In A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life, a self-help addict and a life coach/serial killer embark on a darkly hilarious road trip together. Here’s what director Staten Cousins Roe and actress Poppy Roe told us on their compelling horror-comedy.
When life coach Val (Poppy Roe) invites self-help addict Lou (Katie Brayben) on a road trip of alternative therapies, our 30-something protagonist seems to have found what she had been looking for: a means to escape her uneventful life and overly controlling mother, while also working on becoming a better version of herself. But this Thelma & Louise trip soon turns into something else entirely when Lou finds out a very important piece of information about her companion: this life coach also happens to be a serial killer. A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is a thoroughly original horror-comedy movie that uses a very specific (and effective) brand of dark humour to approach themes that couldn’t be more relevant to our society. In a film that is as meaningful as it is entertaining, well-timed dialogues, unpredictable twists and iconic performances go hand in hand to bring you a believable story that is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
We interviewed director Staten Cousins Roe and actress Poppy Roe on A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life: here’s what they told us.
A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life: life coaches, serial killers and empowerment
Staten, what made you want to tell this story?
S: I’d written and directed an award winning short called This Way Out, which had both Poppy [Roe] and Katie [Brayben] play the leads in – a jet-black comedy about a struggling euthanasia centre whose employees have ten days to raise their client numbers or face closure. I was looking for an idea that could use their onscreen chemistry in feature length. Simultaneously, I was going through hard core psychotherapy and I came to see the huge number of shysters in the self-help industry, peddling quick fix nonsense for a buck or 10 to vulnerable people. It then seemed a natural subject matter to take to it to its limits and satirise with violence and humour.
I love that you approached two subjects that are as talked-about as they are “fashionable”, these days: the combination of life coaches and serial killers is so unusual, and yet it makes complete sense in your film, because it helps deliver your message.
Staten and Poppy, what is your opinion on life coaching and why do you think people are so fascinated by serial killers?
S: Life coaches and serial killers… In my opinion, there’s not a huge difference between them: they both prey on unsuspecting victims with low self esteem and use them for their own purpose and gratification, to achieve fame and notoriety. And both have a dark aching void inside they’re desperately trying to fill through their actions. I think people are fascinated by serial killers as they wonder what it would be like not to feel – not to be impacted by consequence.
P: I guess it’s about trying to understand the un-understandable. People who act and respond so differently to us – an absence of what makes us human. Having said that, our film is not trying to glamourise killers: it’s not a study of serial killing. It’s about empowerment to be your own person, and knowing who to listen to and when to listen to yourself.
Lou and Val: leading characters with innate chemistry
What I really enjoyed about the film is the interesting dynamics between Lou and Val. Staten, can you talk about the writing process and did you already have Poppy and Katie in mind when you wrote them?
S: It’s wonderful to watch Katie and Poppy (Lou and Val) act together. They have an innate chemistry, having known each other for many years, training together at drama school in London (One of their acting teachers being actor Peter O’Toole’s daughter Pat O’Toole). We’d all worked together before on This Way Out, and this was equally enjoyable, rehearsing with them both between drafts of the script. I’d love to turn this or This Way Out into a TV show, so we can see more of them together.
In the movie, there is a clear reference to Thelma and Louise, but you also added homages to other films, such as Forrest Gump. What is the movie that influenced you the most as a person and as a director?
S: My taste in movies is always changing, but I’d say from early on there’s been a number of core films that influenced me, from all the obvious ones (Star Wars, The Godfather etc) to quirky films like Harold & Maude, which my grandmother and I watched over and over. Also, films I watched way too young, like Alien and Robocop. Those late 80s/early 90s home video movies. You can also chuck a bit of early literature in there, like Roald Dahl and even Dostoyevsky. A real smorgasbord.
Val: an ambitious life coach with unusual methods
Poppy, how would you describe your character in the film?
P: Val is a steely, confident and hugely ambitious life coach – with an unwavering focus. She’s determined to make an impact in the self-help business and influence the world of hopeless people out there, and doesn’t ever question her own methods. Her self belief is immense, and she genuinely believes she can change Lou (a lost in life loser) for the better. She may harbour some deep rooted psychological issues… but, so far, her outlet for them is working.
How did you prepare for the role?
P: Val is a great, fun character to play. To have that lack of filter – someone who doesn’t care about what others think of her, and has one single focus in life – it’s very empowering. I saw a lot of killer movies (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, American Psycho, The Shining), which I loved re-watching, and I looked at the body language of real killers, like Ted Bundy – but I found that actually looking at real self-help gurus helped the most. The confidence and charisma some of these successful ‘life changing’ professionals emit is so magnetic – and some are almost psychotic, some delusional! They make you want to follow them.
What was the main challenge in bringing Val to life?
P: At first, it was not reacting to the other actors – keeping unempathetic and studying them, rather than listening to them. Working with Katie and remaining blank faced was sometimes tricky! But during the shoot it became second nature, especially since we were shooting so intensely.
Val has a very distinctive look: how did that come to be?
P: We did some make-up tests with our talented make-up artist Helena Card, and we discussed Val always having her signature ‘war paint’ on, perfectly all the time. It empowers her. We carefully chose the right kick ass lipstick colour to wear throughout the film – it happened to be called “Lady Danger”.
She also has so many excellent lines! What is your favourite line she says in the film?
P: So many! When she says “Let’s not forget those sandwiches.” after bludgeoning a person to death with a rolling pin…
A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life: look, sound and atmosphere on the set
I absolutely love the “look” and “sound” of the film! Can you talk about your use of colour and the interesting choices you made in terms of its score and sound?
S: I worked with a brilliant team: Director of Photography James Layton ACO, Colourist Claire Winter, Sound Designer Anna Sulley and composer Laurence Love Greed. We worked closely (Poppy edited the film with me) with Claire to find the right colour and feel for the film, the right colour balance and film grain – she did an execellent job. Anna and her team, including re-recording and dialogue mixer James Hynes, worked so hard on the sound: it was a real truimph. It was vital to me to get the soundscape right and connected to Lou and Val, to help ensure we see the world through Lou’s eyes and be with them on their journey of self discovery.
There’s also several key moments that are completely driven by sound. That all interconnected with Laurence’s score: it’s not often you get a fully original orchestral score for a movie this size, but Laurence pulled a lot of favours from his family and friends (his entire family is made up of incredible professional orchestral musicians), and we went to Leeds, in the UK, to record all the music in one mad day. All the departments did a brilliant job, I can’t wait to work with them again on the next movie. The soundtrack is set to release on iTunes and other platforms on 20th January.
What was the atmosphere like on the set?
P: It was amazing! Intense, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people working so hard all at once. There was such a lot of passion and focus from every individual on set – we were so lucky to have gathered a team who each had such skill and talent. It was 28 locations in two weeks, so everyone had to be on top form and work with speed and precision: we all just clicked into action so quickly. And the actors that joined for a day or two all brought their brilliant characters and had to hit the ground running. Exhausting and rewarding.
A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life‘s message of self-trust
What message would you like people to get from A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life?
P: I hope people will come away feeling empowered, not looking for quick fixes in life, knowing it’s a long game and perhaps trusting themselves a little more – and most importantly enjoy a funny, action packed dark comedy film with a heart!
S: Listen to your own voice. And get proper therapy: real therapists listen, whereas self-help practitioners do an awful lot of talking.
What’s next for Staten Cousins Roe and Poppy Roe
Can you tell us about your future projects?
S: I’m very excited to be writing with Poppy Roe a supernatural horror called Carrying – which we plan to shoot late this year, alongside developing A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life as a TV show.
P: Staten and I are both very excited about our next feature which we’re writing together: it’s going to be terrific.