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Director Brian Duffield Reveals The Surprising Inspiration Behind Spontaneous - Exclusive

The new film Spontaneous has a little bit of everything rolled up into its storyline. It's a coming-of-age tale. It's a love story. It's a sociopolitical commentary. And it's all centered around one thing: exploding teenagers.

Yes, that's right. Spontaneous follows high school senior Mara Carlyle, played by 13 Reasons Why breakout Katherine Langford, as she navigates through the trials and tribulations of being a teenager as her classmates spontaneously combust around her.

Available today, October 6, on video-on-demand platforms and on digital, Spontaneous is the directorial debut of Brian Duffield, who's best known as the screenwriter of films like The Divergent Series: Insurgent, The Babysitter, and Underwater. Duffield doesn't deny that features such as David Cronenberg's Scanners and the 1989 cult-hit film Heathers influenced Spontaneous, which is based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Aaron Starmer, but beyond that, where he found inspiration for the black comedy about randomly detonating teenagers will come as a surprise.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Duffield talked about the movie he doesn't want Spontaneous compared to, and where he drew unusual inspiration from to find the right tonal balance for the film.

Spontaneous was influenced by several movies, but don't compare it to this one

According to Duffield, Spontaneous is an amalgam of influences. Beyond the obvious association to Heathers, which delved into teen death, there are hints of Cronenberg's body horror flicks and John Hughes' coming-of-age romances. There are notes of filmmaker Gus Van Sant's exploration into marginalized subcultures as well — just don't compare Spontaneous to Van Sant's 2003 film Elephant, which chronicles the events surrounding a school shooting.

"We talked about Gus a lot [during filming], actually," Duffield told Looper. "Because there's the To Die For Gus and his film My Own Private Idaho, which is one of my favorite movies, and then there's our worst nightmare — that Spontaneous would be like Elephant, where it's so upsetting and dark. I mean, Elephant is an amazing movie, but I feel like when we say, 'Oh, it's a movie about kids exploding in high school,' a lot of people go to [the premise of] Elephant. And we're like, 'No, we want to go for To Die For Gus, a little bit more than the Elephant Gus.' But he's so great."

And when it comes to comparisons with Heathers, Duffield said, "I love Heathers, but it treats death a little sillier. And I don't mean that in a negative way. It's incredible what they do in that movie. But I really wanted the characters that die in Spontaneous ... you see their parents are upset. People are upset."

Brian Duffield drew inspiration from music and animals to bring light-hearted humanity to Spontaneous

When pressed to pick two things that really influenced Spontaneous, Duffield went in an unusual direction — choosing an indie musician and his dog.

"Sufjan Stevens' album Carrie & Lowell was really huge for me, because he wrote it about his parents, and death is part of it, but it's also really funny, and just gorgeous," the director said. "I listened to it on loop, basically, and the movie ends with a song from it. So that was really a big touchstone, because it's a movie about grief but it's not supposed to be depressing, which was an interesting tonal challenge. Like, how could we have a movie where people are dying and we're taking it seriously but keeping it on a lighter tone?"

When it comes to looking to his dog as a source of inspiration, Duffield admitted that "it's a weird one." But one Spontaneous scene in particular is taken straight from the pup's point of view: when Mara slides under her bed to be alone because she can't deal with the grim reality unfolding around her.

"I see my dog a lot in the movie," said Duffield. "I have a little Jack Russell mixed mutt, and whenever she's tired or scared, she'll go under the bed. And in my nerdy dog-owner life, I learned that's because animals do that because they want to feel secure enough that a predator can't flip them over and eat their belly. So that made its way into the movie."

He added, "There are other things that Mara does that are inspired by my dog, which is really bizarre. But I was like, 'When my dog is scared, she does this self-protection, cocoon kind of thing.' And visually I thought that was really interesting, and it became a chunk of Mara's experience in the movie."

Spontaneous is available for Premium Video on Demand and Digital purchase starting today, October 6.