Duncan Skiles on the Hidden Horrors of Suburbia in ‘The Clovehitch Killer’

We chat with the director about confronting evil with naturalism, and casting a monster with a gorgeous man’s face.

The Clovehitch Killer
IFC Midnight

Serial killers are impossible to resist. The idea that the husband next door hides a secret face, an evil face, is terrifyingly compelling. For decades that fear has been the spark for hundreds of films; scoring Oscars, box office, and establishing festivals. If you think you’ve seen the last of them, you’re wrong. They’re as immortal as vampires, werewolves, and zombies, but should we treat them like the usual horror movie spook?

The Clovehitch Killer is the latest in a long legacy of true crime horror. Director Duncan Skiles was not so much interested in the physical horrors they unleash upon their victims, but the psychological trauma that must occur for the loved ones that surround these sociopathic beasts. Ted Bundy had a mom. BTK had a daughter. What does that impossible to comprehend revelation do to the relative of the demon? Unimaginable.

Stepping into the shoes of the sociopath is Dylan McDermott. He’s a handsome man, with a smile built to ensnare. He is not Hannibal Lecter. He’s Hot Dad-Joke Man, and wholesome, swell fella. Everyone would be happy for him to lead the Boy Scouts into the deep, dark woods. That’s the face Duncan needed on his madman.

I spoke to the director over the phone. Our conversation starts with that obsession with serial killers but quickly shifts to the family, their nightmare, and how the director was obligated to tell their story. We talk about his cinematic inspirations and the thankless task of marketing a movie built around shock and surprise. We discuss how he and his cinematographer Luke McCoubrey sought realism in their lens but maybe found something else.

Here is our conversation in full:

What is the appeal of exploring the mental state of a sociopath?

I guess I’m not so much interested in the mental state of the sociopath, but how non-sociopaths react to them, in the case of this story. I did get really into reading about serial killers. That was the original motivation for the story. I don’t know what it is. I just have a hard time imagining that level of suffering that these people inflict on other people. It’s hard to imagine that it’s actually real and that these people exist.

For me, watching your film, it’s impossible not to also think about the recent capture of the alleged Golden State Killer. How that person is a family member. He has children. He has loved ones.

Right.

In the suburbs, everything appears hunky dory, but not really. Evil exists next door.

Yeah, for sure. I think it could happen anywhere. I’m just really drawn to that environment because that’s sort of the type of town that I grew up in. I think I’m able to represent that more accurately than I would any other setting.

Were there concerns about exploring religion and the church, and the potential for evil to lurk within that particular organization?

I was concerned about finding a church that would allow us to shoot.

Right, I bet.

We visited several, cold calling, just driving around from place to place. Ended up at this place that had the right look. I was just required to sit before a council of elders, of church leaders basically, and explain myself. Their main concern was that we did not swear in the church. I don’t know if they actually read the script. I told them what it was about, but they ended up being very supportive in the end and becoming good friends. The role of religion in the movie is, I never meant to indict it, but simply point out that it was a tool that the mother used to avoid or gloss over the truth.

Once you explained to this church that you wouldn’t be swearing in the halls, under the roof, they were pretty much okay with you going ahead and filming there?

Yeah. The only questionable scene was in the hallway, where there’s a confrontation between Kassie [Madisen Beaty] and Billy [Lance Chantiles-Wertz]. Other than that, it was just a church service and a food drive. Fortunately, we didn’t have anything that was out and out dark, just a fight between two teenagers, where some insults were thrown. It was all good.

In casting this film, what qualities were you looking for in the actors that were going to play Don and Tyler, father and son?

I was going for what I perceived to be a naturalism and a realism, a believability, and a relatability, especially with Tyler. I wanted people to really feel for the guy. I wanted Don to feel like an authentic midwestern dad. I was a little bit hesitant about casting Dylan [McDermott] because he’s very exception looking. I mean he’s 56 years old now and he’s very thin and handsome. He convinced me that he could do the physical transformation, and do the accent, and change his hair and stuff, to sell that realism.

He’s so good in the film. He gets the opportunity to play every side of humanity, even if a few of those emotions are meant to be an act. It’s really impressive.

Yeah, I was really going for a dorky dad thing with him, and I think that he nailed it, in addition to the other things that he gets to play. I think Dylan did an amazing job, and I’m really grateful to have worked with him.

I feel like the less you know about the film going in, the better.

Totally agree.

But, of course, In marketing the movie, that becomes a real challenge.

Right.

How happy have you been with how much of the story is revealed in the marketing materials?

Well, it’s tough for me to say. I don’t feel like it’s my area of expertise, the marketing side of things. If I could somehow wave a magic wand and raise awareness of the film without giving anything away, that would be my preference. I think that the trailer maybe reveals some things that I wouldn’t have. As far as the essential question of, “Is the dad the serial killer or not,” it’s not important. That’s been sort of built in from the beginning. It’s less about who is it and more about what would you do in that situation.

Why is that the most compelling draw to the story?

I’m just very interested in questions of morality and ethics, and what is the right thing to do. That’s why Tyler’s a Boy Scout because that question of virtue is so tied into the Scouts. I thought it was a very interesting conflict. I wanted to put him into an almost impossible situation, in which there was no clean solution, having to choose between what the right thing to do is and what the right thing to do is for your family, and loyalty to your mother and your sister, and protecting them.

Also, the compartmentalization aspect of it. Getting into research for this project, it’s a very dark subject, and I think a person could be consumed by it. Anybody could, just dealing with all of the horrible things that go on in the world, you kind of have to compartmentalize just to function. That’s an interesting parallel to what Don does, in that he has compartmentalized his serial killer side from his dad side. That’s ultimately what Tyler has to do, in order to protect his family.

At one point in the film, the narrative switches back on itself. What inspired you to make that choice for the film?

That sort of arose organically, out of telling the story just verbally, before much was written down. I wanted to have a good combination of suspense of surprise, so there’s a lot of build up of tension. Then I wanted to have the main character leave the story. I just thought that was an interesting, and unexpected thing to do, and also kind of put the audience in this weird place of, “Where is this going? What’s going to happen?” But then also have that big surprise when Tyler comes in. I didn’t want to completely abandon the protagonist, that’s why I went back in time and told his side of the story. Then it kind of just worked nicely with the theme of not sort of having a non-linear story, like a knot tying itself.

When you start getting into the nitty-gritty serial killing, the methodology of murdering, of taking of a life, it’s a cold experience.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

When you’re depicting that stuff, what’s your philosophy as far as not wanting to venture into exploitation? Is it just adhering to naturalism?

Well, I wanted to create enough desire in the audience to wish that what they were seeing was not happening, and then I somewhat wanted to fulfill that desire. I had to take it far enough that people were disturbed. My intent was that you would not enjoy any of the violence, but be turned off by it, and then relieved when Tyler comes in. That was a little bit of wish-fulfillment for myself. I didn’t want to shoot that, I don’t like shooting that. I like certain types of violence, but stuff that’s referring to real life, I don’t know, I just don’t want to add to the misery of the world. I don’t think that’s the role of movies, to make people feel further unhappy. I was kind of conflicted about doing that. I also felt like I needed to take it to a certain point, to make it feel suspenseful, and therefore somewhat relieving when it’s over.

The look of the film has this very hazy, blank dreamlike quality to it. What was the inspiration with setting up the visuals, in talking to your cinematographer?

My cinematographer, Luke McCoubrey and I had a lot of meetings beforehand. It’s my first time working with him. To be honest, we were going for something that felt very natural and real. That’s kind of how I still perceive it, although I did have, at a certain point in the editing process, where I got kind of worried that what I thought was natural and weird and real was actually just very strange to other people. It’s hard for me to speak objectively about that, but I went for something that just felt, I guess like it was motivated by a lot of natural light. We did end up kind of desaturating it, and adding some grain to it, which I think gives it a vintage feel.

When you’re having these conversations with Luke and talking about the style of the film, are you talking purely visually? Are you talking referentially, about older films that you’re chasing?

For sure. We were very much inspired by The Vanishing from 1988, which took a matter of fact approach to something that was really dark and disturbing. Likewise, with the lake scene from Zodiac, which was a very scary moment that was shot very straightforward, and had no music. Also Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which sets something that’s very scary during the day, at a vacation house in the summer. Those were three kinds of like stylistic inspirations.

Then I also looked at a lot at Shadow Of A Doubt by Hitchcock, and Bernard Herman’s work with Hitchcock was the main reference point for the score. That’s probably one of the more traditional elements. I was going for something that was very, I wouldn’t say plain, but just like reserved and lacking a lot of cues of the genre, in terms of camera angles, and lighting, and music, so that you don’t know necessarily how to feel. My theory was that that would be more scary, just based on my own experience of what was scary to me.


The Clovehitch Killer 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.