Features | Written by Nick Spacek 07/02/2020

Adam Egypt Mortimer | DANIEL ISN’T REAL

Director and writer Adam Egypt Mortimer’s debut feature, the 2015 slasher Some Kind of Hate, co-written with Brian DeLeeuw, was a breath of fresh air into a genre many thought had been done to death, and brought a unique vision of horror to the screen. It’s been a long wait, but the director’s sophomore feature, Daniel Isn't Real (also co-written with DeLeeuw), finally released recently, and proved to be worth the wait. Not only does Daniel brim with amazing performances from its leads Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger, as Luke and his frightening imaginary friend Daniel, but the story is filled with disturbing visuals and a story which will have viewers questioning their own perceptions of reality.

We spoke with Mortimer about the new film, and the thematic ideas to which he’s drawn.

STARBURST: I've been a fan of your work since I saw Some Kind of Hate when it came out almost five years ago and I was very excited when Daniel Isn't Real was announced because I had really been waiting to see what you did for a follow-up for that movie, and it it did not disappoint.

Adam Egypt Mortimer: You know, Some Kind of Hate was the movie that I made basically so that we could make Daniel. Brian [DeLeeuw] and I had written Daniel first, and then realized, “How the hell am I gonna get this crazy movie made as my first movie?” So, then we said, “Well, let's write what our version of a slasher movie would be like.” That was supposed to be very fast and easy to come together, and then even that was a nightmare to try to make, but all of that was a good thing, because it meant that, by the time I by the time I was finally able to make Daniel, I knew a lot more about making movies than I had when we first sat down to write it.

I think it really came at the at the right time and if you're somebody who's a fan of Some Kind of Hate, I'm sure you can see that there's a lot of dramatic similarities and some similar kind of ideas. It wasn't conscious at the time. It was a product, probably, of us writing them back-to-back and sharing the sensibility, but looking back on it, you sort of start to see all these things that are themes that are emerging, because they're really important to me. Maybe I hadn't even realized that at the time.

They just showed a double feature of those movies in Wales at a theater in Cardiff, and I thought that was so fun. It’s such a cool idea to be able to watch them back-to-back and see not only how have I improved as a filmmaker, but also how I returned to or developed the same sorts of ideas or feelings.

I was going to ask about what I see as the thematic elements that are similar in both of the movies: how things that happen in childhood / youth can have a very long tail in terms of how they affect you growing up.

Yeah, and I think that the idea of trauma on every level is such a crucial part of the human condition. It's an important part of what we should be exploring in art. You can experience childhood trauma in so many different ways. Everything that you experience when you're a child is so loud, and and that's what it's sort of getting at in that opening scene in Daniel, where we see his parents fighting.

You see these two adults throwing plates at each other, and then you see this tiny, tiny child with his cat puppet. Sometimes, I talk to my dad and I’ll be like, “I remember that totally insane fight you guys had,” or that horrible experience I had and he'll be like, “Well, I think that we were just mildly annoyed.” Things are so loud, and affect you so deeply, and stain your DNA forever when you're a child, and I think that was a big part of what I was trying to get at in Daniel.

To go from the dissolution of his family and what that feels like, to a literal bloody massacre within the same moment: it's this idea that those things are both metaphors and the actual trauma at the same time. I think that, in trying to make Daniel go from a story that's got a tiny, intimate childhood trauma story to something that becomes vast cosmic horror, I really sort of started to see the idea that the human race is itself sort of as a product of some kind of traumatic cosmic events, or that our whole thing -- our whole society -- is based on trauma. It's something I've been coming towards more and more as my way of thinking about how the world works.

Both of your features like have -- as you have very ably pointed out -- this grounding in trauma. In Some Kind of Hate, it's very much a more visceral sort of thing, where trauma is literally inflicted and can be then inflicted back upon the person giving it, like a vicious cycle. What I find really interesting about both of the movies is the world-building that you set up very early on, that then have this payoff a solid 90 minutes later. Everything that happens within the those first 15 or 20 minutes of Daniel Isn't Real are so important to the end of the film.

When we had our LA premiere at Beyond Fest, a friend of mine came to see the movie, and he walked in with his popcorn and his soda 90 seconds after the movie had started -- missing the opening. Without spoiling it, the opening 60 seconds of this movie is a shocking thing that is really crucial to the movie, and I have not stopped ragging my poor friend -- who eventually came back and saw it a second time a couple weeks later.

There are a lot of movies in the horror genre, where a lot of times people offer this structure, where the first 15 minutes of the movie is like, “Everything is nice!” and it's sunny with the families eating breakfast together, and then things go awry.

To me, I felt like that's both sort of cinematically boring, and an inaccurate portrayal of the world. If I'm going to do something that's a deliberately sort of a scary, bleak, shocking kind of story, the beginnings are so crucial. In those first few minutes that you have with an audience, you can really set a tone, and so I want you to feel like you're kind of getting your ass kicked at the beginning, and then there is this sort of satisfaction from puzzling it out.

Trauma is a puzzle, and if it’s something that can be solved -- or, I guess, resolved or compromised with -- I think you need those pieces. Some Kind of Hate started the same way, right? The first eight seconds of that movie is a murder, and then you kind of come back around and, at the end, find out who the murderers were, and why, and all that.

I like that feeling of something clicking into place and having an understanding, even if the understanding is a horrific one. Daniel Isn't Real escalates: it starts out terrifying, with a horrible event, and then I think it dips down, but then it just steadily starts climbing back up and beyond. When the cosmic horror aspect of it kicks in, it's been built in such a way that you're you're there for it. It doesn't come out of left field.

I love movies where, even like up to the very end, I'm not sure whether it actually happened or if it was all within the character’s head. There are parts of me that still wonder as to whether or not this actually all happened to Luke, or whether he imagined everything that Daniel did.

I think that's a completely viable understanding of it. I mean, there's a lot. It's interesting: in designing the movie, I was obsessed by the idea of what is objective and what's subjective, and how do you communicate that in a movie like this? How are we gonna live in a movie, where every scene of dialogue, there's a character that nobody else can see? How is the audience gonna buy that? All these kind of things. It gets you to this really interesting place where, just because you can see something on the screen, what part of that is real and what part of it is not real? Even the title of the fucking movie potentially being, “Are we being honest with the audience or not?”

So, yeah -- I'm completely open to the interpretation, but to interpret it the way you're describing, you would have to look at things that appear to be objective and then sort of have a discussion about what really would be happening there. We don't do the thing where you flashback and see everything differently, like, “Here's what it really looked like!”

The way they do at the end of The Usual Suspects is an example of that: where suddenly, at the end, you rewind the whole movie and it's like, “Oh, it was all a lie because there was actually this thing and there was this thing!” I don't do that, here. I think I'm much more interested in [the idea that] reality itself is this kind of unstable field, and our unreality is made by our perceptions, and our perceptions are colored by our traumas and our emotions, so where do we stand? That's the horror of it. The horrific aspect of the story? That's about perception.

The reason this all works for me is because of the interaction between Patrick Schwarzenegger and Miles Robbins, because it is essentially a twisted buddy picture. I imagine the casting process for those two roles were very intense? These two have to be besties, for lack of a better term.

It is 100% a buddy movie, and the thing was that -- no matter what the the metaphysics or the cosmic horror of it or whatever these two characters are in reality -- I was very obsessed with making a movie that is accurately depicting the feelings of young male friendship, at that age and at that time, and sort of drawing on everything I could from my own experience of being in college. What is it like when you have these kind of friendships? When you're 18 years old, with some other guy and it's this incredibly intimate, energetic, strange kind of relationship that I don't know that you have any time exactly before or after in your life?

It's a really particular kind of friendship. There's the moment where they're making fun of the roommate, and trying to scare the roommate, and they're flopping around on the floor laughing together, They're so in their own world, and so comfortable with each other, and  it’s them against the world. Drawing on those very real experiences, and trying to depict that kind of friendship in a way that I haven’t seen in movie.

So, as far as the casting process? Yeah, I was super obsessed with getting the exact right people and Patrick was able to embody this otherworldly sort of beauty and intensity in the character. Miles was this kind of empathy machine. Then, we had the rehearsal process and put them in a room together for a week, week and a half, before we started shooting -- finding that depiction of friendship. The ability for them to be close to each other was the whole crux of the movie.

DANIEL ISN’T REAL is playing in selected UK cinemas from February 7th and will hit Blu-ray and digital download February 10th.