Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, David Denman, Jennifer Holland, Jackson A. Dunn
Director: David Yarovesky
Genre: Drama, Horror
Running Time: 90 minutes
Synopsis: What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?
After a difficult struggle with fertility, Tori Breyer's (Elizabeth Banks) dreams of motherhood come true with the arrival of a mysterious baby boy. Brandon appears to be everything Tori and her husband Kyle (David Denman) ever wanted"bright, talented, curious about the world. But as Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) nears puberty, a powerful darkness manifests within him, and Tori becomes consumed by terrible doubts about her son. Once Brandon begins to act on his twisted urges, those closest to him find themselves in grave danger, as the miracle child transforms into a vicious predator unleashed on a sleepy Kansas town.
Release Date: May 23rd, 2019
Tori Breyer is a Midwestern woman in a happy marriage with a passion for art. The one thing that would complete her life is a child. After years spent trying and failing to conceive, she's nearly given up hope. And then, something miraculous happens. She and her husband Kyle are blessed with an infant son who seems to be the healthy and happy baby they hoped might complete their family someday.
Growing up on the Kansas farm, Brandon is a bright boy who doesn't necessarily makes friends easily, but like many only children, he enjoys time with adults"not only his parents, but also his aunt and uncle. When he reaches his 12th birthday, however, Brandon begins to change. He becomes moody, rude, disrespectful, an attitude that doesn't sit well with the more traditional Kyle. At first, the couple chalks the trouble up to puberty. But Tori increasingly fears there's something else, something menacing, taking hold of her darling boy. She fights her maternal instincts, refusing to believe the signs that are right in front of her"until it's much too late.
At a time when comic book superheroes dominate the pop culture landscape, the filmmaking team of BrightburN saw a unique opportunity to use the long-held tropes of the genre and turn them on their head to create a terrifying horror film that would feel entirely new. The idea originated with the screenwriting team of cousins Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn. Brian, younger brother to Guardians of the Galaxy filmmaker James Gunn, had worked with Mark on a range of movie and TV projects throughout his professional career stretching back nearly 20 years. Together, they hit on the notion to tell an extreme story in which a couple's worst fears about their child come true.
"There's a tradition that goes back to Moses up through contemporary superhero stories about childless parents who take in an infant that they find in the wild," Brian Gunn says. "Those figures grow up to be noble and heroic, but we wondered what would happen if it went the other way and this child ends up being something sinister."
Initially, the script was a slightly more modest take on the premise, written to be made on a micro-budget. Director David Yarovesky (The Hive) and executive producer Simon Hatt thought it had far grander potential. They pictured an unrelenting, straight-ahead horror film rooted deeply in the comic book iconography that has come to feel so familiar to moviegoers, one that would yield non-stop surprises and scares.
"They encouraged us to play up the superhero element even more than we had in our original script," Mark Gunn says. "To put superpowers in a horror context seemed really fun to us"it was an opportunity to mix together two different genres that hadn't really been mixed together before." Adds Brian Gunn: "We realized that there are many superhero abilities that if you were on the receiving end of them would be terrifying. Flying could appear very ghostly. Laser eyes can be demonic. Super strength can be horrifying. Lots of super abilities, if you turn them just a couple of degrees, become grist for horror."
Writer, Director and Producer James Gunn, who got his start in lower-budget filmmaking at Troma Entertainment before moving into blockbuster storytelling with the Guardians of the Galaxy films, felt Brightburn was the perfect project for his production company, Troll Court.
"I love this movie because it is an entirely new take on the superhero genre," James Gunn says. "It is something we have never seen before. It's coming at the superhero movie from a pure horror angle. It's also a more honest way of coming at the superhero myth because there's something terrifying about the idea of a super-powered alien that would come to Earth. Tori thinks her son is going to bring glory to the world and help us, but that's not necessarily the case. In every way we watch this movie, he is a ghost, he's a demon child, and we treated the movie exactly like that."
Adds Hatt: "Taking superhero movies into the horror genre was something that hadn't been done before and something that people wanted to see. We as a group have had a ton of experience with superhero movies. What we're doing here is taking a movie that has superhero DNA and merging that with the horror genre"bodies hanging from walls, bloody guts everywhere. There's so much fun to be had in being scared. That's why the genre continues to be as popular as it is."
From the start, it was clear that Yarovesky would direct. He had stepped behind the camera to direct with Gunn the "Guardians of the Galaxy: Inferno" music video send-up featuring David Hasselhoff, and his credits also included the creepy sci-fi horror thriller The Hive about a man with no memory who must recall his past before succumbing to a deadly parasite.
"He has a real sense for horror, for the musicality of horror, how the beats work, how you set up a jump scare, how you get people frightened while they're watching the scene," James Gunn says of Yarovesky. "It's fantastic watching him work. I've always known Dave as an incredibly insightful smart guy who also does his homework. He probably watched a thousand horror movies before this. He can take them apart and piece them back together in a way. He knows logically what he's doing."
"I, like many people, grew up watching superhero movies and fantasizing about what it would be like to have super powers," Yarovesky says. "When I imagined it, it was always so much darker than what I see in movies. I wanted to make something that was closer to my heart. I wanted to go all in on scary."
For the director, Brandon was a figure descended not just from heroes, but also the modern slasher movie icons from legendary horror films including John Carpenter's Halloween. "There was the one image I couldn't let go of, which was filming a superhero like someone would film Michael Myers"this long distance shot of him watching someone silently from afar, not moving" Yarovesky says. "Then this image of him floating out of the window came to my mind. I knew that if that image was scary, if you could see this character in a cape and mask hovering out of a window and be terrified by that, this movie would work. If you could reimagine a superhero to be truly scary in just one image, the whole concept would come together."
Casting was the first real hurdle. For the role of Tori, James Gunn sought to reteam with actress Elizabeth Banks, who starred in Gunn's 2006 horror comedy Slither. "I love working with Elizabeth," Gunn says. "She has this great energy. She's got this great ability to be on screen and be sobbing and crying and then I say 'Cut,' and she's like, 'Hey, was that okay?' She just changes instantly."
Adds Hatt: "Elizabeth is who we wanted in the role from day one. The second we decided we were going to make this movie, it was Elizabeth who would play the part. She's a mother herself. You can see that reality in her performance. Those maternal instincts, I feel like they live on the surface with her."
Banks, who is raising two sons, says she was intrigued by the larger questions the film posed about rearing a difficult child. "When I read the script, I felt like this was a movie about parenting," she says. "So many parents put their heads in the sand about their children's issues. But even when you do acknowledge that your child has issues, you still don't necessarily know how to respond or react in the right way. I think that's a balance every parent can relate to"how much do I discipline him? How much do I love him? How much do I give support, how much do I offer criticism?"
In Tori's case, she showers her son with love and affection and tries to give him space to mature. She witnesses some of his unnerving behavior, but rather than take action on the concerns she has, she opts for a wait-and-see approach, believing that her boy ultimately will find the right path. "She's really letting Brandon be Brandon, as much as she can," Banks says. "She knows that he's in that time of life when he's going to want to be independent and break away a little bit and figure out who he is. When she sees him being problematic, that's what she believes is going on. It's just the beginning of adolescence."
For Yarovesky, that aspect of Brightburn felt quite personal. "I was a kid that people thought was different and strange because I loved horror movies and I wanted to be a filmmaker," he says. "All the parents thought I was weird. But my mom believed in me and thought I was a good person and that I was just creative and different. In many ways, the themes of the relationship between Brandon and his mother echo that."
Actor David Denman (The Office) was cast opposite Banks as Tori's husband Kyle immediately following the birth of his own son. "When I got this script, I was actually in the hospital," Denman says. "I just could not stop reading it. The conflict was like Greek tragedy to me. I loved that dynamic of this force that's happening and these people trying to deal with it. You take this origin story that we've seen in so many movies, and you turn it on its head. Things are pretty black-and-white in a horror film. There's the good guys and the bad guys, and the horror that happens. What attracted me so much to this script is that it wasn't just a typical horror film. It's definitely layered and very complex, which is really fun to play."
James Gunn had known Denman for some time, but was nevertheless struck by the strength of his audition. "We were already friends," he says. "But I thought, Oh, my God, this guy is the perfect mix of vulnerability and yet this big hulk of a man farmer that lives in Kansas. It seemed to work perfectly."
Like Banks, Denman felt his Brightburn character was someone to whom he could easily relate: "Kyle is the father in this family, and he'll do anything for his family. He is madly in love with his wife, Tori. He'll do anything for her. He's tried as best he can for the last 12 years to be the best father he can and to raise this boy. For the most part, he's done all right. They're trying to figure out this new phase he's going through at 12. Going through puberty has made quite a few changes, not all for the best."
Adds James Gunn: "Tori and Kyle have very different ideas of what parenting is. This is a story of nature versus nurture in a lot of ways. Is this kid evil or is he becoming bad because his parents just aren't taking good care of him? What's the truth there? Kyle believes he's just evil. Tori believes he can be made better. And that's the real conflict of this movie between those two characters."
Pivotal to the success of the film was finding the right actor to play Brandon. He had to be believable as a teen who begins the story as basically a good kid before harnessing his extraordinary gifts to terrible ends. Surprisingly, the search didn't take long. Jackson A. Dunn was the first to audition. "He was impossible to top," says Hatt.
Although barely a teenager himself when he landed the role, Dunn projected the necessary range for the disturbed Brandon. "He's got a great sensibility," says Banks. "He's great for this part. He's a perfect Brandon. He's got just enough charm in him that you really fall in love with him, and then he can be cold and evil at the same time."
The young actor was excited by the challenges at playing an academically gifted teen who realizes he possesses other, more deadly gifts as well. "At the beginning of the movie, he is completely normal," says Dunn. "He loves his family. He probably feels self-conscious that he's not able to bond with the other kids his age, but he's at a mental level where he understands that he prefers to converse with his family and adults. I get to experience the changes that he goes through throughout the movie and how different he is from the start to the end. It's weird, because some of it is stuff that I can pull from real-life experience. And then, some of it is killing people."
Meredith Hagner plays Brandon's aunt, high school guidance counselor Merilee. "She's always looking on the bright side," Hagner says. "She's someone who throughout the script, even when things get horrible, she sees the positive. She starts to see that Brandon's having some issues, but I think she chalks them up to typical middle-school angst. She doesn't know the extent of what's happening behind closed doors at home and throughout the town."
Matt Jones is Brandon's uncle Noah, Merilee's husband. "Noah is a Kansas country boy, happy with Merilee, pretty good in life," Jones says. "He's a simple dude." As Brandon becomes increasingly confident in his powers, unleashing the full force of his fury on his family members and the residents of his sleepy Kansas hometown, Brightburn moves toward a punishing conclusion that sees Tori finally confront the terrible truth about her beloved son. "He's compelled by his nature to do something truly awful," James Gunn says. "It's like Juno only with disemboweled people."
Yet James Gunn is quick to point out, too, that it's still possible to feel a connection to Brandon"he is recognizable as the boy-next-door gone wrong, or something even closer to the darkest corners of own selves. "Even Brandon, as bad as he is and as terrible as he is and as alien as he is, there's something very human about him," he says. "He isn't Michael Meyers, he isn't Freddy Krueger. He is something that we both can relate to and be afraid of at the same time"and maybe be afraid of what parts of Brandon are like us."
Adds Banks: "It's a huge adrenaline rush watching this movie. It really skewers our ideas about heroes."
Brightburn was shot in Georgia beginning in March of 2018, with various locations in the Southern state doubling for the rural Kansas farming community where infant Brandon crash-lands after hurtling to Earth from outer space. "We wanted everything to be in a very grounded universe, a very real universe, to tell the story as honestly as possible," says director Yarovesky.
The Breyer residence was a historic property in the city of Newnan, which sat on acres of open land with a pond on site. "It was a very, very old house, so a lot of the built-in character was there," says production designer Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. of the home where much of the film takes place, which dates to the 1800s. "We introduced some wallpaper to give it that charming Midwestern vibe that you equate with sedate Americana. We wanted to set a tone of calmness and familiarity before the mayhem began. We wanted to emphasize the isolation so that when Brandon is later wreaking havoc, there's a helplessness. The location is so solitary."
Adds Yarovesky: "We wanted to tell the story of generations with the Breyer farm, and Elizabeth really wanted to feel her character in the space. Tori had a little edge to her, she's a little grunge-inspired. In the house, there's all this art that's punk-rock- meets-American-farm-life. You'll see a still life with spray paint all over it."
Sullivan Jr. steeped his sets in classic Americana, using the bold, primary colors associated with a comic book palette and deepening them to suggest the darkness at the heart of the story. Costume designer Autumn Steed, who was tasked with designing a look for Brandon that would immediately read superhero gone bad, also relied on reds and blues to tell the story of the character's descent into villainy. "We were trying to tell a story through color with him," Steed says. "Blue represented his life on Earth and red represented the evil alien in him. As he got more evil, we added more red."
As Brandon embraces his powers, he dons a costume of his own making that includes a mask and cape. To find the right combination of elements, Steed spent months experimenting with various designs. "I had always imagined that the costume would be a combination of an iconic superhero and old-school horror slasher"that was the backbone of his look," Steed says. We wanted it to feel like something Brandon could have made it himself. It couldn't be overly produced. We were using shoelaces and string and things you'd find in a barn."
Steed tried as many as 120 masks and capes before settling on a design that was inspired by a wrestling mask with lacing on the front. "The look we were going for was so simple that it made it difficult," she says. "We wanted it to look like a kid could build it. We wanted it to be scary. We wanted it to move and feel like a superhero costume." Steed made the pieces from a soft, weathered fabric with the idea that Brandon would have repurposed an item from his childhood to construct his intimidating new persona. "It was made from a blanket," Steed says. "In the beginning of the movie, it's like his 'blanky.' He uses it to make the costume, the mask and the cape."
Throughout the course of the production, the filmmakers sought to use Brandon's unnatural physicality to help create a sense of apprehension and dread. Yarovesky felt that of all of Brandon's powers"flight, heat vision, superior strength"his ability to move so quickly that he seems to vanish and reappear elsewhere was among the most frightening. "I wanted him to move in a violent and unpredictable way," Yarovesky says.
The director worked with experts at visual effects house Trixter, who previously had collaborated with James Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, to hit upon the right way to depict the character's blink-and-you'll-miss-it motion. "Some of the early designs were elaborate with CG flames and things," the director says, adding that they opted for a more stripped-back approach. "To me, it was about the violent of shock of someone being far away and then being in your face and trying to be as real as possible with that power."
The sound Brandon's cape makes as he stalks his victims became a signature horror element in the film. Says executive producer Hatt: "In A Nightmare on Elm Street, you could always tell Freddy Krueger was coming because you could hear his fingers scraping along the wall. In The Babadook, the demon has a very specific sound. We used the movement of Brandon's cape to signal something terrifying was about to happen. It's almost like a ghost moving across the camera."
For example, at the start of one of Brightburn's most shocking setpieces"when Brandon takes revenge on an unsuspecting waitress at the local diner"his cape briefly flickers into view. Immediately, the audience knows that the woman inside is doomed. By the time Brandon leaves the diner, the restaurant is virtually demolished and covered in carnage.
To create the most harrowing imagery possible, the filmmakers used a combination of prosthetic makeup effects designed by the experts at Fractured FX and digital imagery created by Trixter. For a harrowing scene in which a shard of glass flies directly into the eye of Brandon's victim, Fractured created a whole head cast of actress Becky Wahlstrom that included a finely detailed prosthetic eye with a packet of fake blood placed inside. "We had the actress step into place exactly behind the prosthetic head," Hatt explains. "Using visual effects, we cut out the prosthetic eye and stitched it into the actress's face, so as she's pulling that shard out of the prosthetic eye, it appears that she's pulling it out of her own eye."
Says Yarovesky, "The stuff that ends up looking the best is a marriage between practical and visual effects. It's like a magic trick where you really can't see the seams."
During filming, all of the actors had a chance to experience the intensity of the story first-hand, shooting moody, unnerving sequences and even getting in on the action with stunt-work. The brutal confrontation between Tori and Brandon, who has fully embraced his alien nature and blossomed into a violent, bloodthirsty predator, represented weeks of the shoot.
"Shooting the showdown between Brandon and Tori was very exciting to me because that's at the heart of the movie," Yarovskey says. "The amount of destruction we got to do to the house was so much fun. We fired big metal walls on wires through the house and then we would paint in Brandon through the destruction. I have a memory of bringing Elizabeth to the side of the house and saying, 'OK, we're going to hang you from that window there.' She was like, 'Cool! Put me up there. Let's go.'
"When you make a movie like this, there's a physical demand on you," the director continues. "You're running, you're crawling, you're covered in liquid. Making horror movies is physically exhausting to everyone involved. It's an incredible physical commitment."
Banks was eager to jump into the action. "I like doing my own stunts, so anytime I can get involved, that's always a great time for me and something I enjoy doing," she says.
For the scenes in which Brandon flies, Dunn was strapped into a safety harness for wire work. The actor says that having the chance to really experience what it might be like to have super powers was one of the best parts of the job. "It's a different kind of harness than one you would use to go ziplining in Yosemite," he says of the safety gear. "It's more comfortable. And yeah, it was pretty cool. I had fun hanging from that ceiling."
Release Date: May 23rd, 2019