‘Reptile’ Director Talks Helming an Emotion-Driven Crime Drama: “I Was Trying to Evoke a Feeling”

Ace music video helmer Grant Singer has worked with pop superstars like The Weeknd, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Lorde and Sam Smith to make artists and their record labels look good as they market album releases.

So you would expect Singer was in his element when he got into the director’s chair for his fiction feature debut, Reptile, a dark, moody crime thriller for Black Label Media and Netflix in which Benicio Del Toro plays a hardened homicide cop hunting down a killer amid small-town New England corruption and conspiracy, while trying to escape his own past.

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Turns out Singer’s internal pressure gauge redlined on the Reptile set. “I always put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver on what I set out to deliver on. But this was on another level, in terms of me really wanting to take advantage of this opportunity, to do something to the best of my ability,” Singer told The Hollywood Reporter as he prepared for a world premiere for Reptile at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 8, before a Netflix launch Oct. 6.

“This is like the culmination of every moment of my life I felt I put into this movie. I’ve never ever, ever worked as hard on anything. It was incredible experience. Now I can finally breathe,” Singer added. Justin Timberlake stars alongside Del Toro as Will, the murder victim’s husband, and Alicia Silverstone plays Judy, the wife of Del Toro’s character, Detective Tom Nichols.

To shoot a murder mystery where nothing is as it seems, Singer says he infused Reptile with hefty amounts of ambiguity and emotion, twists, turns and reveals to keep his audience leaning forward. “I was trying to create something where you did not know where the story is taking you,” he adds.

Reptile, based on a script by Singer, Benjamin Brewer and Del Toro, also stars Michael Pitt, Ato Essandoh, Frances Fisher, Eric Bogosian, Domenick Lombardozzi, Karl Glusman, Matilda Lutz, Owen Teague and Catherine Dyer.

Reptile is your fiction feature debut. What’s the message you most want to get out there with your first film?

With film, at least for me, what I’m attracted to is often the subconscious. Stories that I’m drawn to, I find I’m subconsciously drawn to them. I don’t know if I had an overt desire to make this movie since I was a child, more than I was trying to evoke a feeling. I knew for a long time I wanted my first film to evoke a very specific feeling, this feeling of being deceived. This sort of unsettling dread, playfulness and warmth, something tonally that’s hard to articulate, but one that I was certainly passionate about.

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(L-R) Benicio Del Toro as Tom Nichols and Alicia Silverstone as Judy Nichols in Reptile.

Before Reptile, you became the go-to guy for visceral and idiosyncratic music videos for big name artists like The Weeknd, Lorde, Ariana Grande, Zayn and Taylor Swift and many others. Music videos based on songs are by nature emotionally-driven, so is allowing the audience to come away with their own meaning and emotion, and not a singular meaning and emotion, reflected in your first feature?

I’ve always been drawn to stories, not just in movies, but in life in general that are enigmatic, where things don’t necessarily add up, where there’s more questions than answers. And I think the challenge with this movie was how do we make a film that has a real resolution, that’s satisfying to an audience, but still can pose questions after it ends and make you think about the film the same way some great stories that are sort of mysteries with a capital M do as well.

With Reptile, you’ve gone from servicing pop stars and music labels to impressing yourself with your debut feature. What’s that shift like?

It’s the first time in my whole life I was able to make something that was my vision, right? It was exciting, exhilarating, vulnerable, it was the most exciting experience of my life. I think it’s such a miracle to get a movie made. I have so much respect for anyone who’s able to make a movie. It’s so difficult to even get to the place where you’re Day One 7 a.m., you’re about to roll camera. To even get to this opportunity, to work with this cast and to work with Netflix and my producers and to do this whole thing — I did not take that for granted. And I really, really, really wanted to make the most of this opportunity. In general I always put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver on what I set out to deliver on. But this was on another level, in terms of me really wanting to make to take advantage of this opportunity, to do something to the best of my ability.

What was a typical shoot day like?

It’s one shoot day at a time. What do I need to shoot today? And how do I do this to the best of my ability? How do I maximize, but there’s a million other things and, oh, we don’t have time for this and you’re trying to nail everything. Making this movie, I put so much pressure on myself to make something great. I really wanted to make something great. I truly, truly did. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna make a movie. This can be a really cool thing.’ No, this is like the culmination of every moment of my life I felt I put into this movie. I’ve never ever, ever worked as hard on anything. It was incredible experience. Now I can finally breathe and on my next movie I’m probably going to allow myself to be much freer in terms of certain things.

Reptile is a compelling cat-and-mouse story where Benicio Del Toro plays a homicide detective trying to solve the mystery of a realtor stabbed to death in a show home, but his investigation is slowmoving typical of crime dramas. Talk about your slow-burn twists and turns and reveals?

I was trying to create something where you did not know where the story is taking you. Halfway through the film something happens with Benicio’s character that changes the course of the investigation. And the movie is called Reptile because there’s a shedding of skin that occurs where characters are introduced as one thing, and then revealed to be something else. But also, the film begins as one thing and then is revealed to be something else. What begins as a murder history is revealed to be sort of a character study of a man’s conscience and his world dismantling in real time. Specifically in the third act, there are a lot of question marks, let’s just put it that way. I allude to certain things, but I also leave things a little bit ambiguous, so that when you leave the film, you can almost have a conversation with yourself, or whoever you see the film with two different opinions as to someone’s involvement or culpability or what someone knew at a certain moment – Oh! That’s why they said this thing. So it’s more about trying to evoke ambiguity. And to articulate a grayness that is more true to life.

You want to show your audience just enough to draw their own conclusions?

I am interested in creating something that requires the viewer to be actively engaged in the storytelling, with the characters. And it requires almost a participation where, I don’t want to say solving the case with the characters, but you’re certainly consciously involved with the storytelling. I’m not comparing the movie to Rosemary’s Baby, but I keep on thinking about this moment where Mia Farrow walks back in to the room after John Cassavetes is having a conversation with the neighbor. And we’re not privy to the conversation, but we just see him pivot at that moment she comes into the room. We don’t know what they were discussing. That’s actually one of my favorite scenes in the whole film because that discussion is absent from the storytelling, and yet still has more weight than its inclusion.

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Reptile. Justin Timberlake as Will Grady in Reptile.

There’s so many crime drama/thrillers today. How did you make Reptile stand out as unique?

If you’re going to add to the queue of movies that are in what you would call a crime thriller genre, it’s important to articulate one’s own perspective or one’s own feeling or one’s own taste to make it unique. We tried to do that with this. And certainly, there were a lot of directorial decisions about what to show, or what not to show. But I do think oftentimes what’s imagined can be more haunting than what’s actually seen. So it’s playing with we leave the viewer to think, versus what we actually show them.

Benicio Del Toro features as this dark, brooding character in your film. How fortunate were you to aim your camera at his hooded-eyed, clinical questioning of no shortage of suspects under investigation?

I’m so grateful to be able to work with an actor like that on my first movie. It would be a crime not to photograph him the way that I did. Obviously, subjectively, aesthetically, I love long lenses. I love close ups. I love intensity. I love things that are visceral. But Benicio is one of these actors who emotes so much non-verbally. His performance in this film is so complex, and it’s wavering between so many different emotions. He can articulate something so complicated, yet simply just through his facial expressions and the way he embodies this role. I found myself, especially in the edit and even while filming, really wanting to be there with him. Let his face tell the story. I’m always trying to balance between what am I trying to evoke, for the sake of the audience in a specific moment, while also navigating how this is impacting the character. And being there with Benicio tended to be some of the most compelling footage we had in those scenes. And if that’s the best fit we have, that’s what we’re going to go with, because all I care about with movies is evoking feeling and emotion.

Feeling and emotion is more important than a clear-cut resolution where the mystery is solved and the good guys and the bad guys are there for all to see?    

Correct. To me, the plot of the film is secondary to feeling moved by the movie. The film changes as it unfolds, becoming an very internal and character piece towards the end. And you’re really with him. You’re almost inside his world, right? We have these sequences that truly get in his head, later in the film, and that’s most interesting part of how the film begins and how it lands. And it goes to the unpredictability of this movie. You don’t kind of know where this movie is leading you. And that’s something that I enjoy about the film.

It’s about getting your audience past the climax of Reptile to where the bonus payoff is how they feel walking away?

I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it’s really an emotional feeling everyone was trying to arrive at, how you leave the viewer can in many ways impact how they think about the whole movie. It doesn’t matter where you get to, but if you end the film in a way where the viewer feels I don’t want to say deceived, but feels like ‘are you kidding me? All that for that?’ It doesn’t matter what journey you took them on, if they feel like it didn’t arrive at a place where they felt emotionally satisfied. I felt we did that with this film that delicate dance of blossoming within the tone of the movie, but not betraying the storytelling. It’s not like you do this cool, clever card trick and then, go, but? It’s still within the language of the filmmaking.

TIFF - Reptile

The director’s statement from Netflix begins with you revealing seven days before your 6th birthday, your uncle was murdered. What lesson from that experience reveals itself in your crime drama?

This idea that anything could happen at any moment. If there’s one sort of truth that I was imbuing into the movie, it’s that feeling, the unpredictability of life, that anything could happen at any moment.

It’s also murder as it is solved in Reptile has a mystery at its heart, and not the one the audience expected as the final credits roll?

Maybe I’m too close to it. But I feel like there is ambiguity, without mentioning specific characters. There’s a lot of ambiguity as what involvement certain characters play with certain things, or the level of orchestration, the level of culpability, the level of awareness and knowledge and participation. The film presents certain people involved in certain things, but without being overly explicit. There’s stories where they’ll have a flashback, for example, and you see exactly what happened – we don’t do that with this film. I think there’s a lot of hopefully thought-provoking things that might be more satisfying, to let a viewer come to their conclusion as to certain things. I love that people can feel different things about it and their own subjective reactions.

Reptile will have its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, at the Princess of Wales Theater, but likely without your talent on stage with you due to strike rules, without you being able to divert attention to Del Toro, or a glitzy Justin Timberlake and Alicia Silverstone.

Yeah, I guess. I don’t know what to say. I got to do what I got to do, you know? Hopefully people enjoy the movie when they see it, and we’ll go from there.

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