Perry Blackshear’s new film When I Consume You had its premiere recently at Fantasia International Film Festival, and I had the utter pleasure of meeting with him and three of his collaborators—Libby Ewing, Evan Dumouchel, and MacLeod Andrews—just a few hours before. They were all a little giddy, not quite sure how to sit still, and I confess I took advantage of the silly mood with a few cheeky questions.
Perry, Evan and MacLeod had worked together before in They Look Like People and The Siren, and Libby joined the team since this latest film. I asked whether they were all going to carry on in a similar vein as American Horror Story, with the same actors each time but in different roles. Evan said, “It seems to have shaped up like that, but I don’t necessarily think it’s the long term plan. But my God, we love working with the people we work with on such a regular basis that it kind of happens naturally. There’s a sort of kinship and shorthand you build up over time that the way we make movies does end up being good for our team and the way we work.”
Perry added, “I remember looking at PT Anderson’s and Bergman’s work when I was in college and thinking about how they get to make movies with their friends over and over again. It’s already so amazing to get to make movies, and that…well, you know: I couldn’t think of a better way. It’s wonderful.”
Composer Mitch Bain is also part of this ongoing team too. “Yes!” said MacLeod, “We love Mitch,” and handed over to Perry again.
“MacLeod introduced us, because he worked on A Ghost Waits. Our team works a certain way. We work really hard with rapid communication, and it’s kind of like bringing someone over to meet the relatives. We’re all good here, and I have to hope that when someone else comes in they can get what’s going on. Mitch just dove right in, and he was amazing to work with. The soundtrack and music in the film had a huge impact. We don’t bring new people in very often, and it was great to see how he just jumped in like a fish in water.”
I asked how this little tribe started. Each of them seemed to be smiling and wondering who would answer, but Perry said there was a story to tell and that Evan and MacLeod should tell it. Evan took it up: “Sure! So Perry was visiting in LA and MacLeod and I already lived here. We were hanging out and reminiscing deep into the night, and MacLeod and I just really harkened to our former selves and said, ‘Look, we’re trying to do this alone, but why don’t we try to do it together? Let’s make a movie!’ From there, for the rest of the night Perry kind of ran with it. He bought us tickets to go see him in New York and create what became They Look Like People, and he was writing feverishly to make that happen.”
Perry continued: “The key thing was, I bought them plane tickets without having a script or any idea of what I was going to do. I just knew that in February that year, we were going to do something for a month in New York. If I didn’t have a script, I’d be so deeply ashamed that I wouldn’t be able to be friends with them anymore. So it was like pitting my procrastination against friendship or something, but it worked great!”
Evan added, “In truth, there was an undergirding to that, as well. Perry had been a wonderful filmmaker for a long time, and we had made films together in school that were kind of the seeds that built into this newer feature enterprise.”
Turning the conversation to this current film, I commented that the brother-sister dynamic felt very strong and authentic, and I asked Evan and Libby if they had real life sibling bonds to draw from. Libby answered, “That was really inherent in the script, in Perry’s writing, and that was my way in to the character. I’m very close with my siblings: I have a younger brother and older sister, and just that fierce love for them popped off the page for me, and I grabbed onto it. Evan and I are close friends too, and so that kind of meshed into the relationship.”
Evan came in with, “I’ve got two older sisters, so I’m the baby there, so already had the beginnings of the film relationship. But like I said, we have a long friendship, and to foster that, we lived together while filming, carried on the sibling rituals. We were really supportive to each other on and off the shoot, and I’m hoping that came through.” It had to me and had in fact reminded me of siblings in other films, such as the brothers in Good Time.
MacLeod’s role in When I Consume You was utterly different, to both the others’ roles and to those he had played before—a bit of a riot in comparison. I asked him whether he found it refreshing or a challenge to divert from what he was used to. “Well, that role was very difficult for a number of reasons, in and of itself. It was refreshing and a lot of fun: basically I get to play two characters, though of course I don’t want to spoil anything.”
Perry jumped in: “MacLeod’s the nicest guy, so putting him in a role where he was not so nice was, I think, unsettling for everyone. I mean what’s going to happen?”
“Those were my favourite days of shooting,” brought in Libby, “because MacLeod is so spontaneous, and we’d never know what was going to happen. It was like simultaneously really dark and evil and very funny at the same time.”
“Acting opposite Libby and MacLeod is well, two very different experiences,” said Evan. “It’s a relationship with the characters that we’re playing, and with Libby we can lull ourselves into this back-and-forth that feels very moment to moment; but with MacLeod in this film, I was constantly on guard, because MacLeod is so spontaneous. Obviously the structure of the scene is maintained, but MacLeod is going to be doing something that will keep you on your heels the whole time: it’s a very disarming experience. In a good way.”
“That was kind of my role,” added MacLeod, “just to take everything and the action and grab it and shake it and throw it against the wall. I specifically worked on the scenes not with them because I wanted them surprised about what I could bring to them. Shooting that first scene was like my brain on fire, thinking how can I throw him off?”
“That was effective,” said Evan.
I brought the conversation to Perry’s wider catalogue: from what I’ve seen, the tone seems to be dark and serious overall, and I asked whether there was something cathartic going on. “One of the things I love about genre filmmaking,” answered Perry “is that there is an intensity and depth to it, and the ability to bring an audience to it and put them through a bunch of difficult stuff. But unlike nihilistic drama for example, where everyone dies at the end, there’s usually a kind of finale of some kind, like the monster is caught. Even if they don’t win in the end, I think there’s something primal about that approach, which I really enjoy. I was describing it to someone else too: watching a horror movie in a movie theatre is like being at a sports game with your favourite team, and there’s a collective experience of ‘we won!’ or ‘we lost!’ and it’s a big, dramatic experience.”
I had found When I Consume You quite tough to watch, especially the first half hour or so—full of anxiety, trauma, addiction and so on. The stalker in the plot added an interesting take on mental health issues, though, as though it was a metaphor for the pressure of depression and the way it can refuse to leave a person alone. I asked Perry if that is more or less what he had in mind. “Yes, and I think the film is about people in my life and things that we have all experienced. It’s about two people who loved each other and face terrible things from their past which mess with them and destroy their lives. In the movie, it took the form of that stalker, but I think it’s about the scary sh*t inside and behind us that doesn’t let us go and keeps trying to destroy us, and how to carry on fighting back. Oh, and the courageousness of that struggle that the two siblings go through. There are a lot of difficult scenes there, sure, but the one (you’ll probably know that one, about a quarter of the way through) was very hard for us all to film.”
It was nice to lighten the tone briefly with a laugh about avoiding spoilers, but there were more serious topics ahead. I asked why the team thought that issues such as trauma and mental health fit so well in the horror genre. Evan responded first: “I think, at least from my experience, the horror genre is heightened across the board, but within things that we’re trying to make, I think we all have a wolf at the door. It might be past trauma, or something like that, and in a horror film it gets elevated, so it can have that kind of amplification. But I hope that audiences would watch and be able to relate in some way with their own personal struggles and victories, large or small.”
Perry had an insightful answer too: “I think in horror, you can take internal life—sometimes quite scary—and make it external, and watch people like you fight these things. There are many versions of that wolf at the door, different for everybody, but this is personal to me and all the team, and it was important to us to do it right, to go all out on how we did it.”
There certainly was a strong message in the film. For me it was that you keep going, keep going, and it reminded me somewhat of The Babadook by the time the film arrived at its end. This wasn’t a stubborn or bloody-minded perseverance but a positive feeling of resilience. It was clear when I mentioned this that it was exactly the kind of takeaway that Perry had hoped for. “I’m actually getting kind of emotional: it’s weird to make a movie and have someone say back to you what you were trying to say without realising it. But you’re right: the scary things don’t just go away with a magic crystal or something, making everyone happy ever after. There is a courage in the face of ongoing challenge.”
Moving away from emotive topics to the writing process, I asked Perry how a writer decides how much of what’s going on in the story he lays out in front of the audience and how much gets held back until the story progresses. “It’s always a little tricky with mysteries and stories where you draw the audience along. We decided to let you get to know the characters, very humanist at first, and then dive into the mystery. You do have to be careful what you lay down because you can’t always tell what people are going to pick up: it’s definitely a dance. It’s remarkable when people are looking for clues what they won’t even notice in the frame—kind of crazy.”
The cast, however, didn’t get to enjoy such surprises though. “The way we work is highly collaborative,” said Evan, “so we were already invested in the story as it was written on the page. It wasn’t one of those experiences where I get just the pages I’m reading today, and I have to do that; we had the whole thing, and Libby and I had been rehearsing in advance, a bicoastal process where we would run the film basically, then send it to Perry or do a Zoom. Back then, we barely knew what Zoom was, but now we do!”
Perry remembered the novelty: “It was like, what’s this? It’s like we’re on the phone, but we can see each other!”
“The beauty of the way we were able to shoot,” added Libby, back on topic, “is that we were able to shoot in sequence. So the story was building, and our emotional arcs built day by day, and that fed—a very useful way for me as a performer—back into the final cut.”
There were a couple of interesting flashback scenes in the film which added a different perspective to the siblings’ tale. I had wondered just how necessary they were, and I asked Perry why he chose to include them. “The flashbacks, to me, were like the secret heart in the middle of the movie, especially that one in the street, and one under the bed. You watch a train move forward for the whole movie, but the relationship between these people you love has scary stuff, bad guys; you can forget about the people at the centre as the story goes along, which is why I wanted to keep bringing it back to why this movie exists—why we care about these characters and what they had been through. Like when you reveal the backstory of what they had been through, it paints the first part of the movie and the finale: I feel like I’ve lived a whole life with them, and that was my goal with it.” Interesting perspective, especially when comparing When I Consume You to other films (like My Heart Won’t Beat Unless You Tell it To) with no backstory at all.
Considering that everything we had talked about so far involved the whole team, I was curious to find that Perry is working on something else apart from them, called Bingo Hell. “I just came on to help Gigi [Saul Guerrero] and Shane [McKenzie] with the script. It’s a really fun story about a group of elderly people in one neighbourhood and an evil gentrifier who comes in and messes with their sh*t. What I loved about it was the familial aspect of these crotchety old people who come together to fight a bad guy. It’s completely different, but it’s also a heartfelt horror, and that’s my jam.”
So of course I asked what’s next for everyone else. Evan first: “I’ve been playing around a lot with producing television out in LA. There are a few shows I’m in development with—that’s pretty fun; it’s about a pandemic (I was working on it before all this) in which only the teenagers survive. And there’s a couple of book adaptations I’m working on.”
Libby came next. “I’m also working on developing TV, and I have a writing partner, veering away from this genre. There’s that and a feature I’m working on as well.”
Then MacLeod: “I’ve got two scripts I’m working on with Adam [Stovall, who directed A Ghost Waits], and he’s going to be out in a couple of weeks to work on those. Then I’ve always got voiceover stuff going on in the background. Then whatever we cook up next!”
Evan took the cue: “It’s worth noting that for the past several months, we’ve been developing more story ideas, so hopefully we’ll film something again in the foreseeable.”
MacLeod took the risk of embarrassing Perry: “His brain is an explosion of ideas, and we all fall in love with various ones at different times. We’re all like, ‘Gosh I’m so ready to do that one! Perry I really want to do it!’ While someone else picks a different idea. We’ve got a couple, anyway, that are possible ‘next’ ones.”
The energy and bond in this team is visible, and really came out in Perry’s next comment: “I think we turned in this thing, and I’d done the sound and colour, and it was all finished, finally. Then I was like ‘Yay! Let’s do another one.’ It doesn’t make any sense! But it’s so great working with these guys and doing what we care about with people we love: we’re very, very lucky.”
Now that the premiere of When I Consume You is here, I had to ask where the film will be going next, but unfortunately this isn’t the time to share any news. “Hopefully we’ll be able to go to another festival as real humans again, maybe later in the year.” Distribution and other news to be revealed in due course.
When I Consume You premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival on August 18 and August 20 2021.
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