Coming to the GI Film Festival San Diego this Friday and being released soon on DVD from Lionsgate and director Brian Hanson is the psychological thriller THE BLACK STRING.
Jonathan (Frankie Muniz) is a lonely young man who works in a convenience store. He is avoiding his parents and often takes advice from friend Eric (Blake Webb) on how to get out into the world. One night at home he sees a commercial for companionship and is drawn to call. The next night he has a blind date with Dena (Chelsea Edmundson) who rushes Jonathan into spending the night.
The next morning Dena is gone but leaves behind a mysterious rash and Jonathan is instantly freaked out. If that isn’t enough, he starts experiencing strange disturbances that turn into actions he knows are caused by whatever is eating at him. Looking for answers, Eric and his parents decide he is detached from reality and so the fight begins to prove what he knows is true with the forces that are pushing everyone away.
Turning to a woman named Melinda (Mary K. DeVault) for help, she tries to guide him before turning back is no longer an option. Explaining that she knows exactly what he is going through, the process is painful, terrorizing and one that begs the question of who is responsible and how can they be stopped!
THE BLACK STRING has nominations for Frankie Muniz for Best Actor and is showing as its San Diego Premier. In attendance is the director Brian Hanson. Director Hanson, currently in Los Angeles, has a connection to San Diego and now the GI Film Festival. The writer/director Brian Hanson served in the US Army with the 75th Ranger Regiment deployed several times to Afghanistan. He volunteers with Veterans in Media & Entertainment (VME) and grew up in Escondido studying film at Palomar College and SDSU.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Hanson about how the film story came to be and what it took to get the right locations, cinematography and cast to bring THE BLACK STRING to fruition.
Jeri Jacquin: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today Brian.
Brian Hanson: Of course, thank you as well.
JJ: I’m excited to see you at the film festival.
BH: I know, it’s going to be great.
JJ: I talked to Frankie and he had nothing but high praise for you.
BH: Thank you Frankie.
JJ: I will ask you what I asked him with how did you get involved with the project? This is a very unusual project.
BH: I got involved because about 10 years ago I was a film school grad bartending. I am originally from San Diego and came up to Cal State Northridge. Film is my thing and my buddy Andy (Warrener) was also a bartender. We conceived of this idea of a guy, we know we wanted it to be a horror movie and we love psychological thrillers first of all. We wanted it to be like a JACOBS LADDER (1990) where you never know if it’s in the guy’s head and we wanted to set it up in a San Diego suburb, a southern California suburb where this guy just never left town. This guy is full of potential but he was never able to leave. That’s the drama side of it. On the occult side of it we wanted this mysterious neighbor, going on a blind date and the woman disappears and he goes on a search for this girl. So half of it mental illness and is it all in his head or is the cult responsible. Andy and I wrote a forty page thing but we weren’t able to actually make it. He started a family in Florida and I joined the Army. Cut to four years later when I got out and I used the GI Bill to go to Mount Saint Mary and that program where I met Rich Handley (co-writer of THE BLACK STRING). I told him the story and he said instead of making a short graduate thesis, why don’t we make a feature film and I loved the idea of THE BLACK STRING. One other person jumping in on a project made me realize we might have something here. It started with Rich Handley writing with me and from there we were fully committed to starting an LLC and added forty more pages to the script and it just grew from there. It all happened pretty quickly from there believe it or not.
JJ: We were also talking about how making these films there is a budget and you have to make due with the funding you have. Frankie was saying, and I agree with him after seeing the film, it doesn’t look like a struggling budget.
BH: We were proud with what we were able to pull off. I worked at a production company while I was in school called Vega Baby and they did a small horror film and I got to see how they spent their money. I saw how a microbudget produced something like GURU so I really understood that when making a film on a lower budget you really have to use what is around you. An example is locations that you can’t pay for and it’s amazing because things like that are donated, friends’ houses, our university, Mount Saint Mary’s, played host to the mental institution scenes. There were a few locations where we got a student discount as part of our thesis project. The actors are all great actors that have that face, that presence on camera and then of course the cinematography – if we had to pay market value for everything, including Frankie and Oded Fehr (THE MUMMY and RESIDENT EVIL), it would never have happened. Everyone involved came in for a day rate or just contributed their gear or location, it was amazing. We had 10 to 20 years of favors and karma on this one, we cashed it all in.
JJ: You mentioned Frankie and Oded, first of all it freaked me out to see him on the screen. Getting Frankie is so fantastic, how did you make that happen?
BH: That is a great question because we never in a million years have dreamed when Andy and I were writing this as bartenders and Rich in film school would have thought Frankie Muniz would be part of this project. We went through a casting director, usually we do it ourselves but this time we knew we needed help. Jeremy Gordon, a casting director, gave us a lot of great people for all rolls. After two weeks of auditions we were about to cast the lead role of Jonathan and that day Jeremy called and said stop the presses and hear me out. He said he got a name that just came through and was interested in the script. Then he said the name Frankie Muniz and we had the same reaction you just did. We thought, ‘What? Where has that guy been?’. I mean I knew he had been racing cars and such.
JJ: I know, he’s been so busy with his music and the business with his partner as well.
BH: Yes, exactly. I mean way out of left field. We had really been searching for an actor to play Jonathan. We slammed on the brakes and brought Frankie in from Arizona to read and he auditioned and seeing him after only having the script for one day we had to see him again. He came in the second time and knocked it out of the park even more. We had to shift our thinking and Frankie brought a unique dynamic. I mean everyone grew up with him from Malcom in the Middle and what a difference. He is taken this really bizarre against type and it added so much to who Frankie is. This is like if Malcom didn’t go off to college and stayed in town and his dad became a meth dealer – it’s like Frankie’s Breaking Bad.
JJ: My daughter Jenise knew I was speaking to Frankie and she was so thrilled because she loved him in Malcom in the Middle, after seeing THE BLACK STRING she can’t believe how different this is for him. Of course I agree, it is disturbingly awesome.
BH: That’s so awesome.
JJ: I don’t know who else you could have chosen for Jonathan.
BH: Yes, it’s his movie now. I make this sports analogy that if you are a coach and you have this athlete, you have to let them shine with what they are good at. We thought Jonathan would be more quiet but Frankie has this charisma and energy and we had to let that shine. He made Jonathan a much more dynamic character than we expected. Let’s not forget the raw talent as an actor.
JJ: Another character that just held my attention was Homeless Mike.
JJ: The whole time I was watching, the first time I saw his face in the window. Frankie and Homeless Mike could be related. That expression of terror for Homeless Mike and as Frankie’s character develops gets that same look.
BH: I’m so glad you caught that. We really worked hard to match that and glad you noticed it.
JJ: It is an interesting arc because first of all who you cast as Homeless Mike was perfect. It wasn’t about anything he said but his reaction to things. As the film went on I saw Jonathan’s character mirror that. By the way, watching THE BLACK STRING in the dark? Yea. Where did the character of Homeless Mike come from?
BH: Again that the addiction and mental illness aspect of the film. There is this real sinister and evil occult force and Homeless Mike is a harbinger and a shadow of like Christmas Carol. This is where you might go and where you end up if you stay on the path. Jonathan is trying to be a better guy because he has these issues but Homeless Mike – is he really there or is he a figment of Jonathan’s mind.
JJ: He isn’t front and center and in your face, more subtle.
BH: In editing, we tried to cut out Homeless Mike but in the end we wanted to do what we wanted and went for it. It’s a simple movie but we wanted to fill it with things to really think about. Maybe in future movies we might not be able to do that. Sievers is Homeless Mike and he had two or three scenes but he could have been on a poster. He encapsulates much of the movie with his face in the window.
JJ: Who’s mind came up with the black string? Its horrifying!
BH: It’s the body horror element, we wondered what could be worse. It’s like ‘should I go to the hospital’? It’s like a nightmare and things we have experienced watching other films but it’s really disgusting, insidious and revolting when something like that is in your body.
JJ: Yes, you guys didn’t just stop at pulling it out – you went further and it freaked me out!
BH: I think there is something about being pierced that is very, very horrifying. When you brush up against a cactus you get those things stuck on your skin digging into you and its strange. If it was a cut its okay but something very sinister when things are sticking out of your body. We decided to take it to the max.
JJ: And you did because you get a sliver in your finger all you want to do is get it out. This makes a sliver look like nothing.
BH: Exactly, and with Jonathan there is addiction and mental illness and also this thing called Morgellons Syndrome. It’s about people that believe they have parasites in their skin and the doctors tell them it’s not there. People believe they have something implanted in them and they have to dig it out. It’s a condition that goes a lot with addicts or mental illness with the idea there is something in you and you have to get it out.
JJ: I watched the string scene and its one of the big fears is knowing that one minute it’s there and one minute it’s not but even worse feeling like something bigger is coming and what could be bigger than what Jonathan is doing pulling the string.
JJ: The ending is so shocking as well. He is trying to tell everyone through the whole film what is happening. Even his parents treat him like a kid and want to send him to his room. He keeps fighting and fighting and then have the ending happen.
BH: Again, that’s a great observation and something we worked hard on. I won’t reveal any spoilers but it’s the H.P. Lovecraftian kind of horror. It is a simple man or woman trying to fight forces that are so super naturally beyond them so how can they possibly fight against something like that.
JJ: Especially when you already have labels attached like Jonathan of being dissociative or mental problems. When he’s arguing with his parent I just yelled at the screen, ‘shut up and listen to what he is telling you!’
BH: Right. That was kind of a hint of what is happening to him. Using the words occult, curse, entity – the fact that you are even saying those words, no one in their right mind is going to believe you. That’s the situation we wanted to explore like with the psychic, there is nobody that Jonathan can go to because it sounds so implausible that no one is going to believe anything he says. It’s very frightening because there are people who experience things like that. There is a lot of homelessness on the streets and they often are shouting and screaming at the sky. It makes you wonder what is going on in their minds. In the case of our movie you have to wonder what if something is actually happening?
JJ: I was telling Frankie that in the movie ALWAYS there is a scene where Richard Dreyfus who is a ‘ghost’ is trying to tell a young pilot something. There is this homeless guy in the desert who repeats what he says and the pilot is freaked out. Dreyfus says something to the effect of who knows about these guys, maybe they have an antenna to something the rest of us don’t hear or understand. I felt like that’s how it was for Jonathan.
JJ: We could go on for hours so I’m going to ask you the final question. What do you hope people take away from seeing THE BLACK STRING?
BH: Number one, talking about it, debating it with friends and family after they see the movie. Two people can see the film and have a very different opinion about the outcome. We wanted to stir conversation. We pitted hard science and medicine if you were doctors this supernatural world and this interdimensional occult forces. We wanted to slam those two opposing worlds together. The movie starts inspired by sleep paralysis which is horrifying experience. It makes you think other things in this world are out there but then science explains it. We really just wanted a character that was stuck right in the middle of that. Maybe a couple will chat about it and talk about other possibilities. Science can explain a lot but are there other explanations. Whether there are or there aren’t it’s fun to talk about, especially late at night. When I was in the Army I really learned that my Ranger buddies in Afghanistan were entertained by 90 minutes of a film. It was escapism and I hope that people have 90 minutes of going to a place that is thought provoking and enjoy it.
JJ: As a Mom of servicemen I want to thank you for your service. I was reading your bio and you have set the standard high in a lot of ways and I appreciate that about you. I appreciate all the service members involved in bringing this movie together. I hope you get a chance at the GI Film Festival to talk with the audience one on one to hear your perspective. I want to thank you for that.
It is always a joy to talk to the director of a film and it is even more of a joy to speak with a military Veteran who has served his country and then followed his dream. Making a film is a difficult and sometimes a lengthy process but Brian and everyone involved in THE BLACK STRING should be very proud of what they accomplished.
THE BLACK STRING is a psychological thriller filled with twists and turns. It is also a film that constantly causes us to join the ride with the character of Jonathan in the quest to discover what is real and what is something – else!
This Friday at MOPA in Balboa Park is the GI Film Festival San Diego’s screening of THE BLACK STRING. Director Brian Hanson will be attending to answer all the questions that maybe I didn’t get to ask because, and trust me on this one, there are so many more to be asked.