Filmmaker Joe Lynch on the Catharsis of Making “Mayhem” (Interview)

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When it comes to genre filmmakers, director might not have made quite the impact on the level of an Eli Roth or James Wan, but man, he’s made some cool and fun movies so far.

From his 2007 directorial debut Wrong Turn 2: Dead End — a surprisingly decent sequel to a very bad horror movie — to 2014’s action flick Everly, which had Salma Hayek kicking serious butt, Lynch has garnered his share of fans at venues like Fantastic Fest and the South by Southwest Film Festival.

The latter premiered Lynch’s latest movie Mayhem, an action-comedy starring Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) as Derek, a lawyer at a large corporation that’s suddenly struck by ID7, a virus that makes those contracted act out their fantasies, however violent or sexual. It just so happens that on the same day the ID7 virus hits the company, Derek is fired from his job, so he and disgruntled client Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving) make their way up the floors of the building to get revenge for the company’s actions.

As might be expected, this is a premise that leads to a lot of funny and violent moments as Derek and Melanie proceed to take out all the corporate bigwigs and lackies that get in their way, all the gore captured gloriously by Lynch and his crew, who clearly  have worked at jobs they’ve hated. 

The Tracking Board spoke with Lynch over the phone a few weeks back and learned that Lynch’s glee at shaking up the workplace environment came from his own recent experiences working in a cubicle.

If I remember, you wrote your last movie Everly, so how did Matias Caruso’s screenplay come your way?

When this script landed on my desk…  usually there’s not a desk. In this case there was a desk, and it was me in a cubicle in a corporate job kinda hating life. I had a job that had “creative” in the description and on my card, but did not feel creative whatsoever. I was essentially Derek in the movie. Not very happy with where my direction was going. I was in between movies, I had finished Evelyn but at the same time I knew that I had to pay the bills. I did not get paid a lot on that movie.

Things in the industry have changed. The cushion of development deals and residuals is all gone now. You really gotta love making movies to even want to do it, because in essence, it’s a hobby, at this point, for a lot of people. I just was trying to make ends meet, and kind of hating life, and I read this script, and in the past I’ve always wanted to make movies. This movie, I felt like I needed to make, because I truly knew what Derek was going through. Even reading between the lines, all the things that aren’t on the page, that I knew that Derek was feeling and Derek was going through and all the plights Derek was having.

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I responded to it so strongly, and this is also after me directing my own script on the last film. See, usually directors want to just keep going down that route, but Matias’ script just kinda resonated with me so strongly that I talked to everybody and said, “I need to make this f*cking movie now.” I know it. I can say that the last two years of me working at this position could be considered, “deep cover.” I was like Cameron Crowe when he was writing Fast Times. I was going undercover, I was embedding myself for the good of the project. When it came time to actually developing it myself and making it, I just felt like I knew that world inside and out, down to the staple.

That’s amazing. I have a lot of filmmaking friends who have day jobs, but I didn’t think your connection to the material would be from the last four or five years.

I’m just one of those types of a-holes that is just like a workaholic, and doesn’t like to be idle. Idle hands do not work for me, plus it’s f*cking expensive to live out in L.A. so you just have to make ends meet. After Wrong Turn 2, at first I felt like, “Here it comes, everybody… I’m gonna have a bungalow at Universal! I’m gonna be sitting in the pool and reading scripts like Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop 2. It’s gonna be great!” Nope. It didn’t work out that way. None of it worked out that way. Just because of the way that the industry is right now. It’s just a different beast, so you have to really love to make movies to want to make movies at this point.

It was just kind of my M.O. with getting this project together. I felt like, at that point, I knew that character enough because of this work that I had done, that it all felt serendipitous. All that was meant to happen for a reason. I need to make that happen. That was really the passion behind me pursuing the film.

The movie has a fairly snarky tone, so was that already in the script or did you make it snarkier as you were developing it?

I think it was both. There definitely was a snarky tone to it but it wasn’t mean. The thing that I really enjoyed about the script — and there’s obviously a bunch of movies like this out there — is that it was snarky, but it still had a heart, and there still was a beat of hope to it. It wasn’t just all very dour and too bitter. But there was a cynicism to it that I responded to because it’s like when you go out to drinks with your coworkers, and maybe that person’s not in your department, but then you sit there and you have a beer and you’re like, “Dude! You gotta deal with those TPS reports too? Holy shit, so do I!” And then you just start going … We might not be in the same department but we speak the same language and we’re dealing with the same strife.

That’s where I was drawn to it because it had the allowance for me to purge a lot of these frustrations that I had. It wasn’t like an Office Space movie. It wasn’t like Christmas Office Party, where it’s a corporate space, and everyone’s having a great time. They seem to love their jobs, and yeah, there’s a couple disgruntled workers here and there but for the most part that was a more jovial experience. Here, I see demons about the workspace. I have some issues, and I have some words to get out about that sort of thing.

This script felt snarky enough that it allowed me to kind of have those gripes and be able to get that out without coming off too nasty. It also had great characters that I felt really charmed by that made me fall in love with them, so that whatever they ended up doing, I was kind of following them even if they were doing some deplorable sh*t, and by the end of the movie, it had a message. It was a message that was always there from the script. We augmented it here or there, to fit Steven’s character a little bit more or fit the kind of voice I wanted to at the end, and it still had this moment where I want the audience to feel like there is hope even if you’re in a sh*tty job like that. You’re allowed to quit. To paraphrase Tyler Durden: “You are not your nine-to-five job.” And a lot of people, myself included, feel that way, that you can’t get away from your job.

It was something that allowed me that level of cynicism that allowed me to kind of open the doors for being satirical in certain ways, that I just felt like it needed to be said.

I got the impression that everyone working on this movie was having fun—even the background actors—so there must be a lot of people who feel this way about their day jobs.

No, you’re right. Everybody has had that sh*tty job. Everybody has been in that sh*tty situation, whether it’s a corporate job or a gig that they had to take to pay their bills. Everyone has experienced that, and we’re in this weird place in America right now, where Evil Corp is running the country, and OCP is kinda taking over, where the corporations and the political bodies are converging, because we have a f*cking evil dictator as a President, who’s also a reality show star. So, there’s this feeling that it’s starting to turn into Brazil, where all we’re becoming Tuttle/Buttle, and we’re all feeling like we’re stuck in this little office with all the f*cking tubes  all over the place. We’re just cogs in the machine. So, it feels very universal to people.

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I didn’t really know that anyone was going to relate. I just kind of internalized it and just felt like this is a story that I can relate to. I don’t know if everyone will. I  think maybe it was because everyone hates lawyers, so I thought, on a base level, when you explain the plot, where it’s like, “Dangerous virus get let loose in a law firm, chaos ensues.” That’s kind of all you need. Here’s a guy that needed to go through some crazy trials and tribulations to get to the point where he can say, “I quit,” and walk away from it and basically become a f*cking hobo painter, but he’s happy. It is like the end of Office Space where he quits his job and he becomes a construction worker, and he’s smiling. And that to me, that’s a message of hope.

That’s the kind of message that I wanted to get across, and I underestimated how many people have had a shitty job like I have, and how many people are disgruntled at work, and we’ve been on this kind of festival tour for the past few months, and in the beginning I usually start things off with, “Alright, who’s got a corporate job?” And I think maybe a smattering of people will raise their hands. I’d say two-thirds to a majority of them raise their hands, and you go, “holy shit!” And there’s a lot of filmmakers too, like that. And afterwards, when we end up talking afterwards, a lot of people either go, “I’m quitting my job on Monday!” I’m like, “Make sure that you’re financially stable before you do that,” or “My god, I’ve always wanted to f*cking punch my coworker in the face, or I wanted to beat the shit out of my boss because he just abuses me left and right,” and people are definitely just in a weird, frustrated place right now.

Any chance they can get to watch something that allows them to vicariously live through their character, or the characters in the movie, and let off some steam without having to do it in real life? Then that’s a good thing. We all could use a bit of steam relief.

Steven Yeun is really great in this. I’m not sure I would realize he’d be so good at the humor and the fighting necessary, so how did you end up with him? Was Derek Asian in the original script?

Nope, he was not. When we first set out to make the movie, he was a Caucasian male, and I’d say it was a lot more cynical in the script, than it was, when Steven ultimately kind of embodied the role. I have been a fan of his since The Walking Dead, and to watch his arc go from the pizza boy to comical lead to being one of the f*cking heroes, and ultimately one of the tragic fallen heroes of the show, there was just something about Steven that was just so charming, and so lovely, and so exciting, and so adventurous that we just knew we’d follow him to the ends of the earth. There was just something that was so magnetic about him, but not in a bad boy sort of way. It was more like in a Richard Dreyfus sort of way, where you can just relate to him even if he ends up making decisions that aren’t ultimately the right decisions based on movie tropes, or whatever.

And there’s just something about him that people love. I knew that this part is going to live or die based on that actor being able to traverse between pathos and dark sh*t and comedy.  I’d also seen Steven do a ton of comedy on Conan O’Brien, and I knew based on reading about him in the past that he was a stand-up comedian and everything. So I was just blown away by the level of range that he always had and, maybe this was just how I grew up, but I always just see Americans as Americans, and my dad owned a small business in Long Island, and his clientele was everybody. Black, white, Latino, Asian, everybody. Everybody loved cars, everybody loved to customize their cars, and the thing that he would say … at a time when in our garages, it seemed like more time than not we would have a lot of blue collar guys, and they would joke about race, and my dad would never like that. The one thing he said that I will always remember, it kind of infected me to this day, “In the end, everybody bleeds red and everybody spends green.” That kind of applies to my worldview.

In Evelyn, that was the girl next door originally, in my head, but that didn’t mean a Latino actress couldn’t play that part. It shouldn’t even be an issue, and with this movie, it’s like, “oh, look at the list of all the people that are up for it or who were gonna be financially viable to the project, and the budget.” It was all a bunch of white dudes! And I’m like, “that’s kinda f*cking boring! I feel like we’ve seen this a million times!” It was just when Steven was in that episode of The Walking Dead, when Glenn hid under the dumpster but we all thought he was dead. The reaction that it got from so many people around the world made me feel like, here’s a guy that can do drama and comedy and action and everybody f*cking loves him. And we will follow him to the f*cking apocalypse.

So that next Monday morning, I went in and said, “What about Steven Yeun?” And thankfully the production company also produces The Walking Dead, it’s another department, but they all went, “Oh, oh yeah! That’s actually not a bad idea.” And next thing you know, Steven and I meet, and we’re off to the races.

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I have to back up and ask about The Belko Experiment, which was released in March around the time of your movie’s SXSW premiere.

Oh, dude, it came out four days after my premiere.

Wow, okay.  I know James Gunn had been developing that for a long time, so were they making the movie at the same time you were making Mayhem?

Funny story. I was actually up for it for like, five minutes, after I had committed to Mayhem. James and I have been friends for years, so I had heard about the script, and then my agent sends it to me. For like five minutes I remember reading it and going, “Oh f*ck! This is really good, but its tone is different.” Mayhem already had a lighter tone installed in the script, whereas Belko was a lot darker. I remember there being a moment where I’m like, “This is a little bit more on the darker side than I was expecting or planning with Mayhem, but it’s f*cking genius script, and it’s such a good script.” But then, that decision was taken away from me, thankfully, when I called my agent back and said, “I really like this script,” and they go, “It’s already been capped, someone’s already been hired.” I’m like, “Welp, that decision’s made.”

What was good though, was that I read that script, and it made me say, “Okay. I know that there’s this movie that’s going to be coming out. I know that there’s going to be a comparison, especially since James and I both kind of came from Troma.” Obviously, he’s vaulted himself a lot higher recently, but there was always going to be a comparison no matter what. The people love to do that.

There was something in the back of my head going, “Is this too much like Belko?” And I knew from the beginning that it wasn’t. There’s different tropes, and there’s different tones. No matter what, there’s people in an office space with ties, and then there’s blood on them and they’re beating or killing each other, so no matter what, we’re going to have that comparison. That’s why I was like, “Let’s just start a f*cking subgenre called ‘worksploitation.’”

And it started to catch on. There’s two other movies coming out that are just like it, and I think that’s also just a reflection of the times. There’s enough people out there that work and live in this corporate space that know the world and feel like they can relate to these characters, and there’s enough stories about the workplace and how toxic it can be, and how passive-aggressive it can be, and how unhappy an environment it can be. It’s just ripe for the f*cking storytelling. I think that in a world where good horror, good genre is a reflection of our times, maybe there’s a really palpable reason why there’s so many movies like this out there. Maybe there’s a reason to comment and a reason to be satirical about it, because it’s something that everyone’s living through right now.

It’s rather cathartic and I’m bummed I didn’t have a chance to see the movie with an audience.

It’s a different beast altogether when you see them on the big screen. That’s one of the things I’m really proud of. When they played it in Brooklyn [at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival], the crowd was like a f*cking rock show. I knew from the beginning I wanted to make this movie fun and cathartic, and I wanted people to ultimately walk out with a little bit of feeling of hope, and have fun with it, because it is a lot of medicine to take. And if I can just install a little bit of sugar to let that medicine go down, then … then I can do something that people can walk away and enjoy, and still go, “Man, that was f*cked up!” But still with a smile on their face, and it not be too mean. It’s something I’m real proud of in terms of the way that it’s been received, but knowing that it kind of came from a really personal place in my heart, and I really enjoyed getting those demons out, because if I didn’t, things would be a lot different today, if I was still at that job…

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The movie is very violent, as was Evelyn, so do you generally enjoy directing that kind of stuff?

I do. I giggle when I watch that sort of thing, especially if the tone is right. It’s just something I’ve grown up with. Violence in movies has always been something like, oh good, someone else is doing it, I get to sit back and watch it and go, “I’m glad it’s not me!” It’s definitely something that’s fun to watch, and then, I’ve always wanted to make movies that I would want to watch, so in this particular story it means that I have to take a nail gun to someone’s crotch, well I gotta make it the most fun way to take a nail gun to a crotch that I can possibly muster up, and then do it with a sense of fun, where the stakes are still there, but you can laugh at it, because it is completely ludicrous.

I think people need a release right now. People need to be entertained. I think the days of being introspective and being so deadly serious … There are still movies that are out there like that, but I think, myself included, I just want to f*cking escape a little bit. If it means that you can escape and be able to relate to the characters and relate to their situation, and also walk away from it and say, “Good, my case of Mondays is cleared up now. Now I can go to work and not have to worry about saying something stupid or getting myself fired because I did something that I shouldn’t have, but I’ve been so pent up, and stifled, because of whatever the social, moral codes are these days,” Good. Then I’ve done my job.

I also want to ask about your composer Steve Moore, who did an amazing job. How did you find that guy?

Long story short, Bear McCreary has always been my composer, and we’re super close friends, and he was originally gonna do the score. But unfortunately, when we finished our cut, he ended up having five movies that he had to score for the Toronto Film Festival last year, and he was just, “Dude, I have no f*cking time, I just can’t do it.” So I’m like, “Okay, no problem.”

I had been a big fan of Steve Moore and [Moore’s band] Zombi forever, so I love this band. I’ve always been a fan of that kind of synth sound, but I was worried that, “Oh God, I hope I’m not going to be, kind of jumping on the bandwagon with everybody else, with the synth.” But this movie felt like it needed synth, because I kept thinking about the constant droning of computers and how mechanical, and how impersonal, and inhuman, what it’s like working in these places can feel like. So the synth just felt right, and because my editor Josh worked with Steve Moore on his last movie, he’s like, “Dude, I can just give him a call.” Within an hour, I had lost Bear McCreary and gained Steve Moore, and working with Steve was such a joy, because I was a fan already, and we never met, until after the score was done.

We did all of our work over Skype and email and it was one of the most truthful collaborations I had ever had because it was just two guys going, “How does it feel here? How do I want to feel here?” Boom boom boom, Steve would send over a cue, I’d go “Eh” or “F*ck yeah!” And then we’d put it into the movie. It was f*cking amazing. One of the things I’m most proud of is the score is awesome and there’s gonna be a vinyl out in a month where the vinyl actually looks like one of the f*cked up red eyes from the movie, so, if anything else, I know that I’ve accomplished one thing, is to make a movie good enough that it would be on vinyl, so I won that battle, thank God for that.

Mayhem is now playing on various digital platforms including Amazon, iTunes and more, and it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on December 26.

  | East Coast Editor
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One Response to Filmmaker Joe Lynch on the Catharsis of Making “Mayhem” (Interview)

  1. Did you really refer to his last movie as EVELYN when you interviewed him? Ouch.

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