Interview: Joe Lynch Talks Fake Viruses and Casting Mayhem

Filmmaker Joe Lynch might be better known to many as an actor in the “Holliston” series (created by his filmmaking buddy and co-star Adam Green) than a director. I suspect that is slowly changing, thanks to impressive work going back to 2007’s Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, a segment in the Chillerama anthology, 2013’s Knights of Badassdom (a film that was effectively taken away from and finished without him), and the down-and-dirty actioner Everly, starring Salma Hayek.

Filmmaker and actor Joe Lynch

But it’s his latest work, Mayhem, that is getting the most attention and solid reviews to boot. The film tells the story of a virus that spreads throughout an office building on the same day a junior attorney (Steven Yeun) is wrongfully fired. The virus makes people follow their most outrageous impulses, including murderous ones, and Yeun must literally climb the corporate ladder to the building’s top floors to survive (and keep his job in the process, he hopes), while everyone else is trying to flat-out murder him.

The film is an absolute blast and sets the stage for Lynch to do bigger and better things moving forward. He’s a joy to talk to, and his film knowledge is quite impressive. I sat down with him at the SXSW Film Festival back in March to discuss Mayhem, which is currently playing On Demand. Please enjoy…

So we’ve obviously seen horror films that deal with viruses and other phenomena that make people go crazy. What did you want to add to that and do differently?

What was my spin, essentially?

Well yeah, but also your thought process: ”Okay, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it for this reason, and I’m going to put this twist on it that is different and justifies making it at all.”

Weirdly enough, I’ve been working, in between projects…and by the way, those days are gone, where it’s like, “I have a development deal in a bungalow at Universal, where I sit there and read scripts all day.” Those days are gone. If you’re a working filmmaker, you’ve got to get a day job. It’s the reality of it. So for the longest time, I was working a corporate gig, but it was cool enough where they would let me come back. So in between Wrong Turn 2 and Knights of Badassdom, I worked at G4 in some capacity.

I miss G4.

I do too, honestly, and you know what? G4 could have hit now. It was too ahead of its time. And then it just ended up becoming the “Cops” network after a while, showing “Cops” and “Cheaters” over and over. But I worked at G4, and then G4 became Esquire Network, and then when I came back again in between Everly and Mayhem, I got hired by them, and that was a very corporately structured environment—as corporate as it comes. The problem is that, I’d been tasked to be creative, so there is this very weird juxtaposition between all this corporate red tape you have to go through every day, and 100 emails are in every thread for every decision that’s made. If I want to sneeze, I’ve got to get approval. But I’m being told that I have to be creative, so I would always fantasize, because in those environments, it’s such a petri dish for passive aggression, where no one ever says what they really feel, they’re always afraid of speaking their mind or speaking their heart in any situation, from who’s going to deal with Bagel Thursday to major corporate decisions, or even minor ones. “I want to get this kind of paper for this.” “Well you’ve got to get approvals from 17 different people.”

If you want to follow your passion, you almost have to invest in it, and by doing that, especially if you have kids or bills or whatever, that’s just part of the deal. And being in that corporate structure, when I read this script [from Matias Caruso], I go, “Oh my god, this is the script of my life; this is what it’s about”—a guy that is completely stifled by the idea of success. In this case, my idea of success was a creative one but it was outside of that corporate structure, and there were so many people that I work with who were like, “I want to make it to the top of middle management.” And those goals are very weirdly structured out.

Again, in a world where you’ll never get someone’s true feelings on anything because they’re so afraid of expressing themselves, whether it’s because HR will give them a ding or you’ll offend someone in this very sensitive world we live in now. What if you strip that away? What if you allow, through some form of sci-fi gobbledygook that sounds really good on paper, that in a movie like this with a heightened reality, I can get away with. If Paul Greengrass was making this movie, I’m sure there would be years of research before they could even come to the idea of using a strain that would do something like that. Here, I’m like, “Let me get this out of the way. Here are the rules of the virus.” And without it being too like 28 Days Later, where they become infected, I was like “What is something that can teeter that line?”

But what was exciting about that, and that’s where Matias’s script came into play, was “Here’s this virus that allows people to truly break down their inhibitions and say what they want to say, do what they want to do.” If they’re pissed off, they’re really pissed off. If they’re horny, they’re really fucking horny. The emotions are cranked to 11. What are the ramifications behind that? What if someone is infected and commits murder. Whose fault is that? Is it the virus’s fault? Is it the guy’s fault? Does temporary insanity come into play? There are all these themes that were really exciting to me just by opening up the door in a sci-fi scenario where “What if we had this virus that didn’t make you go super Danny Boyle crazy, or infected zombie/non-zombie crazy, but also allowed people to act out their deepest emotions or desires and what happens after that?” So that’s what was exciting to me: take that scenario and drop it into a high rise of a law firm, and who doesn’t want to see lawyers beat the shit out of each other? Let’s be honest. That’s what was exciting to me.

There are two elements to the disease that make it interesting. One is that it’s temporary. There’s a timeline. You know you’re going to come out of this and have to deal with the ramifications.

I knew that if I didn’t have that, then I would have a lot of wrap-up at the end of the movie where it’s like, “Eventually, in a couple of weeks…” It’s like Maximum Overdrive, where it’s like “Eventually the trucks stopped doing what they were doing,” and at that point, Emilio Estevez was on the island, but it was not very satisfying to have something where it was a dead stop. And also, every year without fail, my kids get incredibly sick during the holidays. Viruses come and go, and it was always such a defined, like sometime between Dec. 27th through February 13th, you’re going to be dealing with baby vomit and sick kids, and it sucks. So I’ve always had a timeline in my life when it comes to illness, so I’m like, “Perfect story opportunity here!”

The combination of that and this court case that happened where you basically can get excused from any behavior while you’re in this state, it’s a great setup.

Because if you sit there and go, “Okay, great, I’m sick and I’m going to be affected by this,” a normal person—not a sociopath—would go “Is this going to get me in trouble? Am I really allowed to act on my impulses? Because the world around me will come down on me hard both legally and culturally or morally.” What happens if that gets pulled away? And ironically enough, it happens in the same law firm that got them off on it.

That’s a very Catholic thing in that respect. You get redemption at the end of it. No matter what you do, you take confession and you’re clear.

Wow, you’re the first person who’s said that. That is fucking great. I love that. [laughs] Well from here on out, it’s a Christian allegory. Mel Gibson and I consulted very directly. I took this to the Vatican, they gave me some really good tips. They asked all about if Steven Yeun was dead on “The Walking Dead.” The Pope was very, very concerned about this [laughs].

Let’s talk about bringing Steven in, because I love that his character is literally climbing the corporate ladder—hand over hand climbing it to get what he wants in this film. He just dove into it and cut loose and embraced it, and I don’t think there are a lot of actors who would have pulled it off the way he did.

I’ve had a desire for the longest time, I’ve had this thing in my head, and I’ve called it the Dreyfuss Effect, where I grew up in a time where Richard Dreyfuss was as everyman as possible. He was the guy that when Spielberg would say, “We’re taking an ordinary guy and putting him in an extraordinary situation,” and that is the hidden key behind many of his early films, whether it’s Duel or Sugarland Express or Close Encounters or Jaws, and Dreyfuss to me was always the perfect avatar for that. When you look at Richard Dreyfuss, it’s not like you’re looking at Cliff Robertson or Cary Grant. You’re looking at a normal guy that probably lives down the street from you, and he was, to me for the longest time, the epitome of the Everyman.

The world has changed. So when I read this script, and the requisite list of casting started going around, Steven wasn’t even on that list, and this was when the episode of “The Walking Dead” came out that was called “Thank You.” It’s the one where he was supposedly dead but then ended up not being dead, and they ultimately took his name off the credits. I remember it was almost like a shitty reality star got elected president. The entire world was talking about it. And it solidified something in me where…I watched that show from the beginning because I’m a [Frank] Darabont fan, because I’m a comic fan, and I knew of Glenn’s character, but there was something that Steven did in that show from the beginning where it made you want to track the character arc between pizza boy to hero—fallen hero now. There was something so exciting about seeing him make good on the promise of someone who would normally die in the third episode and how their sustainability created such a wonderful character. Of all the characters on that show, he was the one I always related to, because he truly was that guy that shouldn’t live but does, and that meant so much to me.

So we would have these casting meetings, and I remember sitting there going, “What about Steve Yeun?” And what’s funny is it was not met with a “Eh,” it was more met with a “That’s interesting,” and I think that that’s because when you have people who are very progressive and also a client of the company that was making it, and they could have easily said, “No, you’ve got to go to the James McAvoys, or you’ve got to go to a lot of the guys who are up and coming.”

Image courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

But there was something about Steve that was so human, and I also knew that he could be funny, he could be effusive, he could be physical, which of course is a huge thing. But to see how much people cared about him when there was even the false death moment. They love him, and I needed that because if you cast this the wrong way, the guy’s a psychopath. You needed someone who can harness the heart of the audience, whether it’s through humor or an empathetic slant to their role.

The thing that I’m really excited about is that you’re watching the visual version of Steve’s character in the movie telling this story to someone in art class or at a bar. We structured it in a way where this is Steve’s version of how it all went down. Now, did it really go down like that? Who’s to say? But you know when you tell a great story, and of course you’re going to embellish a little bit here and there, or you’re going to make it seem very story-friendly for the bar? That was what I wanted.

And it was different to when we did the rough-cut where it was my voice, when it was just me sitting in the edit room with Josh Ethier looking at his ugly bald head going “Okay, I’ve got to do this temp score now,” and I would do the dialogue, and it was fine, and we were showing the movie in rough bits here. The second we put Steve’s voice in there, the movie changed because his voice has so much Everyman personality to it, and there’s so much heart in his voice that it softened the movie in the right ways, where otherwise it could come off as very abrasive and even mean-spirited. He brought the heart to it

And it was one of the greatest acting-to-directing experiences I’ve ever had, because a lot of times when you’re going on set, you’re always going like “Please don’t make a fight,” and I’ve been in that situation before where it’s just like, “How many fucking fights are we going to have today?” And it’s not coming from me, it’s usually a power control thing. And I’m not saying it’s like that with every actor I’ve worked with at all, but it happens. It’s a necessary evil sometimes when it comes to production. And people always say this in commentaries: “He was a real sport and a real trooper, a team player,” but holy shit, Steven was all three, and if I didn’t have that, I likely would not have been able to get everyone around the production to glom onto what we were doing.

It’s a tonal roller coaster, it’s all over the place, but it needed to be. If we didn’t have the anchor of Steve’s heart and soul and passion and what he was bringing to the table, the movie would be sunk, and we would not be here right now. But he’s one of the finest actors working today. I felt like it was my responsibility to make this movie what it was because when you see someone like that and you go, like, “Oh my god, I just want to see more movies from this guy,” I have to do my part to make that happen, and thankfully he’s great in the movie. I loved working with him.

This entire film is in this one building, and you think, “That would feel confining and claustrophobic…”

From the director who made a movie all in one room [EVERYLY], essentially.

Right, exactly. But you forget that an office building has so many different environments, from the basement to the roof.

There are different eco-structures.

Right. So it’s like you’re like in a giant sound stages with different sets on every floor, but it’s all in one space. You have a lot to play with. Did you shoot in a real office building?

We did.

So when you settle on your location, do you think, “I forgot about stairwells or elevators.” Did the script change based on the actual building where you shot?

Again, when you work in a corporate office, you start to realize, “I can make that fluorescent light above there into a sword. That paper cutter over there, I can totally make that into a machete right now, because my 11 o’clock is going to piss me off so much that I really wish I could take all of these motherfuckers out.” But the office environment, even the cultural confines that an office building like that has, whether there’s multiple businesses in one structure or, again, the company I worked for, they had different shows and different networks on each floor, and these are wildly divergent. It was NBC Universal, so you had Esquire and E! and the Style Network, and they all had their own personality. You go up the elevator and the door opens, it was a slightly different personality and a different person every time it opened up.

It sounds like a department store.

Exactly! That’s exactly it. “Men’s. Women’s. Children. Furniture.” And every single place had its own personality, and that was exciting for me. We did the movie in Serbia, so technically this was the second in my Serbian film trilogy, we found an office building that we had access to maybe three floors, but we had to personify about eight floors, so that was just down to our production designer. We would come up with color palettes and furniture that would be indicative of this particular floor. Then my DP Steve Gainer, who also worked on EVERLY, would design a lighting structure that was, for example “Fourth Floor,” as opposed to Fifth Floor, Sixth Floor, Seventh Floor—each floor had its own visual personality. And we try not to make a meal out of it, because the other idea was that each floor should feel the same in one way or another because that’s how soul-sucking these corporations are where they try to go like, “We’re going to add some flair,” and they usually don’t. It’s usually you walk in and go, “Yeah, I’m in the same bullshit company, and it sucks, and it’s slowly sucking my life away.”

Thank you for giving Kerry Fox a great part, because I love her. I know she’s always working, but usually it’s in Australia or New Zealand, and I don’t get to see her that much. And it’s a great part, I should add.

It was incredibly difficult to cast the movie, because again, we were in Serbia, and with EVERLY I got away with it because we were close enough to Japan where I could fly out a really amazing crew and cast from Japan who would help us on that front. But for this, I was making an American-set movie, and the hell that we went through trying to find people that spoke English—not just spoke English but had an American accent without it being too weird. So a lot of our talent pool came from, when it wasn’t local, America, but the majority was England. Yeah, actually, it was, it was mostly English actors—Steven Brand and Caroline Chikezie.

Samara [Weaving] is Australian.

Samara is Australian. So it was this very delicate dance that we had to take to make sure that it all fit, and Kerry was one of the last people cast because her character, Irene Smythe, she’s gotta be almost as heavy as the boss, if not heavier; she’s kind of the pants in the family.

I was more scared of her, I think.

So was I! I’ll be honest, I’m a huge Shallow Grave fan, and when her name came up, one of our producers was like, “You know what, my friend knows a friend who knows a friend who knows Kerry Fox.” And you know, with some of the other actresses, I was like, “Oh god, do I have to sit through another wheel that has five clips of ‘Downton Abbey’?” And when he said Kerry Fox, I went, “Wait. Not that Kerry Fox?” And he was like, “Yeah, she’s available.” “Done. Sold. Let’s do this.” And she brought it every single day.

There was one moment in the movie where Steven Brand, who plays the boss, is talking to a video monitor during a teleconference, and there was a moment where Kerry—I don’t even think she knew that she was on camera—but she gives this eye roll that was so genuine, and so Kerry Fox. That was a moment that was like, “Roll the cameras.” We were just getting reaction shots, and I think it was more like, “For fuck’s sake, Steven Brand, get your fucking lines right,” and I’m like, “That’s gold right there.” That’s exactly who we needed in that. The movie gave me an opportunity to have so many different great personalities and so many different great actors, and when you get a chance to work with people like Steven Brand and Kerry Fox, you jump at that opportunity. Or Samara Weaving, who just fucking killed it.

Joe, good to see you again. Best of luck.

Thanks, man. Great seeing you again.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.