The Kid Detective Director Evan Morgan knows how to make a great mystery movie

Morgan’s latest is a darkly funny detective film with an ending you’ll never see coming

Sophie Nélisse (left), Evan Morgan (middle) and Adam Brody (right). 
Supplied by Evan Morgan

Far before I started preparing for my interview with Evan Morgan, director of The Kid Detective, I knew exactly what I wanted my first question to be: How did you pull it off?

The writing of mystery movies is a craft wholly unknowable to me, a task requiring keen precision and unrelenting focus. Both of these traits are apparent in writer-director Morgan when he discusses the process of making his sophomore film, The Kid Detective.

The film, which premiered virtually at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September and recently competed screenings in the Kingston Canadian Film Festival this past month, follows a washed up, alcoholic detective (Adam Brody) as he tries to solve a murder in his small town.

Morgan said mystery movies, as is the case with The Kid Detective, are often written backwards, a process he said is “kind of odd because it’s not as organic as coming up with the idea of the failed kid detective and riffing on that.”

Once the town’s adored little private eye, Brody’s Abe Applebaum is a sour and depressed adult when he’s enlisted by Caroline (Sophie Nélisse) to find out who murdered her boyfriend.

“The whole conception of what he was going to solve was very different from the process of writing the rest of the script, and really trying to think of the most satisfying reveal you can imagine and working from there,” Morgan said.

“That prescribes a lot of your story to you, because it implies characters that need to exist, it implies situations that had to exist, relationships between characters that have to exist.”

Although laden with a dark, humorous sensibility, the movie is a high wire balancing act as it simultaneously deals with the more severe themes of murder, trauma, addiction, and sexual violence.  The ending, which I won’t spoil here, swerves the film into a deeply emotional and upsetting place, though it doesn’t feel unearned.

“He’s got to confront something so dark that it liberates him from his selfishness in a way. He spent all these years pitying himself when underlying that was this much deeper sense of guilt and obligation, which was unfortunate for him to ever assume as a child.”

It’s a testament to Morgan’s understanding of the material and his execution of his vision that he’s able to accomplish so much—tie up loose ends, deliver a satisfying ending, and plant a shocking plot twist—without compromising the story.

“So much of the plot was driven by humour, that we had to be careful not to let it get too large that it diminished the more human stakes of the story, that we were sacrificing the reality of the character and the reality and authenticity of this place,” Morgan said.

The tone of the movie is something Morgan worked tirelessly to perfect. During the final two months before its TIFF premiere, Morgan continued tweaking the cut of the film, making small edits along the way that made a considerable difference on the final effect of the film. Timing, in both comedy and drama, is key to making the film work as a whole, so when the two are combined, meticulous editing choices are perhaps doubly important.

“I wasn’t expecting how significant some of those decisions would feel and be,” Morgan said.

Two days before they had to submit the final cut, Morgan realized the final musical cue was too uplifting and detracted from the emotional resonance of the ending. At midnight that evening, his friend Jay McCarrol, who worked as the film’s composer, began working on a new piece that would better serve the film’s most cathartic moment.

A theme that reoccurred in my conversation with Morgan was the amount of care he administered in respectfully paying homage to the noir genre while also building something new.

In Morgan’s discussions with McCarrol about the score, they opted for an upbeat jazz ensemble that juxtaposes the story’s often darker edges. “It was a question of what was going to connect this movie to older detective films and really allow it to embrace the atmosphere of that genre and not feel like a spoof, not feel like a parody,” Morgan said.

The success of mysteries like The Kid Detective relies solely on how well they stick the landing. Morgan’s last-minute decision to change a musical cue ultimately shapes the entire film because otherwise it would’ve crumbled under its own weight by trying to do too much without fully understanding the emotional ramifications of the final act.

Morgan is a perfect example of the filmmaker as a detective. His scrupulous attention to detail ultimately cracks the case, crafting a film that deftly navigates the depths of despair while also garnering laughs from its audience.

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