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Shudder’s The Boy Behind the Door directors on making a horror movie with your best friend

Fans of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock, the directors of Shudder's The Boy Behind the Door explain their influences

The Boy Behind the Door is a tense horror movie centred around friendship, and the terrifying experience of child abduction. The movie touches on real-life issues, and is all about creating a heart-racing emotional response for anyone who decides to watch it. The movie is also the second scary flick to come from the writing and directing duo Justin Powell and David Charbonier, two upcoming names in the genre.

Telling the story of two young boys, Bobby (Lonnie Chavis), and Kevin (Ezra Dewey), the film shows the young leads being kidnapped and taken to a strange, ominous-looking house in the middle of nowhere. Bobby manages to escape, but decides to venture back into the deadly house to save his friend, unable to leave Kevin behind. A tense race for survival ensues, as Bobby must fight tooth and nail to save himself and his best friend before it is too late.

We got a chance to sit down with the movie’s directors, and discovered what it was like to make the suspenseful Shudder release. In our interview, we discuss what the challenges were working with child stars, what Powell’s and Charbonier’s big cinematic influences were when making the feature, and finally, how beneficial it is making a movie with your best friend.

The Digital Fix: Firstly, congrats on the movie; secondly, what is your vendetta against children?

Justin Powell: Haha, I’m going to let you start David.

David Charbonier: Ha, it’s not a vendetta against children, but you know we, we really like horror movies that centre on interesting, fun young leads. I really think it is a nostalgic thing because we grew up in the ‘90s, and we love movies like Goonies, Jurassic Park, and as a kid, it is so much fun to see yourself in those roles.

And I don’t know, there is just a fun, innocent, nostalgic thing about it, and you don’t get to see it much anymore, especially in modern-day. I guess it is because productions are scared of the restrictions with the kid’s scheduling and stuff- which is a real issue, but we didn’t want to have 19-year-olds play 13-year-olds.

JP: We did learn the hard way that that was a real issue, but we would do it again because, like David said, it was all about authenticity.

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Speaking about having such young actors, how did you manage to make them feel safe on set? Obviously, the film, like you said, is a horror movie. We see them go through some emotional, and traumatic scenes. How did you make them feel comfortable with going to that dark place?

JP: Yeah, you know that happened really simply. We kind of looked at it from the perspective of ‘we don’t need to discuss the deeper underlying issues of what the underbelly of this script is, like what the actual motivations of the villains are. You know, we approached it very much from the perspective of like, “hey, your friend is trapped, and you guys are scared, and you are just trying to free him”, and that’s all we really needed to discuss in the moment, right?

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We allowed their parents to fill them in on anything else; their parents were obviously always on set also. As scary and crazy as the movie is, you know, the majority of the time- I have to say that because we honestly didn’t have a lot of working hours with the kids – the majority of the time, they were off playing with water guns, and darts. They were having the best time, way more fun on set than we were. So that is how we were able to keep it a fun, light-hearted environment, just allowing them to still be kids, to have fun. We didn’t want to explore the dark themes with them, because we didn’t want to actually traumatise them in any way.

Fortunately, they were just such talented kids. They are able to find a way to get into that emotional space without needing to know all the dark backstory. Like the way that Lonnie and Ezra are able on a dime to just turn on waterworks, haha, I don’t know how they do that; that’s insane to me. Like I’m really glad that you are the actor and we are the directors.

Yeah, I was really impressed with both the boys acting. What was it like for you as directors directing children as opposed to adults? Is there a difference? Or do you treat them the same?

DC: I want to say that we treat them the same but then I guess, to re-emphasise what Justin said, we did keep all the motivation stuff really surface level with them. So we treated them the same in terms of treating them with respect, giving them their space, and not treating them like kids. Like, letting them be kids but not, you know, haha, how do I say it?

Ha, for us, it felt like it was the same. Luckily, we had a really talented cast, both kids and adults, so it was sort of a breeze working with all the actors. That was a department that we really lucked out in. Yeah, it didn’t take too much work.

You touched a bit on your inspirations; you mentioned Jurassic Park, you mentioned ‘90s films, but I want to get down to the big question of where this script came from. Where did you come up with this story about abduction?

JP: Yeah! So honestly, the story came from, how do I put it? Ha, a bunch of our other scripts had kind of been rejected at that point, and we wanted to come up with a script that we felt that we could feasibly, you know, raise the money for ourselves, and shoot ourselves. At the time, we had no idea – we were super naïve – about how difficult it is to make movies that stars children. Because that just inherently balloons the budget because of all the hours and restrictions that have to be put in place.

But, because of that, we had direction, and we knew we wanted to stay in the horror-thriller space; we knew what we wanted. David and I talk all the time over the phone. It’s kind of insane, you wouldn’t even believe how much we talk, and we just kind of have a lot of brainstorming sessions that just happen on these calls randomly. This script was one of those calls.

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We always like to look at things practically, and let things kind of develop organically, and this time around, we were like, “ok, let’s maybe explore these kids getting kidnapped.” It really just started with one kid, just Bobby (Lonnie Chavis), and it kind of expanded from that and became about us wanting to explore the theme of friendship.

So everything just kind of grew out of that, but you know, in terms of the kidnapping, it just seemed like the next logical step. Like, ok, if they are in a horror-thriller situation- maybe they were kidnapped. Then why were they kidnapped, and so everything just kind of formed out of that, those questions. Yeah, we are just huge horror fans in general, so we also inserted a lot of references, some more overt than others.

Yeah, there is a scene with an axe and a bathroom door. I saw that Shining reference. It didn’t get past me.

JP: Ha, it is a hard one to miss, I will admit. Some people seem to love it, some people seem to hate it.

DC: We are never doing a homage like that ever again. I cannot handle the comments saying we just copied another movie.

JP: So what? It is a homage! Hahaha.

I mean, if you have to pick a moment, that Jack Torrance axe scene is iconic. Speaking of The Shining reference, which I loved, by the way, it’s one of my favourite films. What were the horror movies that really influenced you making The Boy Behind the Door?

DC: That is a really good question. Obviously, we are big fans of, well, everyone is a big fan of Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. You know, Spielberg because of his sort of ample and fun feel that he can sort of bring to his movies, this sense of wonder.

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And then Hitchcock is just obviously the master of suspense and terror. You know, we also really love claustrophobic movies, like The Descent, and Don’t Breathe, and Aliens, oh and Die Hard. You know, at one point, we were sort of thinking this movie would be like Die Hard but with a kid. So I don’t know. I feel like there were a lot of references that were in our subconscious while we were thinking of the story, and then there was the really overt one, haha, which you mentioned. We are also very big Stephen King fans.

JP: Stephen, if you are reading this, please give us a job, give us one of your projects.

DC: He is never going to see this movie Justin.

Haha, you don’t know. He could have a Shudder account.

DC: Ha, yeah. But yeah, we are obviously huge Stephen King fans. You know I don’t think you can think of horror movies without thinking of him. And again, like IT, another great horror series that stars kids, and also has that fun, relatable vibe. Everyone can remember being a kid, and now everyone our age is having kids, so it just kind of always works.

The true horror movie- I’m kidding. Both of you have worked with each other in the past. Previously you made the movie The Djinn together. How does your dynamic work in a way that you can get the most artistic benefit out of each other when making a film?

JP: Yeah, I honestly feel like – I think that this is for both of us – it’s kind of the best part of this business so far. That we are able to kind of lean on each other, and that we are a team. We’ve actually known each other our whole lives, since kindergarten actually, and so it’s really a unique, and beneficial situation to be able to work with your best friend, because you don’t have to worry, as David likes to put it, about hurting each other’s feelings. Just being able to say anything you want, and it kind of allows you to create these stronger stories and get to that endpoint quicker.

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When you are on set, there are always so many things going on that it’s nice to have someone you can constantly bounce ideas off [of]. Who you can look to, and that you can reassure you that this is the right call. And also to have that support system where if there is some kind of problem, haha you know like a fire on set, one of us can run off while the other one is handling something else.

You know we really prepare things ahead of time, and make sure that we are totally on the same page. It is a really valuable support system, and I think that for us, it is hard to imagine doing it alone. It is a really large undertaking – making movies – and you need all the support you can get.

It’s really lovely to hear that you’ve been friends since kindergarten. I’m assuming neither of you have been kidnapped before, but did your experiences, your friendship influence the script? Do we get to see parts of your true selves in the young boy’s characters?

DC: I mean, I would definitely say there are bits of us in the characters. Neither of us were kidnapped, thankfully. Haha, but when you write any story, you do sort of insert yourself in the characters, and there is just no avoiding that you know, you see those characters, and then you see us, and yeah, we are like the characters in a way. I think I’m more like Bobby probably because Justin would be the first to admit that he might of not ventured back into the house.

JP: I would have run.

DC: You see, it is confirmed. But yeah, it was just really fun how it sort of worked out that way, with the story, and that comparison.

JP: David would have definitely gotten us kidnapped at some point.

DC: I would have gotten us saved because I would have gone back in.

JP: You would have been the one that got us into the situation in the first place, because he is always doing these things, like he wants us to do a séance over the phone, or he wants to take us to haunted places.

Haha, I really can’t judge since I’m a goth at heart too. One of the other aspects I really loved about your movie was the atmosphere, and how you maintained it, especially through sound and visuals. As filmmakers, how do you craft this prolonged sense of tension that we see in this movie?

JP: It really is a combination of the choreography of the cinematography and the sound design. We are really specific even while we are developing our scripts, you know, with how everything is going to kind of look visually, and how the sound design is going to play into the movie as well.

We are huge fans of really long flowing takes. I think that the longer that you keep the camera moving, and the longer the takes go, and you are staying with the character, you are keeping things from their perspective, and limiting what the audience knows—keeping it at that level where the audience knows just as much as the protagonist, more or less.

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I think that really helps sustain the tension and suspense. As humans, we fear the unknown, you know, once you lift the veil, it’s done. We are also trying to figure out why this is happening? Once you figure out the ‘why’, you feel much, much better. But, if you don’t know why something is happening or where someone is, you feel much more afraid. But, once you identify things, you calm down, so we wanted to keep the audience in the same situation as the protagonist for as long as possible to enhance the suspense. So, I think that is how we were able to pull that off. Hopefully, we keep doing that going forward.

I’m a big fan of tension and single location films, so all those aspects spoke to me. Now for a bigger question. What do you think makes a good horror movie?

DC: I would say characters you care about. I feel like it is kind of cliché to say, but you know, if you can’t relate to the characters on some level or understand what they are going through or sympathise with, you are never really going to care when they are in trouble or scared. So, for us, with Boy Behind the Door, it was important, even though we had a limited time to set up, to be able to sympathise and empathise with these boys, so as an audience, you can easily root for them and cheer for them throughout the movie. It just keeps you invested. Ha, it would be kind of weird if you didn’t, though.

Yeah, comparing this movie to the different genres within horror, like a slasher, it was a completely different viewing experience. It really reminds you how different all the sub-genres of horror really are. I watched your horror- thriller, and I really felt for the boys. Whereas when I’m watching a ‘70’s slasher, I’m yelling, “get him” at my screen.

DC: Hahaha, yeah. I feel like movies like that, movies like Hostel, are more about the gore, maybe? The anticipation of the violence that is about to happen. You don’t really see the characters as people. Which I’m glad a lot of movies are now moving away from that.

Are there any future projects that you two have in the works that we can look forward to?

JP: Yeah! We have a couple that we have been developing and are really excited about. Hopefully, they get off the ground really soon. I can’t go into too much detail. We honestly have several that we are trying to move forward with, but there are currently two that are more at the forefront. We are moving along, so hopefully, there will be a go very soon. We’ll see what happens, haha.

DC: Hopefully

JP: But they are still in the horror thriller space. We want to stay in this space for as long as possible. We are like the rest of the horror nerds out there. We are fans, so we just want to make movies that are like the movies that we loved to see and still love to see. So yeah, that is what we are trying to do.

Thanks so much for talking to us; it was lovely meeting you both. We will definitely keep our eyes out for your several upcoming projects.

JP: Thank you so much. It was really great meeting you.

DC: Yeah, thank you.