Sean Byrne is one of Australia’s most successful horror genre directors. In 2009 he burst onto the scene with his acclaimed feature The Loved Ones which won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section and the Siren Award at Lund International Festival.
The Devil’s Candy also premiered in Midnight Madness and went on to be nominated for Best Motion Picture at the 2015 Sitges International Film Festival, and won the Prix du Public (Audience Award) at the 2016 Gerardmer International Film Festival, as well as Best Independent Horror at The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards (2018).
Tell us a little about your film at SBS On Demand.
The Devil’s Candy. On a surface level it’s a haunted house movie about a father trying to protect his daughter from the Devil in disguise. Some have described it as The Amityville Horror meets Metallica, which probably isn’t too far from the truth. On a subtextual level it’s a crossroads story about parental fears, professional anxieties, and ultimately choosing what’s most important in life.
I was inspired by supernatural classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. What I love about those films is they depict a kind of hell on earth, a battle between the darkness and the light without showing the Devil himself. I felt that modern supernatural horror had become too literal in terms of demons, vampires, zombies and ghosts being up front and centre. I wanted to return to something more classic and elegant, albeit with an atypical movie family and a modern doom metal sensibility.
The lead character, Jesse Hellman, is a dark artist and his work plays a pivotal role in the film, but unfortunately most movie art looks like it’s been painted by scenic artists, and feels generic rather than personal. The central painting needed to be truly hellish, something that could believably rub shoulders with a Bacon or a Goya, or the film would collapse. After a couple of false starts, I came across an amazing Satanic artist named Stephen Kasner who had done some incredible album covers for iconic underground bands. He has since sadly passed away but, if you’re fascinated by dark art, explore his work further because he was one of the best.
Watch The Devil’s Candy now at SBS On Demand.
What are you currently working on?
I have three films in development: a contained action movie in the Die Hard mould; a small-town slasher with social/political undertones that sits somewhere between Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and a serial killer thriller about the dangers of the modern dating scene, which was scheduled to shoot mid- to late 2020, at least before COVID-19 turned the world upside down.
How are you coping with self-isolation?
It’s a day by day proposition. I have 7-year-old twins and a wife with a busy career so juggling home-schooling with professional commitments has been challenging, but nothing compared to the difficulties so many others are facing right now.
All of my projects have been impacted in some way. The film industry has basically ground to a halt, with the possible exception of development. Filmmakers with producers and financiers on board are crossing their fingers that the vital pieces of the puzzle will still be in place on the other side of COVID, but no one knows, which is unsettling.
As for tips for getting by: stay inside; exercise; lose yourself in art (watching, listening, reading, making); keep in frequent social media contact with family and friends; take deep breaths; basically do whatever’s required to keep an even keel and ensure the healthcare system isn’t overloaded. Protect the doctors and nurses in the firing line.
What are your 5 favourite films at SBS On Demand?
SBS has such a rich variety of titles on offer, it was almost impossible to come up with five favourites, but here goes…
1. Donnie Darko
Director: Richard Kelly
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore
The first of many viewings was at the cinema, before it became a cult hit upon home release. I knew nothing about it other than that brilliant alliterative title, which I couldn’t resist. By the time I walked out, I felt like Richard Kelly had peeked inside my mind and sculpted the perfect mash-up of my cinematic influences – Back to the Future time travel; dreamy Lynchian abstraction; Amblin-esque adolescent adventures; a midnight screening of Evil Dead while the rest of the world sleeps; and an appreciation of kitsch and Duran Duran. It’s a high-wire act of balancing tones that probably shouldn’t work, but does (and then some).
Watch Donnie Darko now at SBS On Demand.
2. Berlin Syndrome
Director: Cate Shortland
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich
Cate Shortland is a sublime filmmaker. After learning she was dipping her toes into psychological horror territory, I counted down the days until its theatrical release and was not disappointed. Having made a couple of horror films dealing with sociopaths and extreme obsession, I thought I was pretty well versed in the subject, but rarely, with the possible exception of Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, have I seen the subgenre handled with such emotional complexity and dark poetry. Teresa Palmer gives the performance of her life. More people should’ve seen this film. It deserves it.
Watch Berlin Syndrome now at SBS On Demand.
3. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan
Yorgos Lanthimos is fast becoming a master of the form at a very young age. Each of his four films is wildly idiosyncratic, yet perfectly measured. I’m not even going to try to intellectualise why I love The Killing of a Sacred Deer so much; sometime a film just takes you places you never expected to go and rattles the cage, and this is one of them. In a cinematic world increasingly dominated by pre-branded intellectual property, I’m just thankful an auteur like Yorgos Lanthimos can still occasionally sneak through and remind us how intoxicating daring, genuinely original filmmaking can be.
Watch The Killing of a Sacred Deer now at SBS On Demand.
4. Leon: The Professional
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman
From Die Hard to early John Woo, I love action cinema, but never have I seen an example of the form as loaded as Luc Besson’s masterpiece. How awkward loneliness, relationship taboos, Golden Age of Hollywood nostalgia, murderous hitmen and a sociopathic policeman (Gary Oldman chews the scenery with such ferocious commitment it transcends overacting!) can exist in the one fun, thrillingly high-octane package is almost beyond me. Leon would never get the green light today as a wide theatrical release. Daring French cinema somehow mates with the Hollywood machine for a truly unique action experience. And as for Natalie Portman, what a jaw-dropping debut.
Watch Leon: The Professional now at SBS On Demand.
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson
Todd Haynes is the master of the achingly intimate melodrama, which should be a contradiction in terms. Carol is just stunning cinema, with every frame so exquisite it belongs on a wall, and a romance so beautiful and potentially tragic we’re left hoping their love will find a way to conquer repression long after the credits roll.
Watch Carol now at SBS On Demand.
Lantana. The film that proved that Australia, well, Ray Lawrence, can do Altman as well, if not better, than Altman himself.
Apocalypto. As close to pure cinema as action movies get. Very little dialogue, a perfect set-up and structure, and stakes that keep rising (literally) until the very end. In my top 5 action films.
Bone Tomahawk. Horror-westerns don’t come along very often because, quite frankly, the fusion sounds like a terrible idea, but talented writer/director S. Craig Zahler is the current enfant terrible of underground cinema, and for those like me who occasionally need a fix of rebellious, bloody B-grade mayhem with A-grade dialogue, then this low-budget gem is well worth checking out.