Contently and fearlessly chasing down seemingly daunting and unfamiliar tasks can have potentially harrowing effects on people’s emotional and mental well-being. But when these intimidating challenges offer even the slightest incentive, people discover they can push their limits further than they even imagined, in order to obtain an enticing reward. Not only is that the case with the protagonist in the new independent horror thriller, ’13 Sins,’ as he tests his comfort zone in order to provide for this family, but also writer-director Daniel Stamm. The filmmaker, who first gained mainstream recognition for his 2010 hit horror thriller, ‘The Last Exorcism,’ returned to the genre that helped make him famous with his new movie. Along with his intriguing horror elements, he also incorporated intense action-filled stunts into his latest film, something he always wanted to do, in an effort to highlight the protagonist’s revolutionary arc and development throughout the story.
’13 Sins’ follows Elliot (Mark Webber) as he’s struggling to financially provide for his family. His pregnant fiancé, Shelby (Rutina Wesley), wants an expensive wedding; his mentally ill brother, Michael (Devon Graye), whose medical insurance is no longer paying claims; and their father (Tom Bower), who’s nonchalant about paying bills. Having just been fired from his menial sales job, Elliot is in desperate need of money.
Elliot then receives an anonymous phone call from a cryptic benefactor, who invites him to play a game. As long as he follows the rules and complete each of the 13 challenges, money will be wired directly into his account. The game begins with the seemingly trivial task of swatting a fly, for which he receives $1,000. So Elliot begins to think he can easily win the game, and have his monetary problems solved. But the actions become increasingly appalling and violent as the game continues. If Elliot decides not to complete all the tasks, he can be sent to jail by Officer Chilcoat (Ron Perlman), as he’s committed such crimes as setting a church on fire and wrangling a corpse in public. But if he successfully completes all 13 challenges, the charges against him will be dropped, and his financial troubles will be solved.
Stamm generously took the time recently to talk about filming ’13 Sins,’ which is now available on VOD and will be released in select theaters on April 18, over Skype. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how he feels penning a script helps him in his directorial duties, as having written the story is easier for him to translate the characters’ motives and mindsets to everyone on set, including the cinematographer, the actors and the production designer; how it was difficult to cast the role of Elliot, because the actor had to initially play the character as being meek and vulnerable, and then quickly descent into complete darkness, but Webber was able play that entire spectrum; and how improvising a backstory gives the actors something they could always go back and refer to during shooting, and that helps them build a bond that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to portray.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the screenplay for the new horror thriller, ’13 Sins,’ with David Birke, and based the story on the film ’13: Game of Death.’ How did you become involved in writing with David, and why did you want to pen the script together?
Daniel Stamm (DS): I was looking for a new project, and I was listening to a lot of pitches for new scripts. Then the producers gave me this movie, and said, “We are very open to new ideas. We like the structure, but do with it whatever you want.”
That’s always intriguing to me. I like if there’s a great idea for a movie, but there’s an openness to do what I want, and bring in any ideas that I have. The producers let me bring on board my writer, David Birke, who I worked with before on ‘The Last Exorcism.’
We sat down and brainstormed, because the great thing about the film’s structure is that it gives you the chance to do 13 set pieces. Most films only give you the chance to do one or two memorable, big scenes. Since this movie has this episodic structure, it gave us 13 chances to do that, so that was exciting.
SY: Speaking of working with David on the film, what was the process of writing the script with him?
DS: With David and me, it’s always that I come up with the broad strokes, and approach him with what I want to do. Then we discuss, discuss, discuss, and meet everyday. Then the point comes where he says, “Okay, let me take a crack at that scene.”
Then he starts writing and sends me what he came up with, usually late at night, around 3 o’clock. Then I’ll send him back notes on it. We go through this PDF file, and I put little yellow bubbles into the document, where I can put notes and questions. I usually overwhelm him with notes, questions, ideas and comments. My documents of questions are usually longer than the scenes he has written. We do that over and over again for weeks and months, until I can’t come up with anything else to criticize, and he keeps writing.
That’s the great thing about David-he has no ego. With a lot of writers, a lot of what they write is very precious to them, and it takes a lot of politics and convincing to get them to change anything. David has so many ideas, he’s never really precious about anything. He’s always fine throwing stuff out, and rewriting stuff. It’s an exhausting process, but I think it helps us get really good results in the end.
SY: Besides contributing to the script, you also directed ’13 Sins.’ Do you find it easier to helm movies that you also wrote the script for overall?
DS: I think it is, because that’s how I originally got into directing. I studied screenwriting for four years in Germany. I always felt the storytelling process is artificially cut in half. If I’ve written the story, and I’ve spent so much time with the characters, and thinking every moment through, and getting the timing right, then I just have to translate it for the cinematographer, the actors and the production designer. I have to tell them what I’m thinking as I’m directing the movie.
It was always weird to me when there are other people coming in and took my script to direct. Then they had to start from scratch. I think it’s a lot easier, and the movie is already half directed, if you’ve written the script yourself. You’ve already answered all the answers you’ve needed to as a director. The answers all come out of the story, so it is a lot easier.
SY: The movie is a remake of the Thai film, ’13: Game of Death.’ What was the process of adapting the original movie into your own unique version?
DS: It really wasn’t that difficult, because the producers said, “Do whatever you want with it.” If they had said, “We love this, and keep that,” there would have been an atmosphere of fear, and it would have been difficult to change things. But it was really an atmosphere of anything goes.
So were were able to takes the parts we enjoyed the most about the Thai movie, and throw everything else out and restructure it, and try new things. It’s a great luxury to remake a movie, because the first film is really like a test run. You watch it, and develop a very clear idea of what works for you, and what doesn’t work. You then address the things that don’t work.
So it’s a luxury you don’t usually have when you make a movie that’s the first version. When you remake a film, you have something too look at and discuss, and draw your road map from. So it was a really good process.
SY: Speaking of the producers of ’13 Sins,’ Jason Blum served as one of the producers on the film. Since he has made a name for himself in the horror genre, after producing such hit horror franchises as ‘Paranormal Activity,’ ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Purge,’ what was your experience working with him on this movie?
DS: He’s such a character, and the rock-n-roll star of producers. He has such a positive energy about him, and he has such an enthusiasm for the material.
He wasn’t super involved with the making of the movie itself, but I had meetings with him at the very beginning when I started the project. Then David and I went off to write the script. Then he called me and said, “I love the script, so go make it,” and then we made it. Then he came in again when the movie was almost finished and we were editing, and he gave us his notes.
I’ve learned in my short career so far that the best thing that producers can do is be enthusiastic, because it’s infectious. If they’re not, it’s a real problem, because the energy goes down.
Jason has this talent that if he likes something, he’ll be so enthusiastic, and it’s like a fresh wind coming in. You really need that after working on something for two years, because you don’t know if it’s good anymore. Then for someone like Jason to come in and say “I love this,” it really means the world to the project. He is the poster boy for that kind of approach.
SY: What was the casting process like for the role of the film’s main character, Elliot? How did you come to decide to hire Mark Webber for the role?
DS: Well, it turned out to be a really difficult role to cast, because he had to start off so meek and vulnerable. He had to be this nice guy who was so sweet and couldn’t put his foot down and be assertive enough.
Then he has this arc where he goes into complete darkness. Not only does he become assertive, he also becomes a complete badass, and goes into antagonist territory. He becomes a threat to his environment, and takes people hostage.
We needed an actor who could play that entire spectrum. Actors pretty much find their place along that spectrum, on either one side or the other. I thin Mark found his place more on the likable side, as he had been cast more as the sweet boyfriend. He had never really gotten the chance to play darker roles. So the scenes I had selected for the audition, it was important that I had scenes where he could play sweet and dangerous.
We modeled the arc of the character after a drug addict. We met with a drug specialist, and she talked us through the stages a drug addict goes through. In the beginning, you get hooked, and it’s all great, and it empowers you. You discover sides of you that you had no idea existed. In your mind, drugs make you more powerful, and then suddenly you’re addicted. So in the auditioning process, I really wanted to try those stages.
What I always do is a lot of improv, as it allows me to really get inside the actor’s head. An actor may be great on the day of the audition, and really bring a scene to life. But on set, when you have to work with them for weeks, he might not be able to do it. So I want to make sure that I come out of the auditioning process, knowing what an actor will be capable of on the set.
Often times, when someone comes in and does a brilliant take, exactly like I imagined it, I’ll still change it up and give them adjustments, just to see if he can change and react in his performance. Then I can see if he’s listening to me, and if we can work together.
Mark came in and did a great take on the dark spectrum. Then I would say, “Okay, lets do the scenes as if you’re talking to your 5-year-old brother.” That way I could see if something changes. Often times, nothing changes with people who come in. They do a great first take, but nothing changes when you ask for change. Then you know you’ll be at high-risk of not getting the performance you need.
Mark was so smart. That’s the thing with good actors; I’ve never worked with a good actor who also wasn’t very smart. With this character, he just got it. He was so enthusiastic about every adjustment. A lot of times, when you approach an actor with a change, they’re not necessarily excited. Then they see it as, “The director thinks I did something wrong.” Whereas with Mark, he has such a spectrum, he was excited to explore. There’s nothing better for a director than an actor who’s willing to do that.
SY: Speaking of the improv, did you feel that was beneficial to helping Mark build his relationships with his co-stars?
DS: It’s so vital. We only had two days of rehearsal, and we improvised their backstory and how they first met. Improvising a backstory gives the actors something they could always go back and refer to during shooting. I think it’s something you really feel on screen.
We did that with Elliot’s fiancée, Shelby. They came up with the idea that they met on a bus to Philadelphia, and how she chatted him up.
With Michael, Elliot’s little brother, we printed out a picture of a woman, and said, “That’s your dead mother. Why don’t you tell your dead mother what you would tell her, if you could still talk to her.” We sat in a room, and everyone was close to tears, because it was so touching.
I think it’s something that helps the actors build a bond that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to portray. It’s a really strong tool that doesn’t take much time. It takes actors who are open to that, and are willing to go there. But that’s why the casting process is what it is. You have to find people who are willing to go there.
SY: What was the casting process for the supporting actors for the film? How did you find the actors who would best complement Mark in the story?
DS: Well, you cast your protagonist first, since they’re the anchor of the movie, and they set the tone. Then you do chemistry reads, which means you have your lead actor in the room with the people auditioning for the supporting cast. The main actor comes in and reads with them. You very quickly get an idea of whether there’s going to be chemistry between these two people.
I think while writing, the supporting characters are supposed to illuminate a different side of the protagonist. If Shelby’s there to bring out Elliot’s loving side, or guilty side for not being able to give her what she needs, then Michael’s there to bring out his brotherly, caring and responsible side. The boss is there to bring out his timid side, and the bully whose arm he cuts off is there to bring out his aggressive side.
You want to paint as three-dimensional of a protagonist as possible by the end as possible. The supporting cast is the little flashlight that you shine on them.
SY: Speaking of the scene where Elliot cuts off the arm of the bully, what was the process of shooting that sequence, as well as the other action-driven scenes in the film?
DS: It was exciting, because I had never shot these kind of sequences before. This is the stuff, like having Elliot jump out a window, that can be boring to an audience, because they’ve seen it so many times before. But it was really exciting to me, because I had never seen that process on a set before.
I’ve never seen the special effects guy come in with a blood pump. I was also excited to see him make a cast of the arm and hand of the actor whose character had his arm cut off. The science and precision to make it look real is amazing.
I think there’s an aesthetic to filming gore. I’m not a fan of including gore just for the sake of it. But I think if it has a function in the story, I think it’s beneficial. I think it had a function here, because it’s this sweet guy who suddenly cuts someone’s arm off, and there’s a real narrative arc to that. Then you can go crazy on the gore.
With the arm cutting, even if we wanted to make it funny, we also had to make it brutal and violent, to put it over the top. That scene has to play out; we can’t just do a short cutaway. If we want to show an arm being cut off, we have to revel in that gore, and it was fun to do that.
Written by: Karen Benardello