Adam Egypt Mortimer on the Cinema of Anxiety as Seen in ‘Daniel Isn’t Real’

At the Overlook Film Festival, we chatted with the director about his new film exploring the darkness we all contain.
Daniel Isn't Real
Invincible Pictures
By  · Published on June 10th, 2019

The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check our last chat with Grady Hendrix (Paperbacks from Hell II). Special thanks to William Dass and the other Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness.

We have a deep attraction to darkness. It exists in all of us. We like to think we have a control on it, but we’re drawn to those that don’t because we fear its escape from our biological prison. Our obsession with the most wretched True Crime atrocities is an acknowledgment of the tiny emotional tear that could occur given the right imbalance between nature and nurture. Jeffery Dahmer is not a demon; he’s your fellow human. What would it take to put you at his dinner table? That question is a neverending gnaw. Well, I hope it is.

Adam Egypt Mortimer is deeply invested in navigating the negative impulses of the human condition. His new film Daniel Isn’t Real directly confronts our dark side by letting it roam free in the form of an imaginary friend that most of us suppress during pre-adolescence. Based on the novel In This Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw, the film details the turmoil between Luke (Miles Robbins) and his invisible childhood pal Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) returned to wreak havoc on his familial and romantic relationships. Do we dare believe the title of the movie, or is there a genuine physical threat by this creature existing beyond accepted youthful fantasies? Whether literal or metaphorical, Daniel Isn’t Real evokes fear and palpable dread.

We spoke to Mortimer at the Overlook Film Festival the day after his film caused quite a stir with its audience. “Are we going to talk about Drop Dead Fred?” he asks. The 1991 fantasy-comedy starring Phoebe Cates and Rik Mayall is an easy, cheap comparison but fails to elicit the emotional and visual experience of Daniel Isn’t Real. “On a narrative level, it is very similar, but I had never seen that movie until we were about to shoot this movie because people talked to me about it so much. I think that movie is fine; I guess if you grew up with it. It’s not cinematic. So, my movie is exactly like Drop Dead Fred if you’re not talking about movies, you know what I mean?” Shots fired. Fred done got dropped.

American cinema is obsessed with narrative. Plots from A to B to C rule the popular conversation. Mortimer loves a good story as much as the next person, but he’s more eager to chase emotions using the visual and auditory gifts only offered by movies. He wants to transfer the turmoil within himself to the person plopped in front of his screen. “It’s the cinema of anxiety,” he says. “I think that directing is about recognizing when you’re being anxious and turning that into something. It’s a big part of my practice as a filmmaker.”

Mortimer immediately saw Daniel Isn’t Real in his mind after reading DeLeeuw’s novel and was determined to have the author join the challenge of adapting the concept for the screen. “I always wanted to do a movie where you can see the imagination world come to life,” he said. “Like these little kids are having a sword fight with broomsticks, but then the broomsticks become medieval swords, and then suddenly they’re in the ruins of a cool medieval castle that’s all in their imagination, but then it comes back later as part of life in a twist.”

For a child, the unreal is as tangible as the real. The battlegrounds you construct from carefully contoured blankets and shredded G.I. Joe limbs are as brutal and all-consuming as any news report. Actually, more so. Who wants to chat with the kid down the street when you’ve got a better companion born from your mind. “I had an imaginary friend when I was like two years old, maybe I was four,” says Mortimer. “I vividly remember introducing my father to Mr. Nobody who was this egg-shaped man that I was having lunch with at preschool. My Dad came to visit, and I was like, ‘Dad, meet Mr. Nobody.’ And it was a visual thing that existed.”

A person who refuses to shed such whimsical fancy becomes the subject of ridicule and alarm. We meet them regularly, muttering from street corners, huddled in libraries. We keep our distance. Who are they? Where is their support system? “It’s really hard to help your friends, and it’s really hard for adults to recognize what’s going on around you,” he says explaining the impenetrability of mental deterioration. Daniel Isn’t Real is structured in a way that takes Luke from a place of quiet isolation to an exciting manic state. “There’s something really seductive about that feeling. When you have a manic episode – it’s like you’re smarter, faster, need less sleep, more energetic than everybody else around you. You can do all this cool stuff. When you’re going through that, you don’t know you’re ill. You think things are awesome for a minute.”

That elation cannot last. Eventually, Mortimer must reveal the exhaustive and miserable toll that such an internal invader grinds into Luke’s being. “It becomes something really horrible and paranoid, and you break with reality,” he says. “People who’ve had these kinds of traumatic experiences will hopefully recognize that on the screen, but it also expands into something that I think is bigger than mental illness and becomes this thing about what our tiny human relationship is to reality.”

Again, we’re all one meniscal tear away from letting our darkness steer the ship. The ultimate goal of the film, and film in general, being an empathetic connection. “100% I think that’s the most important responsibility,” says Mortimer. “I think it’s hard to do art that has a general social good. I think that’s really difficult because you have to be so specific with your characters. But I think if you can focus on empathy, that’s something that filmmaking and art can do.”

Originally, Mortimer conceived Daniel Isn’t Real as an even more bleak experience. “When I was first thinking about making this movie, I was thinking about it as a movie that was nihilistic,” he says. Desiring empathy today was his breakthrough. “I love Black Metal. I just love evil shit, to be honest, and all of my life, I felt like I was the person who understood how dark the world is. Nobody around me did, and you know, I was like, ‘I’ve got to make this movie that’s really about – ‘you fuckers. We’re all going to die and everybody’s evil! Don’t you see? Fucking eat shit!’ That was my point of view.”

Daniel Isn’t Real is a film seven and a half years in the making. When Mortimer finally got the green light, the world was different from when he started. “The 2016 election happened,” he continues. “It was like, ‘Well, do we need that now? What’s the purpose of that?’ You can talk to any accountant, and they’ll be like, ‘It’s the apocalypse! The world is fucked! Everybody’s evil!’ I find these conversations really frustrating, but I guess it’s all on the table.” So, simple nihilism is no longer interesting. “That was when I hit on this idea of empathy. What if the story is about how we struggle to remain empathetic in a world that we know is nihilistic? That’s the fight that Luke and Daniel are having.”

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)