'Bloodline' Filmmaker on Pulling It Back From NC-17 Rating

Bloodline Premiere -Seann William Scott, Dale Dickey, Mariela Garriga and Henry Jacobson - Getty - H 2019
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Henry Jacobson recalls star Seann William Scott pushing for the pic to be darker and how he ultimately recut the movie to get an R-rated release.

Bloodline filmmaker Henry Jacobson held nothing back in his feature directorial debut. The career documentarian was encouraged by his leading man, Seann William Scott, to take this serial-killer-has-a-baby story in an even darker direction; such encouragement, however, ultimately led to an NC-17 rating as of the film’s world premiere at 2018’s Fantastic Fest. With Blumhouse involved, the pic’s gore needed to be pared back for an R-rating.

“Ultimately, I had to recut the movie a little bit later because I had to get it to an R-rating. We initially got an NC-17 rating,” Jacobson tells The Hollywood Reporter

Bloodline also captures the dark side of Scott that has rarely been seen on the big screen. Much to Jacobson’s surprise, he learned that the American Pie star is actually a horror buff with a rather dark sensibility.

“[Scott] sent me some things and said, ‘Have you seen this?’ and I hadn’t. So, I watched a bunch of things that he was talking about. He’s really dark,” Jacobson recounts. “He wanted to go darker, darker, darker. [Co-screenwriter] Avra [Fox-Lerner] and I kept on turning in drafts and thinking, ‘Blumhouse is never gonna let us do this. This is too dark.’ And every time, [Scott] would come back and say, ‘I love it, but do you think we could go a little darker?’”

In a recent conversation with THR, Jacobson discusses the dark side of Scott, the graphic imagery in the film and the exclusive details on what could be his next feature film.

So, how does a documentarian wind up making a film like this?

Well, I’ve made a lot of documentaries about very dark subjects — including the last election — which my producing partner and I refer to as the first horror movie we ever made. (Laughs.) I’m definitely attracted to and maybe have a dark outlook in a lot of ways, but I’ve always been a fan of film, filmmaking and filmmakers. And I’ve studied it. I came to documentaries, not from a journalism background, but from a filmmaker background, and that’s always the approach I’ve had. The transition that I’m making is one that I’ve always wanted to make. You’re always limited in documentaries — well, hopefully — by the actual truth of what happens in front of your camera. You can sort of tell the stories you want to tell, but it’s not always going to go the way that you want. This is the next step of telling the story that I want to tell.

And how did Blumhouse get involved initially?

Blumhouse already had the project. It was set up there with an original script by Will Honley and Seann [William Scott] was already attached. The last documentary we did — Election Day — we had done with Blumhouse. I had pitched them something to direct, and they wanted to do something, so they sent me this script. It had the initial premise of “serial killer has a baby,” which really attracted me because, in no small part, my wife was pregnant with our first child at the time. I wanted to take it in a different direction and really make it a serial-killer story that’s a family story. So, I asked them if I could pitch them a different take on it, and Avra and I worked something up… and here we are.

While watching the movie, I definitely had a sneaking suspicion that you just had a child.


As far as shooting the movie, story often dictates how the camera is used. What was your philosophy on camera movement and positioning? 

When the camera moves, particularly in this film, I wanted it to be very specific and have a very clear reason. We didn’t actually move the camera that much. A lot of it is very straight and locked off, and I think part of that is wanting to use the environment to color the experience of the characters. I think story is one element that dictates how you shoot, but a lot of other elements that the viewer takes with them — whether they know it or not — is purely visual or purely about sound design and music that do or don’t relate directly to the story.

Most directors and DPs that I’ve talked to insist that story dictates all of their shot compositions. Is this your approach as well, or are you willing to admit that you strive for a cool and interesting shot on occasion?

Absolutely. I had a very good friend, a DP who I worked with on an early doc. ... He's a very established DP. When I was going to scout for a scripted project as a DP, the one piece of advice he gave me was, “Just make it look cool. Make the shot look like you want it to be.” So, yeah, I think that’s usually part of it. I come from a photography and cinematography background. I absolutely want it to look cool. But, I also want it to look cool because how you see the image communicates a lot more than story. I don’t think it’s just story dictating. I think it’s just what an image does. It’s why we as humans are so attracted to images. But, yeah, I will absolutely admit that I want it to look cool.

Twenty years ago, Seann William Scott became a star by way of his comedic ability. At this point in his career, is he relieved that he can do things that wouldn't have been on brand for him back then?

Yeah, absolutely, he is. I can’t speak for him, but we talked a lot about him wanting to do something different and particularly something dark. Like I said, he was attached to this from the beginning, and he was very involved in the development and in our rewrites. We had lots and lots of conversations during the writing and early on. First of all, he’s a big horror fan, which I didn’t know. I sent around a bunch of movies to our department heads that I really wanted to look at; we actually watched a few things at Blumhouse’s screening room. He sent me some things and said, “Have you seen this?” and I hadn’t. So, I watched a bunch of things that he was talking about. He’s really dark. He wanted to go darker, darker, darker. Avra and I kept on turning in drafts and thinking, “Blumhouse is never gonna let us do this. This is too dark.” And every time, he would come back and say, “I love it, but do you think we could go a little darker?” So, I think he not only wanted to do something different, but something really dark in the genre space. I think he does a great job, and I think it shows what he’s capable of. I hope audiences see that.

There's some graphic imagery in this movie. Can you talk about why you didn't want to pull any punches in that regard?

One thing people have brought up is the nudity, particular the nudity and gore relationship. The film actually isn’t that gory, if you consider early Cronenberg movies or The Thing. There’s a lot more gross stuff, but I think the violence is pretty visceral because of the short gore choices that we made. They feel very real, I think. We try to use them both intentionally. With the nudity in particular, we wanted to open with this trope that everybody knows to set the viewer down a path they think know. When Avra and I were writing it, it was something that we wanted to play with in order to have the audience question those tropes — but also as a plot device. It does make you think one thing, and ultimately, we find something else out. As far as the gore, I wanted it to feel as real as possible, and we used physical effects to achieve that.

You mentioned the birth scene, which is pretty visceral, and when we were writing it, as a new father and Avra as a mother, I think birth is usually portrayed in films as “Oh, there’s the moment where it’s scary and then it’s over and it’s beautiful.” In fact, it’s fucking disgusting. It’s really gross, terrifying and violent. We didn’t want to turn away from that. From a father’s perspective, I think there is this horror that comes from seeing this thing arrive in the way that it does and then the knowledge of how suddenly it becomes very real and how it’s going to change your life. You don’t necessarily see the good ways yet. In the moment, it’s pretty terrifying, and the way we intercut it with death, we tried to heighten that experience for a viewer who may not have had a kid yet. We just wanted to make that part of the story as important to the horror as any other part — just like we wanted the family to be as important to the horror. It’s all this one idea of the true darkness that lies in every family, the things that we don’t talk about and the versions of ourselves that we aren’t necessarily with our partners, children or parents. 

For the flashbacks, did you add the grain digitally?

No, we shot that on 16mm film. We wanted it as grainy as possible.

Given the expense, did it require some major arm-twisting?

(Laughs.) It did; it definitely did. I did make an economic deal with the devil to get that one. I think you can kind of tell with digital alterations, particularly with grain, and I think there’s something inherently nostalgic, especially for people of my generation who still had it when we were kids. I don’t know this for sure, but even for kids now who haven’t grown up with it, I would imagine that it feels different. There’s a physicality and textural element to it that is going to immediately break it from the digital feel. That’s what I wanted those flashbacks to do; I wanted them to immediately break you out of the reality that you’re in — and not to do it by just desaturating the color or making it like an '80s warm tone. So, I felt it was really important to use film for that.

Did you block-shoot mostly?

Yeah, in fact, the hospital and school are both the same location. Obviously, we were really limited; it’s one of those Blumhouse microbudgets. So, you do as much as you can with what you got. So, we definitely had to shoot that way.

Can you talk about the numerous split diopter shots in the film?

I love that split diopter look. I’m a big fan of early [Brian] De Palma, and there’s a lot of references in there. We watched a number of his films such as Body Double, Dressed to Kill… and Blowout. In a lot of ways, the split diopter look is more like the way the human eye sees. The human eye doesn’t look at an object, and then suddenly the background goes fuzzy. That’s what a lens does. We’re so used to the cinematic language of soft focus versus deep focus and having something that far in the foreground be as in focus as something that far in the background, it sort of just jars your brain when you see it. There’s something really interesting and jarring about it. We were trying to use it to introduce a new physical element that we’re either going to return to or is going to have some meaning later on in the story. I also like what it does emotionally, too. I like that it jars you for a moment, and I think we made a lot of choices to jar people out of the natural flow of the narrative.

I've been a fan of Dale Dickey since Breaking Bad. What’s it like to work with her?

She is a national treasure. I was obviously a fan of hers when we offered it to her, and her agents told me she was interested. I was thrilled, so we met for coffee. She said that she’d never been offered a role like this before. As we know, she’s so often playing “the junkie,” and she was excited about doing something that felt very different. I was thrilled when she came on board, and she’s an amazing pro. She’s somebody that comes in and knocks it out. Given your time restrictions on a low budget movie, that’s a great gift. She’s also a lovely woman and a pleasure to work with. I had an interesting experience with her where my costume designer, Sara Sensoy, brought me the first looks for her, and I was surprised by them because they weren’t necessarily how I’d envisioned the character. And then when she started doing the fittings with Dale, Dale was like, “This is amazing. This totally changes how I’m thinking of her.” Suddenly, she became more refined, calculated and cold through some wardrobe choices, which were not even choices that I had made until working with both Dale and Sara. I want to just put her in everything.

She gives such an amazing performance in this movie, and there were so many moments on set where people’s jaws were on the floor with what she was doing. I was very lucky to have Dale. Seann and Dale played really well off each other; they both have wonderful timing. Like Seann, Dale has done a fair amount of comedy, too, so I think there’s something to be said for actors with comedy backgrounds. Their timing is impeccable. They’re able to really react in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with a line — it’s just a very comic moment. And that was something I wanted too. I enjoy horror and thrillers more when they’ve got a sense of humor, no matter how dark they are. I think a little humor goes a long way.

Do you think the character of Kelly knew what was up when she flashed that smile?

I don’t actually have an answer to that question. I’m glad you asked that question because that’s sort of the question that I want people to ask. I never really made a decision on that one way or the other. I do think there’s a moment of affinity between the two of them that’s like dark recognizes dark in some way, but I don’t know necessarily that she figured it out or if she’s just happy.

The film premiered a year ago at Fantastic Fest. Did you make any changes to it after that screening?

We did make a few changes. We did a couple more music cues that hadn’t been in there before. Ultimately, I had to recut the movie a little bit later because I had to get it to an R rating. We initially got an NC-17 rating. The film that’s coming out is an R-rated film, so I actually did have to do a recut on some of those gorier scenes.

Now that you’ve directed your first feature film, are you champing at the bit to do it again?

Absolutely. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. I got to play in all the different kinds of playgrounds that I’ve been in throughout my life and career, starting in theater, photography, documentary and producing. It was engaging on every level.

As for the next thing, we’re actually taking something out now. Avra and I have just finished a script that’s an adaptation of a short story that my company, Mindhive, optioned a few months ago. It’s called Children Will Listen, and it’s by a great author named Tara Isabella Burton. [Editor's Note: Children Will Listen is the story of an under-appreciated nanny whose resentment towards Manhattan's upper class has fatal consequences for the 10-year-old boy in her care.] That’s going out shortly. It’s really dark. It’s another family-themed movie with some really dark elements, but I’m very excited about it. Who knows if that will be the next one, but I certainly hope it is. It’s what we’ve been working towards.


Bloodline is now available on digital.