Sydney Film Festival Interview: Sean Byrne talks the origins of The Devil’s Candy

Between Red Christmas, High-Rise and Patchwork, the 2016 Sydney Film Festival is delivering some really solid offerings for horror movie fans.

Fergus Halliday caught up with the Sean Byrne, the director of The Devil’s Candy, to talk about the film’s appearance at the festival, the film’s origins and the state of Australian horror.

I wanted to start by asking you where the concept of the film originated.

My wife was pregnant with twins and I was terrified of the prospect of becoming a father so I think the film is an allegory for [my own] parental fears. Just the evils that can be out there in the world.

I started thinking ‘what is the greatest disparity of power’ in a horror sense and I thought it was like a child versus a monster. Then I tried to figure out what type of monster would be interesting that we hadn’t seen before and I stumbled across the notion of ‘The Red Right Hand,’ which is a biblical term for Satan’s inability to rise and live on earth so he [would] pick human vessels who are too weak to basically keep the demon out. So the monster becomes Ray and Ray doesn’t really know how to exist in the real world he doesn’t have the defenses that most of us do so he’s a prize target to be Satan’s pawn.

It’s one of those films the idea was never really just a clean-cut from the beginning. My last film, The Loved Ones was a very, very simple premise but this one sort of came from all over the place. I had my really good friend whose an artist and his daughter is into heavy metal and I hadn’t seen that relationship depicted on screen, in an authentic way before, you know? I’ve seen a lot of metal characters that are treated like as buffoons and I wanted to show a real alternative family and the love that they kind of share

Concerning music of the film, I want to ask what’s the philosophy behind it? How do you feel it compliments the visuals?

The whole idea is the underground is rising. There’s like a wall of dread that’s closing in and the film starts sonically from a naturalistic kind of point. Then as the film continues the natural [sounds]  are replaced by the oppressive sound of hell that just starts to take over. So hopefully the soundscape grows in intention at the same time as the narrative does.

We [also] used the kind of the world preeminent throne metal band Sunn O))) and they kind-of do Gregorian sort of chant. Obviously you always want to kind of pay homage to kind of great earlier horror films. The chant in The Omen is the darkest possible version so I was thinking what would be the darkest possible version of that. So that’s why we sort of chose Sunn O))) as the voice of Satan but yeah, taking creepy films and then trying to kind of figure out how to make it even more hellish.

So Australian horror movies in the past have often been kind of quiet tense affairs, what was the energy The Devil’s Candy like in comparison?

It’s always a kind of point of difference. I’ve always been a heavy metal fan and I don’t know, I just wanted to kind of wanted to make a doom opera. I’m probably different from a lot of horror directors. I’m not a fan of seeing a film that’s 80 minutes of creepy foreplay and then five minutes of pay off. I just like a kind of a lot of bang for your buck and I’d rather attack than kind of whisper and The Loved Ones [is] pretty similar.

I think both films have a more kind of extreme sharp edge than, you know, the Paranormal Activities of the world. I just like it loud [laughs].

Concerning the cast, you’ve got a really impressive cast, how did everyone sort of come on board for the project?

Well the producers Keith and Jessica Calder had co-distributed a film called Cheap Thrills with Ethan Embry. For low-budget films [it is] very difficult to get stars. We actually sent out to quite a few big names but it’s so difficult to get past their ages and you sort of sit on your hands forever waiting.

So we wanted someone who kind-of damaged the tone of it all and also had the real lightness of spirit and Ethan had been a child star and there’s something still that’s kind-of puppy dog cuddly about him but at the same time he’s been a really quite an angsty dangerous guy as well. So in terms of personality, combining those things is a great mix. I ended up just looking at his past filmmography and we met and hung out and I just sort of see him in the role so cast him and the little girl I just think is a great ‘scream queen’.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 12 year old ‘scream queen’ [laughs]. It’s a staple of horror films having the final girl [but] you don’t usually get a twelve year old.

Anyway David Cronenberg’s wife is a casting agent and she had seen Kiara Glasco in Map of the Stars and she said ‘She’s amazing, she’s an old soul’. So we auditioned her against some other quite big child actors and she was just fantastic. 

Pruitt Taylor Vince plays the antagonist Ray. I’ve loved him ever since James Mangold‘s Heavy and I really wanted like somebody who could represent a helpless child trapped inside a man’s body and who felt like a fish out of water and was just lost in the world. He’s got the twitching eye condition which made him seem really, really unknowable and unsettling and yeah.

Shiri Appleby who plays the mother – I just auditioned her and she has a great kind of no nonsense New Yorker sense of humour wheres she seemed like the responsible member of the family who was kind of keeping everything together. So it was kind of about getting a dynamic that felt behaviorally accurate. 

I get really frustrated watching films where you have a family and they’re all too lovey-dovey and it’s all about expositions on why you love this family. I kind of prefer just to find a cast behaviorally so you look at the interaction. You try of get moments that feel authentic and then hopefully that means that you’re emotionally onside with the characters at the time.

From your perspective, what has that been like watching that evolution?

I think it’s incredibly exciting. I mean the irony is that Australian horror film, with the exception of Wolf Creek which does have kind of a crime background to rely on and crime tends to do well in Australia. But 95% of the time horror films don’t succeed in Australia and yet they’re so highly regarded internationally. I don’t know, I mean, I don’t know if it’s anything to do with Australia’s dark past or the isolation or yeah.

It’s very hard to know. Australia has a natural kind of cynicism where we’re prepared to sort-of explore our kind of dark hearts a little bit more than I think maybe Hollywood does.

I think Australia has this whole sort-of tall poppy syndrome. Even though we’re a lucky country and we’re a fun country, I think in a way there’s also a kind of an inward looking quality about a lot of us that we maybe don’t admit [laughs].

The Devil’s Candy is showing at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Further information about the festival and film can be found here.