Quantcast ICONS Interview with Writer/Director Glenn McQuaid - I SELL THE DEAD

Glenn McQuaid!

Find a way to recreate 19th’ century England and Ireland in modern New York City, and get popular actors, stunts, deliver numerous practical effects…ready? Go! This statement might give some emerging indie filmmakers heart attacks, but writer/director Glenn McQuaid took the ball and ran with it.

Adapting his somber, minimalist short film The Resurrection Apprentice into a wilder, bolder comic feature, I SELL THE DEAD finds grave robbing partners Arthur Blake and Willie Grimes (Dominic Monaghan and producer Larry Fessenden) awaiting their executions for their criminal lifestyle.

A holy man (Ron Perlman) arrives, willing to take Arthur’s statements and confessions, and Arthur begins to spin his macabre coming-of-age story, a life of fending off con men and murderers and things that go bump in the night...but who’s conning who? Chock full of gallows humor, atmosphere you can swim in and a barrel of human and supernatural beasts, Dead is a hoot, its decomposing tongue planted firmly in cheek. Produced through Fessenden’s SCAREFLIX line of indie features, the film is about to be exhumed for the world to embrace after its worldwide festival run, winning awards at its Slamdance debut… -by Adam Barnick 8/09

What are your earliest memories of the horror genre?

In the late Seventies and Eighties BBC2 ran a series of late night horror double bills. They always showed a black & white classic such as The Beast With Five Fingers followed by something in color, like Race with the Devil. So from very early on I developed an obsession with horror films.

One of the first videos my Dad bought was The Wicker Man, so I have a very strong connection with that film. I was very much aware of film makers like Freddie Francis, Terry Fisher and even Ken Russell from a very young age. It wasn't until my teens that I really became aware of what people like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg were doing and how far they were taking horror. Rabid was my first Cronenberg film and it felt dangerous to me and I loved it! At the same time, bands like The Virgin Prunes and Throbbing Gristle were coming out and challenging everything I was being taught by the schools and church, it was a very exciting time for me.
Tell me a bit about how your upbringing in Ireland influenced the stories you’re interested in telling.

My schooling was through the Christian brothers in Ireland and though I met a few of them that were cool, most of them were twisted arseholes. So for a lot of my education I just tried to keep myself entertained to get through it all. I escaped into comics like 2000AD, Stephen King, Clive Barker and as I mentioned earlier, horror films. Storytelling was also a big part of my growing up. My family and all the family friends are great at reminiscing and telling stories, it's a real gift and a dying art and I was eager to explore the craft of it with I Sell The Dead.

I’d read about particular styles of Irish storytelling that deliberately involved pulling the audience’s leg.  Though it sounded it relied on the charm and imagination of the storyteller to not have the audience mind that they were being misled..which to me, feels just like this movie and Blake and Grimes.  They’re total con men, but big-hearted and so fun to be around, that I don’t mind if they’re stretching the truth. Plus the unreliable narrator always makes for storytelling you have to pay close attention to.
I love the idea that you are in the hands of the storyteller and never sure exactly what to believe. Everybody embellishes their stories and even memories to some extent. My childhood memories of films are always challenged when I see them again as an adult, over the years I had somehow added subplots and characters that never existed. My favorite novel is still Dracula, not because of the story, which I love, but because you are in the hands of so many different story tellers and you have to give yourself over to all of them to piece together and appreciate the bigger picture.
As a kid I saw television trailers for films like The Shining, Dead & Buried and The Amityville Horror and I would make up my own story lines for them. I actually convinced people I had seen the flicks and spun them my versions of the stories. I was always caught out when people saw the actual movies but I was obsessed with getting there first with my stories.

How did you come to work with Larry Fessenden and Glass Eye Pix? Can you tell me about what you contributed to them and what you learned/took away from working on them?
My background is as a visual effects artist, I used to do effects and design for television commercials in the States and in Ireland. The checks were great but I wanted to make the jump into film making before it was too late. I met Larry at the wrap party for Jim McKenny's The Off Season, I had already seen Wendigo and was a fan, so I offered to help him out on any of his future projects.

Our first big collaboration came with Ti West's The Roost. I headed up a small team of artists and we created the CGI bats in that movie. I'm very proud of the work we put into that movie, I think the bats really add a lot to the finished film. I then went off to help Larry film The Last Winter in Iceland. That was an amazing time. I got to see Fessenden working with his actors and crew; he is a force of nature on set. I was hired as the visual effects producer but when I got there, Larry gave me a small crew, shook my hand and told me I was the 2nd unit director! So I really learned a lot during my time on The Last Winter.

Were you urging Larry to consider you in the ‘Scareflix’ lineup from the start or did you fall into doing I Sell The Dead more organically?

I pitched Larry several ideas, none of which he was too enthusiastic about. One of them was called The Father and Son Weekend, about a scouting trip where the kids turn on their fathers but it did not go down too well! It wasn't until I suggested I expand my short film The Resurrection Apprentice that Fessenden really perked up. I think he waited for the pitch that I was truly excited about.

I wrote The Resurrection Apprentice as an exercise in tone. I wanted to create a tiny little drama set in the universe of Hammer Horror. I was reading books like The Italian Boy (A tale of murder and Body Snatching) by Sarah Wise and a book on Gallows speeches from eighteenth-century Ireland, so the story was a sum of all my interests at the time. We shot the short in Jersey City of all places!

What was most enticing to you about this project?  The dynamic between the mentor and the boy?  The mood/aesthetics?

Character is probably the most important thing to me as a writer, without solid character I think everything else will just fall apart. When I was finished with the short film I felt I had so much more to explore with the characters. I love the mentor/boy relationship and without Willie Grimes and Arthur Blake there would be no I Sell The Dead.

I think a year after finishing the project I decided to jump back into the world which eventually became I Sell The Dead.

Once you had nailed the feature’s narrative, and knowing you had to deliver on a smaller budget as a Scareflix production- did you pull back, or just write what you wanted to see and plunge ahead?

I really just wrote what I wanted to see at the local cinema. I figured we would shoot a lot of the movie on green screen and I could use matte paintings and CGI to create our environments, so I tried to let my imagination run wild. Of course the production turned out to be very different than I imagined and we were lucky enough to shoot in great locations with some incredible name talent.

I remember The Resurrection Apprentice having a subtly comic premise over how ‘matter of fact’ they are in their jobs, but thought it was much more somber overall.  I Sell The Dead’s tone is much more gleeful and rip-roaring, like it’s had a few pints and wants to top its drinking partner’s tall tale with its own.  What made you decide to take a lighter, comic approach?

When I finished the short film I felt it was a little stiff and maybe took itself too seriously. As I mentioned, it really is a tiny little drama set in a spooky world, not much of anything happens! When I showed the finished short film to people, I realized how badly I wanted to incite a bigger reaction from the audience. And so when I jumped back into the world I really had the goal of entertaining people in mind.

Showing my work to audiences has been a big learning experience for me, I really do keep them in mind when I write and direct. As I wrote the feature, I also tried to keep myself giggling and that made it a pleasure to write. I think it's possible to create a movie like I Sell The Dead and not go comedic, but I felt that the comedy allowed me to be more absurd with my characters and even my direction.

Once you knew Daniel Manche and Larry Fessenden would reprise their roles, how did you decide and go about bringing Ron Perlman and Dominic Monaghan into this?

I had worked with Ron Perlman on the set of The Last Winter where we were all cooped up in Northern Iceland for a few weeks, also Larry and Ron are quite tight and so we approached Ron quite early.
Dom came on board a little later and his casting was really the brainchild of my producer Peter Phok; Peter brought an amazing ambition to the project when he came on board. It was quite a ride trying to get these two actors on the same set, they are both very busy people and we were blessed that it all worked out for us in the end. All of the actors were very gracious to work with and wonderful collaborators. As a first time filmmaker I couldn't have asked for a better cast, it really was a dream come true for me.
How did your visual FX background contribute to the ease (that’s a relative term) of telling this story?  Were there other areas that represented more of a learning curve?

Having a background in visual effects probably helped out more in prep and post then on set. I storyboarded and created a few animatics for the movie but a lot of that had to be thrown out due to the crazy nature of low budget production. I think the biggest learning curve for me was getting the hang of creative camera coverage and blocking. If you look at the first scenes I shot (The Resurrection Apprentice scene) and compare them to the last few days of photography (the whole vampire scene), you will see a development in confidence and style with the camera.

I would think the two biggest expenses /areas of research and concern after casting was costume and production design.  What kind of research and work went into your costuming?

I worked very closely with my costume designer David Tabbert; I had built up a fairly large visual diary for all of my collaborators and I had a very specific look for each of the characters.  We have a fair amount of night photography in the movie and so it was always a fine balance to have these characters in the right dark fabrics without losing them to the black of the night. I referenced the costumes in John Badham's Dracula as well as a bunch of Hammer films.

I don’t think a lot of people know you shot nearly the entire film in and around New York City.  Tell me a bit about how you pulled that off.

Well, we originally thought we were going to shoot in a studio and use a bunch of green screens but thankfully we moved away from that concept. Most of the studio spaces we investigated were too expensive anyways and so the entire Glass Eye Pix office went out location scouting. We scoured the five boroughs and came back with all the amazing locations that you see in the movie. Staten Island was the gift that kept giving, we eventually shot over half of the movie there.

The tavern in the movie is actually a bar in the east village called The Scratcher, we completely changed the look of it and turned it into our grave robbers refuge. The locals were quite taken with the new vibe! I wanted to prove that it was possible to make a period movie on a low budget in NYC and I think we showed that, it's just not easy!

I was lucky enough to have an incredible Art department. My Art Director Beck Underwood was an absolute powerhouse and kept everything steaming ahead, my production designer David Bell came up with some great concepts that really explored the world I had created. Certain locations, like the tavern, required a ton of art dressing and design but others, such as the execution square, already had so much production value that we really just came in and carefully dressed them with a killer Guillotine here and a vintage cart there. I think the use of fog also really helped.

Were you thinking of Angus Scrimm in his part from the beginning?  Other than the obvious nod to genre fans in what his character needs, I was thinking ‘this is the OTHER role Angus was born to play.’  He’d fit right in in a Dickens adaptation here.

I was always hoping to work with Angus, he's been in a few Glass Eye Pix productions in the past and so I knew I had somewhat of an in with him. I met him in LA to discuss the project and he came on board soon thereafter. For an icon of horror he really is an incredibly kind and warm gentleman!
You had an unusual production in that you had to put it on hold for a few months halfway through due to Hellboy II.  Can you talk about that?   To me it almost feels like an ideal way to make a film, assuming it’s easy to get everyone back; you can shape what you already have and learn from the first half of production.

We actually held off for six months!

At the time I really resented the halt in production. I wanted to have it all wrapped so I could get stuck into the edit but in retrospect it really helped to have the break. My best work is from the second half of the shoot. I learned so much from the first round that I came back stronger and more prepared for the remaining shoot but it was quite tough knowing I only had half a movie during the break.
I remember some painted/stylized backdrops mixed with live-action through the film.. is that a nod to the matte paintings in classic British horror films that influenced you?  I also felt it gave the film a more literate quality- like the characters were stepping through the pictures in a novel.

Those shots were a nod to the art of storytelling. I wanted them to be stylized in a way that felt theatrical and broad. They were also ways for me to get back into the cell where Arthur is telling the stories, bookending his stories in a way.
For your villains/criminals, it’s appealing that Arthur and Willie are the most ‘innocent’ of the law-breakers in the film.  I know a lot of press discusses the supernatural beasts they encounter, but I found the human monsters even more intriguing.  Tell me about where the House of Murphy came from; and I have to geek-question; is Valentine’s mask a tribute to Eyes Without A Face?

I'm a big fan of Eyes Without A Face and so the design of Valentine's mask was a nod to that movie. The idea for the clan, believe it or not, came from Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning! I love that documentary; I love those fierce legendary children running around New York City forming their own "houses". I just took the idea to its next logical step and formed a house with supernatural grave robbers - The House of Murphy!
As for the supernatural cast, any particular visual influence in how you approached each kind of monster?  I notice more of a tribute to past films in the shooting approach, production design, etc. and not the creatures of yesteryear.  Do you have a favorite creature in the story?

The zombies are my favorite. My approach was to have them be more whimsical and curious then people are probably used to. I figure we've seen them every other way so why not tweak them a little.

I referenced Shock Waves to the makeup guys; I wanted them to be waterlogged and dripping with seaweed.
How have festival audiences reacted to the film?

The response has been really great; it's given me a lot of confidence as a film maker. I've learned so much by showing my work to audiences. Not everybody is going to like this movie and some of the reactions have been negative but for the most part, people are getting it.
What is your theatrical release plan, and any hints as to what we could expect on the DVD?

We hit theaters August 7th and our VOD release begins on August 12th and that will see the film available in 50 million homes! The DVD release hits Blockbuster at the same time and everywhere else in the New Year.

The DVD is packed with extras; we have two documentaries, a commentary with myself and I even scored a ‘Grimes and Blake’ Commentary too!

I saw you do a Q+A where you mentioned writing a new film that wasn’t a sequel to this, but that you would probably revisit this grave-robbing duo in the future.  Can you tell me anything of your plans for upcoming projects?

I am writing the further adventures of Grimes and Blake but that will hopefully go to comic book form before anything else. It's a collaboration with Brahm Revel who has already adapted I Sell The Dead into a comic, which will be coming out on Image Comics in October. Other than that I am writing a few other projects. I really want to get something off the ground in Ireland as well as get another horror film going over here in the States. Either way I really want to have my next step as a writer/director be a bold move.

Any words of wisdom for filmmakers working towards that first feature, now that you’re on the other side of it?

It is so important to take the time and think outside the box with your coverage. The camera really is your paint brush and there are so many paint-by-numbers directors out there, if you want to make a career for yourself you really have to step up and tell your stories with confident strokes. That to me is the most exciting thing about film making and where the heart of it lies. Also having a solid vision and being able to articulate it in a timely manner is an absolute must.

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