ComingSoon spoke to the director of Bodies Bodies Bodies Halina Reijn, about the upcoming dark horror comedy, which is out in theaters on August 5. Reijn talked about how her acting background helped her direct, and why she chose each cast member.
“When a group of rich 20-somethings plans a hurricane party at a remote family mansion, a party game goes awry in this fresh and funny look at backstabbing, fake friends, and one party gone very, very wrong,” reads the film’s synopsis.
Jonathan Sim: Bodies Bodies Bodies is such an original slasher movie with a unique vision. What were the qualities about Sarah DeLappe’s screenplay that made you want direct this film?
Halina Reijn: Well, I didn’t get her screenplay. I got another screenplay where the game was at the heart of it and it was totally different, but I loved the game. I played the game a lot with my friends — we called it Mafia or Werewolf — and then A24 asked me to get involved. And I said, “well, I want to get involved, but I want to do it in my own way and make it more Mean Girls meets Lord of the Flies,” and I’m from the theater. Then they introduced me to Sarah DeLappe and we started to work on the script together. So that’s how the process evolved.
I thought for both of us coming from the theater, her being a playwright [and] me being a stage actress, we thought it would be incredibly funny to make a very contemporary … almost like a Chekhov, Much Ado About Nothing with the big question: is the beast outside of you or inside of you? And then make it very contemporary and also comment on our time and have fun with our issues with the screens and the phones and TikTok and social media and all of that.
This is a movie where casting is extremely important for every character. What do you think each actor brought to the role that made you want to bring them onto the film?
Well with Amandla [Stenberg, who plays Sophie in the film], we really chased her. We really wanted her for Sophie, and she’s such a, you know, beautiful, smart. She has all those qualities that Sophie has where everybody thinks they’re in love with her. Everybody thinks they’re having an affair with her. We thought it would be amazing if she would play a role like that, also because she never really had filmed a darker, manipulative role … ex-addict, everything, you know? I thought that would be really interesting for her. And then Maria [Bakalova, who plays Bee in the film], I saw her in Borat 2 and was just blown away by the force of nature that she is. Then finding out that she also comes from theater and classical training like me, immediately I was like, “yes! Yes, let’s get her.”
And then Lee Pace and Pete [Davidson, who plays David], I immediately knew I wanted to have Pete for David. He’s been used, up until now, a little bit as a goofy and really funny [guy]. But here, he’s much darker, and the masculine toxicity of it all, I thought, was such an interesting space for him to be in, and he was totally up for it. My style is very much like … I love acting that is honest and no ego, and it’s all about the group and their reactions. They were all open to that and really going their long takes. They have to learn every fucking word in the script and know it by heart. So I really created the group in a way where I thought they need to be, technically, super good actors, but also be able to improvise like Rachel Sennott [Alice in the film] and Pete do in this film a lot. They give these golden moments that we could never just write on the page.
This isn’t your typical slasher movie, given how it’s a very funny movie as well. Tell me about finding the comedy in this dark situation. Were there any standout improvised moments on set?
We really wanted to make more of a dark comedy than anything else. So Heathers, for instance, was a great inspiration for us, but also watching Reservoir Dogs — that kind of humor. We were really looking for that kind of irony. The hardest thing of the whole film was to pull off that tone, because how can you make something funny but at the same time, keep the tension? Because it’s also a little bit like a murder mystery, like a modern version of Clue. On the page, it was already really good. I find Sarah DeLappe is a genius in writing humor on the page and just incredible dialogue. We gave them a lot of space to bring either their own ideas … they would come up to me in the morning and say, “can I say that? Can I add this?”
And I love that. I love collaborating with them. And me being so old, 46, making a film about youth culture — I better collaborate with them to make it authentic! But also we had moments “I look like I fuck, that’s the vibe I want to put out there,” that’s Pete’s line that he improvised. These kind of things were so incredible. So I would just say we would do a take of this office scene written as is, and then we would do a take where I would give way more freedom, or I would just never say cut and let the camera roll. In the beginning that would make them feel super awkward, but at a certain moment, they knew that I was going to do that. That’s my style. Then you get all these little presents because you just let them be, and they start to talk and they start to say things that you can never write. Also, they would say things to each other during lunch break or during dinner, and I would take notes and I would ask them if we could use it.
Did your experience in acting help inform your directorial style on Bodies Bodies Bodies?
Oh yes. I think what I really take with me, having been an actor myself, is that even though it looks so fun when you watch a great film or great play, acting is super embarrassing and it’s so fucking scary. Especially [since] these people don’t really know each other and now they have to play that they’re friends or that they’re lovers or they’re gonna have sex or whatever. The main thing for me is to make them feel incredibly safe, but also make them feel like I see them, I hear them — not only because I want them to feel safe, but also because it’s better for the film to really ask them, “what do you think? Where would you want to be? What do you want to do?”
And so they feel responsible for the project as much as I do, and that will make them feel better and more in charge of their own destiny within this project. So that is very important to me, but also really creating circumstances in which they can actually feel a scene. I think with film, directors often lose themselves in the technique of it all and they just stop and go. So as an actor, you get really short moments where you can act and then it’s like, “stop! Okay, next? Okay, another take.” So what I do is I take really long takes.
So for instance, the dance scene in the beginning, we basically locked them up in that room with the camera guy, with the DP. They had some cues of what had to happen and [for] the rest, they could just do whatever they wanted to do. We put real music there, so you actually get in the atmosphere of it all, and it’s easier for them then to play either that they’re having fun or that they’re scared later in the film when everything is dark. So I want to make it as real and as raw and as animalistic and primal as I can.
Given that this is such a crazy movie with a lot of unexpected turns, what would you say was your favorite scene in the movie to film?
I have to be honest with you, all the group scenes were super intimidating. I was so nervous for them. Also, it’s only my second film. I’m like, “how am I going to be able to be with all these incredible actors?” They don’t speak my language, because I’m not English. So I prepared myself like a military man. It was two weeks at the location just with my cameraman and me and some stand-ins to make a choreography of all the group scenes. So I would come prepared. But the scenes that actually turned out to be the most fun were the group scenes. So because we had the preparation and we knew what was going to happen, we drew it all out. We were also able to be in the moment and actually be open to their ideas.
One of my favorite scenes is the big final scene — it’s something like 15 pages long, which is insane for movie — and then there’s a big shootout and they all tell each other the truth. I think that’s one of the best scenes in the film, and they are all funny, but it’s also tragic and the final deaths are happening. I’m very proud of that scene.
Something that sets this movie apart from other slasher movies is how this movie has a lot of satire about friendships in the digital age. So how would you describe the themes that you wanted this movie to tackle?
I, myself — even if I’m older — I like the whole like group chat thing. We do WhatsApp, that’s different than you guys text. We do WhatsApp and in WhatsApp, we’re also able to leave a group and then you will see like “Halina has left the group.” The friend group chat thing, it’s just like a form of communication that will create so many misunderstandings, and that has become our new thing, of course. Like ,you and I are now sitting here talking through a screen. We used to be in a room together, you know what I mean? It just changed our lives completely. And I find I just have a lot of questions about how does that influence human nature? How is it going to influence [us[? We’re only watching the screen, I’m so addicted to this stupid machine.
I spent hours and hours and hours a day just watching this. What would I be doing if I wouldn’t do that? Would I be reading a book? How is it going to influence how we relate to each other? How is it going to influence physical intimacy? It’s just more that I have a lot of questions about it and that I thought it would be super fun to make a self-deprecating film. It’s also a cautionary tale for myself, like “please put away your phone.” I think it’s telling that we start the film with the girls doing the very beautiful kiss and then they’re laying in the grass and then they say, “I love you,” and the end of the film is like, “I have reception.”
So it kind of like tells you this sort of message. Even though it’s a fun, entertaining ride hopefully, I also want, to say a little bit like, “oh, people let’s just look into each other’s eyes!” Because if they would do that, if they would for one minute stop and just say, “wait, what is going on here?” Then the film would stop. They don’t know what to do in crisis anymore, because we’re just locked through those phones. And when the Wi-Fi goes out, they just stop. They don’t know what to do.