Money certainly is the root of all evil in 13 Sins.
Based on the Thai psychological thriller 13: Game of Death, the film follows Elliot <Mark Webber>, an insurance salesman who just lost his job. And the timing couldn't be any worse , given that his fiancé Shelby is pregnant and they are planning a wedding. To alleviate the financial stress, Elliott agrees to participate in a game in which he must perform tasks for sums of cash. However, as the rewards increase, Elliot's morality is put to the test as each assignment becomes more twisted, disturbing and deadly.
Director Daniel Stamm <The Last Exorcism> spoke to FEARnet about putting his own stamp on 13: Game of Death, Elliot's descent into darkness and human nature.
How did you become attached to 13 Sins?
At the time, I was in Philadelphia with M. Night Shyamalan. We were writing a script together for three months. I was out in his guest house with David Birke, who had written The Last Exorcism. We were in this limbo and my agent went crazy and was like, "Dude, you need a new project. You need to sign on to something. There's this whole politics thing. People are forgetting your name. You can't just disappear for a couple of years." He set up all these meetings in L.A. and I was going to them. One of them was with Jason Blum, who pitched me all these projects and none of them were really for me.
He turned to someone in the room who I thought was an assistant. He said, "Do you want to pitch 13?" It turned out to be Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, who produced Insidious and Sinister. He talked to me about 13. He gave me the original movie and not only did I love the movie, but they said, "Do with it whatever you want. We're not attached to anything. You can completely rewrite it. Bring on your own writer," which I did. I brought on David Birke. It not only got my agent off my back, but it allowed us the luxury of making a remake with a first draft done by someone else, where you can objectively see what works for you and what doesn't.
I never understood remakes. For example, Vanilla Sky. I love Vanilla Sky. I think it has a great first act, an incredible second act and a real shitty third act. Then I watched the Spanish original and it's the same way. I don't understand if you do a remake, change the shitty third act. It's the luxury you have. That was the case here.
The original movie had a beheading scene. How did you decide what to keep and what to replace?
There were certain moments that didn't work as well for me as others. There were certain missions that I was more excited about that we kept, like the beheading stuff and making a child cry. Then there was other stuff that was very specific to Thailand. In the original, there's a mission where someone is in a well and it's all about disrespecting your elders, which strikes more of a nerve in Thailand than it would here, so we replaced that. My philosophy was I was not excited about making a remake because the original act of creation isn't there and that's kind of the most exciting thing in storytelling, that crafting something out of nothing. But I'd rather do that with good material than do something original with bad material.
At the core of this thriller is this down-and-out guy, Elliot. Are viewers supposed to sympathize with him as he commits these awful sins or be repulsed by the rabbit hole he's fallen down?
Both. We structured this character after a drug addict. We met with a drug addiction specialist and she talked us through the different stages of addiction. The drug first empowers you and makes you discover sides of yourself that you didn't know about. It makes you stronger, makes you more aware and more interesting. Then, at some point, the drug takes you over and it's the tipping point. My philosophy was always if Elliot could call it quits after challenge seven, he would come out of the game stronger, more assertive and the man that he needs to be. But because at that point he's addicted, the drug pulls him down into the rabbit hole and into the darkness. Our aim was to create this ride for the audience that they will enjoy. That's why there is humor in the first half of the movie. We really need to like Elliot and we need to understand why he's doing what he's doing.
I love when there is a dark wish fulfilment, where Elliot is not only able to stand up for himself, but then he cuts off the guy's arm. He is only capable of that because the guy himself is asking him to. When Elliot then attacks his brother, there is real violence and Elliot is enjoying it. I was like, "If we can get the audience to be on board for that moment, to cheer when he smashes the chair into the guy's face, then we've got them."
Does this movie have something to say about human nature?
I don't know. That stuff is always dangerous because it's universal human truths, which means none of its nature is super-original. There isn't something in 13 Sins that suddenly makes you go, "Oh my God. There's this whole new side to human nature that I now understand." It's all basically in the seven deadly sins. It's greed and all that stuff. It's about how you illustrate that. 13 Sins is all about someone who actually has everything. That's why it was important there was real love between Elliot and his fiancé. And he is none the richer in the end. It's not like he's sitting there and suddenly won the money. He has the same things as he had before. Now, he just appreciates them.
Which sin was the point of no return for Elliot and which one made you the most uneasy?
For some reason, I think making a child cry <was the point of no return>. In its nature, it's brilliant because it has this violence to it. Not in the execution, but when I watched the original and mission three was "make a child cry," that was the first time where I was like, "Oh, this is going to get so dark." It was a really interesting discussion on set because everyone had a different mission where they would have pulled out. I'm a vegetarian. I can't kill an animal. I'm selling my soul if I'm killing a fly.
It was really difficult for this movie because I knew I couldn't kill a fly for the movie. I didn’t want a life taken, so I had to find a dead fly. I should have prepared for that probably, but I didn't. On set, I suddenly had to run off and find a dead fly, which took an hour and a half. That's a long time on a shooting day, where everyone is sitting around while the director is looking for a dead fly. You very quickly get the reputation of being insane or something. So, I couldn't have gotten past eating the fly.
Why was it so important to make Elliot's father such a vile and despicable figure?
Our whole beginning was reshot. Everything before we meet the father wasn't originally there. In the original script, the only incentive for Elliot to play the game was he was poor, his child was going to be born, his fiancé is African-American and his father is a racist and is about to move in. And he can't do that to his poor fiancé, to make her live with his racist father and that's why he's playing the game.
Then we cut it together and I think it was Bob Weinstein who said, "This isn't strong enough. We have to push that guy so far that everyone is on board with his journey." He felt there must be other ways out if it's just about your racist father moving in. We piled all this other stuff in there with him getting fired from his job, with his brother Michael getting institutionalized if he can't pay for him and he has $90, 000 in student loans. It just got escalated.
It was a big discussion because I didn't want to white wash the character so much that anyone would have done this. There was a discussion at some point where someone said, "Well, can't we have the game abduct Shelby and put a gun to her head and say, 'If you don't do these missions, then we'll shoot her.'" I said, "Well, that's not interesting at all because anyone would do it. There's no moral dilemma if you put a gun to the fiance's head. It has to be about seduction. It can't be about forcing him into doing things."