The Boy Behind the Door — which is now on Shudder — is a tense, thrilling tale about friendship and fear, that puts its focus on two talented child actors who carry the whole film on their impressively capable shoulders. Co-written and directed by lifelong friends and filmmaking duo Justin Powell and David Charbonier, the film had me on the edge of my seat, wrought with worry for its two leads.
In the film, a night of unimaginable terror awaits twelve-year-old Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and his best friend, Kevin (Ezra Dewey), when they are abducted on their way home from school. Managing to escape his confines, Bobby navigates the dark halls, praying his presence goes unnoticed as he avoids his captor at every turn. Even worse is the arrival of another stranger, whose mysterious arrangement with the kidnapper may spell certain doom for Kevin. With no means of calling for help and miles of dark country in every direction, Bobby embarks on a rescue mission, determined to get himself and Kevin out alive… or die trying.
It’s an impressive first from Powell and Charbonier, who went on to make 2021’s The Djinn (which also stars Ezra Dewey). The duo took some time to chat with me about The Boy Behind the Door, kids in peril, the importance of a good casting director, and their love for the genre.
Kelly McNeely: You’re lifelong friends, which is absolutely wonderful. How does your story of friendship begin? And how did you start your foray into filmmaking?
Justin Powell: We’ve known each other since kindergarten. And we always bonded over films, specifically horror films, thrillers, you know, it’s really what we grew up on. And we stuck into movies that we shouldn’t have, and just watched a lot of things that we probably shouldn’t have growing up. David moved out here before I did — to LA. — and I followed for an internship. And we just kind of knew that we wanted to figure out a way to keep working together. We knew we loved storytelling, and that’s the world that we wanted to get into. So we’re like, well, it just makes sense for us to team up, and pursue the dream. So we started out just writing some scripts together, and it just grew into us just like, alright, let’s just become a full fledged filmmaking duo. And here we are.
Kelly McNeely: Where did the concept for The Boy Behind the Door come from? Because it’s a fantastic idea with just amazing performances all around — and we’ll get into that, but — where did the idea for this movie come from?
David Charbonier: Well, thank you so much, that means a lot. I mean, it really just came out of, I think, this sort of frustration of all the rejection we’d been getting on a lot of our other scripts. So we decided that we wanted to make something that was super small, super contained, that we could potentially do really independently. The kid factor made it that we still had to find a company that could help us achieve our vision. But we just really love — like Justin said — we’re fans of the genre, and we love thrillers, so it was just sort of where we gravitated and we really wanted to tell a story that was rooted in friendship.
Kelly McNeely: It has such strong themes of friendship, which I think is really beautiful. So Ezra Dewey and Lonnie Chavis, they’re, again, incredible. There’s such a depth and maturity in their performances, which is really amazing. It’s bold to make not one but two films that are carried by child actors, because you have The Djinn as well. And there’s such an honesty to both of these films. Can you talk a little bit about the decisions to make The Boy Behind the Door and The Djinn, and have them both star child actors?
Justin Powell: Yeah, I mean, it really came down to — as David was saying — how we love horror stories in general that I think center on kids. It reminds us of our childhood growing up, you know, in the 90s, like I said earlier watching movies and things that we shouldn’t have. And you know, we bonded over things like The Goonies and Jurassic Park with Lexie and Tim, and we loved seeing these kids in perilous situations, and it just felt like this exciting adventure, anything like Steven Spielberg, very Amblin-esque. Like we always like really gravitated towards that, and so that’s kind of what drew us to want to have these these young leads in both of our films. I feel like the kind of Amblin vibe maybe comes through a little more in The Djinn, maybe because like The Boy Behind the Door has a darker underbelly with it. But we never wanted it to ever feel exploitative. We wanted there to still be those moments of levity and fun. And yeah, so that’s kind of why we gravitated towards kids for these opening two movies that we’ve done.
Kelly McNeely: Now, they say, you know, never work with kids or animals. Obviously, you’ve proven that to be false. But what advice would you give to directors that are working with young actors, and would you ever work with animals?
David Charbonier: It’s really funny you said that. We have a story we’re coming up with that does center a lot on animals. And it’s like, we like a challenge. I mean, our advice would just be — I also feel like who are we to give advice, we’re still trying to figure it out — but if we were to give advice, I think it would be to try not to let those things limit the kind of stories you want to tell. Really think through with planning, like how you’re going to plan your days and your schedule, trying to be the most efficient. Be really prepared with your shot list and how you want to attack it.
And I would also say, you know, be authentic about it, we definitely have heard a lot of conversations about, you guys could hire an 18 year old that looks really young. And I just feel like that never really looks right. I think we’re past 35 year olds playing high schoolers at this point, which is always the go-to, so it just adds an authenticity. And you know, Lani and Ezra just gave the best performances ever. We never could have found anyone older or even their age that could have given such an honest performance. So I think that in that aspect, it really worked out for us.
Kelly McNeely: They’re both so incredible in the film, you guys did an amazing job with them and finding them as well. How did you find those two?
Justin Powell: Just to add on to David’s point, find a really great casting director. And we were really fortunate to have gotten that. Amy Lippens brought this thing home, she’s the one who found Lani and Ezra, she came up with all the ideas for the rest of the cast. Do not skimp on a great casting director, make sure that you find the absolute best that you can like. Like Amy. I don’t know if she’s available, she might be, if she is, we always want to work with her on our films. So don’t take her away from us! But she’s out there, if you’re looking for a great one.
Find a casting director that understands your vision. Especially if you’re trying to work with kids, find a casting director that is experienced in finding talented kids, and is going to really go to bat for deep, extensive searches, because that’s kind of what it comes down to. You really have to go wide with these searches and bring in as many kids as possible, which is difficult on a budget like this. But yeah, Amy — I don’t know how she did it — she managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat. And she even took two rabbits out of a hat. And it was to the point of, you know, that made our job really easy, because when she found them, we’re just like, okay, well, that was what we thought was going to be the biggest hurdle, you know, was finding these two really talented kids. But instead, there were a whole bunch of other hurdles. But the kids were not one of them, they were able to bring it with their performances. And even with the limited hours, that’s the only reason I think that we were able to get what we have, because they were just able to turn on such strong performances.
Kelly McNeely: You’ve mentioned Amblin and those sorts of movies. The Boy Behind the Door kind of has that 80s/90s vibe to it; there’s no parents, there’s kids in peril, it’s very isolating as well for these kids. The focus is all on them saving each other, which I think is so beautiful. Did the script ever call for parents? Because I love that they’re not in there at all, I think it’s such a powerful element that they’re all on their own, I love that.
David Charbonier: Thank you so much for saying that. That was so important for us. You know, when we were going out with it early on, that was something some people wanted to see. We were always asked like, well, where are the parents? What are the parents doing? Why aren’t the parents looking for them? And for us, like yeah, of course the parents are looking for them. But we’re with Bobby and Kevin right now. We’re in their perspective, they can’t rely on their parents to be saved. They have to rely on themselves and their friendship and their courage. And you know, they are the underdogs.
I think that’s what makes any interesting story compelling, is when you have characters that are underestimated and sort of dismiss them away. And that was really what we wanted to do with the story, we didn’t want it to be about, you know, a detective-style plot or something that’s like tracking their whereabouts and hunting them down. We want it to be mostly about them saving themselves.
Kelly McNeely: That’s a really strong choice as well, because again, it really puts all the focus on them. It really feels like there’s no one else that’s there to help them. It’s just about the two of them together and the strength that they have in their friendship. It’s really wonderful. You mentioned earlier movies that you shouldn’t have watched when you were younger. So I’m kind of curious, between The Djinn and The Boy Behind the Door and just in general, what are your horror influences and inspirations?
Justin Powell: Oh my gosh, we have so many. I guess going through the eras, I think starting in the 70s, we’ve got influences from like, Jaws, Halloween, The Thing, The Shining — obviously — A Nightmare on Elm Street… And a lot of people don’t consider this horror per se, but Jurassic Park was a really big influence for us — we loved Lex and Tim so much, you always really feel the peril when you’re with them. The Descent from the 2000s. And more recently I think Don’t Breathe had some influence on us. And so they’re just a lot of, there’s so much horror that we just absolutely love that I think sometimes we went a little overboard with our homages. Like we couldn’t hold back, we’re like, well, this is our only opportunity to make a movie, possibly. So let’s just kind of throw it all in there. So there are a lot of references that we make, I think in both of our films, which we’re gonna try to dial it back on our next one, but we’ll probably subconsciously put stuff in. It just happens.
And then going back further, Hitchcock was everything — we love that type of suspense. And we really tried to lean into that in The Boy Behind the Door, we really valued suspense over, you know, violence and gore, even though there’s some violence, but we wanted that to really pop when it happened. So yeah, I know that’s very long winded, I feel like we could both go on for a very long time about our influences and things —
David Charbonier: You forgot two of the biggest ones — Gremlins and Child’s Play. We literally have a line from Child’s Play in the movie.
Justin Powell: That’s true. I really feel like a lot of our influences are from the 80s. There’s so much horror from the 80s that we just absolutely love.
Kelly McNeely: And [80s horror] is so iconic, too, because I think that’s when the genre was really starting to boom, and really gaining an audience and gaining so much traction that like there’s so much content, and it’s all great. Now, I noticed a very specific bumper sticker on the car, and in the movie with the themes of the film, that seems pretty intentional as well. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Justin Powell: Yeah, I mean, for us, we kind of approach everything in our story very organically, I guess. And in this, we have two things, right? I think horror, especially the horror genre, art imitates life and the things that are affecting people or you as a filmmaker, you know, you inject that into your art. So obviously, we were very affected by that and are still affected by, you know, the state of affairs in the world. But also, this is a movie where you have to get exposition across, without speaking, in a very limited amount of time. We wanted to get the ball rolling right away. We don’t really like dialogue heavy stories, we feel like, you know, in these situations, people aren’t sitting around talking and expositing. You know, they’re just on the move and they’re trying to escape or whatever they need to do. And so we want to kind of stay as true to the characters’ real motivations and actions as possible.
And so we got into this situation where it’s like, okay, well, we know we want to have these two kids that are kidnapped. But one of them has to kind of be left behind. But why would they both be kidnapped, if one of them’s being left behind? Oh, well, maybe they only really wanted one, and they brought the other one out of circumstance. You know, you can’t leave any witnesses behind. Well, why’s that? Oh, well, the reason is because they wanted this kid because he fits the demographic that the kidnappers want. And so all of that just ended up leading to needing to plant seeds for that, subtly, and the sticker is a really nice way to plant that seed. Without that, I think that you don’t understand why Bobby’s left in the trunk. You don’t necessarily underestimate him, or don’t understand why the kidnappers underestimate him. And so, it might seem like it’s just arbitrary, or just making a statement — which it is making a statement — but at the same time, it really does actively progress the plot. So yeah, we killed two birds with one stone. That’s a terrible saying, but yeah.
Kelly McNeely: It’s a great example of “don’t tell me, show me” and I think that’s a really strong choice there. So what’s next for you guys?
David Charbonier: Um, I mean, hopefully another movie. It’s such a difficult road even still, like, they always say, once you make your first movie, it’s so easy to get your next one off the ground. And that’s sort of been like a myth. You know, we’ve made two movies. And the third one is just as hard to get off the ground as the first one. We’re hoping you know, though, things can work out. Hopefully soon. We have a lot of interesting stories, we think, in the genre that we’d like to be able to tell. With kids and animals next, hopefully. But yeah, we just really love horror movies, watching them, and coming up with stories. And we’re just so excited that this one finally is coming out this week.