"My brother keeps a human head in his closet." That was the opening line in Todd Rigney's novel Found that convinced Scott Schirmer he had to make it into a film. "I was hooked from the first sentence," Schirmer said. "There was just this feeling of dread that hung over the entire story."
Schirmer was working in a publisher's marketing department when Rigney's book came across his desk. Its cover intrigued him. "A great deal of what people self-publish tends to be family history or poetry or recipe books. Something fun, something uplifting. Todd wrote a horror novel. So this all-black cover with big bold print and a skull really stood out."
Many psychologically driven serial killer stories are about the birth of a murderer. Found chronicles the baptism of an enabler, one of those family members who stands by and lets these things happen. Rigney's 2004 novel explores how seemingly normal 11-year-old suburban kid Marty (Gavin Brown) responds to finding out his brother Steve (Ethan Philbeck) is a serial killer. Schirmer said, "Coming-of-age stories are always about the loss of innocence, which is horrifying to me."
The novel's opening line also opens the movie. Delivered flatly by Brown, like he's found a bag of marbles, it sets the tone for the whole bloody, unnerving affair. "Disorientation leads to suggestibility," said Schirmer, "and in movies you have this opportunity, at the very beginning of the story, before the audience is into it, to set some ground rules. Since Marty in that very first sentence very casually states that his brother has a human head in his closet, it sets a precedent."
The trip into family hell is told solely from Marty's viewpoint. Schirmer explained: "By being really close-up on his face and his eyes throughout everything, the audience is forced to see everything from his perspective." That meant finding a young actor who can carry a story both emotionally harrowing and grotesquely graphic. Schirmer admitted that casting Brown was "a leap of faith. He had never acted before except for maybe a classroom play." Brown was originally up for one of the smaller roles, but Schirmer admitted he preferred that fresh slate to a more seasoned child actor. "Usually they do commercials or happy musicals or children's plays, and then you've got all that programming to work against. I liked that Gavin was fresh and raw."
Perversely, Schirmer found his monstrous killer Steve exactly where he wasn't looking – in a musical. It was a tough role to fill. In fact, Schirmer had already cast the part, but the original actor's family forced him to quit because of the script. "They were threatening to kick him out of the house if he did it," said Schirmer. Then Found's associate producer and special effects director Arthur Cullipher recommended Philbeck after working with him in a stage production of My Fair Lady. It wasn't the audition piece itself that convinced Schirmer that Philbeck could be the twisted teen. "What impressed me about Ethan was that he had questions. He came prepared with concerns about the material, about 'why do you need to show this, why does the movie have to talk about this issue?' He really wanted to understand the mechanisms."
As the malevolent murderer in hiding, Schirmer said, "Some of the things we ask him to do are pretty gutsy." Yet Philbeck stepped into the big brother role as much as the killer's tracks, helping Brown through some of the toughest scenes. Schirmer said, "I really needed him to help focus Gavin and get a performance out of him, and he did that."
Found screens Friday, Oct. 25, 9pm, at Antone's.
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