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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Van of the Dead Interview: Stevan Mena, Director of Bereavement




In 2004, Stevan Mena piqued the horror scene with Malevolence, a searing indie venture reportedly made on credit cards. Now the little indie venture that could has been expanded with Bereavement, a prequel offering us a garish look into the brutal microcosm which proverbially reared Martin, the unfeeling butcher of Malevolence.

Kidnapped as a child by another tortured soul and exposed to a savage underbelly within a Pennsylvania slaughterhouse, Martin's desensitized homicidal tendencies is unraveled methodically in Bereavement, the second of three planned films by Mena centered around this inhuman killer. I had the opportunity to catch up with the writer, director and producer to gain some more insight into Bereavement's cryptic narrative.


Bereavement is, of course, your prequel to Malevolence in which you've painted a bloody abstract of Martin and how he came to be the savage killer in the latter movie. In the process, Bereavement comes off as more of a standalone film, particularly if a casual viewer is unaware of the tie-in between both films. Certainly this was your intent, to be able to lure audiences who know the thread and those who don't?

Sure, I think the film has a few surprises even for those who have seen Malevolence and kind of know what is going to happen. But I definitely wanted the film to be able to stand on its own.

I understand you originally had more than three hours worth of footage for Bereavement. What was the hardest scenes for you to cut and do you feel the film was compromised in any way having to trim down to an hour forty?

That is a myth created by an interview where an exaggeration was taken out of context. The film was never anywhere near three hours, and no, I think the film is exactly where it needs to be, and anything that was deleted needed to go. I think they're great scenes. In fact, one was so good it was distracting from the main plotline, so it had to go.

A lot of folks are bringing up Friday the 13th and Halloween by means of comparison to both Malevolence and Bereavement. In the case of this film, I'm feeling a bit of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre and of course, the Ed Gein case more so than the others. I've seen a quote that you feel Bereavement is closer to The Shining. How so?

Comparing Bereavement to Texas Chainsaw is like comparing Unforgiven to The Searchers simply because they both wore cowboy hats. Bereavement is a complex, layered film about cycles of violence, the nature of evil, family dysfunction, horrific violence and the effects of that violence told in a realistic way. Texas also has a slaughterhouse, but that is where the comparison ends--except for maybe dysfunctional families. I feel it’s closer to The Shining because of the way I approached the dramatic elements of the story: the small child caught in the middle of all that violence, and how he deals with it, the paternal figure and the abuse, and the boy’s ultimate triumph over the father. The sweeping vistas, the overall scope of the film, the complex narrative, I think are more reminiscent of The Shining than Texas. I’m a huge fan of both of those classics, and have watched each dozens of times.



What's particularly creepy about Bereavement is the bloody mentoring Martin receives via Brett Rickaby's Graham Sutter. There's a fine line in telling this story regarding which character's degeneracy should deliver more impact, since Graham is tormented by his own demons, which he passes on to Martin. Martin, of course, is beyond feeling physical pain and his inhibitions finally explode in the finale and carry forth in Malevolence. As creator of these murderous beings in both films, is Martin or Graham more reprehensible, in your mind?

Graham, although a victim because of his upbringing, is far more reprehensible. He chose this road in a misguided bid to assuage his own guilt, and only through an epiphany of his own pain and suffering does he realize he’s been deceived by himself, and he does regret his actions. Whereas Martin was pulled into this world, and unlike Sutter, wasn’t given a choice. However, Martin, in actuality, is the ultimate evil. His inability to feel pain, and therefore, empathize with his victims' suffering, is actually the most dangerous of the two. Martin truly is a cold-blooded killer, because he literally doesn’t feel one way or the other about it. It’s just what he does. No remorse.

Having a pair of twins (Spencer and Peyton List) play in Bereavement had to have been quite an adventure, given the general nature of twin rivalries. Both of the siblings exhibited tremendous maturity in this film, but how do you recall them interacting off-camera, amongst themselves and with the rest of the cast?

Total professionals. Fantastic, talented kids. Both have a bright future ahead of them. I’d work with either one of them again in a second. I don’t have enough superlatives to say about them or their work ethic--at 9 years old then.

The brutal things Spencer List had to submit himself to in the role of Martin really shows immense maturity on his part. Scenes of torture, disemboweling, screaming women, blood cascading into his face and the knife in the hand scene really push the envelope for the viewer, yet I can only imagine what that child must've been thinking during the filming of Bereavement. I'm sure you've experienced older actors unwilling to submit themselves to what that young man did, right?

Spencer kept asking for more blood. Spencer kept begging for me to let him kill his sister on camera. He had more fun than any of us. We were all worried about the time, getting the shot. He was just having a ball. It may look frightening on camera, but to him it was just pure fun. It only looks scary after all the sound and music are added. On the set it’s all fake, and no one is deceived of that.

Have you had to field any backlash from parent groups or child advocacy groups for the aforementioned scenes Spencer List portrays?

No, I wish! Our tiny film could use the publicity! In the end, it’s only a movie, and sanity wins out, but in the interim, that crap makes for great publicity!

(laughs) Tell me about working with Alexandra Daddario. You have so many leads and strong secondary characters despite a relatively small cast. A lot of this film was carried on her shoulders in bringing an outside story into the main thread where her shattered world collides with an even more shattered world. Alexandra brought a cautious sexuality to the story which turns her character Allison from rebellious, hormonal outsider into a would-be heroine. What would you think was the hardest dimension to Alexandra's portrayal to keep Allison an integral part of the plot?

Keeping perspective on the level of emotion. She could have played Allison as a depressed kid where things just get worse and worse, but she was able to balance the emotion and keep Allison’s character from drifting too dark too soon. And to keep the character grounded so the audience could get invested, and not just to feel sorry for her, to see her many sides. There’s plenty of time to feel sorry for her later.



As a parent, I would say the opening sequence of Bereavement unnerved me even more than the graphic butchery. You established the film's true, underscored horror zone by Martin's kidnapping. It had me thinking of the local news P.S. announcement "It's 11:00, do you know where your children are?" Does the premise you've established with Bereavement ever strike home with you at all?

Of course, it’s a common human fear, and it establishes the reality of where the film is coming from. I write about things I think are scary and uncomfortable to me.

It's been reported that Malevolence and Bereavement are part of a planned trilogy. Where do you plan on taking us next, since we've been throttled quite mercilessly already in these two films?

After Malevolence, Martin is on his own in the world. The third film chronicles his journey back home, and the “wonderful” reunion with his family.


Interview (c) 2011 Ray Van Horn, Jr.

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