By Clark Collis
March 25, 2013 at 07:39 PM EDT

In the new horror movie Come Out and Play a holidaying couple, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Lola Versus) and Vinessa Shaw (2006’s The Hills Have Eyes), visit an island off the coast of Mexico where they discover the local children have murdered the adults. But the most bizarre aspect of the film, which began its platform release on March 22 and is currently available on VOD, is the identity of its director, who goes by the mono-moniker of “Makinov” and refuses to reveal his face or real name.

Come out and Play debuted last September at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. The “Director biography” on the official TIFF website stated that Makinov was born in Belarus and began his career in Russia as a focus puller, the member of the camera team responsible for ensuring the shots are in focus. He later traveled to Mexico to study and shoot two documentary films on shamanism. After a near-death experience he adopted a new identity and began to refer to himself only as Makinov, believing that “by punishing the ego through anonymity, he can command the wisdom of being one with another.” The biography was accompanied by a photograph of Makinov in which his features were obscured by a mask and goggles. Meanwhile, the relevant TIFF “Programmer’s Note” compared Makinov to the similarly anonymous techno duo Daft Punk and claimed the filmmaker “wears a mask while working with his cast and crew, in an effort to enforce his personal vision of a cinema that detaches itself from the ego-driven model of the director.”

There was more. Prior to the actual TIFF screening of Come Out and Play, the festival audience was shown a short, subtitled film which was also uploaded to YouTube with the title Makinov Manifesto. In the clip a figure wearing a crude red hood smashed a cell phone and then proceeded to declaim in Russian. “I want to talk about my ideas,” the figure, who was standing in a wooded area, began. “For a time now I have been torn and disgusted of seeing stupid modern life. We grow confused at what really matters. That’s why I am devoted to make this horror stories [sic]. To remind us who we are without a cell phone. We must remember we are made of blood. An old proverb says that it is better to murder during time of plague. I would say the same when we talk about cinema. People watching stupid heroes saving the world, when the world is surrounded by pain. What a joke. Cinema should teach us about pain. That’s why I make these precious sad stories. To remind us that life is limited and that we are gonna die. I believe in the mystery of the spirit. That’s why I want to scream at the stupid person that keeps checking photos in facebook when you can go to the woods and get yourself a good f—. I wear my mask because through anonymity I can be all I want. As a beloved writer says, I believe in my mask, the man I made up is me. I believe in my dance, and my destiny. Cheers.”

Makinov produced another video clip to coincide with the screening of Come Out and Play at last November’s AFI Fest in Los Angeles and has been intermittently active on Twitter, posting under the name @onegodmakinov. “If a fella wants to buy my film. What do they want to buy,” he tweeted on September 13, the same day as the film debuted at TIFF. “The reels? The pain? The people inside?” More recently, Makinov has conducted a series of email interviews with websites. Responding to questions EW sent to the director via the publicist for Come Out and Play —  including one about his habit of wearing a mask — Makinov explained that “Anonymity is the only way you can be free in this era. There is no private life anymore, only behind the mask you can protect yourself. I’ve done it for so long that now the mask is the only image I associate with me making films.”

So is Makinov a real person? Or is he a fictional character created as a prank-cum-publicity stunt? And if Makinov didn’t direct Come Out and Play then who did? One possible candidate is Eli Roth, the director of Hostel and a huge fan of the 1976 film Who Can Kill a Child? which was based on the same novel as Come Out and Play. In a 2009 video Roth made for rottentomatoes.com the filmmaker included Who Can Kill a Child? in a list of his five favorite films most cinemagoers haven’t seen. Roth also revealed that he had screened the film for Quentin Tarantino and Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright. “It’s this incredible, incredible killer kid movie,” he enthused. [Rec] codirector Paco Plaza is another horror auteur with a passion for Who Can Kill a Child? “It’s an amazing and extremely powerful horror film,” he told this writer last year. “It’s like The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock, but you change the birds for children. I strongly recommend it.” Another suspect is Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo whose involvement with Come Out and Play is, according to one Internet commenter, “a well-known secret in Mexico.” Finally, is it possible Come Out and Play was really directed by either Diego Luna or Gael Garcia Bernal? The stars of 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien actors served as executive producers on Come Out and Play, which was produced through their Canana Films company, and both have directing experience.

Speaking over the phone, Luna is adamant that Come Out and Play is neither his work nor that of Bernal nor Naranjo, whose 2011 drug-trafficking drama Miss Bala was also produced by Canana. “It doesn’t really surprise me that there are all these theories because it’s really weird,” says Luna. “But I didn’t direct the film, neither Gael, neither Gerardo. I have to tell you that you’re wrong. I wouldn’t even know how to start to tell a horror story.”

Luna insists Makinov is very much a real person who very much made Come Out and Play. “You don’t believe this person exists?” laughs Luna. “I can tell you that there is a very clear point of view behind this film and it definitely belongs to Makinov. He’s definitely a director. The actors had a director there. And the producers, we had to pay a director. Yeah, he definitely exists.” Needless to say, Makinov himself is insistent that he is a real person and not a pseudonymous construct put together by Luna, Bernal, and/or Naranjo. “I can tell you that behind the mask only Makinov exists,” he writes “but perhaps they should wear masks to keep the wolves away.”

Next:  “When he arrived he was detained at the airport for wearing his mask.”

Luna’s claims about Makinov are  backed up by Come Out and Play lead actor Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who says the director wore an array of masks during the movie’s shoot on Holbox, an island off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. “I think he’d gone to a flea market and bought a lot of masks,” claims the actor, who says he has never seen the director’s face. “He would wear everything from like a burlap bag to animal masks. He even had a Betty Boop mask.” It isn’t usually wise to inform an interviewee that you think he may be lying, for obvious reasons. But when EW does just to Moss-Bachrach he takes it in his stride. “I don’t blame you,” says the actor. “People have asked me ‘Is it Gael?’ It’s definitely not either of those Canana guys. This was was a very big [guy]. He spoke Russian, with a translator.”

Moss-Bachrach makes for a highly convincing witness. Certainly, if this is all a hoax then a lot of people have gone to a lot of effort to create the mirage of Makinov — more effort, really, than one would think reasonable to promote a low budget horror movie. But, if Makinov is real, then how exactly did a mask-wearing, manifesto-spouting, ex-focus puller from Belarus wind up writing and directing a Mexic0-shot, English language horror film exec produced by the stars of Y Tu Mama Tambien? Canana Films cofounder Pablo Cruz explains that he first encountered the mysterious Makinov at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. “I was showing a film there and we ended up together in a late night bar,” says Cruz, who declines to comment on whether he has ever seen the director’s face. “We spoke for hours about his adventures in Mexico and the legacy [of] Sergei Eisenstein on modern TV drama, so we agreed to look closer at a project we could do together.” According to Cruz, that was the last time he would see Makinov for a couple of years, although the director did send the Canana producer letters from “some mountain in far Northern Russia” and, eventually, a proposal to direct Come Out and Play, a production which Canana had first announced back in 2007. “The project was in prep without a director,” says Cruz. “We decided to give him the opportunity.”

So began what seems to have been one of cinema history’s more unusual movie productions. “We had a strange encounter when he arrived as he was detained at the airport for wearing his mask,” says Cruz. “We had to move all our contacts to let him pass.”

The New York-based Ebon Moss-Bachrach was less than enthusiastic about Come Out and Play when he was first approached by Cruz. “He sent me the script and a DVD of the original movie,” says the actor. “I read the script. I was mildly disgusted by it. I watched the movie. I thought it was a mess.” But? “The sweet-tongued Pablo Cruz convinced me to come to Mexico to meet with the director.”

So it was that, in the late fall of 2011, Moss-Bachrach found himself traveling to Holboz and being greeted on the pier by his possible new director, who just happened to be wearing a Dios de la Muertas skeleton mask. The actor says that he had been warned the filmmaker never showed his face but, adds with a laugh, “you don’t really believe it until you’re there and the guy is really wearing a mask.” This unusual state-of-affairs didn’t deter Moss-Bachrach from proceeding further — quite the opposite. “He was telling me about his frustrations with cinema and with art and all of these were similar to my own frustrations,” says the actor. “I was tickled and intrigued. The key factor in me doing the film comes back to this bizarre figure, this strange outlier, this Makinov. I was intrigued by this man who seemed to be actively, in ever cell of his body, to be living this full and artistic life. “

Moss-Bachrach signed up to star in the film and a couple of weeks later returned to Holboz for the shoot. “He didn’t have much to do with the actors,” says the actor of Makinov.  “I think it’s like the John Huston kind of school — you hire who you want to hire and after that there’s not much you can do. To be honest with you, it’s not like I was going up after a take and asking for his comments. If he had nothing to say to me, I was perfectly fine with that.”

Makinov himself says that his communications with the cast were defined by an at times literal absence. In response to the emailed question “Was it difficult to direct a film while wearing a mask?” the Belarussian responds thusly: “Some of my methods included being completely absent. There wasn’t anybody on the set to put order to tell people what to do, except for one radio. I was watching them all the time, but they couldn’t see me. They just waited for the radio to speak, like some kind of modern deity or oracle they consulted to make the film.”

Moss-Bachrach says the masked director did appear on set to periodically operate the camera: “He drove the focus puller crazy because he couldn’t see through these little [holes].” The actor explains that Makinov wore a mask even when he and and the director went on a recreational octopus-fishing excursion. “I think he was deeply hampered by his mask,” says the actor. “You don’t fish them from the boat, you go in the water on the rocks. You have a stick and they kind of crawl up on the stick and then you go down with the bag and get them off the stick. It’s an involved thing. He had a hard time seeing. Me not wearing a mask — and in fact wearing nice, polarized sunglasses — I think I was invaluable to him as an aid in catching this octopus.”

Come Out and Play has received notable positive reviews (The Los Angeles Times critic assessed the film as possessing “enough gruesome images, icky concepts and ‘don’t-go-there’ moments” to carry the day for horror fans) and Luna indicates we’ll probably be hearing more from Makinov, even if he himself will not be rushing to work with him again. “He’s a little bit Jekyll and Hyde, you know,” says the Y Tu Mama Tambien star. “He has these weird personalities and it depends on what mood he’s in, the one you get to see. I guess for  a horror film that is amazing. But then do you want to have lunch? Not so good, you know.”

“I plan to continue in the woods, where I feel comfortable” says Makinov himself, via email, about his future plans, “and make films about my animals.”

You can see the trailer for Come Out and Play below.

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