Exclusive: Paul Soter on How 'Dark Circles' Is Based on his Own Sleepless Hell



dark circlesBroken Lizard alum Paul Soter is taking a break from outlandish, wacky comedies like Super Troopers and Beerfest and going in a different direction: horror, pure and simple. In his new film, Dark Circles, not a laugh is to be had in this dark psychological horror flick about new parents who fall apart when sleep deprivation gets the better of them. We spoke with Paul about his love of horror movies, how this film was inspired by his real-life experience as a new dad, and how horror differs from Broken Lizard films.

Where did the idea for Dark Circles come from?

It’s somewhat biographical. When I had my first kid a couple years ago, we kind of did the same thing. We moved into a house without doing our due diligence. We had our baby and found out there were tear-downs going on all over our neighborhood. Having a baby cry all night, having no peace and quiet during the day, the stress and anxiety and commitment... I had never really experienced anything where I felt quite so vulnerable before. My wife and I literally almost killed each other. It was just miserable.So to me, it seemed like an interesting backdrop for a movie like this.

It almost seems like an indictment on suburbia. Was that the intention?

To some degree. The myth of moving out to someplace that will be peaceful and inspiring and restful and idyllic... anytime I have tried to chase that fantasy, it tends not to exist.

This is quite a departure from your films with Broken Lizard. Was it tough for you to get away from the comedy? Was it a relief?

It was absolutely intended to be something different. I have always been really geeky about horror movies. A few years ago I got the chance to write and direct my own movie, and it was more of an indie comedy. When I got the chance to do it again, I decided to go with a genre I was more knowledgeable and passionate about - to have a different experience. Writing with the [Broken Lizard] guys is a blast - I never get tired of it. It is a fun dynamic, guys just fucking around and trying to make each other laugh. But it is also trying to get five guys on the same page. So there was an impulse to do something where I could just lock myself in a room and have it be entirely about self-expression and individual feelings.

It was hard because, in Broken Lizard, you get a sense of what works just by coming up with it in the room. In this case, you are putting your stuff out there, not necessarily knowing if it works. It is a little riskier, but I dug it.

This isn’t your first directing endeavor but it is your first horror film. What proved more difficult than you thought?

Broken Lizard has always been low-budget stuff and having to hustle through your days. Dark Circles was a really quick shoot - 18 days - so the day-to-day challenges were just getting everything in the can. The film is not particularly gore-heavy, but there are some effects, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t spend all day cutting someone’s throat and have it look exactly as I imagined it.

This is one of those movies that really balances on its lead actors. Can you talk about the casting process?

I like really performance-oriented scary movies. Especially in a movie like this, you live or die by those performances. I got Pell James [who plays Penny] first, even before I had the money. I was getting frustrated and decided to start reaching out to people that I liked who might want to come on board. Sometimes things come together that way. I chose the Penny character first because, in my mind, it is really her movie. So I thought about actresses who I liked that I thought were obtainable and approachable, or someone who hadn’t quite broken out yet. I had seen Pell in a bunch of different things, and I always found her to be very relatable and likable. The first time I had seen her was in Zodiac, and her scene was the most indelible scene that really stayed with me. She and her boyfriend, picnicking at the lake... it’s really the only graphic killing we see. To me it is such a horrific scene. I felt so bad for them because they felt so real to me. I called her agent and asked if she would read my script and consider passing it on to Pell. She read it and liked it and had done a little bit of producing before, and she was actually the one who put me in touch with the gang at After Dark. It was a happy accident.

Once I knew we were going to do it, I set about casting Alex. I saw a bunch of people, but Johnathon’s people reached out to me. He is incredibly serious about the genre. He has done a lot of horror movies, he has been involved with several horror movies. He is such a leading man, has these gorgeous looks and I had always liked him as an actor, but I saw Alex as a more sensitive guy, and I worried that Johnathon’s looks would be prohibitive and keep him from being a real “everyman.” But we talked and I realized that he was as big of a horror dork as I am. This role really spoke to him. He suffers from insomnia on a regular basis, so the idea of a role that allowed him to show the everyday stress he goes through.... he has it bad, I really feel awful for him. So once I talked to him and understood his own personal investment in this, I thought he could do this. I was really blown away by what he could do.

Are you looking forward to directing more horror films?

Yeah. This is what I want to do with my time when I’m not working with the group. Even as I was shooting Dark Circles, I was writing another [horror film]. When I was editing, I wrote another one, a really satirical horror piece that has garnered some interest. I just sold a horror pitch to MTV.

Will we see any horror-comedies in your future?

What I have liked about going down this road is that it uses entirely different muscles. When Broken Lizard did Club Dread, I was really the voice behind that. I was looking for an excuse to do something slasher-y or genre-y. But it’s really hard. As much as I love Club Dread, that seems to be one of our less-popular [Broken Lizard] films. Not everyone “gets” those tonal shifts in a film. That being said, one of these two [scripts] that I am trying to get done has a weird black humor, satirical edge to it. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? with horror elements. There are other things I’d like to do in the future that could be more “popcorn” horror, as opposed to the heavier thing I was going for with Dark Circles.