Films at Fantastic Fest tend to be surprises. Wyrm, by first time feature filmmaker Christopher Winterbauer, delivers its share of the unexpected.
Austin’s Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the US, features horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and just plain unusual films. In prior years it hosted the premieres of future classics and cult favorites films such as John Wick, Frankenweenie, Machete Kills, Red Dawn, There Will Be Blood, Apocalypto, and Zombieland.
At first glance, Wyrm looks like it might fall into the genre of crazy coming-of-age comedies like American Pie or Superbad, but it goes much deeper. It fits more with such thoughtful coming-of-age films such as 20th Century Women and Lean on Pete.
What’s His Problem?
That’s not to say Wyrm isn’t funny. It has plenty of hilarity. Also, it’s set in a Sci-Fi alternative reality, channeling the 80s into the Internet age which creates a humor all its own. Just when you think you’ve got it, the story twists and pulls you in a new direction. The film focuses on middle-school student Wyrm, played with convincing teenage angst by Theo Taplitz. Wyrm prepares to graduate from middle school to high school, but there’s just one catch. As part of a social program called “No Child Left Alone”, all children in middle school are fitted with mind-monitoring collars. These collars will only come off after they have experienced their first kiss. Wyrm is the only one in his class who still has a collar.
If that wasn’t enough to make his adolescence tormented, his older, high-school idol brother has just died. His parents are handling the experience badly. His mother has disappeared onto a cross-country hike and his father spends all his time at work or in the bathroom. He has been put in the care of his somewhat unstable Uncle Chet, played by Tommy Dewey. His only person to talk to is his schadenfreude obsessed sister, Myrcella, played by Azure Brandi, who enjoys sticking painful emotional pins into the brains of everyone she encounters. Have a nice day, Wyrm.
Christopher Winterbauer wrote and directed Wyrm. During a break from the Fantastic Fest craziness, we sat down to discuss his film.
Where did the idea for this film originate?
I did a short film for my master’s thesis at film school and this is an expansion of that.
Did you plan all along that you were going to make a feature out of it, or was that an afterthought?
It was kind of an afterthought in that as I was writing the short, more and more pages sprang forward. I had to cut it down for the short, but when I finished, I had this Word document filled with all these character backstories. When I looked at these, I decided to write it out and spent a week writing the full feature version and realized it was more of a family drama. So, it came naturally out of writing the short, but it was not originally intended.
From the description I was expecting a raucous comedy, but this got dark and serious. Did you start out with that intent?
As I started writing, I realized there were a lot more emotional beats I wanted to hit than I initially expected. Then I realized that Wyrm’s journey through this story is really a series of increasingly brutal and honest conversations with different people in his life. After a while I stopped worrying about the laughs. I figured that if there were enough laughs in the first part of the story, and people were invested in the characters, they’d be willing to stick around for the second half.
People say that all writing is autobiographical. I noticed you did another short titled Sister I Live With. Do you have a sister like the one in Wyrm?
Actually, I have two sisters who are 2 years and 4 years younger than me, but they matured faster than I did, and I was a late bloomer. So, Myrcella is very much a lot of each of my sisters. Also, the way Wyrm and Myrcella speak to one another came from my sisters. There is disdain, for instance, but when love comes through, it’s more in a cloaked way.
You touch in a couple of places in the film on lonely boys and serial killers. Do you think it’s a good idea to put collars on young boys?
Quite the opposite. I think when we, in government systems or schools, see someone and say, “Well, this person is falling behind and needs our help”, we often create programs or systems that have the opposite result of the intended effect. We’re very bad at designing for outcomes. The problem with a program like this is that it might spawn more serial killers.
I was surprised to see Rhea Seehorn (Kim Wexler on Better Call Saul). How did you get her on the project?
She was a fan of the short and she did us a great favor coming in to do that one scene. It was a great honor to work with her. She’s so captivating and doing that scene with her was such a treat.
As I was driving to the theater this morning, I heard on the radio about a doctor who wants to put permanent devices on people to send reports of their vitals to a medical database. Had you heard of that?
Not that one, but the push for self-actualization through wearable devices is actually kind of creepy. I think it’s called trans-humanism. In Japan they have a toilet which will analyze fecal samples and send them to your doctor. There’s all kinds of stuff like that and it seems we’re looking to data to save ourselves. But the old mantras hold true. Moderation in all things is good. You don’t need your biometrics sent to a lab everyday to have a healthy life.
Anything I should take away about the film that I haven’t asked about?
Well, sometimes in life you get the thing you think you want, and nothing changes.
You can keep up with news about Wyrm by visiting its IMDB page.