Adam Egypt Mortimer Discusses His Cosmic Horror Film “Daniel Isn’t Real”
We’ve all heard of imaginary friends – friends that protect us from loneliness or impending doom. Maybe you had one as a kid?
Daniel isn’t that kind of imaginary friend in Adam Egypt Mortimer’s new film Daniel Isn’t Real viewing on horror streamer Shudder. Mortimer pushes the envelope on the concept of reality as Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger)torments his host Luke (Miles Robbins) into the abyss of insanity. The writer-director is careful not to neatly tell his story into well-trodden good vs evil genre tropes. But he does explore themes of duplicity, contradiction, and opposition simultaneously wrestling in the same body. This duality exists inside each and every one of us according to Mortimer.
Adam Egypt Mortimer and Brian De Leeuw veritably twisted the traditional notion of an imaginary friend who is traditionally associated with a religious or spiritual experience. “At the beginning of the movie, Daniel was Luke’s childhood imaginary friend, but our consciousness, creative impulses, and darkness are bigger than who we are as individuals and extend Daniel into a larger form,” continued Mortimer.
Daniel Isn’t Real was adapted from the novel by Brian DeLeeuw who shares co-writing credit with Adam. There were some differences between the novel and the screenplay. Daniel’s role in the novel was “to inspire Luke and make him more creative, confident and offer him a more interesting life,” said Adam Egypt Mortimer. As the development of the screenplay progressed “we thought about how this dark inspirational character [Daniel] was connected to the creative force of Luke.” The filmmaker cited Daniel’s dialogue in the film where he quoted that William Blake hung out with an archangel who would dictate his poetry to him. Is darkness always a bad thing? Heavy stuff.
Adapting A Cosmic Horror Film
One key difference from the novel is that it was predominantly narrated from Daniel’s point of view. “This was an interesting choice for the novel in terms of understanding the character, but cinematically we felt the story should be more closely tied to the real person [Luke].” This further allowed them to further explore the concept of what is real and what is imaginary. This creates space for more plot to happen on screen in service to its horror genre.
Another difference is that about a third of the novel focuses on Luke’s childhood. This aspect was skimmed through in the movie to allow Mortimer to concentrate on their transformed relationship. “The childhood years felt like a prologue or a memory so we could focus on an element of ‘cosmic horror’ which was not in the book at all.”
The tonal shift from novel to the screenplay was also apparent as it shifted from an”intimate, dramatic thriller to cosmic horror.”
Mortimer expanded on his newly-minted sub-genre of horror inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. “Part of the horror of being a human is recognizing that we are tiny, possibly mistaken consciousness in a vast and scary cosmos.” The filmmaker sought to visualize our evil impulses which are closer to us than we realize. This stream of consciousness is a constant thread running through humanity since our inception.
Mortimer is not all about nihilism and evil. He infused inspiration aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. “The universe is a massive, cosmic space, things are being created, but we’re all connected via an interstellar consciousness.”
Pause to process.
Adam Egypt Mortimer is mindful not to attach a single theme of people hiding their true nature in Daniel Isn’t Real. Audiences need to dig deeper than debating whether being a manifestation of one’s imagination is real. What is reality anyway?
“We should become comfortable with the idea that we are all multiple things at any given point in time.” On a less esoteric level, Mortimer wanted to explore the struggle we face when we try to be good people under bad circumstances. There are voices and impulses compelling us to do things contrary to our intentions. “This is a universal struggle.” When you allow these voices to enter your consciousness, you might be inclined to ask who is the real you? Am I fighting to be good or is being good only a fake societal construct? “This is true for many characters in the film because they are concerned with their true identity.”
Once the audience becomes comfortable with the fact the Luke and Daniel are different aspects of the same character, Mortimer further tests the film’s boundaries by giving them each multiplicities. Daniel’s seductive self-destructiveness evokes empathy. We feel and understand what he’s going through. But can Luke trust himself or Daniel? Beneath the annihilating depravity of Daniel, lies a deep-seated compassion that drives Daniel.
Existentialist discussions about identity aside, Adam Egypt Mortimer was asked about his personal experiences that led him to write Daniel Isn’t Real.
He recalls similar childhood experiences when he was Luke and Daniel’s age. “Being swept up with a close friend of mine, represented by the Luke character, who was manic, had a schizophrenic break from reality and was trying out different identities influenced Daniel’s character.” This constant formation and destruction of various personalities had a traumatic effect on Mortimer. He wanted to explore how it felt for a nineteen-year-old to struggle with this mental health issue in a true way. It goes beyond demons and angels. “It explores what it means being a person growing into yourself via a dark path.” Terms like destruction and train wreck don’t scare Mortimer. He whole-heartedly embraces them and explores their nature.
Exploring such lofty philosophical concepts in a film like Daniel Isn’t Real poses an inherent problem of alienating the audience. Adam Egypt Mortimer overcame this through the process of externalization – showing specific events on the screen rather than simply discussing them. It made the movie more accessible to audiences.
This is a reason he loves the horror genre so much. He claims he wouldn’t know how to tell a story about a troubled teenager trying to figure out who he was as a drama.
He combines externalization with literalization to feel the truth of it. “We’re all familiar with the concept of wrestling with our demons. What if I wrote about a guy who was literally wrestling with his demons?” Mortimer cites David Cronenberg as an influence who externalizes such deep philosophical concepts through the body.
This philosophy also informed his directorial style. “I wanted to get across the psychological changes and what it feels like to be isolated, threatened, manic, or paranoid and how it would be communicated through music, color, and camera movements. The way the movie feels becomes the story. A movie is less about what happens and more about how it happens.”
Apart from David Cronenberg, Mortimer cites Jacob’s Ladder, Fight Club, and Requiem For A Dream as inspirations for the creative choices in Daniel Isn’t Real. There is a fine line balancing straight horror and thriller. “It comes down to the characters and their emotional lives. I wanted to spend enough time with the characters so they felt grounded and display abusive behaviors we might recognize as real people.”
On a final note, his advice to screenwriters is simple. “Find the screenplay that resonates the most with your personal experience. That will elevate it, give it its own flavor and make it more likely for the audience to respond to it.”
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