“She really is trying to live this John Hughes life, and then there’s this David Cronenberg movie that keeps trying to ruin it.” That’s how writer/director Brian Duffield explains the central premise of the new film Spontaneous, which stars Katherine Langford as a high school senior named Mara who finds world thrown into chaos when her fellow students begin inexplicably exploding. It’s a unique hook for a movie for sure (based on the book of the same name by Aaron Starmer), but has oddly enough become even more relevant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Imminent death hangs over the entirety of Spontaneous, with Mara and her friend Dylan (Charlie Plummer) never knowing if this moment might be their last. When their fellow students explode, it’s sudden and without warning – and incredibly bloody. One second they’re there, and the next second they’re gone.
Collider has some exclusive new images from the film along with the first poster to debut today, ahead of the October 6th release Premium VOD (it’ll also be in select theaters October 2nd). But in addition to the new looks at the film, I also spoke exclusively (and extensively) with Duffield about his unique directorial debut.
For Duffield – whose writing credits range from The Babysitter to Underwater – the visual of kids spontaneously combusting felt like an apt metaphor for life. Especially teenage life. “When you’re a young person you have that cliché of life or death stakes,” Duffield said in our interview. “Every single thing you go through is a life or death stake. It felt like having there be this thing that could happen to you where, with a split second your life is just over at any time and how that changes this classroom of characters, felt like a fun thing to explore.”
Tonally, the film walks the tightrope of giving each death equal weight and tackling real-world issues, but also having fun. That’s where the John Hughes/David Cronenberg comparison comes in. “It felt like a really fun juxtaposition of this character that was in a David Cronenberg movie and didn’t want to be,” said Duffield. “And she’s really fighting hard to get back to her John Hughes movie.”
The key to navigating that tricky tone, Duffield says, came in casting Langford and Plummer. Langford obviously has had plenty of experience with “teen stories” in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and films like Knives Out, while Plummer is an up-and-coming young performer who’s already stood out in films like All the Money in the World and Lean on Pete, not to mention the Hulu limited series Looking for Alaska.
“She’s the best,” Duffield said of Langford. “She’s a real defender of that tone, because I think she also realized how crass the wrong note could come across in a movie like this. So having her as a real champion and leader of the movie was invaluable.” Plummer’s character, meanwhile, is described as “the boy my wife says she wishes she liked in high school” by Duffield. “Which I think is a really great summary of the kind of very lovely Tom Hanks-y thing he has going on, where as soon as the first kid dies, he’s the character that kind of was just waiting to get to go to college to start his life and realizes he could explode at any second, and once that threat exists nothing else is that scary.” Which then spurs a romantic relationship with Langford’s character: “He just kind of sits down opposite her and lays out these feelings he’s had for however many months. Suddenly talking to the girl you have a crush on isn’t that scary when kids are exploding around you.”
The chemistry between Langford and Plummer was key too, and something Duffield said he doesn’t see a lot in YA movies. “They feel like a really genuine and relatable and goofy – in a great way – kind of couple. Where it’s not this super serious relationship… I feel like I don’t see a lot of that in young movies, where it always feels very, very serious and I felt like they were always trying to make the other person laugh. It just seems like they’re having the most fun being with one another, which I think gives the movie a really lovely balance with the darkness around them. You have a couple that are really enjoying getting to know each other and being together.” Which, you know, is a nice reprieve from all the death. “It does kind of offset that impending dread that’s kind of engulfing this small Jersey town.”
Duffield has plenty of experience writing scripts where tone can be handled on the page by the screenwriter, but Spontaneous marks the first time he was calling the shots as the director, and he had to figure out exactly how to visualize these combustions without disrupting the flow of the movie each time. There are 40 students that explode throughout the film, and Duffield wanted to make the whole thing an enjoyable experience. But as a warning of sorts, the first explosion happens during the first shot of the movie. “It was just kind of letting everyone know like, hey if you can hang with this, you can hang with the whole movie.”
Duffield wanted to ensure that Spontaneous didn’t come across as a horror film. “This is bloody, but it’s not horror,” he explained. “It not over the top. You’re not jumping in your seat in surprise.” And through making the movie, Duffield discovered that he had to be careful with each shot not to make the audience feel like a “pop” was just around the corner:
“It felt like it was kind of coming up with our own language, because there’s no preamble to the popping. It’s like, every single time you move the camera, it can create this tension in people. They’re like, ‘What does this camera move mean?’ So that was something we had to figure out while shooting and then kind of honed in on more in the edit, where it was like if we keep the camera really still and just let scenes play out without a lot of fuss or a lot of editing, it relaxes people so they don’t feel like a balloon’s about to pop in their face at any time.”
Visually, Duffield and his cinematographer Aaron Morton decided they didn’t want the movie to feel like it had a lot of “hats on hats on hats.” Because they wanted to take the characters and the deaths seriously, they didn’t want the visual language of the film to distract from that:
“[The combustions need to] feel like something that isn’t supposed to happen in the world of the movie, and we have a main character who’s basically trying to ignore the fact that it’s happening as much as possible and distract herself, whether it’s through boys or alcohol. With the filmmaking, we kind of sit back if that helps the tone.”
In terms of influence, Duffield cited John Hughes movies obviously, but also Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s 2011 dark comedy Young Adult. “That movie is never depressing. Like, it’s dark and nasty, but it does a really nice job of being dark and depressing and very entertaining.”
The YA genre is relatively new to Duffield – at least in terms of official credits – and indeed his career first kicked off with a high-profile Western called Jane Got a Gun. He wrote the script on spec which then got the attention of acclaimed filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) and a stellar ensemble cast that included Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, and Jude Law, but on Day 1 of production, it all fell apart and Ramsay exited the film, followed shortly thereafter by Duffield.
While there’s a limit to just how candid Duffield was willing to be about what actually happened on Jane Got a Gun (“I’ll probably write a book about it someday,” he admitted), he described the situation as rather nuts:
“There’s nothing that compares to how insane and crazy the process was while I was there. And then I wasn’t there for much of it once the new kid came in, but even just what the crew and people have told me after that point, it’s all so crazy. I still talk to Lynne every now and again, and it’s like this bizarre Twilight Zone that we kind of collectively went through. That was also very bizarrely public, in a way.”
Reports swirled over Ramsay’s departure and, unfortunately, certain outlets did not give her the benefit of the doubt that would have been afforded to a male filmmaker in the same situation. Duffield alluded to some rough goings-on behind-the-scenes, saying “It’s unique in a way that I don’t think it could’ve happened now, culturally. I feel like the world has changed so much since Jane until now. Both on the movie and also kind of in the press afterwards.”
Duffield and Ramsay’s Jane Got a Gun (which also had Darius Khondji on DP duties) is one of the great “what if” projects in recent Hollywood history, and Duffield clearly maintains a significant degree of respect and admiration for Ramsay and her talent. “She can just make movies and see movies in a way that I don’t understand, like chemically, how it happens,” he said. He also teased Ramsay’s original vision for Jane Got a Gun in a way that makes it even more excruciating that we never got to see it come to fruition: “I don’t think it was going to be like a Marvel movie, but I think she was like, ‘Yeah I want to make like Lynne Ramsay’s Unforgiven kind of’… It’s Natalie Portman with guns. Let’s fucking go.”
The project remains a curiosity (“I don’t have a meeting go by without someone asking about it.”), but Duffield also noted how young he was at the time the film happened:
“I remember being on set on day one, and that was kind of the day where it was very clear everything was not happening. And Natalie Portman came to me and was like, ‘Have you ever had a first day like this?’ And I was like, ‘This is like my first day on a movie set ever.’”
So how does Duffield feel now, nearly a decade removed from the excruciating handling of Jane Got a Gun, with a movie of his own ready for release? “It feels good and scary at the same time… But the things that I’m proud of in [Spontaneous] are the things that I’m most proud of in my whole career.” Duffield admitted that, going forward, he’d love to not be writing spec scripts anymore, adding that he’s wanted to direct his entire life. “Now being someone who has a movie under their belt, all I want to do is make another one. So I hope people enjoy it, and if they don’t enjoy it, it’s definitely my fault.”
He certainly didn’t start out with an easy one. A YA movie with a John Hughes vibe and David Cronenberg body horror, in which existential dread haunts every frame and kids are literally exploding. In other words, Spontaneous is kind of weird, but Duffield wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s like The Fault in Our Stars, but if kids exploded instead of had cancer. So it’s finding that really weird baby that David Cronenberg and John Hughes made. I don’t know who the movie’s for, but I dig it.”
Spontaneous will be available for premium video-on-demand purchase on October 6th and in select theaters on October 2nd.