“Lee Pace is now my long, tall child”
Halina Reijn has dedicated decades of her expansive career as an actress of stage and screen. Within the past few years, I decided it was time to switch it up and enter a whole new world behind the screen. In 2019, she made her directorial debut with the Dutch drama Instinct, which was submitted as the Netherlands representative film for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. Now the filmmaker has made her sophomore directorial venture with an English-language horror-comedy, Bodies, Bodies, Bodies.
The latest horror comedy from A24 is set through the eyes of Bee (Oscar nominee Maria Bakalova) and her girlfriend Sophie (Amandla Stenberg). The two head to Sophie’s friend David’s (Pete Davidson) remote family mansion where a group of childhood friends of hers, all of whom come from wealth, party prior to a hurricane hitting their area. Bee has trouble integrating herself with her girlfriend’s friends when meeting them for the first time. Podcaster Alice (Rachel Sennott), her eccentric vet boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace), David’s self-centered girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), and Sophie’s ex Jordan (Myha’la Herrold) all treat her like an outcast. When they play the Mafia-styled game, ‘Bodies Bodies Bodies,’ it immediately becomes deadly.
I got to speak with director Halina Reijn about developing the film, how she brought her theater background to directing, nailing the Gen-Z culture, and working as the den mother to the amazing ensemble she assembled.
Since this is your sophomore feature as a director and your first English-language movie, what made you want to tackle the horror genre?
When I got the script, I was mainly intrigued by the game cause I used to play it with my friends a lot. It would always totally go wrong, to be honest with you, and become emotional, and annoying, but we would always play it again two weeks later. That’s why I just saw that the idea of the game and a slasher would be great. But I wanted it to be a lot darker and more about Gen-Z. I started to work with and hired Sarah DeLappe and then we started to create this sort of Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls cocktail. Then it became a dark comedy more than anything else.
What was it about the screenplay that that, that spoke to you like, made you go, ‘Yep, this is the next directorial project I’m gonna do.’
Well, I think it wasn’t as much screenplay but was the freedom A24 gave me to create my own screenplay along with Sarah DeLappe. You got to return to the lab. We took the idea of really using the ritual of the slasher. Just like, I’ve been doing all my life when I was working with Ivo [van Hove] as a stage actress where we’d do Shakespeare and Ipsum which are very old structures, and we deconstruct them and make them modern. I thought that would be fun to do with the slasher genre. But also, with the idea of that game becoming deadly because I wanted to make a film, in which we would ask ourselves, “Are we civilized or are we animals? Is the killer inside or outside of us?”
What was it like to film in a predominately single set location and where? Where is that mansion? It’s so massive and the perfect playground for the film.
It was very important to me because I came from the theater, to find a location, where everything would be in one house and so Sarah and I wrote, of course, all these different rooms and all these different spaces and you can make it all up on your computer. Then we, of course, had to find a house that matches the script, and it is an hour away from New York and I was obsessed. When we found it. It was only overpriced, huge decadence ugly in a way mentioned that I thought would be a great metaphor for the broken American dream of greed and narcissism. And it had all the rooms in there that I wanted to use. And I could create an atmosphere where all the actors would all be together at all times. And also, the crew and show where we would be in the pressure cooker that the movie is.
You’re talking about the atmosphere and one of the best things I love about the film is how each room itself feels like its own set-piece. How did you get each room to feel as if it had its own vibe? How did you know this is the room where this person is going to die? This is how this person is going to get killed off?
I love your questions. It was all my DP Jasper Wolf, who was also from the Netherlands, who also made my first film Instinct with me. I said, “We need to like to approach it even though it’s hyper-realism within life, we need to think of every room as a character by itself.” So, for instance, the moment that the film shifts is when they are in the basketball court, and the Big Red Room, you know, where the girls rather become violent themselves, and the question becomes, “are they going to turn on each other,” and they commit an act of violence. I thought that it should have a sphere of Cries and Whispers. I don’t know if you know that film by Ingmar Bergman. It’s like a true editing psychological horror film and I want that room to be the Cries and Whispers room. I had all these different names for the different rooms where the actions would take place in. The swimming pool of course is sort of like almost like a room where we introduce all the characters in the water. I wanted to make it more abstract.
Were there any Inspirations on the tonal approach you wanted the film to take, you know, apart from Bergman?
Heathers! I watched it a couple of times. That has that soul this film has pretty hard because you want it to be funny, but you wanted also it to be like a murder mystery. A modern version of Clue was also a big inspiration. Then I watched the film Don’s Plum, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire back in the day. And they got rid of the film. I don’t know why, cuz it’s a brilliant film about youth culture. Having discussions around a table in the cafe. I took that as a big inspiration for the tone, like the natural way of speaking, the believability, the authenticity, and how young people talk to each other. So, all of those films are very inspiring to me. I also asked the actors to all watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, because I feel that raw, “it looks like they are improvising, right? But they’re not, but it looks like that all the time. It’s so believable, and it’s also one location, one house, a pressure cooker. So, not to compare our film to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but it was a total inspiration for us as far as the acting.
Since the movie takes place throughout one night and you know shooting days are on a project like this could be you know days upon end. How long was the shooting schedule for the film?
It was very intense, like you said, night shoots are, of course, so demanding and 80% or 70% of the film takes place in the dark, so it’s super challenging. We didn’t have a lot of shooting days at all. I think that it was also like my first movie was even more limited. And I feel I’m still starting out, because I just changed professions, and I’m only a baby as far as making films. It’s really good to be limited so we didn’t have a lot of shooting days at all. So, we had to think about using our time economically and something stressful to me. Was that the psychological stuff that I’m totally at ease with? You can, you can call me back to me. But everything else, like the wind machines, the rain machines, the special effects, the fights, the gun, all of that is all an extra layer. As much as I enjoyed it, it is of course very special to do that under time pressure. But we succeeded mainly also because the cast is so incredible and they’re real troopers. They were open and down. For it to go down dark and dirty because that’s what we had to do with the very limited amount of shooting days that we have. Like in the end I think we had 25 or 24 days.
What was it like to work with this incredible ensemble of up-and-coming actresses who are of the Gen-Z culture who speak to the culture and flesh these characters out?
I am so proud of them. I’m a childless woman, so I feel I have all these children. Even Lee Pace is now my long, tall child. I am so blessed with them. I feel the casting process was absolutely a delight. A24 is extremely opinionated, but in a very open way about how they cast their films. I just found it an absolute joy. Amandla Stenberg was the first to come on. She’s also an executive producer on it. I found it very important, coming from the theater also, to collaborate with others. I’m not a dictator who was going to tell you what to do or where to go. I’m making a film about Gen-Z. I’m 46. So, I better make them my collaborators. However, each one of them I also picked. I was like, “what are you going to add? Are you going to be, you know, also responsible for the story, not just your own character? All of them are technically insanely good actors but they can also improvise and some of them are comedians. So, when I wrote David, I immediately knew I wanted Pete Davidson for that. Cause I felt that even though he has such a beautiful career and he’s such a genius as a stand-up and Saturday Night Live. I also felt like in movies he always played the goofy stoner. I wanted to go into his darker side dramatically, even though he also gets his funny moments, and he was totally up for it. Like he had no judgment on this character. He was all. “Yeah, I knew that kind of boy. I will have fun with it.” So yeah. I couldn’t be more proud of my group of actors.
You have this playground for the cast to run amok for them, how was it for you to balance the comedic side and the dramatic portion of these girls not being real good communicators with each other?
I think that was a balancing act because every time you land a joke, you will also undermine the attention that you’re building as far as the murder mystery and the horror of it all. That was constantly a huge challenge. Every night and every morning, I would talk to my DP about it. We would discuss all of these elements because you need to navigate all of them at the same time. I wanted the acting styles to be super realistic. When they cry, they cry, when they’re afraid, we have to be like, you know, really channel The Shining, or whatever. Get in there and make it so raw and real. At the same time, it’s a satire. We want it to be ironic and we want to keep it light. I think within all those circumstances that they go through, where again it becomes deadly, we were looking for honesty, and realism and the truth and within the absurdity of it all. We found it and I think that is what in the end makes it fun and that is what makes the toxic love relationships, sexuality, sensuality, and violence real and it’s messy. That the actors are able to go into their vulnerability with it. Even when a scene is supposed to be funny because at the end that is what makes dark comedy and not so much being goofy or on the nose, but much more like making it real, making it honest, making it raw.
What was that like bonding activities? That cast that you did, with the cast, like offset off, production time to better the chemistry and community of everyone?
I’m just telling them where I came from in the theater being part of an ensemble. I told them that I wanted to transform them into a little theater ensemble even though we have a limited amount of rehearsal days. Jasper, my DP, and I prepared very thoroughly for months and months. We went into the house and acted out all the scenes before the actresses came in and then we rehearsed with them. I was very clear to the studio that I needed rehearsal time. I don’t know how else to do it because that’s where I come from, “rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal!” They took that very seriously. They knew all their lines that were all booked from the start. With those groups and with that limited amount of shooting days, you have to be on book and then you can be totally free and say it was totally collaborative. I was always looking for their ideas and their input. What do they listen to? What kind of music? How do they really talk? This is how you talk. Are these words correct? language. Is this how you interact? I think they felt from the start very responsible for the thing for the whole film and not just a job that they would go through. And then the COVID bubble helped us because we were all locked up either in the house or in the motel very close to the house. So, you know, They were playing games. They were playing Mafia; they were playing all the games in their hotel rooms. And so I was thrilled. When I was around in the hotel, we were mainly the only guests because it was COVID. There were no tourists, nothing. And I could hear them rehearse, you know, I could hear them run their line, so that made me such a happy mother.
What do you want people of Gen-Z culture to take away from the movie?
I hope that what they see is that I don’t try to make fun of them at all. I just want to address things that we are all struggling with. Even though I’m 46, I still feel like I’m a child of this time right now. I’m addicted to my phone; I communicate through screens. I don’t know any more what it is to look at somebody. I don’t know what it is to sit in the waiting room and not look at my phone. I just want to address all these things. I also hope that people see this and see it as a comfort thing. That it’s all about wanting to belong to a group. We all want to be more beautiful, more popular, and more seen. And in the end, we are just all struggling little creatures, like, all of these characters even though they look so good-looking, and they seem so put together, and intellectual beauties, almost, in the end, they are all lonely and lost. I think shining a little bit of light on our darkness is what I hope makes you feel connected to each other. You know, it makes you feel sick. To be able to laugh together at the absurdity of life. I think it’s something you can only hope for. I hope people will enjoy it in that way.
Are there any projects in the future that you would love to explore, genre-wise?
I definitely discovered genre as something I never expected to feel so at home in. Actually, it totally reminded me of the theater, the freedom that I found in the genre. I can use violence, I can use bigger things, and yet, make a very intimate film. I think that I want to keep examining that. I also have to be completely honest with you, I would love to be in a more commercial space. After Instinct, the dream would be to do a huge movie that would be something that appeals to me. And at the same time, I want to go back to my roots, which is the erotic Thriller. That’s how I started, and I want to revisit that with A24. I’m going to make an erotic thriller.
Bodies Bodies Bodies is currently in select theaters from A24.