The most frightening genre movies are not only framed in physical horror, but are also driven by themes of survival that empower both children and adults to love themselves, despite their perceived shortcomings. The two adolescent protagonists of the new horror thriller, The Boy Behind the Door, rely on their personal and combined strengths to fight back against the perplexing strangers who kidnapped them under mysterious circumstances.
The drama marks the second writing and directorial collaboration between lifelong friends, David Charbonier and Justin Powell. The duo made their feature film scribing and helming debuts together on another horror thriller, The Djinn, which was distributed this past May. The up-and-coming filmmakers proved their talent on their new second movie, which features their natural ease of creating intense material that effectively contextualizes one of life’s most terrifying situations.
The Boy Behind the Door is set during a night of unimaginable terror that awaits 12-year-old Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and his best friend, Kevin (Ezra Dewey), when they are abducted on their way home from school. Managing to escape his confines, Bobby navigates the dark halls, praying his presence goes unnoticed as he avoids his captor (Micah Hauptman) at every turn.
Even worse is the arrival of another stranger, Ms. Burton (Kristin Bauer van Straten), whose mysterious arrangement with the kidnapper may spell certain doom for Kevin. With no means of calling for help and miles of dark country in every direction, Bobby embarks on a rescue mission, determined to get himself and Kevin out alive-or die trying.
Charbonier and Powell generously took the time earlier this week to talk over Zoom about writing and directing the movie. The filmmakers were promoting The Boy Behind the Door in honor of it exclusively premiering on Shudder this weekend. The drama’s official release comes after it had its world premiere at last year’s Fantastic Fest, and later screened at AFI Fest.
An Exclusive Interview with directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell
Q: Together, you wrote the script for the new horror thriller, The Boy Behind the Door. What was your inspiration in penning the screenplay, and what was the process like of scribing the story?
JP: The process of writing this film was one of our favorites; it’s always held a very special place in our hearts. We kind of developed it out of rejection of our some of our previous scripts that have yet gotten off the ground.
A lot of executives would get back to us saying, “That budget’s too big for first-time filmmakers,” or “You can’t work with kids.” But we were like, “We’re going to work with kids, and create a story that surrounds children, and we’re going to do it on our own.”
Naively, we latter found out that we couldn’t really do it on our own. So that inspired us to craft a really fascinating story that I think was unique enough to get picked up by (production company) Whitewater Films.
DC: Like Justin said, it had been really hard for us to get a movie off the ground. For any filmmaker, it’s a much longer journey than it initially seems.
We thought we could do it independently, which actually led us to making The Djinn. But for The Boy Behind the Door, we did have to partner with Whitewater. But The Djinn really pushed us to come up with another story that we could make independently by ourselves.
But it’s always great when you come up with a story that excites you and you believe in, and you hope audiences will like. So we’re happy that it’s finally coming out now this week.
Q: Speaking of its release, The Boy Behind the Door is now exclusively streaming on Shudder. What was the process of securing the distribution deal with the streaming service?
DC: Justin and I are huge genre lovers; horror movies are our thing. So having Shudder’s support has been so fantastic; we couldn’t have dreamed of a better partnership. All they stream are horror movies, so they have discerning taste in what they choose to show on their platform. So we’re just so excited that the film’s going to go straight to horror fans.
Q: Besides writing the script, you both also co-directed the movie. How did penning the screenplay influence the way you approached helming the thriller? How would you describe your directorial style on the set?
JP: We shot The Djinn first, so we were able to take a lot away from that film and put it into this one. We really learned how to lean into each other and divide and conquer when necessary.
That divide and conquer process was much more necessary on this shoot than on The Djinn, as this was a much bigger undertaking. There were a lot more moving pieces and people in power who were calling the shots and we had to navigate.
So having that support system with each other was really valuable. The directorial process was really just us preparing as much as we could upfront, and making sure we were on the same page.
But when it was necessary on set, we did divide and conquer to put out any fires that came up, and there were several. (Powell laughed.) So I think the best part of the process for David and I is having each other’s backs.
Q: Like Justin mentioned earlier, you worked with kids on The Boy Behind the Door, which stars Lonnie Chavis and Ezra Dewey as the two young protagonists, Bobby and Kevin. What was the casting process like for the film?
DC: We’re really not fans of older teens play 12-year-olds, or older adults playing high schoolers. We feel like you see so much of that everywhere, and it’s so weird to me.
We really wanted it to feel authentic and believable. So even though we knew that it was going to restrict how much we could shoot every day with the kids, it was a necessity for us to work with actors who were the same age as the characters.
Luckily, we have the best casting director, Amy Lippens. She found us the two most incredible kid actors. I feel like we always talk about how amazing the kids are, and while they make the movie, Amy found us an amazing adult cast, as well, and they really rounded out the story beautifully.
Q: Once the actors were cast, what was the process like of working with them to build their characters’ relationships?
JP: I think that came really naturally for Lonnie and Ezra, in terms of building their chemistry. We saw it upfront in the audition process. After they met, we knew that they were Bobby and Kevin, and they continued that throughout the entire process. On set, they were always having fun and playing games together…they got to bond over that.
In terms of the rehearsal process with them, we tried to keep things really simple. We didn’t want to explore things with them that were too dark; we wanted that to come from their parents, if they felt that was necessary.
We just told them, “You’re trying to save your best friend, as you’re being chased by a bad guy.” That’s all they needed to know from our perspective.
Performance-wise, they’re so talented, but they’re able to get there without needing to delve into too much into what the adults’ underlying motives are throughout the story. I think we needed to get into that more with the adult actors, which was the only difference working with the two groups. Overall, it was a really fun experience working with all of the actors.
Q: Speaking of the fact that the drama focuses more on the children’s perspective, and not on the adults’ motivations, why did you feel it was important to focus the story on what Bobby and Kevin were experiencing?
DC: That was definitely our intention. We really wanted to keep the story focused on the kids’ point-of-view, as we felt that was way scarier. Sure, we could have delved into the (adults’) motivations, but I feel like so many movies do that. Once you flood the audience with all of this information and backstory, it begins to chip away at the mystery and terror.
There’s such a big fear of the unknown, which is something we always wanted to keep at the forefront. Bobby’s always trying to figure out where he’s at and who he’s up against. We really wanted to focus on that perspective, as those are the movies that we tend to like more-the ones that aren’t so heavy on exposition and backstory.
Q: Speaking of the location, The Boy Behind the Door is mainly set in and around the rural home where Bobby and Kevin are taken after they’re abducted. What was the experience like of shooting the movie on location?
JP: That was one of the true horrors of the (filmmaking) experience, if we’re being honest. (Powell laughed.) That location had a lot of restrictions that we had to deal with.
We love really contained, one location-set horror movies. So we crafted some really exciting sequences that we were really pumped about bringing to the screen.
We had locked in a location in New York, but that ended up falling through because of budgetary and scheduling issues. So we had to find a new location, and ended up choosing the oil house that’s in the film.
But they have so many rules and regulations about what you can do there, including us not being able to walk to the end of the driveway. The rules were extreme! (Powell laughed.)
So dealing with all of those logistics was really tricky because we always viewed the house as being one of the main characters of the film. It really does play this pivotal role in how the boys are able to navigate what they’re going through. Even though there were all of these problems, we were really glad that we were able to overcome them, and shoot in that house.
Q: Besides working with the actors on their characters’ emotional arcs, what was the process like of also collaborating with them on their physicalities?
DC: This part of the film is a real testament to the fact that you have to have a really good team behind you. It’s easy for us to write action sequences. However, it’s another thing when you have to try to figure out how to materialize them, and create shots that communicate what you want to show through the editing.
But it ended up being really easy to create the action sequences because we had an amazing stunt coordinator. He’s super talented, and helped us really understand how to film action sequences. He worked really closely with the kids and adults, who also have some stunts, to make sure they were safe, and the action was always really believable.
I feel like all of our favorite scenes are the ones that have a little bit of action and stunts in them. So working with the actors and our stunt coordinator was really fun, and we really enjoyed that experience.
Here’s the trailer of the film.