“Flashback” Director Chris MacBride Discusses His Forward Moving Influences
Indie director Chris Macbride is poised for mainstream success with his latest thriller Flashback. Starring up-and-coming talent like Dylan O’Brien (Love and Monsters) and Maika Monroe (It Follows), the film marks an unprecedented moment of opportunity.
Premiering on the tail of COVID makes this movie one of the first few to be released via streaming and in theaters post-pandemic. After making a splash and earning a Best Motion Picture nomination at Sitges Film Festival 2020 (in Catalonia, Spain), hopeful viewers have been chomping at the bit for the release of this project.
I had the pleasure of interviewing MacBride over Zoom in October of 2020, shortly after Sitges. The fate of the movie was in flux, but MacBride was determined to see its release through. We discussed the making of the film, and making the most of a bad situation.
This interview is spoiler-free. Check out my current review of Flashback and keep an eye out for a “Deep Dive” spoiler-filled second half coming soon!
The Geekiary: After watching this film, my first question was really just gonna be, “what?”, but then I figured we can expand on it a little bit. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what led you into this project?
Chris MacBride: So… this script, I think it was the second screenplay I ever wrote over 10 years ago and it’s changed a lot over the years. I’ve done lots of different drafts at different points, but it was always sort of a passion project I had in my back pocket that I knew was never going to be for everybody.
MacBride goes on to describe the script as surreal, Lynchian, and esoteric. The description is pitch perfect in its execution and MacBride knew he was fully committed to getting the film made, even though there were setbacks.
CM: I just loved it. I knew it would be a hard sell in a lot of ways and I got sidetracked by other things and lots of other projects.
One of the other projects MacBride moved forward with creating was his feature debut The Conspiracy, an award winning “found footage” thriller, along with other writing and producing jobs.
CM: This window opened up a [few] years ago where I had a moment and I just decided to focus on this script. I thought no one will want to make this, it’s too bizarre and it’s the kind of thing only I think is cool. But surprisingly, producers responded to it quickly. Then actors responded to it and then we got funding for it. It wasn’t lightning quick, but it was quicker that I thought considering how different the material was.
MacBride couldn’t believe his luck. The timing created a perfect moment that MacBride seized whole-heartedly.
CM: When we were in pre-production, I was like, ‘How did this happen?’. I thought that would have to be my 12th movie after I had established more of a career and people trust me more and then I’d get to make my crazy movie, but it ended up being my second instead. So it’s lived a long time in my head and it’s sort of surreal that it’s now seeping out into the world and people are seeing it and starting to ask me what the hell it’s about.
It’s a good question. On the surface, Flashback is about a young man – Fred Fitzell (played by Dylan O’Brien), at the precipice of his life, being confronted with the consequences of his past. Well, it could be. It could also be the story of a druggie teenager having the world’s worst trip. Or it could be about a single mother who did the best she could, or a girl who has run out of things to lose, it could be any of these things and all of them simultaneously and that’s kind of the point.
CM: When you’re a baby, everything is now, now, now. It’s all the present and you need to be taught and educated on how to perceive time in a linear way. When a baby’s about to touch a hot stove and it burns them, that experience becomes a lesson. If that baby the next time can think of the past and future-
TG: They stop from getting burned.
CM: Yeah. So when Fred at 17 starts taking this drug – mercury – it starts sort of undoing him from perceiving time in a linear way, and reverses his education on it. He perceives all times as simultaneous and he’s popping around to different places.
Mercury or ‘merc’ is an inconspicuous white pill with a black dot. Later, when we see mercury in its purest form it’s a black pill with a white dot. It’s a jagged little pill that packs a big punch. MacBride goes into spoiler territory (which will be discussed in our deep dive!), but afterwards talks about trying to fit these abstract concepts into a narrative.
CM: There’s something ingrained in that education that limits us to perceiving a sort of linear sense of time. That was initially what the movie was all about and then the job was like, ‘how do you get that into a story?’. One that’s not just someone sitting around stoned?
MacBride’s first feature, The Conspiracy dealt with the paranoia and distrust. Flashback is more dramatic and heartfelt than is typical of the genre. Despite the time jumps and off-putting scenery (everything is cold and stark, there are eerie facsimiles of everyday items meant to unsettle) the movie stays grounded. There’s a nostalgia that makes it relatable.
TG: [The film] has a very ‘90s sensibility to it, especially from the high school kids that actually dressed that way and had that burnout look. I recently went through a period where I binged Go, Rules of Attraction, and just these quintessential indie drama movies and [Flashback] had that feel to it in a very pleasing way.
CM: I think that’s astute of you to pick that up. Yeah, I went to high school in the ‘90s and so that aesthetic is in me. That was a weird decade where it was a mix of different aesthetics and it was kind of a transitional time. So that was my excuse to make it feel like the high school I remembered.
TG: Was any of it autobiographical for you? Was there anything that you took from your own life experience?
CM: Yeah for sure! You know, I definitely – when I was a teenager – let’s say I experimented a little with alternative forms of educational-
TG: [laughs] Recreation.
CM: Yeah, different ways to perceive time. It’s a funny thing, there have been certain moments in my life where I’m in a very normal situation – in a boardroom or something – and my mind will just sort of daydream back to when I was a teenager in some insane, bizarre situation. The weirdest thing would trigger the memory, I’ll touch a table that has a certain texture and that will remind me of that one time I was on LSD. Suddenly I’d become obsessed with this table I haven’t thought about in over 15 years, but I’ll just suddenly be back there remembering how intense and crazy that was. It’s an interesting phenomena, to have these life changing experiences and then you forget that. You just wake up the next day and say, ‘Oh, I gotta go back to school… and I gotta do my homework… and I gotta do this’. You’re so quick to move past these experiences and then 15 years later they just come back and hit you.
We see this happen with Fred as he goes through old yearbooks while sitting in a room that’s not fully unpacked. He sees a photo in particular that sparks a tumultuous trip down memory lane. While MacBride describes himself as a natural daydreamer, Fred is a man of action who physically attempts to track down a girl from his past. The results are disastrous… and freeing.
TG: What is your desire for the way that people deconstruct the plot or the way they digest it?
CM: It’s one of those films where I know exactly, sort of what I think is happening and that it’s complex. I knew that people would interpret it lots of different ways and have lots of different interpretations about the ending. I faced a choice. When I’m writing a script, how much do I explain? How much do I spell out exactly what’s happening here? There’s a danger where it just becomes too much exposition and then you’re just explaining the rules the whole time and it becomes boring. Then there’s a danger the opposite way where you don’t explain enough and people just don’t know what’s going on. I knew no matter what, with this film in particular, I wanted to veer towards ‘what’s going on?’ as opposed to ‘let’s explain everything’.
There are plenty of WTF?! moments. Just when I thought I had the concepts nailed down, I’d be flung around another corner. However, MacBride manages the audience’s patience well. There’s a distinct lack of annoyance despite there definitely being confusion. It’s thoughtful, though, instead of menacing.
The type of instantaneous analysis that Twitter encourages doesn’t serve a film like Flashback well. It’s a deeply layered piece that relies on a sometimes unreliable narrative – what you see… you may not have seen. Every scene is food for thought and attempting to digest it too quickly may lead to heartburn.
CM: I want it to be a positive experience, even if [the audience] is confused, I think it’s okay to be confused. I think people get too wrapped up in the sort of Siskel & Ebert thumbs up, thumbs down thing, especially on Twitter. It doesn’t have to be so binary. You can experience art and not know exactly what you feel about it and that’s ok.
TG: I read an article where, when talking about casting Dylan, at first you joked you were resistant because you had only seen the goofy YA stuff. You didn’t know if he could handle it.
CM: Yeah! Well first off, I was totally joking about that! It was an interview I was actually doing with Dylan so I just had to bust his chops a little since I knew he could hear me. I had seen the first Maze Runner and I think that was it, but I guess I was too old to be right there when Teen Wolf came out even though I know lots of people love the show. I knew him just basically from Maze Runner and his face. So I didn’t know if he could back something like this.
TG: Well, it’s different. Thomas in The Maze Runner is very serious and he’s very… kind of dramatic and sentimental. It feels like Fred is just that kind of burnout, but the kind that has the potential to be a little bit more.
Teenage Fred is the human embodiment of a zipped up hoodie with drawstrings done up tight to hide himself from the world. He’s a leader trapped in a follower’s body, scared to death of nothingness.
CM: I talked to Dylan about the character and how the film is hopefully about free will. What kind of choices do you make and what is secretly influencing those choices? When you come to a crossroads and you’re gonna go left or right, you think you’re making that choice yourself, but your already hardwired decision process is influenced by things you didn’t choose.
TG: And how did you go about finding Maika, because she was still relatively new to the scene at that point? What drew you to her to play Cindy?
CM: I knew who Maika was from It Follows. One of our producers, Russel Ackerman – he was the one who suggested and introduced me to Dylan – also pitched Maika. It was the first person that was suggested [for Cindy] and I just instantly was like, ‘Yes, perfect!’. She just fits so perfectly to my idea of what Cindy was. Maika is the type of actress that has a real indefinable presence about her. She has that thing where there’s something in her naturally that comes across in her performance, that can’t be faked.
TG: The casting was very well done. I’ve always enjoyed Keir (Gilchrist, from The United States of Tara and Atypical) and thought he was pitch perfect. And Sebastien (Emory Cohen), it was insane, like, I knew that kid from high school!
CM: Many people have said, ‘I know that guy!’ yeah!
The entire cast feel solid despite the shoot being relatively short and several of the secondary cast only being on set a couple of days. Despite this, the emotional beats hit perfectly, which speaks to MacBride’s orchestration of the production. The film clocks in at a very economical 98 minutes. I asked if there was a two and a half hour director’s cut floating out there somewhere.
CM: Yeah, that cut has existed a few times, that’s for sure! I’m really bad at first drafts of my screenplays being like 180 pages. And the assembly cuts I do are like, three and a half hours! It would be nice, there’s definitely some really extensive crazy stuff that didn’t make it into the cut. It would be cool but nothing is in the works right now. We’re still trying to figure out how the movie is gonna get out to the world. It really depends on the people. If it becomes a cult classic and people can appreciate it over the years, then there’s always a chance for that.
I mentioned this interview was in October 2020. Since then MacBride has paired with Vertigo, Lionsgate and other releasing companies to make sure the movie gets distribution. It was an uphill battle and one that MacBride was diligent about fighting.
TG: When watching the film, what do you want the enduring message to be? What do you want people to take away from it?
CM: Hmm, I’m not sure I have one message. I always – it’s just my own taste – but I always get a little suspicious when a movie’s message is super clear. Like, alright, we’re not supposed to use oil, I agree with that, but that’s what I would watch the documentary for. I want a different experience when I’m experiencing a narrative story. If anything, I just want people to have a different experience. I loved when I was a teenager and I stumbled onto David Lynch movies. I felt like I had discovered not only an interesting filmmaker making interesting stories, but like I was learning and thinking about life differently.
CM: Films are really good at making you feel really simple, broad big emotions. A film can make you happy or sad or scared or laugh. But it’s trickier when a film can make you feel something a little bit weirder and more specific. Like being a kid on a grey Sunday afternoon in a big empty parking lot and the clouds moving really quickly and not knowing where your parents are. It’s a weird feeling, like sort of sad, but sort of excited. It’s hard to classify that feeling let alone to then convey that feeling to other people. So I hope people feel things like that when they watch the movie, if that makes any sense!
Flashback will be available in select theaters and streaming platforms on June 4th, 2021.
Stay tuned in the following weeks for a deeper dive into the themes and characters of the movie with Chris MacBride.
Don’t miss your chance to win a Blu-ray copy of Flashback, courtesy of Lionsgate!
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