"I didn't want to have the cliché slasher film with the innocent one, the beautiful one, the evil one," Dutch actress-turned-director Halina Reijn muses of casting Bodies Bodies Bodies, her blackly comedic and deeply self-aware horror riff that is like Heathers meets Clue, or Mean Girls meets Lord of the Flies, or Scream through a TikTok filter.
Bodies Bodies Bodies centers around a group of girlfriends — more out of a shared history than any desire to actually still be friends — who gather at a remote mansion for a "hurricane party." As the storm picks up outside, the group, intoxicated off of shots and other snorted substances, decide to play the eponymous party game, otherwise known as Mafia or Werewolf, in which someone is designated the "killer" and must "murder" the other players before he or she is sussed out.
But when one of the friends turns up with their throat slit, the stakes become too real, and the attendees quickly turn on one another — accusing each other of being toxic, of gaslighting, of not supporting their new podcast. Oh, and murder.
Casting the movie required a deft hand, since each actor needed to meet the needs of their own character — all of whom suffer from main character syndrome — and also fit just so in the greater ensemble. Reijn began building around the character Sophie, who arrives at the gathering unannounced and recently sober, much to the consternation of her estranged besties. While developing the script, the filmmaker and the playwright Sarah DeLappe pictured Amandla Stenberg in the role.
"Sarah and I both come from the theater, and there's a play by Chekhov called Platonov. It's about a man [Mikhail Platonov] and all the women in the play are in love with him," Reijn tells A.frame. "He's super charismatic but he's also addicted to alcohol. Every time he's onstage, another woman enters and they all think they're in love with him. We created Sophie in his image, like a female version of Platonov."
"Amandla in real life is the kindest, sweetest girl. She would never be a manipulator like Sophie is. But she's funny, she's fast, she's intellectual. Like, she's super smart," adds the director. As an actress herself, Reijn wanted to give Stenberg (known for her virtuous characters in The Hate U Give and Dear Evan Hansen) the opportunity to play against type. "I like to not be asked to do the same thing over and over again, so I thought it would be fun for her to be a little darker in this," she says.
Stenberg was the first actor attached to the project, and also served as an executive producer and de facto Gen Z consultant. The other casting choice Reijn and DeLappe began discussing early on was Pete Davidson as David, whose parents own the McMansion. The character is goofy, deadpan, and, well, very Pete Davidson-y. ("I just look like I f***, you know what I mean?" David says at one point. "That's the vibe I like to put out there.")
"Pete Davidson definitely was in my mind from the moment we started to create that character," Reijn confirms.
Perhaps the most difficult role to cast was Bee, the new girlfriend that Sophie drags along for the weekend. Or as Reijn refers to her, "The Alice in Wonderland that we enter the seductive, narcissistic friend group with. But she's not just a goody two shoes. She also has her darkness in her."
Then the filmmaker happened to see Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, with its breakout performance from Bulgarian-born actress Maria Bakalova. (Bakalova earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for it.) "I saw Borat and I was like, 'Who is this force of nature?!' And then I found out that she was classically trained, like me, and came from the theater. I just had to have her, so I really chased her," she recalls. "She has the quality to be funny, but also be very dark and like a beast. And she's so beautiful and like a little girl, and then suddenly she turns into this animal. I felt I needed that."
"That kind of acting which is beyond any form of vanity. There's no vanity — it's just animalistic. They're beasts."
To cast the remaining roles, Reijn worked with the illustrious casting director Laura Rosenthal (who is behind Carol, The Kids Are All Right and countless other Oscar pictures) to search the Zoomer generation for fresh talent. Myha'la Herrold was asked to audition for Type-A Jordan after Reijn saw her work on HBO's Industry; Rachel Sennott (Shiva Baby) auditioned for hedonistic podcast host Alice; and Chase Sui Wonders put herself on tape for tortured actress Emma. "I was just blown away," Reijn says. "I really thought, 'What a talent!'"
The cherry on top comes in the form of Lee Pace's Greg, Alice's hunky Tinder date. Pace's performance here might just satiate social media's unquenchable thirst for the actor, although Reijn could never have foreseen that when she cast him. "I was aware of who he was and I was very much in admiration of him," she says. "But every day, I discover people are, like, obsessed with him. People just go crazy. I can imagine why. Because he's a very attractive man and he's also a great actor, but he's also an incredibly kind man."
Bodies Bodies Bodies was filmed in an actual mansion 30 miles north of New York City, with the cast and crew living together within a COVID-era production bubble. "We were literally imprisoned in the house and the motel that was very close to set," Reijn says. "There was no escape." She asked her cast to watch 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in preparation for the shoot.
"That kind of acting which is beyond any form of vanity — there's no vanity in Elizabeth Taylor's [performance] — it's just animalistic. They're beasts," Reijn says. (Taylor won the Oscar for Best Actress for the film.) "To me, that is also a horror film — a psychological horror film. I wanted to inspire them in that way."
Having started her career as a theater actor in plays by the likes of Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen, Reijn (who made her feature directorial debut with 2019's prison drama, Instinct) ran her set like a play, with her actors becoming more like a theater troupe than numbers on a call sheet.
"I do demand everybody learn their lines. I have a classical background. If I work with Ivo [van Hove], I stand exactly where he left me the day before, in my costume with my prop, and I do like to have that kind of discipline," she explains. "But on the other hand, there's freedom. I'm not the dictator here. Everybody can tell me their ideas. Everybody can improvise when they want. I think that gives the authentic quality that we try to create in the film, and it's fun. Because you go there with each other, instead of, like, staying in a sort of fear or shame area. We're doing this together."
"[There's] no ego. It's not about just your character and your f***ing acting skills," Reijn says. "It's about the story. It's about the film. It's about the tone. Of course, there's psychology, but not to the level of, like, 'What is my backstory?' No. It's way more important. What are we doing together as a group? I almost sometimes see it as dance, you know?" In this case, she doesn't mean the viral dance challenge sort, but something more interpretive. "Together, we're expressing something."
By John Boone