First time writer / director Bryan Bertino has long been interested in complex characters and telling their stories; he found his way into the suspense genre as a way of better connecting with his audience. Bertino admits, "Early on when I started writing, I figured out that a way to connect with people was to scare them. Through doing that, you can talk about other emotions, other feelings and connect with them more easily."
For his first screenplay, originally titled The Faces (ultimately The Strangers), he explored the fact that often violence can be senseless. The filmmaker says, "Crimes are committed all the time that nobody has a chance to explain to the victim why it happened. It just happens. And we"re left to deal with the aftermath." Bertino would take that concept and craft a script that focused on a primal fear we all harbor: What would you do if you were under attack by people whose only mission was to harm you and the person you loved most"
On his inspiration, Bertino reflects: "Something gets missed in a lot of scary movies these days. I set out to write a raw, spare script that would have only a few characters in it"one with a couple in a relationship, rather than just two people suddenly brought together. I didn"t want to lose sight of the characters and go right to the scares. By concentrating on both, I hoped to access a lot of different emotions"on screen and with audiences."
In crafting his screenplay, he looked to the world imagined by master horror filmmakers from another era. He continues, "The thrillers that inspired me come from the 1970s. So I wanted to create one that explores something that could happen with characters at their most vulnerable, like movies did back then."
The story for The Strangers unfolds over a period of several hours, beginning the night before the terrifying events. We meet a couple at the wedding of the young woman"s college friend. Exhausted and inebriated, Kristen and James leave the reception and return to the vacation home they are visiting. Shortly thereafter, they are visited and subsequently attacked by three masked intruders.
As with most great scares, pieces of the writer/director"s script were based in reality. Bertino remembers, "That part of the story came to me from a childhood memory. As a kid, I lived in a house on a street in the middle of nowhere. One night, while our parents were out, somebody knocked on the front door and my little sister answered it. At the door were some people asking for somebody that didn"t live there. We later found out that these people were knocking on doors in the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses. In The Strangers, the fact that someone is at home does not deter the people who"ve knocked on the front door; it"s the reverse."
In fall 2004, the screenplay landed Bertino manager Michael Connolly, who was excited by the script and felt it would be a very feasible sell. Connolly then coordinated a meeting with production company Vertigo Entertainment. When executive producer Sonny Mallhi and his longtime colleagues at Vertigo, producers Roy Lee and Doug Davison, read Bertino"s script, they felt as if they had found something distinctive that would stand out in the current movie climate. Mallhi notes, "It was different from other horror movies, and different from the other movies we had done at Vertigo. This one felt more real, in that it could actually happen to you, in your own backyard."
Mallhi was not only fascinated by the haunting quality of Bertino"s words, but the heartbreaking end of a romance that was The Strangers" throughline. "There was also a love story involved," Mallhi remembers. "The relationship between Kristen and James, two people you care about, is an element that you don"t see in a lot of these kinds of movies."
Vertigo bought the script, and the elated Bertino quit his job. "I was now confident enough that I didn"t have to work as a grip anymore," he laughs. While Bertino further tightened the screenplay, Vertigo joined forces with another production company, Mandate Pictures, with which it had previously successfully partnered on The Grudge and The Grudge 2. The Strangers was soon headquartered for development and production at Rogue Pictures, where Vertigo was already working on other projects.
Logically, the producers interviewed several interested directors, most of whom wanted to alter the script to their sensibilities. Ultimately, it was Bertino who broke out of the pack of potential directors. The production team realized that the man whose original vision was The Strangers was the same person who could best direct the screenplay.
Bertino recalls: "We felt I could bring it to life better than anyone else and retain my original inspirations and intentions for the script." That process wouldn"t, however, be as simple as a new director might have expected. The filmmaker states, "Although, as the director, I did sometimes argue with myself as the writer; it was always clear where the story was meant to go and what the balances among the characters were."
With a working script in hand and an eager first-time director ready to get started, it was time to cast two actors who could spend hours upon hours being chased in the dead of night"and several others who were eager to stalk them.