Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving in Mayhem
Do you ever feel so frustrated in your day job that you're close to going postal? Do your colleagues get twitchy in the same way? Joe Lynch's Mayhem, written by Matias Caruso, imagines what would happen if the emotional powder keg that is the modern office were affected by a virus that made everybody lose their inhibitions. It follows the recently sacked Derek (played by The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun) as he tries to make his way to the top of a building in which middle managers, desk clerks and secretaries are literally out for one another's blood.
Mayhem was a hit at Frightfest last year, and it was there that Joe agreed to take a call from me to discuss the film. Like many horror filmmakers, he was thrilled to be at the festival and trying to take in as much as he could whilst he was there, as well as talking as much as he could. He was in his hotel lobby when he got my call and gave me an audio tour of the building as he made his way upstairs and finally managed to fumble open the door to his room. Though everything seemed interesting to him, it was plain that he couldn't wait to get onto the subject of his film.
"When the script passed my desk (actually, in most cases I never really have a desk) I was in middle of working a corporate job," he began. "In this industry, with piracy and everything, it can be hard to sustain yourself, but I was lucky enough to have a corporate gig in between movies that I could always go back to. It pays the rent and puts food in my mouth but it was very soul sucking. Anyway, I read the script and when I went 'Do I know who this char is?' I realised, 'he's me.'
"It immediately reminded me of the place I'm in and the struggle that so many people go through every day. I know this world! In a weird sort of way it's become my most personal film. I've injected myself into the story on so many different levels, I'm so connected to it, so I know how much fun I could have."
Fun isn't his only criterion for taking on a job, he stresses. "I never shake a stick at any work keeping me and my family afloat." But he was excited by the chance to speak up for the little guy.
"I think anyone who's ever had a job that they hate will relate this," he says. "Everyone who's had a bad boss or a shitty co-worker, everyone who's dealt with this before, everyone unless they're a trust fund kid. It's very passive aggressive, very overly corporatised, structured so that it's very dehumanising. It's bullshit even when there are free bagels on bagel day.
"In the screenings I've shown so far people have come up to me to say 'I'm quitting my job!' and I say 'Are you gonna be financially stable? Are your kids gonna be okay?' But I wanted to make it a cathartic experience for the audience. Every filmmaker should have a message even if it's splattered in blood. A good movie should have something bubbling under the surface but I wanted to make a fun, rollercoaster ride that was really entertaining."
The film really benefits from the presence of the charismatic Yeun, and Joe knows it.
"He's one of my favourite actors working today in film, who happens to be in one of most famous zombie shows of all time." Having rules set in place by The Walking Dead and the work of directors like George Romero and Danny Boyle gave him a useful paradigm to work with, he explains, so he could set up a story with a pandemic in the background without having to do everything from scratch.
"In the world today it always feels like we're on the brink of disaster. [In the film] everyone is infected as usual, so we have zombies and living people. The infected, as well, go through chemical changes and we see them loving it because it's setting them free. I had not seen anything like that... these crazed violent beings are more free than the other characters. Who are we when all our inhibitions have been stripped away? The secretary who dies first in my zombie movie really lets loose because of all the aggression she has because of being a fucking secretary."
We know who's infected - at least when they're up close - because of the redness of their eyes.
"The whole red eyes thing was really important to me because we needed some kind of visual iconography, otherwise it would just be a bunch of sweaty white Americans beating the shit out of each other. We needed a language to say who''s infected. It was no small feat but I'm so glad we did it," says Joe.
"Actors like Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving, who we want the audience to follow to the end, needed to start out charming even though they're doing deplorable stuff and we needed to see the change. Our entire intent was to do this with practical effects but when we went out to Serbia to shoot we discovered that buying over 200 pairs of contact lenses was not only very expensive but they were time consuming to make. I was in a bind of course - the producers were like, 'Don't worry about it, no-one's going to care,' but I needed it.
"I went to my visual effects comp and I said, 'I don't want do this but at the same time it's really necessary - is there any way we can just colour over someone's eyes in post?' We used footage from The Walking Dead for a test and it worked. The effects team had to take a 360 degree picture of the entire room and take into account the light sources. What makes it difficult is where the light is coming from, so with blood everywhere, when the blood reflects the light the same thing has to happen with the eyeball. It's especially challenging because we have so many close-ups of people's eyeballs! We had to do this with more than half the movie and it added a day or two to shooting. Still, it really helped me to embrace visual effects."
When it came to casting, finances were an inescapable concern, he says.
"Certain actors bring certain sales attraction to the project and add to its bankability, but I am the director and I want to make sure I'm getting the right actor for the part. Derek was conceived and originally written as white but Steven Yeun was clearly the right choice. As a kid watching movies with Richard Dreyfuss in, I'd think 'that's just a normal looking guy,' so I asked myself 'who is that everyman today who exudes vulnerability but also has gravitas?' Right around that time, The Walking Dead was on TV. I watched it from the beginning and Steven's character, Glenn, had to do that fake dead thing. I remember when that episode aired and Twitter just melted. Everyone was heartbroken and so was I. It really gutted me. I remember thinking, Holy shit! Steven is our everyman.' He's got such great presence. I thought, 'We can do even more with him.' I liked his sense of humour - I'd seen him on Conan O'Brien and he was funny.
"In a weird way I look at this movie as a comedy. It essentially needed someone like Steven. I sent him the script and he was really excited. It was a very easy decision for both of us. Once we met, we thought 'This is it!' and we didn't look back."
It's refreshing, I say, to see an ambitious film like this with a person of colour in the leading role. Did he run up against the usual studio worry that that could make it less marketable?
"Certain international territories might chafe at that," Joe says, "but we have the advantage that The Walking Dead was a global phenomenon and the pull of that show should supercede any tentativeness anyone had in terms of Steven's ethnicity. Also, you know, this is my America. Trump can go fuck himself. You can put that on the record.
"This was a big thing for Steven and I didn't want to make it into a thing in the movie. If I played the race card it wouldn't have same impact, and it might date it. Who are we going to be in ten years? I would rather just have it be a moment in corporate culture.
"I never had any pushback at all. Every couple months I was always reading about all these movies being whitewashed. Steven told me about the oriental ceiling in the corporate wrld. It would have been an interesting angle but we wanted to do other things.
"If you haven't been privy to the amazing talent that is Samara Weaving, well, I think people are going to be blown away by her. She was just an incredibly energetic ball of talent. I was just, like, 'Holy shit!' when her name was passed onto us. She didn't even audition. I just said, 'You're getting over here and we're gonna kick some ass.'
The chemistry between the two leads emerged by itself.
'The scene in the bathroom, 90% of that is improv. I just let them go, and with all this chaos going on around them we're watching two people discussing their favourite bands."
Mayhem is now out on digital release and will be released on DVD on 16 July. Joe had a few last words for people who might be thinking about watching it.
"With the world being so dark right now, it doesn't seem like we can all get along any more. I wanted to make a movie to let people let off some steam. I want them to have fun. This is a hardcore movie. It's bloody and violent, but that's the sugar to make the medicine go down. The message ultimately will get the point across: quit your job. Don'y be unhappy - just go out there and enjoy yourself and fight for you right to party."