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Watching They/Them, the new LGBTQIA+-focused horror film arriving this week on Peacock, you sometimes get the sense that two films are unfolding at once. On one side, there's the obvious tension of a masked slasher running loose at a gay conversion camp, picking off people one by one, but on the other, there's a thoughtful, character-focused teen drama about gay, trans, and nonbinary kids just trying to come to grips with who they are.
For Oscar-nominated writer John Logan, though the horror influences in the film are clear, it was those kids who came first.
"It was those seven campers that came first, the idea of celebrating their uniqueness, and having them challenged and rise to heroic heights, because that's something I never saw when I was growing up in a horror film," Logan told SYFY WIRE. "So I started with those characters and then the horror elements, all the tropes of the slasher movie sort of fell into place around that."
Logan, whose past screenwriting credits include everything from Gladiator to Sweeney Todd to Skyfall, makes his directorial debut with They/Them (pronounced "They Slash Them"), and poured everything he's learned from being on sets alongside directing greats like Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott into the making of the feature. As for why now was the right time for him to take on the director's chair, Logan's reasoning once again went back to those seven campers attempting to survive a week at the foreboding Whistler Camp.
"It was very personal to me, and I put my heart and my soul into those seven campers, into those kids, and I'm very sort of unnaturally protective of them," Logan explained. "And it's a very intimate story for me, in a way, even though it's in the great sort of horror genre context. And so I was very attached to it. And thankfully, [producer] Jason Blum, who I've known for years, is very supportive of first-time directors and he handed me the keys to the car. So I decided to drive it."
Those seven campers are a group of young people all heading to Whistler Camp for different reasons. Jordan (Theo Germaine), a nonbinary teen from a conservative family, has made a deal with their parents that they can be legally emancipated if they spend a week at Whistler, while Toby (Austin Crute) has been granted a trip to New York City (and all the musicals he can see) if he spends the week at the camp. Alexandra (Quei Tann) is there because her parents will kick her out if she doesn't attend, Kim (Anna Lore) wants to find a way to deal with her closeted existence, Veronica (Monique Kim) wants to stop fighting her own nature as a bisexual, Stu (Cooper Koch) wants to deal with the issues that might prevent the future his family has planned for him, and Gabriel (Darwin Del Fabro) simply wants all the bullying in his life to stop somehow.
No matter their reasons, each young camper arrives at Whistler unsure of what to expect. What they find when they get there are Owen (Kevin Bacon) and Cora (Carrie Preston), the latest members of the Whistler family to control the decades-old camp. Owen and Cora claim right away that they're not out to force anyone to change themselves, but rather on a mission to help each camper come to a better understanding of who they are. Of course, how they go about doing that creates some of the most potent tension in the film, tension that Bacon and Preston both had to work in the overtly friendly nature of the characters.
"I thought, 'Why does [Logan] want to cast me in this?' And then I realized, "Oh, I think he wants the package of somebody who's very approachable, who has this kind of almost motherly sort of way about her in order to then flip that around,'" Preston recalled. "And so I got excited about that. And then, talking to him and him telling me what he wanted to do with the film, I was like, 'I'm in.'"
Bacon added, "I think that the instinct for a character like this would be to make him sort of a cookie cutter, buzz cut, flag waving, drill sergeant. So in talking to John about it, we wanted to soften his edges, at least initially, and we talked a lot about what the backstory could have been of someone like this, who obviously was raised with this camp. It's been in his family for a lot of years. And the idea that he split and went out and found a different sort of world and lifestyle, and then returned to this world."
The campers themselves are, of course, naturally suspicious of Owen and Cora, but many of them quickly form their own bonds within the dynamic of the camp. According to the cast, that's something that mirrored real life, as they learned to be part of a little on-set family while shooting amid pandemic restrictions.
"When the casting came about, it's like when we all met each other, instantly our personalities just started gelling and we started feeding off each other," Crute said. "When all of these personalities, seven personalities, are in a place, we're all in real life developed in different ways. We have our own queer journeys and our own queer stories and our own hangups and things like that, so to kind of just talk with each other and see, 'Oh, you deal with that? That's funny that you said that, because I grew up with this and that, and just like exchanging [experiences]. I think we helped refine our characters.'"
That sense of refining characters also extended to the cast's relationship with Logan, who encouraged them to develop their roles by adding bits of themselves, some of which even made their way into the film's production design.
"Jordan is a visual artist, and I am a visual artist," Germaine explained. "And John wanted to put that little detail into the film after I showed him some of my paintings one day. There are a couple of doodles of mine that show up in the movie. And it's small, but that was really important to me, because I like expressing myself, and I like showing the different kinds of art that I get to do, and I like that John was cool with my character kind of being that way as well. Just a small detail that I really liked."
But of course, even as the campers bond and learn to realize more about who they actually are, there's a killer on the loose at Camp Whistler. Who the killer is, what they want, and when they'll be unmasked is all a closely guarded secret of the film, but Logan did open up about creating the killer persona at the heart of They/Them. While the film overall was inspired by summer camp horror classics like The Burning and Sleepaway Camp, the mask the killer wears is an entirely new creation, and reflects a certain kind of terror that Logan wanted to evoke each time we see it.
"It started with looking at every slasher film mask from the beginning of time and seeing what I responded to and what I didn't, and then really thinking about the character who's wearing the mask, who is a character sort of torn apart into two different sides, sort of a good side and the bad side, if you will," Logan said. "And so the mask we designed to be sort of split down the middle, and one side is very sort of apathetic and calm, and the other side is sort of horrific. And because we're in a camp, it's made of wood. It's very bespoke. It has wood staples down the middle, so it's very tactile. It's not sort of a smooth Valentine's Day or a smooth Scream mask. So there's real texture to it because the world is so textured because you're literally out in the middle of the woods."
They/Them is now streaming on Peacock.