MUSE is a gripping psychological thriller from first-time director John Burr. The plot follows meagre artist Adam (Riley Egan) as his life is emboldened by the mysterious appearance of a silent, beautiful and violent woman (played by Elle Evans). Just like Evans’ character, Muse is an alluring yet haunting experience – one you will not be able to take your eyes off.
Director John Burr joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about his impressive film in greater depth.
Q: Where did the idea for Muse come from, particularly the use of the Gaelic legend of leannán sí?
A: I KNEW I wanted to make a movie in the dilapidated lofts of the arts district in downtown LA. I also knew I wanted to have a weak male character inspired by a powerful female.
The legend of leannán sí was something I came across after I already had the framework for this story – and it fitted perfectly. It was part happy accident, part the result of being the sort of person that googles “creepy legends” and goes down the rabbit hole on a regular basis.
Q: There is a fascinating relationship between art and the supernatural in Muse. Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper followed similar themes and he referenced Japanese cinema as his inspiration. Can you talk us through your thinking in Muse?
A: ONCE the legend of leannán sí revealed itself, it became obvious that this would be a sort of haunted fairy tale, somewhat similar in tone to various Tim Burton films – Edward Scissorhands being the most comparable.
But it may surprise you that in its initial conception, the arc of the film was most similar to Little Shop of Horrors — except that instead of an alien plant, it is a beautiful girl that comes into our downtrodden hero’s world, turns his life around, and then takes things too far and forces him to make the ultimate choice.
Q: Did you have any other inspirations for Muse, especially during the writing process?
A: DURING the writing process, in addition to the influences I have already mentioned, I wanted the narrative to unfold as a bit of a mystery.
So while we did not have the budget to do something like The Ring, it was nevertheless something that I kept returning to as a model. Let Me In was another as it followed the romance between a boy and a girl with a sinister supernatural secret.
As far as inspirations during production, this movie would not have worked without the performances we got from Riley and Elle, the third member in the love triangle Kate Mansi, and of course our stellar supporting cast that included Max Decker, Lou Ferrigno Jr., Jennie Fahn and Phil Abrams.
But the unseen star of this film was Jennifer Lauren Friedman, the artist that created all of Adam’s paintings. If those pieces had not been perfect the story would have fallen apart. So in a way, she was both the muse and the artist for this project. Her paintings for the film as well as her other work can be found at www.jenniferlaurenstudio.com
Q: The film has a wonderful score but I was particularly taken in by the visual style and the use of light in the loft. What atmosphere were you looking to create?
A: FIRST of all, credit must be given to composer Alexander Rudd who did an incredible job capturing that aforementioned Tim Burton/Danny Elfman haunted fairy tale feeling with his score.
The same credit must be given to our exceptional cinematographer Damian Horan, who like Alexander has been recognized by a number of the festivals we have played in.
He and his incredible G&E team did amazing work given the time constraints — we shot the entire film in 15 days and I never could have imagined I would get all of these shots with that schedule.
It was quite a challenge to keep the visuals refreshing with a film that was shot primarily in one location. Yet somehow we came out with a look for the film that feels as uniquely surreal as the story we are trying to tell.
Q: You worked with an exciting young cast. What were you looking for in casting and how did you find working with the team?
A: DIFFERENT things for different parts, of course. Kate (Maria) needed to be the alluring but damaged girl next door. Max (Hector) was the charismatic bad boy while Jennie (Valerie) had to be hard on the exterior with a warm heart.
Phil (Lance) and Lou (Jason) had to be amusingly hate-worthy so you could not wait to see them get their comeuppance. Riley’s performance as Adam was particularly challenging — his character goes from insecure and downtrodden to an active agent in a pretty dark place — there are only a couple of scenes in his arc where he can show off his cool and charismatic persona. And he has to make this journey while interacting with a co-lead (Evans) that has literally zero dialogue. Not an easy task.
The chemistry between those two (Riley and Evans) had to be so in-tune that it was palpable on a non-verbal level – and I think they pulled it off beautifully.
Q: Elle Evans gives an enchanting dialogue-less performance. What was Elle like to work with and how did you help bring this incredible physical performance out of her?
A: WE auditioned dozens of ridiculously talented actresses for that role. The interesting thing is that because the audition contained no dialogue each of them had to simply react to the stage direction being read aloud to them by the casting assistant.
It was a strange audition for a pretty unique role. I needed someone that could play irresistibly alluring to the protagonist in one moment and overtly terrifying to those that crossed him in the next.
I had seen some of Elle’s prior work so I asked our casting director, Chadwick Struck, to call her in. It was evident immediately that she was the perfect fit for the role. It was almost as it had been written specifically for her.
Her performance still amazes me – and I have seen this film about a hundred times at this point.
Q: Muse is your debut feature. What first attracted you to storytelling and directing?
A: I HAVE been making movies since I was a kid. I used to use my parents’ video camera to make little movies with my friends and my sister. They usually involved some maniac running around killing people.
As you can see, not much has changed. I suppose I enjoyed the creativity of it, but I think part of it is that I always enjoyed being able to make an audience react — whether that reaction was shock, laughter or some combination of the two.
Q: How did you find the experience and are you thirsty for more?
A: IT was an incredible whirlwind of an experience – and it continues to this day with the wonderful success we have had on the festival circuit. This film has taken me all over the world – from LA to the UK, from the beaches of Florida to the tundra of Alaska. I have enjoyed every moment of it — even the long flights and short nights. I am still enjoying this one, but I am also making the transition to possible follow-up projects.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I HAVE been working on scripts for a couple of other potential projects, and there is always the possibility of a sequel if the pieces come together. And I am always looking for a fun, creepy indie script to direct. Any of your readers that has something like this, feel free to send it my way.