James Gunn is using his clout in Hollywood to get more original horror movies made. He produced The Belko Experiments from his own screenplay, and now he’s produced Brightburn, written by his brothers Brian and Mark Gunn and directed by Dave Yarovesky.
Brightburn is the story of a childless couple (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) who find a baby crashed in a meteor on their farm (stop us if you’ve heard this one before). While Brandon Bryer (Jackson A. Dunn) may share an origin with Superman, he turns out to be a monster, using his super powers to attack the classmate who rejects him and kill the adults who try to discipline him.
Brian and Mark Gunn spoke with /Film by phone this week about their screenplay to Brightburn. They revealed a number of scenes that did not survive their early drafts, and discussed the themes of boys using their power for evil. Brightburn is in theaters today.
Were you really leaning heavily into the Superman myth, down to the way he crashes from space and lives on a farm?
Brian Gunn: Yes, there’s a long tradition in comic books of superheroes who are found out in the woods and taken in by some parents and raised as if it was their own. Mark and I really started to ask ourselves what kind of person would do such a thing? First of all, literally how would you pull off such a thing? Beyond that, what in these people made them so sure it would turn out so breezy. In the comic books, you find this baby out in the woods and he grows up to be noble and heroic. We started to ask ourselves what would happen if this baby grew up to be something far more sinister.
Mark Gunn: Brian and I are both parents ourselves. Having a child is like inviting a stranger into your home. You hope that they will turn out to be well adjusted or even amazing people, but when they’re young, you just can’t know. They’re strangers to you and in some ways they’ll always be strangers to you. We wanted to start with that basic experience, bringing a child into your home and finding the horror of it. Finding an alien child in a meteor seemed like a fun starting point for dramatizing some of the possible horrors of being a parent.
Was setting it on a farm also a helpful way to keep the budget moderate?
Mark: Yes, there are many, many choices in the movie that were partly inspired by budgetary concerns. We actually wrote it as a spec a couple years ago to be made for a tiny budget. When James and Dave came on board, they encouraged us to lean into the superpower stuff more because we were able to afford a little bit more of that stuff and it really opened up the movie.
Brian: In our earliest drafts, Brandon’s character was almost more like The Terminator in a way. He was indestructible but we rarely saw him levitate just because we were very budget conscious. We wanted to be able to make it on a shoestring. While it’s obviously not a huge, big budget, special effects extravaganza, we were able to open up the movie a little more and show some of the really cool super powers up on screen.
You talked about how real people would pull off adopting an alien baby. Did you ever think about what would the paperwork be like if a baby just showed up and there was no adoption agency involved?
Mark: We actually wrote a scene where they had to figure out, after they brought this baby home from the meteor, they had to figure out how they were going to get it medical care. The baby was sick when they first brought him home. This has all been since cut from the movie for good reason. It’s not very interesting. Bureaucracy is generally not interesting to audience, but if you take a child to a hospital emergency room, they’re going to ask you certain questions that, if you found a kid out in the woods, you’re not going to be able to answer. We thought that was interesting. However, we were wrong. It wasn’t very interesting but it’s interesting to talk about now.
What was your solution to how they explained the baby?
Brian: If you just got pregnant out in the middle of nowhere and there’s no paper trail in terms of the pregnancy or the birth or anything, you’d need for somebody to testify on your behalf. In our version, it was Brandon’s aunt who went along with it, sort of unknowingly. She did not know this was a child that crash landed in a spaceship, but it was part of the thread the sheriff started to pull on that unraveled the identity of this kid. Again, it didn’t seem to really deliver the goods.
And that would have changed things later in the movie when the town seems to know that Brandon was adopted.
Mark: Yes, very much. That was something that changed a number of times during the writing of the script. What did people know or suspect about his origins? We sort of landed on that there was a cover story that he was adopted. He was an adopted child in the town and everyone who knows the Bryer family knows that they adopted this baby 12 years ago. We thought that was basically the simplest way to explain his origin to the town where of course the parents are keeping this secret about where they really found him.
Did you go as far as you could with Brandon terrorizing Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter) before it would become not even scary anymore but just unpleasant?
Brian: Yeah, that was a huge concern. It was tough finding that sweet spot for a lot of the different characters in the movie. Obviously, you want the death scenes to be entertaining, at least on some level, but we never wanted the audience to be rooting for Brandon to commit these killings. We never wanted to glorify his actions. Hopefully, people will find his actions fairly revolting. Obviously, they’re all done in a fun, slightly fantastical way but we really wanted to protect each of our characters, Caitlyn probably most of all just because she’s young. There’s nothing pleasant about seeing a child terrorized.
Mark: We actually wrote a sequence where Brandon got revenge on a couple of bullies in his class who were giving him a hard time. We cut it out because as Brian suggested, we decided that you would be rooting for Brandon there because these kids were bullying him. We did not want to put the audience in a position of really rooting for Brandon to hurt people. So we cut it out before we even went to production.
James introduced the screening as a rare mid-budget original movie, but is it also a high concept movie? That used to be how movies got you in, with an idea you just couldn’t wait to see.
Brian: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. We like to think it’s pretty rare. Most mid to small budget movies don’t really lend themselves into a logline. We like to think this one is pretty easy to grasp up front.
Does Brightburn explore how toxic masculinity forms, if the boy in question has unchecked power?
Brian: We weren’t really conscious of that as a theme. We have had that pointed out to us in the past that that was a possible angle on our story. We don’t think it’s necessarily any kind of sociological reading. For starters, he’s not even a boy. He’s not human, but if people want to read that into it that’s a plausible reading. Again, it just was not something we were conscious of.
Usually in superhero stories, we identify with the being who comes to Earth and becomes the hero. Is it a different sort of identification when that character is the monster
Mark: We hope that we’re playing with that idea that you put your finger on. Traditionally in these stories, you root for the alien that comes to Earth and has these powers, especially if they are marginalized and picked on. We wanted to start the character there and then have him turn in a different direction to challenge the audience’s rooting interest and hopefully by the second half of the movie and especially by the end of the movie, you’re not rooting for him at all. You’re rooting against him.
Brian: We’ve had parents watch the movie and tell us that they openly struggled with the idea of whether or not you’re supposed to root for Brandon, I think because they’re used to watching so many movies where guys in capes are heroic. We really wanted to turn that on its head. We didn’t want to go so far as to say that guys in capes are evil, but we ddi want to play with the idea of what if they were evil.
Did you think of Brightburn as an origin story for a character who could go on to terrorize others in other places?
Brian: Yes, absolutely. We’d love to be able to expand his story and more broadly a broader superhero horror universe.
Mark: And find a worthy opponent for him out there in the world.
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