Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton are set to release their latest genre offering, The Neighbor, a crime thriller that reunites them with The Collector star Josh Stewart. The Neighbor, directed by Dunstan from a screenplay he co-wrote with Melton, is set in Mississippi where a man who discovers the dark truth about his secretive neighbor and what, or who, he may be keeping in the cellar.
Even though The Neighbor is releasing this year, it’s a project that came from a dark place in the duo’s career all the way back in 2006. When asked about where the concept came from, they replied with one simple answer: “Fear.”
“I can tell you exactly when it was written – the July 4th weekend of 2006,” Melton told Bloody Disgusting in this exclusive interview. “This was before ‘Feast’ had come out and two years after we had won ‘Project Greenlight’. We had a string of failed pitches and failed spec scripts and our agency dropped us as clients. We were really struggling to find our place within the horror world, and our agents didn’t have the patience to find it with us. So, it was a tough time, and we really had to look inward and do something that really scared us. ‘The Neighbor’ is a dark movie, and perhaps it reflects how we were feeling at the time. It came out of us very quickly… and it became our first spec script sale when we sold it in September of 2006. Dimension bought it and it really saved our lives, personally and professionally.”
Dunstan talks about his inspiration coming from his attempt to freshen up the thriller subgenre, while breaking free from some of the constrains of horror.
” ‘The Neighbor’ was a chance to bring a fresh tank of fuel to the thriller. When the story called for violence… it had the ability to strike twice as hard for the thriller format allowed the story to live with the characters a bit longer than horror rules typically allow, and escalate the tension with the plight endured by the characters as their world spins out of control. The “good guys” aren’t necessarily pure of heart, and the “bad guys” aren’t totally without virtue. The shades of gray took dominance over the splashes of red. It was a tremendous amount of macabre fun bringing the thriller’s rules to the screaming edge of horror film rules. ” ‘The Neighbor’ also takes place in the back yard of where Patrick and I grew up in the midwest,” he added. “To navigate the postcard-memories of home away from Norman Rockwell and into the darkness was a marvelous challenge.”
There’s an interesting family dynamic to the movie, which was tailored to mirror Mississippi.
Melton tells us: “Well, we shot in Mississippi, and we purposefully tailored the script for Mississippi. Meaning, in the more rural parts, they’re having a tough time with really addictive drugs like meth. The town in our script has been somewhat decimated by it. Troy and his boys aren’t inherently bad people, they’re just doing what they think it takes to get by. Yes, they’ve crossed far beyond moral and ethical boundaries, but in their mind, they’re simply playing the hand they’ve been dealt. They’re trying to survive, thinking that if they stick together they’ll be able to mange. And if their nosey neighbor didn’t get in they way, perhaps they would have!”
“Families can be forged in an instant and tested forever,” added Dunstan. “This narrative was an opportunity to see how the family dynamic plays out under extreme, ongoing duress. The villains aren’t waking up with the decision to be villains. They have been dealt a brutal hand by life and their actions frame a plan on how they just might survive. “They love each other enough to harm anything before it can possibly hurt them again. That construct was based on bringing as much reality to the thriller dynamic as possible. Research provided the rest of the map as closer and closer the situation hewed to ‘based a true story’ aesthetics.”
The Neighbor reunites the duo with The Collector and The Collection star Josh Stewart, who brings constant professionalism to the set, not to mention is a fantastic actor, as well as Bill Engvall in the role of “the neighbor,” the film’s antagonist.
“We had a short window to make the movie, so we needed actors who could nail their lines in two takes,” Melton explained. “Josh brings a certain type of professionalism to the set, and as the lead actor, other actors have to follow his example. He’s wonderfully gifted as an actor, and he’s great to be around, which is what you have to have on a lower budgeted movie.” Dunstan added: “Josh Stewart is an absolute joy. A total pro. He makes the craft look easy. Every story I can recall with him is a fun story… even if most of them involve him being terrorized in some fashion… be it by the film’s villain, fire, or mother nature herself trying to freeze him to the road in Shreveport, Louisiana (true story). I wish every filmmaker the experience of working with someone as talented and generous as Mr. Stewart. You get that kind of lucky once in a lifetime, and ya hold on to it with everything you’ve got. ”
Melton talked a bit about the casting of Engvall: “The role needed to have that Southern charm, which Bill has in spades. You needed to kind of like the character, but fear him at the same time. Often, comedians play great villains. They’re instantly likable because of their charm, which makes their turn even more unsettling. Bill is fantastic in the role.”
“Engvall roared a villain to life with humanity, and his history with humor allowed a resource of experience to flow,” Dunstan added. “Mr. Engvall transformed himself from head to toe. He changed his appearance to the point many would have to do a double-take to recognize him. He also nailed the dialect, the demeanor and could nimbly switch from protector to predator on a dime. Once we had Bill Engvall, we re-wrote the part to include more and more of the paternal moments, the civil moments, and when it came time for this totem of kindness to become a rattlesnake… wow! We just backed up and watched him ROAR.”
Melton and Dunstan come from a very violent background when it comes to films, having penned several SAW sequels to go along with Feast and The Collector/Collection. The duo talk a bit about balancing the level of violence and gore after coming off aforementioned films.
“The first draft was much more violent. We purposefully shot it more as a thriller, allowing the viewer to imagine a lot of the more unsettling moments,” Melton explained. “That being said, it’s still pretty hard and shocking. Marcus likes to call it a thriller, but it’s a thriller with a lot of horror. I mean, just look at the trailer.”
Marcus talked about making the violence more intimate: “The goal was to keep ‘The Neighbor’s’ reflection of violence feeling as real as a paper-cut. Intimate damage. No buckets of grue. The editor, Andrew Wesman, had deftly pulled back some of the red we did shoot and each time the scene in question would play more realistic, more savage, and hit the right tone by utilizing a “less is way more” approach. The desire was to bring forth all of the intensity first and then decorate impact vs going into a scene knowing that the impact of the moment depended upon the special effect or the right spray of crimson. In the case of ‘The Neighbor’, people are facing the potential loss of their loved ones… and that brought the intensity up to a level where performance stuck the landing long before the special effect arrived.”
I love learning about how filmmakers approach their filmmaking, which is why I asked how they created suspense in The Neighbor. Here’s Melton and Dunstan’s trick…
“Simple. Tell the audience the danger… and then release the unsuspecting lead character into that environment,” Melton revealed. “Here, it’d say this is a thriller that runs into a horror film. The movie could have been about John stealing from his crime lord uncle and the repercussions. But then we introduce Troy, and all hell breaks loose.”
Dunstan explains: “In terms of suspense; the architecture of each sequence is an evolving beast. Which character is threatened? Where is the threat coming from? Is it built from silence or from the terror of not being able to shout above a combine to beg for help? “Each sequence is a delight to set up. The camera becomes this cruel actor that knows all of the character’s vulnerabilities and quietly stalks every single being we care for without ever whispering a hint as to where the threat will come from. It feels like tightening the strings on a violin and the perfect note is a scream!”
With elements from films like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the duo wanted to “mash up a classic thriller conceit with a classic horror conceit.” The title, well, it’s sort of a unique mcguffin:”We liked the idea of Mr. Bad meeting Mr. Worse… which works with the title,” Melton told us while also revealing the film’s original tagline… “Everything evil lives next to someone.”
The Neighbor arrives on VOD platforms September 6.