Ever wonder how someone becomes a mass murderer? That’s what writer-director Craig William Macneill starts to explore in his feature directorial debut, The Boy. Based on his award-winning short film Henley, The Boy centers on nine-year-old Ted (Jared Breeze). Since his mother left, Ted’s been living alone with his father (David Morse) at the secluded roadside motel that he owns. With little to do and almost no business coming in, Ted’s left to fend for himself, giving him the opportunity to explore dark, dangerous instincts completely unchecked.
The plan was to conduct an in-person interview with Macneill, but in addition to showing off his big screen baby this week, his wife also had an actual baby so instead we went back and forth via e-mail. Check out what he told me about turning the short into a feature, how he ended up with an incredible shooting location, his plan to turn The Boy into a trilogy and loads more in the interview below. The Boy is now available on VOD and is also beginning a limited theatrical rollout as well.
Question: To start, can you give me a little background information? How’d you get into film and filmmaking?
CRAIG WILLIAM MACNEILL: When I was a kid, a good friend of mine had a VHS camcorder that we used to play around with after school and on weekends. We shot several short films and held screenings for our friends and families. We would often shot-list everything in advance, and edit everything in-camera. I was obsessed from an early age.
What kind of films were they? Any stories you can share?
MACNEILL: Baseball, karate and Friday the 13th were popular themes. I received a concussion during one of the karate films. That’s when I stopped acting.
Can you tell me about the experience taking short films on the festival circuit? I believe most of yours did very well so why stick with shorts for so long before jumping into your first feature?
MACNEILL: Screening my shorts at festivals was a thrilling experience. I met and have remained close friends with so many very talented filmmakers I met on the circuit. I would have loved to have jumped into features earlier on in the process, but raising funds proved too tricky so I just kept on making shorts until the opportunity finally presented itself.
How was it getting The Boy off the ground? It’s one thing to have a script and want to make it, but it’s another to actually do it. What or who do credit with making it a reality?
MACNEILL: Getting The Boy off the ground was a 12-year dream come true. Shortly after our short Henley screened at Sundance in 2012, the guys at SpectreVision came across our short and were excited to discuss the idea of making the feature version with us. We jumped at the opportunity!
Daniel [Noah], Josh [C. Waller], and Elijah [Wood] had been discussing the idea of creating a film about the childhood of a serial killer. They saw that seed of darkness in the character Ted from our short Henely and approached us about expanding the short into a feature. We came together with this shared ambition to tell the origin story of a future mass murderer in a very realistic approach.
How’s it working with Clay McLeod Chapman? Did your writing process change much making the move from short to feature?
MACNEILL: I really enjoy working with Clay. Our styles differ a lot. My approach is more grounded in realism which seems to contrast well with his wonderfully wild imagination. I think when our two styles collide we come up with something that is perhaps unique. Our writing process has not changed much from our transition from shorts to features.
What about the story itself? Did it change much from script to set to screen?
MACNEILL: Yes, for sure. But we tried to stay as true to the script as possible within our budget and time constraints. The script embraced an atmospheric world of isolation and loss and these themes play out in every aspect of the film’s design, photography and soundscape.
Were there any scenes that were especially tough to get right while writing?
MACNEILL: Yes, there was a scene where Ted’s father has a particularly hard time expressing his feelings for his son. We had a tough time scripting that moment. David Morse really brought that scene to life on screen. He unlocked so many more dimensions to his character.
And how about on set? Were those same scenes the toughest to nail or was it something different?
MACNEILL: The toughest battle we had on set was the weather. We filmed in Colombia, outside Santa Fe De Antioquia where the weather would often change drastically from hour to hour. A continuity nightmare.
Did you guys come up with any shortcuts to fix that so you could keep shooting?
MACNEILL: We’d always be pre-lighting interiors so that if it started to rain while we were shooting outside we could quickly move indoors and pick up on another scene.
What about Easter eggs? Are there any little details you hid in the film that you hope people spot?
MACNEILL: There are some props from the short that snuck their way into the feature.
How’d you find Jared Breeze?
MACNEILL: Through our casting director Monika Mikkelsen!
What exactly do you have young actors do in an audition for a role like this? I imagine it must have been tough to find someone who can be so terrifying, but can still make you want to root for him in a way, too.
MACNEILL: With young actors it’s all about instinct. I ask them a few questions about themselves, things that excite them and things that they don’t particularly like. I can see their passion while speaking about these things, their gestures, their comfort in front of a camera and with strangers. This gives me valuable information of what kind of clay I have in my hands to mold and direct. Somehow, I have to see a spark of the character in them.
Now of course I have to ask, what did you see in Jared that reminded you of Ted?
MACNEILL: A quiet curiosity.
What was the discussion like with his parents? Were they okay with everything you needed him to do?
MACNEILL: Yes, his parents were very understanding and supportive throughout the entire process. They were also a big help on set!
How about that set? Where do you find a location like that?
MACNEILL: The location was complicated. While the short was shot in the lush Virginia setting, I had always envisioned the feature taking place in the dry, desolate American West. We started looking into the possibility of filming in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and California. However, our location needed a very specific highway and an old, run-down, desolate motel within the middle of nowhere. We couldn’t find anything. We explored the possibility of dressing an abandoned motel but that proved difficult, and restrictive in terms of how we might shoot. And, of course, we dreamed of building our own from scratch but that proved too expensive in the US.
This is where the idea of filming in South America came into the equation. As a result of some great tax incentives, we discovered that we could film in Colombia and afford to build the motel from scratch; to create the motel exactly how I had envisioned it was extremely exciting. I was sold.
We teamed up with Tom Hallbauer and immediately started working on plans for the motel’s basic layout, structure and aesthetic. Once we had a working model, we flew down to Colombia to scout locations and refine our vision based on the land we could find. After some initial fits and starts, we found a tremendous location. One afternoon while scouting near Santa Fe de Antioquia, we drove by something that caught my eye. I asked the van to stop. We jumped out and walked up a hill. Suddenly, we were on a plot of land that overlooked a vast valley. This was it. We all looked at each other and, without a word, knew we had found our location. And not a moment too soon, as we were to begin principle photography in just over six weeks and we had to build this structure from the ground up!
A somewhat disturbing thought given the props you worked with, but did you take home any mementos from the shoot?
MACNEILL: Yes, I have the crown and the key’s to Ted’s room.
What’d you shoot on and why use that camera, lenses, etc.?
MACNEILL: One of my earliest conversations with my cinematographer Noah Greenberg had to do with contrast and palette. I wanted a very soft, vintage feel to the film with a muted palette. The film is set in 1989 and I wanted to invoke a sense of nostalgia with the look. We had hoped to shoot 35mm film, but opted to shoot digital due to budgetary constraints. We initially thought of using vintage lenses, but needed to test them to be sure. We arranged a lens test at ARRI CSC and extensively tested several different lenses. In the end, we found the Super Baltars and the Master Primes to be our two favorites. The Super Baltars were flat out beautiful, but they are quirky and old and not terribly production friendly or fast to use. The Master Primes were stunning as well, with outstanding performance wide-open and beautiful bokeh. We wanted to confirm our choice based on projection – how the files would ultimately be seen so our colorist Jason Crump at Metropolis Post screened the full lens test for us. There we were able to see split-screen comparisons that confirmed our choice of the Master Primes.
What’s next for you? Are you going to stick with features at this point?
MACNEILL: Yes, I have a few exciting projects in the works, but I’m not sure if I can speak about them yet.
I read that The Boy was the start of a trilogy. Do you have plans to move forward with the second film?
MACNEILL: Yes, we hope to! The idea is that the trilogy is aimed at tracking the childhood of a future serial killer, depicting the character at ages 9, 14 and 18 and ending with his transformation into a mass murderer.