SXSW Interview: Joe Lynch Talks MAYHEM And Worksploitation

The horror director gets candid regarding his most personal project yet.

Header image used courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Joe Lynch is one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. The fact that he makes movies we legitimately love (Wrong Turn 2 for life) only sweetens the deal, as both listening to him talk film (via The Movie Crypt – a podcast he co-hosts with fellow fright filmmaker, Adam Green) and talking film with him are some of the great joys in modern genre cinephilia. The guy just radiates solid vibes, and you’re never going to get a line of bullshit from him regarding what it means to be a working filmmaker in today’s Hollywood. Now Joe’s got Mayhem, arguably the most personal project of his career. It’s a blood-soaked blast of insanity with a healthy dose of subtext about struggling to maintain one’s soulful individuality within the barren Hellscape that is Corporate America. Being a Joe Lynch film, that includes its hero (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) wielding multiple sharp objects as he climbs the ladder (so to speak) of an office complex dominated by suits infected with a rage-inducing virus.

We had the chance to sit down with Joe at SXSW, and what followed was the usual no nonsense, candid conversation we love him for…

Birth.Movies.Death: You know, it’s funny. I spent the morning watching your movie. Then I interviewed Greg McClean for Belko Experiment, which I saw last week…

Joe Lynch: Aw, man. You’re entering the realm of ‘Worksploitation’, which I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot of in the near future…

BMD: …and that was really my first question: do you think your guys’ movies coming out near simultaneously is a matter of coincidence, or is something in the water, so to speak? With the way corporate culture has even overtaken the White House, it feels purposeful…

JL: Fuck yes. I’m a survivor of corporate culture, to the point that this movie is what got me out of my corporate gig at the time. Look at [Steve Yeun’s character] Derek: that was me to a tee. The days of the director being able to rest on the laurels of residuals or development deals are gone. So the idea of a filmmaker getting a development deal and hanging around for ten years making movies is dead. But no one ever talks about that. Whether it’s the off-times or the hard times or whatever you want to call it, everybody just wants to talk to the filmmaker about the movie they’ve got or what they have up next. Part of why Adam and I do the Podcast is not just because we want to talk with these working artists and explore everything around the greenlight, the production, the post process and the premiere. Because during that time you’re in the bubble – the high-profile zone. But after that, no one is talking about what most filmmakers are doing in-between those ‘bubble periods’.

Every time I finish doing a movie, I go and find another gig just to pay the rent. I’m not getting a lot of money out of these movies – I’m usually getting paid scale or maybe a little above, if I’m lucky. Being able to sustain yourself, especially in LA where it’s so expensive, is difficult. But I had a bunch of friends at the G4 Network – where I worked before Everly – who always had my back. It’s funny, as I grew and kept making more features, I also moved up the corporate ladder simultaneously. So before Wrong Turn 2, I was a camera guy. Then I came back after Wrong Turn 2, and became director of [G4’s] website. Then I was producing shows for them; for both the network and for the website. Then I left for Everly, and I came back and a bunch of folks I knew from the network were gone…just gone. So I kind of had to start from scratch again.

It’s funny – when you’re hired to do a creative gig, you expect to be creative. But when you get hired to do a corporate creative gig, it can be soul sucking. I would have daily meetings where I’d be sitting down with some of the higher ups and saying “you hired me to be creative, so why are you putting a tourniquet on that creativity?” The responses would all be the same: “well, we have to run it through the right channels, and vet the ideas. We’ll discuss it at a later time.” It was all red flags being raised in my brain.

BMD: Your meetings needed trigger warnings….

JL: [laughs] So many trigger words. But then Matias [Caruso, screenwriter of Mayhem] had this script that landed on my desk, and I just said “OK, I want to do this, at the very least, to get out all my demons with this company and this job.” Because I’m not the biggest fan of confrontation, but I hate passive-aggressiveness. It basically gives me hives. So when I was at this job, I’d gotten a lot of hives. There was no “shaking things up”, or being “emotional” during these meetings or really speaking your mind. Mayhem is really about what happens when you take that passive-aggressive element away and rip the tourniquet off. What happens then? What happens when you can really take it out on that coworker you fucking hate? What happens if you get the opportunity to punch the boss in the face? And what if there aren’t any consequences to those actions? For me, at that moment in my life, I needed that script and to do that story. We were going to do it, no matter what.

BMD: With the infection aspect of the storyline, Mayhem has a metaphorical element where the “monsters” become something beyond beasts.

JL: It releases your id. Believe me, I’ve been trying to find an accurate way to describe this movie for a little while now, because it all comes out as sci-fi gobbledygook. But it was really about finding a device that allowed these characters to act out any of the wild fantasies they had bubbling in their heads. That’s partially why we needed this fictional virus, and I’m sure someone on the Internet will go [in Simpsons Comic Book Guy Voice] “well, actually…there is no such thing and blah-blah-blah”, and I’m like “yeah, I know, we made it up.” I needed that to tell this story.

BMD: There’s almost a Romero-esque feel to the satirical stuff…

JL: Totally. Romero’s always been a big influence for me. My first movie was Dawn of the Dead, and there you have a movie where you see it every couple of years and perceive it differently. The first time, when I saw it as a kid, I was like “oh my God, this is crazy”. I was six or seven and it scared the shit out of me. But then I got older and recognized the satirical elements of it and the political elements of it. He was talking about consumerism and racism and it blew my mind. I didn’t know you could even get away with something like that in a horror movie. You mean I can entertain people with genre while also delivering these messages? That’s amazing.

Do you remember that documentary that came out years ago called The American Nightmare?

BMD: Absolutely.

JL: That movie does a great job illustrating what those movies meant by just talking to the filmmakers themselves. All the sudden you realize this movie is a reaction to Vietnam, this movie is a reaction to Free Love in the 60s, this movie is about racism…

BMD: I remember Wes Craven talking about Last House on the Left and the doc showing frames from the movie side-by-side next to photos from Vietnam, and how he said he didn’t even necessarily intend for that happen. He was working in porn and barely knew how to make movies! It was almost subconsciously inserted on his part due to simply existing during that period.

JL: It’s because you’re enveloped by your own world, and that’s what’s going to come out through your art. That’s why I felt like I had to make Mayhem now. I needed to get this out of my system. I couldn’t wait twenty years to make this movie and go “well, let me tell you kids about corporate culture in my day.” I had to get rid of the things that were eating me up and made me want to give up [creativity] forever. It was killing me.

But like you said, our government is being run like a corporation now. The ultimate corporate hack is in office. So why not make a movie where you get to tell the guy upstairs to go fuck himself, whether he likes it or not. It feels like the right time for that, and finding out Steve Yeun had the same feelings I did, and that we both wanted to tell this story through this kind of satirical horror/comedy felt really good.

BMD: He’s really funny in it, too.

JL: He’s so good. And look, there’s a lot at stake for him as well in his career, because there aren’t many lead roles in American movies for Asian actors. Not to sound like some kind of privileged white male looking at this through a microscope, but Steve is an Asian-American actor. How many movies are being offered to him where he’s not involved in martial arts or playing some kind of computer wizard? He should just be looked at as American.

When I started watching The Walking Dead, I was like “yeah, this is cool. Jon Bernthal is awesome. Andy Lincoln looks cool holding that gun. But who…who’s that pizza delivery kid? He seems awesome.” But it was because he was funny and charming and brought this value to Glenn that was totally his own. I wanted to do the same thing with Mayhem. I wanted him to be my “everyman” and not care at all what race he was. Because he could be any man. He is any man. We need to stop just giving certain roles to certain types of actors. We live in an environment where Steve is the everyman. We just need to start reflecting it.

Steve is my Richard Dreyfuss. He’s my John McClane from the first Die Hard. He bleeds, he can relieve tension with a joke, and he carries this movie amazingly.

BMD: Are you afraid of Mayhem being lumped in with the zombie subgenre because of the virus element? Because it feels like it could easily be perceived that way, especially given Steve’s involvement.

JL: No, but that was something I had to be extra careful with. I had a bunch of extras going [groans and lurches forward like a ghoul], but I told them that they were free of feeling like they couldn’t be themselves. Also, I told them they could feel free of any ramifications for their actions, including jail or death.

So yeah, the viral aspect is concerning given fans’ history with the genre and Steve’s involvement with the project, but I think that we find enough of a balance where we never define them as flesh-eating monsters. Instead, they’re just crazy people allowed to live out their wildest fantasies. If you go in thinking that you’re going to be seeing a zombie film, you’re going to be wildly disappointed. But if you enter Mayhem thinking “wow, this is a movie that allows me to punch my boss in the face”, it’s going to satisfy that wish fulfillment criteria like crazy.

Mayhem's final SXSW screening is tonight, 11:30pm at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.