“It’s Not So-Bad-It’s-Good”: Elijah Wood, Tim League and the Producing Team on Why They Made Jim Hosking’s Unhinged The Greasy Strangler
There are so many irritating things that go into making and distributing films. One detail that can become a nuisance is securing a website or Facebook URL that matches your film’s title, which sometimes, honestly, can tend toward the formulaic or typical. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for the producers of The Greasy Strangler, this probably wasn’t an issue.
The film’s plot starts out conventionally enough, for about a minute, before there’s a hard left turn during the perfectly timed execution of a stretched-almost-to-breaking-point argument about free water. You’ll probably know then and there whether this film’s unique sensibility is going to work for you. I laughed; not everyone will. The plot in a nutshell: Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) and his browbeaten son Brayden (Sky Elobar) run a disco walking tour that consists of taking tourists to dilapidated buildings and making wild claims about their place in music history. Both men become attracted to redhead Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo, who you may recognize from a recurring role on Eastbound & Down), who takes a shine to a disbelieving Brayden. It begins a competition between father and son for her attentions. It also signals the appearance of an oily, slime-covered maniac who stalks the streets at night and strangles the innocent (mostly the tour’s patrons), soon dubbed “The Greasy Strangler.”
The film has a mix of unabashedly weird, extreme gross-out humor and a nevertheless childlike sensibility (mostly conveyed through the pastel knit wardrobe and knee-socks — when clothes are actually worn — and Elobar’s depiction of the virginal Brayden), with production design and cinematography that is often very refined. It’s also full of male and female nudity (albeit enabled by a preponderance of prosthetic penises and pubes) and gore. I honestly didn’t think I was going to like this movie, as before seeing it I thought it could possibly fall into the so-bad-it’s-good camp (of which I’m not a fan), but I found myself laughing and appreciating the original, perhaps even lovingly-built world.
I also noticed that the film has an impressive line-up of producers and executive producers that includes Spectrevision, the production company run by Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah, and Josh C. Waller (Open Windows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Tim League, founder and CEO of Drafthouse Cinemas and the Drafthouse-branded distribution label and co-founder of Fantastic Fest, Ant Timpson (Deathgasm, The ABCs of Death), Theo Brooks (Scherzo Diabolico, Are We Not Cats?), and Ben Wheatley, director of films including Kill List, High Rise and Free Fire, who, with producing partner Andy Starke (also a Greasy Strangler producer) runs Rook Films.
The film, the first feature for its director, Jim Hosking, premiered as a Midnight selection at the Sundance Film Festival. I caught it at Fantastic Fest, just a couple weeks before its October 7 release, where the catalogue description noted that all the producers had met at the festival. To find out how the film actually came together, I reached out to the producers.
Filmmaker: Take me through the genesis of this film getting produced. The Fantastic Fest catalogue description says that all the producers met at Fantastic Fest. Can you tell me about that?
Timpson: All roads lead back to Fantastic Fest in various ways, but all of us have varying connections to Jim Hosking. The strongest direct connection in terms of production was probably The ABC’s of Death series. That was the first time that Andy Starke worked on an actual production with Tim League and myself, though Andy and Tim had previously known each other through Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace. For ABCS, Part 2, we worked with Andy again on the Julian Barratt and Jim Hosking segments.
Jim and Andy originally were going to make “G is for Greasy” as a short (and proof of concept for a Greasy feature) for ABCs Of Death 2, but it was too ambitious for the budget and so it was switched to “G is for Grandad,” which ended up as a great showpiece when we got to talking about The Greasy Strangler.
Andy had given me the Greasy script and said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think it’s fucking insanely funny and utterly original.” He said, “Knock yourself out,” in terms of seeing if we could get something happening with it. The film was not an easy sell to any party as a smart investment. It had so many scary elements that we needed a team of desperadoes who believed in the dream…and not necessarily sound, fiscally responsibly investors. I don’t think I showed the script to Tim League at this stage, but he basically said he was totally down. There was no mention of Drafthouse Films at this stage; it was simply Tim personally.
Elijah Wood is a devoted Fantastic regular and supporter. I had met him through the festival in the early days and we got on well, mainly because the poor guy was trapped in New Zealand for all his formative years and I knew his pain. So I sent him the script, and he fell in love instantly and began firing juicy bits of dialogue back to me immediately. He showed it to his partners at SpectreVision, Daniel Noah and Josh Waller, and I think they said, “This is commercial suicide, but we love it, we’re into it.” At this stage the financing was looking a lil’ ropey in that it was personal money and we needed more, so that’s when my friends at Madman Entertainment in Australia came into the mix. And finally, much to all our surprise, the BFI [British Film Institute] came onboard as our final backer to get us across the line.
Starke: I’d been introduced to Jim by Todd Brown when he was heading up Twitch. We’d known each other for a while, and Rook’s first film was Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace, which basically came into the world at Fantastic Fest. So through the left-field cult movie world (SITGES Festival was also a big part of this) I met Ant Timpson. After a couple of years of financier types saying, “Jim’s a bit weird,” we just thought, “Sod it, we’ll make a film anyway.” Jim and Toby had a lot of scripts, and then suddenly Greasy appeared. I always felt it was Jim’s, “If you think that was weird I’ll really give you weird” script. I just thought it was hilarious — transcendently so — but also very touching. We had a comment back from an industry type who said, “I can’t possibly even show the script to anyone,” which then made us even more determined to make it. I thought, who in the world would like this, and Ant came to mind! I can’t even really think why but, I was right luckily! He then pushed it across to Elijah and Spectrevision and Madman Films — who again — said yes.
So we had a long think and said, “Lets just pay for it,” so we did. Then the BFI came onboard to help finish it in post, which was a miracle but testament to the fact that they can see beyond a prosthetic penis to what a great talent Jim is. And to be fair, they laughed a lot!
Filmmaker: What was your first reaction when you read the script or treatment? What drew you to the film?
Brooks: I think for all the filmmakers, the immediate reaction after reading this script — besides what the hell is this? — was this unsettling but very certain feeling that our next six months were going to be occupied with inhabiting this world and bringing it to life.
Waller: My first reaction to the script was laughter and astonishment. You just couldn’t help it. There was such absurdity in the dialogue and the situations that you almost had to set the script down and ask yourself if you were really reading what you were reading. You could almost hear Toby [Harvard] and Jim bouncing this dialogue off each other at home. However, what drew me to the film itself was the combination of knowing Jim’s unique “world-building” skills combined with the script. If you could manage to wrap your head around that, one would realize it would be a film that no one had ever seen before. That’s always a massive draw for us.
Filmmaker: What was the biggest obstacle in getting it made?
Timpson: The off-set sex was getting out of control. And the constant yelling by the crew for more paprika-flavored chips was getting a bit old by day 15. [Laughs] Overall, there were just the usual obstacles of any lower-budgeted film. Not enough time, not enough money, and not enough penises.
Filmmaker: A lot of the words reviewers use to describe this film include “disgusting,” “gross-out,” “filth,” “shock,” and probably most often: “WTF.” At the same time, it has a 92% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. How much did you think about audience reaction, and the line between bad and so-bad-it’s-good? Or do you think the film pushes past that demarcation point, into some other type of absurdist/comedic territory?
Starke: I think that’s just lazy criticism. John Waters knows as much about Bergman — actually more — than most people. I don’t believe in “so bad it’s good” at all. I don’t buy it. The film is good — no question. It’s an authored singular vision — that’s all I ever look for. If I like it or not is just my opinion, and that’s kind of irrelevant
Waller: We can’t really take credit for any of it. This was Jim Hosking’s vision 100%. When you’re producing someone whose inner world is as vivid as Jim’s, the job is simply to give him the resources and get out of the way.
Noah: That said, we do know that Jim wasn’t thinking so much about audience reaction as he was about achieving the highly specific vision for the film that he had in his head. He made the film he wanted to see. That could have resulted in a big empty theater with just Jim giving a standing ovation. But it turns out there are others who wanted to see unique vision, too. And isn’t that how the best art is always made?
League: I loathe the [phrase] “so bad it’s good.” I would never be associated with that sort of a project. Jim is something else entirely. His characters walk in a wild and very specific alternate universe. He also has a wicked sense of humor and comic timing. Yes, this movie is greasy and gross at times, but audiences have never ever seen anything like it. People should come out and check it out, so they can say they were fans since Jim’s first feature. It is my professional opinion that Jim is going to be a major filmmaking force in years to come; he’s a true auteur. Hopefully, the cinema world will be a little bit more greasy in his wake, and that’s a good thing.
Brooks: I don’t think of any part of the film as being “bad.” I think it would be a huge mistake to compare it to something like The Room or Birdemic, where we revel in a film’s terribleness because of the purity of its intention. There are certainly moments in the film that are purposefully challenging, frustrating or difficult to watch, but ultimately its greatest strength is that, despite having all this mayhem and geriatric nudity and violence to exploit, Jim focused on fleshing out his characters and their tender but absurd relationships. If there is a discontinuity between how critics are receiving the film and how we expect them to receive the film, it’s because the project itself really defies their expectations, and offered them something different than what they expected in watching it.
Timpson: Ha! I have just deleted a long rant about Rotten Tomatoes and the nature of film criticism today. I will save that for a separate article! Let’s be honest, those ratings don’t mean anything to us as producers/filmmakers. Do they have weight in decision making from certain members of the public? Yes, unfortunately — like the guy who goes, “This one’s got a 89% rating, but this other one has a 90%. I’m going to watch that one instead.” Like, seriously, if you watch the films that are recommended to you or look interesting to you, stop fucking using some stupid garbage arbitrary rating system! If someone says it’s so bad it’s good, I usually pull out their spleen and feed it to my bearded dragon and then never want to see them again. This film was meticulously crafted across every aspect. To see it compared to other productions that were sharted out is insulting to Jim and everyone who worked their arses off on it. This was no big joke for the team. This was backing a filmmaker’s vision 100% and ending up with something we feel is going to have longevity and hopefully keep surprising new audiences as the years go on. It’s got legs. Old, skinny, wobbly ones, but they’ve got great bones baby.
Filmmaker: At what point did FilmRise come on to distribute the film? Were they involved before or after the Sundance premiere? Was there a sales agent involved, and were there any qualms from anyone about the graphic content, for instance the amount of screen time with naked people and prosthetic penises?
Wood: We were very lucky in that CAA very immediately recognized that our weird little movie in fact had potential as a commercial film in the indie market place. Filmrise came aboard after the Sundance screening, and we’ve been absolutely delighted with their handling of the film. In terms of the graphic content, we did worry that it might be an issue. But I think in the end the film is so surprisingly sweet and charming, it balances out all the “WTF” elements very well!
Starke: They saw at Sundance and really loved it — there were sales agents, yes. I was genuinely surprised when it got an “18 cert” in the UK. It’s a sad world when male nudity is transgressive but female nudity isn’t? Or hideous violence is OK on screen but not on the news? Personally I think it’s very funny and very sweet! And most importantly, it’s exciting. I spent years and years watching crazy movies in dark rooms and I miss it. I miss the ideas and the magic. Maybe some of it is shit, but so what? Peter Strickland’s Duke of Burgundy (which for me is an incredible film) came out of a discussion about the films of Jess Franco, who 99% of critics say is shit. Well, so what, he’s inspirational to me. I hope films like Greasy bring back some of that excitement and fun.
Brooks: All I’m going to say here is that we didn’t get any complaints about the penises. Everyone loves them. I expect that for a distributor or sales agent to get involved with a project like this, they must have loved them a lot.