The Butterfly Effect - Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber
If you're in the mood to freak out every sensible bone in your body, then The Butterfly Effect is the movie for you. Struggling to get over harmful memories from his childhood, a young man (played by Ashton Kutcher) discovers that he can alter his damaged conscience by using a technique that enables him to travel back to his past to right any wrongs in his life. With a tagline that reads, "Change one thing, change everything" it's hard to know what to expect from the dark intelligence of Writers and Directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber. The wonderfully twisted drive behind this movie comes crawling into the minds of the audience without leaving one thought unturned. Their first feature film, Blunt, was an indie film favorite while their blockbuster freak-out, Final Destination 2 revved more than a few psychological engines. Reinventing themselves one movie at a time, Bress and Gruber promise to leave a lasting chill or inspire a deep cackle on every brain they invade. I had the opportunity to speak with Writers and Directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber about the film. Working as a tag-team since 1994 has brought two creatively warped minds together to form a partnership that should leave the Coen brothers shaking on the cutting room floor.
The Butterfly Effect is a very intelligent, thought-provoking movie with many twists and turns throughout the plot. Were you ever afraid the audience would get lost too easily or be put off?
J. Mackye Gruber: Yeah, I guess that was always a concern. It was a concern that production companies around town when they first saw it was like 'Well not only is this really dark material, but its really complex and could you guys pull it off?' And would anybody be able to understand it? Some people, you know, saw the script and loved it and a few people would read it and be like, 'Wow - it's so dark.' Sometimes, people would read it and lose track of things. It was complex and that's why when we came down to the shooting style of it we wanted to make sure that everybody was following along the way.
Eric Bress: And I think that when you have actors on there, you're bringing scenes to life and you're turning two dimensions into three, it kind of aids the viewing process. It's good with a bunch of Russian names and you get totally lost reading it, but when there's actors up there you're like 'OK, there's that guy with a beard.'
Some critics have said that Ashton Kutcher was the wrong actor for this movie because of his tabloid reputation. Did this kind of reputation ever influence the way things were run on the set?
JMG: Well, you got to sell papers and you've got to have an opinion and I think everyone tried to jump the gun and say shit about Ashton before the movie had even come out.
Yeah, I agree.
JMG: They prejudge it. And I think anyone who walks out of the theater forgets everything they said going in and are like 'No, Ashton can totally act and maybe I didn't like it.' But, I definitely think people were far more eager to prejudge him than they would most other actors.
EB: It was hard because you have all the tabloid stuff. It's hard as filmmakers when you're like 'Are you going to judge the film or are you going to go on this little tabloid chase?' When we showed the film over in Europe and in film festivals over there, people judged the film on the film itself because they had no idea really who Ashton Kutcher is and that was kind of cool. So, it was just unfortunate the way the media goes sometimes that people jump on that bandwagon.
This movie is a total psychological, what I call "freak-out", that pretty much had me curled up in a ball the entire time I watched it. Where did you get the idea for such a brain-teasing thriller?
EB: I think when we first started writing we would trade ideas and go back and forth and say 'OK, the first script will be Jonathon's idea and the second will be Eric's' and we'll go back and forth. The first thing we did was a comedy and we knew that we wanted to, as soon as possible, branch out. Be like the Coen brothers who, every film they do is a completely different genre from the last film. You never know what you're going to get. When we started writing, it was my turn and I had this idea in my head. I had this idea about time travel and what if it were very different from a Back to the Future where you showed all the consequences of going back and changing the past. That's when we started working on it and brought this little kernel of an idea to life.
Final Destination 2 has a similar psychological suspense to The Butterfly Effect. Is this a genre you want to continue exploring because it's worked pretty well so far!
JMG: Something that we've definitely had fun doing. As Eric mentioned before, we kind of try to reinvent ourselves all the time just to keep it challenging for us. Not to say that we're not going to do more of that because we really like the genre. The next film we're doing is definitely more of a drama actors' piece where structurally it has similarities with the twists and turns. It's something different so I wouldn't say that its something we're going to stick to completely. We're just going go all over the place.
EB: I just want to say that we're movie buffs and DVD freaks and I see so many movies in the theater, but Final Destination 2 has by far the rowdiest audience I've ever seen in my life. I saw like six different screenings and even at the first one I'm like, 'Wow, they're ready to tear the seats out! There could be a riot here!' There was something fun about that I don't think that The Butterfly Effect, being a much serious film, could ever achieve. So, there's a part of me that's totally attracted to going back and doing a Final Destination 3, but at the same time, after a year of writing where everything in your apartment could kill you, I've got to get out of that head space. You are literally walking paranoia.
JMG: It's funny because when we were in Europe we were in this film festival called the Brussels International Festival for Fantastic Film. It's been going on for 20 years and as we can tell from the name, it's a lot of sci-fi, horror and fantasy films. We end up going, 'OK, we're strangers here so let's go show our film.' And we get out to the audience and a third of the audience is wearing Final Destination 2 t-shirts.
EB: That was like the biggest hit of the previous year.
JMG: And the audience there erupted. We weren't even in competition and the audience started screaming for us to be in competition and we eventually won the audience award. It was like 'Oh my God, do you see all of these people?'
That's amazing! Did your work on Final Destination 2 ever influence the way you wrote The Butterfly Effect?
EB: Actually it was the other way around interestingly enough. We wrote Butterfly seven years ago and went around town with it. Everyone loved it. There's nothing better for a young executive to read than The Butterfly Effect because it's so creepy and it will never get made because its so out there and twisted. It took a while for the people over at New Line to eventually come up with the balls to make such a movie. But they read the script and then said, when we were hiring for Final Destination 2, 'Who are the sickest fucks we know for The Butterfly Effect?' And they knew those guys are fucked up so lets just get them on the case. After Final Destination 2, that's when they finally said, 'You guys are fun to work with so why don't we give you your shot.'
JMG: Yeah cause that was the most frustrating thing. When Eric came up with the idea almost ten years ago, in a way it was like a version of that. Our manager at the time was like, 'Oh this is too dark. People don't want to see this kind of movie. Go back to comedy.' So we kind of hid it away and then we surfaced a couple of years later when we met our present day manager who was like, 'Oh you've got to be working on this. This is cool.' And we felt kind of bad because we thought it was crap. So, we went back, structured it and figured it out and after we finished it we loved it. We wanted to make this. The seven-year journey began. First of all, it's a great script, but it's so dark it will never make money. It will never make a dime. People don't want to see this. And (people said), 'You guys are young directors and its so complex how could you ever think about pulling this off?' with kids and animals and every obstacle. But, I guess we are persistent buggers. That's what we are.
That should be a good thing!
JMG: And with Final Destination 2 a lot of the opportunity where everyone liked working with us and said, 'Here's your shot.'
EB: And there was development with New Line along the way that actually shaped it into the better film that I would say it is now. I believe in the original draft we had a 6-year-old running around shooting cops in the head. That was when we were fresh out of film school and our minds were completely unleashed.
JMG: But that wasn't New Line. That would be our manager!
EB: Yes, you have to throw New Line some props!
That's great! Now, between the two thrillers there are, as you said, all of these obstacles that sometimes include violence. The media is always ridiculing movies for being too violent. In your opinion, do you think the violence affects the movie-going audience as much as everyone says it does?
EB: Its funny because after Saving Private Ryan came out, which had by far the 20 craziest beginning minutes of any movie that I can think of, Spielberg comes out and says, 'I don't want to desensitize people to the violence of war.' That's in fact exactly what he did. We were totally desensitized. And when I watched Enemy at the Gates, all I could think about is 'Why aren't there more appendages flowing? Why isn't there more violence?' I think there's sort of a never-ending cycle of wanting to surprise people and wanting to shock people, but at the same time you don't really want to ruin society while you're doing it. You just want to entertain and you hope that the material you have has some deep message. I think that ultimately at the heart of The Butterfly Effect there's a very positive message. Some are about child abuse and others kind of stem from there. Hopefully, it's about learning from your mistakes and moving on.
JMG: And not harping on things, definitely. Eric and I have two different philosophies on this. I come from a philosophy where I believe that things happen for a reason, but you may not understand them at the time. And so if you can go back and change things it wouldn't be sort of your life. And Eric is more like, 'Things happen. They don't necessarily happen for a reason.'
EB: Shit happens and there's no reason why a child has to be abused just to make them a better person in the future. I don't buy into that at all. We come from different philosophies, but the same thing kind of winds up on the screen.
JMG: There's a mixture of the two.
So do you think that the violence is needed in a film in order to make it more successful?
JMG: I don't necessarily think that's why. We like dark stuff. We like dark movies. And as filmmakers that's what we're always drawn to more. I don't think that necessarily makes a better movie. I would say maybe for us. But I think with making movies you have to think, 'who do you make it for?' The way we can do it is really if it's something we'd like to see.
EB: There are certain movies like, if they were to take the violence out of Final Destination 2, I think it'd be insane. But, I remember watching Dogma - a great, smart, intelligent comedy - and there's a scene where two guys are in a boardroom and pick up guns and start blowing people away. I just sat there shocked and repulsed. It kind of took me out of the movie for a second. And so it's kind of weird because as much as I love violence (I think) there's a time and place for everything.
I'm going to get a little off-track here and into some history about you two. You met in 1994 fresh out of film school.
JMG: I was finishing up film school in my last year and I was doing a project and needed a soundman. A friend of mine, Pete Brown, said, 'Hey, I know this guy Eric Bress. He just moved here from New York' where Eric went to film school back east at Syracuse University.'
Wow! I'm from around there!
EB: Hell yeah!
JMG: So basically, Eric had come out here and was asking his friend if he knew any projects that were jumping out and needed a sound guy. Eric and I worked on that project and realized we had the same sensibility. It was good to work with each other.
You started with the comedy, "Blunt" and escalated from there. Do you ever think about going back to comedy or do you want to stick with thrillers?
JMG: Eric and I love comedy. That's where we started. It's very much a part of our personality. Usually our comedy is kind of sick and dark. We definitely talk about it and probably in our careers there will be a couple of comedies there. We like to kind of switch up each project just to keep it interesting for us. I think that some of the better filmmakers kind of push themselves and reinvent themselves each time.
EB: We're generally having a lot of fun and joking around all the time.
JMG: We've been working on so many other different types of things. We just have to find the right project.
So what is next for you guys? Are there collaborations or projects we can look forward to?
JMG: There's a film called The Other Side of Simple that we're in the casting process right now. It's completely different - not sci-fi. It's more of a drama, an actor's piece. It is similar to a Butterfly Effect or to a Final Destination 2 in the complex structure that it's got with the twists and turns in it. But its way more grounded in reality.
EB: It's less supernatural and more film noir.
That sounds great.
EB: But I do want to say one more thing. There's crazy bonus shit on the DVD! You've got to catch this shit!
- Danielle Henbest
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