Joe Lynch hit the horror scene in the mid-2000s with the release of his first feature film, Wrong Turn 2. Since then, he’s continued to excel as a director with movies like Knights of Badassdom and Everly, not to mention shorts like Truth in Journalism, co-hosting The Movie Crypt podcast with Adam Green and co-starring on Green’s horror sitcom Holliston.
We got the opportunity to chat with Lynch about his new film, Mayhem, which takes place in an office building plagued by an outbreak of a rage virus and stars Steven (The Walking Dead) Yeun and Samara (The Babysitter) Weaving. Read on as we discuss everything from its origins to its challenges to why it’s the director’s most personal film to date.
Mayhem hits theaters, VOD and Digital HD on November 10th.
Wicked Horror: One of my favorite things about you as a filmmaker is that you can take all these different ideas from different writers and still showcase your own clear cinematic voice. What was it about this script that made you feel like you needed to direct this?
Joe Lynch: This is more than anything I’ve done—whether it’s Wrong Turn 2, which I wanted to make my splatter love-letter or Knights of Badassdom which I tried, failed but tried to make Goonies for grown-ups, Everly which I wanted to make my Die Hard—it was all based on want. When I read Mayhem, I literally read this script in a corporate job. It could not be more meta. When my agents said “you should read this” even they probably didn’t know I was working a corporate job. Matt Smith over at Circle of Confusion just really liked Everly and thought I was the nut job for the job.
I read this script and I swear to God, Nat, I’ve told this story a million times before, but it still holds true, it floored me. It felt like someone was writing for me. Or they knew that I was in this shitty situation. I was a creative person working a corporate job, it even said “creative” in my title and yet I could not have felt less creative in that position. So when I read this thing and I read about Derek, and his plights and his passions and what he wanted to do versus what society told him to do, or his parents wanted him to do or what life told him to achieve I could not have related to him more as a character.
In every movie I’ve made I wanted someone in there that could be me, in a way. Whether it’s the director in Wrong Turn 2 or Ryan’s character in Knights or Dead Man in Everly, there’s someone in everything that I’m kind of putting a pin in. And with this, it’s like “Oh my God, Derek is me and I am Derek.” And it was the first time I remember thinking “I need to tell this.” Not “I want.” This movie was the lowest budget that I had done yet. I didn’t care. When they said “We got the money, well, not all the money, but we got something,” I was like “Fuck it, let’s do it, I don’t care.”
I am not going to have another opportunity where I have all of this pent-up aggression and something to say. To me, it didn’t matter if I had X amount or X, Y and Z amount, I just knew that I had something inside of me and I had to get it out. And it was done by any means necessary.
WH: We’re starting to see a little bit more of this, as you’ve dubbed, “worksploitation” on the rise. Why do you think we’re starting to see so many movies of this type right now?
Lynch: Well, I mean, if you look at the current climate, our boss sucks. Let’s be honest here. Our boss is a corporate overlord and he’s now running the country. This movie was written well before Trump was even nominated. And the movie was made in the world of “this could happen, but come on, it won’t happen…” But it was still that fear that corporate overlords and Big Brother were coming together and this was turning into fucking OCP from RoboCop. And I thought “Here’s a movie that people can appreciate in a climate where you need to keep your nose clean in every situation, no one can yell and everyone’s passive-aggressive.” Being in that world when I was, it just felt like everything could turn into that, there was something about it that just kind of felt right.
Funny enough, when I got Mayhem—or at least when I was signing on—a couple of weeks later, I got the script for The Belko Experiment. And I was like “Oh, shit.” And I’m friends with James, so I already wanted to read it anyway. When I read it, I was like “Well, it really depends on what the director brings to the table tone-wise” for me to worry about if it was too similar. I think it was just like, “Okay, work-place situation, extreme violence in a short amount of time, shit, maybe there’s a comparison there.” I think there was even a movie called Office Uprising that has been in-development or is finally coming out.
I think it’s just that in a world where we’re all starting to be subsidized and we’re all kind of folded into the corportate world in one way or another, whether you’re a brand or a Mom & Pop but that Mom & Pop is now owned by some corporation, it’s all getting smaller and smaller. We’re all gonna be owned by fucking Time Warner at some point.
This, to me, just felt like everyone has been in this situation in some form or another. We’ve been touring the movie for the past six or seven months on this festival tour, you would be shocked how many people come up to me and say “I feel what you felt and I feel how Derek feels, I also work a corporate job…” And when I ask people in the screenings and they raise their hands, it’s a lot of fucking people. I also have a lot of people say “Now I want to quit my job,” and I say “Well, maybe you should make sure that you are financially stable before you do that.” I look at it and think Derek probably had a pretty decent exit plan financially where he could take those art classes and not worry about having to freelance somewhere or be an Uber driver or whatever.
But I think it’s just that the time is right where the corporate evils, things like E-Corp from Mr. Robot are definitely a good example of where our country’s going and where our world’s going. Everything’s getting smaller and smaller and folded into this corporate space, so how can we not react without having to comment on that? Mayhem, Belko, Office Uprising, look at Mike Judge, who’s always been the prophet. Office Space is more relevant than ever. That’s where America’s going and I think it’s time for us to push back a little bit with a little bit of humor and a whole lot of blood.
WH: Oh yeah, for sure. Now, this is one of the only rage virus movies I’ve ever seen where the heroes are just as infected as everyone else. Was that a difficult balance to maintain, so that they stayed central and sympathetic?
Lynch: That was the thing that excited me most reading it, thinking “They’re not going to infect those guys—HOLY SHIT, THEY’RE INFECTED TOO. It posed a particular challenge for me because in most cases, whether it be 28 Days Later or any of these movies with this kind of infestation, usually the hero is kind of squeaky clean and on the straight-and-narrow. In most cases, you need that to be us because in most cases we’re watching and thinking “I hope that never happens to me” and in the second or third act you go “Hasta luego, supporting character.”
But here, it’s “Holy shit, they’re infected too?” So when we were prepping and putting the movie together, what I did with Matias the writer and Sean Sorensen the producer, we came up with this chart where it was all the different phases of what it’s like to be infected with the IV7 virus. It was handy because both the actors and extras all knew at which point in the story what level of insanity they were. And I just thought that was so exciting and so endearing that you would have your heroes be dealing with the virus just as much as everyone on the periphery.
And what exciting things would come from that, you know? As an actor myself, sometimes you don’t want to be stifled by being “the good guy.” The bad guy is always the most exciting one. In this case, you could look at the movie in one way and go “Well, Derek and Mel are the bad guys.” You could totally switch the point-of-view around and go “What they’re doing is fucking awful.” They’re taking people out left and right, they’re shooting people with nail guns in the crotch, yet, “Aw, it’s America’s sweethearts, it’s totally fine.” And that really excited me and I know it really excited the actors because they got to act out their wildest fantasies and no one was gonna stop them.
So I got to have my cake and eat it too, in that respect, tonally. I got to allow my protagonists to act out in an antagonistic way, and because of the high concept we got away with it. And if you have stuff like humor and the extreme violence, it’s all those things that are kind of the sugar to make the medicine go down.
And when you have actors as good as Steven and Samara, who are just so charming and so likable, even when they’re doing these horrible things, you go “Ah, it’s okay, they’re our buddies! It’s fine.” Having that was a huge part of how we were able to get away with the shit we got away with.
WH: How hard did you work with Steven and Samara in particular on striking that balance and making sure they came across as relatable, but also letting them go crazy?
Lynch: The stroke of luck that I had was that Steven and Samara were instantly friends when they first met. Within minutes. Nat, it was insane. Watching them just kind of not fall in love in a romantic way, but in a platonic way where you could tell that both of them had immediate respect for each other and both of them were secretly going “How can I challenge the other person?” They just clicked. They immediately clicked.
In terms of how hard we worked, I worked with Steven months before we actually started shooting. We got the green light in December and we didn’t start shooting until March. I had a fair amount of time with Steven, whereas Samara, I cast her three weeks before we shot. It was a really tough process to find the right person who could kind of harness the chaos but also be endearing and lovable and engaging without turning the audience off with some bit that she was doing.
What’s genius about the two of them together is that Steven is a very proactive actor, he was challenging me every day on set with “What’s the tone and how does that affect my performance?” And man, I loved it because previously in other movies I didn’t really have that before with certain actors. I had some actors who would just show up and say “Tell me what my line is, tell me where my mark is” and that’s it. Every day Stephen kept me on my toes in a great way. I had to check myself before I wrecked the movie. And Samara is such a reactive actor, where you throw anything at her and—through the character—she is going to react. When you have a proactive actor and a reactive actor put together, they were just peas in a pod.
Steven would always be challenging her or throwing things out, like in the scene with Dave Matthews Band, that was practically improv that we did the night before because we just had the time to block it off and they were like “Well, the van’s not here yet so let’s just hang out.” We just kind of started riffing and they were answering these questions as the characters, not them. And I went back and pretty much just wrote out what we all said, came back the next morning and said “Here it is.”
That was a product of the organic chemistry that those two had. We just worked hard right before, hammering out what the tone was and what we were trying to go for character-wise, so that once we were on set, they knew exactly who those characters were and what they would do in any given situation, even if it was shit I was throwing at them on the day.
WH: And when the action really starts to heat up, Derek can definitely hold his own, he has some great stuff to do, but Mel can really, really hold her own. Was that an intentional thing, that she would maybe be better at it in some ways?
Lynch: Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely! Without a doubt. Look, I grew up in the era of Ellen Ripley. And my mom, who’s always been my hero, she’s always been this very strong woman in my life and she’s always been just kind of a role model. There was originally something when I read that part—and initially the part was gonna be for a Latina actress—there was just a fire in her belly that I think was so refreshing, where that character would usually be the damsel in distress or the shrieking sidekick, and you’d maybe have that moment of “Oh, dude, she just punched that guy in the face” once.
What if that wasn’t the case? What if you have this repressed individual who’s secretly more comfortable when she’s wearing a Black Dahlia Murder shirt under her blouse and she doesn’t feel comfortable in that skin. What if that person was let loose on this law firm? What if that person had metal in their head when they’re beating the shit out of people? It didn’t deter from her core character. I just thought that was so exciting and when you have someone like Samara who has such a fire in her belly but is so fucking funny at the same time, it inspired me to do more with her.
There are so many scenes in the movie that are just me screaming stuff out at them, because I knew the character but I also knew them. Like that line where she goes “You open doors like my grandmother fucks,” that’s just me screaming things out at her because there was that symbiosis between us where I knew that was a Mel thing to say. She knew that if it wasn’t a Mel thing to say, she wouldn’t say it. That’s a testament to the writing that Matias already had and the character that we created. Fuck, man, we need more badass women.
It shouldn’t be a novelty. It should be that way all the time. That was my whole point with Everly, with Salma Hayek and that was my point especially here. There’s nothing better than seeing, I should say the better sex be the one that saves the day. And it’s sad that it’s not the norm, but I think things are changing. Both behind the camera and in front of the camera, I think tides are changing and movies like this are just the kind of thing that help the cause.
WH: For sure. So, you’ve also got the next 48-hour Movie Crypt coming up in December. That was a huge undertaking. What made you and Adam decide to take that on again?
Lynch: I think just the response that we had last year and how much we did help. That was really the thing that made us immediately, as soon as it was over, go “We’ve got to do that again.” I mean, it was an endurance test. It was exhausting. But the fact that we were doing it not just for our own edification or our own checklist of stupid things to do, but it was something that really affected people and, I gotta say it, it saved lives. Whether it’s puppy’s lives or peoples’ lives, whatever. We did something good.
In a world and an industry that is so self-serving and it’s always “me, me me…” and we’re only doing things for ourselves lately, to be able to do something that helped someone else and just kind of talking for 48 hours, it’s the right thing to do again. I’m excited to do it because it’s not going to be sweltering hot in this goddamn office. It’ll be Christmas time too, so there’s gonna be a lot of fun in store. We’re just starting to put it all together. I think we’ve got some really cool surprises in store for people.