A Conversation with Jeff Ferrell
When a filmmaker sets out to create a movie and somehow translate the ideas from his or her head onto the big screen, sometimes it's the little thoughts that make the most difference.
For instance, how many times have you, as a viewer, ever seen a serial killer film about a vicious sociopath where there was next-to-no blood on-screen and every brutal kill was left to your imagination and never actually shown?
It just doesn't happen, likely because it might seem a little odd. Who would want to watch such a movie and not get that visceral payoff? The splash of blood, the sound of steel slicing flesh, the guttural scream of the dying victim's last breath.
Well, writer-director Jeff Ferrell created just that movie, Dead West, for his second feature-length film, and BVB is happy to report that his bold and outside-the-box approach works, and works really well, much better than you might ever expect.
A lot of the credit goes to Ferrell, whose sharp script emphasizes character development over carnage, with dialogue that feels and sounds true-to-real-life. And a big debt is due to his leading man, Brian Sutherland, who imbues Ferrell's serial monster, The Ladykiller, with so much charisma, so many nuanced layers of emotion, that you eventually forget he's the villain and actually start rooting for him.
It's a tricky tightrope that typically would result in a plummeting fall to the death by a less skilled craftsman, but Ferrell pulls off the improbable with aplomb.
BVB: Blood Violence and Babes was thrilled to have the chance recently to speak with Ferrell by phone about Dead West and what it takes to get deep inside the mind of a bad, bad man.
BVB: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me for my website, Blood Violence and Babes. I really appreciate it.
JF: You’re welcome.
BVB: I had a chance to watch Dead West this week and you know, I was really surprised, pleasantly surprised, by the film as a whole because I think when I first heard about it and heard about the opportunity to talk to you, I went and watched the trailer and then when I got my review copy I read the box art description and it seemed to make the film seem much more like a revenge thriller that basically was going to pit, I’m assuming, Tony against Dwayne, and in reality this movie is really such a rich, dark character study, which I really liked. I thought it was awesome.
JF: Thanks, man! Yeah, that was really my intention from day one, to make a rich, dark character study. You hit the nail on the head right there. You know, I really want to do something different from the serial killer films that have been done in the past, which are usually either ultra-violent and go along the lines of slasher films, or they’re from the cop’s perspective and it’s more of a police procedural where the cop is trying to catch the killer. I really wanted to do something that didn’t have much violence in it and didn’t have any cops in it and just focus on the psychology of these characters and what could possibly create a killer and what could drive a killer to do the things that they do. And what drives all the different characters in the film. I really wanted to see that. I felt like I hadn’t seen that too often in this genre, so I wanted to explore in-depth the psychology behind a serial killer and the different characters they come in contact with on their journey.
BVB: Yeah, I think you nailed it. I was struck – throughout the movie, I was struck by how much parts of – and nothing that you had necessarily copied or lifted or anything like that, but it had a lot of the vibe of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer…
BVB: And I think a lot of that is due to – Brian Sutherland, he played Dwayne, correct?
JF: Yes. Yeah, he’s the killer.
BVB: I know on IMDb he’s listed as The Ladykiller, but I know at the end of the film he keeps telling Roxie his name is Dwayne, so that’s why I called him Dwayne…
JF: Yeah, that is correct. That is his real name, actually. And that was intentionally, she’s the only character that he gives his real name to…
JF: That probably says a lot about him.
BVB: Yeah, he did a phenomenal job of really kind of conveying this very complex character who, at the beginning of the film he’s very menacing, very imposing, and as the movie goes along you really get a sense of the multiple layers to his personality. His dry sense of humor, just his skewed view of what’s right and what’s wrong. And I think Brian did just a great job in that role because that’s such a critical part of the movie. If you don’t identify with him, and feel conflicted about identifying with him, then I think the film doesn’t work. And as it is, you created this very charismatic antihero almost that completely manipulates the audience into rooting for him and ultimately hoping that he’s finally changed his ways by the end of the film, which then you kind of pull the rug right back out, which I thought was masterful. I thought it was great.
JF: Well, thanks, man. I agree. Brian did a great job bringing the character to life. My intention from day one was not to make a character that was a clear-cut hero or villain, you know? I wanted a character that was not one-dimensional. I wanted a character with different sides to his personality because I think that’s how humans are. We all have different sides to our personality. We all have good and bad in us. And I think even the worst killers out there, in reality, have good elements to their personality. They have good sides to themselves. How many times on the news have they interviewed neighbors to killers, and ‘He was the nicest guy…’
JF: Or, ‘He was so friendly…’
BVB: ‘He was a quiet man’…that kind of thing.
JF: Yeah, and that was the whole, what inspired me to make this film in the first place, was that idea. There are people out there like this, every day doing this, and yet still going about their everyday lives in the real world and not getting caught, while no one else around them knows they are doing this horrible thing. I thought that was a really interesting idea for a story. It’s very tragic. It’s horrible, but it’s true, you know?
JF: So I wanted to make a multi-dimensional character that the audience could really feel for and feel conflicted about. You don’t know if you love him or you hate him. Maybe you feel both. I like that idea. It’s more true to real life to me than a lot of other films I’ve seen where the characters are a little more clichéd and a little more clear-cut heroes or villains. I like grey areas. So I wanted to explore the grey areas of these characters.
BVB: How much thought did you put into the triggers that would kind of turn that switch when Dwayne would be sweet-talking one of the women he meets in the film and suddenly she would say or do something and you would see that visible switch, that turn, where you knew, ‘Uh oh, here it comes.’ It was everything from talking about getting his name wrong to even when he first meets Roxie and he compliments her and says he liked her hair, that it reminded him of his ex-fiance’s hair, and then she takes off the wig. You kind of see that darkness come over his face. How much thought did you put into what those triggers would be? Did you actually do research or was it just things that made sense to you?
JF: I put a lot of thought into every one of those moments, and I put a lot of thought into the killer’s total backstory. Brian and I spent a lot of time talking about all these things. I spent a lot of time creating his whole backstory, everything that happened to him since a child leading up to now, and all the things that added up to making him what he is. All of those moments that set him off, that drive him to kill, are very specific, and, you know, Brian and I would talk about that. Those exact moments where things would change. There would be little things like the girl would get his name wrong, and it sets him off, and you never really know why, and then later on in the film he reveals how his first wife, Carol Ann, used to get his name wrong all the time and it really pissed him off. I wanted to slowly reveal those character elements throughout the film, in a subtle way, so by the end of the film you get it all. I didn’t want to give it all to you at once. I wanted to slowly reveal it through backstory and exposition. But all of those moments were very thought out between Brian and I. I would describe them to Brian as ‘coffin nails.’ I would say, when this moment happens, when she says this, that’s a coffin nail. That’s it. That sealed it. And he got it exactly, every time. He knew. This was something Brian and I spent a lot of time trying to get right.
BVB: Oh, that’s awesome. It definitely showed. Each of those – the tension was palpable. You’re just kind of waiting to see what’s going to happen. And I loved that. Talk to me a bit about the decision not to show any of the murders on-screen, which I really liked. I thought that was unique for this type of movie, but it also worked really well because you didn’t miss the blood and the gore that a lot of movies like this would give you. Why did you want to shy away from that?
JF: Well, that was actually part of the idea for the film from the very first moment that the idea was conceived. When Brian and I were filming my first movie, Ghostlight, five years ago, which he also starred in. One night after filming, we were having a couple of beers and talking about ideas for future projects and he told me he wanted to play a serial killer and I should write a serial killer film and let him star in it. And as soon as he said that, the first thing I said was, ‘What if we did a serial killer film with no violence?’ It’s all about the psychology of the characters. And the idea occurred to me instantly because I felt like I had never seen that. And I have no problem with violence in films. I love violence in films. Give me the real-life violence. I have nothing against gore in films. I love many gory films. But I did not want to do that with this film. I felt like I had seen it a bunch of times. My goal with every film I make is to try and find some new way to tell the story, some new angle to come at a genre story. You know, my first movie was a ghost story and I tried to find a new angle to tell a ghost story. So that was part of the idea from day one, to make a serial killer film with essentially no violence. There is still a little bit of blood in the film and there’s a little bit of violence in the film, but most of – you never see a knife entering flesh, you never see a bullet hit a body. All of that is kept off-screen because I wanted to make it all about – I always thought the film is not about the killing, but the before and after the killing.
JF: And that’s what we tried to stay true to. Also, I love old-school horror films that were made during the production, before the late ‘50s, where they couldn’t show that kind of stuff. That forced the audience to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. And I love that approach just as much as I love using gore. I think they’re both equally valid. But I really wanted to take an old-school, more psychological approach with this, and I tried to stay true to that. Commercially, maybe, it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I felt that was important to the story I wanted to tell. Keep the violence off-screen and focus on the psychology. Although I will say, we’re making a sequel and the sequel is going to be much more violent.
BVB: I was going to ask if there are more Ladykiller adventures to be told.
JF: There are! Yeah, I am working on a sequel as we speak, and the sequel is going to be very different. Again, the challenge with every film is to try and do something different and do something new and exciting that as a filmmaker I’m excited to bring to the world and offer my viewpoint as a filmmaker. I feel like viewers want something different. Whether they like it or not is up to them, but I want to at least give something different and unique. So yes, we’re doing a sequel and the sequel is very, very different and much more violent and has new characters.
BVB: That’s awesome. I’m excited to see it, because I really did, I really enjoyed Dead West. I thought it was great.
Dead West is currently available from RLJ Entertainment on DVD and for rent or to buy on most streaming Video-on-Demand platforms.