OPENING SLAMDANCE WITH “I SELL THE DEAD” By Alicia Van Couvering
Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell The Dead, starring Dominic Monaghan and Ron Perlman, will open Slamdance this year. Taglined “Never Trust a Corpse,” it’s a vintage-inspired horror-comedy set in the 18th or 19th-century, structured as a series of drunken recollections on the life of a career grave robber (Monaghan.) The film is produced by and co-stars horror-master Larry Fessenden (Wendigo, The Last Winter, Habit) of the New York production outfit Glass Eye Pix. The team behind ISTD – McQuaid, Fessenden and Scareflix producer Peter Phok — sat down with Filmmaker on the eve of their trip to Park City to reminisce about the shoot, wax philosophical about the low-budget life, and give away the sequel.
Filmmaker: So, tell me about the inception of the film.
McQuaid: The movie came about from a short film that I made back in ’05 called The Resurrection of Francis, which Larry Fessenden also agreed to act in. I got the film finished, and was still intrigued by the world and atmosphere and characters that I had created, so I decided to elaborate the whole thing into a feature. Larry and I worked on the script for a while, and then we invited Peter Phok on to join us.
Fessenden: Yes, we actually had the whole film figured out and budgeted at a certain very low level, and were starting to prep the film. This was in 2006. Then Peter, who had been watching Lost, had this idea to take the film to Dom Monahan, just to see if Dom would be interested. When Dom showed some interest, that opened up a world of possibilities [and increased the budget], and we in fact wound up postponing the shoot for Dom to finish with Lost. So it developed from this small period film to a more ambitious project.
Phok: Well you guys had Ron Perlman on board already from The Last Winter, and I felt that going for Dom matched that caliber of actor. But I knew that in going for Dom we ran the risk of losing Ron because of scheduling. In the end we had to to split our shoot in half, which worked out because of the whole organic nature of the film. We shot 17 days with Dom, took a six month break, and then came back to shoot eight more days with Ron after he finished Hellboy 2.
Fessenden: Because the structure of the film is basically Ron and Dom talking and Dom reflecting on his past memories, of all scripts it was actually possible to do that with this one. But I think philosophically there’s something so rigid about the ways films are made because of the budget and rental processes. You always have to shoot them as quickly as possible. To be able to have this four or five month breather for Glenn to actually get into the editing and do some reflecting on his film techniques…
McQuaid: …and my life…
Fessenden: Yes, not to mention his life and his future, all of it was just a great opportunity to literally grow in one project rather than what always happens, which is that you finish a movie and immediately feel that you want to make another one.
McQuaid: At the time I resented it because I wanted to be gung-ho and get it done, but upon reflection, as Larry said, it was great to see what you got and see what you need to get back in there and do.
Filmmaker: Glenn, can you talk about your influences?
McQuaid: The name I Sell The Dead is sort of an homage to the work of Val Lewton. He made I Walk with a Zombie, and he also produced The Body Snatcher, another grave robbing kind of thriller. A lot of my influences were from watching Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the movies of Terrence Fisher and Freddie Francis, all those great British fog-drenched horror films of the ’60s and ’70s. With the writing, I was probably influenced by Irish writers like Connor Macpherson — I tried to be whimsical and lyrical with the dialogue especially, as it became this big stew of funny characters set in this atmospheric throwback world. But it’s as much if not more of a comedy than it is a horror film. I don’t think it’s going to scare anyone.
Fessenden: It’s such a thrill for me, having made horror films for a couple of decades in my style, which is quite somber and melancholy, to anticipate going to festivals with this movie knowing that it’s actually playing for laughs and will be such a good warm time for the audience.
Filmmaker: How did your background in visual effects influence the film?
McQuaid: We have a comic book motif thought the movie, which is sort of a nod to Tales from the Crypt and even other anthology movies like Creepshow. But we obviously didn’t have the budget to go out and shoot some beautiful vista, so we hired a matte painter called Ram Bat. Ram and I worked very closely and he would paint these beautiful city scapes and even clouds and moons and trees. He’d give them to me as elements, and I would go in and create an environment with them, even a fake camera move.
Filmmaker: I can’t think of that last time I saw a real matte painting.
McQuaid: Yeah, and they’re not trying to be anything more than what they are.
Fessenden: Directors come from different places and it’s always interesting to see how that influences their work. For instance, Nicholas Roeg’s stuff is very very edit-y, because he’s an editor; Glenn was very comfortable integrating [FX] elements into what became this wonderful soup, but luckily Glenn is also extremely enamored with actors. So it was not one of those clinical situations when somebody comes from an FX background and they just want to get off set and into post as fast as possible.
McQuaid: I definitely wanted to avoid the idea that we could fix things in post…
Fessenden: … exactly, we didn’t fix anything in post! (laughter)
McQuaid: One of the challenges and great thrills for me was just to be on set with actors. I come from a theatrical background, ever since I was a kid in Ireland I’ve been involved in theatre. I tried to let some things happen in the masters, just accidents — I was very intrigued by the idea that the actors could really carry the movie, and I could just watch them work from behind the camera.
Filmmaker: What’s it like to direct your producer, or for you, Larry, to be directed by someone you’re producing for?
McQuaid: Well, it’s funny, I did say to Larry quite early on, that while on set I really wanted him to concentrate on the character, which he did. We had an agreement that a lot of the production stress would land on Peter’s shoulders during production.
Fessenden: It was an interesting issue when you’re the actor you want to give the director everything, when you’re the producer you want to give them as little as possible. I loved this character, and I wanted to hold onto that and our relationship as actor/director, but occasionally there were times as a producer when one wanted to chew Glenn out. Of course, there was a lot of general affection for the project and each other, so that’s how we got through it.
McQuaid: It was a wonderful experience.
Fessenden: I was deeply conflicted about it and I have not recovered. (laughter)
Filmmaker: You made the script into a comic book, can you talk about that?
McQuaid: Well, once we got the script in good shape Larry suggested we send it to the artist Bram Revel who turned it into this great, DC-style, Tales from the Crypt-inspired comic book. It was invaluable to work with Bram and get the visual language of the movie down right before I talked to any actors or crew. I would love to do it that way again.
Phok: That comic was influential in so many ways in bringing the actors on board, as well as crew, first of all because it was such a beautiful thing to flip through. And then you just saw the world that we were going to be in, and it was so inviting — who wouldn’t want to be part of this world?
Fessenden: It was very clear that even at this humble budget we were a group of rogue artists who were absolutely game to take on this impossible challenge.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the low-budget strategy in making a period piece?
Phok: We shot in 3-perf, 35mm. We did early tests with HD, but the feeling was, if we’re gonna put all this energy and money into building these sets and costumes, let’s photograph it right. And we realized that the budget didn’t allow us to really build sets, but the movie had these scenes of such grandeur — like the opening scene called for a Town Square, for instance. So we went to the New York City Mayor’s Office and looked through all their forts, investigated each one, and found a place called Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, which became our primary set.
Fessenden: The motto became, “Everything at Wadsworth!” It really became our studio. It was built for the civil war to protect the Hudson River and of course the south never made it this far, so I don’t know if it was ever used for battle…
Phok: No it wasn’t never in active use. It was an officer’s quarters, and then it was used as a country club. When line producer Brent Kunkle and I first went there, we went under the guise of being students interested in architecture and just going on a tour, so the tour guide brought us into the depths of the place to show us every part of it. Then we brought Glenn back, and then we ended up using it for everything.
McQuaid: The people at Fort Wadsworth were lovely as well. Ranger Steve, I remember, ended up being an extra.
Fessenden: In fact, we built an ancient door that Ron was supposed to be behind, and they decided to keep it and say it was from the original architecture! Which makes you wonder about the historical tours you’re taking all over the world…
McQuaid: It’s now a feature of the tour.
Phok: The other big set was the Scratcher Bar in the East Village, which was a working bar until 4am, and then we would come in and start shooting. The art department, David Bell and Beck Underwood, did an incredible job working with that location.
Fessenden: At first, a lot of the patrons of the bar were like, what have you done? Because we built some pillars to make it look a little older and put in the old sawdust on the floor kind of vibe. After a few days though, apparently the patrons were rather taken with it, and we heard that everyone very disappointed when we restored it.
Filmmaker: I actually remember walking to work on morning at 9am and seeing all these dressed up extras like 18th century villagers, everyone drunk, coming out of the Scratcher bar…
Phok: That must have been a different production.
Filmmaker: Was there anything you remember that you couldn’t accomplish because of the budget?
Fessenden: Yes, Glenn wanted me to have a pet monkey. And I said, No, Glenn, I have to draw the line. He also wanted me to travel around in a balloon, which we also couldn’t afford…
McQuaid: You’re giving away the sequel! (laughter) Actually it was going to be a chimpanzee, named Professor Tibbles. And Professor Tibbles would come along with [Fessenden], and would also have been a grave robber. But everybody told me to go fuck myself in one way or another.
Fessenden: But Glenn you have to admit that it’s a tribute to how much we tried for you that we actually had Professor Tibbles on the table for a couple of weeks.
McQuaid: No it was really gutsy low-budget filmmaking. Of course we knew we were making a low budget movie, but everyone was committed to letting my imagination to roam free in that.
Fessenden: Of course, I’ve made my name on [low budgets], I really believe in it. But I do believe you need to catch people when they’re still young and innocent. When you’re a film company, however modest we are, it’s a little tough to go back to the well every time and ask the same wonderful people for favors and time for next to nothing. The hope, of course, is that we can get more money so we can all graduate up together and still have some kind of control and work out of New York and all those kinds of issues. At the same time I think a lot of people in New York would agree that we do try to be a family and make it a good enough time that it’s worth coming back. We built on this community that we have and we were able to do some of the things that are usually associated with a big budget – having our composer on for months in advance, and our production designer; location scouting for months. But we were able to basically take advantage of our friends and have it be a fun thing.