The team behind the movie ”The Greasy Strangler” came up with a brilliant marketing scheme. Speckled throughout the Sundance Film Festival were bright pink “Greasy” hats emblazoned with the iconic, bubbly letters featured in the title of the hit 1978 movie-musical, “Grease.” The cast and crew members may or may not have known “Grease: Live” would be airing a week later, but hey, the head gear got a lot of attention, as did their movie.
This bizarre comedy probably never would’ve been made if it wasn’t for SpectreVision, a production company run by filmmakers Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller. The group’s goal is to tell ”heartfelt, character driven stories tackling real emotional and social issues that test the boundaries of the genre space,” and boy, do they do that. From “Cooties” and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” to “Open Windows,” SpectreVision has produced an array of films, with “The Greasy Strangler” premiering in the midnight section at Sundance.
The film is not something that will appeal to everyone. It features extreme levels of absurdist Dada humor, telling the story of a middle-aged nobody, Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), who lives with his greasy food-loving dad, Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels). They reside in a dilapidated ’70s-style home in the unique world director and writer Jim Hosking created. The two act as disco tour guides by day, while Ronnie disguises himself as the titular villain by night, running around and killing people while covered in oil and fat. (Yep, truth.) When Brayden falls for a girl who seemingly adores him, the father-son duo’s simple lifestyle changes — and Big Ronnie doesn’t like change. Nope, not one bit.
The greasy storyline isn’t the only weird aspect of the project. From the repetitive one-liners (“bullshit artist,” “shit-scared”) to the outlandish costumes and the prosthetic penises present in almost every scene, “The Greasy Strangler” is a disturbing, disgusting, nauseating, hilarious, one-of-a-kind movie that’s just begging for you to hate it. (The confusing thing is, you stick around for more.)
The Huffington Post sat down with Wood, Noah and Waller to find out more about why they decided to take on the project and what’s to come for SpectreVision.
First off, you’re all fucked-up people. [Laughs] This film is ridiculous. How does something like this get made and supported by SpectreVision?
Elijah Wood: The genesis of it is actually a couple years ago. Todd Brown from Twitch and XYZ, who I’m friends with, emailed me and was like, “You should check out this guy Jim Hosking, he’s really amazing. He’s got a huge fan base and we all want him to make a feature film and he has a few feature ideas.” And he mentioned “Greasy Strangler” way back when. I saw all of Jim’s work and fell in love with it. And then two years later, I get an email from Ant Timpson and Ant was like, “I got this script it’s super crazy, I really want you to read it. Maybe you’d consider it for all of us to go in on a movie together.” And he sent me “Greasy Strangler.” It took me maybe an hour to read, and I fell in love with it. And then I started quoting the movie back to him and he was like, “You get it!” I was like, “I’m in love with this thing. This is the craziest, most fucked-up, disturbing, weird thing … I cant even categorize it. But I’m in love with it. And knowing Jim and his sensibilities, I totally see this movie.” And so I sent it to these guys with not so much a “see if you like it,” but a, “We’re doing this.” [Laughs]
In addition to the script itself and being able to champion and support Jim’s vision, it was also about working with friends and all of us being able to join forces to rally around something that we thought was super unique and, in some ways, maybe a movie that wouldn’t necessarily get made if it weren’t for us maniacs. And that felt really special. It felt good to be putting our energy into something that would have never been made or would have been really on the fringes and put all of our creative impulses into that, literally giving Jim a space to which he could make his vision unfettered.
So, Daniel and Josh, what were your opinions when you first read the script? Were you like, “Why are we doing this?” Or were you up for it?
Josh C. Waller: I definitely had a similar reaction to Elijah’s when I read it. I was laughing at things and you’re thinking as you’re reading it, “This can’t be right. They can’t keep going.” And then the dialogue that’s in the film is in the script so there’s a lot of these sequences where they’re just bouncing it off of each other for pages. And I just found myself laughing. I didn’t get it, but I don’t always have to “get” everything that we’re involved with. The director needs to to get it. We just need to have faith in the director’s vision that it’s going to be something we’ve never seen before.
The characters are something. Especially Brayden.
Wood: He’s so tender and sweet and you do sort of empathize with him and feel bad for him. One of my favorite lines in the film is “I’m shit-scared, Janet.” [Laughs, reennacting the scene]
And Michael St. Michaels is nuts in this role.
Daniel Noah: Michael is the sweetest guy, just gentle and kind. This morning he was getting ready to leave, we’re all staying in the same house, and he was very distressed because he couldn’t find his pink “Greasy” hat. And we said, “Just wear another hat.”
Waller: But he didn’t want to get approached on the streets. He’s like, “It’s already happening, I already got approached outside the house … I need my hat, where’s my hat?” And he’s looking for his bright “Greasy” hat to disguise him, so people wouldn’t recognize him. [Laughs]
Noah: There are very fascinating similarities between this real person and the character. He’s filled with incredible stories about the work he’s done.
Waller: And trivia from Hollywood.
Wood: He also used to run a punk club in San Diego. He’s had a really fascinating life.
Noah: So in the movie, when he’s constantly telling his wild stories, it extends into reality.
Did you spend a lot of time on set?
Waller: I did.
Wood: And I did a bit, as well.
Waller: Because the film takes place in LA and and all of our producing partners are kind of international, we were the LA-based production company on the ground. We had Theo Brooks, who is our executive producer, Ant [Timpson], and our friend Zack Carlson come to help out.
Wood: Yeah, it was a real family affair.
Theo was actually telling me about scouting locations, specifically Ronnie and Brayden’s house. Was that a torturous production?
Waller: Jim has a specific vision and there’s something that’s kind of refreshing and sometimes frustrating about it, but ultimately it’s whatever he sees in his head. I mean, the proof is in the pudding if you watch the film. Every single shot and every single location is so precise. Every element in the shot is something that the whole team put together. That all came down to location scouts that took four weeks longer than they needed to …
Wood: That’s sort of the difficult aspect of it. But the beauty is that you end up with something that is as specific as it is and it just takes that much more effort to find something that focuses on minute details.
Waller: We were this indie film, so you don’t budget to have a two-month scout — you got three days. We just didn’t have the budget, so Theo ended up becoming the executive producer/location scout. So these texts at like 11 o’clock were like, “I found this house! It’s right in downtown LA! I’m really excited!”
Wood: It wasn’t even on the list of houses to see, he literally saw it out of his car while driving. Which was a fucking miracle because that place was everything because all of the interiors were also in the house.
Noah: We added things, like the portrait of the two of them.
Wood: Do you know the portrait in the back of some of the shots of Brayden and Ronnie? I have that in my house.
No you don’t. That’s amazing. [Elijah searches through his phone to find me a photo of this said portrait, which is hanging right above his piano.] It works perfectly in that space …
Wood: I know, right?
Tell me about working with director Jim Hosking on this. What drew you into his world? Apparently he took it very seriously despite the plot of the film.
Wood: I think what attracted us to him is, he’s a world creator. He populates these worlds with very unique characters that are unique onto the world he’s creating. It was clearly on the page, but the notion to how he could extend that aesthetic and the sort of talent that he has for creating something that’s unique unto itself was a really cool process and prospect. But he does take everything very seriously. Obviously, the scenarios within the context of the film are ridiculous oftentimes, but he would never approach those things from the standpoint of being ridiculous or from an ironic standpoint. It was very much an artistic standpoint.
Noah: You can’t work comedy from the standpoint of it being funny. You play it real and the byproduct is that it’s funny.
Waller: It actually didn’t click with me until [the screening] last night as to the world Jim was creating. It’s like a kid playing with action figures and they also have a really great production designer to help. Because it could be an action figure hero this one time and then turn into a grease guy.
Speaking of production design, we need to talk about the fact that you guys backed the creation of all those prosthetic penises. How many were there?
Noah: There were six, right?
Waller: Ultimately, there were six, then there was the one that was on the actual “Greasy” suit, which was one whole piece. We would laugh about those when we would prep because the amount of emails that went back and forth with the word “cock,” “penis” or “dick” in it … with pictures …
That masturbation scene with Brayden, I just couldn’t believe.
Wood: It’s so shocking. But the thing to remember, too, is all of the comedy is coming from the reality of the character, so I think that’s why Jim would approach things not from a comedic standpoint. These are who these people are and this is their world and their scenarios.
For future projects, what do you look for, or what are you hoping to take on?
Noah: We always say it’s a “know it when you see it” kind of thing. We are very interested in specifically making films that probably wouldn’t exist otherwise. We’ll sometimes pass on something that we know is good and would be commercially successful because it’s too familiar. And it was never a mandate to only work with first-time directors, but with a few exceptions, every single one of our films has been with a first-time director. And I think that’s because they bring something fresh since they haven’t formed bad habits. There’s a term, “outsider art,” which is usually applied to visual arts but it can be true in film, too.
Wood: I’ve been saying this film is definitely outsider art.
Noah: It absolutely is. We’re just always looking for a really neat vision and we tend to lean toward first-time filmmakers. It’s also a incredibly rewarding process. They’ve been waiting their whole life for this moment and they’re just brimming with enthusiasm and excitement and ideas.
Wood: That’s a huge part of it, for us. We also just look to other filmmakers who we admire. When we first started our company, part of our process to get material was just to reach out to people in the creative community. Many of them were directors, some of which we hadn’t met before, but we’d seen their work and wanted to meet with them. Panos Cosmatos is a great example of that because seeing “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” we were like, “This guy is incredible. We have to work with him on something.” And we’re working on his next film. So that’s a big thing for us, as well. People who are doing things that don’t feel like everyone else is doing them.
Noah: When we’re meeting with a more seasoned filmmaker, we’ll usually say, “Do you have a personal passion project that no one will support because it’s too outside the box?” And 100 percent of the time, they light up and say, “Yes! Of course I do!” And, irreverently, it’s awesome. So it’s kind of similar to working with first-time filmmakers — people who are making films regularly who are desperate to do something more personal or a little different or a little too weird.
“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” was one of those first-time feature-length director films, which is now getting more eyes on Netflix.
Wood: That’s such a special film. We were really fortunate to be involved. Ana Lily Amirpour is such an incredible filmmaker. Clearly, some other people realize that she’s one of the important new voices.
But “Greasy” could probably do well on something like Netflix because people are always browsing for original, unique material.
Wood: I agree.
Noah: That would be great.
I could see it becoming a cult classic because it has so many memorable moments.
Wood: It does. It has so many quotable moments. [Laughs]
Elijah, what’s your take on producing versus acting, and how do you decide when to take on a role?
Wood: It’s funny, I don’t think I hold them in different places necessarily. I think as an actor, certainly over the last 10 years of my life, my approach to the work has been from the standpoint of being a filmmaker, not just me simply being there to fulfill a role and just do that. I love the notion of collaboration and I love being within the context of people trying to achieve the ultimate goal that we’re all kind of in on that thing together. So, in some ways it’s very similar to the ethos I have as a producer, as well. They’re more linked I suppose than one would imagine.
The nice thing about our company is it’s consistently happening. We never have a break from it — we’re always developing something or there’s always a number of projects that are in various stages of development. The consistency of that, to have this thing creatively as an outlet, is incredible. And then as far as acting is concerned, it remains the same for me in the sense that I’m always looking for something really different and something that I can have a gut response to, which isn’t very easy. I worked on a movie last year called “The Trust” with Nicolas Cage that’s going to come out this year, and that was an absolute joy, something I’m really proud of and excited for people to see. But I’m just always looking for something unique, so that can mean there’s a long stretch of time before I find something or a few things will pop up.
Noah: All three of us have other careers: Josh is a director, I’m a writer/director. And I think, in general, when a piece of material comes in, whether it’s specifically for SpectreVision or for [Elijah] to act in or for Josh to direct or me to write, or just sent to us for our take on it, if we like something, the question is: How can we best service this project? A term I love is “the total filmmaker,” which is a Jerry Lewis term, and that just means someone who looks at the big picture, not just one piece of it. And I think all three of us try and operate that way.
Wood: I just love filmmaking, so at the end of the day, however best I can be a part of something in whatever form that takes is how I want to be a part of it. I just want to be a part of a collaborative process and making things that we all believe in.
It’s a great trio because you have different sensibilities. The acting versus the directing versus the writing, so you all sort of bring it together. Josh, do you get scripts coming in where you say, “Hey, I’d love to direct this”?
Waller: I never really offer myself up to direct anything that gets submitted. If there’s anything we’re looking at to have me direct, it’d be something that is an original idea of mine or Daniel’s and, in which case, to take a film that I’m directing and then be like, “I’d really like to do this film with producers that I trust,” and, I’m sorry, but I don’t trust anyone in the world almost more than I trust these two gentleman. Dan said something interesting to me years ago. We’ve been friends for 20 years. I was having a little bit of a problem directing something and he said, “If you read material you’re interested in directing, if there’s any part of you that thinks maybe you don’t have to direct it, don’t direct it.” If you’re directing it, it’s because you have to. I can’t explain it, it’s just like, no one is going to do this better than me. And I can’t say that for a lot of things.
This is like the fellowship of the film …
Wood: Ohhhhh, she did it!
Noah: I think we know what the headline is going to be. [Laughs]
[Editor’s note: Thanks for the tip, guys!]
Wood: But I think that’s hopefully something that I see occupying more of my time in the future, too. I’d love to direct. I sometimes secretly fantasize that there will be a day when that’s all I do. I don’t know. There’s an openness, which is a nice thing to have been afforded. Given how long I’ve worked and the fact that we’ve established something, I feel like I’ve afforded myself the ability to have an openness about not knowing where the future is going and not necessarily having a plan and just being drawn to things that kind of come into our life and that’s an amazing place to be and not something I take for granted at all.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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