EXCL: The Children’s Tom Shankland

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Killer kids and good parenting

Children can be absolutely terrifying. The problem is, there hasn’t been a decent “killer kid” movie that I can think of since the ’70s or early ’80s. Until The Children, that is. Blistering with tension, this import finally arrives on DVD via Lionsgate’s Ghost House Underground after a run in England last winter. Writer-director Tom Shankland gave me a call recently for a candid discussion about the film’s origins, parental instincts and the production.

Ryan Rotten: Paul Andrew Williams told me this was based on a short story of his.

Tom Shankland: He original wrote a script called “Miria” which I think is an anagram of “Raimi.” It was a first draft of a zombie kid movie where a comet passes over a family holiday and the kids start killing their parents. It was very much a zombie flick. The parents killed the kids, they come back to life. It was really following the zombie genre rules. Paul wanted to go off and do The Cottage at that point, but the guys who distributed his first film, London to Brighton, really wanted to make Miria. They gave me that script and I loved that “kids versus parents” thing. It had an intense, primal fear about it. I talked with Paul about more ideas and basically my take was to do it a more real way. Let’s not make the kids zombies, let’s make it weirder and psychologically tougher for the parents. My feeling about it is the second the parents think their kids are monsters, they’d be quite easy to kill. Paul was into that and let me do my thing. I’m grateful that he handed me this evil premise.

Rotten: What did Paul ultimately think of the film?

Shankland: [laughs] Well, the truth of the matter is that Paul had a child while he was doing The Cottage and he can’t bear to see the film. He’s like, “I don’t think I can go there right now.” The last time I saw him was a few months ago and he’s still too sensitive to go to this place. I blame him. He invented this film for God’s sake, so he’s to blame.

Rotten: Do you generally find that reaction from those who are parents?

Shankland: You know what I get, Ryan, it’s twofold. Some parents get this perverse pleasure in watching it, all of the things you don’t want to think about or talk about. That power struggle between the kids and parents. It’s a cathartic, dark fun factor for them. When I told some that this was my next film, they’d tell me that was a film they’d never f**kin’ see. I said, when your kids are teenagers and you’re at war with them I bet you’ll be dying to see this. It’ll be shock therapy for you. So it’s 50/50 with parents. Anyone who does not have kids in their life, or not a parent, you can rely on them to go for it because everyone’s got this nightmare child anecdote they can relate to. And they get this sick pleasure watching it unfold.

Rotten: It’s interesting to see how having a child changes your perception of horror movies. I see it in friends.

Shankland: It goes to show what a primal thing that is. The parent/child thing is hardwired into culture and obviously our emotional life when we become a parent. Some of the most hardcore horror fans, if they’re suddenly a dad or mom, it all changes. That’s what was fun about making this particular film. There were these ready-made buttons that I could push if I get the tone right where I’m really going to torment and distress people by just how we’re made to think about kids and how we need to believe there’s a sort of innocence, otherwise civilization crumbles around us.

Rotten: Here you’re faced with the type of challenges anyone would face with something like a killer doll film. How do you make the threat scary and make audiences believe these kids could overpower the adults?

Shankland: The discovery I made was I could never believe a parent would ever just kill their child. Whatever their child was doing. The Elaine character has this horrible Sophie’s Choice situation of either saving the daughter or the malevolent kid. When she has this awful decision, she must kill one kid to save the other. Besides that, none of the parents actually kill their kids in a deliberate way. I realized a lot of the fear in this was about the parents discovering their own ability to harm their kids and that’s one of the main obstacles. It was less about the powers the kids had and more about the parents’ internal resistance to harming the kids. Having said that, part of what would be fearful is to show the kids exploiting the fact the parents love them. I felt there was something nasty about that. Making them powerless and vulnerable. I thought that would screw with peoples’ heads a bit. The image I never wanted was of a kid running after an adult with a carving knife. That slasher imagery was not going to work with this. If all of the kills build out of plausible situation – like a climbing frame or a sled – the audience would buy into this horrible scenario. It took a lot of work to push myself to find this.

Rotten: In terms of visual style, this film has a rhythm you don’t see. It allows moments to breathe.

Shankland: There are a lot of out of left field references. I’m a huge fan of Alien, a huge fan of The Birds, those films that unfold in a slow atmospheric way but don’t explain where they’re going. The horror just jumps out, but not from where you’re expecting it. There’s been a recent wave of horror films that will put a violent set piece at the top of the movie and the audience is shaken up, but I wanted to go back a little bit – Village of the Damned, Don’t Look Now, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s horror film. I’m obviously a big fan of Hitchcock. Those inspirations got me there. And there was some art house stuff like a Spanish film called Spirit of the Beehive. Movies that take childhood and children’s fascination with nature and death. The quietness of those movies. I thought I could do something interesting with that. I’m a bit of a magpie like that.

Rotten: When the violence comes, your jaw hits the floor. Did you have any difficulty pulling it off?

Shankland: We storyboarded everything, so everything was quite clear in the execution and the editing. It was actually harder to create the right atmosphere in the first 35 to 40 minutes where you’re trying to keep all of the balls in the air. The atmosphere, suggesting weirdness. When the violence came, it was all technical and I had a great crew to pull it off. It was the smaller stuff that was tough, like the dinner scene where all of the kids are there. It took about a month to edit, that was insane. That’s where my really headaches came from.

Rotten: That planning then, I suppose, served as a blueprint for the parents of the child actors you had to work with. What you had in store for them…

Shankland: Totally. That was quite an adventure. Those parents were amazing. I wanted all of the parents who brought their kids to the audition to know what they were getting into. I made myself totally available. We took all of the parents out to the pub before we started shooting, had them sign the contracts then. [laughs] We all become friends after that! It was one of the most joyous shoots I’ve been on, it’s probably because we were all up on location. All of the kids were running around the hotel. It was kind of like if The Shining had been made by Disney. Everyone was just having a good time. When the action on-screen is so dark, I think you need to find as much joy during the process as possible. The parents loved it, that their kids were having so much fun. We brought those kids up a little bit, Ryan, I’d like to think.

Rotten: The film sets up a sequel in some respects. Is there another Children film to come?

Shankland: What’s funny is the kids were coming up with pitches for sequels that were way more violent than I had in mind. Maybe I’ll let those kids grow up a bit and let them have a pitch session. In their pitch they were killing teachers, entire societies were being wiped out by them. I’m happy to move on to some other stuff, but I don’t honestly know what’s next. I have an idea that’s a bit of a “teenagers go mental” but I want to dig through some other primal fears.

Source: Ryan Rotten, Managing Editor