Some films defy categorization. It may be because they draw from several genres, it may be because they come from an abstract world where it is hard to speak in certain terms, or it may be because they are just so darn weird, singular, and unforgivingly unique that they practically dare you to try to sum it up. Such a film is THE GREASY STRANGLER. Premiering at Sundance in the Midnight Section, the film toys with all the preconceptions of what that demarcation might mean. Yes, there is a killer wandering the streets, but the danger of the film is much more bizarre than your typical slasher film. Actually, writer/director Jim Hosking’s feature film debut (co-written by Toby Harvard) is more like a father-son relationship drama, with a heavy glob of gross-out humor (although what may be termed gross is always up for debate, as you’ll see).
Hapless social reject Brayden (Sky Elobar) lives and works with his father Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels). They offer ‘Disco Tours’ to easily duped tourists visiting empty warehouses, or claiming that the Bee-Gees once wrote a song in that particular doorway while waiting for their ride. Brayden is desperate for his father’s approval, and seems on the right path when Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) hangs after a tour to pick up the tour guide. Of course, Janet becomes a wedge between the two men, with Big Ronnie eventually attempting to steal her affections. Also he slathers himself with grease and goes out and murders people.
The Greasy Strangler comes to SXSW this March as a ‘Festival Favorite,’ which seems to acknowledge the fact that this movie does not fit easily into any genre, but its demarcation of ‘favorite’ may be even more argument-starting. Hosking’s film is not easy on anyone. The crude and often repetitive humor and constant nudity (from people you really, really don’t want to see naked) will delight an audience who love quirky stories and have a penchant for the absurd. At Sundance, no other film inspired as many walkouts, and then almost invariable ended with a standing ovation from those who braved it to the end. It is really a matchless vision from a bizarre mind, and one that has the potential to live on forever as a cult classic, with the likes of John Waters and “The Toxic Avenger.”
Hosking is responsible for some very peculiar commercials, many of which you might have seen (especially if you live in the UK) and the almost equally inexplicable Sundance short RENEGADES, a day in the life of the two least qualified ‘players’ as they wander from prostitutes to the so-called King Of Pimps (also Sky Elobar) who serves them colored cakes and red drink, and sends them off to a strip club with a sailor. THE GREASY STRANGLER traces its life back to Hosking’s ABC’s of Death 2 piece “G is for Grandad.” A collaboration of producers and production companies that include Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision, kiwi horror producing legend Ant Timpson and Austin’s own Tim League (under the Fantastic Fest banner – not Drafthouse Films), Timpson and League produced that wildly successful anthology (and its first installment) and saw this film as an opportunity to work with the fresh filmmaker, on something that really had the potential to be unlike anything else. Also on board, Andy Starke, a producer on both ABCs films, Ben Wheatley’s A FIELD IN ENGLAND, and a couple of television series on Cult and Exploitation cinema.
I had the opportunity to sit down with writer/director Hosking, and producers Timpson and Starke at Sundance and talk at length about the film, about what is truly gross on screen, and pushing people’s boundaries.
BEARS: So, let’s start with the genesis of the idea. Did you just find a bucket of grease and you were like, “I want to rub that all over somebody?” or…?
Hosking: No, I was speaking to my friend Toby, who I wrote the script with. We were just talking about some guy who could put loads of grease onto like, everything he ate, and just think it’s funny to be obsessed with grease because it’s not very good for you. I think it just quickly became funny that he was a strangler as well, because like, if you’re very greasy, it doesn’t give you much purchase.
BEARS: Apparently, there’s sort of this current feeling with eating trends now that grease is somehow bad for you.
Hosking: Exactly, I wanted to reverse that trend. That trend really angers me.
BEARS: So did you have to talk ahead of time about just how much grease people were going to be covering their bodies in?
Hosking: No not really, no I sort of moved quickly on from the grease to the strangling and the —
Hosking: And the sex, yeah.
BEARS: It feels like sort of sometimes, when one develops a film, there’s the question of how far can you go to gross out your audience. In this film it seems like there’s never enough.
Starke: I’m very surprised that you can anymore. I mean, I don’t think it is ‘gross out’ at all. What’s really interesting to me is if you take the Hollywood version of gross out, like Trainwreck, you know, where everyone at the ends stops drinking, marries, has a child, becomes extremely conservative —
Timpson: It’s way more obscene.
Hosking: That’s truly offensive.
Starke: I think there’s a very pure sort of celebration that people don’t have to look like supermodels or – it’s much more interesting to me, much more honest. Like the nudity, you know, it’s just what people do. You have to take your clothes off occasionally. It’s kind of interesting to me. And it’s interesting when you see films when they don’t do that. That’s almost more obscene. You know, I’ve seen films where people are kind of sacrificed on the alter – they’ve still got their pants on. That’s kind of weird. That’s a weird Satanist that allows for the clothes. It’s just interesting to me, what people perceive as obscene or not.
Timpson: I found it funny that there were comments from people regarding the nudity, because there’s such an overwhelming abundance of it, and it becomes part of the narrative. At the end, it doesn’t become anything that’s unusual or boundary pushing in any way at all because it’s just everyday life for these guys.
Hosking: I don’t know if I can articulate it. It’s not trying to be weird or gross people out. I think that a lot of people do that and it’s in ways that the audience understands, so the violence could be really explicit and gross people out or there can be like a sort of sexual assault and that will gross people out and people understand how they’re being grossed out. With this film, it wasn’t designed to gross people out. And I think if it’s disturbing anybody it’s maybe because they don’t quite understand what the intention is or why they’re feeling disturbed.
BEARS: There’s a certain uncleanliness to the film which I find really appealing. It’s sort of dogmatic- you’ve got the grease, the naked bodies we’re not used to seeing, food sort of unappetizing to watch them eat, and so it goes almost through the whole film, it’s like a statement you’re making.
Hosking: I think it is definitely — I get very bored just seeing like a sort of airbrushed idea of how people are, you know? Like, normal people don’t look like the people that you see in most films, and that’s just really weird to me. So, with this film, it’s definitely a reaction to other stuff being sort of made palatable and agreeable for all audiences – I’m not trying to remove the rough edges, I’m trying to make something that’s a little unhygienic and grotesque —
Timpson: But we have a fascination with, a fixation now with being hygienic and everything has to be absolutely clean.
Hosking: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like no hairs on your asshole, please.
Timpson: You were saying you were inspired by kids’ shows and like the idea of filthy children. These are like grown-up children in this scenario and I just think that that is one of the strengths of the film is in the real innocence to these people —
Starke: It’s the sort of boundaries that the people live in. That’s the thing that I like – it’s like with the music, you know, it just totally fits the world. There’s like a palette of emotions and then over the music, there’s a palette of tunes.
BEARS: I thought the music was really interesting. [Andrew Hung of Fuck Buttons delivers a delightful low-fi keyboard driven score.] I was going to ask you about that. Because, I mean, they’re doing a disco tour, so the obvious choice would be disco music. Getting past that – that’s going to cost a lot of money. The music in this film is a lot more fun and original.
Hosking: Nothing in this film is, I think, the obvious thing to do. The music is kind of like the characters in the film, like they’re quite charm-like in the way that they can be really hot and then really cold, excited, depressed, angry, turned on. The music’s either sort of irate or it’s euphoric, you know?
BEARS: I like the way it really took us from one scene to another – it felt like flipping the page on a chapter when the music came in.
Hosking: Andy Hung, who made the music, I talked to him about music from kids’ TV programs from when I was growing up. There was a program called Bagpuss with little mice that would like talk to each other in high voices. I said to him that it’d be nice if there were these little high-voiced animals who’d start speaking when things got exciting within the music. So that when anything kind of significant or exciting happens, these chipmunks start singing along with the music.
Starke: Yeah, there’s something really lovely about that. It’s the same with all sort of great music, out of the chaos comes some sort of truth, you know? And I think it’s very interesting, because there’s a lot of films that make a massive point about being something significant or something real, or poor people, or miserable, and that’s bullshit. It costs millions of dollars to make these things. That’s why I don’t think it’s particularly gross out at all. That’s not what it’s about at all, for me, it’s like, it’s this really lovely thing where you just build a world.
Hosking: I think that the gross out thing, that comes from the fact that there are people saying some quite outrageous things within the film, but it’s not within the usual context. It’s not within a kind of sexy, slick film with beautiful people getting turned on by each other and talking dirty. It’s people who shouldn’t be talking like that to each other, and they shouldn’t live in that house. We shouldn’t be seeing this- why is she sitting there and he’s doing that to her?
Timpson: No matter how wild and otherworldly it all seems, these sort of discussions amongst people are happening in houses around the world.
Starke: Just a classic thing, isn’t it? Who’s ever bought a pornographic magazine? It’s very interesting, obviously people do exist for this stuff.
BEARS: Right, it’s a $4 billion industry, right?
Starke: But no one will tell you they have.
Timpson: I will.
BEARS: But it’s interesting- you’re talking about how these conversations go on all around the world. When it comes down to it, THE GREASY STRANGLER is really about a child trying to get his father’s acceptance, I think. He’s trying to find a way to connect to his dad. That’s very universal. They work together and yet his dad doesn’t respect him- it’s not until he really, fully embraces his dad’s wild side –
Hosking: Also about a father who’s terrified of his son leaving him and then being alone, you know? It’s definitely that.
BEARS: It comes out of fear – Big Ronnie fights out of fear and I think his son out of desire to make something of his own.
Starke: It’s really Jim’s version of “Cat’s in the Cradle,” isn’t it?
BEARS: And yet, as close to real life as the film paints in the opening, real people talking in a very real way, the film gets stranger and stranger as it goes, sort of leading us down this alleyway into absurdity.
Starke: What I really love, that none of us ever said, in the script it said that they see themselves being shot, and champagne comes out of their heads. And then when the effects people delivered, you think, “Oh, wow, that’s really going to happen.” You know, I would never say to Jim, “What does that mean?” I don’t care. I mean, I just want to be in a place where that happens.
Hosking: You did say to me, “What does it all mean?”
BEARS: Well it’s interesting because we start in a certain world that’s very specific. This is not our reality – but now having spent 70 minutes we get it, and then we go in a whole ‘nother place where it gets even more bizarre.
Hosking: Well, yeah, I suppose I wanted it to feel like its own world. I mean, you don’t really see anyone else in the film apart from the few characters who are in it – the streets are kind of deserted.
Timpson: There’s only one woman in the film.
Starke: Digitally removed.
Hosking: Yes, there was a woman removed.
Timpson: The actual horrible truth is that the effects budget on this film was about $10 million.
Hosking: When I started editing the film, I saw the other women in the restaurant, I thought she [the character of Janet]should be the only one in it.
BEARS: It works really well, because it’s like they both get fixated on the same woman, and for all practical purposes, she may be the only woman that ever shows any interest in them.
Hosking: She’s very rare and special.
BEARS: Her performance, all of the performances have an ‘affected honesty’ to them. Like they are very really people, that could only exist in this very artificial world. But I suspect a lot of that comes from how you directed them, and found them in the first place.
Hosking: I was trying to cast interesting characters who definitely have something quite special about them and I want to preserve that. So, interesting, idiosyncratic people. But all of them had a sort of sweetness about them. They might say mean things but they’re kind of sweet, at least to me.
Starke: I had this funny thing with this stuff on the beach, at the end, Ronnie kind of just can’t help but being horrible again. “Oh, god, really? Does he have to say that again?” and now I think, “Yeah, you know, he kinda does.” It’s just gonna be. That’s what it is. These people, that is what they are. There can be no compromise.
Timpson: Well, that’s great. Because another thing that other films do where they have people that have these complete transformations at the end. Ronnie’s still gonna be an asshole.
BEARS: Right. He still has to assert his dominance. So, it was really interesting to me that there’s so many companies involved in the film. Can you talk about how that came together? Because I’m from Austin, so it’s fun to see Fantastic Fest out there.
Starke: We’ve all been fans of odd, strange movies for years. So we’ve all been in each other’s universe, but it’s always been about old films. I think we’ve all gradually got to a point and suddenly we all started making films, you know? I was trying to make a film with Jim and then Jim showed me the script and he asked“Who in the world would think this is a good idea?”
Timpson: It’s one of the films that, pretty much, remains untouched from script to film. Like it is, a completely unfiltered, unmessed with – no fingers coming in late in the game and have a little twiddle, or a little twaddle. It is really rare these days and it should be celebrated that we’ve been able to pull a group of people together and money together from people who really believed in Jim’s vision and not fucked with it.
BEARS: Well if the script was pretty similar to how it ended up in the film then there’s a big buy in. If it didn’t change, people knew what they were getting.
Timpson: That’s exactly it, yeah. Including the heads coming off at the end.
THE GREASY STRANGLER world premiered at Sundance in January and will screen at SXSW as a Festival Favorite, hopefully stirring more giant audience responses, because if the audience isn’t going to react, why even make a movie? These are people who got together to make a very particular film basically for themselves, and it shows. And don’t worry about the possible ‘spoilers’ in this interview, believe me, there will be more than enough in Hosking’s film to make your own head explode. And for a little taste (of pink cake), check out Hosking’s 2010 short RENEGADES below.[vimeo 11210528 w=500 h=269]