“Bloodline” is a 2018 psychological horror/thriller directed by Henry Jacobson and written by Jacobson and Avra Fox-Lerner. Seann William Scott stars as Evan, a social worker and family man with a dark and dangerous secret. But can he keep up his success as a dad, a counselor and a violent serial killer? We got the chance to speak with Avra and Henry at Fantastic Fest 2018 to get a deeper look into the story.
A lot of the story plays into what Evan does for a living and then his family life as well. How did you balance those two aspects of the story without having anything muddled or without having one thing overshadow another?
Avra: It kind of all stemmed from the research that we did when we started looking into what serial killers frequently do for a living; that was a big thing because serial killers have a very clear logic and they cull from a specific population. We have a friend who’s a behavioral psychologist and who deals a lot with pathology and cycles of abuse. When we were talking to her, kind of cracking the story, one of the things that she mentioned was that social workers frequently have that, and it’s because they’re helping people who’ve been hurt in a similar way to how they’ve been hurt in their past. A lot of times, people who have suffered abuse then go on to go into fields to try to help people who are suffering from abuse.
But the sort of negative, dark side of it is that sometimes that person has been so hurt and so broken and has this kind of specific brain chemistry that came together not in the right way that creates a binding personality and this then becomes a pool where they begin to cull their victims. That was something we thought a lot about when we were developing. To have this idea that Evan would work in the school and work with kids who suffer from abuse, and that he was a father himself, and that he also came from an abused background, that all kind of came together. It’s also something that Henry, especially I will say, really guided the balance of the screen time of those things and how the logic of those would work together.
Henry: Yeah, I did a lot of research into both just psychopaths and serial killers because psychopaths are born psychopaths. But in every case that I read about, it’s some kind of early childhood abuse that tips them into serial killers. It’s estimated that at least one percent of the population are psychopaths, but not that many are serial killers. What psychopaths are really, really good at is hiding their psychopathy and blending into society. So while, on some level, his work does satisfy his cycle of abuse in how he interacts with these students, it also provides him cover for the need that he has and his need to blend in and the need that he has to kill. It’s really taken from the actual research that’s out there on those psychopaths and serial killers.
That must have been some interesting research.
Henry: It’s super fucking dark.
Avra: It’s crazy. It gets really intense.
Were there any specific serial killers or stories that really stuck with you?
Henry: [John Wayne] Gacy was one. I read a couple books about Gacy, and he had the same thing. He was a very popular figure in his community, he was a local leader of the Democratic Party, everybody knew him. But he had this incredibly abusive father and he was a closeted homosexual because his father abused him for that; he would always call him ‘queer’ and ‘light in his loafers’ and all these things. So when he started killing, it was always boys that he was attracted to and trying to seduce – teenage boys. Sort of reenacting, in a lot of ways, when his sexual desire came out and the abuse that followed, and when that became sort of intense and rejected is when he started to kill, and he repeated that again and again. In terms of a specific serial killer, he was one that I looked to a lot.
In terms of psychopaths, there’s a number of books on it, but there’s a book called “The Psychopath Test,” which was done by a psychiatrist in a Canadian prison. It literally lays out all of the different qualities of a psychopath: lack of empathy, an aversion to authority, ethical flexibility (ability to create your own ethical world to justify actions that are unacceptable to society). As Avra was saying, it really was important to kind of work in that inner logic for Evan’s character.
Avra: I did a lot of research specific to sociopathology, not even like violent sociopathology but just sort of ‘what is a sociopath and how do they behave?’ I think one of the things that’s really fascinating about sociopathology is that you’re hiding in plain sight. Part of the disorder is that you can pretend to be a human being but actually you’re not what we conceive of as a human being. I think also, in terms of research, to a certain extent I did some research to kind of not use certain things. He’s not a serial killer that has a sexual motivation and that was actually really, really important to us because that’s the serial killer you always see. And with that research that we were doing into psychopathy, into violence and sociopathology, one of the main things that we learned over and over and over again is that to operate and to justify to themselves being able to kill, and kill again and again, that these personalities really develop their own morality that they can work with. I think Evan really clearly has a strong morality and I hope that that comes across clearly. That was something that we were really interested in exploring.
Yeah, it was easy to see what Evan wanted to do and why.
Henry: That’s also a testament to Seann’s performance. He did a great deal of research on his own. He was attached from the beginning and we got to talk a lot about the research we were doing. I would send him articles and books that I would be looking at, and we talked endlessly about it. He really, on day one, brought a fully fleshed-out character. And his performance of it is both very subtle and very honest, so we were really lucky to have that.
Despite the film’s dark themes, there are a lot of positive affirmations in the dialogue, particularly from Marie [Evan’s mother, played by Dale Dickey] and Evan. Where did that stem from and what is its significance for the story?
Avra: Well, you know, it’s a heartwarming family story. [Laughs] One of the things, actually, that we talked about from the absolute beginning of this process is that they are psychotic – they are violently psychotic – but it’s not that psychopaths and sociopaths are incapable of love. It’s just that the way they experience love is sort of different. For us, it was really important to actually have them have a bond, a legitimate, honest, emotional bond to each other. And Evan needs to have a legitimate emotional bond to Andrew, his son, and to Lauren [his wife]. And that bond obviously evolves and grows, but it’s a real thing. They’re a real family and we really wanted them to feel like a real family. I don’t know if you can do that properly without feeling like a real emotional honesty, so that’s something we were going for.
Henry: It was also important to us to not repeat the idea of the mother as the villain. Marie’s character is actually, in a sort of fucked-up, twisted way, the savior of this family. She comes in and she’s the savior of Evan as a boy, and she comes in and really saves this family when it’s in its darkest time.
Avra: Yeah, she’s a mama bear. She’s like ‘no one touches my boy!’
Henry: That was also really important to us and something that Dale brought fiercely.
The tape recorder and the quarrel over watching TV around the baby both become really pivotal moments that you might not see early on. Was that always going to be the case, or were there other options?
Avra: That was definitely a big deus ex machina for us. There’s a lot of moving parts and there’s a lot of reveals in this movie, a lot of tips. There was a point where Henry and I wrote the script and we were kind of hashing through a rewrite and I was like, ‘I feel like this entire script is just one person standing in one room looking and another person knowing something completely different from what they know.’ Henry was like, ‘yeah we’re going to be asking a lot from our actors.’
I think that’s like one of the things that’s really hard about writing genre now is technology, and that was something Henry and I talked about extensively: how to use technology to our advantage in telling this story. There’s the prevalence of screens everywhere and the evolution of things. My favorite prop in the entire movie is the MiniDisc player. It’s like, do you get the sense that this is a not a new thing? We have the old technology, and then the new technology with the digital recorder. We did spend a lot of time talking about how to place it and how to use it.
Henry: And it was also something that Isaac, the DP, and I thought about a lot in terms of how to tip that towards the audience without them necessarily kind of consciously understanding it. We used close-ups of these different recording devices because it was important to communicate that.
Avra: And headphones! We live in this time where headphones are just so prevalent all the time. So many people just use headphones to calm themselves, and when you need to take a moment but you can’t be alone, listen to some music and it calms you down. So you’re like, ‘what is he listening to?’ And when you find out you’re like, ‘oh my god why is he listening to that?’
Henry: In terms of the TV and the baby thing, that’s also like, there’s all these things.
Avra: And the baby monitor – that’s major.
Henry: Yeah, there’s all these things. Avra has a seven-year-old daughter and my wife was pregnant when we started working on that, and then we had the baby. [Both Avra and Henry note that Henry’s baby, Harold, is the eldest baby used in the movie.] While we were writing it, we had the baby, and my wife was going crazy, and we definitely pulled a lot of our experience as parents. Little details like that were important. There was this crazy obsession about too much TV and screen time.
Avra: And the breastfeeding stuff. That was a huge, huge thing. Henry’s wife had a similar experience. There’s a moment where Lauren says, ‘I feel like I’ve failed, I’m failing as a mother.’ That was something that every new mother that I knew felt and it was really important to bring that into the story.
Is there anything else you want to say about the movie?
Henry: I just want to say that we’re very grateful for the opportunity. We’re grateful to Fantastic Fest for hosting us, to Blumhouse for trusting us with this project – Jason [Blum], in my career, has been incredibly supportive. My producing partner, I had worked with him on a couple different documentary projects, and he takes risks on first-time filmmakers and we were so lucky with every person. I’ve never had such a fun experience on set with such a positive crew that were working their asses off for no money, with no budget. [Laughs]
Avra: Every actor, every department, the [production company] Divide/Conquer team was amazing – so incredibly supportive of us and so phenomenal on set with us.
Henry: Adam Hendricks is just a brilliant producer; he manages to take these incredibly challenging conditions with low-budget films, where you’re constantly dealing with one crisis after another, and yet remain very calm as he solves those problems. From him all the way to the grips and the PAs, everyone was really committed to this project. Everybody believed in it, so we were pretty lucky.
Avra: We were so lucky. I mean, for a first-time movie with this budget, it actually is kind of a miracle that we got all the wonderful people that we got and that it was as fun to work on as it was. And I hope that that translates; I hope the fun of it translates into the watching of it too.
“Bloodline” had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on Saturday, September 22, at 11:40 PM.
Stay tuned for more Fantastic Fest 2018 coverage on Shuffle Online!
Featured image credit: Adam Hendricks and Divide/Conquer