During my coverage at the 47th Seattle International Film Festival, I had the chance to watch the fantastically funny, charmingly absurd Wyrm – an unconventional coming-of-age story encapsulating the social anxieties around sexuality in high school. I was lucky enough to have a chat with Christopher Winterbauer, the director and writer of Wyrm to discuss his world-building efforts, retrofuturism in independent film, and the most important lesson in life.
This trend of retrofuturism has been popping up in independent film recently, so why did you choose to set Wyrm in the 1990s with this aesthetic?
I grew up in the 1990s, which is part of it – but when you don’t have a lot of money, and you want to do something sci-fi, retrofuturism is a great way to do because the audience will buy into the world easier. It can be a real challenge to pull off sleek sci-fi on no budget, especially since sometimes what you create feels instantly anachronistic, so we embraced the dated quality and made an alternative 1990s instead.
I would tell the crew, “Don’t think of it as the ‘90s, think of it as its own time.” I also just really like the lo-fi aesthetic, and retrofuturism as a concept – Blade Runner and Star Wars both do it really well, and I’m a huge fan of the world-building in those.
What I really liked about Wyrm’s lo-fi aesthetic is your use of neon as a reflection of the ‘90s, because it feels like the ‘90s without screaming “It’s the ‘90s!” I noticed that you also seem to use colour to signify emotional resonance in certain scenes, especially blue since it’s Wyrm’s favourite colour – was that intentional?
Oh yeah, absolutely. The neon aesthetic really came from the Vaporwave aesthetic of the early-2000s, with that nostalgia for early Macintoshes and the score is also influenced by vaporwave too. We went blue at his most emotionally charged moments, like Sam and Izzy on the couch, or his moment with Flora and his mom. It’s often during the most honest moments that we use blue, and we tried to create a visual consistency within those moments through the colour scheme. Honestly, we used blue not just because it’s his favourite colour but also I just love the way it looks.
Speaking of Wyrm’s arc, there’s an unconventional structure in the script – halfway through, you resolve your central conflict but there’s still a strong sense of unresolved internal conflicts within Wyrm, which you go on to explore. Why did you choose to complexify the script and Wyrm in this way?
Well, Wyrm began as a short film back in 2017, and one of its producers Helen Estabrook asked if there was a feature, and I kind of lied and said, “oh yeah, just give me a week to look for any typos”, and I wrote the first draft very quickly. Even in that first draft, I realised the kiss tension only takes you so far. I realised I was more interested in the growth that Wyrm has to undertake after that kiss, and understanding that what happened didn’t change his life, and that he actually has to confront the real issues in his life now he’s got the collar off.
So I made Wyrm very selfish in the first half, but in the second he begins to understand the people around him in a significant way once that collar’s gone. That’s why I loved writing it, because it’s a deepening of these relationships that we return to – getting your protagonist’s external goal out of the way by the first half is a little unconventional, but I really wanted to solidify the connections that Wyrm has to Uncle Chet, Myrcella, Flora, his mom. It’s a bit of an unconventional structure, and that’s had some divided opinion.
Some really liked it, some said it feels like two different films, but at the end of the day, that was what I always wanted to do.
I’m personally a big fan of the unconventional structure, especially in the coming-of-age genre. It’s not even a coming-of-age film, really, I see it more as a coming-of-understanding, where your protagonist learns everyone’s got their own issues and problems and there’s no one fix-all solution, which really resonated with me.
I think a lot of people growing up feel like there is that fix-all solution because of typical coming-of-age films, whereas Wyrm is telling you “even at age 30, people are still figuring everything out, this is just how life is.”
Exactly, I remember feeling like “oh if this just happens, I’ll be good”, and of course, it’s never the case with anything in life. We wanted to give each of the characters their own moment, to flesh them out properly not only in relation to Wyrm but themselves too, so like how Wyrm understands his family deeper from his mom and his sister, and recognises his selfishness from Lindsay and Flora. They’re actually some of my favourite moments in the film, especially that moment with Tommy Dewey where he’s asking Wyrm’s opinion on Flora, and you can see he’s still got that insecurity.
They’re not as conventional as a typical coming-of-age film, but that’s what I like about them. They serve as teachable moments, but not huge life lessons – just learning that the people around you don’t just exist to serve your narrative, they have their own too.
Wyrm’s embracement of unconventionality is a great reflection of adolescence though, because it’s taking the essence of life which is “no one really knows what they’re doing”, and placing just being there and being able to talk it through as the best thing you can do.
I wanted to know about Wyrm’s world-building, because it’s got some hilarious icons in it, like the bluntly named ‘Big Shop’ supermarket; there’s also this absurdist hyper-focus on blossoming teenage sexuality that is a touch dystopian, so how did you go about creating Wyrm’s world?
It all started with the collars. I love comedy, because I think it’s sometimes the best way to tackle more serious topics – I was actually a bit of a late bloomer, and having not had my first kiss, feeling so far behind everyone. It felt like I had something people could see on me, to distinguish me from everyone else based on my sexual inexperience – so I thought it would be so funny if kids had to wear these stupid collars that would identify them, and then the IBM retrofuturism came into it too.
We created our own subjective reality as seen through the eyes of the kids in Wyrm, and myself when I was a kid; there was only one city, so we’ll call it City Secondary School, or there was only one big shop, so let’s call it Big Shop.
When we did the feature, and we got to keep building the world, I thought about how everything is way more literal when you’re a kid. We started making everything literal as a reflection of that teenage literalism – so Big Shop is my Target, and the Sex Ed program is so sex-positive it almost swings back round to being a bad thing. There’s actually a sign in the hot tub scene that didn’t fully make it into the final cut that says, ‘adult swim’, and has a guy with his trunks off – because when I was younger, I thought Adult Swim meant something sexual because of adult bookstores, adult shops, so I was like “do adults go and they swim naked?”
I never wanted Wyrm to be just about the collars, hence the unconventional structure – we’ve had some people say that we wasted an opportunity to dive deeper into that specific society; to those people I’d say, “well we didn’t have any money to do that movie!” [Laughs.] I think The Lobster is a great example of a film that does incredibly detailed world-building excellently, because that film takes a metaphor and keeps it moving, whereas in Wyrm we leave the metaphor behind to explore a more emotional dimension.
Funnily enough, I could see a Lanthimosian sensibility in Wyrm, because you’ve got that blunt sardonic wit but there’s an endearing quality to it that distinguishes it – it’s a clever blending of sardonic adult wit with an ironically honest teenage sentiment. It’s so delightfully absurd yet compassionate at the same time.
I mean I love Yorgos Lanthimos, I think The Lobster is incredible. I always wanted to make sure I was finding my own voice and style with Wyrm, so I do love that Lanthimos blunt delivery style but I put a little heart-felt earnestness behind it. For me, the bluntness comes from how kids just are – I remember some of the absurdly blunt things we would say to another growing up, so it was taking that and heightening it.
Izzy’s a great example, because we thought she should talk like she really thinks she’s 45 – 50 years old, like an aging starlet in Hollywood which became the model for her character. A lot of the humor in the dialogue comes from their attempt at portraying themselves as adults, and not from them saying jokes. You see a lot of teenage characters delivering lines that were written by a 30-year-old man trying to be quippy and funny, but that’s not who you are at that. You’re not quippy and funny, you say dumb things all the time, and you’re awkward.
I think that blunt absurdism enables you to wear your heart on your sleeve a little too. When Wyrm and Myrcella connect over their discussion of a sexual thing together, it’s strangely heartfelt because they’re talking about it in a way that reflects these two characters bonding. So although you’ve got that absurdity from the content of the conversation, it’s their honesty that retains that earnest, compassionate tone – they’re just being themselves.
I wanted to ask you what you’re working on next?
I’m shooting a film in Atlanta soon, it’s called ‘Moonshot’, a sci-fi romcom with Lana Condor as the lead. We’re in hard prep now, and I’m leaving on Sunday to begin shooting that, and I’m bringing some fun retrofuturistic elements to that too, especially with A.I. I’m slightly terrified but very excited to start working on that.
I’m also writing this horror-comedy with Filmnation – I love horror. Horror and comedy are the two things I want to work in. I think when you want to work in film and you’re not Damien Chazelle or David Fincher, you just have to be constantly developing things of all different scales.
So there’s this bigger-budget sci-fi with Lana which feels amazing to work on, and then there’s the smaller Filmnation project, and then I’ve got some weird stuff that’s cooking up very separate from that. I’ve got a very weird short film about a man who starts having sex with a plant in his backyard, which is very weird. That’ll probably never get made, I don’t think my wife would let me. [Laughs.]
Wyrm screened at this year’s 47th Seattle International Film Festival and is currently awaiting distribution.