact kind of thing, and so I found what I really wanted to do as a filmmaker was make it true, make it feel like that, in the way that Requiem for a Dream [Darren Aronofsky, 2000] really makes you understand the horrors of drug addiction. Daniel Isn’t Real really makes you understand the horrors of a kind of a mental break, and what that feels like. And so the most satisfying response I’ve ever got from the movie when I see it with audiences is when people come up to me and say, I had an experience just like that, and this truly represents what that feeling was – which is so interesting, because this is a movie with demons and all these crazy things, and to have somebody say that felt like a true representation is exactly why I work in the horror space, and exactly what I was trying to achieve. 

Oh absolutely, and in a sense, the title says it all: Daniel isn’t real, the demons are all in Luke’s head. Daniel Isn’t Real is a kind of schizophrenic buddy pic, like Fight Club, in which Luke (Miles Robbins) and his ‘invisible friend’ Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) are both diametrically opposite personality types, but paired together they offer a portrait of a single, complicated individual at odds with himself. You dramatise Luke’s internal division through rôle-reversals and carefully intercut parallel sequences, especially at the end, and by allowing both actors to shadow each other’s acting styles, all in a manner that is highly visual. How painstaking were you at the writing stage in laying out all these modulations? How did you keep track of all the nuances of the paired characterisation?

Mortimer: For me the most important thing was to treat them in their scenes together, like they are truly two nineteen-year-old young men who are best friends. Starting there, I think there’s a really specific, really particular kind of relationship that two young men who are best friends at that exact age will have, where it’s just post-teenage, but not quite full, in-the-world adult. I really like the scene where they scare his roommate, and then they’re flapping around on the floor, together, in this little ball, laughing. They’re in their own little world, and I found that to be really true, and that was true to my memory of having friends at that exact time. There was something really physical and specific, and you were always creating your own world. So I feel like the nuances of them as two different characters was really helped by us understanding them as real friends, and the little flare-ups and gnarly little sinister bits that would come up when you’d see a moment of Daniel and realise there was something else going on with him or something deeper – but when he’s in those moments with Luke, he’s in those moments with Luke. Like, he’s happy to have a friend also, and he’s enjoying himself also until something distracts him and something reminds him he has a deeper need that goes beyond that. I think that was the way we tracked it in the writing, and then a lot of it wound up being in the performance and in the time we spent in the rehearsal with Miles [Robbins, as Luke] and Patrick [Schwarzenegger, as Daniel] together, sort of learning each other and learning how to act like friends and seeing what they all did. I mean, we fortunately filmed the things where Luke takes on a lot of Daniel’s qualities – we filmed that stuff towards the end, so Miles was really able to watch what Patrick was doing in bringing the character to life on screen, and copy some of that stuff physically while also bringing his own idea about what the character would be at that stage. 

Daniel Isn’t Real is also about an artist’s struggles with the negative side of his creativity and imagination. Was it in this sense a sort of autobiographical work? Were you working through your own conflicts as an artist as you came up with some of the ideas?

Mortimer: Probably. I feel like that’s something that happened sort of unconsciously. I really believe in creativity. This movie ends in a way that’s really quite visually bleak and tragic, but the existence of the movie itself, as a creative act performed by me and the other people behind it –  or as a creative act that’s seen and interacted with by an audience – that’s the real end of the story, that’s the transcendence. So I really try to believe in that – and I think the thing that’s interesting within the movie is they’re all artists, even Luke’s mother is performing an act of creativity in her house, but it’s really broken and it doesn’t have the right outlet, she’s sort of like stunted and confused because of what she’s doing, and then Daniel is very creative in the way he’s forming Luke. The character who I think has the most emotional stability, the most emotional intelligence, is Cassie, the artist that Luke meets. She has this very evolved sense of authenticity, and what she wants to be doing with art, and how other people interact with art, and it makes her a little emotional at times, but she’s really the most grounded character which is why she’s able to do what she does towards the end of it. Maybe we should let ourselves be more like her. Of course Sasha Lane in real life really is that character – an inspiring artist figure in the world who we could all strive to be a little more like if we possibly could.

Archenemy (2020)

I understand your next project is to be Archenemy. It’s a superhero movie, but with you writing (with Lucas Passmore) and directing, I somehow don’t imagine that it will be like your average Marvel or DC flick.

Mortimer: I hope not!

What drew you to this sort of material, and what should we expect?

Mortimer: We don’t have the budget to compete with a Marvel movie, and I don’t want to compete with them anyway. In some ways I think that Marvel movies have a lot to offer people but I never feel like they have a strong filmmaker aesthetic. They have a lot of strong filmmaker storytelling or sort of world building and all that kind of stuff, but I’m always looking at movies in terms of what is the unique aesthetic I can bring. So when I was starting on Archenemy I was thinking what would it be like if early Wong Kar-wai made a superhero movie, or what could it be like if Wim Wenders made a superhero movie? We’re talking about this movie about a guy who’s in a bar telling stories about when he was in another dimension fighting intelligent asteroids, but the references I’m sharing with everybody are Paris, Texas and The Wrestler and this sort of thing, so for me it’s like a psychedelic, psychological, psychotronic sort of superhero thing. I wrote an article with Noah Segan a few years ago about Psychotronic Breakup Horror Movies, and I think that Archenemy might be a psychotronic breakup superhero movie. 

My enthusiasm for superheroes has to do with comics that I read, and I’ve written comic books and I’m very involved with comics and how cool they can be, and I don’t feel like I’ve seen what you can do with superhero stories that I’ve seen in comics represented in movies. That I think was the original impetus when I first started writing it. Like, well I have all this deep understanding about superheroes, and I think there’s something I could do with them that would be different. It’s in the same way that I don’t like –  as much as all the horror movies that I love I truly love, I don’t love too many horror movies that are sort of campy, and I don’t go in for the horror movie realm of, like, “it’s a really terrible movie so you’ll love it.” I don’t quite get it, exactly. I feel like, in the same way, there’s an aspect of superheroes that I love, and an aspect that I really don’t love, and so I’m going to try to do the version of superheroes that I would love. 

© Anton Bitel