They Look Like People is a horror that “spans genres”

Perry Blackshear on portraying the horror of madness in They Look Like People

they look like people

they look like peopleThey Look Like People is a tricky movie to pin down. It can certainly fit into the horror genre, but it’s also a drama about friendship, and it’s a compelling portrait about a man on the brink of madness. It’s a bit like Take Shelter, if Take Shelter had a mumblecore friendship drama in the middle of it.

It’s the story of Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) and Christian (Evan Dumouchel), two old friends who reconnect after some time apart. Christian has restructured his life and is aggressively pursuing success and romance, while Wyatt is more subdued and seems to be reeling a bit from a breakup. Wyatt accepts Christian’s invitation to crash, but the phone calls he gets in the night tell him that he and Christian need to prepare for the war that’s coming…

We spoke to writer-director Perry Blackshear ahead of the film’s Film4 FrightFest screening about the challenges of portraying a man who is losing his mind, the pressures of first time filmmaking, and why everyone needs to watch Mike Flanagan’s Absentia.

How did the initial idea for They Look Like People come about?

I have a few friends and people in my life that have gone through some bad stuff, but one friend, he had a really bad year and he started seeing things in the shadows and hearing things that weren’t there. He told me later that if he didn’t have good friends and his family, that he would be probably dead. There was that one critical week, and we wanted to make a movie about that one critical week. And those two friends that are undergoing that.

It’s a funny, moving drama about friendship but it’s also very tense and scary. Was finding the balance difficult?

Yeah, and that’s something we struggled with right up until the end. A lot of people have asked, do you consider this a horror movie, and we kind of don’t know! We wanted to make the kind of movie that we really like, that spans genres a little bit, movies like Let The Right One In and Absentia, and Take Shelter we took a lot of inspiration from. But that was actually something we worked on really hard in the editing room, because there’s some really funny parts, at least for us! There’s some funny parts and we wanted to make sure they added to each other rather than detract from each other, so that was something we were definitely conscious of.

One of our favourite movies, The Host, does this, and I sometimes bring up Shaun Of The Dead even though it’s a very different movie, because the funny parts are really funny and the scary parts are scary, and there’s also a lot of human warmth in there as well and they somehow manage to get it all. And I really love movies like that.

Obviously the casting is very important with a film like this.

Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up! There was no casting process, those three actors are good friends of mine. The way the movie came about was that we had made movies together in college and we all had jobs and I was working as a cinematographer and an editor and I’d got a 9 to 5, I’m working as a director in a digital agency, and they were like “We have to make a movie!” So I was like “OK, I’m buying you guys plane tickets, you’re coming to New York, and I don’t have a script yet but three months from now we’re going to make something in a month in my apartment and I’ll figure it out!” And they’re filmmakers too and they’re really good friends of mine, and the set was tiny, it’s pretty much just them and me on set, and they were the reason the film was made.

MacLeod Andrews and Evan Dumouchel are great together.

Yeah, well we cheated because they’re actually really good friends! So that was great working with those two guys that had worked together on a bunch of plays in college and had a real language together.

Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) hears voices in They Look Like People
Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) hears voices in They Look Like People

This is your first feature; what would you say was the biggest challenge for you?

I’ve been asked that and I think for this film, starting it was the biggest challenge. I’d wanted to make a film for a long time and the way we finally did it was just stack a bunch of psychological pressure against ourselves and stack up the shame of having these friends come over to your apartment and all these people know you were going to do something and not do it, versus the fear of failure, because it’s very scary making a feature film. We put our savings into it. But once it starts it has a life all to its own and it becomes pretty incredible.

It took a lot of time to cut and that was challenging with the actors in LA, it’s sort of like a long distance relationship. But we made it for so little money and we didn’t have anybody looking over our shoulders, so we really just made something that we would want to watch and that we loved, and we didn’t know if it was going to get into festivals or anything. I don’t think when we made this movie together we never imagined it would go this far. It premiered at Slamdance and go to Film4 FrightFest. So it’s been a really exciting year.

The portrayal of the monsters that Wyatt hears and sees is very unsettling and very restrained. Could you talk about how you settled on that approach?

The actor MacCloud Andrews, who plays Wyatt, and I did research into schizophrenia before we did the movie, and I was inspired by a short video I think it may have been on PBS. They took early VRs, this was a while ago, and they recreated what it would feel like to be a schizophrenic. You put on a VR thing and people’s faces turn into demons and there’s ash falling everywhere and the walls disappear, and voices, and it was the scariest thing I’d seen. And it wasn’t just scary because of all this, you read stories of people who think their organs are snakes, it’s really very intense.

But the scariest thing about it was that you couldn’t turn it off. And you didn’t know when it was on and when it was off. And as I tried to come up with things and ideas, the more I read about it the more I realised that what people really experience is scarier than anything that I could come up with. And the guys and I, we talked to family and friends about their nightmares that they had and we drew from our nightmares. I think Take Shelter, that’s mostly a movie about a guy who thinks he’s going crazy and is worried he’s going to hurt someone, and that’s what the majority of They Look Like People is.

I think when you’re drinking or on drugs or whatever, and least you can think “This will all be over in the morning.” But sometimes you have this fear of “Will this ever change?” And maybe not.

Evan Dumouchel as Christian in They Look Like People
Evan Dumouchel as Christian in They Look Like People

What Wyatt sees is also really more implied with noises than shown.

Yeah, it’s funny, the flies thing, I read a short story that talked about whenever the devil is nearby you hear the sound of buzzing flies, and I also just hate the sound of buzzing flies. There was always in my room, there was always somehow a fly buzzing that woke me up when I was young. Maybe some minor stuff is coming out there!

I watched a few movies that scared me recently. One was The Conjuring, and one was The Babadook which scared the hell out of me! I don’t want to ruin anything for anybody but as soon as you sort of saw the thing in both of those movies, I stopped being scared. And then it became a different movie, it’s more like a rollercoaster. You’re rooting for the good guys against the bad guys, and there’s other kind of scares, jump scares or whatever, but I didn’t have that same dread that sinks down into your stomach. I felt like it was letting me off the hook a little bit actually showing the thing. And so as we were cutting it we kept pulling back.

Have you seen Absentia? It’s Mike Flanagan’s first movie, there’s one scene in that where a woman is brushing her teeth and you see the shower curtain behind her, and I was so scared of that scene and it’s just a shower curtain! But because of what’s around it and how it’s building up you are just really scared. That’s a really scary movie but you don’t see very much and I was really inspired by that.

How have you found the audience reaction at festivals so far?

We actually played around the States for about seven months without going to a genre festival. We played at Slamdance, Nashville, Boston, and the audiences there were great. A lot of them were filmmakers and students. But then at the Brattle Theatre in IF Boston, it was sponsored by the Boston Underground and I think it was exactly the right audience for this, and Fanatasia also. I think people were there to see exactly the movie this was. Which is a little bit different.

Someone described it as a psycho bromance, which I don’t think is quite right! It’s sort of  like a heartfelt drama about friendship wrapped up in a psychological thriller shell. And when I mentioned the movies that inspired me, in the audience instead of one or two heads nodding, everybody nodded! And that was great to see, and a young man came up to me afterwards and we had an extremely emotional exchange because he said he also had loved ones who went through something like this and he’d never seen it like that, and there’s some other stuff in my history that I don’t really talk about with people that I know, but it was very intense and it sort of reminds you why you get into filmmaking in the first place!

You’re used to your movie being locked up in your mind or in your editing room and then when it goes out in the world, almost like a kid, it has a life of its own and grows up. And I think when we originally conceived of it we just wanted to make a fun, little bit scary movie, and at Fantasia too the same thing happened. I think the biggest reaction has been from people that have connected with it. People showing up for the horror stuff and staying for the character stuff and the drama. And that’s been really great and pretty humbling actually.

Do you have anything else lined up?

Yeah, we’re playing at FrightFest, we just had an archive screening in LA. We’re playing at Strasbourg, and a few other places. And then the same crew and I are making another movie, a little bit more experimental, but we shooting that really soon and that’s been great. Making a movie is tough and friendships are hard under any amount of pressure but we’ve managed to stay together and we’re going to do another one the same way.

They Look Like People is playing at Film4 FrightFest on Sunday 30 August, and you can find ticket information here. Read more about the film on the official site and keep up with the latest horror news with the new issue of SciFiNow.