Brightburn starts out as a classic superhero tale, but with a shocking twist: a strange visitor from another planet comes to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man and is adopted by a couple on Earth... but this time he's evil incarnate. Not every powerful alien is Superman; sometimes, they're something else.
Director David Yarovesky is best known for his low-budget cult classic horror film The Hive, but he's also directed tons of music videos, including the excellent "Guardians' Inferno" from the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 soundtrack. For Brightburn, Yarovesky re-teamed with James Gunn to create what's quickly become one of the most talked-about movies of the summer movie season; all told, Yarovesky is well on his way towards being one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood today.
Screen Rant spoke to Yarovesky about Brightburn, his friendship with producer James Gunn, creating a provocative horror film with a hard-R rating, and where he sees his career developing in the future. He also shares some fascinating behind-the-scenes details on how he approaches CGI and coordinating with FX studios to make sure the computer-generated action looks just right. Brightburn is in theaters now.
It seems so obvious in hindsight, but I don't think we've ever had a horror movie quite like Brightburn.
Well, you're right, I don't think there has ever really been a movie like this before. I mean, there have been gritty and realistic superhero stories, which I love. When preparing for this movie, one of the first movies I watched was Unbreakable. That's just one of my favorite movies ever, you know? But this movie is not like that movie. This movie is, in the truest form of those words, a "superhero horror movie." It is a scary movie. Yeah, it is very much breaking new ground. I think that's why we've seen the kind of response and excitement that we've seen! It's really cool to see that kind of reaction. It's inspiring to me.
Kind of building off that, do you appreciate or get peeved by the internet shorthand describing the movie as "the Superman horror movie?"
I love being part of the conversation. I wanted to make a movie that would become part of the pop culture zeitgeist, you know? I grew up going to movies. Every week, a movie would come out, and I would go see it once or twice at opening night with my friends. We'd walk out of the movie and argue about it, talk about what it meant, what the director wanted to achieve with this or that, and some of us would like it, some of us wouldn't, but it was all part of the conversation. I really wanted this movie to be part of the conversation.
It definitely is!
I think we've succeeded at that task! I think we've started some interesting conversations.
One thing I'm excited about is that it's rated R. Based on the trailer, it's going to be a nasty R, or a hard R.
I feel that's kind of rare these days, especially for a studio film. Was there ever a debate about that, or was it always going to be R?
There were early conversations about what the movie would be rated, and the truth is... Listen, this movie does new, cool stuff with R. I think you will come out and be, like, "Yeah, it definitely earned its R rating." I think we do some really cool stuff with what license that gave us. That being said, movies like Annabelle: Creation and The Nun and those Conjuring universe movies, and It, they are all R-rated movies. So that really opened up people's minds for me to be able to go, "yo, I think we should do this as an R-rated movie," because all these other people are doing it and having great success. There's just a ton of thanks to go to James Wan and those people for making those movies and opening the door for our R-rated horror movie.
Those movies definitely let studios consider taking the kid gloves off.
I remember a time... People don't think about this, but The Ring is PG-13. There was a whole era in which people believed that you couldn't make money with an R-rated horror movie. You had to be PG-13 if you wanted to put people in the theater. But there have been recent examples of movies that have broken that mold wide open. I think, today, it's more about making a distinct movie; making a movie that there's a good amount of people who feel that it is for them. This movie is for them.
There's a phrase I only use in the context of a horror movie or a violent action movie: "Good kill." You know, watching a movie with friends and you go, "Ooh, that was a good kill!" I can only imagine that we're gonna see some good kills in Brightburn. You don't get many good kills in PG-13.
I think you'll be happy. (Laughs) This is a movie you want to watch in a very packed theater, in the biggest theater you can possibly watch it in. It's very much a movie to experience with an audience.
Could you imagine a Friday the 13th movie that's PG-13? Because I can't.
For me, when I see a trailer and at the end I see "R," I'm like, okay. This is real. They're doing this for real. And this isn't a criticism against any PG-13 movies or anything, but there's something about seeing that "R" that speaks to me as a viewer, as a fan, and I get really excited about it. I knew that, when people knew, not just the concept of this movie, but also that it was going to be rated R, that people like me would get excited about that concept.
You've worked with James Gunn a whole bunch over the years. My favorite Avenger is the Goth Ravager. I was very sad he didn't pop up in Endgame.
(Laughs) Yeah, me too! I actually die in Guardians of the Galaxy. Nobody knows that, but I die. Nebula rips me out of my ship's cockpit and throws me. That's a little me falling and screaming as I die.
Oh my God, that's you? I always felt sad for that guy, I know that exact shot.
Yeah, that's me! That is the end of Goth Ravager.
How long have you known James? When did you meet, and what was the first project you two worked on together?
Well, I can't even remember what the first project we worked on together was... We met at a party. We met through mutual friends. It was love at first sight. We instantly became friends, and in a very short amount of time, we became close friends. For a long time, we wanted to work together on a feature. There's been many many features that we have thought about making together. This was just the one that all the pieces lined up to make. James and I became incredibly close over the years. He officiated my wedding. We're pretty close!
Having an opportunity to work with him was incredible. Really, the entire team, the core team that made this movie, it was like a family working together. I had James, who officiated my wedding, Simon, who is a producer working on the movie, was one of my groomsmen. My director of photography, Mike D (Michael Dallatorre) has shot eighty music videos with me, plus commercials, plus my first film, The Hive, and now this movie. We communicate telepathically, you know? He was another one of my groomsmen. It was just a very close-knit group of people working together who all love each other and love working together. It was a really great experience.
Can you talk about the cancelled San Diego Comic-Con panel?
I think everyone knows everything about that. There's not much to talk about anymore. I think everyone knows everything that happened.
You ended up having to wait from July to December before getting to announce this movie to the world. Setting aside what those internet trolls tried to do, and ultimately failed to do, how did you feel about having to sit on the movie for half a year, not knowing what the future was going to be?
At my core, I'm a filmmaker. There was no "sitting on the movie." What it was for me was, I had more time to work on the movie! (Laughs) Every hour that they give me, I'm gonna keep working on the movie. So, to me, it was an opportunity to improve the movie, to keep working on the movie. At the same time, I was excited to show everyone the trailer. I believed that people would see the movie and be like, "Holy smokes, this is awesome!" And then, when I finally showed people the trailer, they went, "Holy smokes, this is really cool!" Everything just happened a little while later.
I'm terrified of Jackson Dunn, the young star of this movie. He's 16 now, but how old was he when you were filming, and how did you come to choose this Jackson to be the one to wear the mask?
I think he was 14 when I met him. The craziest, most unbelievable part of how I ended up meeting and casting him was how our casting director send over something like 200 audition tapes of different kids. Jackson was the first one we all watched. We were like, "Oh my God, this kid is perfect. We could cast him right now and feel really good about it!" But we went through and started watching all the tapes, and there were some great auditions, there were some great things, but there was something magical about Jackson. He had this extra thing that he could carry the weight of a movie on his shoulders. I think, when you see the movie, he does such an incredible job of going evil. It's no simple task. I think he does it beautifully. I'm really excited for people to see what Jackson can do.
Did this movie have anything to do with him having a cameo in Avengers: Endgame, or was that a total coincidence?
It was a complete coincidence. I think they shot that before we shot this movie. So literally nothing to do with it!
I think it's safe to say that Brightburn is your biggest project to date. Looking forward, is the trajectory you see yourself on? Do you want to move on to even bigger franchise fare in the future, or would you want to stay with low-budget horror like The Hive?
I loved making The Hive, it's a movie I made for half a million dollars. That is not for the weak. (Laughs) It is no simple task to make something that makes sense for that much money, let alone all of the gags and all of the crazy special effects and the weird stuff that we were trying to do, on top of being highly stylized. It was beyond ambitious, what we tried to achieve with The Hive. And I did it. I'm proud of the movie, but as you'll see from The Hive and from Brightburn, I have a taste that is not cheap. I like things to look a certain way. I have expensive taste in lenses and cameras that we're gonna use and people who we work with. I like the special effects and destroying things, smashing things. In this movie, we got to shoot cannonballs through walls and all sorts of cool stuff. That all speaks to my tastes.
So you see blockbusters in your future?
I hope to continue to expand and make movies that I want to make. The truth is, the road to becoming a filmmaker is a long road. It's a tough road. I'm at a unique place in my career where, suddenly, people are excited about Brightburn and they're saying, "Hey, what do you want to do?" Brightburn set a bar for me where, every day, I get to set and go, "I can't believe I get to do this today! This is a dream come true!" And so, whatever I choose to do next, it has to live up to that same kind of wish fulfillment. I'm here now, what are the stories I'm going to tell? What are the experiences I'm going to create for the audience? It has to be something big, and exciting, and new. Those are the rules I've laid out for myself in terms of what I'm going to do next. There are certain points in your career where you come out of your body. And I love movies, and this is the kind of thing I've always dreamed about doing my entire life and now I'm doing it. That's a dream come true.
I feel that way every time I have an interview. I felt that way this morning, I was so excited to prep for this and talk to you!
That is the uniting thing about this town. If any of us wanted to just make money, there's a million other industries we could go to. The thing that unites everyone here, I believe, is a love for movies. We all grew up loving movies and wanting to make movies, wanting to be part of movies. We wanted to continue talking about movies well into our adulthood, and just live and breathe it. That's the core reason we're all here. That one thing unites all of us. We can all just get on the phone together, sit and talk, because we're united on this dream that's come true for us. I feel crazy fortunate that I'm in a position that I get to be on the phone talking to you about movies, and about a movie I just spent two years making! It is truly a dream come true for me.
You mentioned your love of special effects, you said you shot cannonballs through walls. I imagine that might be for scenes where we see Brandon flying through rooms like that last shot in the extended trailer where Elizabeth Banks is cowering under the table while he's flying through and busting up the walls. Can you tell me a little bit about picking the right CGI effect? Do people send you a version and you go, "I want motion blur here, I want him to be faster, I want him to be slower?" What is that process like, and when do you finally hit it?
First of all, Trixter was our special effects company. They did an incredible job. They did a lot of work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a lot of stuff with Rocket. And so we had incredible partners. The second thing is that I had James, who has an amazing eye for special effects that's obviously been tuned across the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies. I've always had him to help me and to be a library of knowledge for me to pull from. Then, I have my own sort of technical understanding, from making a ton of music videos, and The Hive. I gained my own experience in doing my own visual effects in Adobe After Effects and 3D Max or whatever software I would use for this and that. I have some experience playing with that. I drew from all of those things, but in terms of the sausage-making, in terms of going through the process, it was really cool. Trixter is based in Berlin, and they would send us shots, and I would work on one of those Microsoft Surface Pro computers, and I would Skype in with them and we would play the shots and I would just draw on the shots. There was this really cool software called CineSync that allowed us to play a full resolution version of the shot and I could doodle, literally draw over the shot, making notes and drawing over it in real time. They could see everything I was doing, they could see me, and we could talk through all of it. I think there's a couple of things to look at when you're doing visual effects. Number one, is it creative? Does it look like the design of the creative direction you want? The second thing is the reality; is it real? Oftentimes, when people think things look like CGI, it's really because of a lack of integration based on... I could talk about this for a very long time (laughs), but it's oftentimes a lighting problem. It's not lit in a way that matches the environment. It's not integrated in the correct way. So you try to look for that, and watch the shot over and over, looking for the things that don't feel true about the shot. That is my best, simplest possible explanation for the very technical things!