By Danny Peary
Horns, Alexandre Aja’s genre-bending adaptation of Joe Hill’s cult novel, opens theatrically Friday in New York City and elsewhere. You can also see it on VOD. Just as Ben Affleck’s character is wrongly accused of murdering his cold-hearted wife in Gone Girl, a young man, Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe gives still another excellent post-Harry Potter performance), is blamed for the rape and murder of his virtuous long-time girlfriend, Merrin (an appealing Juno Temple). Unlike Affleck’s ineffectual character, Ig grows a pair of horns that have the power of making everyone he comes into contact with reveal their most despicable thoughts and desires. Ig sets out to find the real killer, and as he gets closer, he increasingly transforms into the Devil. He is even accompanied by snakes during his pursuit. He may be the Devil and is capable of brutality, but he isn’t such a bad guy. That’s one of the many quirks in this daring, well-cast and acted, zany hybrid that is at once a love story, a parable, a murder mystery, a satire, and a horror film with images that are not for the squeamish. It’s a wild ride that I hope you take to the end. On Tuesday, I was part of this lively roundtable with Radliffe, Temple, and Hill (Stephen King’s son) at the Trump Soho in Manhattan. I note my questions.
Joe Hill, Juno Temple and Daniel Radcliffe.
Q: Joe, before this project got off the ground, what did you perceive would be the biggest challenge a filmmaker would face when adapting your book to the screen?
Joe Hill: I never thought it would be a film. I thought it was such a weird, unlikely story to be adapted. My leaping off point was Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. You have Gregor Samsa, a man with a meaningless job, waking up one day as a giant insect. He was an insect even before he turned into an insect and even his family didn’t respect or care about him. When he becomes a bug, the internal truth becomes external. Horns is pretty much the same way. In my other stories, even fantasies, there’s usually an explanation of a conventional sort. But this is more surreal, magical realism, and very Kafkaesque. It has a black sense of humor and a tragic love story and a lot elements and I thought that was so strange that I couldn’t imagine anyone really making it into a film.
Q: Daniel, what was your first impression of Joe’s book, which is quite different from his father Stephen King’s books.
Daniel Radcliffe: I wasn’t looking at Joe’s work through the frame of his father’s work. I just viewed it as an incredibly original, daring, witty, and emotional piece of writing. I was pleased how that transferred into a script. Obviously things change when a novel is adapted into a screenplay but the one thing you don’t want people to be upset about is the absence of the book’s tone. What makes Joe’s book unique is that it rampages through different styles, and we have remained very faithful to that and hopefully fans of the book will respond to that in the film.
Q: How did you feel about a movie that mixes so many genres–romance, satire, crime, horror, mystery…everything?
DR: Joe has said how he likes old movies that did many different things, and one of my favorite films is A Matter of Life and Death , which has some amazing flights of fantasy, including a court case in heaven. It is very funny and imaginative, and also has real drama and dramatic tension throughout. It does everything successfully. That’s what excited me about the script for Horns. We live in a world of people who obsessively categorize everything and I like that this film is very hard to pin down. If you can describe a movie in one sentence and do it justice, it’s probably not a very good movie. I think Horns will take many sentences to define.
JH: I wouldn’t call Horns a horror movie exactly. In bad horror you get the jock and the cheerleader and the geek and the virgin and other one-note characters, and the character who has the most dimensions turns out to be the serial killer. I find that morally odious because I don’t want to root for the bad guy, I want to root for the good guy. I don’t think horror should be about disgusting people, about shock, or about sadism, but about characters you can really love so that when you see them suffer you will root for them to pull through. It should about empathy rather than nastiness, and a sense of humor and a sense of romance brings more to the story. What we see more and more, especially in the last decade, are horror movies that do only one thing. They’re only scary, or sadistic, or funny, or romantic. Because that’s so much easier to market. They know how to sell a movie like Ouija because all it does is try to be scary for an hour and a half. But that’s not necessarily better storytelling. I love ambitious storytelling.
DR: Also, if you were to look at your life as a film, you’d be very hard pressed to pin it down to being only one genre. A script like this without a sense of humor wouldn’t be something I’d be interested in doing. Because even the darkest times in life often result in the use of humor even as a coping mechanism or something else. It’s a lot more complicated and real this way.
Q: The movie is many things, but, Joe, what do you think of the original religious aspect in the book being toned down in the film?
JH: I don’t know if I agree that the movie toned down the religious aspect, I just think it has a lighter touch. It doesn’t hammer you over the head with religious subtext and it’s good that it’s not a theology lecture because I doubt if people would buy a ticket to that. Ig is a giving, loving person who thinks about others. And Merrin is also a giving, loving person who thinks about others. In that way, it has a kind of quiet, Christian idealism, I guess. But it’s not a religious film like a Mel Gibson movie. [Laughter]
DR: It’s interesting that you can watch this film as a very religious person and enjoy it. There’s a lot of Old Testament-style justice. And you can see Ig as sort of a Job figure. But I think we’re using religious symbolism and imagery to tell the story of humans, rather than the other way around.
Danny Peary: What I find most interesting is that when you expect Divine Intervention and God to save the day and goodness to prevail as in many good vs. evil films, Ig must go back to being the Devil to get the job done. At one point it’s stated that “God turns a blind eye,” so is God present at all in this story and is the Devil an antihero rather than a villain?
JH: There is one viewpoint that God and the Devil aren’t adversaries, they’re actually on the same side. In some ways that makes sense if you think that God hates sinners and the Devil punishes them. The first time we ever see him, he frees two people from a jungle prison where they are being held by a megalomaniac and awakens them to their sexuality at the same time–which is kind of awesome and progressive.
Juno Temple: Weirdly when you look at Ig when he become a devilish, demonic creature, you see that he’s in that guise for good to solve a horrible crime. So it’s the idea of playing with good and bad and how good can be bad and bad can be good.
JH: I’ve always thought that the Devil is kind of a superhero and he’d fit right in with The Avengers. He has superpowers and has a really cool look with the horns and red costume.
Q: Daniel, how much of your look was makeup and how much was done on computer?
DR: It was all really there. from I wore the horns and extensions and everything else. If there was some touching up in special effects, it was minimal. And there is only one snake in the film that is visual effects–it was actually a real snake but it looked like it was made out of rubber. [Laughter]
Q: Daniel, I saw you this year in the play The Cripple of Inishmaan and you were amazing. You were the cripple in the play and now in this movie, you wear horns almost the entire time. Can you talk about altering your body to play Billy and using props with Ig?
JH: I really enjoy being physical and being challenged with different roles. With The Cripple of Inishmaan, I had to do something myself to change my body. On Horns, the acting and attitude was obviously in my jurisdiction but the transformation itself was the work of other people and I was the beneficiary of it. Any time you can look in the mirror, and you’ve gained distance between what’s looking back at you and the person you normally see in the mirror that’s a good thing.
DP: Joe, did you name Merrin after the priest who tries to rid of the girl of the demon in The Exorcist?
JH: I did.
DP: Juno, your character is portrayed as totally good, even angelic, keeping demons out of Ig while she’s alive. Yet despite her being established like that she has premarital sex, which is progressive in that it breaks movie rules.
JT: First and foremost, Merrin is good, but she’s human good. Being human is being naughty and nice, you’re going to be a bit of both. I think that enjoying lovemaking can be seen as a sin, especially within her character. But it’s complicated because she’s also truly in love with somebody and I think sex is a big part of being in love. She is obviously this presence. I truly feel you need people like Merrin in the world who just have this light around them. You feel so happy and lucky to know them. Do I feel she’s really good in a religious, angelic sense? No. I think she’s human but, my God, I think she’s a good human.
JH: The Devil is okay with sex before marriage! That’s another reason he’s so awesome!
DP: Ig is a nice, caring, decent young man. But if Merrin hadn’t existed, would he have gone down the wrong road with all of the other kids he grew up with?
DR: It’s really hard to say but it’s undeniable that if someone like Merrin walks into your life and adapts to who you are you and your lives become intertwined, then the relationship is going to be special. It is special because Ig and Merrin meet each other in their formative years and they become for each other what the other one lacks. Seeing Ig as an adult and knowing about his past relationship with Merrin, I find it hard to even imagine what life would have been like for him if they had never met. Probably it wouldn’t end like it does or as early as it does! You know, better to have loved and lost.
DP: Talk about that and the film’s tag line, “Love Hurts Like Hell,” which makes it clear we’re watching a love story.
JT: I think it’s a good tag line because ultimately when you look at this relationship it hurts like hell because his love has been taken away. Not only has the love of his life been ripped away but also he’s suspected of murdering this young woman. He did love her and everybody around her loved her. This is an honest love story in which Merrin and Ig are both wholeheartedly in love and I think have an incredible balance.
DR: Going back to what Juno said, Ig and Merrin are such a loving, committed relationship. My mom and dad have been married for over thirty years and the institution of marriage is not something I have any personal problems with. But getting married doesn’t prove that you love someone.
JH: My favorite scene in the movie is when Merrin and Ig break up. You have these two people who love each other so deeply and they say such agonizing and painful things to each other. They obviously care for each other but stick their knives into each other over and over again. It’s easy in films and novels to make it seem like bad things happen because of evil but actually a lot of bad things happen because of people trying to do the right thing. You almost always suffer because of love, not only because of hate. People are much more likely to kill because of love than hate.
Q: Daniel, after shooting such emotional scene, when the director said “Cut,” did you go right back to being yourself?
DR: No. Particularly if you’re not done yet it’s not helpful to snap back to yourself. By the time Juno and I filmed that diner breakup scene, we were getting along, but when you do intense scenes like that it kind of solidifies your relationship with the other actor. We shot it for two days and it was very emotional. We were there for each other but because of the nature of the scene we needed to be in our own spaces as well. It wasn’t possible to flip back and forth in and out of character.
Q: That was my favorite scene, too. I was interested in whether they are looking at love in a child-like way, talking about their love lasting forever, or an adult way, realizing they might not know each other after all.
JT: I’m a hopeless romantic. I believe in true love and that at any age you can fall madly in love with someone and it can last forever. That also applies to friendships because I think love shows itself in many different ways. I think it’s interesting that we can never totally know each other because that’s a joy of being human. I think every human should have a bit of mystery because if you fully know someone you might not be in love with them entirely. It’s the idea of having things that are only yours.
JH: That’s actually one of the things the story is about. What does it do to you when you know everything about someone else, including their worst thoughts? Would seeing their darkest places destroy your feelings for them? I know that before I wrote the book my idea was to take this decent, sort of perfect young man and destroy him and turn him into Satan. While writing the book, I discovered that destroying someone who is decent is harder than I expected. Even when they are faced with the worst in the people they love, they can still find the power to forgive them and still care about them. And for a pretty dark story, that’s kind of hopeful.
DP: Juno, at the film’s premiere, you spoke about Merrin being “a memory” because she’s dead when the picture begins.
JT: That’s something that drew me to the character. Because memories are so precious. Even as an actress, you draw on so many memories–memories of being sad or happy, or maybe being bored while taking a train from one city to another. You wrack your brain for some of your favorite memories. You can sit by yourself and laugh at your memories or be taken into another universe. Memories are the most brilliant thing the human mind is capable of storing, I think. Getting to play a memory was such an honor, especially to play the memory of someone who truly loves her.
JH: There’s also the Rashomon thing where we keep seeing her through other people’s eyes.
JH (cont’d): For instance, it’s great going into Lee’s head and seeing that he doesn’t get it. He’s reading things in Merrin that simply aren’t there.
Q: The Devil’s not the villain in this movie. It’s Lee, Ig’s long-time friend and lawyer.
JH: You have this character of tremendous malice in Lee Tourneau. He obviously yearns for Merrin, but what he really yearns for is to be complete. Ig is complete because he and Merrin together finish each other. Lee has never had that and can’t imagine what that feels like. Max Minghella poured so much emotion into that role and it’s wonderful. I really think that he’s one of the film’s secret weapons. If there is one thing in the film that I think is so much better than what’s in the book it’s the depiction of Lee Tourneau. In the book, he’s kind of the boogeyman. He seems perfect but we know he’s an empty box, a hollow sociopath. But in the movie he comes across as basically sort of a good guy with some nasty impulses. You see a man, one of the bros, one of the friends, who could be guilty of sexual assault. I’ve talked to people who feel that’s so real. Usually the men who commit sexual assault and murder are not Ted Bundy figures. It’s usually a friend, someone you trusted who took advantage.
END SPOILER ALERT
Q: Daniel, did you ever have a betrayal from a friend that you could draw on for the friendship between Ig and the real killer?
DR: No, no! I’ve never had a friend like that to draw on, which I’m very grateful for. [Laughter] I’m sure I’ve had something but nothing that is comparable. Obviously you draw from whatever you have experienced and with some friends we reached a point where we couldn’t be friends anymore but that’s not really the same thing.
Q: Joe, in regard to the issue of violence against women, I’m curious what it was like for you to write the scene where Merrin is raped and killed.
JH: I’m not sure how I can respond to that. [Note: Hill donates to the Pixel Project.] Indie rockers will sometimes say, “I don’t know how you can dance to that song because I was in such pain when I wrote it.” And you kind of want to swat them because they seem so full of themselves and pretentious. But Horns was a really unhappy and paranoid book that was written by an unhappy and paranoid man. The whole thing is just kind of this muddle of being depressed and not feeling like I could write a novel. The end came out really well and I’m proud of it, and for me it’s a lot easier to connect with and enjoy the movie because I have a little distance from it and I could just sit back and enjoy it while all these other people [like the director Alexandre Aja and screenwriter Keith Bunin] did the heavy lifting. I don’t know how the actors had the courage to do what they did in the film. I want to know how you, Juno, could do that?
JT: Shooting something like a rape and murder scene is never going to be easy and shouldn’t ever be easy. When you sign on to play a character who is going to go through that, you have to be ready to do it. We shot in the middle of the night in the forest in freezing cold Canada. It was important to respect Merrin and not wear a warm coat and not drink a hot chocolate, because if I was really her in that situation I would be so frightened. As you said, Joe, someone you have grown up with and trust can turn on you just like that–it’s such a chilling thought. Alexander Aja created such an intense environment that night. It took a long time, it was cold, it was miserable in the right way. I was so lost in it. It was a horrible scene but I wasn’t going to be a starlet and say, “Oh, sorry I’m not going to shoot that.” You have to go for it and let go and allow yourself to be frightened. And to be honest, it does take time to shake it off. You should respect a scene like that and for any woman who has gone through something like that I didn’t want to be fucking pampered when doing it.
DR: And you weren’t. That was like your first or second day of shooting. I got there a week later and Juno had set such a high bar. The crew was saying, “That girl stayed under those rain machines four hours without complaining.” That was not representative of how most actors would be.
JT: Max is actually a very good friend of mine. I see him on a regular basis because we’re neighbors in Los Angeles. I know him so well but when Lee does that sudden shift in personality, it really was frightening.
END SPOILER ALERT
JT (cont’d): What was amazing about working with all these young actors was that we all just went for it. All we could do was react to each other, so it was so great that we could trust each other. That’s all thanks to Alex creating this universe. You do it, and the next day you want to have cocktails together. Everybody around you respected the position you’re in. That was something I was blown away by when making this film. Not only was that rape and murder scene brutal, there were a lot of brutal scenes. Every single actor was challenged. Even the kids who played us when we were young had challenges, physical challenges, real fear, hard situations. I can say everybody respected that.
Q: Daniel, what was the most poignant thing for you in the film? Was it listening to Ig’s parents say awful things to him and reveal how they truly feel about him?
DR: That was horrible but the thing that brought me up short every time, whether reading it or doing it, was the scene in the treehouse in which Ig reads Merrin’s letter and finds out what was really going on with her. That is what makes this story stay with me. That love story Juno talked about is so key to the film. We created this perfect, universal dream relationship between young lovers–which Joe then destroyed! [Laughter] There is something so blissful and golden about it and I think everyone has had some version of that relationship, so what befalls them is hard to see. But I believe the end of that storyline, with Ig reading the letter, makes the movie really special.