Writer/Director Daniel Stamm and star Ron Perlman talk 13 Sins [INTERVIEW] [SXSW ’14]

It’s surprising to have a filmmaker direct a horror film that is both financially successful and relatively well-received in the horror community drop off the radar for years. Considering how much I enjoyed The Last Exorcism, I was excited to hear that Daniel Stamm‘s newest film starred Ron Perlman, because, I mean, it’s Ron fucking Perlman. In 13 Sins, a seemingly normal guy (played by Mark Webber) gets a phone call saying he’ll get $100 for killing a fly. After killing it, he’s told he’d be given even more money if he eats the fly. That’s 2 “sins” so far. What follows is an escalating game of Mark having to figure out how far he’s willing to go and just exactly how low he’ll sink to get an enormous paycheck. The film is based on the Thai film 13 Beloved and mostly just keeps the idea of 13 escalating dares and goes in a slightly different direction. It’s hard to say that the film could take place in any sort of real-world situation, seeing as Webber’s character constantly seems to be under some sort of surveillance no matter where he goes or what he does. If you’re an American watching a Thai film, I think this suspension of disbelief is a little bit easier to run with because you can always just say, “I don’t know what the fuck goes on in Thailand,” but if you’re willing to put on your reality blinders for 13 Sins, then it’s still a fun ride. The gimmick of the movie can be both helpful and a hindrance at times, because the audience constantly wants to know what’s next, yet you always know we’ll at least find out what all 13 challenges are whether or not the main character goes through with them. Webber made for a sympathetic every-man and it was pretty interesting to see Ron Perlman play a relatively straight-laced character considering how larger than life a lot of his characters and performances normally are. I got to sit down with Stamm and Perlman to talk about 13 Sins, what draws them to a project, and the challenges of remakes and found footage. Mild spoilers about 13 Sins ahead, you’ve been warned.

13 sins movie poster ron perlman mark webber 2014

WolfMan: I have a bone to pick with you, Daniel. 

Daniel Stamm: Oh, good.

WM: I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Exorcist series, but The Last Exorcism had nothing to do with the Exorcist movies! Can you believe that?!

DS: (laughs) Who would’ve thought?

WM: I mean, it has “exorcism” in the title!

Ron Perlman: That is unacceptable.

DS: A lot of people were calling it “The Last Exorcist” and then complaining that it had nothing to do with the series.

WM: That’s their fault.

DS: A little bit.

WM: That’s BIG TIME their fault. I really enjoyed The Last Exorcism and I just thought about how when that movie came out, just how many complaints there were about it having nothing to do with The Exorcist. Rosemary’s Baby is one of my all-time favorite movies so I really enjoyed where you went with that film. You’ve done movies that are sometimes called “found footage” and now you’re doing a remake of a foreign movie that was originally based on a comic book, so are you just trying to go after all of the things that make genre fans angry? They hear “found footage” or “remake” and get angry, so are you considering this a challenge?

DS: That would be a great thing, to look for stuff that makes the fans angry. (laughs) The found footage was just that we were coming out of film school and spending ten years developing and trying to find money, and most of my peers never shoot anything again. They’re always waiting for someone to come by and give them two million dollars to shoot their first movie. Someone had taught our cinematographer, who’s shot all of my movies so far, to just shoot and shoot and shoot and to not wait for a script. He called me every day after film school, every day the phone rang and he’d ask if we were shooting something and I’d tell him I didn’t have a script and he said we didn’t need a script. We were looking for a story where you didn’t necessarily need a script, and that’s where A Necessary Death came from. We shot that for three years and it was a wonderful process because if you don’t have a script and you don’t try to nail anything, then anything the actors bring is a gift. But we ended up with 500 hours of footage and it took two years to edit the damn thing. Every time we hit a wall when editing, we’d call up the actors to re-shoot and explore something different, and it was a really interesting way of making things. Because of that I did The Last Exorcism, because they were looking for someone who could work in that style. As satisfying as it is to work with actors who don’t have a big name yet and are good and you get to cast them however you want, you still grew up as a fanboy and you want to work the likes of Mr. Perlman and they, of course, ask for the script. So you do need a script. I think it’s two completely different talents to be great at improv and to be great at bringing written lines to life. My A Necessary Death actors were great at improv but I don’t think they’d be very good with a script, and probably the other way around. There are a few actors, like Ashley Bell from The Last Exorcism, who is amazing at both, but it’s two completely different skills. I wanted to switch into the more conventional stuff to be able to work with some bigger actors, not to make anyone angry. At my stage in my career, I don’t get a lot of good scripts, so you don’t really have the luxury of picking from ten scripts. I’d rather this weren’t a remake, but between making something I really believe in and really see the quality in and am excited about and but it happens to be a remake compared to something that’s not that great but not a remake, I decided to do the remake. It was such a great concept that you could fill in your own stuff, with the 13 tasks.

a necessary death G.J. Echternkamp Michael Traynor Valerie Hurt

G.J. Echternkamp, Michael Traynor, and Valerie Hurt in A Necessary Death

WM: What was it that inspired you to take the idea of these 13 tasks and go a different direction?

DS: It’s always great, to me, when a producer comes with a great idea and then says, “But do whatever you want.” They showed me the film, I watched it once, and then I looked up what the order of those missions were and we kind of filled it in for ourselves. What people are really responding to is the one task after the next, which, to me, isn’t even the exciting thing, it’s the idea that there’s this really lovely, meek everyday person that goes into complete darkness. To make that journey something that the audience can follow and identify with. To think, “Oh shit, I might be that man if you gave me enough money.” And then, the ending, to have this great, Greek tragedy in a living room, I always really loved. It’s something you don’t see a lot because movies seem to go big in the third act. Explosions, people flying off buildings, those things.

13 sins ron perlman detective chilcoat

Ron Perlman in 13 Sins

WM: With such a diverse career, having played so many different characters that people have loved, what was it about this role, or roles in general, that now bring you in? Is it trying new stuff or doing stuff that you would go see?

RP: I’m a real sucker for anything that reminds me of the adventure I originally felt when I became obsessed with being in the arts. Where that came into stark relief was when I was 42 years old and I met Guillermo Del Toro for the movie Cronos, which was his first film, and it was life-altering. It was that exact thing that I described. I’ve been in that mode since then. I do an awful lot of other stuff to pay the bills, but I’m a real sucker for filmmakers who are at the beginning of their careers who are still unspoiled and haven’t been put through the grinder. And they think they’re going to reinvent the wheel and do something that’s never been done before, they all think they’re fucking Orson Welles. That’s a great place to be. The only thing that ultimately matters…all the elements are really important in the recipe, but what really matters is the script. I was just blown away by how smart the script for 13 Sins was. I met with Daniel and was trying to figure out a way to fit into it, a way I could be helpful to him. I just wanted to work on it. Period. It didn’t matter what the role was or what the conditions of it were, I just wanted to work on it, and we found a way. The rest, as they say, is walking off into the sunset.

WM: It’s funny because, knowing that you were in it, I started to assume what kind of role you’d play in a movie like this. Then when you show up, you’re a detective attempting to do good. You’re a more traditional role, so it was great to see you as a possible heroic character. Now I can see that you’re so eager to get involved that you’d do something different from your previous, more colorful roles.

RP: The thing that I loved about the exercise of playing Detective Chilcoat was that he, at all costs, wants to be unnoticed. Even though he has a job that makes him interface with the public, he’s a detective, so he’s not a cop on the beat. Detectives have a little bit of mystery about them, they can go about their business in a very anonymous way. I’m not the kind of guy whose work is known as being “unnoticed”, so I thought it would be really interesting to play a guy who was trying to show up once everyone else had left. Do his thing anonymously. That was one of the big lures for me.

WM: As you’re responding, I should point out that not only is there a print from Drive over your shoulder, which makes me think of you, but there’s also a shirtless Channing Tatum behind you. A similar physique.

RP: You can’t help but think of me.

WM: If I look a certain way, your head is on top of his body.

RP: He should be so fucking lucky. (laughs)

WM: He wishes. I saw you at C2E2 last year and you talked about your love of karaoke, did you try to incorporate that into this film in any respect? Maybe make one of the earlier challenges to get this guy to get up to do karaoke?

RP: We almost came to blows because I said, “So now is the time when I burst into song, right?” and Daniel said, “Not today.” He gave me hope, and then all of a sudden, we were at the wrap party, and there was no fucking karaoke.

WM: Typical Hollywood hot-shot. Always swindling you.

RP: He’s not the first person who’s broken my heart.

DS: Can you imagine a scene with Chilcoat breaking out into karaoke?

RP: Look what you’ve started.

WM: Guys…14 Sins.

RP: (laughs) That would be 14 through 18.

WM: I’ll take a co-writing credit. When you were trying to re-work the source material, what were the biggest challenges? Was it trying to find that level of escalation?

DS: It’s the structure. If you have 13 tasks, you have this repetitiveness. There isn’t much suspense in whether or not he’s going to do task 4. Otherwise it would be called “4 Sins”. We tried really hard. I think you can hold the audience’s tension with that structure, and then we were really trying to find that moment when the audience, for the first time, would think, “We get it, how can we have a twist on the story?” For us, I think that was the introduction of a second player. The game turning against him rather than just providing the challenges and him trying to stop the game and they don’t let him. The whole family approach to thing, which isn’t in the original. That is something we re-worked the most. Again, because it’s a Thai movie, I think they have a slightly different sense of humor. There’s an “over-the-top-ness” to the movie, which we had to kind of rein in, which meant that we had to find a new tone. We kept it wacky but go dark when we were going dark. Keep it funny and light in the beginning so we can identify with him, and that’s always a balance that’s kind of hard to strike.

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Mark Webber in 13 Sins

WM: Between 13 Sins, and Cheap Thrills, there’s also Would You Rather?, all being released within a short period and all of them being about asking the audience how far they’d be willing to go for money, do you feel this is a genre film or do you think it’s a bigger, broader theme of questioning audience’s morality? 

DS: I think it’s an age-old story. All drama has to do with power. Who has the power and power shifts. Every good drama, Shakespeare or whatever it is, is always a chess game between two people. If you don’t have conflict in a scene, then it’s not worth anything. Drama is about power and superiority, and the question is always how far we’d go. If you’re watching Hamlet, the audience is engaged because they’re wondering what they’d do. And yes, it is about money, but most movies are about money. I don’t know if this is a new trend. I haven’t seen Cheap Thrills, which I hear is amazing, and I haven’t seen the other movie. We get a lot of people asking if we stole from Cheap Thrills, and by the time Cheap Thrills came out we had already shot our movie and it was based on a 2006 film. I don’t think this is a wave of moral tales.

RP: It’s gotta me more coincidental. There’s seven stories, according to the bards, and everything else is a variation on that. In this world of trends, I guess somebody hears about a certain kind of movie and everyone sort of jumps on that kind of bandwagon. I’m not a genre guy, I’m a drama guy. This is clearly a genre film. This is a psychological thriller, full-stop. However, it’s so much more than that, for me. There are so many existential, big issues that come into play because of how smartly this, ultimately genre film, addresses them. That’s what fascinated me. And it’s completely original. If it seems like other movies, I can guarantee you it’s not. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before because it’s big ideas. Really big ideas in a very small, theatrical setting. The best movie is the kind that you’re still figuring out what the fuck you just saw. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m still coming up with these little epiphanies. Sitting here and listen to Daniel talk about it, I’m coming up with more stuff. It’s one of those movies you could see two or three times and still see new stuff.

WM: And hopefully it does find an audience wider than genre fans, because I think those themes of people questioning their morality, that the film won’t be restricted just to people wanting to see blood and guts. Lastly, I’m no physics expert, but I think you’d have to drive faster than 20 miles per hour on a scooter to completely lop your head off.

DS: You’ve got that wrong, have a good day, it was nice to meet you. (laughs)

WM: Well I said I was no expert.

DS: I wouldn’t have them on scooters! But all of a sudden you have your line producer saying the insurance doesn’t cover motorbikes and they can’t go too fast because we’re in a city park in New Orleans and here are the rules. You think that maybe you can put really big sound on it. It’s the same thing with the BMW, did you notice how fast that went? 20 miles per hour, but you want to convey that this guy’s a badass and that he’s driving a fast car and then you just sound design something on there.

WM: I loved the opening of Ghost Ship, which had a similar scene.

DS: We did watch that scene.

WM: This is the best wire decapitation I’ve seen this then.

13 Sins is currently available on VOD and will be in select theaters April 18th.

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