“Keeping Track of the Blood Continuity was a Constant Thing”: Rebekah McKendry on Glorious
An unwritten rule of public restroom usage is that one should never attempt to strike up a conversation with the person one stall over, and that’s doubly true if the person next to you is an all-powerful god sent down from the cosmos. After a night of grieving and binge-drinking leads to hugging the toilet bowl at a gross rural rest stop, Wes (Ryan Kwanten) finds himself in that scenario when the person in the stall introduces themselves. That person is nothing more than a voice funneled through a gloryhole, but what that voice requests of Wes (and why) raises the film’s stakes to a lofty degree. It’s a credit to the director, horror veteran Rebekah McKendry, that the film never loses sight of the fun absurdity of its premise and the warped peculiarities of that gloryhole. Voiced by Oscar winner J. K. Simmons, this god is rarely seen but always interesting.
Having premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal this summer, Glorious is now streaming as a Shudder Original. I recently spoke with McKendry about how this screenplay came her way, how she juggles the various roles and projects she takes on in the industry, how she mapped out the building of the bathroom set and more.
Filmmaker: You’ve previously spoken of how during the pandemic you were looking for something to direct, and I imagine that was true of many filmmakers at the time, their daily headspace consumed with creating a project that would, given COVID-19 restrictions, require the smallest crew imaginable and having everything set in one contained space. Was that the impetus for Glorious?
McKendry: We were deep in the pandemic and, yes, like most people, going through this crazy but cathartic moment of, “What the hell do we even do with our lives?” I was still teaching [McKendry is a professor at the University of Southern California (USC)], but online. I was finding myself shifting to teaching students how to shoot on their cellphones, which felt somewhat disheartening, as if this was what we had to assume the world was going to be like moving forward. And they weren’t just shooting on their cellphones, but they were having to shoot on their cellphones in their apartments, by themselves, with their dogs. This describes every project my USC students were making [thanks to the pandemic].
At the same time, the only industry work that Dave [David Ian McKendry, McKendry’s husband and co-screenwriter of Glorious] and I were getting was a ton of script-doctor work. Admittedly, Dave is pretty next level at script-doctoring, having done four assignments [during the pandemic] for Lifetime back to back. One day he said to me, “Is this all I do now? Find new and better ways to kill off suburban housewives?” Dave had mentioned to a bunch of my friends that I was looking for something [to direct] that could be feasible, something that was weird (because I’m weird and I like weird films) and transgressive. My friend, Jay Goldberg, then sent over his original draft of Glorious, which was called Old Glory at the time, and immediately I found something fascinating about the setup. It was the basic conceit that the [finished] film is: a guy trapped in a bathroom with someone who seems [to be] a god. I asked Dave, “What if I told you that I just read something that we could possibly craft into Waiting for Godot but in a bathroom?’” We called back and were like, “We love this script and we want to do a pass at it, bringing in some more philosophy and mythology.” It was kismet from there. We hit it off and just kept going.
I don’t know if this project would’ve been made outside of pandemic [times]. It was about convincing people that my “Lovecraftian gloryhole” movie was going to be art! Some companies got it immediately, saying “ I can see what you’re going for.” Others would see the word “gloryhole” and immediately say, “It’s a sophomoric bathroom humor movie.” I’d have to stand there and go, “I promise, it’s not that! Just hear me out, it’s elevated, highbrow bathroom humor.” It was an interesting sell, and one of the big driving forces that always seemed to get us in the door was not the “Lovecraftian gloryhole” angle but the fact that it could be shot during the pandemic.
Filmmaker: Given the changing “COVID landscape” and the precautions and unknowns you had to consider, were you looking to bring on producers and below-the-line talent you previously had worked with to make the project move smoothly? To make everything more calm?
McKendry: I’d worked with Joe Wicker and Morgan Peter Brown before, as they had produced my first film [All the Creatures Were Stirring]. So, once we had interest in the project from a few places, I thought of Joe and Morgan [to produce Glorious]. They’re both like family now and my kid even refers to Morgan as one of her best friends. Dave and I knew that Joe and Morgan were going to do this film right. Getting any film made is a battle, and if I was going to go into battle in the middle of a pandemic, then it was going to be with those guys. The way we approached it, from a production standpoint, was that, yes, things would have to be done very differently given the pandemic. We were never in the same room with each other [in pre-production] until we were literally standing on set. And even on set, we were divided up into different zones, and there were certain people I was allowed to be in the same room with and others that I had to communicate with via FaceTime (even though they were just two rooms over). We weren’t all allowed to be in the same zone together.
The biggest thing the pandemic gave us was time, and that lead to a longer pre-production period than I was previously accustomed to. For example, I was now able to ask the production designer, “Would you like to hop on Zoom for two hours and dig into the minutiae of how this bathroom set is going to come together?” This type of planning also applied to our rehearsal process, because we had extra time. I had multiple Zoom rehearsals with Ryan Kwanten and J.K. Simmons before we even thought about how we were going to shoot each scene. They would run through the script over and over again to understand each other’s cadences and where they wanted their characterizations to come from. We had four or five big rehearsals before we even got to the soundstage, which also helped, because knowing that they wouldn’t be in the same room together [on set], the prep allowed them to better understand and familarize themselves with each other’s cadences, tone, delivery and where the pauses [in their line readings] would be. We had all of that down pat before ever arriving on set, and the person who read god’s lines was able to emulate J.K’s performance accordingly.
Filmmaker: With the bathroom interior being built on a soundstage, did you map out the exact dimensions of the set remotely as closely as you could with your production designer?
McKendry: We needed to know exactly how the bathroom would look, right down to what color I wanted and where I wanted the stickers to be placed. We had fun with it. As soon as the set was built, it became, “now we have to graffiti it,” so I passed out paint pens to the whole crew and said, “OK everybody, go leave your mark on the set.” [laughs] All the graffiti you see in the film is various markings from the crew and the grips. We knew how we needed the bathroom to look before we arrived. That’s not to say that there weren’t small hiccups of realizing that suddenly a mirror was not going to fit [on a wall] or being unsure of how we needed it to break. I had been so specific with those details (because I could, thanks to having the time), where even the way the mirror had to break was something I had [a very specific idea for]. I wanted it to be so that if Wes was looking directly into it, [the cracked mirror] bifurcated his face right down the middle. The questions then became, “How can we break the mirror to specific specifications so that the cracks go across his nose,” and things like that. We had to figure out those elements as we went.
Filmmaker: You’ve spoken of how you designed each shot as if you were a football coach coming up with different plays to run. In what ways was your DP, David Matthews, in step with the production design itself? Could you retract bathroom walls when you needed to? Make each stall larger for the purpose of getting a camera in and spreading out?
McKendry: We could get that bathroom stall down entirely within about two minutes. We had it down to a science where it would be like, “Stall coming down!” and everyone immediately knew what to move. Every wall could fly out and we even pulled the urinal out on occasion. The entire set was designed to our needs.
When we were writing newer drafts of the script (and the one we ultimately shot) during the pandemic, Dave and I were traveling across country in a camper. We toured each of the national parks (or as many as we could get to) with our kids, and we stopped at a lot of rest stops. Every single time I walked into one, I thought of it like an escape room: if I were trapped, how could I exploit this environment to get myself out? Those were the things that influenced our building of the bathroom set, even building those specifics into the final draft. Take the design of the vents and the windows and the particular placement of things, [for example]: how could that work to your advantage if you were trapped inside? That was the other thing we knew when we were building, that we needed to include specific elements to the space that needed to be functional, i.e. we needed a vent that you could conceivably crawl off and crawl into, we needed the sinks to work, etc. We knew that we had to be able to put lights on the other side [of the walls] and really control [the lighting].
[Creating the] glory hole was a whole discussion I had with the production designer. We’re standing near the set one day, the bathroom’s [being] built, and it comes time for us to do some of the smaller [set] work. I then receive a notice, like, “Rebekah, they need you on set. Everybody has a question.” I walk over to set and everybody is standing around the wall where the glory hole is supposed to be, asking how wide I want it. I didn’t know! “Like, regulation size gloryhole?” [laughs] It turned into a half-hour conversation about regulation gloryhole size versus what I wanted for specific shots. Keep in mind that we needed to have our camera snake through the hole in certain shots, so it became a question of how tall the hole should be. Fielding questions I never thought would come up and solving them became some of the most fun moments of the shoot.
Filmmaker: I guess the POV of a gloryhole is its own kind of iris shot. I never thought about it that way before.
McKendry: Yeah, we do shoot and move through the hole a number of times in the film. It all worked out.
Filmmaker: What went into your lighting decisions for the space? It’s a very purple-covered movie, but certain parts of the bathroom feel broken up by different primary colors. For example, the area with the urinals is bathed in blue, while the bathroom stall is a more rustic yellow. How did you differentiate the lighting in various spaces of the set while also making it part of a cohesive whole?
McKendry: It was very complex, and our amazing gaffer, Nino Paternostro, really helped me build out the space. We created a fully overhead grid for the set. Going in, the only things I knew I didn’t want were fluorescents or halogen lights. I didn’t want any wash lighting like you usually see when you walk into a bathroom at Target. There are no shadows in those bathrooms! They’re very well lit and I kept saying that I did not want that. I wanted source lighting, but not exactly source lighting, and it needed to feel like there were different areas in the space, i.e. the lighting on the sink would be different from the lighting by the urinals. We largely referred to the area across from the stalls as the “dark corner,” as it was a corner that we chose not to put any lighting in. For any moment in the film where we needed [the character of] Wes to feel really dark and bleak, we would stick Ryan in that corner, our “dark part” of the set. Knowing that we could never point lights at the actual bathroom mirrors, everything was placed up above on these gorgeous grids. It was all pre-lit, and because the bathroom set stayed the same for the entirety of the shoot, we always had specific lighting [pre-established] to embellish it. That allowed us to walk to set each morning, flip up the grid on and be halfway there.
Filmmaker: And J.K. Simmons wasn’t physically on set during the shoot to read lines with Ryan? What was that setup like?
McKendry: The way we ran it was by having five rehearsals with J.K. ahead of [principal photography] so that the person who was reading lines on set [producer] (Morgan Peter Brown) was also able to be a part of those rehearsals, hear J.K.’s [performance], record it and play it back so that by the time we got to set, he could emulate J.K.’s exact performance (the temper, tone, cadence) with Ryan. Once it was time to hold our studio recording sessions with J.K., the world was a little more open and we were able hold those in person here in Burbank, and it was lovely finally getting meet him after six months of working together remotely.
Filmmaker: Depending on what the shot is, the sound of J.K.’s voice has to slightly adjust too. There are times where it has to sound a bit muffled or further away, depending on where Ryan is standing in relation to that mysterious bathroom stall. The physical space plays a part in how we hear J.K.’s voice. How was that worked out?
McKendry: Recreating the acoustics of a bathroom was a big part of our sound design. There is a permanent echo in everybody’s voice, which, as I didn’t want it to be too aggravating, is pretty subtle. We needed it to sound like you were in a bathroom and not sitting on a couch or in a car or any other space. There’s a very distinctive sound to speaking with someone in a bathroom. We built out a lot of the background sounds and I even [revisited] Lovecraft’s work, as his writing constantly combines space, cosmos and the underwater. They’re interchangeable for him. Everything comes from [outer] space and eventually ends up deep underwater, and we wanted to infuse both of those things into everything that was in [the sound design of] our film. There’s even a very subtle sound of a running toilet that’s built underneath most of the scenes in the film. It’s subtle, but you can hear water all over the place in our movie.
When we were thinking of how to make J.K.’s voice more “godly,” we knew that 75% of the time we wanted him to sound like he was just a guy or a being sitting in the bathroom stall next to Wes, but we then needed to think about what we could do to push J.K.’s voice further. We had a bunch of comps for what we called J.K.’s “god shout” and the biggest one I went with was from Jerzy Skolimowski’s film, The Shout. The film is about a guy who can supposedly kill people with his voice and [his voice] brings in these almost metallic tones and his gravelly shout hits Ozzie-like levels of gravel. That’s where we ended up with J.K.’s voice.
Working on the sound design was fun for me. When we got to the actual “gloryhole moments,” I remember being in the room with my sound designer at Anarchy Post (an absolutely amazing place) and he looked at me and asked, “What should this sound like?” I was like, “is squelching and suction an option?” The whole room just stopped dead and then he said, “OK, let’s go for a ‘squelching suction.’”
Filmmaker: Were you able to shoot the film chronologically?
McKendry: The majority, yes. We shot all of the exteriors, the introduction to the movie, in the first three days [of the shoot]. Most of it was done at a rest stop just outside of Jackson [in Natchez], Mississippi, in an area called the Trace, a long stretch of state park. Our first three days of shooting were done at one of the rural rest stops out there. For the rest of the shoot, we were primarily confined to the bathroom set, with our final day consisting of filming scenes of [Wes’s girlfriend] Brenda’s party, their apartment and [flashbacks] like that.
The actual bathroom stuff had to be done chronologically, because the bathroom gets more and more messed up as the film progresses. When we knew that the “blood rain” sequence was coming up in our shooting schedule, my AD looked at me and went, “Do we have everything you need?” Once we went bloody with the set, we could not go back. Blood is like glitter, in that it will spread everywhere on set. It will get on your clothes, in your ears, everywhere, so we had to come up with a way that we could make the enviornment permanently bloody without it rubbing off on everyone who touched the set. Having blood on the floor is like having sand on a beach, in that as soon as a crew member crosses the room to go fix a light, you have to completely reset the floor, as they’re taking the blood with them [on their sneakers] and it becomes this whole thing. As a result, most of what we used was a mixture of silicone and blood dye. It’s all very dry, every bit of it, and from there we would wet it down with water right before a take so that it would give off a nice sheen. But it’s all painted on in the same way that you would take to caulking your bathtub.
Filmmaker: When it comes to the shirt that Ryan has to wear, going through various forms of wear and tear, I imagine you had to keep checking for continuity as to where the scene was in terms of his dishevelment.
McKendry: Yes, keeping track of the blood continuity was a constant thing. We probably had 17 different shirts that were marked in order of the various stages of blood in a scene versus ones that had different stages of sweat. It was a continuous process of prepping the shirts and then [reorienting] ourselves like, “Wait, where were we at yesterday? Should we put more blood on the back?”
Filmmaker: Avoiding spoilers as best as I can [Editor’s note: anyone who wants to watch the movie with no knowledge of its ending should nonetheless stop here], when the world of the film further opens up in the third act, it feels like an impressive merger of practical effects and VFX—sometimes, I’m assuming, in the same shot. The film gets more fantastical and otherworldly as it reaches its conclusion, but everything still feels like your team is working to recognize the practical, physical space that the camera’s in, with the VFX work done in post. Were there greenscreens involved? How much of the film was made up of practical effects in camera?
McKendry: We did do some greenscreening, but the film is probably 85% practical. With most of my films, I’m going to push it as far as I can with practical effects, knowing that I’ll then be cleaning up scenes here and there in post. There are two or three moments that we couldn’t do practical at all. I obviously can’t practically build out the cosmos, right? That was the biggest one. It was like, “OK, we’re probably going to have to use VFX to create [outer] space.” The sack that Wes catches glimpses of dipping down underneath the toilet [in the other stall] is a clear painter’s tarp that’s been speckled, then filled with milk and some glow sticks. In post, all I had to do was put in some writhing [VFX] for the tentacles, but [on set] it was four grips in the bathroom and myself going, “Lower! Now raise it up! Undulate!”
The blood rain was created with paint sprayers, and the apocalypse at the end of the film was achieved by the crew standing in different corners of the set with three leaf blowers we bought that morning from Home Depot, creating a kind of vortex. The rest is courtesy of some really good acting by Ryan Kwanten. Every choice came from the question of, “How can we execute this in the best way?” The Ghat monster is an actual puppet, maybe three feet tall in height, that we shot on a green screen to perspective. He can move around and we could make his mouths move too. The puppet is currently sitting in my living room and my kids put bunny ears on him for Easter this year. He’s become like a member of the family. [laughs]
Filmmaker: You’re also a co-writer on the upcoming Halloween installment of the Bring It On franchise, Bring It On: Cheer or Die, for SYFY. Is it a much different experience writing (or co-writing) a project that you plan to direct as opposed to writing for hire? When you’re writing something that you will personally helm, I imagine you’re writing to your specific preferences/capabilities, and when you’re hired to write a draft of something for another director or company, your approach is quite different.
McKendry: Dave and I [are] very used to working on other people’s projects, sometimes for an [on-screen] credit and sometimes not. When you’re doing script work, you usually don’t even get a credit. You take a turn polishing it and then it goes back to Lifetime! And then there are the WGA versus non-WGA [projects and rules]. When I’m writing for others, and especially when I was co-writing Bring It On [with Dana Schwartz], we were very aware that we were co-writing a studio project and were delivering for a franchise that we had to do right by. We had to deliver what the studio wanted for the franchise while still making it fun and scary. There was a level of, “These are the things that have to be in the script.”
With something like Glorious, I can go crazy and it’s where I always find that the fullest amount of me or my husband comes out. I don’t get to put a seven-foot bear with a vagina in its chest in most of the films I write [laughs], so getting able to do that in this film, yeah, that is where I truly find the most freedom. Whether we’re “killing housewives” and cleaning up other people’s drafts on a smaller project or doing a for-hire work through the studios, we just love to create. It hasn’t been completely announced yet, but our other big pandemic project was selling a horror graphic novel series. Writing a graphic novel was a completely different thing [for us], because we were shifting from thinking through a story in a filming sense to more along the lines of, “How is this going to be drawn? What movements do we show?” We’re always fascinated by how the writing process shifts as we move from project to project.