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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Jay Baruchel Talks Horror and Unpacking His Fascination With True Crime Through ‘Random Acts of Violence’ [Interview]

Anytime we step outside the comfort of anonymity we invite criticism. It is often accompanied by regret in the decision to put ourselves out there at all. This process is the same for everyone who chooses to share their work with the world. It is terrifying because the work is typically a direct expression of the artist, and no matter what form that takes, one thing is universally true: art is subjective.

Subjectivity rarely allows room for definitive interpretation, often relying on consensus to inform individual opinion, leaving even the most calloused hands raw and vulnerable. Much like that wordy, pretentious sentence (or this whole article, for that matter), people may dislike something you worked hard on. Further still, they could hate it. That’s scary. And that’s okay.

Criticism helps us grow. Accepting someone’s difference in opinion is maturity. Doing so without first attacking that individual on a worldwide platform is likely a stage in the evolution of our species. The very nature of social media, and the anonymity it affords, can often encourage camaraderie that we may not otherwise feel confident enough to engage in. Sometimes, though, it can detract from what we are—a community.

I sat down with actor/director Jay Baruchel (via Zoom, of course) to talk about his film Random Acts of Violence. What followed was a discussion about the horrors and brutality of everyday life. We talked about valuing victim recognition and appreciation over idolizing killers, the power of subjectivity, and the inspiration he finds in modern horror.

What was your thought process behind the killer’s anonymity in Random Acts of Violence?

It’s not like we don’t have all that data that we came up with ourselves. We obviously do, but we purposely, even in the script, tried to put a very low ceiling on how much of his identity you ever got to know. So even in the script his name is The Man. Never once in our movie is his real name said and our script doesn’t communicate that. We know it because we came up with one fucking a decade ago. The idea was, like, we don’t want to—we want to sort of try to do our part to kind of mitigate the mythos. Our movie is very much about POV and perspective.

It’s how one human interacting with another human, or one human hurting another human, can, via perspective, become a monster hurting a hero or a monster hurting a victim and, thereby, losing the humanity by, sort of, enlarging and exaggerating the killer. Because a monster is easier to wrap your head around because you don’t have to, it’s a monster. So, that explains it. There you go. Boom. Easy. Done. If it’s a person, well, likely you’ve met a few of those. So, then you have to figure out a way to be like, how is it, you know—and that’s potentially uncomfortable and scary and all those different things. So, the whole point was trying to show a sad, shitty, on the street level reality that is transmuted and turns into a monster and something mythical, and our means of projecting myth as a way to process, sort of, trauma and process tough things. And the other thing is, who cares who the fuck any of these guys ultimately were?

So, it’s interesting in so much as you want to know how somebody—if you live in normality—you want to know how somebody gets to that, to Jeffery Dahmer. So, I understand that. But I also think like, all of that has, as we talk about in the flick, the knowledge and understanding of all these guys has come at the expense of [not] knowing almost any of these victims. We wanted to take real estate away from that side of the equation and sort of put that real estate on the victims, on the other side of the equation. To a lot of these people, victims of these guys are complete strangers. So, then that would be their experience: being brutalized by a complete fucking stranger, some guy. So, all of these reasons, all of that kind of informed it, I think.

With any of those guys, Dahmer, Gacy, you totally think of them. You don’t know anything about the people they killed. Further, to see this guy with his mask on, the welding helmet, it’s a terrifying image, but to take that off, it’s just a guy. It’s a bit more comforting because it is a human being, but it’s also terrifying because IT IS a human being doing this to you.

That’s the thing. You’d see him at the parking lot. It’s always like that, man. If you lived through a, sort of, serial killer personality cult blossoming—like, if there are a bunch of fucking homicides happening, and then there’s a fascination and you eventually see the guy if he eventually gets caught—nine times out of ten, it’s just a dude, you know. That’s far scarier. People are the scariest.

I’ve been obsessed with this Cold Case podcast lately. I try to build these guys up in my mind as I’m listening, and then when the reveal comes, it’s just your fucking neighbor.

Yeah, every time. That’s ultimately the scariest kind of reveal it could be. Because, I don’t know, the ghost, once you find out, once the exposition happens and it’s named, is never scary really anymore. But a person, there’s a whole bunch of those. I understand why it’s fascinating. I’ve been interested in how people get there since I was a kid. I think that’s a natural fascination to have. I think it feels reasonable to temper that with remembering what this actually looks like in practice and in experience. That’s something that I had to learn and teach myself. And also, there’s kind of a paradigm shift in my country and people up here are reconciling with, you know, we’ve had one image of ourselves and we’ve had overwhelming evidence to support like a sort of—yeah, pretty shitty side of that image for a long time that we’ve just chosen to ignore because it would go against our sense of superiority, moral superiority over the States. There’s some crazy statistics up here: if you’re an indigenous woman in Canada, you’re six times more likely than the average Canadian to die a violent death. That’s a shame. That can’t be tolerated. That’s a fucked up thing.

My movie is not connected to any piece of that. I guess what I mean is: I started out my twenties never thinking about the victim. When I was younger, they didn’t occupy nearly as much a part of my head and heart as they should’ve. And it’s just an effort to, sort of, as I grow up, to kind of remember like, hey, I can find this interesting, but it’s an ugly, horrible thing and you wouldn’t want your family to go through it. I found myself always able to name the bad guy and rarely able to name the people they were chasing and/or killing. There seemed to be a correlation there. I just felt like it was at least worth unpacking, or to try to start unpacking it.

I was reading about Thomas Harris creating Hannibal Lecter, and it’s this beautiful, powerful, and charming character, but that’s not how serial killers are. They’re often these sad individuals that just sit around in their jail cells after they get caught.

And they’re often not particularly bright. I find that, I don’t know, rarely are they kind of elegant and/or refined. Usually they’re quite blunt instruments. And I don’t know how many of them would have ever been that pleasant. You know, I can’t shit on Hannibal Lecter; that’s like, one of the great characters in western [culture] and I’m a big fan too. But again, that was at least the motivation behind it. We knew it was going to be a real stylized movie, so we tried to play counter point against that with exceedingly banal. It was all just, kind of, try to just make him a man, try to make him a guy and not a monster. 

Part of what really sold that for me was what seemed like the frustration he was experiencing prior to attacking. Was any of that character choice or was that all direction? The pounding on the chest—I get that this is a person.

That’s so cool. Thank you. I appreciate you noticing that. I think that’s a cool—not cool. I think it’s a powerful touch. I don’t know exactly whose idea it was, but I know we came up with it on the night. We knew from prep onwards. We were talking about just what we’d be interested in [in regards to] on-screen violence. We had also kind of known what the tenor of our violence was going to be. We all knew the guiding principles were, like, clumsy, start-stoppy, sad; sort of play defense against choreography, play defense against sequency-ness. Of course, it’s a sequence and it’s choreographed, but just to bury those things and to mitigate those things and to kind of have it unfold in the rhythm that shit seems to typically unfold at in real life. Not that I’ve seen anyone get stabbed up in a car like that, but I’ve been out and about when a car wreck or a bar fight happens, or some shit, and whenever it happens, it’s like this music that life operates at that we all—as all of us just agreeing to walk at a certain pace and hold the door open and speak at this volume and not at this volume, so then there’s a rhythm to it. And then something happens, and the rhythm goes away, and we can’t hear that song anymore. Now it’s unfolding and you don’t know where the fuck it’s going to go. So that was kind of the idea.

In figuring that out and going through the beats on the night, I remember, yeah, we were just like—it started from talking about it. I was like, ‘I think you’re rusty, man. You haven’t done this in a while and you’re psyched to do it but you’re also kinda like, you’re gonna take that first step and then you’re going to be like—oh, fuck. The doubt’s going to kick in. You don’t think you’re gonna do this. So, you’re gonna have to fucking amp yourself up, man. So, I think you’re rusty. So, let’s get’er going like you about to go play hockey, like you’re gonna go play your first shift after being injured for a long time and you’re worried that you’re gonna fucking eat it and make an ass of yourself.’ So then, we just kind of clicked in. And Simon [Northwood] is a lovely man. He’s also a really, really smart actor and awesome collaborator and very, very accomplished stunt performer and martial artist. He just got it. We figured it out and I remember everybody watching it as it happened. Just watching him get’er going and just running after. And everybody was just like ‘good lord.’ Yeah, it’s awful. Because, again, it’s a man. It [wasn’t] superhuman, and he didn’t just appear from the ether and he wasn’t a hundred percent cool and in control of his emotions. How could he be? He’d be as prey to the moment as anybody. 

I tried to imagine what it would look like to completely lose it and that was it. You see stab scenes and how [composed they sometimes are].

That’s the thing. And it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. It’s a small amount of space and a really horrible thing. So, it’s Simon, but it’s also the kids, man. My actors fucking sold it. I remember I got to work with Clint Eastwood when I was like twenty-two, twenty-three, something like that, on Million Dollar Baby, and I get my ass kicked in that movie. I remember he said to me as we were about to do that scene, he was like, ‘listen, I’ve kicked the shit out of a lot of guys on screen over the years and let me tell you, every single time it was them. It was the other guy who sold it.” And Eric [Osborne] who sits in the front passenger seat, good lord. He had to do that a few times and that’s no small feat. To keep expending that same amount of energy and to have to just go through that same arc of emotions a bunch of times—and I would send Simon in at the car at different intervals. So, on the first take I would send him in like ten-fifteen seconds after actions, then on the second take it would be thirty, then on the [third] take it would be five seconds in. I would just, kind of, never let the kids get their sea legs. And just be like, talk. Just keep talking to make yourselves comfortable. Right? That’s what we do when shit goes poorly. We talk and we keep talking to each other. We talk because as long as we’re talking and there’s no dead air, we can’t get scared and get worried. So just keep talking.

So, it was a cool one. It was a very hard night’s work. We had fucking rainwater trucks and all that jazz and that stuff’s a bastard to deal with and we had a lot of shit to get through. But once we got’er going, and everybody was fucking firing, man, we were singing. Sometimes you see it. You’re like, I think there’s some truth here. I think we got that. I think we got something that’s meaningful. I think a scene like that should be unpleasant and horrifying. 

The other one I appreciated was Aurora getting grabbed out of the darkness.

Yeah, thanks. That was a cool, happy accident. We knew what the scene was gonna be blocked at, we knew the misdirect with the couple arguing at the [truck] and they go and reveal the man’s van. But, like, in the first time we did it, it just timed out. It was one of those fucking things where, Simon walked out of the shadows at the exact right time. Like, the headlights revealing him was never part of our plan. Of all the things that had occurred to us, to build this sequence that, which is now—that’s the thing. And holy fuck. All of us at the monitors—even I jumped back from the screen. Yeah, it was cool, man. Very lucky. I got really really strong performers and a strong crew on my movie. We get these little fun, kind of treasures that come together and that’s the most fun cause it’s not a novel. It’s not a dictatorship. It shouldn’t be. I don’t know how movies are ever made in tyranny. I think, like, everybody getting their fingerprints on it and everyone just trying to make something cool happen is the fucking best. That’s like, you know, if you’ve ever made a haunted house or some shit with your friends, like everyone pitching in on this one shared cool, fucking thing that you’re all gonna vibe on. You know, that’s one of those things where everybody is huddled together around the monitor and we’re all—costumes, stunts, makeup, fucking everybody, and we’re all just like, Oh, fuckin’A, awesome. Yeah, that’s gonna be cool. Yeah, super pure. It’s nothing special. It’s just a guy walks up and grabs her and it’s fucking awful on a shitty old picnic table, but I think that’s kind of part of what’s scary about it. And that we’re far enough away. We’re so far away you can’t do anything about it, but you can see exactly what’s fucking happening. I wanted to make the audience feel a little bit guilty and helpless. 

I was interested in knowing about the lighting choices. The film is heavily stylized.

Yeah, so, Karim Hussain, my cinematographer, is like, one of the great living cinematographers and I think the world is about to realize that. A bunch of people know how good he is, but I think that is about to increase ten-fold when [Brandon Cronenberg’s] Possessor comes out. I think when people see the shit that him and Brandon Cronenberg did it’s going to be sick. That trailer is the best. So, Karim is amazing. And Karim and I are sort of nerds; huge nerds who have technically known each other for 20 years. When I was like 16, I did this movie called Matthew Blackheart: Monster Smasher [Erik Canuel, 2002] and Fangoria covered it because it was a bunch of monsters and it was a very prosthetic makeup heavy movie. And the reporter that Fangoria sent was Karim. And Karim, at the time, in addition to writing for Fango, was also co-founder of the Fantasia Festival in Montreal, which is my favorite film festival of all time; one that I’ve been queuing up at since I was 14. And he and I—I think he was a few years older than me, but we just got along super well. And then I watched his career take off and was super proud of him from afar. And then we got back into each other’s orbit and were going to make this movie together. Actually, it wasn’t even technically prep, because we didn’t have enough money, so they weren’t technically allowed to be called prep days, but we were still allowed to go to the office. So Karim and I went into the office for fun. On the very first morning he rolled up and we gave each other a big hug and we were like, this is fun, finally making a movie realizing a conversation we had twenty fucking years ago. He then looks at me and goes, ‘okay, fire and water, cyan and amber. That’s The Man and Todd.’  And I was like, okay, fucking yeah. Let’s get into it. I see you come in with cyan and amber. I come in with pink, slightly violet pink. The kind of pink you get which is the cumulative effect of a bunch of Christmas lights firing at once. And that’s on the same side of the wheel as amber and green is the opposite and we were like, okay that’s cool. And then we went into the fucking office.

I mention this just because we kinda had a feeling. We saw this thing in our heads before we shot-listed it, and then as we shot-listed it, it was making more sense. And when we tested it we saw that the colors did something. They had a shit load of resonance. And it wasn’t that it just looked sick, it was making us feel shit. And we’re like, this is going to be fucking heavy to watch something violent in, and also, this is going to be heartbreaking to watch. So, we realized the colors we had picked, kind of on instinct, ended up being the right ones. And then we saw how effective they were. But yeah, it was just a super earnest, nerdy, artsy conversation that started at 9 am in the morning outside of a production office.

It made you feel uneasy when you should feel uneasy; even when you wanted to feel a bit more comfortable, you still felt uneasy.

A bit. Yeah, that was what we hoped. We hoped it would be like kind of an awful waking dream. And just that you could never quite get your sea legs.

Random Acts of Violence Fantastic Fest Review

The line about “sneaking in a little medicine in the sugar” stuck with me. Where are you at on the meaningfulness of content?

That’s us trying to figure out what’s a guy like Todd, who has the best possible opinion of the shit he’s doing, and sees it in the most high-minded lens, what would his complaint be? That, like, he gives them something special, and all they see is something crazy. And what would that frustration lead to? There is definitely something to always wanting a movie going experience to be fun. And for me, that’s not always what I want. And also, we got to where we got to on the movie on two sort of tracks that were evolving at the same time. While we were growing up and kind of like trying to reconcile with our, hopefully ever-evolving belief system, and the push and pull between that. That’s very much reflected in this movie, but so is our effort to try and figure out what scary looks like now. What’s heavy in music now. I would argue that heavy in music has nothing to do with distortion or pedals anymore or screaming. It can’t. Those colors have become so, now traditional. Now, don’t get me wrong, I say this as someone who listens to that music, but to cut through that. That shit was heavy because it was heavier than the shit it cut through. What cuts through that? And it’s not gonna sound like it. And so, it’s gonna be fucking neo-folk. It’s gonna be minimalist. You’re gonna have to refigure it out. Like, the rocks that everybody got off the first time they heard Sabbath or Maiden or whatever and how it was the antidote to, sort of, boring shit. It just is more direct and meaner and heavier and gloomier and all these things.

So, we tried to figure out ‘what’s scary now?’ After a hundred plus years of scary cinema. It seemed to be, in addition to having all the ideological reasons for portraying shit the way we did, we just thought it was scarier. We thought it was scarier to be uncomfortable. We thought it was scarier to be intimate and clumsy. We thought it was scarier to be hopeless. That was sort of our attempt to go as hard as we could because a horror movie—that’s really the only thing that matters in it, that it fucks you up.

[We touched on a private director’s statement document that recently found its way online.]

If you don’t think you’re making the best movie in the world when you’re making your movie, I don’t think you should be making your movie. I don’t know how else you make your movie. If you’re not willing to take on the world with your movie, what’s the fucking point?

I was just trying to get’er going. And those documents are inherently wanky. Because it’s just us trying to convince an investor, or whomever, that this is a thing worth doing. However, I understand why it would rub people the wrong way.

Sincerely, the only thing that bums me out, it has the potential, if it hasn’t already done this, of taking away from the experience of people that dug the flick. I think for people that hated the flick, it was like, yeah, we have our DNA proof that he’s an asshole. But I think for people that like the flick, some of them, it would now take away from it. So, that bothers me a lot. The flick is my director’s statement. Everything I felt worth doing or saying or expressing to the world is in the movie.

That movie I fought to make for ten years. And then production and postproduction, that’s two years of my life. So that’s a decade of decision, after decision, after decision, quite painstaking at times, and that’s not unique to me, like any movie. But the point is, the movie, I got to think about and work on. [That] document, it is the sum total of fifteen minutes of my life that I don’t even remember. Like, I don’t remember when I typed it. Because when you spend ten years trying to get a movie going, that shit happens. I know I typed it, I know why I typed it, but I don’t remember doing it. And I know it was a formality that I just wanted to get a page of shit down there to get people interested.

It is impossibly vague, and that’s not an accident. One would have to do some digging to find me shit talking other peoples’ movies. Aside from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood because I was deeply offended by that film. Bruce Lee was a hero of my Dad’s and a hero of mine and I fucking hate what they did to him in that stupid movie.

But aside from that, I don’t fucking shit on shit. And I didn’t there. I mean I did, but I shat on it the way somebody shits on the world when they say ‘the world fucking sucks.’

But I don’t want to dismiss or diminish people getting mad. It’s not for me to say what they’re allowed to get mad about and how mad they should get. That’s none of my business. That’s up to them. I just—yeah, I wish all of it was about the flick. The flick is the thing. The flick is the director’s statement, the flick is the discourse I wanted to get started, you know. Now I’m living it. It’s ultimately a good thing. 

What is the line you would draw between classic and contemporary horror?

I don’t know that I have a good answer. And that’s not me trying to be cutsie or whatever. I don’t know. That’s a very good question. Like, I’m scared, because I feel like no matter what I’m going to give the wrong answer. Maybe Scream is a sort of border, potentially. That’s a very good question that I don’t think I have an answer for. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. 

What modern horror are you into?

Lately, and I never know if this shit qualifies, I don’t know if you count the Nightingale [Jennifer Kent 2018] as a horror movie, but I really liked that one. There’s a [Robin Aubert] movie called Les Affames, in English it’s called The Ravenous [2017]. I really dug it. My buddy’s the star of it. I’m biased towards him, but if I hated the movie, I would not have mentioned it to you at all. I’m a big fan of Jordan Peele. That guy’s doing it, man. He’s the king. He’s the king for a reason. I dig his shit in a big way. There’s a movie called, I think it’s called The Headhunter [Jordan Downey, 2018]. It was basically like a horror flick—it’s set in the woods, but it’s kind of like a RPG, or high-fantasy world. It’s about this guy that kills monsters. He lives in this hut where he’s got all these heads of goblins and shit that he’s killed. But now there’s this one monster that killed his kid and he gets the chance to kill it. Anyway, it’s just like, a very simple story, and only like two actors, three actors in the whole thing. But really fucking cool. And if they made it for the budget for what IMDB claims, which is 30k, it’s staggering. Absolutely staggering. Inspirational. It’s one of those movies that’s like legit inspiring. It’s one of those movies that’s like fuck yes, this is why you make movies. It’s inspiring and it gets you off your ass.

I really like Doctor Sleep [Mike Flanagan, 2019] a lot. I thought that was a cool fucking flick. Host [Rob Savage, 2020]. I thought that was awesome. It’s a fucking cool flick man. I’m a movie nerd, so I dig anything that’s kind of a first. I’ll be interested in anything that’s kind of a first. Doesn’t mean I’m gonna like the movie. [Host] in addition to being kind of groundbreaking, it’s also fucking really good. I just really dug it and it got me and I was hooked, and I thought the acting was spectacular. Knowing that all of it was put together remotely, and that they like—yeah, it’s really, really, again, another kind of inspiring flick.

Random Acts of Violence is now streaming on Shudder.


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