Knuckleball is an upcoming thriller directed by Michael Peterson and stars Munro Chambers, Michael Ironside, Luca Villacis, Kathleen Munroe, Drew Nelson and Krista Bridges. Raven Banner will release the film in theaters beginning September 28, 2018 and VOD October 5, 2018. Here’s my exclusive interview with director Michael Peterson:
“Director Michael Peterson has channelled the fear we all have as parents where there may come a day when we aren’t there to protect our children from danger and it is MORE than uncomfortable. If you thought THE VISIT was a bad weekend at the grandparents’ house, then you haven’t seen Knuckleball. This is Canada’s answer to Cape Fear, a thriller in which the protagonist is a 12 year old boy who is constantly thrust into the most horrifying and deadliest of situations.” — excerpt from my review of Knuckleball (>>READ THE WHOLE THING HERE<<).
I was lucky enough to chat with Peterson about his second major feature (following up his comedy Lloyd The Conqueror) and really pick his brain about these complicated and twisted characters that he conjured up in an incredible Canadian indie horror that pays homage to classics like The Shining and to a much nastier degree, Home Alone – on bath salts. If you’ve seen the film, check out the more spoilery section of the interview near the end, otherwise enjoy the rest leading up to that – then proceed to get the film this Friday on iTunes – AND THEN COME BACK TO READ IT ALL!
Keven: Knuckleball shakes up the horror trope of putting a young female protagonist in jeopardy by utilizing a young boy instead and Luca Villacis does an amazing job in the film playing a realistic character the audience can really cheer for. Would the movie have the same impact if you opted to use a young woman instead?
Mike: I’m not sure how that might change it. I often play through the scenarios where you gender swap characters to see how it might play out. I’m sure I did it with this one too but I don’t recall how it played out but I ended up here so there must have been a reason for keeping it as is. Kids in general are often used as the scary or creepy element in horror films (Children of The Corn, The Omen, etc) so it was fun to have the kid as protagonist.
K: You’ve mentioned that this film is the ultimate negative scenario that all parents dread and that’s not being there to protect their children from danger – were you inspired to make Knuckleball because of any specific fears that you have personally?
M: Absolutely, the fear of not being able to protect your kids starts the moment they’re born. It might be one of the first emotions you have of being saddled with that responsibility, that you’ll not be able to be there to protect them as they grow up.
K: Casting Michael Ironside as the mysterious grandfather Jacob was the perfect choice. Because of the ambiguous nature that character has, where he needs to come across as both a guardian to Henry as well as a potential threat – did you give any specific notes or insight to Michael’s character that maybe the audience wouldn’t be aware of?
M: Ironside is a really wonderful and talented actor whose training and range aren’t always given a chance to run free. We had lots of talks about story and character. He told me some stories about his dad that I definitely used to shape it out, and I definitely worked with some ideas from my grandfather. I assume both of those men would be of a similar generation of stoic men who were not free to outwardly express their emotions and doing so would have been considered unmanly, and all of which is pretty unhealthy. We found ways to ground the character emotionally in our own personal experiences but at the end of the day Michael Ironside is a thoroughbred and he runs.
K: Jacob has a very twisted relationship with his neighbour Dixon and a past that is slowly revealed over the course of the film that only gets darker and more disturbing but also implied in some ways. Was there more to their backstory that wasn’t shown in the film?
M: What is in the film is what was in the script and what was shot. It is something the actors and I would have discussed though. Basically, Jacob is the planet all the other characters orbit around and each are affected by his gravitational pull whether they want to be or not. In general, we learn that Jacob is the most heinous character of the bunch by the end of the film. My hope is this becomes more disturbing because in the context of his relationship to Henry, he is a character we grow to like, and then realize this other side to him is truly horrific.
K: Munro Chambers was incredible in one of my favourite Canadian films of all time – Turbo Kid – but that performance was the polar opposite of Dixon in Knuckleball. His portrayal here reminded me of iconic cinematic characters such as Robert De Niro’s Max Cady in Cape Fear. What kind of notes or inspiration did you give Munro for Dixon?
M: I think we talked about stray dogs that are beaten and wounded but keep coming back because they don’t know any better. Stuff like being emotionally stunted, the absence of love and things like that but again, Munro is a fantastic actor and it was a pleasure to work with him as his first villain. I’m sure we spoke about other things but with strong cast like this they make my job easier.
K: Dixon is one of those perfect movie villains because he’s A) Obviously horrible but B) His tragic backstory and motivations behind his brutal dark perversions are heartbreaking and sympathetic – What kind of people or events inspired you to write this kind of antagonist for Knuckleball?
M: I try and find personal things to connect me to the material. Not necessarily literal, but all families are complicated and larger families more so. I come from a large family, one of five kids. And all families have secrets and damage. More generally, antagonists are better if you can at least understand what makes them tick and can sympathise with their motives no matter how terrible. It makes it more human and hopefully complex and even more disturbing for the viewer. The scariest potential monsters are people.
K: Henry is a clever and believable protagonist – how important was it to you that his “traps” and survival methods come across as realistic in this setting as opposed to more over-the-top shtick we see in classics like Home Alone?
M: That was very important for me and I asked myself this question all the time: What would a smart kid have access to on a farm and how would they use it?
K: Videogames and strategy come into play here as Henry is shown playing a violent game throughout the earlier parts of the film – are you trying to tell audiences that gaming can indeed be a useful training method when it comes to life or death situations?
M: That is exactly what I’m saying. The magic bullet theory where people try and blame bad behaviour on a single input is a joke but still comes up all the time. Why is it never used to explain good behaviour? This kid listens to heavy metal and that’s why they did the act of violence – that sort of thinking is too easy, simple-minded and irresponsible. In narrative film you can create this sort of cause-effect scenario in a more fulfilling and effective way. I thought it would be fun to throw that idea on its head and show the reverse. Playing video games can have a positive impact – why not?
K: I love that the movie was filmed in Alberta and as someone who has lived in this province my whole life, the cold-ass winter and fields really became another character in itself – really adding to the isolation of Henry’s dire situation – how did you find that amazing farm location?
M: The production designer, Myron Hyrak, read the script and said he knew the perfect location. He was right! The prairies in general have a stark beauty, especially in winter, so I hope the film captures that claustrophobic expansiveness.
K: Favourite scene to shoot?
M: The basement scenes were fun. Especially the stunts. Stunts are always fun. That and the dinner scene with Jacob and Henry. Not sure why but just love the look of it, and really love the interplay between Jacob and Henry in this scene. It’s quiet but a lot is being said.
K: Least favourite scene to shoot?
M: Everything outside at night was pretty awful. Just so cold and the poor actors were especially freezing as they have to wear wardrobe so can’t dress for weather while we are filming. I felt bad for them and the crew.
MAJOR SPOILER QUESTIONS FOR REST OF INTERVIEW:
K: Although you never explicitly proclaim this in the film – Henry’s grandfather and his neighbour Dixon are serial sex predators/killers who prey on both young boys and girls — correct?
M: Yes. Dixon and Dixon’s mom are part of his shadow family that would have been created from that type of activity. They would be seen as not equal to his ‘light’ family that would be the one everyone else knows about, like Mary and Henry.
K: Featuring a sexual predator as the antagonist in your film is a bold move and one we don’t often see in horror thrillers. At one point in the film Dixon gets super pervy with Henry – did you worry about this sequence and was there ever a more uncomfortable version of this scene in Jacob’s bedroom?
M: What could be more terrible. Yes, I did worry about this but if you’re going to raise the stakes this accomplishes it. I was worried about how much to show. I don’t particularly want to see that myself and don’t think you need to see more than what’s shown. So, implying it felt worse and more tactful. I still have trouble watching that sequence. It always makes me feel so bad for Henry.
K: Henry eventually discovers “the room” or dungeon near the end of the film which has a series of videotapes and I’m assuming these home movies of horror feature their victims – did you ever have a version of the film where Henry plays one of the tapes?
M: Nope. But I love the mystery and insinuation those tapes signify and glad it is being picked up on. What do you imagine Dixon is watching on his computer when Henry knocks at his door? It is all so yucky. When I was young there was a yard I cut through and being a curious kid when I walked by the shed I looked in and it was full of video tapes, stacks, top to bottom. It filled my imagination with all sorts of ideas and looking back I bet that is partly where I pulled that image from for the set decoration. I’m sure it was just some guy who bought the contents of a video store at auction or owned one that went out of business and that was the leftover inventory but it’s always funny to me where these things come from.
K: Why does Henry’s mother leave him with her dad or did she block out anything traumatic that may have happened to her as a child with a sexually abusive parent — OR was she left unharmed to his evils?
M: He told her the truth, all of it, and that is how she dealt with it. She couldn’t come back from it. Maybe she found one of his videos and he introduced her to the woman in the cage, or maybe in his warped way he told her everything because he loved her and wanted her to know all of him and then she did that do he decided to never show anyone that side of him again and shut down even more with his daughter – it is all really fucked up and twisted. His daughter was left unharmed in that way. He would protect his own — outsiders and shadow family would be a different story.
Mary wouldn’t have been physically harmed in same way, Jacob is protective of Henry around Dixon. His direct family is special to him and put on a pedestal, maybe it is the only thing that prevents him from seeing himself as a complete monster, some rationale like that. Families tend to operate with lots of willful ignorance to prevent their mythologies from being disrupted.
K: Does Henry realize that his grandfather Jacob is an evil man by the end of the film when he “sees him” working on the house a final time before leaving the farm?
M: He certainly realizes it. My thought was the audience knows as much as Henry does and he is a smart kid so some of the pieces would definitely be pieced together but he can never have a complete picture of the darkness. We know as much as he does in the movie. I can imagine this haunting his character forever, knowing but not totally knowing and replaying it putting together more pieces and imagining out the details in his teens and twenties. Poor kid is gonna have some lasting trauma.
K: There was only one negative review I’ve read thus far of Knuckleball and it’s someone commenting on how the female police officer was treated when Dixon smashes her to death using a baseball bat – Did you worry about audience reactions to this scene – especially during a time when there’s a lot of intense emotions surrounding female representation in media
M: Not really. I don’t feel that is fair criticism and if someone wants a character to live or die a shorter or longer life they should make their own stories. What you talk about though are all things I think about in general, are important and obviously topical, but how can it be the responsibility of this one story to correct an overall cultural problem. I think there are room for lots of stories and there could be a different version where the sheriff is the main protagonist but it wasn’t this story. Thematically I think it fit with the violence and influence of the toxic masculinity in the film – and also a minor homage to The Shining. It opens up relevant and important questions about culture and responsibility in general but if you don’t like it as a story element then, I think, it becomes fair criticism.
Under-representation is an issue in film. One of my next projects features a female protagonist and it is the best way to tell that particular story. Something can be done about it in my overall body of work, and I hope to look back and see that be the reality but the ethic is to the individual story or film. Ideally, this type of question will become a thing of the past as more filmmakers make more films, as more diverse stories with more diverse cast and crew, get made moving forward.