Darren Lynn Bousman became a known commodity in horror when he directed Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV. After breaking away from mainstream horror, he fought tooth and nail to make an impact on the independent scene. But when Bousman made three horror-infused musicals, their cult followings inspired a new undertaking: a Los Angeles-based immersive theater event called The Tension Experience.
Now, Bousman is taking a new approach to his movies: engage the audience by giving them something grander than just a horror flick. His new film, Abattoir (out in theaters and VOD on Friday, Dec 9) is more than just a movie. It’s another dark pathway into the story he created for the Radical Publishing comic of the same name. I was lucky enough to talk to Bousman about Abattoir and the future of storytelling.
Travis Newton: I’ve seen a few different people refer to Abattoir as an adaptation of your comic, but that’s not quite accurate. The movie approaches the premise from a very different angle with a very different protagonist. Why did you decide to take another avenue into the story instead of adapting the comic?
Darren Lynn Bousman: In the last three or four years, I’ve had this awakening. I’m in a much different place in my career now than I was, say, five years ago. Now, I’m trying to take new approaches to telling stories. It started with Abattoir. It’s continuing with The Tension Experience and it’ll continue with the next series of movies. What I’m going for is multi-platform, transmedia stories.
That way, you have different avenues into the same story. All of those avenues complement each other, yet are unique. If you read the Abattoir comic book and then see the movie, it’s furthering the narrative. It’s not telling the same narrative twice. That’s an interesting way to take one piece of intellectual property and continually build a fandom around it. If I had adapted the comic story for the screen, there would’ve been fans of the book who weren’t happy with the adaptation. So what I want to do is approach it as a universe.
Newton: That philosophy is everywhere in cinema today. That’s the big thing with Marvel Studios and DC’s deal with Warner Bros. Then, you’ve got the Assassin’s Creed movie coming out, which uses the same philosophy. Now that idea is bleeding into independent cinema.
Bousman: Oh, yeah. Every movie is a universe, right? And I think that each medium can tell different stories within that universe. With Abattoir, the comic book was an introduction. The movie takes it further. The hope is that we can continue that through books, a web series, things like that. Marvel has made an empire with that. I think that’s the future of storytelling.
Newton: One of the things that struck me about Abattoir was the anachronistic style. Most of the characters are noir archetypes transplanted into a contemporary New Orleans. Did you have a philosophy on how to manage the more heightened, noir-ish elements of the film?
Bousman: That noir aspect — people either love it or hate it. I think it’s what makes Abattoir cool. When we started the movie, I went to screenwriter Chris Monfette. I had read some of his other scripts in the past, and he has a unique knack for dialogue. Chris writes dialogue in a way that people don’t actually talk. I love that. It’s in the same vein as David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin. When you listen to it, you’re like “Holy s***! That sounds awesome.”
I’m a huge fan of film noir, so when I approached Chris for this, I told him I wanted that Humphrey Bogart type of voice. Do people talk like Humphrey Bogart? Of course not, but there’s something insanely cool to me about that.
The question Chris and I asked was “what if you took characters from the ’40s and ’50s and put them in a horror movie today?” So while it is a modern film, the protagonist Julia Talben uses a typewriter. She uses all this antiquated technology. Yet when Julia drives out of town, she uses an iPhone to get to her destination. She’s an analog girl living in a digital world. I always thought that having characters from a different era would be a unique way into a horror story.
Newton: And when it comes to the horror, Abattoir is like the ultimate haunted house movie. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that there’s a grand tour through a haunted house. And it’s almost like a carnival experience. Then the villain, Jebediah Crone, is kind of like a carnival barker or snake oil salesman. You’ve made two Devil’s Carnival movies. Then you built a brick-and-mortar horror attraction with The Tension Experience. What is it with you and carnivals, man?
Bousman: Going back to that idea of the future of storytelling, I think all of my future projects need to have that experiential aspect. As a filmmaker, you have to connect with an audience. You have to make it about them. With The Devil’s Carnival, we created it for a live audience. You show up, you dress up, you sing at the screen, you dance in the aisles.
In Abattoir, Jebediah Crone is a tent revival preacher. He’s a snake oil salesman who sells false redemption. With The Tension Experience, it was the same thing. It’s that carnival idea: come to our tent, look at our wares. It’s something I’ve always found fascinating.
Newton: When you mentioned making The Devil’s Carnival for a live audience, it reminded me of a scene from Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. An interviewer asks the band why they have no social media presence, and Anton Yelchin’s character says music has to be shared live. It’s ephemeral. The audience has to show up.
Bousman: To me, it’s only about that. There is no movie without the audience. So often, we are passive when we see entertainment. We sit in the movie theater, and we check our cell phones and send texts. When we watch movies at home, we’re doing 15 things: making food, changing our baby, yelling something across the house to our significant other, cleaning the house, and the movie is on in the background.
To have a moment where you truly impact an audience, you need to make them active in the story you’re telling. I don’t know how many movies I watch a week. I really can’t tell you, because I’m never truly there. I’m watching a movie, I’m updating my Facebook page, and playing with my son. That’s how we consume movies now. So my mantra is “you have to engage the audience.” You have to require more of them than just passive consumption.
With Abattoir, you have to pay attention. It’s not something you can listen to in the background and figure it out. The s*** the characters are talking about is dense. It requires and rewards attention. Those are the kind of movies I like the most, as a viewer.
Newton: What are the movies of 2016 that captured your attention?
Bousman: The Witch. I thought that was a great film. I love scenes that I can’t relate to. And when you watch The Witch, it’s set in this archaic tongue. You get to see this slice of Americana that you’re not used to seeing. Anytime I see something like that, I’m immediately transfixed. The Invitation was another one that I really enjoyed. Have you seen that one?
Newton: Hell yeah!
Bousman: It’s fantastic! The Witch and The Invitation were the two movies of 2016 that really struck me as memorable. I had to think about them a lot.
Newton: It’s interesting — The Witch strives for historical accuracy and truth. But the reason it’s so good is that it’s true to itself. Abattoir is the same way: it’s not a perfect replication of a historical era. But it’s true to itself, within the confines of its story.
Bousman: Thanks! That’s what we set out to do. It’s always great to hear from people who see what we’re going for. I just read a review of Abattoir this morning, and the reviewer kinda trashed the movie, saying “No one talks like this!” Well, right! No one talks like that! But the movie isn’t going for realism. The reason we go to movies in the first place is to be transported to another environment — another world.