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Director on the Rise Brings Hometown Horror to Sundance

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The power of the eyewitness is not lost on Jonathan Byers. If the name sounds familiar to you, it is probably due to the viral photo of his wife Nancy Wheeler that Byers shot when they were both working with fleeing Sudanese refugees in 2006. If you are a film fan, you also might recognize the name from numerous credits as DP and cinematographer on documentary outings and indie horror pictures. Oddly though, despite long success in the world of the arts, Jonathan Byers has managed to mostly fly under the radar.

This has radically changed over the last few months however, as “The Nether,” a film Byers directed, recently won the Grand Jury: Dramatic prize at the Sundance film festival, putting Jonathan Byers firmly on the cultural map.

Despite his only recent rise to popular awareness, the eclectic career of Jonathan Byers has always had a certain name recognition in industry circles. However, being a plebian to the world of New York Avante Garde, I was unaware of this figure who turns out to be a household name to those in the know. So, I organized a meeting with Jonathan Byers, at a coffee shop near his midtown apartment, to learn a little more about this mysterious figure on the rise.

Preparing for the meeting, I only knew about Jonathan Byers’s start as a still photographer. He is internationally respected for this work, and he is particularly well known for his collaborations with his wife. Byers famously provided the images of the twelve Russian spies who comprised an extremely influential cell of informants and money men in New York. He was on the ground for the New York Times and other major outlets in the wake of 9/11 and has worked with models in the New York fashion scene since first arriving in the city to attend NYU’s photography program. He is a foundational name in New York art.

When I ask him about his storied career in still photography he laughs a little awkwardly.

“It’s odd to think about my career being looked at in that way. I certainly don’t think about it like that, but I could see how people would think of my work as influential. I just think that there’s something so special about still photography. You’re trying to capture a single moment where you can see beyond the usual presentation of a person. I think the people I photograph can sense that I want to connect with them, and I think that makes it stand out to them.”

As I discovered during my prep for this meeting, when you say the name Jonathan Byers to any actor or model who is based in New York, their eyes will light up. While few in the public know it, his photography has long been lauded as a benchmark moment for those who want to participate in the New York art and theater scene. Most recently he did a series shooting Lin Manuel Miranda for Vouge after the release of Hamilton. But where he spends most of his time now is in the world of cinema.

Unlike many emerging filmmakers, Byers is entirely based in New York, which limits the projects he takes. Interestingly, he has been one of the premier cinematographers in the Horror genre over the course of the last twenty years. While most filmmakers tend to use horror as a passage to more dramatic outings, Byers has reveled in the work.

“It felt like that was where I wanted to be. Horror movies are so interesting to me, because they have the complexity to portray so many different emotions and kinds of stories.” He says when I ask about it.

“I think it’s easy to make ok horror because there are so many tropes and gimmicks that people will respond to, but the best horror is a transcendent experience because it just reaches down the throats of the audience members and totally puppets them. You have the audience on a string because you’re speaking to something familiar but twisted. It’s the emotions of the everyday caught in the fantastic. The best horror should have joy, and comedy, and terrible, terrible fear.”

Byers cites Ari Aster as one of his directorial inspirations.

“I was lucky enough to consult on Midsommar, which was such a fantastic experience as a cinematographer because the way Ari uses light in that movie is just amazing. In movies we often tend to use darkness as a crutch to make things unknown. If it’s well-lit in horror we think we are safe, if it’s dark, we are in danger. I’ve always been really bothered by that so it was fun to get to work on a film that flipped that totally on its head.

If you’ve seen any of Byers’s cinematography, you’ll know that he fights stagnation at every turn. Byers is a master of having the movement of a camera tell a story. The films he shoots all have the camera feel like a character in its own right. It creates a voyeuristic element to all his horror work.

The audience is not just presented with a story to look at—the movement of the camera forces them into engagement. It acts as the audience’s eyes, peering, lurking and recoiling as it takes on a life of its own. With Byers as the DP, the audience becomes a spy, peering into worlds we are normally not permitted to see. It makes Byers’s work a distinct presence in the realm of movie cinematography.

This feeling is only strengthened by the human element that Byers demands be a part of any film he signs onto. His horror projects almost always feature some kind of human evil that juxtaposes with the fantastic or the cosmic terror that the protagonists face.

“I think we all know monsters. We interact with monsters wearing human faces out in the world, and I am fascinated by the process of creating something overtly horrifying versus something implicitly horrifying onscreen, and what makes something horrifying after all that.” Byers says intently.

Interactions between human and monstrous antagonists are always a hallmark of Byers’s work, and it has led to some truly standout performances. Byers is known for being a gift to actors. As a cinematographer he always seems to be perfectly positioned, at the right place, at the right time.

“I think it’s because of my work in documentary filmmaking, which I did for a bit, and still photography for newspapers. When you do stuff out in the real world, you have one chance to get the shot, so you have to have a sense for when it’s coming.”

He’s excellent at it. Byers always seems to be known—when he is known— for his work behind a lens that makes everything look the best it possibly can. So how did this directorial triumph at the helm come about?

Over the last five years Byers has been gaining notoriety for his Avant Garde horror films, all shot in New York. The films vary in their levels of plot, but all are clearly connected as a series with visual themes that run throughout.

“When I talk about them with friends we call them The Flayer Sequence.” He says.

This is presumably because of the sequence’s ostensible villain, the Creeping Flayer, a trans-dimensional cosmic horror that splits open the minds of its victims and puppets their bodies around New York. Each short features some kind of human conflict as well. The two that most often stand out are the bitterly sad short “Madine and Bobby”, and the triumphant finale of the cycle, the full-length movie “The Triumvirate.”

“Madine and Bobby” depicts a young woman desperately trying to save her abusive older brother from the Flayer. It has the least plot of the cycle and is the most visually compelling. Sadie Sink, the young actress playing Madine, is spectacular as she desperately hunts her brother Bobby and flees from him in turns.

Throughout it all the mind flayer twists in and out of Bobby, corrupting his view on the world and encouraging his violence. What is most disturbing about this short is the way the Flayer almost tauntingly caresses Madine, a cosmic threat that mirrors Bobby’s own abuse toward his sister. The film is as disturbing as it is beautiful.

The entire sequence plays with light in a fascinating way, but no instalment does so more than “Madine and Bobby”. Madine eventually predicts the oncoming monster by the way that the streetlights shining on her will change colors, and it begs the heartbreaking realization that far too often Bobby’s own monstrosity is free of the Flayer’s influence. Neon pinks and blues flicker on and off the New York scenery, and every shot is a painting where light tells the story of despair and repetition—a narrative that comes to be resolved in the final film of the sequence, “The Triumvirate.”

While most of The Flayer Sequence is beautifully bleak, depicting cycles of abuse and patterns of behavior that are impossible to break, “The Triumvirate” rails against the hopelessness of the earlier films, as three young people in New York—consistently in the background of the earlier shorts—break free of what is expected.

What is interesting about “The Triumvirate” is the way it is undoubtedly a horror movie yet manages to cross into and borrow from other genres as well. All at once the film speaks to romance, action, coming of age, and explorations of sexuality, even as the horror of the mind flayer is clearly the focus. The psychological terror of the Flayer is brought into physical, tangible space for the first time in the sequence.

Once again, the acting talent shines. The film rests on the inherent chemistry between the three leads, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, and Joe Keery. They magnify each other to greater and greater hights as they anchor this film. All of these actors came back to Byers’s work with roles in “The Nether,” which almost takes on prequal status to the emotional questions of “The Triumvirate.”

The three of them are excellent. Dyer is fiercely independent and torn between the two boys in turns, as Heaton and Keery expertly portray the blending between attraction and conflict that inevitably rises from sexual confusion. The three characters are unnamed beyond their titles in the credits, Voyeur for Heaton, Fighter for Dyer, and Lover for Keery. (This was an aspect that Byers took forward with him into his work on “The Nether.”)

“The three of them were excellent.” Byers says, enthused as we discuss the performance of the real-life triumvirate in both movies.

“I loved working with them. They had such a good feel for the camera, and a real gift in making the emotional journey of the characters believable. Joe in particular did a great job. I feel like Lover is the hardest part, because that’s the character with the most growth. Because Lover’s character is jilted when Fighter appears to pick Voyeur and facing the oncoming horror over him, he leaves the other two to face the monster on their own which dooms them, but he comes back to fight with them at the last minute. You have to hate him when he leaves and be over the moon when he returns. Joe just killed the performance and it was perfect.”

While Byers was taken with Joe Keery’s performance, it was Heaton who took on one of the main parts in “The Nether,” the role of Brother, while Dyer and Keery were relegated to the background as the supporting characters of Sister and Boyfriend respectively. Even so, the chemistry between the three was a gem within the movie, as the longing looks Heaton gives the other two when they engage in the small intimacies of couples is simply soul crushing.

“The Nether” on the whole is a perfect horror film, learning lessons from all of Byers’s previous outings. In it, the bitter reality of human failure and personal terror invites in a cosmic horror, called The Ilithid, which fractures the fundamental reality of a small town. I asked Byers about the connection between the urban sequence and his hometown horror outing.

“The Flayer Sequence was set in New York, because New York is where I feel like the humans can win against the monsters. There’s horror here but also triumph. ‘The Nether’ was set in a small middle America town because in my mind places like that will always be where the monsters come from.”

A single boy getting lost in the cracks of a cosmically broken reality is a premise that is entirely autobiographical I discover. So is the horror of the hometown, which Byers knows well.

“When I was in high school my little brother went missing. We actually thought he was dead for a while. It was just one incident of Hawkins being a literal hellmouth of terror back then. So many bad things happened there over the course of those four years—it still is the place that I think of when I think of horror. So much was so bad that you had to believe that there were actual monsters lurking in the trees of that fucking town.” Byers’s voice is hard and flat as he says it. It sends a chill down my spine.

The element of personal drama only serves to make the terror of the movie more tangible, even though no character bears any name except for the lost boy, who is called Bill. The four main searching figures are simply referred to in the credits as, Brother, Chief, Friend, and Runner. The four mix and intermingle as they desperately try to find the lost boy they all love.

When you simply describe the facets of the film, it seems like it should be an incoherent mess. What makes the entire thing work is the consistency of the background characters who exist throughout the plotlines of all the different seekers.

Friend’s older sister, played by Natalia Dryer, aids Bill’s brother in his search, even as she spits in the face of Chief, helps Runner slip away from the clutches of her father, and mocks her brother.

Bill’s mother appears, desperate in Chief’s office, descending into hysteria and madness in Brothers arms, encountering Runner in the diner and offering her a moment of reprieve.

Most looming of all is the universal figure of Father, Runner’s parent who abuses her but is the only one who knows what drew the beast to this town and potentially how to stop it. This creates a fascinating dynamic between Runner, Chief, and Father as the thee engage in a game of personal cat and mouse for control over Runner’s life with the potential for Bills safe return hanging in the balance.

Spoiler alert, it is Runners misery that created the conditions for the beast to arrive, and why the feeling that it is hunting her through the fractured reality of the town persists. Friend’s fascination with Runner is what grants her freedom from Father and a path to drawing Bill out of the clutches of the beast. The breakout performance of Runner by Millie Bobby Brown is almost certain to garner some award nominations in the coming year.

While the film isn’t truly a speculative autobiography, there is no doubt that Byers’s connection to his hometown of Hawkins was a deep influence on the film. What’s notable is that this connection isn’t singular.

The credits are littered with names that originate from Hawkins. The screenplay was written by Byers himself, in collaboration with his younger brother Will Byers, who has numerous writing credits on feature films, and notable television writer Maxine Mayfield, who also hails from Hawkins and is one of Will Byers’s longtime friends (youthful pictures of the two of them litter both their instagrams).

The score of the movie is another area touched by the Indiana connection, as the haunting compositions were written by incredibly talented musician Robin Buckley. The connection between Byers and herself is less well known, however they attended the same high school and are close friends now. While their youthful connection isn’t really surprising—she has done the scores for all his directorial work to date—it is worth mentioning when one takes note of all those who shared a Hawkins influence and worked on this film.

Most notably of all there is a dedication before the credits roll that simply reads, “For Joyce, Jane, Lucas, Dustin, Mike, Nancy and Steve, as well as all the people who couldn’t outrun the monsters.” Most of those names are findable with a little Instagram and Wikipedia stalking. They are the childhood friends and family of the Byers brothers who didn’t work on the film.

When I ask Byers about why he included the dedication he simply says, “I made this movie because of what we all went through, and I needed them to get thanked in a way they could see online because I’m downright certain that most of them are never, ever going to watch this movie. They already lived it, no need to see it again. This was my therapy project not theirs, but I still wanted them to know that they are why I could make this movie. I’m never going to be able to let go of the horror of that town, but I can move beyond it because of their love and support.”

Byers pauses for a long moment and looks pensively out of the coffee shop window. The bright light of the sunshine and neon coffee cup sign make him look far younger than the fifty years he actually is, but there’s a weight to his gaze that speaks to an experienced life.

“I think I’m always going to be interested in capturing a moment, but it’s been fun to get to recreate some of the things that scared me and make them beautiful and meaningful for the first time. Hopefully for other people too, not just myself.”

He turns back toward me and grins. He looks downright mischievous.

“Maybe I’ll do a romcom next. I’ve always really wanted to do something funny. What do you think?”

Jonathan Byers is a master of the camera, notable for his documentaries about important subjects, his photography of storied events, and his complete command over monsters. If this most recent film is anything to go off of, I think he can do anything, and we are all going to be lucky enough to watch.

And I tell him so.