Frankie Muniz,  the star of TV’s Malcolm in the Middle, plays the lead in the chilling new horror film The Black String.  Jonathan (Muniz) is a lonely and isolated young man working the night shift at a local convenience store. He has an encounter with a mysterious woman that throws his life into chaos – he develops a strange illness and has bizarre visions. His friends and family fear he is having a mental breakdown but Jonathan is convinced that something far more sinister is at work.

The Black String is the first feature film directed by Brian Hanson who has a varied background.  After working as a bartender in Hollywood,  he joined the US Army where he served in the 75th Ranger Regiment and was deployed to Afghanistan several times.   He earned an MFA in Film from Mount Saint Mary’s and worked as a production assistant on HBO’s Barry and Room 104.

In describing the film,  Hanson has said,  “The Back String is made for anybody who has felt lonely, isolated, stuck in a dead-end situation and desperate for companionship.   The movie is also made for genre fans who love Lovecraftian themes, body horror, paranoia and a dose of trans-dimensional witchcraft.  Like two sides of a coin, this film flips between two possibilities – is Jonathan suffering from mental illness or is he the hapless victim of an evil occult conspiracy?”

ScreenPicks posed some questions to Hanson about the film which was released in the US on Digital HD and DVD on September 24th.

What was the impetus behind the creation of the story for The Black String? Is the film exploring any particular themes or issues, and is it functioning on a symbolic level?

Brian Hanson: The Black String was conceived by Andy Warrener and myself ten years ago when we were bartending in Hollywood. We were inspired by Primer (written and directed by Shane Carruth) and wanted to make a micro-budget film that explored the thin line between reality and insanity,  and we wanted people to debate our film’s ending. Working in Hollywood we would see mentally-ill homeless people everywhere screaming at the sky or a bus stop. It was frightening to think about what they might be experiencing in their head and it also made us think, what were they doing six months ago?

So Andy and I decided to create a story about where this mentally-ill homeless person may have been one year before they hit rock bottom. We also knew we wanted to make it a horror movie because we love horror movies. So we created a character plagued by nightmarish/otherworldly visions and his challenge is to logically convince his parents and doctors that this crazy occult stuff is really happening to him.

As a protagonist, we created a guy that we are familiar with—a lonely twenty-something slacker who never left his hometown and has a history of addiction or mental illness. We all know people like this or have had times when we’ve been lonely and afraid to live up to our potential. Much like Polanski’s Repulsion or Aronofsky’s Black Swan, we wanted a protagonist who’s relatable but is also unreliable due to their mental health issues.

This theme of homelessness is symbolized in The Black String by a homeless man that is always staring at Jonathan (Frankie Muniz). There’s also a lot of duality between the first and second half of the movie—the first half depicts Jonathan trying to improve his life and the second half shows Jonathan doing similar things, but regressing back into his bad ways.

Andy and I never made the first movie – he started a family in Florida and I joined the Army. It was after the Army that I met my producing partner Richard Handley in film school at Mount St. Mary’s. I told him about The Black String and he liked it so much that he suggested we co-write a revision and make it as our thesis film project. Richard is a doctor and has worked with mentally ill patients and he’s also a father so he was able to add a lot of depth and expertise to many aspects of the script.

In the rewrite, Rich and I were all about staying true to the original vision and making sure The Black String towed the thin line between reality and insanity. We really wanted people to debate the ending!

Does the horror genre particularly interest you, and if so, why?

Hanson: I love the horror genre. Anything strange, twisted, dark and mind-bending. I think it started as a kid when I would watch Twilight Zone marathons with my dad. Each episode made me think about how twisted the normal world can become — or what alternate realities might exist. As I got older I discovered Nightmare on Elm StreetHellraiser, Phantasm, The Thing as well as some really cool sci-fi films. I enjoy all genres of film, but to me, horror and sci-fi offer the most unpredictable stories that indulge in heavy atmosphere and dark themes. As a natural-born night-owl, I enjoy that ghoulish, macabre feeling of exploring the darkness late at night. I’m also a big Art Bell/George Noory fan, so I feel horror and sci-fi in my bones more than let’s say… romantic comedies?

Was there anything particularly unusual or memorable that occurred during the filming of The Black String? What was it like to work with Frankie Muniz?

Hanson: I think the most memorable would be filming the string pull scene at Blue High Shack. Erik Porn, Dan Gilbert and their make-up FX team built this prosthetic skin to cover Frankie’s forearm and then threaded a black gooey string underneath so that Frankie could pull out a practical string on camera. We started filming this scene at midnight so everybody was tired from a long day, but once Frankie pulled the string out of his arm and started screaming, a lot of crew members got freaked out and started feeling sick from seeing something so disgusting. As a director, I was watching it to make sure the effect worked, but it looked real enough that even Frankie Muniz almost threw up after one of the first takes. It was a good sign that our crew was getting grossed out by the body horror!

Working with Frankie Muniz was an amazing experience. He’s a top-notch professional and super humble and he was in every scene so he had almost no days off for three weeks. Every day he would come to set with a gigantic binder that had the script and all of his personal creative notes he wrote down. I swear he was doing homework on the movie every night with help from his fiancé Paige. He would have great ideas on how to make a scene better or continuity notes between scenes. He would remember how far his sleeve was rolled up from four days prior or what hand he was holding something to ensure it matched.

It was an awesome collaboration working with Frankie — he cared about giving a great performance and worked hard, much like an athlete works hard to win. Frankie is a competitor at heart and he wants to win when performing. He gave The Black String 100% effort, diving into the stunts, bike riding, and wrestling on the ground. I have to say that he’s really really funny and appreciates a dark sense of humor. I think that’s why he liked The Black String script so much, it had a lot of dark humor and that’s kind of his style.

I thought that the music by Ed Lima and sound design by Matt Davies were particularly effective. Can you describe how you collaborated with them?

Hanson: The Black String was always intended to be a moody psychological horror film, so music and sound design were incredibly important to me. Ed Lima is a fantastic composer who’s done a lot of work in video games and he’s also a long-time friend of producer Richard Handley, so we were lucky to hire Ed early to start work on the score.

I sent Ed notable movie scores or ambient horror music from YouTube so we could determine exactly what type of score we wanted. Ed played around with different sounds and we settled on an ethereal, creepy type of score that adds a feeling of psychological unease throughout the film. We knew that a big bombastic orchestral score wasn’t right for this movie.

That being said, it was a catchy melancholic piano melody that Ed wrote and performed that I fell in love with—“Worst Date Ever” — it plays when Jonathan picks Dena up for a date and then again over the end credits. That song sounds like Jonathan’s (Muniz) low-key hopes for a better life, but there’s something ominous underneath the melody that lets you know chances for happiness are slim.

There are several recurring melodies that Ed subtly weaved throughout the score—it’s really well done and resonates with viewers. We were under such a time crunch that we had a handful of additional composers contribute music in a few areas of the film. It was a team effort and everybody involved created beautifully creepy music!

Sound design was important, too, and we knew we wanted to have a 5.1 mix that kicked ass. Editor Will Drucker and I created a temp sound design under our picture edit, but we needed a sound team to come in and replace temp with next-level sound design. After hearing the work Matt Davies and Studio Unknown did on the horror/sci-fi flick Shortwave, we knew they could create the right kind of sound for our psychological horror film.

Matt’s team created some awesome horror sounds, gruesome crunches, flesh rips and splats, but also created atmospheres that make audiences feel like they are in a convenience store or in a mental institution. It was amazing the first time we heard the demon hand break through the portal on the wall — we were on a mixing stage with Studio Unknown and we heard all this thunder and lightning and gnarly crackling in booming 5.1 — that’s when I knew Studio Unknown was going to make our sound design/mix movie theater ready.

We also had film festival deadlines popping up all the time so producer Charles Bunce and our film professor Kelby Thwaits (Mount St. Mary’s) jumped in on ProTools to do some great sound design when we had to deliver screeners the next day. It was again, a massive group effort.

Are there other filmmakers that you particularly admire?

Hanson: I admire the work of Roman Polanski (not his personal life!) — the slow-burn nature of his Apartment Trilogy — Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant are mesmerizing and I love that he’s not afraid to let all his characters be alive in their own unique way. So many horror movies force all their characters to be somber all the time, but in a Polanksi movie, even small supporting characters are allowed to be full of life. They feel alive and unpredictable.

I love Paul Verhoven too — Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers are masterpieces — brutal, socially aware with seriously dark comedy. Both Polanski and Verhoven are masters of blocking a scene — watch the camera movements in Robocop when the ED-209 malfunctions in the boardroom and shoots the helpless executive. It’s incredible.

Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about The Black String?

Hanson: The Black String is truly an independent film. For any filmmakers out there thinking about making their first low-budget feature, make sure you have a serious producing partner and an excited and loyal team— and get ready to live with this movie for a few years. My producing partner Richard Handley and I planned to make it as a 40k micro-budget film, but Rich is experienced in running a business and knew we had to start an LLC and raise more money if we wanted to do this movie right.

We brought on our Mount St. Mary’s classmates Charles Bunce, Kayli Fortun and Sharif Ibrahim as producers who truly believed in the project. My former Sheldon Brigman boss also came on board as an invaluable source of entertainment wisdom. None of us got paid (yet!) and we all worked day jobs through the nearly three-year process of making this film. We found a handful of amazing investors that believed in us as a team and they really liked the script.

Frankie Muniz didn’t come in until very late in the casting process and that allowed us to raise a bit more money, but we were still a tiny production. Our crew, cast, locations and equipment were paid minimal rates or were donated — this was only possible because of years of goodwill we all created by working as PAs, assistants or helping other filmmakers on their short films.

I suppose the lesson here is that it’s important to build a team over a long period of time and only embark on a feature film when you truly have the team, the time and the minimal budget required to complete the film. If you can’t make a feature now, no worries, make a kick-ass short film! We made lots of short films until we finally stepped up to make this feature. Without those short film experiences, we couldn’t have made our first feature film.

Would you like to share with us what your future projects are?

Hanson: Sure! We’re working on another paranoia/horror type story in which a down on his luck single dad hires a greasy magician for his son’s backyard birthday party. Unfortunately, when the greasy magician puts Little Johnny in the magic box, Little Johnny never comes out… he literally disappears! The greasy magician has no idea what happened because magic isn’t real, right? So the dad has to go on this quest to find his son, did he magically disappear or was he kidnapped? Since Rich and I are both military veterans, we’re also working on a military screenplay that follows a young soldier on his first deployment to Afghanistan—it’s like the US Army Ranger version of Whiplash. That’s a horror movie in its own way.