With writing credits like X-Men and Watchmen to his name, it can be easy to overlook the fact that David Hayter has also kept quite busy in the acting and voice acting realms as well. He’s still pushing forward as a writer/director and has his latest directorial endeavor, Wolves, due in the fall, but Hayter also abides by one very important acting rule; if someone asks him to take a part, he’s going to do it, and that’s how Devil’s Mile came up.
Hayter steps in as Toby, a henchman of sorts to an evil crime boss named Mr. Arkadi who orders him and his cohorts, Cally (Maria del Mar) and Jacinta (Casey Hudecki), to kidnap two girls. They manage to get them, but delivering them becomes the problem due to the rather sinister nature of the route home. With Devil’s Mile hitting DVD and VOD on August 12th, Hayter got on the phone with Collider to talk about making this movie, a new sci-fi franchise he’s developing, his old Black Widow script and more. Hit the jump to check it out, but be aware, there are some plot spoilers in this interview.
Question: To start, can you give me a little background? You’ve written a couple of big films, have a bunch of acting credits and also have done loads of voice work, too. Was it always all of that at once or did one lead to the other?
DAVID HAYTER: I started out as an actor. Did my first play when I was nine and then was sort of hooked from then on. I lived in Japan when I was a teenager. I did a little modeling there and then I moved to California when I was 20 to become an actor and then when I was 27, I produced and starred in a little art house film called Burn and then that’s when I started working behind the camera so it all kind of evolved as we went.
Have you come to have a preference over the years?
HAYTER: Yeah, well, I love acting. I think that’s the best job in the world, but I don’t really enjoy the career of it so much. You don’t have as much control over your life or the material as you do, well, certainly when you’re a director or a producer, so while I love acting, I prefer to make my living as a filmmaker, but my rule on acting is if somebody asks me to do a part, I’ll do it.
Is that the case on Devil’s Mile?
HAYTER: They did. Yeah. I knew the producer. Mark was my best friend in high school and then we had a bit of a falling out and got into two fairly serious fist fights, so when they needed someone vicious for Toby, I sprang to mind and they came and asked if I would do that.
You can’t have some of Toby’s personality in you though, right? He’s such an intense guy!
HAYTER: Well, you know, when I was younger, I moved around a lot as a kid so I got picked on a lot and then about 16 or 17, I studied a lot of martial arts and I started to fight back. I had a period of about five years where if anybody wanted to have a scrap, I would jump right in. I’m a pretty calm fella now and I’ve got a 10-year-old daughter and a lovely wife, but I’m certainly able to call on that old rage and viciousness to apply to Toby.
Did that make it easier for you to behave like that on set? Not only is Toby really violent, but you’re also the one guy in an entirely female cast – which is actually quite unusual now that I say it.
HAYTER: It’s interesting that it is all women. It didn’t really occur to me at the time, but it’s pretty cool because, as you say, that’s a rare thing, particularly for these genre films.
HAYTER: No, not at all. I mean, the nice thing about Toby is he’s the wild man and he’s the wild card in the whole film and those things are really fun to play and, you know, when I would go toe-to-toe with Craig Porritt, the caretaker in the beginning, it’s funny because when you’re playing a tough guy, all the other guys want to be tough right back at you and it amps them up whereas the women have a subtler way of responding to Toby. But, you know, when the camera stops we’re all having a great time. The only exception was when I was beating Amanda Lim to death with the tire iron, I accidently hit her in the finger. It was a fake tire iron, but it was run through with metal in the middle and when she looked up after the take, she was crying and it really hurt her and so I felt pretty terrible about that, but they got back at me when I had my big fight with Casey at the end and she just beat the bejesus out of me, being the amazing stuntwoman that she is. But while we’re filming, there’s no compunction. I just would get in their face and be gleeful about it.
Do you have to know where all of that anger comes from to play the character or can you just run with what’s on the page?
HAYTER: You know, the reason I went with the suit for his wardrobe was I felt like he’s a guy who – it was in the script. He’s Mr. Arkadi’s dog and so I felt like he should be a guy who’s trying to get out of that, who’s trying to get into upper management in the mob, or whatever it is that they do, but, in the end, he’s really just a hired killer. He can’t help himself and so I felt that that bottled up frustrating, the desire to move on, but knowing that you’re always gonna be this one thing is what drove him and that seemed to be enough.
HAYETR: Yeah, I mean, I’m very respectful of the director and so I think I brought up – I don’t know if I brought up the idea of the suit or if it was in the script, but it may have said suit and then I went out and shot for suits, sent the pictures back to Joe [O’Brien] and Mark [Opausky], the producer, to make sure that it was gonna fit with their wardrobe choices, things like that. I think I chose Toby’s mustache because I knew I could do this horrible trucker ‘stache that changes my look a fair amount. And I was gonna shave my head, but Joe felt, and this is quote, ‘that my hair is epic,’ and so he wanted it long and floppy like that. So it was a group effort. And then Joe designed all of Toby’s tattoos, the infinity sign across my neck and, I don’t even think you can see this in the film, but across my fingers are the symbols they use on cards to test for psychic ability. There’s sort of an unspoken subtext that Toby’s a little psychic and so Joe had designed all of those tattoos, and that was pretty cool. Oh, but I have a shark’s tooth around my neck, which I bought in Hawaii and I thought would be a nice sort of touch for Toby.
How about the effects and makeup work? Maybe we should start with the creature. Was it more on you to pretend it really freaked you out or did it really look creepy on set?
HAYTER: I don’t think I ever acted with the creature. No, I was always looking off screen at it and just had to imagine it. Although there’s one shot where I get pulled under the van and they put me on a little wheeled thing and then handed me the creature’s arms and said, ‘Put it on your neck and then shake it around. Shake it around like she’s killing you!’ [Laughs] And so I did that and then they pulled me under the van, so that was really the only creature acting that I did. I saw initial test pictures and things like that, but I didn’t see it until the final film.
HAYTER: Oh, I’ve seen a lot of stuff like that. I did a movie called Guyver back in the day where I was this super powered alien, hybrid, something or other, and I had to jump off a cliff and so they dressed up a stuntman, but he was a Japanese stuntman and was about six inches shorter than I was, and put him in my outfit and had him jump off the cliff. I was looking from the back and was like, ‘That’s never gonna work. That’s ridiculous.’ And then I watched it and I couldn’t tell the difference, when it was me and when it was him. It’s pretty amazing the things you can pull off. And again, that shot in Devil’s Mile where I get dragged under the truck, it was pretty ridiculous at the time, but I think that it works and we pulled it off. Sometimes you’re just in position and the director says, ‘Okay, do this and then this is gonna happen,’ and you think to yourself, ‘I don’t think that’s gonna happen,’ but then you see the finished film and there it is.
How is for you going from enormous sets like X-Men and Watchman to a film like this with a first-time feature director, a much smaller budget and to something you really have to work to get off the ground?
HAYTER: Well, the food is better on X-Men, certainly. You have more entree options, so that’s nice. A film set to me is a film set. No matter what size budget, and I’ve worked at every single size budget, you’ve always got an army of people who are all pulling for the same thing. Everybody works really hard. On the lower budget pictures, you know, you go overtime more, you’re sort of scrambling for the shots and cobbling together more ideas at the end. Like if you’re doing X-Men and you have a problem, you can figure it out because you have the money to figure it out. On Devil’s Mile, you don’t, and so you’ve got to get creative right in the moment. But all sizes of film sets have that same level of excitement and friction and tension and then vast sections of boredom that define the process, so I love it all.
HAYTER: No, I’ve had to do that on certain productions. Some of the videogames I’ve done, I couldn’t make any changes to the script, so I’d let them inspire me as an actor and if it was a terrible line, I’d just do it as well as I could. Here I was really collaborating with Joe and Mark and they were very open. They know me as a writer and so if I’d say, ‘Look, you know, you’re saying this, but what if we said it this way? Maybe that’d be cooler or it might get the point across in a little more exciting way,’ and they were totally open to those things. The only time that Joe would ever balk at a suggestion was if it changed something he was gonna do down the road. If he said, ‘Well, look, you can’t say that because I want to do this shot this way down here,’ then I would say, ‘Okay, great.’ But for the most part, we really just worked together. And most of my dialogue in the film is as written. He really did a great job on it, but just little touches here and there where I felt like we could amp it up a little more and they were open to that, so I was very grateful.
Are you into horror? A lot of people know you for your superhero stuff, so do you have any history with this genre at all?
HAYTER: Yeah, when I was a kid I was really into horror films. I watched every single horror film that came out in the 80s. You know, now that I’m a professional writer it’s a little more difficult to enjoy a movie if it’s not well done and a lot of the horror movies are not great, but when something’s really good, like I really loved The Conjuring last year. That just scared the bejesus out of me.
That was my #1 movie of 2013.
HAYTER: Yeah! It was awesome! It was so simple and all these sort of classic film tricks, but it really worked all the way through, the cast was great. So, yeah, when a horror movie is well done, I love it and I put it up in esteem with any other genre.
HAYTER: What happened was I wanted to direct and I spent – I mean, I had a couple of movies that I wrote that just didn’t go. Because that happens. But I also spent a huge amount of time putting together Wolves, which is the movie I’ve got coming out in November. So it kind of took me away from the big budget world for a while and now I’m doing a David Hayter Hollywood reunion tour at the end of this summer to reacquaint the studios with me and what I do.
What does that entail?
HAYTER: Well, I’m gonna get a new set of managers and I’ve got a big spec script that I’m going to bring out to the town, which will be a big sci-fi franchise and, you know, I’m just going out and meet with all the new studio heads and remind them that I’m out there and try to set up my next directing and producing gigs.
Is that spec script The Sword by chance?
HAYTER: No, The Sword, that was a script-by-hire. That was a graphic novel that Lakeshore had that I adapted for them. That was just a screenwriting job after I had directed my film to try to make some money and do something else.
Is that script you referenced an original idea you had?
HAYTER: Well, it was brought to me by a former Disney executive-turned-producer who had this great idea for a script. He had sort of the germ of the idea and I thought it was great and so I’m developing that right now.
I think I know the answer to this, but are you allowed to tell me anything about it?
HAYTER: Oh, no. Yeah, I can’t say anything about that one yet. It’s all secret until it comes out.
HAYTER: I don’t know. I’m actually working on setting up a meeting with Kevin Feige who’s the head of Marvel. We both got our big break on the first X-Men, so we’re old friends from there. So, I’m gonna have dinner with Kevin and that would be one topic of conversation, certainly. I actually just was on a plane the other day and I was sitting next to David Maisel who was the former CEO of Marvel and, you know, I’m not sure if Marvel is ready yet to go back to the smaller movies like Punisher or whatever their other smaller movies would be. But of course, you know, you’ve got Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow so maybe it wouldn’t be that small a movie. I don’t know.
Would you stick with the same story idea you had back then? Actually, can you even do that with everything that’s happened to the character in the recent films?
HAYTER: Well, I think you could because it was an origin story, but the thing is, I think the script actually got out onto the Internet. I think you can look it up, so we would probably – there’s original elements that I brought to it that I might want to keep, but I’d probably redo the whole thing for the new age of comic book movies.