In 2016, author Aaron Starmer’s black comedy/coming-of-age tale Spontaneous made plenty of noise in YA literary circles. It was hailed as one of the year’s best by Time magazine and the Young Adult Library Services Association for its first-person narrative of a New Jersey senior named Mara Carlyle, who's not having a normal school year. Over the course of the book, Mara acerbically recounts navigating a year wherein many of her fellow classmates just "pop" to their deaths, like random balloons ... just with souls.
For screenwriter Brian Duffield (The Babysitter, Underwater), the book’s outrageous tone — equal parts comedy and heartfelt exploration of contemporary grief — was just what he was looking for with his first writer/director project.
“As soon as I read the book, I wanted to direct it,” Duffield reveals to SYFY WIRE in a call promoting the opening of his film adaptation of Spontaneous, now in select drive-in theaters and available on VOD on Oct. 6. “I knew if I was 14 and I saw this movie, it would really hit me hard.”
What’s compelling about Duffield’s adaptation is that it hits hard regardless of age. Katherine Langford’s (Knives Out) Mara is a Gen Z high school archetype for our times: funny, cynical, cautiously hopeful and yet guarded, especially in regard to a violent phenomenon unleashing itself on her peer group and disrupting every expectation the next generation is sold as a promise. As her classmates literally explode in front of her, somehow she's got to figure out first love with Dylan (Charlie Plummer), an imposed government quarantine, and an increasingly frightened community of unhelpful adults.
SYFY WIRE asked Duffield about how he approached translating Starmer’s voice, how he balanced the tricky tone, and how the film hits harder in a pandemic reality.
Was Spontaneous always going to be your directorial debut project?
I had also been trying to get other projects off the ground. I got really close to directing a horror movie right before this. And then we had cast get plucked for other projects, so this became the first. But it was also really great that it was the first, because I think it's a size of movie I felt like I could control, as opposed to doing something a little larger. Then, also, it's as challenging a tone as a movie can probably be.
Let’s talk about the tone, which veers from witty to horrifying to an emotional gut-punch. Was it a case of don’t mess with the text too much?
Yeah, Aaron’s pulling off a really difficult thing. I love the idea of this fun, sprightly movie that’s kind of being taken over by another movie partway through. The first scene in the book is the first scene in the movie. It’s such a hook, and then you're instantly in it with Mara's voice, who Katherine plays. It's such a weird mashup of things that you wouldn't think would work, and in the book, just works so well. She's such an engaging protagonist, in terms of the journey she goes on, which feels very unusual and different from the high school characters I've seen.
Then, not to get too into it, but there's definitely some big surprises that are in both. One of the things we joked about was “How do we make the cutest movie about grief, where grief wasn't cute?” It's really a nightmare of a challenge, but it's also the fun of the challenge.
Your cast is integral to the tonal shifts working. If they don’t sell it, you’ve got a disaster on your hands. Knowing that, how quickly did you find them, especially Katherine?
I have gotten lucky, because I met Katherine on one of those movies that didn't wind up happening. When we started the movie, she was not going to be available, and then things got pushed around, and she attached very quickly once we were able to reach out to her. It takes such a weight off of my shoulders to have an actress that good, but also to have an actress that does the work, too. There's not a line in that movie that Katherine didn't have questions about and just wanted to know everything she needed to know, because she has the toughest role.
And obviously, then the second component was [the character] Dylan. It's funny. When we started, Charlie [Plummer] felt quite a bit younger than Katherine. My casting director, Jenny, was just like, "It's Charlie. It has to be Charlie," and I was like, "Don't you think he looks a lot younger than Katherine?" [Laughs.] ... For me, I really wanted Mara and Dylan's relationship to be light and kind of silly. This crazy, terrible thing is going on, and we have this boy that enters who's just as close to Tom Hanks as we can get, in terms of this is a good man. It got down to Charlie was going to be in L.A., but I was up prepping in Vancouver, and Katherine was in L.A. And they're like, "Hey, do you want to have dinner with Charlie, and just see how they are in person?" I physically couldn’t be there but said to Katherine, "Look, you're my partner in all this. If you tell me it's Charlie, I trust you."
And after dinner, she was like, "He's grown a foot in the last year ... but the really important thing was we just had so much fun.” And I was like, "That's all I need to know," but then I didn't physically meet Charlie until he came up to set. And she could not have done better than Charlie.
As somebody who is adept at writing the poignancy, as well as the comedy, what do you want more from an audience — laughs or for them to cry?
I want everything. With Spontaneous, Katherine, as an actress, gets to do everything in the movie. We joke the only thing she really doesn't get to do is sing. It felt like she's going to go through every trick in the book as a character, and it would be great if the audience are feeling it too. I think if it was just a movie that was funny, it would be a little disposable. And if it were a movie that was just reacting to grief, that's not fun.
You're not just getting your John Hughes movie, or you're not getting your horror movie. It really is this kind of weird bastard in between.
From the very first few seconds of the movie the stakes are made incredibly apparent, and the audience is then on edge for the rest of the film ready for anything in the frame to literally go off. How did you use that to your advantage in pacing the dread and horror?
It's a progression and it's managing that tone, where you don't want to be too crude or crass about characters dying. There's takes where we had funnier takes that we left in the edit because the next scene is going to be a lot heavier. And then you're kind of like, "Oh, if I'm laughing at a tense, and then this scene happens, I'm missing emotional dialogue.”
Also, there's a couple of times in the movie where you're intentionally playing with boredom. Whether it's about people dying, or it's in that space after they leave the [quarantine] tents. As an audience, you're like, "It's not over, but they're acting like it's over." It's 10 or 15 minutes of dilly-dallying in the middle of the movie, where you're trying to not be boring, but it's a weird tension that you're playing with. Where I know this is going to happen, but I would wait a minute too long. But if I wait two minutes too long, I'm going to lose the audience, so a lot of the edit was just taking my best-laid plans and making them actually work.
The main event happening in the film, with the kids just exploding, is a potent metaphor for a lot of things like school shootings and the randomness of death in general. Now, it also applies to the pandemic. Did you want to keep the metaphor as open-ended as possible so it could be fluid for the audience?
I think that was important from the get-go, in terms of A) it's a catch-all device for whatever it needs to be, and then also B) being aware that there's a lot of blood in high school in the movie. I think other movies have done great jobs with that, and also some have done really offensive and poor jobs at that. I remember having classmates die when I was growing up, one just fell off the back of a truck and hit his head and another got into a car accident. This is just stuff that kids are dealing with. So it's the kind of thing where a lot of the upper brass are more nervous about how it could be interpreted, and then I felt like a lot of the younger people were just kind of like, "Yup," right away.
And the characters that survive in the movie aren't OK. They're all figuring out different ways of dealing with survivor's guilt, and all these things that I do think kids are dealing with and going through, especially now when we're in a country where tens of thousands of people have died because of the pandemic. I really did want to make a movie for as many people to enjoy as possible, without there being those triggering elements that take you out of the movie, or upset you. So it's trying to find an unusual cocktail of dealing with these real-world, heavy issues in a way that wasn't going to feel like you're watching Mystic River.
Spontaneous is now showing at select drive-in theaters and is on VOD Oct. 6.