Mayhem is a wild workplace horror-comedy that, I suspect, is a fantasy that many corporate workers dream about. A virus is loose in the city, causing those who catch it to become hyper-violent. A recent court case deemed that a man who killed a person while infected by the virus was not responsible for the murder, setting a dangerous precedent. When the virus takes over a corporation, the building is under quarantine for eight hours. That traps Derek (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead), a worker drone who was unfairly fired, and Melanie (Samara Weaving, The Babysitter), a woman who is about to be evicted by the corporation who owns her mortgage. The two team up to wreak a little vengeance on the face of the faceless corporation, under the legal protection of the virus.
SYFY WIRE spoke to director Joe Lynch who explained how personal this script is to him, the challenges of being a working director, and how he came to cast Steven and Samara.
Where did the idea for Mayhem come from?
JOE LYNCH: The idea was actually born from Matias Caruso, the writer. He does not live in this country, but he wrote a script that was so relevant to today and hit me on such a personal level. It literally landed on my desk while I was working a corporate job. Movies don't pay what they used to, and the days of being able to sit around and wait for something to happen or develop something because you have money coming in from other movies, is just gone. You really have to love making movies to want to do it these days. I had to work a corporate job to make ends meet and pay the bills, and I was not in a good place emotionally, or even professionally. It is not what I was put on this Earth to do, but I had to pay the rent.
So when I read the script, it was like, "Holy s***, someone knows me, right now, what I'm feeling. The struggles and strife that I had internally and physically." It was just something that I responded to so quickly that I was immediate it in my response: "Yes!" It wasn't that I wanted to make this movie; I needed to make this movie. It all happened very quickly from there.
Thankfully, Matias and I had a great rapport, and we continued to develop the movie. On paper — and to you — I could say, "The last year and a half working this corporate job was research. Yeah... research! I went undercover! It was all prepping for this!" But in a weird sort of way, everything happens for a reason, and looking back, I don't think the movie would have been the same if I didn't work that job, because there are so many moments in the movie, whether character beats or dialogue, that were directly lifted from my corporate gig.
Like, the term that gives me hives every time I hear it is, "Let's discuss." It's the most passive-aggressive thing anyone can say when they don't want to confront something, but they want to make sure they say, "Oh, we have concerns and issues." Just say what you f***ing feel, man! No one wants to get sued, so they hide under this veil of passive-aggression. A lot of that stuff, which wasn't in the script before, I was able to infuse from there. That was really the impetus of what the movie is today.
It's a different beast, and it has different sets of rules. As an "artist" or creative person, it was really difficult to work in that [corporate] world for me. It was something that I did not enjoy but I knew it was a means to the end, so I had to do it. Without living that life, walking a few miles in those shoes, I don't think the movie would have had the same kind of bite that it does. There is something satisfying... you know, when you watch movies and there is that moment at the end where the big boss or corporate avatar, so to speak, and someone goes, "You know what? Suck my di***!" or whatever it is — the big F-you — there is something very cathartic about that. Usually those kinds of moments are saved for the end of the movie, or we've needed to watch this character change and have an arc for us to enjoy them sticking it to the man.
When we first set out to make the movie, when we cast Steven Yeun, not just an actor but also a producer, we had some really deep conversations about what it's like to be an American in the corporate structure; what it's like to be an Asian American in the corporate structure. There's this whole terminology, the Oriental Ceiling — which is incredibly racist in this day and age — but it's something I didn't even know until Steven brought it up. Statistics show that Asian Americans in the corporate world are only "allowed" to raise to a certain level in the executive world. They just never attain a higher status. It was crazy.
All these things he was bringing to the table, and I was bringing to the table. At the same time, we never wanted to make a meal out of the fact that Derek is Asian. He's just an American, another worker here. We're not trying to put an agenda on that thing. We just wanted to let it happen. Derek is Derek and that's it.
The fact that Steven and I were able to get these messages across in a genre film... those are all my favorite horror and sci-fi films. Movies that you don't realize have a message until the movie is over, or that it snuck up on you. That's what excited both me and Steven. We get to give these middle fingers, but we get to hide behind genre movies to do it. It was really exciting because then it doesn't become a "message movie." So many movies in that corporate world end up becoming "message movies." You look at The Walking Dead. It's a show about people, it just uses the tropes of a zombie movie to allow you to get the point across without feeling too preachy.
How did Steven initially come to the project?
When I read the script, I had a pretty clear idea of who Derek was as a character, but I kind of left it open because I didn't want to cast it in my head. With Steven, it was this weird, serendipitous chain of events. I was already a fan of The Walking Dead and a huge fan of Steven's from the beginning of the show because he was the pizza boy who became the comic relief who became the hero! I love that work in him. He, to me, in my head, was my version of who Richard Dreyfuss was in the late '70s. He can play a scientist, but he is relatable. He can play a normal, everyday shmo who abandons his family, yet you still love him because he was passionate that "This means something!" There was something so wonderfully everyman about him. I was questioning myself, who is our everyman these days? There really aren't too many people like that.
But then, seeing Steven "fake die" in that dumpster episode... watching how it affected me, my wife, and how Twitter just melted when that happened, because everyone loved him. I needed an actor who would allow me to explore these dark territories, but with a glint in the eye, with a wink and a nudge. The next day I came into the office and said, "What about Steven?" Circle of Confusion, who produced this, also produces The Walking Dead. So they thought it wasn't a bad idea. Next thing you know, we sent him the script and he really responded to it. We all sat down, and he said this really means a lot to him. From there, we were off to the races. Because he was such an integral part of the movie, it worked out that he became a producer on it.
Can you talk about casting Samara Weaving? I saw her in The Babysitter, then Mayhem, and I thought, "She's going to be huge!"
I know, right? I remembered her, so vividly, from Ash vs. Evil Dead, in a four episode arc at the end of Season 1. Even then, I remember saying, "Who the f*** is that? Holy s***. She's amazing." Yes, she's a very beautiful individual, but there was a vivaciousness and an energy about her, a spark about her. When you are a director you are always putting people's names and faces in your back pocket you hopefully work with one day, either someone you've been a longtime fan of, or someone who is a new and fresh face. I had not seen her in anything else at that point, and she was considered a local when she shot that.
I was in Serbia, casting people via Skype, and when her name came up, I recognized it from somewhere. I looked at her credits and said, "Holy s***, it's the actress from Evil Dead!" Then I saw she was The Babysitter. I read that script — I was actually up for that script for one hot minute — and I thought whoever played that part was going to have their hands full. They have a lot of work to do, and knowing that McG invested a lot in her, even before she was who she is now, that meant a lot to me. It took five minutes on a Skype call to know that she was perfect for this movie. From there, she showed up in Serbia, and I got into a room with her and Steven, and it was like watching the sparks fly. It was cine-serendipity.
The film felt like The Crazies, at least when it started.
But then 30 minutes in, I totally forgot the comparison and it went in a different direction. Did you worry about comparisons to The Crazies or any other movie?
Oh, of course! Every filmmaker always wants to make that film that no one has ever seen before. That's not the case anymore. We've had over 100 years of cinema, there is always going to be stories derivative of other stories. 28 Days Later, Office Space... Before I shot Mayhem, I was actually offered The Belko Experiment for five minutes before Greg [McLean] ended up directing it. So already, people were making these types of movies. Thankfully, I was glad I read the Belko script because that script had a very particular tone to it. They were going the more Deep Impact route. I could be the fun side, be more of Armageddon by comparison. It was really good for me to know that is what Greg and James [Gunn, the screenwriter] were going for because I knew that, no matter what, Belko and Mayhem were going to be compared. Funny enough, we premiered four days before Belko was released in theaters. I knew these films would be kind of "lumped in" together, so I said, "F*** it. Let's just call it a subgenre. It's worksploitation."
There is a reason why these movies are coming out now. There's a reason why more are being made. There are enough stories in the workplace, especially now, that want to be told, need to be told. And there will be enough of an audience who wants to see those movies because they are living that life. They know what those characters are going through. They want to hear those stories and live vicariously through them. There is always a worry [about comparison], but if you know your voice, and you know specifically what kind of movie you want to make and what kind of tone you are setting, then you just have to follow it. Follow your heart, follow that Barton Fink feeling you have inside of you that is dictating the route you want to go down with the story, and stay true to it. If the comparisons are there, I welcome it. Make it a double feature!
What are you working on now?
Right now, I just finished two episodes of this cool TV show called My Dead Ex. I'm in prep right now for this movie called Taste, which is more of a thriller than an all-out horror movie. It's also very satirical, kind of like Mayhem. I really enjoy telling a story that gets under the surface of genre tropes, and not "have a message," but shine a light on the society we are living in. Taste is my comment on the foodie culture, the one where people wait in line for three hours just for some truffle fries or we make rock stars out of chefs, or people who order food and don't eat it, but they will take an Instagram photo of it because they want to show people, "Look at me, I'm eating at this really cool pop-up restaurant!" There is a fetishism over food right now that is fascinating to me, so Taste is kind of my comment on that whole world. We go down some dark places with it, but that's what's exciting to me. That's what is exciting to me, that I can use genre conventions in a way that I don't think you have ever seen. You've never seen food in that fashion. Hopefully we'll be shooting in the beginning of next year.
Mayhem opens in theaters and VOD on November 10.