June 9, 2023
A BITESIZE CHAT WITH
Jay Baruchel (Goon, She's Outta My League, How to Train Your Dragon) is here to discuss his first foray into horror filmmaking, Random Acts of Violence.
BB: First off, I'll say that I really enjoyed your approach to this film and how you tried to set it apart from other horror films. I know you’ve been vocal about the current state of horror being stagnant, and I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on that.
JB: Oh gosh, yeah, fair… I guess as a fan of the genre, I find myself rarely scared by anything that I see. Rare is the horror film that is a good movie and actually scares me, and I just also kind of developed a bit of a personal distaste for this idea of what a horror film had to be. It's basically like 10-15 years ago, a bunch of investors realized that they could put a little money into something that would make them a bunch, and then, all of a sudden, we had this whole rash of contained-genre films, which are very transparent in why they were created. For me, it's an art form that is terribly important to me and I cannot separate my love of cinema from my love of horror movies; and I think, when it's at its best, it's a very pure, very direct art form and it lends itself to some pretty special stuff. So I went out and tried to make the movie that I wished was out there.
BB: Actors are often asked who they want to act alongside, but they don't really give the director's standpoint a lot of focus. So, now that you’re making a name for yourself behind the camera, who are some of the actors you’d like to work with as a director?
JB: Oh wow, what a cool question! They’re all too cool for me, I suspect, but, if I ever got the chance to direct Val Kilmer, I would be able to die a happy man. And, obviously, you could do a lot worse than Daniel Day-Lewis. I’ve gotten to act alongside Gary Oldman; getting to direct him would be a dream. So those would be my guys, I think.
BB: You mentioned earlier not being able to separate love of cinema from love of the horror genre, but it's often a fine line between comedy and horror. Your film enters all the way into some pretty gory territory. How do you go from movies like the How to Train Your Dragon series and Tropic Thunder to something as dark as [Random Acts of Violence]?
JB: It comes down to… I’m very, very proud of, and honored to have, the acting career that I’ve had, but that’s like, you know, what I do for a living; and I hate saying that because it inherently sounds like I'm sort of dismissing it to a degree, which I really am not. I have been lucky enough to live off of my acting for quite some time, and, as a result, I’ve gotten to be a part of some pretty special films; but the movies I was watching at home and the stuff I was reading - everything I was sort of interested in myself - has been pretty consistent the whole time. I was always interested in, and a fan of, horror movies and action movies, and was always reading a shitload of true crime. So, for whatever reason, I was just always interested more in “strong medicine” as an audience member. So I knew that if ever I was lucky enough to get the chance to create an articulated vision in a movie, it would probably be something like that. So it’s like the movies that I’m in and the movies that I watch are sometimes different.
BB: One of the things that comes up in the film is the idea of the balance between horror as an art form and fetishizing evil. What do you think the difference is between those?
JB: That’s a very good question… Now, I think it’s a question that we don’t necessarily provide a clear answer to, which is deliberate, because I think there is some stuff which the film kind of takes a specific moral philosophy and standpoint on; but there’s other stuff that is more… kind of contributing to a debate in a conversation that I feel should happen. That being said, there are movies that I watch, and I know in my heart of hearts when something feels truthful and something feels kind of, yeah, fetishistic. And I’d point to a Quebecoise movie called, in English - 7 Days; and in French - Les 7 Jours du Talion; by Podz, and that movie is really harsh. It’s just one guy torturing another guy in a room for a whole fucking movie, and a great degree of realism and verisimilitude. It’s a fucking hard watch, but never once does it feel cheap or false; and never once does it feel like a love letter to violence; and it doesn’t seem to be sort of wallowing in it. So I think to answer the question, I think that’s kind of hard. It’s this almost amorphous thing that we call truth. I think that you can tell when something warrants its aesthetic and you can tell when something is ugly for the sake of ugly. I think you can; I can, anyway. But again, I think it’s a terribly relative thing, because every single one of us watches the same movie and we’re each going to have some different reaction to it, so that would be my kind of instinct is that it speaks to more the truth behind it. Why is Seven important, and a lot of other movies about a serial killer aren’t?
BB: I saw a lot of influence from 70s Italian horror, I just wanted to know what other influences you put into the direction of this?
JB: I definitely think there is some degree of giallo in the movie’s DNA. I think that when you see that, you’re seeing a lot of Karim Hussain’s influence because that’s an era and genre that’s really important to him. You know, for me, I think there’s some really important and beautiful stuff to be taken from it, but I’d be lying if I said it was my go-to. However, I saw ways that aspects of it would work pretty well in our flick. But for me the other kind of big influences would be The Red Shoes by [Michael] Powell & [Emeric] Pressburger, a British film from the 40s about a belly dancer, which is like not remotely scary - well not scary in a horror sense, scary in a different sense - I mean, most people don’t call that film scary, but there’s just a sort of a weird energy to it that I can’t put my finger on, but anyway, it was right for this movie. And then I say the two films that informed the energy of the violence in our movie the most would be Irreversible and David Fincher's Zodiac. They kind of both approached violence in a super honest, realistic way that allowed it to be kinda clumsy and stoppy and sort of really, really, you know, gritty as a result. So, those would be our big inspirations.
BB: You adapted this one from a comic book. I was wondering if you could talk to me about the idea of bringing a comic book to screen. How you did it, using the art in the movie? And how your experience with Captain Canuck leant to that?
JB: Oh awesome! It really starts from there being a really interesting story, an interesting kind of starting off viewpoint in the comic book and it just kind of got stuck in Jesse [Chabot]’s head, and in my head... Then, at a certain point, it becomes the only thing that matters is serving the story as well as we can, and so we allow the document we’re creating to start to live its own life, which means it’s beholden to its source material, but only to a certain point. There lives a moment where the movie starts to want to be something of its own, and you have to kind of decide is this thing it wants to be, that is different than the comic, is it worth doing? And then in terms of the aesthetic, I think maybe subconsciously we wanted it to look like that, but I think more than anything our way in with our camera, and our lighting, and our colour pallets was more just, kind of, arch. We wanted really strong arch colours in light and shadow, and that happens to be how a lot of comics are kind of created, so it ends up looking like that. Now, in terms of what did my experience with Chapter House and Captain Canuck lend to it? I knew exactly what it would be like to be on a Comic-Con tour and the kind of headaches that the owner has to look forward to arriving at a venue. So there is, I think, there is some bit in the movie where I’m yelling at the guy who owns the comic book shop about a fucking box that he can’t find that we sent and that’s shit that seems to happen at every Comic-Con. So that seems to be a bit of a comic industry banality that could be something funny and real. So, I definitely took some of my years in admin in that world [to inform the] vibes in this movie.
BB: There are two scenes in the film that stand out for me, in that they’re kind of like opposites of each other. One is the autograph signing that features fans that are a little too into the Slasherman comic and then later in the film the police interrogation where the officer is expressing great disdain towards the comic. How do you feel these scenes comment on horror culture as a whole?
JB: Yes, that’s an awesome question! That’s the thing I think I wanted to show… We’re trying to talk about, you know… It’s an inherently kind of relative experience as an audience member consuming a work of art, but we also… I was trying my best to show every bad thing that can come from this. It’s more about this idea that one can divorce oneself from responsibility for anything one puts out into the world, which I think is as absurd as the concept that video games and comics make people kill people. I think those are both are very facile, silly, absurd, philosophes... So, basically, how those two scenes compliment each other, it’s like this is what it could look like. It’s like when you’re caught in something that you looked the other way on. When Todd has made a Faustian bargain and even if he thinks he’s ultimately… that his book is victimized by critics, he still, part of him as a rational man has to agree with at least part of what they’re saying. He knows, ultimately, that even if he believes his work has more merit than people seem to believe it does, he knows what his fan base looks like and he knows ultimately how it will come across in the cold light of day. So it’s about the specter of responsibility that he was able to keep at arms length, kind of getting closer and closer to him until the end.
BB: With this film, along with Man Seeking Woman and Goon, you film in Canada often. I know Georges St. Pierre always said that he enjoys fighting in Canada for a comfort level. What exactly is the thing that draws you towards shooting in Canada, and is it particularly important to you?
JB: It’s two things. I think one of them is what he said, you know, this is my home; this is where I’m from and this is where I’m most comfortable. The other piece of it is, I feel, what many could call a silly obligation to English-Canadian cinema. I want to know that, for better or worse, I contributed to the cinematic language of my country, and I want to know that I added something to our cultural tapestry. You know, this is sort of part of why… it would be more convenient, I think, for me to have gone elsewhere, potentially, but I know that at the end of the day, even if I got to create some really special stuff, I would have contributed to another country’s culture. And this is… for me, my great shame is that I never joined the army, if I’m being perfectly frank. That’s not a joke, that’s like something I will always… it’s haunted me since I was a kid, that I didn’t do what a lot of my uncles and my granddad and my cousins did. Now, please, I don’t mean to say that I am comparing this movie to what any of my uncles or granddad or cousin did in joining the army, but it is in some way, a way that I can kind of contribute and help. Because listen, countries come and go, but art sticks around, and I would like to add to this country as best as I can.
BB: You touched on working in the comic industry a bit, and then you mentioned that your taste in films has pretty much stayed the same throughout the years. Can you tell me what are some of your major comic book and horror film influences?
JB: Alan Moore's From Hell, I think, is as good a use of the comic book medium as has ever been created. I would also put Preacher, everything Garth Ennis did in Preacher up there. Everything Garth Ennis did for The Punisher - for the years that he wrote The Punisher - really, really, really important to me. And then I would have to say for horror flicks, it would be The Exorcist, the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Toby Hooper, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. And to be honest, I still think The Exorcist, probably the scariest movie ever made... But, I think, what might be neck and neck with it is a movie people don’t think of as a horror movie, but I think I would argue that 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably the scariest movie ever made. So, you know, I will spend my life trying to recreate even a moment from that film.
BB: You mentioned Preacher and The Exorcist. , and there is a ton of religious imagery used in this film. I was wondering why you chose to use that and why do you hate Christmas?
JB: Hahaha, no fair! That’s a very good question. So I’m kind of a child of two cultures to a degree. My dad is Sephardic Jewish, first generation. My mom is sort of dyed-in-the-wool Irish, English, Scottish, Canadian, and deeply Catholic. And some of the most impactful, not necessarily best, but most impactful moments in my childhood are tied to religion and Catholicism, specifically. I was in Catholic school from grades 1-6 and have hated myself the entire time as a result of it. I’d like to tell people that I was raised with two different, but very potent, forms of guilt from Jewish culture and Catholic culture. But, it all kind of seems to stem from like… This is the best way I can say it: I remember my mom reading me the Bible when I was a kid and she got to the story about Noah, and I started bawling my eyes out uncontrollably. Three years old, bawling my eyes out, like “why would God want to do this?” And then you know, Catholicism has a lot of really beautiful stuff in it, but it is very, very deeply viled. You grow up going to church, and class, and seeing Christ, you know, eviscerated, brutalized and you know it’s it drilled into you. So there’s kind of… It’s impossible for me to kind of separate blood from awe because it was drilled into me from childhood and from years, and years, and years in church. And you know, my relationship with the church is still kind of like a weird, tenuous one. I reject most of it, and yet I still feel a degree of safety and comfort when I’m in one, and so there’s a sort of push and pull in me that kind of finds its way out and manifests itself in this movie.
BB: Lastly, this film seemed like you wanted to subvert some horror tropes. I’m not sure if that’s something that you added organically or if that came from the source material. Can you chat a bit about your approach to horror tropes and why you were kind of kicking them a bit?
JB: Yeah, for sure… Your work should reflect what you actually believe, you know? And even if we enjoy kind of, on a surface level, you know, your kind of standard type of slasher films sometimes, even if that scratches a certain itch for us, we’re also able to discuss and talk about why this is maybe not the best and is potentially irresponsible and all this different shit. And it’s just like the point of something is a conversation that Jesse [Chabot] and I always seem to get into, and I think we were lucky enough to have known each other since high school, but also the high school we went to was a fine arts high school. So, this concept of “what is the point?” and “why does one do this?” and “what does this mean?” - this is just shit that was drilled into us. Of course, when we started writing this thing, you know… our intellects were commensurate with our age and, in sort of time passing, we evolve. Ideally, that document should evolve along with us. So, every year that the movie didn’t happen, we go back to the document, open the hood up and be like “ok, how can we make this better?” and we’d [discover] “well I don’t fucking think that way anymore” and “holy shit, this is a bit fucking exploitative!” or “this is kinda thin,” or “this is kind of shitty.” And so, the dielectric in the film is a conversation that Jesse and I had about our script over the course of a decade, and we realized that that would be the most honest, truthful way to do it - to actually not let that conversation inform how we write the thing, but to actually put it into the movie and almost build the movie a bit around it.
Make sure to check out Random Acts of Violence now on VOD and Shudder.
Interview conducted on July 24th, 2020 by Nick van Dinther.
Photo Credits: Banner - The Montrealer; Photo 1 - Elevation Pictures; Photo 2 - Entertainment One