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Craig William Macneill’s “The Boy” is a moody and atmospheric thriller that takes a classically creepy setting — a desolate hotel far removed from the rest of the world — and infuses it with fresh terror, thanks to the burgeoning sociopath who lives there, who just so happens to be only nine years old. As Macneill’s titular boy, Jared Breeze plays a chilling young Ted Henley, who spends the film’s runtime pushing boundaries (and people) in increasingly arresting ways.
Macneill adapted the film’s screenplay alongside novelist Clay Macleod Chapman (which, in turn, was inspired by a short the pair made together in 2011), one that attracted a variety of supporting talent, including Rainn Wilson and David Morse. “The Boy” is a gutsy thriller that requires a unique handle on tone and direction, and the film — Macneill’s second feature — is an assured outing that establishes Macneill’s ability to adapt challenging material with an eye to smart casting.
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Clay and I both liked the idea of adapting the chapter, not the novel, because it allowed us breathing space to live and exist independently of the book. Then we basically took the core idea of the chapter about this conniving, young isolated boy that lives in a rundown motel with his father and developed our own new story.
I had always wanted to adapt the chapter into a feature, but we didn’t have the connections or recourses to make that happen. So we made a short with the hopes that it would transition into an opportunity to make a feature. Fortunately Daniel Noah, Josh Waller, and Elijah Wood of SpectreVision saw the short at Sundance, or shortly thereafter, in 2012 and were interested it talking to us about the idea of a feature version. The three of them had been discussing the idea of creating a film about the childhood of a serial killer and they saw those thematic elements in our short.
With the short, we were able to take Ted Henley to the edge of his sociopathy. The movie alludes to a greater darkness with him, but we never show it. You catch a glimpse of the possibilities of who Ted will be when he grows up, but you never see it onscreen. In “The Boy,” we’re given the time to explore and examine Ted’s discovery of his darker impulses.
When we were writing Ted’s character, we were not thinking of him as already being a psychopath or even that he would absolutely become one. But rather, as an essentially abandoned boy with a dark imagination and a strong survival instinct at a critical juncture in his emotional development.
I wanted to evoke the loneliness of an environment that, while physically beautiful, is infused with a real sense of unease and escalating dread. The sound and score are both emotional triggers into this — the soundscape is spare and dark, and relies heavily on the natural sounds of the remote location: wind through the trees, creaking doors, footsteps — as well as long, potent silences. These quiet moments are punctuated by Hauschka’s distinct score, which is a mix of prepared piano and other effects that often blur the line between sound design and score and really help propel the suspense and heighten the anxiety.
My cinematographer Noah Greenberg and I established the visual tone by isolating the characters and abstracting the space with long lenses, foreground obstructions, reflections and compositions that pushed the characters to the edges of the frame. Having the characters at the periphery helps add tension and allows the negative space around them to become very important. The pacing is pretty restrained, which feels natural for the story and Ted’s journey, and I hope keeps people on edge a bit.
One film that influenced “The Boy” is Jonathan Glazer’s film “Birth.” The film has such a beautiful mood and tone which has stuck with me since I first saw it maybe 10 years ago. Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive” is another enduring reference for me, as was the Dardenne brothers’ “The Kid With a Bike” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”
So far, editing my own films is the only process I know. It’s less of a shorthand and more that I think in terms of the final edit, so I am able to adapt very quickly on set to changes or restrictions because I know how they will influence the edit and what the consequences of any changes will be before I get to the editing suite. This was really helpful on “The Boy,” because working with children is an inherently fluid situation, and your time with them is very limited, so you have to work as fast as you can and it helps when you’re open to embracing all the changes.
Believe it or not, Jared Breeze was one of the first kids our casting director Monika Mikkelsen brought into the room. I had anticipated the search for the perfect Ted would take months, but we got really lucky!
“The Boy” is actually my fourth film with a kid as the main character. As soon as I met Jared I knew we’d found our lead. He has such a magnetic presence and he’s engaging without even speaking a word — qualities that really translated on screen and were crucial for the role. Jared’s default is this very happy, wide-eyed, innocent boy, but he is able to make small, subtle adjustments that flatten out his expression and make him really menacing.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.