Joe Lynch on His Action Horror ‘Mayhem’ and Casting Steven Yeun as His John McClane
Work sucks. If you’ve ever been stuck climbing the ranks of the corporate ladder or stuck in the realm of commercialese and passive aggressive watercooler encounters, you’ve probably dreamt of the opportunity to give the boss or your pesky colleagues a real piece of your mind. In Joe Lynch‘s Mayhem, his unhinged antiheroes do a whole lot more than that as a dangerous virus sweeps through their office, stripping them of their impulse control and setting loose their darkest desires. Mayhem is a popcorn movie with teeth; cynical without being misanthropic and bloody without being sadistic.
With Mayhem arriving in theaters and available on VOD and Digital HD today, I recently hopped on the phone with the director to chat about the film. He talked about returning to Serbia after Everly, casting The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun as his John McClain, if he got any blowback about casting an Asian American hero, taking inspiration from 9 to 5 to find the balance between comedy and violence, and why eyeballs ended up being his post-production nightmare. Check out what he had to say in the interview below.
Collider: I feel like you guys surpass your budget and means, and Mayhem is a proper fun action movie. You had shot this in 25 days which is crazy to make a … this feels like an action movie to me. Bloody, but an action movie all the same. Can you talk about filming this in Serbia and what it took to pull off that kind of energy with your resources?
LYNCH: This was my most personal movie. I know that everybody says that at one point, but this one connected to me in a way. I was working a corporate job and was very frustrated at that job, so when I read the script I go, “This is me! Holy shit, I am this character.” There was always a want to make other movies, like “I want to make this movie. I want to make that movie,” but this one I felt like no matter what the budget. No matter what the time, the situation, I need to make that. When you have that kind of personal fire in your belly, it drives you further than you even expect yourself to be driven.
When we were coming down to … when I got the phone call saying, “We got the money,” I was like, “Yeah!” Before I could do that Rocky freeze frame moment na-na-na, they’re like, “Hold on a second. It’s not all the money that we thought we were going to get, but we have something. Can you do it?” I didn’t even bat an eyelash. I’m like, “Doesn’t matter. Fuck it, let’s do it. We can do it.”
The problem is that with the limited budget that we had, as you know time is money and money is time. Every day counts. Because this was a movie about America specifically — and unbeknownst to me now that I can look back in retrospect, now that we’ve taken the movie kind of around the world, I realized very quickly that everybody is globally dealing with this kind of bullshit in the corporate space. For me, this has to be America. We got to do it in America. That dream quickly got dashed when we started going around to all these different locations like to Pittsburgh and we were told we had 15 days. We went to New Orleans and it was 16 days. Vancouver, I think it was like 16 or 17 days too. Just making a movie on that level is nearly impossible for the amount of scope and style and action. Even just for the actors. As an actor myself I know what it’s like to make something on no time. When you’re pulling one or two takes just because that’s the mathematics of how many things that you can get in a day, it’s not fair. It’s not fair to the actors. It’s not fair to the crew. It just grinds people down to a nub.
I had made a movie in Serbia already with Everly. At first, I was not happy about that because I didn’t want to be so far away from my family, especially just having a kid. I don’t want to be in Serbia all the way around the world. I quickly realized that everyone in Serbia is fucking awesome. They love what they do. They’re passionate about making movies. They had the kind of fire in their belly that I always did because to me making movies is a dream come true. Every time you step on set, you should be grateful to do it.
When we found out that doing something in North America at some point was just not going to happen, I kind of suggested like, “Look I know that we don’t want to be halfway around the world, but what about Serbia because I had a great experience there.” So we called up and they said, “You know what? We can do it for 25 days.” The difference between 15 days in Pittsburgh and 25 days in Serbia was night and day. It’s a different movie. Immediately that made sense of us to go to Serbia, and I already had a relationship there with so many of the artisans who are there that it just kind of felt like we were getting the band back together, like the Blues Brothers.
What’s funny is that when we called up they go, “Oh you mean the guy with all the blood from the last movie? Yeah, come on back we still have a whole bucket of blood. Like a whole barrel of blood that we need to get rid of, and we can use it on this.” It just kind of felt like the right thing to do, and in the end, I don’t know how we would have been able to do it anywhere else.
It’s interesting that you bring up a barrel of blood, because the film is pretty violent and obviously violence in public spaces is a serious and real problem right now, but there’s no part in this movie that’s not fun or where you feel creepy for enjoying yourself. Can you talk about hitting that tone and making sure that your audience is not going to have a bad time while really very violent things are happening?
LYNCH: Absolutely. I think it’s something that every filmmaker toils with, and it’s something that — I’m on this on sitcom Holliston with my fellow filmmaker Adam Green, and we would kind of joke on that show even like, “What’s tone?” Any filmmaker who says that you always go, “Uh oh. What’s going on here.” I grew up in the age of Paul Verhoeven, where you can look at Robocop or Total Recall and go, “It’s incredibly violent, yet it feels like it has something to say, and it’s using humor as the sugar to make the medicine go down.” You can read the script for Mayhem, which originally was called “Rage”, which we changed literally at the last minute when I went, “Guys I just watched 28 Days Later and I think we need to change this shit immediately.” [Laughs] It was a very quick fix. It didn’t change anything in the story, but it was like we’re not making an infected zombie movie. We’re making something else here.
When it came to the tone, on paper it could have gone very serious, but I felt like when you have stuff like this, if you don’t have a satirical eye or a satirical voice in it, it’s very hard to not come across as being… Derek and Melanie themselves, just them alone, do very deplorable things in the film, yet the script and the story is dictating to us that they are our heroes. What’s exciting about it is that you can watch the movie, and you can see it from another perspective and go, “Jesus Christ, they’re the bad guys. They’re stalking through all these floors and taking people out left and right.” It needed another version of the movie where we were following the lady with all the post-its all over her. This would be a slasher movie to her, but when you have a tone that needed that, part of that comes down to your cast. I knew that Steven and Samara were both very much on the same wavelength as I was where we were making a comedy.
I look at the movie now and I go, We were setting ourselves out to make a comedy. One of the major influences of this movie is 9 to 5. I absolutely love that movie. I loved that movie since I was a little kid, and the thing that always got me even when I was little and would watch that movie is it’s incredibly funny yet there’s moments where they are fantasizing about killing him, killing Dabney Coleman. There’s a moment where Lily Tomlin poisons Dabney Coleman while thinking she’s Snow White. The entire ending of the film when they’re chasing them and there’s a big cat and mouse, if you look at that movie again, it is stage and shot like a fucking horror movie. That always stuck with me, and yet you look at that movie and that’s comedy. That’s on the comedy shelf.
That’s just something that has always been in my tone of world. If you look at all my movies, there’s always that movie, there’s always those moments that feel like levity moments. I want to entertain. There’s other movies that are kind of similar to this, that could come across as very mean-spirited and serious, and I just knew from the beginning that the tone that we were making was one where we could very much … like say Clockwork Orange where if you instill things and you have actors who know the tone and know how precarious that tone can be; veer it too far and it can be mean, veer it too close and it could be soft. Thankfully I have these actors who also gave me very different so that when I’m in the edit, I can temper how crazy Mel was or how uncrazy I wanted her to be. It really comes down to just the collaboration that Steve, Samara, and I had. That’s what permeated all the way down from the rest of the cast to the production design to the cinematography, to the music and the editing, it was all born from the three of us sitting in those bathrooms, talking about our three favorite bands in the middle of total chaos. That to me is the movie.
You can have these real people almost making light of the situation, because that’s what we all do. A plane goes down and you’re in there and you’re going, “Oh my God,” you start cracking jokes. Not that everybody in a plane crash is cracking jokes. But we all do that. We all use humor to mediate the moment. That’s what it felt like with this. We could use humor in a way that was almost disarming so that we can get away with things that might otherwise be considered really fucked up and mean. It just allowed us to get our point across without coming off as too offensive or too off-putting.
Yeah, I think you hit it really well. Maybe I’m just getting old and soft, but I don’t like mean-spirited, sadistic movies these days so I was a little wary when I read the synopsis the first time. But the film’s not like that at all.
LYNCH: No, and that’s one of the things that Steven himself had said from the beginning. He’s like, “I don’t want this movie to be mean. We can be cynical, we can be bitter, but we can’t be mean.” That was my point from the beginning as well. I would much rather be able to give this movie heart and soul at the same time as doing some of the awful things that we do, but if we’re all walking away feeling bad about ourselves, then I don’t think we would have done right by the movie.
We’ve had many people who’ve seen this on the festival tour, say that this was a very cathartic thing for them. They were able to get their demons out without having to go to the office and beat the shit out of a coworker. I’m like, “Good. If we’ve cured your case of the Mondays, then we’ve done our job.”
Yeah, there’s definitely a fantasy element of serving up a big “fuck you” to the people who deserve it. I’m curious about getting Steven for the lead role and what the order of that was in terms of getting your financing. Because obviously there’s not a lot of sort of lead action hero type roles for Asian-American actors in American cinema. Was he attached to the project before you got financing? Did you have to fight to have him in the lead? Or did it come up at all?
LYNCH: It’s a good question. I’m glad you asked it because when I read the script, all I could think about was me in the part. Not saying that I was going to cast myself, but I saw myself in Derek so much because I had done that corporate job. I’d been in that corporate job when I got the script. So to me, it was very personal, and I needed someone that would be my avatar. Maybe it’s where I grew up in Long Island, or how I grew up or whatever, but I’ve always seen the world in a very melting-pot sort of fashion. Hollywood obviously sees things otherwise, so we had a very particular budget set point when we were first going out to people, and with that budget at that point it was coming with a contingency to make sure that we were casting the most profitable actor, the most high-profile actor we could. When we got the money, when we were given the phone call that everyone hopes for. “We got the money,” and then they’re like, “Wait, hold on. We didn’t get all the money.”
It ended up being one investor, and one of the game-changers for the movie was that the investor said it’s not cast contingent, which is the best thing that a filmmaker can ask for. Because in most cases, in that price point, it would be like, “Okay, here are the five actors that do really well on Redbox and do really well in foreign markets. You’ve got to use one of them.” You look at the list and you go “Ah….” It wasn’t very exciting. It was all a bunch of white dudes, and I’m like, “That’s not the world that I see us in.” I’m sorry, I just don’t see the world that way.
I had been such a big fan, still am to this day, I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead, and I’ve just been the biggest Steven fan forever since he was the pizza boy. I just remember watching that scene when you ultimately find out he’s hiding in the dumpster, but everyone thought he was dead, and I went, “My God, when was the last time that someone was this affected, like globally affected by an actor’s death,” and it ended up not even being true.
Thankfully when I came into the office, [Circle of Confusion] is one of the production companies that produces The Walking Dead. I went, “Okay guys I know this might be a crazy idea, but what about Steven Yeun?” There was no pushback at all. Everyone was like, “You know what? That’s a pretty cool fucking idea. Let’s see what happens.” So they sent him the script, and funny enough Steven immediately responded to it. I think actually he thought he was going to be playing one of the supporting characters who died early on. I think just based on just what he’s normally been offered in the past, and we’re like, “No dude. You’re the lead. You’re the fucking … you’re our guy.” I used to, I’ve always called it, the Dreyfus effect. You’re our everyman. Right now, we need you as our everyman, and he just took the baton and ran with it.
Steven was a very organic find. He was the first person we cast, but it was one of those things that as a filmmaker you have that thing that I like to call the Barton Fink feeling, where’s it’s just like this is coming from my gut, and this feels right. I don’t care if people give me shit because I’m using an Asian-American as opposed to a Caucasian or whatever. I thought it was exciting that it was like here’s an Asian-American in an action thriller, and he’s not, and my apologies in advance if this sounds like a stereotype, but he’s not doing martial arts. He’s not your normal action guy. He’s just an everyman. That’s it. An everyman who just happens to be able to fend for himself in the most successful way possible and survive.
What I love about it is he’s our John McClain in the first movie, where it’s like, John McClain gets hurt. John McClain cuts his feet. John McClain looks like shit at the end of that movie. He is beaten the fuck up, and what action movie did you see before Die Hard in 1988 that showed a fallible protagonist like that? None or very little, or if it was Schwarzenegger or Stallone at the time, yeah they get shot in the arm but they’d be like, “Yeah it’s just a flesh wound.” No, at the end Bruce Willis is fucked up, and that was the crux, that was the archetype that we used in this where it’s like, “Sorry buddy, you’re going to get covered in blood again, but we need to see that. We need to see that you’ve taken your licks and you’re still ticking. We want to route for you the more that you get messed up.” And he was like, “Bring it on.”
I’m curious about the post process on this, and finding the rhythm of the film. Was it a long one? What was it like for you in post?
LYNCH: Thankfully, I had a long-time collaborator but we never worked before in the feature capacity, Josh Ethier who you might know edited movies like The Mind’s Eye and Almost Human. Josh and I had been friends for years, and we never got the chance to really work together on something like this I think because we had a very particular tone from the beginning. That helped Josh be able to know, “Okay. I know the kind of takes that Joe’s going for.” He did not have a very long process in terms of post on the editorial side. On the effects side and the finishing side between the coloring and the visual effects, the movie has over a thousand visual effects, and if we did our job, you wouldn’t know any of those. Most of it is, spoiler alert, it’s all the eyeballs. That was the biggest fucking nightmare possible to the point where by the end of the process I was so jaded, I hated the movie but that’s because I lost perspective. Because you’re just, pardon my French, but you’re just brain-fucking the thing to where you just don’t see what works and what doesn’t anymore.
It was easy on the editorial side because Josh and I were just so simpatico. We were just so in sync that we knew the movie even before I would step into his office, and we would sit there and work on it. He had to cut, when I got back, and it’s one of the things that every filmmaker is terrified of is you watch the first assembly and you’re usually sitting there with a razor blade ready to wack your wrists because you’re just like, “No it’s totally wrong and now I got all this work to do.” Josh’s cut, I have to say it, this was about 65 to 70 percent the movie that you’re seeing today. That very rarely happens.
On that end, it was a dream working with Josh because we had the same sensibilities. On the effects side, it was a total nightmare but totally worth it because if we didn’t do what we needed to do to make sure that those eyeballs worked or the scenes that we needed to work because we were on such a small budget, we couldn’t throw money at the problem. We had a very finite amount of money, so being able to prep responsibility is the reason why the movie works because we just didn’t have any time for love, Dr. Jones. We had to just fuck and go. Thankfully it all worked, I think.
That’s funny. When I watched it, I did go, “Yikes, red eyes are a commitment for low-budget effects.”
LYNCH: But if we didn’t have it, it would just be a bunch of sweaty white dudes beating the shit out of each other. You needed something visual to at least allow the audience to know who’s infected and who’s not, especially our stars because one of the things that I’ve started to glean on, having talked to many people watching the movie and whatever is that they didn’t expect that Derek and Melanie were also going to be infected, which kind of makes it even more fun is because in most cases the leads aren’t infected and they’re racing around trying not to be infected. Here, they’re like, “Fuck it, we’re infected. Let’s fucking do this,” and I love that, but if we didn’t have something that allowed the audience to know that they are infected like among everyone else, I think we would have been in big trouble. Totally and also visually. Being able to have an amazing effects company like Rainfall Films who’ve I’ve worked with in the past be able to pull this off no time and no money is a testament to real passion behind the screen.