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September 14, 2018

‘Slice’ Director and Cast on Their Wild and Weird Horror Comedy [Interview]

One of the most talked about streaming releases of the week was dropped on the unsuspecting public on Monday like a new album by Beyonce, Radiohead or Kanye West, with nearly identical fanfare, due in large part to it being the big-screen acting debut of Chance the Rapper (or as he’s credited in the film, Chance Bennett). The film in question is a horror-comedy offering called Slice, the feature writing/directing effort from Austin Vesely, who has worked previously with Chance and some of his label mates on music videos over the last few years.

Slice opens with the murder of a pizza delivery driver (played by Vesely) in the part of town occupied by ghosts — and there’s nothing spooky about it. The film takes place in a version of reality where ghosts and other supernatural beings are just a part of day-to-day life. Chance plays a werewolf, who also used to deliver Chinese food; there are also witches about. The town’s only pizza place (owned by Paul Scheer) is built atop a gateway to hell, and it’s partly up to another delivery person named Astrid (the great Zazie Beetz) to find out who’s being what becomes a string of murders of her co-workers.

/Film spoke with several members of the Slice production, including Vesely, just hours before the film’s world premiere in Chicago, where it’s release plan was announced (the film is being distributed by A24, which has an impressive history with releasing unconventional horror films). Joining the filmmaker was Beetz, who most recently kicked serious tail as Domino in Deadpool 2, as well as appearing in the epic second season of FX’s Atlanta. She also has somewhere in the neighborhood of six films scheduled for release in 2019, including the latest from Steven Soderbergh, High Flying Bird.

The third member of this interview gathering was noted film buff Sheer, the co-host of two Earwolf podcasts, How Did This Get Made? (on which he talks about bad movies) and Unspooled (where he and co-host Amy Nicholson are working their way through the AFI’s top 100 movies list). Sheer also starred in such films as The Disaster Artist and Popstar, as well as series like The League. We get into the origins of Slice’s story, capturing the proper horror/comedy balance, and the challenges of shooting in Joliet, Illinois (home of the infamous prison from The Blues Brothers).

***

I heard you talking to someone earlier about tech checking your film earlier today and seeing you name on the big screen for the first time. What was that feeling like?

Austin: It’s bananas! It’s absolute crazy. It doesn’t quite make sense to me just yet. But even walking down the hallway to the theater and seeing the digital readout that said Slice outside the theater, it was heavy.

And you’re not going to get many chance to have that experience with this film, at least on the big screen.

Austin: And I’m glad that happened here in Chicago, where we made the movie.

Paul: What’s so crazy about this movie is that when it was just a spec script, there was a poster up on line for it.

This is a comedy-horror film, which can be fairly awful if done the wrong way, but it can be beautiful when done correctly. Tell me about the balance for you—how funny did you want to make it, how gross and bloody do you get on the horror side?

Austin: To me, it’s primarily a comedy. What I like about horror is that it’s got these very recognizable genre conventions, and what’s fun about that is that everyone recognizes them and you can subvert them easily. That just gives you a lot of room to play around and go into this genre that people know and love and play around with it. It’s more of a comedy masquerading as this horror film. But you’re right, it is a precarious tone. I think it was all in the casting when it came to figuring out who was going to be able to ride that line. But there’s a spectrum of performances too.

There’s a spectrum of performers just on this couch. Was your approach, when in doubt, go for the comedy?

Austin: I think so, but then when I saw that I feel like it’s not true. The auditions we did here in Chicago, we had all of these amazing theater actors come in, and one guy in particular, Tim Decker, who I think about a lot because he so is the tone of the movie. He came in and he’s not telegraphing the humor; he’s really committed to what the world is.

Zazie: But that’s what works so well about his performance—he’s not trying to be funny. He’s just committing to the world, and the world in itself is so ebullient that going straight there, it still works.

Paul: I’d also argue that one of the things that’s so defining about this movie is how good it looks. That’s the thing that’s often missing in these slapdash…like you said, when horror-comedy goes bad, because it’s like they don’t care. I feel like, “No, it’s got to function as a real thing.” This thing has a defined set of characteristics, and Austin’s fingerprints are all over this. It really does like a movie you made and not just a collage of different ideas.

You make it seem like this doesn’t take place in this world exactly. So where are we playing exactly?

Austin: Yeah, yeah. It’s like middle-America, but it’s middle-America where ghosts exist and people are like “These fucking ghosts.” They just annoyed by it and take it for granted that this is where the world is. “Oh, we had a werewolf problem.” Stuff like that. It’s definitely not the universe we’re living in, as far as I know.

Paul: Also, it doesn’t comment on it that much.

Zazie: It’s just assumed that ghosts and things are a part of the world around you.

What was the germ of this story?

Austin: It was about six years ago, I was thinking of ideas for movies, and it was just like “Pizza delivery, horror—that sounds like a good idea.” I ended up writing a version of it that was more grounded in the world that we live in, it still had it’s own tone, but it was more of an Edgar Wright tone. Eventually, I started to develop it, and there was this book that I really loved called CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders, and there was a little thing in this novella where he places ghosts in the universe and deals with them like they’re a pain in the ass. “The ghosts are out there booing and wooing in the parking lot all the time when I get off work,” and I thought that was so funny and I’d never seen it quite done in a movie. So that was how it became something else and it started to be about putting in these other horror genre conventions. Let’s put in ghosts and werewolves into this pizza/middle-America story and see how that goes.

Are there certain horror tropes that you subverted as well?

Paul: I think this movie keeps you on your toes because you don’t quite ever know what kind of movie you’re seeing. At the beginning, you’re like “It’s this,” and then it switches to something else.

Zazie: It’s almost a bit of a genre shift by the end as well.

Paul: Yeah, and I’d even say at certain points, the lead of the film even shifts. It passes off a bit. People do things, then they go away, then they come back again. It’s a very fluid, different thing. I think one of the things that’s so interesting about it is that in this world of indie film, there’s often a very similar type of script that you see—dramas, dramedies, and then there’s horror. And this is unlike all of those. For that simple reason, it’s exciting. When I was growing up, when I saw indie films, it was everybody doing their own thing and each one felt very unique, and not just “We’re in a family and things are troubled.”

Tell me about your characters.

Paul: You should go first, because I can speak in context to your character.

Zazie: I’m one of the only characters who survived from the short film [script].

Austin: Actuallym you both did.

Zazie: My character’s name is Astrid. It’s difficult to talk about without revealing too much. Somebody close to me gets killed, and I go out for revenge.

Paul: She used to work for me, and you come back to the pizza place to figure out what the deal is.

Zazie: Yeah, I get the team together to help figure out what’s going on. There are killings happening in the town, and we’re trying to figure it out. I’m emotionally spearheading it.

Paul: And I’m upset because all of this is diluting my final money totals [laughs]. This is a work-stoppage situation. I’m looking at it from a commerce perspective.

You’ve worked with Chance a lot in the past, but making a film is a huge jump in many ways. When I saw that he was in, I wasn’t in anyway concerned with his performance because he was so good on SNL. Talk about the discussions you two had, and how involved was he in creating this with you? It sound like most of this came out of your head.

Austin: It is, and that’s what was great about it. He was so willing to get on board with what I was trying to do, even when it was extremely strange. I think that comes from us having a comfortable working relationship form the past several years. We were working together but we were supplementing his art. So in this case, it was the opposite.

Paul: When this movie was being shot, it was right at the point where Chance went supernova.

Zazie: His album was released that year.

Paul: Right. I think right before I started shooting, he was on Ellen, and I think of Ellen as being the marker of grand success. He was on tour when we were shooting, but at that moment, he was exploding into the cultural mainstream.

How was he to direct?

Austin: Luckily, part of writing this werewolf character, I was writing it with him in mind. I was thinking of his voice. We all know that Michael Jackson werewolf in “Thriller,” so I was thinking “What is Chance the Rapper as a werewolf?” [laughs] He’s kind of a rascal, just wily dude. It was a lot of fun to play around with him on that.

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