A familiar face

Perry Blackshear on male friendship, mental illness and They Look Like People

by Jennie Kermode

They Look Like People
They Look Like People Photo: Signature Entertainment

Christian (Evan Dumouchel) and Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) are childhood friends who haven’t see each other for years. When they meet again by chance, Christian invites Wyatt to stay with him. What he doesn’t know is that Wyatt is convinced that the world is about to be taken over by aliens who are invading the bodies of people around him. Is he mentally ill? Could he have stumbled onto something real? Could both these things be true? They Look Like People is a film suffused with paranoia but brightened by the friendship between the two men, which both try to preserve even after the dramatic difference in their worldviews emerges.

It’s the first film made by Perry Blackshear, whose second film, The Siren, screened at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Four years after it was initially released in the US, it has finally made it to Digital HD in the UK on the Frightfest Presents label. I asked Perry what first drew him to this complicated story.

Christian tries to help his friend
Christian tries to help his friend

“It was based off a friend of mine who was going through a really hard time and he told me later that if it wasn’t for a few good people in his life and his family that he would be in jail or maybe worse,” he says. “There was one really scary week for him and I kind of wanted to set a movie during that one week where a person in a really fragile position could be in sort of a make or break situation, and have it be between two friends.

“I was such a tiny crew that it became very personal and there were all sorts of other things that were happening in our lives: confusion about hitting our late twenties and failure, and what it means to be a man – and all sorts of other things entered into the movie without us even I think, realising it.” He laughs. “But it was the story of friendship and what to do with a friend who’s really on the brink that was the real reason that I started.”

Although there’s a mystery element to the film, it’s clear that Wyatt is experiencing some kind of mental health problem. It’s interesting to see this treated with sympathy and approached as something that’s happening to him and not his whole character

“Yeah, it was really important to me. Originally the movie was much more of a drama. I wanted to make sure to show what it was like from his perspective and really get us to feel like he feels. I saw a video – it was a long time ago, I forget where I saw it – where they did a VR simulation of what it was like to be schizophrenic, where people’s faces warped and there were rats – it was a pretty exaggerated, high octane version of it – but there were all these voices and it was the scariest thing I had ever seen in my life. It wasn’t just that there was all this horrible stuff happening, it was that you couldn’t tell what of it was real and you couldn’t turn it off. Especially the not turning it off thing, it was like...” his voice trails off and he winces. “So I just tried to be very true to what I had read. I’m not an expert – I’m not a psychologist – but we tried to do our research to make sure that we were doing it right and in the process it became pretty scary.”

A big contributor to that scariness is Perry’s sound design.

“I read something where somebody was describing what their experience with schizophrenia was like and they said that whenever they heard the Devil nearby there was the sound of buzzing flies... and I thought that was so horrible. And I turned that into this thing where oh, you can identify who’s good and who’s bad by the sound of buzzing flies. I hate the sound of buzzing flies!” He laughs. “It was miserable to sound design but I think it works. People share my dislike I think.”

Depending on how much credence we give to Wyatt’s beliefs, there may also be an element of Capgras’ delusion at work – the belief that a friend or loved one is actually an imposter. I mention that just a few days previously I was discussing with friends the case of Bridget Clearly, an Irishwoman who was burned alive by her husband in 1895 because he believed she had been replaced or possessed by a demon. Perry shudders.

MacLeod Andrews, Margaret Ying Drake and Evan Dumouchel
MacLeod Andrews, Margaret Ying Drake and Evan Dumouchel Photo: Signature Entertainment

“Yeah. I don’t remember Capgras’ delusion specifically but I had read Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations before the movie and there was a section – that’s where Mara [the woman Christian is falling for, played by Margaret Ying Drake] talks about hearing a choir. That’s where I found that lots of people have a thing where they see things out of the corner of their eye and they just sort of accept them...

“The last scene I’m really happy with because it feels like the theme of the movie and the plot come together. But it’s also a thing where, I mean, there’s not necessarily a right answer in a lot of these cases and that’s what makes it so scary... The hope that both [Christian and Wyatt] have is that their friendship will last because, well, they don’t really have many people in their lives. Often in my own life, when people around me have been going through something difficult, it’s a combination of support from people and your own willpower that does it. You can’t do it alone.”

I like the way that the friendship is explored through the way the men play games together and let themselves go when there’s nobody else around.

“My guy friends and I talk about how strange it is to make guy friends after you hit 30,” says Perry, “so there is something nice about having a childhood friend when you’re still a kid and you’re very open. Sock wars was borrowed from a friend and I used to do blobby wars with my cousins when we were really little, but I talked to some of my female friends and they were like ‘Is that what guys are like?!’ And I was like ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know but that’s what some of us were like when we were kids.”

And it’s important in the film, I suggest, because it shows that there’s a fun side to them and lets viewers get to know them like that.

“Yeah, but there’s a thing – I mean, does masculinity allow for doing stuff like that? I’m not sure. I’m not a father but I think maybe that’s what’s good about being a dad, is that you get to do some of that stuff again.”

I like the fact that the film shows us male bonding without the misogyny or the cynicism that dominate that behaviour in a lot of other films.

“Some of the credit for that should go to Evan and MacLeod, who are just such sweet guys that their personalities really bled through into their characters,” he says. “I wrote it for them so the positive aspects of their characters were probably based on their own. And yeah, I think I was very aware of making a movie about these two dudes and how quickly that can become something quite obnoxious. There’s a place for that but that’s not really what I wanted to do.

Wyatt at work in the basement
Wyatt at work in the basement Photo: Signature Entertainment

“I also have a lot of good colleagues and one of the best things we do for each other is keep us honest. I think I didn’t realise that that [the way the friendship in the film is depicted] was a little bit rare. I guess in the last year since the movie came out I’ve been happy that there’s been a lot more types of people in movies, especially in genre films, than there used to be. And I don’t think you realise how fun it is because you haven’t realised that you’ve been missing it.”

We talk about the established genre of films dealing with paranoia about dangers that may or may not be real and Perry says that he likes those films but he wanted to do something a bit different.

“I wanted to do a really scary version of Take Shelter. And another weird inspiration was Fish Tank. And what I loved about that movie is that it jack-knifes in the final 15 minutes and it’s so rare that you’re just sitting in your seat, staring at the movie screen and you’re like I have no idea what’s going to happen now. The movie was built to have that final 15 minutes feel like you don’t have a safety net any more and there isn’t a set of genre expectations because it has been dodging genres.”

We get a bit of a sense of that absence of safety net in an earlier scene where Mara finds herself alone in the basement with Wyatt, but I liked the fact that she never feels like a helpless character.

“Margaret is a good friend of mine too and I wrote that character for her. That’s also very much her personality and – especially because she’s a more minor character than the two guys – I wanted to make sure that she wasn’t just a supplement or a means to an end for the plot. I wanted to really give her a chance to punch a guy in the face.” He laughs. “And her flipping Evan over her shoulder, she can do that, she’s really good at judo. Evan did not think that was going to happen in that take.”

It’s quite a think to capture that genuine surprise, I suggest.

“Yeah – he was very surprised!”

He’s since worked with the same trio of actors on The Siren and he says that they’re looking forward to future projects together, gradually expanding the team.

“I’ve been in bands and it’s really hard to find a group that really supports each other and has a good balance. We’ve found that. It’s so fun to work with them but it also feels like cheating because they’re so talented... We’re excited to branch out and keep expanding the squadron.”

They just finished working on their third film which is, he says, a bit more ambitious.

“It’s set mostly in Brooklyn at night, a brother and sister story where he sister gets hurt by something and she sort of Lady MacBeths her younger, really pathetic brother to help her take revenge, and then when they find the thing it turns out it’s not human. So it’s this kind of scary supernatural thriller. It’s really exciting to work on.”

He must also be excited to finally be able to bring They Look Like People to a UK audience.

“Yes. Oh my gosh, it’s been a long time. Because it played at Frightfest so we got many emails from people and we were always trying to figure out a way to get there.”

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