I caught up again with indie filmmaker Kevin Sluder of Sunshine Boy Productions – read his 2017 interview with The 405 about his noir short Play Violet for Me here – to chat film-making, Edgar Allan Poe, and a lot more in his new short, a re-imagining of "The Tell-Tale Heart" for the modern world, called Heartless.

We were fortunate to also include actress Stacy Snyder's observations on the craft, depicting madness in film, horror, women in Hollywood, and much more in our interview here too. Stacy played the lead of Shelby in Heartless.

Snyder's character Shelby is a working woman really pushed to the brink through the pressures of her office and her unwaveringly douche bag male employee colleagues (Matt Mercer, Blaine Vedros, Ron Morehouse). Shelby's downward spiral – absolutely nailed by Snyder and underscored by Matt Mercer's deft hand as editor – plays out perfect with the solid foundation of Poe's murderous story guiding it.

Stacy Snyder in a still from HEARTLESS.

Kevin Sluder behind the scenes in HEARTLESS.

What is just as remarkable about Heartless, however, is the scathing satire that it becomes. Obviously, Sluder did not intend on the deluge of abuses that came out of places like Hollywood post-Harvey Weinstein and in the midst of #MeToo, but they certainly provided the perfect environment to make this incredible little short of a woman pushed to the brink by largely patriarchal madness, even more timely.  

In the end, Heartless is an intelligently-executed, visually stunning piece of horror that functions exquisitely on that front, but also acts as so much more. Sluder and Snyder's treatment of the psychology of the main character would most certainly be applauded by Poe himself and fans of intelligent horror as a whole.

Catch Heartless on the festival circuit now and enjoy the chats with Sluder and Snyder, where we expand on all this and more, below.

Hello again Kevin! Welcome back to The 405! Since we already know a bit about you from our prior interview, I thought we might jump right into Heartless – a well-executed, modern take on Poe. What did you want to take most from Poe's original story in giving your take on the material?

KS: Thanks so much, Wess.  It's great to be chatting with you again. 

That's a really great question.  I've been to a couple festivals with the film now and it's been really eye-opening for me just how many people love the "Tell-Tale Heart".  Whenever I would tell someone it was a modern take on Poe's story set in a cutthroat corporate atmosphere, their eyes would light up.  I love it the same way, so I wanted to make sure I stayed true to what I felt were the central components of the original – the extreme gore and the extreme guilt that plagues the main character's mind.  If I did that, I knew I would have the visual horror and the emotional horror covered. 

It's such a cool setup with this amazing war going on inside the main character's mind.  In the original, you have this madman (or woman, as some have speculated) spilling the details of a horrible crime in boastful fashion while, at the same time, the guilt is eating him (or her) up.  That's such great stuff!  I definitely didn't want to lose that in any way.  From there, it was creating a setting that was interesting to kind of take the story in a different direction.  So, I chose a modern corporate office setting.  And a hostile one at that.

Picking the corporate atmosphere did a lot to underscore the satirical element that made Heartless so powerful too. What were some of your influences in the creative process of what became Heartless?

KS: The film American Psycho was definitely the biggest influence on the style and look of the film.  From the brightly lit, clean corporate office to the sudden, bloody violence, even the satirical side and dark humor. 

I was really interested in having a female Patrick Bateman as the lead.  All polish on the outside and something quite different in her head.  With the wardrobe choices for the execs in the office, I wanted a visual combination of American Psycho and Wall Street to accentuate their "me first!" world view that, sadly, still seems to be the predominant corporate culture today. 

It's interesting – in preparing to direct for the first time, I watched a bunch of directors whose style, I felt, would fit parts of the film.  Scorsese, Aronofsky, even Bill Paxton's Frailty.  I even loaded up the shot list with some Cape Fear Dutch angles for the finale.  Then, I got on set and didn't use any of it.  [Laughs]

[Laughs] I suppose William Faulkner's "kill your darlings" writing adage applies to editing a film too.

KS: Now, at least to me, there seems to be a bit of De Palma in the over the top stylistics of the film, even the photos that show up at a particular point are reminiscent of a scene in Dressed to Kill.  Then, if you've seen any of our darker promo materials, there's an allusion to Carrie in one of the final scenes. 

I was thinking Carrie after you said De Palma. Hadn't quite made the conscious connection before that.

KS: So, definitely a few nods to De Palma throughout and, with the copious amounts of blood involved, I'd say Sam Raimi, as well.

Stacy Snyder in one of the bloodier scenes from HEARTLESS.

What were some of the challenges in the project?

KS: Well, it was my directorial debut so there were quite a few challenges along the way.  Add to that, I decided I'd throw in seven blood effects to up the challenge even more.  [Laughs]

[Laughs]

KS: But, fortunately, I have a bunch of really talented friends who hopped on board the project and their experience and skill helped balance things out.  At any given time, I had between 3 and 6 different people on set who had directed films and everyone else had been on tons of movie sets. 

So, I always had help when I needed it.  I'd say the biggest logistical challenge was shooting in the office.  Not necessarily with the space itself but with how we had to shoot it.  Because it's all glass, we had to block shoot.  Which meant we had to shoot all the scenes facing the execs during the day and almost all of Shelby's scenes after the sun went down.  So, there were time constraints on virtually every shot in the first part of each of the office days.  Luckily, my cast was awesome and my crew was awesome, so we got it done.

Nice. I was very pleasantly surprised at how you balanced very bloody and psychologically bleak material which is the mark of great horror with very effective black humor to, the kind that reminded me of a lot of Bruce Campbell’s work in the '80s… was there a particular trick to balancing that tension?

KS: Bruce Campbell.  That's high praise.  Thank you so much. 

After I had the idea for the short, I immediately read "The Tell-Tale Heart" and realized just how macabre it is.  I mean, the "hero" of the story is bragging about the disposal of body parts and whatnot.  So, I knew I had to "go there" in the film as far as the blood and gore went. 

You're adapting Poe.  Go big or go home.  So that was my philosophy for the entire story.  Since the blood and psychological trauma were so pronounced in the horror side of the story, I knew I needed to go that much more over the top with the comedic elements to keep that balance.  Had I not pushed the humor I'm afraid Heartless would've been a much bleaker film.   

That is likely very true. The final product most certainly worked very well. What makes a great horror piece?

KS: Wow, there are so many different types of horror, so I guess it just depends on what scares you.  A great horror film should be about the things that terrify you the most.  I prefer the stories where loss is involved.  The loss of your friends, a child, a husband or wife.  These are real things that resonate with me.  

Take my favorite horror film of all time, The Descent.  You have the loss of family members, the loss of friends, the loss of the life you thought you'd have AND a ton of tight spaces with no escape AND some creepy, creepy monsters.  Wow.  That's so great.  I'm a bit claustrophobic to boot.  That film wrecks me every time. 

The cool thing about horror is that you can have any number of different things happening around the characters – demons, vampires, zombies, crazy home invaders, ax wielding maniacs – but if that central story is there (a character terrified of losing something), typically I'm going to dig it. 

If you look at Heartless, Shelby is deathly afraid of losing her opportunity to land her dream job.  All the horror in the piece revolves around her efforts to keep from losing what she's gained.  Which, is a relatable want for a character so, hopefully, people hop on for the ride because of that.

I think so. That ought to get them on board, but they will stay for much more – including the satire. I found the satire here to be very effective. What makes great satire?

KS: I think for satire to work it needs to be based on something real and current.  With Heartless I placed the lead character, Shelby, in a misogynistic office, which probably wouldn't have been as effective had I made this film three or four years ago.  Since there are stories on social media practically every day about the mistreatment of women on the job, it now works as satire. 

I also think there has to be a certain amount of exaggeration to make it land, as well.  I remember in the first versions of the script, Deano (the lead exec) was an older man and did a lot of the same things as the younger version but it just wasn't funny.  I suppose it was a bit "on the nose".  An old white dude being sexist.  Nothing funny about that.  So, I decided to age Deano down to his early 30s and added a couple cohorts to push the situation into the comedic realm. 

I think the satirical element comes in through the costume design (done by my wife Jen), as well.  We dressed the three male execs like characters from American Psycho and Wall Street, which gave the contemporary setting a '80s feel.  Hence, one of the underlying statements of the film: not much has really changed for women in the work place in the last thirty years. 

The fun of the film is that Shelby is mad as hell and isn't gonna take it anymore. 

The yuppie misogynists of HEARTLESS.

What do you hope audiences will carry with them from Heartless? You briefly touched on this in your answer to the satire question, but elaborating a bit, the film seemed rather timely in light of #MeToo and what we are learning far too many women go through in the work place (with all the male characters – I found myself strangely satisfied when they… met their fates, as I'm sure many audience members probably did).

KS: It's interesting.  I wrote the short in February of 2017 so the Weinstein scandal hadn't broken yet.  The office environment I chose for the film came about as an answer to the question – "what would trigger a rising female exec to relive memories she doesn't necessarily want to relive?"  The answer, of course, was a group of misogynistic men harassing her in the office. 

I was pretty sure her frustration would resonate, based off of everything I had read on my Facebook feed during the 2016 election year and from the stories my wife and female friends have told me over the years.  Then, about two weeks after we wrapped filming, I read an article where a Texas lawmaker actually asked a female assistant parliamentarian to "Smile" for him on the house floor.  I immediately sent a text to my fellow producers saying, wow, I think this film may be a bit more timely than I thought. 

I don't usually write with any kind of overriding political message so, on the whole, I was aiming for Heartless to speak to a more universal truth that just about everyone, and especially women, has experienced – a boss demeaning them on the job.  So those final satisfying moments that you're speaking about were meant for everyone to enjoy.  But I will admit that the festival tour has been really fun so far, because different audience members have talked me afterward – mostly women -- each having a particular moment that resonated with them.  And that puts a huge smile on my face.

That is fantastic. Most certainly film at its best hits that universality but also elicits a wide plethora of reactions.

I'm curious what the creative decision-making process was like when we get into the… psychotic crescendo of the film, where Shelby commits her murder and the later sensory disturbances she has as she unravels? The visual language you chose there was really something.

KS: Why thank you.  Glad you dug the visuals, Wess.  I'm not sure how much I can talk about here without giving stuff away, but I'll give it a shot. 

Yeah, I would never ask for spoilers.

KS: The most important thing, to me, was that the audience stayed in Shelby's world.  So, the images that start haunting her in the second half of the film had to have personal meaning to her.  That way those images would keep eating away at her façade, until there's no way she can run from what she did.  And that, I feel, was accomplished when "what she did" actually starts appearing in the office to greater and greater gory effect.  That’s where Josh and Sierra Russell's blood F/X came in.  They're masters at what they do, so signing them on was one of my top priorities. 

After that, a lot of the visual language came from Matt Mercer's editing in post.  One sequence in particular, during Shelby's eventful presentation to the execs, was brought home by how he cut it together.  I told him I wanted it to seem like Shelby's mind is closing in on her.  We did some camera moves to give it that look but I feel like the editing really took it to the next level. 

I think the sound design by Shawn Duffy and the score by Steve Moore definitely contributed to that effect, as well.  I wanted a dense sound scape and I feel like we achieved that.  There's hardly any silence in the film, which makes sense as Shelby's mind is definitely not quiet. 

So, to answer your question, I'd say my decision-making process was to get as many badasses around me on the production as I could and things would work out.  

You executed well on all points there. Will we be seeing more work in the vein of Heartless from you and Sunshine Boy? I certainly hope we will.

KS: I have a horror feature in the works.  I'm almost done with the script.  Hopefully, we'll be filming it next year.  It's a survival piece about an estranged couple overcoming their differences to get out of a horrible situation alive.  It has an equal amount of blood in it and even more action but, dare I say, it has a bit more "heart" in it.

Wow! Can't wait to see more with that. Anything else new on the radar we should know about?

KS: I just optioned a sci-fi script and a director has already signed on.  A producer is putting the package together for financing, so that is some very exciting news.  I've always loved that script and, for a bit there, I thought it would never see the light of day.  Then, this happened so I'm feeling truly blessed at the moment.  It's Hollywood, so you never know which way things will go, but I'm optimistic.

You have reason to be Kevin. You've got a lot of talent. Thanks for chatting with us again!

KS: Thank you!

Stacy Snyder as Shelby in HEARTLESS.

Hello Stacy! I thought I'd start by inquiring a bit about your history – what got you into acting?

SS: I just love storytelling and I love being a part of epic adventures. As a kid watching movies I really felt that I was in the story, so it was always something that I've been drawn to. Storytelling is so natural for us, it's how we communicate information and culture, it's how we spread empathy and understanding. I want to be in those trenches.

That is so true. It's utterly integral to the human condition. What films and performances have really stuck with you over time? I'm curious here which you would consider most influential on you as an actress?

SS: I draw a lot of inspiration from film, television and theatre, but what really impacts my work are my life experiences – what I draw from real life, the things I've learned about acting, and how I've personally developed and matured. I wouldn't say that I necessarily try to copy someone else, because everyone has their own process and personality – no two people would do a scene the same way.

The performances that have really stuck with me are the really vulnerable moments, or when a character tells a really hard truth, or seeing an actor truly transform into a character. Those performances have always been really appealing to me and spark the creative fires within myself.

Absolutely. What makes a great film?

SS: Great films are born from a great need to express a message. Having a really strong mission statement, having something that you really want to convey, a message that means something to you personally is what makes for good storytelling. Taking risks, silencing the "shoulds" and connecting to yourself, your creativity, what lights you on fire – that's when we see the greatest art. When it's not formulaic or tried-and-true, but something new, something passionate. 

GREAT summation. With Heartless, I'm curious what it was like to get in the headspace of Shelby? You really nailed her rapid sensory decay I thought.

SS: You know what's weird about that is I had no trouble whatsoever getting into Shelby's headspace. [Laughs]

[Laughs]

SS: When I read the script I really clicked into Shelby right away. I don't really know what I can point you to be like "this is why", but I just got her immediately.

I wrote down all the Shelby thoughts on my script and Kevin found it later on set and was like, "What is this?" I think I scare him, now.

I think it was easy to click into that mindset because I don't think it's that far from what we all experience, anyway. (Minus the murder.) Everyone's experienced to one degree or another being passed over or feeling like they're not good enough. There's a moment in our lives where we have to stand up for ourselves, take our power back and realize our value. There's a point when we stop putting up with certain things. I just got to take it a few steps further!

There's one scene where Shelby is really off the rails, and I love that Kevin gave me a safe place to play in that emotional and intellectual landscape. It didn't matter what I looked like or what I did, I could just explore. That's a rare opportunity and I'm really grateful for it.

That's a fascinating process – really just elaborating on what is already universal. What are some of the challenges like in playing that sort of a psychotic role?

SS: The challenge in this role was giving myself permission to not follow a linear thought pattern. There's a myriad of thoughts banging around in Shelby's head at all times. It was fun to allow those thoughts to pop in and out, to be free to follow the quick transitions in her thoughts.

Almost free associational in nature: which I suppose is true to life with psychosis. 

I'm curious about your thoughts on all the news coming out of Hollywood as a woman in the industry. Did that inform your portrayal of Shelby? The satirical element I found just as effective as the horror.

SS: One of the things that makes this movie so great is it's not only topical, but it's really relatable. I don't think I know of any woman who has not it in some way, shape or form been harassed.  So the news coming out of Hollywood is not really new for a lot of people – it's just how life has been. I think that's why audiences want to see this character do the things she does; we want some justice and some equality and we're tired of being told to "smile".

So true. I hope things are changing anyway.

SS: What I love about this film is that it brings awareness to this movement but by using the horror element, Heartless allows you to really enjoy the ride and embrace the message without it being a deeply emotional, dramatic piece. It's digestible in this form.

I never thought about it that way. That's an excellent point.

Stacy Snyder behind the scenes in HEARTLESS.

SS: A lot of the emotional range and the ability to connect with the psychotic nature of the role came from connecting to these injustices.

Fascinating. What do you hope audiences will take with them from Heartless?

SS: Well, I hope they're entertained! I hope they get a few good laughs out of it. I hope it continues the conversation about women in the workplace. And I hope it encourages people to be a little nicer to that weird girl in the office. :p

Last, what is next for you?

SS: I have a dark comedy feature Sound of Settling coming out this year in which I play a dazzlingly self-absorbed birthday girl.

I also have two shorts coming out, in Ashes my character navigates the five stages of grief, and Consolation Prize is a wonderfully uncomfortable dark comedy about pop culture and dating where my unlucky character just can’t seem to find love.

Thank you Stacy!

SS: Thank you!