Boaz Yakin Takes His First Steps Into The Horror Genre

We chat with the director of ‘Fresh’ and ‘Remember the Titans’ about making a career in every genre imaginable.

Boarding School
Momentum Pictures

No creative person wants to be put into a box. Yet, more often than not, filmmakers are trapped by their first success. Breaking free from stereotype can be a lifetime process, but not so for writer/director Boaz Yakin.

Yakin has done it all. He broke onto the scene with 1994’s Fresh, a coming-of-age crime film, and immediately dove into a religious melodrama with A Price Above Rubies. He’s bounced around the Hollywood system with Remember the Titans, Uptown Girls, and Safe, but still managed to find time for Death in Love, a personal exploration of the Holocaust.

Having produced a few nasty horror films for his Raw Nerve production company, Yakin has finally found a way to spearhead his own unsettling cinematic terror. Boarding School follows a young boy (Luke Prael) who is shipped off to a creepy private school run by a zealous headmaster (Will Patton) after his fascination with his dead grandmother is exposed. There, the outcast must work out his identity before suffering a grim fate at the hands of the righteous.

I spoke to Yakin over the phone, and we began our conversation with his assorted career. From there we discussed the appeal of the horror genre, his influences, and the challenges (or is it freedom?) of working with a largely preteen cast. Yakin has no interest in lingering in genre, and he’s excited to launch into an experimental dance film as his next project.

Here is our conversation in full:

You’ve had a rather eclectic career covering many genres, and while you’ve produced some horror films like Hostel, or 2001 Maniacs, you’ve never really tackled the genre head on like you have with Boarding School. So, what took so long?

I don’t know what took so long. I think I’ve just been working my way around different stories and different ways to approach them. I did another kind of very personal movie about Holocaust themes in the present so to speak, called Death in Love. In its own way it’s a horror film. That was as close as I came to making a horror film, rather than just going all out Mario Bava, you know what I mean?

Right.

This is my first one. There’s a part of me I guess that just likes to explore different ways of telling stories. The new movie I’m making right now is a contemporary dance film, an experimental contemporary dance film. I’ve never done that before either. So I guess I really do like exploring different genres and trying out different things.

It’s so hard sometimes not to become stereotyped. You come out with Fresh, and you could have been trapped within that kind of storytelling. How have you been able to navigate all these different realms?

All I can say is I try because I’m interested, and I’ve tried even more than you see in the sense of how many scripts and projects didn’t get made compared to the ones that did, compared to the studio films that I kind of had to do in order to just make a living and so on. If I really got to do what I wanted to do, what would you would see is far more eclectic than what’s even there. In some ways, I think moving around the way I do actually make things more difficult in terms of work. The system really does like to pigeonhole you so to speak, for you to have a brand or whatever it is. And I think the fact that I don’t and that I’ve never been comfortable doing that has actually made it much more difficult for me to get the things that I want to get done, done. Even Boarding School was actually very hard to get made, and finally only got made because I brought the budget down so low. Whereas if I was a filmmaker that had a name in the horror genre, it would’ve made it a lot easier. But every time I tried something new, people are like, “Oh, yeah, but that’s not what he does, right? He’s never made a musical. He’s never made a horror movie. He’s never made this and that.” And it’s like, well, I’m a filmmaker and I’m a storyteller and hopefully, I’m gonna be able to be up to the task of whatever genre I’m exploring. But within the context of getting financing and kind of like getting work opportunities, it actually makes it a lot more difficult.

Where did Boarding School come from?

Well, heck, I don’t know. When you come up with ideas, they just sort of filter into your brain and percolate for a while until they finally take this kind of strange shape. I did have a company called Raw Nerve that was a horror company as you mentioned before, where we exec produced … where the Hostel films came out of, and so on. So, I had always wanted to try a horror film. I think this movie is really about self-actualizing. It’s really a movie about embracing the things that you feel make you weak and ashamed of who you are so to speak. And in my case, growing up, a lot of it had to do with my ethnicity, a lot of it had to do with my shame at having half of my family annihilated in the Holocaust. And shame is a strange thing to associate with that, but when you were a kid you were ashamed to be part of a victimized people, and you feel weak and pathetic in a way. And I think I always struggled with a sense of dislike and dismay about what I sense is a very strong feminine side in myself. And it’s really only by embracing those things as I’ve matured that I’ve been able to be a more holistic person. So, for me, Boarding School is really a movie about embracing the things that you feel make you weak, because they’re the things that make you strong. And I guess an extreme sort of potboiler type of environment felt like the right place to put that.

That’s what I wanted to deal with here. And it deals with preadolescent sexuality and emotions. Look, you could never make a movie as kinky about 12-year-olds without going super low budget. And even now, this is a very unusual film for an American movie. There are not a lot of American movies that go where this movie goes in terms of the ages of the characters involved and so on. So, there really is no way to do stuff like this unless you’re going the low budget route.

The entire film relies on this preteen cast, and that has to be an extreme challenge to assemble.

I’ve made a lot of movies with kids and with young people. For some reason, that always seems to be a big part of the films I do. If not the main thing then always a strong part of it. So, that is something I’m used to by now. I’ve always felt that working with talented and willing kids is easier than working with adults. Of course, working with kids who aren’t into it, and don’t have concentration, that’s really hard and impossible. But working with kids who are talented and excited and motivated is actually more fun and easier than working with grown-ups who got set in their ways, who have more anxiety about their careers, blah, blah, blah. Should I do this? Shouldn’t I do this? It’s actually more challenging. Whereas kids just throw themselves into the thing. So that aspect of it I find a lot of fun.

Do you direct children differently than you would an adult?

Yes, of course, but I direct each person differently than I direct each person. Like, I think that part of your job is to understand where the person you’re dealing with is coming from and try and help them get there. They’re obviously gonna bring what they’re gonna bring. You’re not doing it for them. They’re bringing what they have, their talent. And each person’s different, and each person’s needs are different, each person’s sense of security or insecurity is different. So I work with each person completely differently. Yeah, when you’re working with someone who’s 12, there’s gonna be things that are quite different than working with someone like Will Patton, who’s a seasoned character actor, sophisticated artist, who understands more about his craft than you ever will. It’s a different experience. But it’s true, each person is unique and you have to approach it that way.

Prael, as you were saying, has to deal with themes of sexuality and shame and also overcoming that through his hero’s journey. What were your conversations with him as far as getting him to connect with his character?

It was each scene, each moment, each idea at a time. His dad is actually a character actor and he comes from an artistic family, so that’s tremendously helpful when you have someone who has that kind of support. And they can talk about the script, they can talk about the character, and then you can talk about it. And fortunately, the girl who plays Christine was a very experienced actress at the age of 12, Sterling Jerins. It just by happenstance turned out that they’re best friends since childhood. So, he was able to have a kind of moral and emotional support while doing these challenge things that would not have otherwise been there, and that was tremendously helpful as well.

It’s a very raw performance. It’s really his first film. I guess he had a role in this new movie Eighth Grade that just came out and apparently he’s very good in that. But our movie was his first real role, and it’s a big thing to bite off. And I think he really did great.

When I started watching the movie, I wasn’t quite sure what the point of view of the film itself was going to be. So there’s like this little bit of an uncomfortable settle into the horror as an audience member. And when it all gets wrapped up without spoiling anything, it’s a tremendously satisfying arc, not just for the character but an emotional arc for the audience to experience.

I’m really glad you connected to that. That’s great. Yeah, I think what I like about Luke, and I think for some people, might work really well, for other people, it might be more challenging, is that he holds a lot closer to the vest. I really like performances that are like that where you don’t quite know where the person’s coming from necessarily right away, and how they feel about everything. There are performances that are just open and easily accessible, but Luke has a little bit of a mysterious quality about his. There’s something about him where you see he’s in the scene, he’s present, but you don’t know where he’s at all the time, and I really like that. I think it’s really interesting.

Why does the horror genre work for you? What’s the appeal right now?

I think on some level, horror is like the closest genre to the dream state, right? Like, it’s as close to like just a kind of an emotional dream logic kind of expressiveness as any of the genres that you can do in a movie. People are open … By people, I mean, audience or viewers, I think are more open when they watch a horror film to strange and kind of disturbing or challenging things from the get-go. Like, they’re already putting themselves into a position of like, “Oh, shit. I don’t know what the fuck’s gonna happen, and I hope it knocks me out.” So I think that the genre itself because people are bracing themselves for something that’s going to challenge them, I think it allows you to do that in a less fake way than in other genres.

And inspiration-

Again, a lot of it is the function of budget. Honestly, if you’re gonna make a $15 million Paramount horror film, it’s not gonna say shit. You know what I’m saying?

Right.

It’s gonna say, “Oh, no, there’s a ghost, and it’s gonna eat you.” You know what I mean?

Yeah, yeah.

Like, that’s about it, or there’s a monster and it’s gonna …

You don’t really see big budget horror films. And if you do it’s like a Poltergeist remake, or something like that.

There’s more and more these days. I guess big budget, I don’t mean 60, but $10 million movies. There’s It, and those … What do you call them? Those James Wan movies about the haunted house.

Insidious.

So they do make bigger movies that are in the teens and $20 million range. And once you get into that world, you’re just basically making a jump-factory machine. You’re not really dealing with issues that have anything to do with anything interesting.

You mentioned Mario Bava earlier, was he the primary influence on Boarding School?

It was the primary influence stylistically on the way the film ended up being shot in the second half. Because this movie kind of slides between genres. It’s not exactly a horror film, but it is at the same time. And the movies that really influenced me are the movies that had that feeling to them, like Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter in the ’50s, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a couple of Pedro Almodovar movies. One, called Bad Education, which is not a horror film, but the kind of slightly stylized, slightly kitschy, almost dreamlike expressions of what it’s like to be terrified as a kid. Those movies really influenced … Those movies, to me, are all in their own way horror movies, but they’re not straight up genre horror movies. Those are the movies that influenced me when I was writing this.

Those are films that also embrace melodrama.

Oh, yeah, for sure. Another great one is called Eyes Without A Face. I think that is the greatest horror film ever made, and it’s very poetic, highly poetic and melodramatic. That’s a favorite. So I tried to capture elements from those movies when I was working on this.

I just caught Eyes Without A Face at the Winchester Alamo Drafthouse in Virginia, and that still has an amazing pull on an audience.

The center section of that film when they actually do that operation –

Oh, my gosh, yes.

It still makes you jump out of your seat. You’re just like, “I can’t believe they’re showing this.” It’s so intense, but it’s also incredibly poetic and beautiful, which is what I love about the film.

When you’re starting the process of putting the film together, and you’re talking with your cinematographer, are you showing him Bava, are you talking about Bava?

Yeah. Before we start shooting or anything, I actually do movie night at my house … in my apartment I should say, and the cinematographer, the art director, the production designer, the costume designer, we get everyone in here and I’ll show them clips from Night Of The Hunter, from a few Bava movies, Blood And Black Lace, and a few of those things. And we watch them and talk about them. You don’t want to just be like other movies, but you get a common language in terms of what you’re trying to do with the movie. So, absolutely, that was something that we did, and something that we set before we started filming.

Boarding School is now playing in select theaters and on Digital HD and VOD.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.