Boys in the Trees is streaming on Netflix and, in my opinion, it’s one of the best films that was released in 2017. It’s a coming of age Halloween fantasy that follows the friendships and struggles of a group of teenage boys living in Australia. The film features outstanding performances all around, but most of the story focuses on Corey (Toby Wallace) and Jonah (Gulliver McGrath).
I was so captivated by the spellbinding cinematography and the emotional story that I reached out to Writer/Director Nicholas Verso all the way in Australia, and he was kind enough to take the time to talk with me about the film.
Horror Geek Life: When did you know you wanted to make movies and how did you get started?
Nicholas Verso: As a kid, I always loved films and I thought I wanted to be an actor. When I was like 10 or 11, I was doing acting classes and trying to get involved that way. A drama teacher actually spotted me and she said I would probably make a better director than actor. She saw that I was more interested in controlling the elements than being one of them and she was right. That sort of set me on the path and I just started thinking that way and I went from there.
Horror Geek Life: I saw your short film, The Last Time I Saw Richard, on Shudder and loved it. There are some similarities to Boys in the Trees, which is fantastic. What is the connection between the two films and why is there a character named Jonah in each one?
Nicholas Verso: Originally, they were very much the same story. The Last Time I Saw Richard was actually one of the ghost stories that Jonah told in Boys in the Trees. He told the whole story to Corey, and it was a way of Jonah explaining his whole backstory to Corey, his experience with adolescence, but it was a more stylized version. When we were trying to get financing for the film, there was an initiative in Australia that would allow you to make a teaser- a short film that sort of spoke to the tone of the film you were trying to finance. So, I decided to lift that story out of the film and make that because it had a lot of the elements that people wanted to know about, like who is going to play Jonah, one of the darklings, and all those sorts of questions. In the process of making it a self-contained story, it grew and became its own thing and it sort of deviated a little from how it originally fit into Boys in the Trees.
Originally, the hope was that we would go straight from shooting the short to shooting the feature and Toby Wallace would play Jonah in both, but it took a lot longer than we thought. It took a couple of years and by that time, Toby had grown up a lot and he just wasn’t believable as a little, bullied kid anymore. He was much more believable as Corey. Because I had told the story and felt kind of done with it, I didn’t want to tell a condensed version of it for Boys in the Trees, so I just added a different little Halloween story in place of it.
Gulliver McGrath, who plays Jonah in the feature, played Jonah so differently, that they are now very different stories. The stories just kind of grew apart. The Last Time I Saw Richard became so much more of a horror film and Boys in the Trees is a coming of age film, so they just grew apart naturally on their own. Once upon a time, they were one story.
Horror Geek Life: Boys in the Trees is set in the 1990’s and the awesome soundtrack reflects that. How did you come up with the concept for the story?
Nicholas Verso: I was cleaning up my house and I found the notebook that had where it all began. The way it began was when I was at this café in Melbourne, the city that I used to go to when I was a teenager with all my friends because we could watch all the skaters in the skate park, and it was just our cool 90’s hang out. When I got there, the skate park had been demolished and there was now a shopping center there and it was really interesting. I had this weird, emotional response to that and I had my notebook with me and I just started writing and immediately these weird boys started coming and telling me their stories. It sort of all came out of that feeling of knowing that you can’t go back and knowing that a part of your childhood is gone forever. I guess that was the feeling, the thing we all had in common at that moment.
Then as I started looking at the story, things that excited me started coming out, like no one had ever seen an Australian Halloween film. I thought that would be interesting, especially since our high school finishes on Halloween. I found that really fascinating symbolically that our childhood ends on this night that is dedicated to celebrating death. It’s funny looking at my writing because the first ten pages were set in modern day, because I didn’t realize it was going to be set in the 90’s, and then you can see me get frustrated with all the technology with people texting each other and YouTube, and it just got in the way. I said ah, I just want to go back to the way it was before technology was everywhere (laughs). So, that felt like 1997 and I thought this is the last time teenagers can be alone in the night.
It sounds strange, but I really wanted to make a Halloween version of something like Before Sunrise. I like those films where it’s two people unpacking each other and getting to know each other and very dialogue driven.
Horror Geek Life: I have my own interpretation of the symbolism of wolves in the film. Can you tell me what the wolves represent?
Nicholas Verso: I’d like to hear yours first. You go first!
Horror Geek Life: (laughs) I kind of see the wolves as a couple of things. I see them as representing the transition from adolescence to adulthood and I also kind of see them as representing the bullies in a way. When Jonah says, “Anyone who does not partake in society is either a beast or a God,” I think he’s referring to the wolves.
Nicholas Verso: (laughs) Yeah! Well, I think that’s alright. I think that’s the right spirit. For me, I went to an all-boys school and you learn really interesting things in order to survive, really interesting lessons that aren’t always positive ones. You do have to sort of, to survive, work on a very primal level sometimes and you do become a bit of a beast and learning about those different dynamics. I wasn’t with it to start with, I was very bad at reading social cues and I was so individual that I couldn’t understand why everyone couldn’t just be themselves. I slowly learned, that oh yeah, packs form and you’ve got to be part of the pack and there’s a strength in that and there’s a strength in solidarity, so don’t compromise of yourself in order to fit into that.
Horror Geek Life: I view Boys in the Trees as a love letter to Halloween. From what I’ve heard, Halloween isn’t as big in Australia as it is in the U.S. What made you decide to set the story on Halloween?
Nicholas Verso: It’s one of those things where Australia is a strange country. America is very good at mythologizing itself, like America has always been very good at telling its own stories and creating culture for itself and spreading it around the world, and Australia isn’t so good at that. We’ve got a much more introverted quality where we sort of keep our heads down, but we are a very magpie culture where we sort of steal from other people’s cultures. We don’t really have so much of our own or there are things of our own that we are ashamed of, so we go to other places. When Italian immigrants came over, we took their coffee (laughs), and we have all this great food because we have all these Japanese refugees and that kind of shaped what Australia is. The biggest thing we’ve consumed in the last 3 or 4 decades is American culture, whether it be Hollywood films, or television or music. So, we’ve taken America’s version of Halloween.
If you go back in the bloodline of Halloween, it is a very Celtic and ancient Pagan thing, but I think we have taken on the American version of what Halloween is and I think it is becoming quite popular in Australia now. Now it is big in Australia, but in the 90’s it wasn’t so much, but it was around. I think I always loved the creativity of it, the play, like I love that it’s the night we can explore our shadows and explore our darkness, and I thought it was important for Australia to do that because it’s something we don’t do often. It made sense to me to create a little window so that Australia could look at itself that way and I just love it as well.
Horror Geek Life: Toby Wallace is fabulous as Corey in Boys in the Trees. He also starred in The Last Time I Saw Richard. What made you decide to cast Toby in both of these films?
Nicholas Verso: Toby is just so wonderful. For The Last Time I Saw Richard, it was a really easy thing. His audition was really good and then I remember at one point, I just whispered something in his ear, gave him some very odd direction, and he took it really well. I knew at that point that we spoke the same language. To me, that’s kind of what you’re looking for with an actor. A director/actor relationship is someone who speaks your language and can then interpret it their way and make it breathe onscreen. He’s always really good at taking these characters that live in my head and making them breathe, so I think that’s what I love about him. He makes them even better than I had imagined them to be and makes them more believable. He’s got such a massive heart and I think that that really comes through, so even though Corey isn’t the nicest person, when Toby’s playing him, you can’t help but connect with him (laughs), which is great. He’s a pleasure to work with. Every day on set, I would look forward to seeing him and working with him and working out how we’re going to make this happen, so he’s just the most wonderful collaborator.
Horror Geek Life: The cinematography in Boys in the Trees is just stunning. How did you and cinematographer Marden Dean work together to create the dreamy nighttime look in the film?
Nicholas Verso: I was so lucky to have Marden. It was a low budget film and we didn’t have a huge amount of time to film and shooting films at night is incredibly difficult, especially for the cinematographer because they’ve got to find a way to light it all. He was just ingenious and so fast in the way he would come up with solutions. We looked at a lot of photography and imagery and we spoke about the feelings, because Marden and I are a similar age and we had similar memories of being teenagers wandering the streets at night, so we just sort of spoke about that and how that felt.
Then there’s the weird surrealism of Halloween because I wanted it to feel like anything could happen on these streets. Even though it’s a coming of age film, we almost approached it like a fantasy film, so we didn’t want it to look too realistic. So then we started looking at those 1980’s films and 1990’s films, especially things like The Craft, Scream and The X-Files, and how they lit their nights, so the night wouldn’t look too realistic, but look like a movie night. That was kind of the aesthetic we were going for.
Once we started to put all the elements into place, like the masks and the costumes, it all sort of became so vivid and so lush. We were also shooting in Adelaide. We were shooting in places that hadn’t been filmed in before and it was great. Adelaide made a really beautiful canvas for filming as well. It was such a great city to work in. Our location supervisor found these amazing places like that ghostly tree with the big hole in it that they could walk through and the drain and all these great places.
Horror Geek Life: This film is beautiful to look at. My favorite shot is when they are riding their bikes and Jango is in the front wearing the clown mask.
Nicholas Verso: Oh! When “The Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson is playing? It’s funny, everything kind of went wrong when we were filming that shot. Justin (Holborow), who plays Jango, had never learned to ride a bike and so he learned for the film. He was incredibly stressed about it and we were going down this hill, and as we were rolling for the first take of that shot, we discovered that his bike had no brakes! (laughs)
Horror Geek Life: Can you tell me about what you’re working on now?
Nicholas Verso: As of 2017, I was directing a TV show which is an indigenous supernatural series. It’s really beautiful. It’s about a young girl who sees ghosts. We so rarely get a chance to tell Australian indigenous stories, so it was a real honor to be a part of that. That’s called Grace Beside Me and it will be on in February. I’m also directing another TV show right now and it’s called Nowhere Boys. I’ve just optioned a new feature script to a company and hopefully that will be shooting later in the year. Hopefully my next feature won’t be too far away and it’s certainly in a similar vein to Boys in the Trees. It’s much more straightforward and it freaks me out, so that’s good. Hopefully it will freak other people out, too. (laughs)
It’s such a good time to be working in the horror/thriller space. Hollywood is sort of dominated by these superhero films. I think that’s the other genre that’s doing really well. We’re seeing all these amazing new voices come up through it. It’s exciting. I really want to be a part of that.
Horror Geek Life: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me! I’ve told everyone about Boys in the Trees.
Nicholas Verso: Oh no, thank you! The funny thing is, most films have these 20 million dollar marketing things, and we just don’t have any. We literally haven’t spent any money on marketing whatsoever. (laughs) What’s great is the power of Netflix and the power of bloggers like yourself and the fans and the community. It’s truly down to how people are sharing it on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. That’s where our audience has come from. I’ve never experienced that. It’s kind of like once upon a time when you think of those old cult films like Eraserhead where people would see them in cinemas in New York at midnight. (laughs) It feels like this is the modern version of that. It’s wonderful.
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