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SYFY WIRE Dylan O'Brien

'Flashback' director aimed to make a Lovecraftian beast unlike any other horror monster

By Bryan Cairns
Flashback Key Art (1)

Director Christopher MacBride must relish in screwing with people's minds. His previous film, 2012's The Conspiracy, found two documentary filmmakers drawn into the world of conspiracy theories and wondering what was real... or not. His latest endeavor, Flashback – formerly entitled The Education of Fredrick Fitzell – is another head trip.

The movie follows Fred (Teen Wolf's Dylan O'Brien), a 30-year-old man suffering from violent flashbacks that harken back to his youth. Brutal and scary, the visions lead him on this journey to uncover the truth surrounding the mysterious disappearance of his high school classmate, Cindy. To get answers, Fred hunts down his former teen drug buddies. One night, they end up at a crazy drug-den party, where these strangers are all strung out on the substance Mercury. Everything spirals out of control from there, as past, present and future versions of Fred come into play.

SYFY WIRE has been following the film's progress throughout production, visiting the set as far back as 2018, where we chatted with the cast. As the film gears up to finally hit theaters, and in the wake of a delay caused by the pandemic, here's our chat with MacBride from that set visit in Toronto. The director sat down with us to discuss the project's bigger themes, high-concept science fiction, monsters, and casting O'Brien.

The original title of the movie had "education" in it. What does Fredrick learn along his journey?

The "education" definitely has multiple meanings. One of them is exploring the idea of how a human being is educated in a broad sense. How do we learn basic building blocks of life that affect us 30 years later? Experiences you have as a kid, as a child, how do those basic educational building blocks that get instilled in you. How do they then influence you when you are a grown man? Another part of it is a chunk of the story is about growing up. There's a coming-of-age aspect to it. Fred is a guy approaching 30. He's on the cusp of full-blown adulthood, in a lot of ways. He's in his first serious relationship. Is he going to commit to his girlfriend? Is he going to give up his dreams of becoming an artist and take up an office job? Is he going to become a responsible adult? His mother is also on her deathbed, which is another rite of passage when you are no longer a child. So, the education is about how to be an adult, but it's also him learning about the forces in his life that control him.

Can you talk about infusing the science-fiction element into this narrative?

Sci-fi is my favorite genre. The type that I gravitate towards most is the Philip K. Dick-type mind-bending science fiction. I love stories like that, whether it's novels or movies… high-concept, brain-teasing sci-fi. Flashback is definitely influenced by Philip K. Dick. The idea of not understanding your own identity is really interesting to me. Mind-bending sci-fi is such a great way to explore these themes of identity. A Scanner Darkly is a great example. It's stuff that could be pretentious or not fit in a straight-ahead drama. But in sci-fi, it gives you license to explore it in that way.

Where does Flashback's shapeshifting creature come into play?

The creature is a mystery in the film. I wanted an antagonist that wasn't a conventional antagonist. It's not a horror monster that is trying to gobble you up or kill you. It's something the main characters perceive when they are on this drug, that seems almost godlike. It seems to be everywhere at once. It has a Lovecraftian vibe to it. He often has creatures referred to as "you can't fathom what they look like, and you would lose your mind if you did." This is my attempt to build something like that, that looks and moves and acts like no other monster in any other movie. We are still in the process of putting it together, so we will see how it ultimately comes out.

Are the effects practical or computer-generated?

A combination of both. Audiences have seen every kind of CG monster. No matter how good the technology gets, there's always that uncanny valley where you always know it's not really there. I like things that have a Cronenberg, sticky-tactile nature to them. I want the creature to feel like it's made up of something that you don't understand, and it moves in a way you don't understand.

How did casting Dylan O'Brien as the lead come about and what did he bring to the table?

When we started casting, we wanted a good actor. But we also had certain criteria. We needed somebody who could be 17 and 30 realistically, which is tough. One of our producers, Russell Ackerman, brought up Dylan O'Brien and asked what I thought. I said, "Yes," and I went and watched American Assassin. I could see how he had formed a real character in the movie. I could see it had boundaries and limits. I could see he was a real actor. We met and he got the script. He not only got the role, but he got the whole story, so I was really impressed.

Flashback premieres in select theaters and VOD on June 4.