Interview with 'Bag of Lies' director David Andrew James

We speak with David Andrew James, writer and director of dark magic-centered horror film "Bag of Lies."
Bag of Lies - Courtesy Projection PR
Bag of Lies - Courtesy Projection PR /

We speak with David Andrew James, writer, and director of the dark magic-centered horror film Bag of Lies. The film stars Patrick Taft (Baby Steps, Wildfire), Brandi Botkin (Zero Percent, St. Gabriel), John Wells (Supernatural Assassins, I Can), Madison Pullins (The Kiss List) and Terry Tocantins (Red Is the Color of, Ally McBeal).

Interview with Bag of Lies director David Andrew James

1428 ELM: What inspired the concept of Bag of Lies, particularly the blend of supernatural elements and the emotional journey of the characters?

DAVID ANDREW JAMES: The original concept for Bag of Lies"was developed by Nick Laughlin, as a short film. When remaking it as a feature, the inspiration for the emotional journey of the characters came from watching my father go down a similar path with my late stepmother. Obviously, a lot of creative liberty was taken with the film; they never had any disagreements during her illness, and there wasn’t an evil Bag wreaking havoc on their lives. Nonetheless, it was still weighing on me; so, I made it weigh down Matt and Claire in the script. I reckon I’m a cruel writer, making the characters suffer with me.

1428 ELM: Can you delve into the origins of The Bag within the story? How did you develop its mythology and significance within the narrative?

DAVID ANDREW JAMES: I developed the mythology alongside Stephonika Kaye, our lovely production designer. I wanted The Bag to be an ancient evil with an undefeated record yet have a decent amount of scars on its exterior. Steph came up with the idea to give it French origins. Since The Bag is made out of burlap, and the French invented burlap, it really felt like the right thing to do.

After the design was made, we really took a sander to it; we gave it wine stains, as if royalty had tried to use it for personal gain, and so on and so forth. I will say, I was inspired by the way that the Constantine film was written; the film is set up as though it’s a sequel to itself, where everyone’s backstory is known amongst each other, and they don’t spend a bunch of time having conversations that they would never have in reality, but they do in movies, just so the audience can get to know them.

So with The Bag’s mythology, as well as a decent chunk of setup, I rolled the dice with this one: How well will people retain what they already know from reading the premise, or watching the trailer? If we don’t repeat said information in the movie, will they hate us or love us? No, seriously, I’m asking you.

1428 ELM: The storyline hints at a balance between hope and despair. How did you navigate portraying Matt's desperation while also exploring the consequences of his actions?

DAVID ANDREW JAMES: A great question, indeed. That’s what we were driving towards from a philosophical standpoint with the end of the film. What happens when you win a losing battle? Was it worth the cost, especially when neither you nor your partner are the same? I love when films – it’s not necessarily about letting the good or bad guys get away with something – but they’ve laid everything out in such a neutral way, you can’t help but feel a little squishy with how it turns out.

That’s how life can get, and it felt like the only real way to end Matt’s story. I had to get to know the character of Matt well enough to get the answer to the question, that became the logline for the film: How far would you go to save the one you love? And the answer for Matt is: Too far. I can sympathize; it would be very difficult to find out that, not only does your partner have cancer, but they would rather die on their own terms than suffer through life. On some level, deep down, you’re selfishly going to want to take things into your own hands.

Bag of Lies and themes of sacrifice

Bag of Lies 2
Bag of Lies - Courtesy Projection PR /

1428 ELM: The theme of sacrifice seems central to the plot. Could you elaborate on how this theme manifests throughout the film?

DAVID ANDREW JAMES: We tried to thread that needle in a lot of different ways, even if people don’t necessarily pick up on every single one of them. Matt sacrifices his well-being and state of mind for Claire’s life. Claire sacrifices quality time for the sake of Matt’s secret plans. Harold sacrifices his morality to help his cousin. Gwen sacrifices her ethics. Al’s sacrifices echo Matt’s, and Lilly’s have yet to come; but if the lore holds strong, we know how things will end for her, without having to spell it out for everyone.

Even in the mundane moments, we tried to blend this theme in. I don’t want to give the whole store away; however, I do appreciate you noticing. Such a copout, eh? Anyway, I think when horror is done right, sacrifice is a key ingredient that writers can’t afford to skip.

1428 ELM: The ritual and rules surrounding The Bag's cure add an intriguing layer of tension. How did you approach crafting these elements to enhance the suspense and stakes of the story?

DAVID ANDREW JAMES: Aha, yes. The cure. That’s the sad truth of it all. Patrick Taft (who played Matt) and I had a little secret in our back pocket about the cure.

I told him, it’s like that miracle pill that you see on TV: “This pill will make you skinnier, smarter and sexier. Unfortunately, it will also make you go blind with insanity.” Unless you’re a monk or a pope, there’s no chance you’re not talking to, looking at, or touching that Bag when it’s throwing everything it has at you. The real challenge came from trying not to copy any scares from other movies. Obviously, it’s an impossible task, but we did our darndest.

Side note: The title did a decent amount of work for us, modulating people’s expectations of a potential cure. Anyway, the first two acts of the movie build toward that sequence at Al’s house, where the curtain comes down, and Matt finds out just what his miracle really is.

1428 ELM: Matt's descent into madness is a compelling aspect of the film. How did you work with the actor to capture the gradual unraveling of his sanity?

DAVID ANDREW JAMES: Honestly, as far as directing actors goes, working with Patrick on this element of the film wasn’t as hard as I told myself it would be during prep. Mind you, that is no reflection on Mr. Taft in the slightest; he’s always been a dream to work with. Don’t tell him I said that, or his head won’t fit in his hats. No, the real trick of it all was making sure that we balanced out the first part of the film with a real grounded, understated performance.

I knew Patrick could melt down and freak out with the best of them; it was convincing him to let his natural presence and the dialogue do the heavy lifting until we’re in the second act. I’m glad he trusted me on that. Anyway, getting back to madness: It was really all about creating safe spaces for Patrick to experiment with. He did his homework. He knew the script and Matt’s backstory as well as I did.

Bag of Lies key art
Bag of Lies - Courtesy Projection PR /

That, coupled with the advantage of having him come in during prep, really paved the way for decisions to be made before we ever got on set. Hm, decisions might be the wrong word. More like, we both had our expectations made. We knew what Matt wasn’t going to be like, and we left plenty of room to play in the sandbox once the cameras were rolling.

Relationships and supernatural strain

1428 ELM: The dynamic between Matt and his wife undergoes significant changes as the story progresses. What were some challenges in portraying their relationship amidst the supernatural conflict?

DAVID ANDREW JAMES: Honestly, the only real issue was balancing the schedule in a way to make sure we had enough time for the emotional scenes. As I’m sure you can tell, the film’s budget isn’t a massive one. We had 13 days to shoot 72 pages, and we gave it our all. As mentioned in my last answer in regards to Patrick’s preparation: Brandi Botkin, who played Claire, gave just as much prep and care as he did.

It was a dream getting to rehearse with the two of them weeks in advance, and really mine those emotional moments for everything they were worth. If we didn’t have that rehearsal time, we probably wouldn’t have accomplished the schedule. Being a newbie to the horror genre, I needed every moment I could steal to put towards the scary stuff.

Anyway, now I understand why people say that casting is everything. I reached out to two people who started in theater and said, “I know this is crazy, but can you help me make this bag scary?” No, in all seriousness, I owe it all to Patrick and Brandi.

1428 ELM: Visually, what were some key influences or inspirations for the film's aesthetic, especially regarding scenes involving dark magic or psychological turmoil?

DAVID ANDREW JAMES: Well, the script to Bag of Lies was influenced by the likes of Hereditary, Se7en, Signs, and a couple of others. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also influenced by the looks of those films, however on the budget we were on, you know how it goes when you try to pull inspiration from a big-budget movie and you only have twelve dollars to spend. That being said, Brandt Hackney (the film’s DoP) and I always landed on the same question: What’s appropriate for this scene? That was always driving us.

Not what’s good, not what’s bad, not what Hoyte van Hoytema would do… It was all about what was fitting for the moment right in front of us. Sometimes, it meant only lighting a face, and letting the background slip into darkness. Other times, it was about formalistic lighting.

The other part of the equation was to make sure the lighting bent around the technical dance that I prefer: Actor’s blocking combined with camera operation. Yes, that means we can’t always have the prettiest lighting on the planet, but it means the actors are free to do what they need to do. I really enjoyed working that way.

1428 ELM: The consequences of using dark magic are portrayed as terrifying. Can you discuss the thematic significance of exploring such repercussions within the context of Bag of Lies' narrative?

DAVID ANDREW JAMES: They’re portrayed as terrifying, or you were terrified? I don’t think I like your tone. No, I joke, I jest. In all seriousness, I think it is the dark magic elements…

We tried to approach them the same way we approached the emotional story of the film, with a grounded center. In other words, there’s a lot of intangibles. Not everything is visible to the naked eye. So we leaned into that.

It allowed us to focus more on the fear of the unknown, which is the question behind the question for Matt. What will happen when he loses Claire? The uncertainty is terrifying. Which segues me back: Thematically, it drives Matt to take matters into his own hands. He meets a stranger who says he can help; all you have to do, is some dark magic. When regular people are forced to mess with powers they don’t understand, the results are undoubtedly terrifying.

1428 ELM: Lastly, without giving away spoilers, what message or takeaway do you hope audiences will glean from Bag of Lies after experiencing its journey?

DAVID ANDREW JAMES: As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. We tried to whip up a film with a morally ambiguous ending that would generate those thousands, during the audience’s drive home from the theater. Instead of having a clear-cut takeaway that I want people to walk out with, I think it’s more important to recognize that not everyone will agree with or like what my intentions were, however, that doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy the movie, or walk away with a lesson or meaning of their own.

Again, what a cop out! So before you hate me forever, I will say this: Be careful what you try to control. Nonetheless, I’m free for a discussion with anyone.

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