We sat down with Daniel Isn’t Real co-writer and director Adam Egypt Mortimer to talk about the highly anticipated film which is in Theaters, on VOD and Digital this Friday, December 6th.
Let’s start at the beginning. I know you started out directing music videos. How did you make the jump to directing feature films?
I’d wanted to make features for a long time, and while I was doing music videos I was trying to figure out how to make that happen. I was writing scripts, I was asking other people to write scripts for me to direct, and I was reading things all the time looking for something to adapt. There were a few times I was close to getting a movie made but it would always fall apart. I’d written screenplay adaptions of a few other novels by the time I met Brian, and he mentioned his book. I read it that same weekend. We started working on that and after getting it to a certain point, I suggested we write a smaller movie together. That turned out to be Some Kind of Hate, and eventually it got made as my first feature.
When Some Kind of Hate started making waves, did you decide to tackle Daniel isn’t Real next or was that a project you always wanted to do?
We’d already written Daniel together with the intention that we’d make it next. It’s amazing that it turned out that way! It only took 7 years!
How did you acquire the film rights from the book that Daniel Isn’t Real is based on?
I met Brian on a Saturday, read his book on Sunday, and called him on Monday to ask him if I could adapt it. He suggested we do it together and then we were off to to it.
What was the process like writing the screenplay with the book’s original author?
Brian and I have a very easy collaboration. Our personalities just fit together correctly for that kind of a creative partnership. He was off the mind set that the book couldn’t be ruined or changed through adaptation so he was open to figuring out whatever needed to happen for a movie. We got along so well we’ve now written 4 movies together and are currently working on a TV show pitch.
Patrick Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of Daniel feels fully lived in as a character. How did you guys develop that?
I made sure we had plenty of rehearsal time. It was important for Patrick and Miles to spend time together and create that sense that they knew each other as children. We’d improvise scenes from their past together and make sure to fill in details of their existence. We also rehearsed a lot to make sure Patrick could fill in the emotional details of a character with a very specific kind of point of view and psychological history. It was super exciting. I also wanted to make sure we were capturing a sense of what young men’s friendships can feel like at exactly that age.
Your portrayal of various mental illnesses in the film feels very genuine. What did you draw from to get that authenticity?
Brian did deep research when writing to book. For the movie, it was my own very personal experience and observations that I brought to it – I wanted to make sure that above all the movie itself would FEEL like a manic episode, with it’s highs and lows and paranoia and very dangerous escalation. Ultimately that’s the aspect that I wanted most to communicate through the design of the movie.
The film walks the line between funny and scary very easily. How did you go about striking that tone when making the film?
Miles is a super funny actor, who’s work I’d known from the comedy Blockers. I wanted to make sure the character would be lifelike and even funny to make an important contrast to the grimness of the world and the bleakness of the story. I encouraged him to improvise and that resulted in some dailies that would make you think it was a comedy. Between that and Patrick’s often very funny approach to Daniel’s freedom, we had a lot of humor available to us. When we crafted the edit, that when we were making the decisions about how much humor to let through the cracks.
Can you talk about some of the creatures in the film? The practical effects in this film are incredible. How did you go about developing those?
We were able to start working with Martin Astles of Illusion FX a year before we started shooting the movie. I had some very clear conceptual ideas — revolving around the relationship between architecture and skulls and around the idea of how specifically physical the imaginary friend should feel. Locking down the ideas of it and letting Martin and his team explore some very wild ideas got us to a great place. Oftentimes, our particular effects are enhanced with VFX, and other times the other way around. I don’t fetishize practical effects, but I love to I read actors a thing to physically interact with, such as the insane face transformation scene
What was your inspiration for some of the more esoteric visuals in the film?
I was always thinking about how the imaginary realm is connected to the mind and the mind is the brain and the brain is the nervous system, and so all of this shaped a vibe for what this stuff should look like. I was also looking at a few artists who do particularly strange or disturbing work whose vibes gave us a strong direction.
The film has done very well critically and with audiences on the festival circuit. I thought it was truly fantastic. Did you expect such a resounding positive response from the film?
I was expecting that some people would recognize something about their own experience in the movie — whether it would be a personal trauma in relationship to emotional dysfunction of breakdowns or negative experiences of a relationship that might look like something depicted in the movie. I was very focused on visualizing and externalizing personal experience that I thought people might recognize. As Antonin Artaud said, “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
I had no idea people would dig it this much. I’ve tried to travel with the movie as much as possible so that I could interact with audiences. Every single screening has been a blessing — people are so engaged with it, and always ask amazing questions or share deep personal connections. I have two favorite things that happen. The first is when someone comes up afterwards and shares that they had an experience like what is depicted, and that they’ve never seen it shown this way. That’s such an honor for me to depict what other people feel is truth. The second response I love is when people say they love how the movie “felt.” To me that’s the highest compliment to a film director. Creating the feeling of the movie through cinematic technique, that’s the goal above all others.
What do we have to look forward to next from you as a filmmaker?
I’m a few days away from starting to shoot ARCHENEMY, my psychotronic superhero breakdown movie starring Joe Manganiello and produced again by my amazing partners SpectreVision!!
Daniel Isn’t Real is In Theaters, on VOD and Digital December 6th.