Interview: Stevan Mena, Bereavement

Stevan Mena (pronounced “menna”) came on to the horror scene out of nowhere with Malevolence, a self-financed horror tale that took critics by storm. He followed it up with a comedy, Brutal Massacre: A Comedy, that payed homage both to his own exploits but also the most exploitative aspects of horror and cult film.

Now Mena is back, with the prequel to “Malevolence”… a story called Bereavement that shows the rough childhood of a serial killer. Not so much a defense as an explanation, it makes the concept of a bred killer seem not only plausible, but downright likely. Starring Michael Biehn (The Terminator), it is sure to be a success and will open the gates for Mena’s planned part three of the saga (more on that below).

I spoke with Steve on August 26, 2011 as he was crossing into Vancouver, Canada… we cover a variety of topics from his career, and elucidate some plot points and inspirations behind “Bereavement” to further flesh out the story…

GS: You write, direct, produce, compose… What can’t you do?

SM: (laughs) I even make the coffee for the crew in the morning, so not too much. I find myself behind the camera more than in front of it, but that’s about it. I love every aspect of filmmaking. I like to have my hands on all parts of it. I just really enjoy the process.

GS: Let’s go back a few years… Can you elaborate on some behind-the-scenes stories from “Malevolence”: you gave money to strangers who claimed to be PAs?

SM: (laughs) Yeah. So many crazy things happened on that shoot, I actually made a film called “Brutal Massacre” based on the making of “Malevolence”. Everything that happens to that character actually happened to me in real life. That includes a moment where we gave a PA $200 to go get us singles, for a bank robbery scene, and he never came back. He just saw an opportunity and took it.

GS: Also, there is a story of getting arrested for not returning a U-Haul on time…

SM: What happened was, I did get arrested once. It had to do with a location that a person told us was ours but was really not. He didn’t actually own it. It had been foreclosed on by the bank a few years ago. So he used to own it, but no more. What happened with the U-Haul is that apparently in Pennsylvania they send the cops after you if you don’t return a U-Haul on time. So the cops showed u pat a diner where we were having breakfast, and they were going to put the cuffs on me until we explained to them that we were a film crew and that what had happened was just an oversight. So, it’s a little crazy, but it is true.

GS: It’s obvious that you not only direct horror films, but are a horror fan as well. Who would be a horror icon you’d love to work with?

SM: There’s plenty of people I would love to work with and look up to. I don’t really want to name names, and jinx myself so it will never happen. But there are certainly plenty of people out there that I would love to have on a set with me. There’s a certain living composer, but that’s never going to happen.

GS: With “Brutal Massacre”, you cast one of my idols… Brian O’Halloran. I met him a few years ago in Indianapolis and he was awesome, but I must hear more about him.

SM: Brian’s great. We’re actually really close friends and we hang out all the time. I met him years ago at Long Island. We both decided we should get together and make a movie someday, so “Brutal” was that movie. And we’ve been close ever since. He’s a great friend, a blast to work with, and so funny. I don’t know if people realize this — he seems like the dry one in “Clerks”, but he is the funny one in real life.

GS: Let’s talk “Bereavement”. What made you decide it was time for the prequel rather than a new project?

SM: It’s something I always wanted to explore and I always knew I would make the second film in the trilogy. There were some rights issues, but once those were cleared up, I really wanted to jump into it. There’s no particular reason why I picked that over another project. But then, I never expected “Malevolence” to be the underground hit that it was. So maybe at first I wasn’t considering doing another film in the series, even though it was already written. But once it was well received, especially around the world, I figured if people would love to see another piece of the story, I would love to do it. So that’s why I jumped into it.

GS: Very cool. Yeah, the first film just blew up. I don’t want to say it was a shock, because that sounds disrespectful, but it just came out of nowhere…

SM: Well, it was a shock for me! Actually, it was a shock we even finished it, because it’s a film I shot using my credit cards. The fact we even got it completed is a miracle. That it was a hit with audiences in the genre was just unbelievable.

GS: What is it like working with kids? Does it require more patience?

SM: Actually, the kids I worked with on this film were probably the most professional actors on the set. Not to disparage any other actors, but these kids were fantastic. They came to the shoot prepared every day, never once complained, knew their lines… and they turned in a great performance, especially Spencer List, who had to basically show an entire range of emotion without any dialogue. I think they are both going to have fantastic careers. They were a pleasure to work with and made my job really, really easy.

GS: How did the casting process come about?

SM: We were casting in New York, and I was working through Adrienne Stern, my casting director. She brought in a couple of unknowns. Alexandra Daddario at the time hadn’t done anything, so she was an unknown. The same with Nolan Gerard Funk. Brett Rickaby was even slightly unknown, because this was before he did “The Crazies”, so we had a lot of unknowns in the cast. Michael Biehn and John Savage were the real names. We were thrilled that we got Michael Biehn to do a horror film, which he hadn’t done before. He agreed to do it because he read the script and liked it, and watched “Malevolence” and really liked that. So that was fantastic for me, to get him on board. But the casting process was difficult — we were casting right up until it was time to shoot. But I couldn’t be happier with the results, we really lucked out with our cast.

GS: That surprises me that Michael Biehn hasn’t done a horror film considering how popular he is in horror circles…

SM: Yeah. I think he’s done a couple since my film, and has done one on his own called “The Victim”, but he told me at the time that he hadn’t really dabbled in horror and was only considering it because he liked the script, so it was great for me to hear that. He was really fun to work with, a really great guy. [Gavin notes: Michael Biehn appeared in “Terminator” and “Aliens”, which some people consider horror films. He also played the sheriff in “Planet Terror”.]

GS: In “Bereavement”, what is the significance of the skull?

SM: Sutter was killing animals in the slaughterhouse ever since he was 6 years old, so he was indoctrinated into that life by his father. But he was also an animal lover and felt tremendous guilt, so eventually it manifested itself in him as insanity and he ended up killing his father. He ended up staying there alone and growing more and more crazy. So the guilt that he feels is manifested as the bull skull. It is not readily apparent on first watching the film, but the skulls are not really there. They’re in his head, and act kind of like a ghost. That’s why when he smashes one and walks away, it appears back up on the wall. So they represent his guilt and he’s trying to assuage his guilt through the sacrificial murders. The shadows on the wall are images of his father, and his dad is the corpse under the bed sheets at the end.

GS: Sounds like I need to give it another viewing…

SM: Sure. I explore a variety of different themes, some of which you probably won’t notice. One theme I explore is the idea of being trapped. Alex is trapped because she’s forced to live with her uncle in Pennsylvania. William is trapped because he’s forced to take care of his dad in the wheelchair. Martin is trapped literally, and Sutter is trapped by his demons. So it’s kind of a recurring theme.

GS: What’s up with Alexandra’s bad luck? Her parents die, her aunt and uncle die, her boyfriend dies…

SM: (laughs) Yeah. It’s a tragic story, hence the title “Bereavement”.

GS: In the beginning, when Martin is abducted, it doesn’t seem like his family puts up much of an effort to track him down…

SM: It’s not readily noticeable when you see the film, but Sutter is traveling relatively far to get his victims. He doesn’t grab them from where he lives. He lives in Ironton and he travels to a town called Minersville. [Gavin notes: These are real towns in Pennsylvania roughly 45 miles apart.] The parents look for Martin for years, but they just never knew who took him. It’s a very random thing, not like a relative who took him. So they didn’t even know where to look — it’s not that they didn’t put up an effort, they just never found him. Which is not surprising when he is in the basement of a slaughterhouse. Unfortunately, this is something that happens every day in every state. [Gavin notes: Non-family abductions account for 12,000 incidents every year in the United States. That is not quite every day in every state, but still an alarmingly high number.]

GS: I appreciate that clarification.

SM: Yeah, the story is actually somewhat inspired by the fact I grew up in East Meadow in New York. I grew up right around the corner from [serial killer] Joel Rifkin. He kept people in his basement in a very densely populated area — I probably ran into him at the supermarket all the time. Nobody knew what he was doing. His mother lived upstairs, and she didn’t even know what he was doing. So it’s plausible that a guy who lived in the middle of nowhere in a dilapidated building could get away with this type of thing. I tried to convey the distance by showing them traveling through the opening credits, but you’re not the only person to make that point. I’m not sure what more I could have done to show the distance. Maybe a title card could have solved that problem.

GS: I know every else has probably asked, but I gotta know — where will the third film take us?

SM: As you know, the third film has been written for years. It has Martin leaving that place and getting back into society and reuniting with his family. But obviously that’s not going to go very well because he’s insane. It will be fun seeing what happens to Martin in the suburbs when he goes back home. It will be much more fast-paced, action-oriented, and suspenseful. We’ll be shifting paradigms again compared to the other two films.

GS: Thanks for talking with me today, Steve.

SM: No problem. I really appreciate the kind words about the film. It was great talking with you.

GS: Keep making movies!

SM: I hope they let me. (laughs)

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