James Gunn has made a cottage industry out of messing with the traditional superhero story — Guardians of the Galaxy assembled a ragtag group of misfits who only had 12 percent of a plan, Super featured a disturbed divorcee emulating a TV superhero, and The Specials mostly focused on the infighting of a bunch of cut-rate wannabe heroes. Still, those films all at least fell within the framework of the classic superhero mythos; his new film, Brightburn, doesn’t just turn the whole thing on its head, it stomps it repeatedly into the ground.
Brightburn, directed by David Yarovesky from a script by Brian and Mark Gunn and produced by James Gunn, starts with the classic Superman origin story: A baby crashes down from space and lands in a field in Kansas, where a kindly couple (here played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) take him in and raise him as their own. Little Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) doesn’t know that he’s an alien until he’s an adolescent, when his powers begin to reveal themselves. But instead of embarking on a mission to protect truth, justice, and the American way, Brandon embraces the dark side of his newfound abilities.
The movie is a dark look at nature vs. nurture, the expectations we place on parents, and what can happen when kids who are told that they’re special really take that to heart. SYFY WIRE spoke with Yarovesky (who directed the 2014 horror flick The Hive) about his relationship with the brothers Gunn, making the movie, and its uncompromising end.
**SPOILER ALERT: There are spoilers for the movie Brightburn ahead**
You've worked with different Gunns over the years. How’d you meet James and the Gunn boys?
I met James at just a party, in a kind of unspectacular way. He was the guy at a party and we got along. We played poker during a time when tons of people were playing poker. The poker craze 10 or 15 years ago. We played some poker, I took all his money, which at the time wasn't nearly as much as it is now. I took all 10 of his dollars, and then we quickly just became really good pals. And we wanted to make a movie together for a long time, but it just hasn't worked out for 100,000 different reasons. The timing's never been right, or the projects never been right, it just hasn't jelled in that way.
I read that you were working on a spec script about a supervillain origin story when they brought the idea that became Brightburn to you.
To be clear, it's a very different story, and it's a very different movie entirely, but the thing that united the two was my fascination with villains, and I think that's why I brought it up, was just because I've always been interested in villains. I'm a guy who roots for the bad guy, often things like I was cheering for the night change in Game of Thrones. I'm like constantly team chaos in movies.
They’re generally cooler.
They're cooler generally. If I'm playing a video game, I'm definitely going to pick the bad guy, like Left for Dead was one of my favorite games to play as the zombies. But I mean the spec script that I wrote was just so different.
One of the things that really intrigued me was how Brandon "became" evil. He’s a weird kid, but it’s when the alien vessel that brought him to this planet, which is locked in his parents’ barn, begins to "talk" to him. Is Brandon truly evil by free will, or controlled by that ship? Is it nature or "nurture," so to speak?
I think that's part of the conversation of the movie. The way I had always seen the movie is that there is his Earth life, the life that he's been raised into. And then there is his alien life. That is the life that he comes from, whatever his heritage in his past. And there's actually a color story in the movie, where blue would be his Earth life and red would be his alien life. And those things are competing for him, essentially.
And so to me, it's not that his evil turns on when the ship turns on, it's that the ship starts talking to him and the ship starts communicating to him and his parents start communicating to him. And there's a struggle for allegiance. And he comes to realize that his parents have been lying to him and the ship has never lied to him [laughs].
What's kind of neat about the movie and the costumes that my wife Autumn created is she tells us a story about his allegiance on his clothes. If you watch the colors change, you'll see how blue he is or how red he is the further you get into movie.
So he makes the choice, the evil is more compelling to him.
There's a pretty good argument to be made that like if you watch his actions, that his parents' actions, that every step that he takes down the spiral is sort of inspired by something his parents have done to him. Whether it's bringing him out to the woods and shooting him in the back of the head. That's certainly that escalate is, how far down the spiral he is. And so each one of those things that they did kind of pushes him further away from them.
Do you have kids?
Me neither …
But this story, in my mind, the way the emotional center that I found from the movie was really putting myself in Brandon's position. And looking at it from the relationship of mother and son— like my mother believed in me, and I was a weird kid. I was obsessed with horror movies and weird stuff, and people in school thought I was a weirdo, my teachers thought I was a weirdo. And so for me, this story was a way to thank my mother for showing up at school and defending me. When everyone around thought I was a weirdo she was like, “He's special and he's creative and he's different. He's going to do things.”
Elizabeth’s character, Tori, doesn’t want to believe that Brandon is evil. It takes her a while to accept it and to figure out what she has to do.
I would not look to this movie for parents' advice. I would look to this movie for advice on what to do if an alien from outer space lands on your farm in the form of a baby. I would look at it as a cautionary tale in only that instance.
But it does strike me as a look at how far parents are willing to go for their kids, and how they handle finding out such hard truths. I thought she might go down with the ship, so to speak.
I mean, I certainly believe that my mom would do anything for me growing up. I'm fortunate in that way, that I had that relationship. But I also knew that my mom, that she set a certain ethical bar for me to clear. She did not want me to lie to her. And so she could believe that I was a good person. Just by wanting to watch Nightmare on Elm Street and all those things. Because other parents were like, "Why are you letting your kid watch all these scary movies?"
The ending is uncompromising. Was that always going to be the case?
Here's the thing: I'm making the anti-superhero movie. I'm making the horror, upside-down version of superhero mythology. And so in doing so, you know, superhero movies are so good at filling you with hope and joy and optimism. And so I would not be fulfilling my role as creator of the anti-superhero horror movie by filling you with hope and joy and optimism.
And so, no, there was never really a version where Tori survives. She was always going to die. She was just going to die in different ways.
The end credits show that he goes on this kind of rampage and messes up the whole town. Did you figure what his future beyond that looks like, if you wanted to continue that story?
You know, when we started making this movie it was such a big secret. And we kept it so secretive, and then we always planned for this trailer release to be the big reveal of what we've been working on and kind of catch them off guard with this crazy sucker punch.
And now to me, that's sort of baked into the Brightburn brand, like if we're going to release a trailer or do something new or go into a new direction with this world, that it would be a surprise and come out of nowhere and drop this sort of grenade.
Brightburn is in theaters now.