By RICKY J. DUARTE
Photos by GUNNER MANLEY
The parking lot of Ted’s Fish Fry sits aglow with hues of orange and yellow gently dancing across its starry, reflective pavement. From the outside, a passerby might assume the vacant fast-food restaurant (a staple to the locals of upstate Troy, New York, just outside of Albany) might be ablaze. In reality, it’s rigged with lighting effects to mimic a fiery, catastrophic climax in an extremely special effects-heavy cinematic sequence.
It’s 11:33 p.m. and lunch has just been served to the cast and crew. Perched on a curb stop, I take notice of the full moon, the extras covered in melty flesh latex appliances, and the fire-effects lighting casting an ominous, beautiful glow over my shiny lo mein. Take-out may never have tasted so good.
I’ve been invited by the film’s director and co-writer, Rocko Zevenbergen, to visit the set of his latest feature, FLAPJAX, on the biggest special effects day (night) of the entire shoot. Representing RUE MORGUE, and selfishly digging around for tips to apply toward my own aspirations as a wannabe independent filmmaker, I’ve been bussed in from New York City, generously put up in a hotel (which I’ll nap in for no more than four hours after this ambitious overnight shoot before checking out), affectionately referred to as “Multimedia Mega Genius” on the call sheet, and granted one of the most memorable experiences in my career as a horror journalist. (I also got to contribute by operating a fog machine and covering extras in goop.)
The locals of Troy have taken notice of the shoot, many of them offering their services as cast and crew members. The production held a “town hall” of sorts, shaking hands and offering opportunities to learn how to work on a film set – an admirable approach in the spirit of independent cinema, and one that paid off. “I heard they were filming here so I came down to see if I could watch, and they asked me to be in it!” says Linda Rings as the insanely talented makeup department covers her with more melty flesh. Through our conversation, I learned that she’d lost 300 lbs, had been struck by lightning twice and survived being shot. However, she’s never been put in heavy prosthetic makeup… until now.
The makeup department, headed by Jackie Green and RJ Young, and featuring members of the team behind 2022’s Hellraiser (Veroljub Naumović and Kristina Miljacki) is hard at work to pull off the challenging shoot that lies ahead. The scene, referenced as “Sea of Flesh” on tonight’s call sheet, is exactly how it sounds. The team has already faced an unexpected rainstorm, forcing them to bring all their materials indoors to dry (including said sea of flesh, an impressively massive set piece) while makeup is applied in Ted’s adjacent soft serve shop and batting cages. (#thespiritofindependentcinema) This special effects headquarters has been impressively set up, shared with wigs and wardrobe and filled with every possible makeup tool one can imagine, including tapioca flour and giant boxes of Bisquick (a taste of things to come).
The shooting location serves as a stand-in for FLAPJAX’s fictional fast-food joint, Hamudders. Cartoonish menus line the walls of the retro-looking establishment, advertising such off-putting dishes as “Nippy Dogs” and “Tater Teets” for a mere $3.99. The branding is impressive, boasting a creepy pig with udders as its mascot, brandishing a garish smile and bearing a nauseating color palate.
“We repainted a lot of this stuff,” Rocko tells me, taking a much-deserved break to sit with me at one of the restaurant’s retro, laminated, faux-mahogany booths. “Like these chevrons we put in. Obviously, we had people making these crazy graphics, these decals, but the restaurant itself had these nice booths.” Pointing at the walls: “This is what sold me on it, was this color palate was [already] here.”
“This bologna-pink?” I joke.
“Exactly. Bologna pink, this kind of like, raw-meat red, and this poopy brown. Boom! When I saw that, I was like, okay, we can make this place work. That was kind of the selling point. And the booths.”
Rocko cut his filmmaking teeth as Lloyd Kaufman’s (of TROMA fame) assistant. That same guerilla sensibility can be seen in Zevenbergen’s own production company, aptly called Bad Taste Video. At first glance, one might associate Hamudders’ vibe with that of The Chokey Chicken from Rocko’s Modern Life. “Yeah, absolutely,” Rocko delights. “Everything that I direct is always inspired by cartoons.”
Rocko’s (Zevenbergen, not the animated wallaby) first feature, 2020’s I Need You Dead, is a polarizing and, at times, alienating experience. It starts as a comedic and cartoonish ’80s-style drug trip that takes an existential and upsetting turn. It’s as punk rock as independent cinema gets. About the film, Rocko remarks, “I would say, yeah, with I Need You Dead, it was like we wanted to make a film that was kind of like a fuck you to the whole ’80s cock-gobbling. Maybe that’s the wrong way to say that. There’s just this pandering to ’80s nostalgia that’s just way, way too overdone. Like, I think Stranger Things brought it up in a lot of people, and, you know, I was just getting really sick of it. I remember seeing – and I know a lot of people like this movie – I remember seeing The Void and being, like, really pissed off, being, like, ‘God, this sucks!’ I was like, it’s just trying to be a John Carpenter movie so bad. It’s so pathetic. And so then, I was like, ‘Okay, then I’m gonna make a movie that starts off like super ’80s and synthy colors, and then I’m gonna totally turn it on its head and make something totally different and totally challenging with harsh noise music that gets really lo-fi and crunchy and fucked up. And [suddenly], it’s not funny anymore – it just becomes sad, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’d be good. That’ll show ‘em.’ You know? So, I literally went and made that movie. I had a lot of fun doing it. And, yeah, it got exactly the reactions I thought it would. People who were looking for something different really liked it, and people who were looking for what the first twenty minutes were for the entire movie hated it. The thing is, the first twenty minutes are good because I do like that [’80s] stuff, too, and I do get it, and I understand what makes it fun. But there’s like a limit of letting it become everything, and so, that was kind of the punk rock element of that movie.”
The tone of Flapjax is clearly much different. Hamudders seems to exist in a tongue-in-cheek world of corporate slavery and the consumer’s response to what we’re fed… in this case, literally. “Flapjax is interesting because it definitely is punk rock,” says Zevenbergen, “but in the sense that we’re independent, and we’re making this extremely ambitious sci-fi horror movie that probably should have been made for a million dollars for a little over $100,000, and it’s being felt every day. So that’s punk in and of itself. I mean, honestly, we made such a rebellious first film that we said, ‘Let’s make something that’s actually more of a pop-song movie because we don’t know if we can do that. Like I consider Back to the Future kind of a pop-song movie, but I also consider something like The Fly a pop-song movie, where it’s got everything. It’s funny, it’s got excitement, it’s got tragedy. There’s romance … It has literally every flavor of cinema packaged in under two hours, and it just fuckin’ hits you. And you never forget it. And when the credits roll, you’re like, ‘Wow that was the best thing I’ve ever seen.” And I was like, ‘I wanna do that because I Need You Dead was supposed to leave people, like, ‘Wow! What the fuck do I even do with myself now? What the fuck?’ I didn’t wanna do that again. I don’t wanna be a one-trick pony. So, with Flapjax, it’s this incredibly epic story that’s international. Some of it takes place here. Some of it takes place in Japan. Some of it takes place in space. It’s all over the place. You have action, adventure, romance, sci-fi, horror … [moments] between mother and son, friends, aliens, I mean, it’s really quite a lot. But at the core of it, it’s about a fast-food manager who unknowingly executes the plans of an alien race by promoting a new item called Flapjax at the fast-food store he works at. And it’s about him finding his identity and the adventure along the way to doing so. It’s quite the story, I think.”
When asked about the inspiration for Flapjax (co-written with collaborator Estevan Muñoz, who also appears in the film) Rocko reminisces about his own days working in fast food. “A good deal of it his to do with my time [as an assistant manager] at Burger King, but the bigger piece of it is about myself and my mother. There’s this other character named Eleanor in the film, who’s an ex-pop star whose life used to be so much better in the past. It sounds like a lot of our mothers, maybe. ‘Before you were born…blah, blah, blah.’ So we emphasized that in this movie. She used to be a pop star. Then, she had her son, Arrow, and it took that away from her. So they’re rekindled, essentially, at the head of the film, and Arrow is tasked to find a way to make this Flapjax dish debut this huge thing as he is simultaneously reconnected with his mother. He says, ‘Well, Mom, why don’t you make a comeback at the Flapjax debut? And we’ll be mother and son working together, you know, to accomplish our dreams.’ They do end up working together, but it spirals [into] all these deeper issues that are really me exorcising my own issues within my own family and trying to process them. It was through therapy that I accidentally decided to make Flapjax kind of about that because, in therapy, I realized that the creature from I Need You Dead – that voice – stemmed from those kinds of family issues. Then I was like, ‘Okay, the next evolutionary step after that is to now do a story more directly about the familial aspect of anxiety and depression and, more importantly, identity.”
Creating a film inspired by personal experience has its own set of challenges. Despite finding such a unique and nostalgic setting, Zevenbergen had envisioned a more familiar setting for the film while co-writing it. When asked if Ted’s Fish Fry was what he had envisioned when writing the film, he remarks, “In terms of aesthetic, yes. In terms of the layout, no. When Estevan and I were writing the script, I was imagining the Burger King that I used to work at, so I had the literal floorplan of that [location] in my head when I was blocking everything out and storyboarding everything, and as you can tell, this is nothing like a Burger King. Like, the way that the line is and the way the front counter is, is totally absurd and very unique to this establishment, so it forced us to re-block a ton of stuff, which was one of the first major challenges of making this location work. But it was worth it because the owners were super flexible, and we got a good price on it. They’re flexible enough that we’re gonna hang flesh all over the place today, and if they come by, they’ll probably just take pictures and leave…”
Hanging flesh all over the restaurant is only the beginning. Luckily, the long-abandoned restaurant still has working appliances, including a massive flat-top grill, which tonight’s shoot will utilize. About tonight’s shoot: “Well, tonight is an interesting one. So, Arrow is totally obsessed with this company he works for, Hamudders, because it’s kind of inferred that he was never good enough at home, and once he found an identity here at Hamudders, he took it seriously, and once he was accepted, he really embraced it to an almost goofy, cartoonish level – at least for our purposes. At this point, we’re kind of nearing the end of the film, he’s starting to realize that maybe there’s more to life than Nippy Dogs and Flapjax. Instead of Hamudders being an evil corporation, they’re aliens, so, of course, they have an evil plan to melt down all of their customers and serve them as Flapjax in space as Fleshjax. Arrow returns to his restaurant to find that all the customers have melted down and that his dream is completely squandered and destroyed.”
He continues, discussing intricacies of the plot that shall remain confidential until the release of the film, but I can assure you, the planned sequence is by far one of the most insane and creative things I’ve ever witnessed on a film set.
The sequence features all three of the film’s main characters. FLAPJAX co-writer, Estevan Muñoz (who portrays Zeke in the film) plays a major role in the sequence. When asked how he mentally prepares for such an elaborate and ambitious shoot, he replies, “I mean, honestly, it’s not like I have to do much. For days like this, it’s honestly kind of sitting back and letting the FX people use you for like eight hours. So if anything, it’s like I just try to surrender to them and basically give my body and my mind to them. I feel like my preparation is just accepting that I’m basically their little mannequin for the next eight hours.”
Having also starred in I Need You Dead, Estevan takes on an additional role as FLAPJAX’s co-writer. On collaborating, he says, “It’s mainly my friendship with Rocko. We just love collaborating. He had a very basic idea for a movie, and he asked me to co-write it. I did, and it was a two-year process and many, many drafts. From there, I’d acted in I Need You Dead, so I’m acting in this one, and I was part of the casting and just kind of loosely producing. So just my friendship with Rocko and already being collaborators, it was just pretty easy to continue working together. It’s one of those things you don’t even question. It’s like, ‘Of course, we’ll be doing this together.’ Especially because I wrote the script, too. It was exciting on one hand because I think we have some very different creative sensibilities, and I think the movies we grew up watching as kids and started loving movies through were actually really different from one another. And you know, there’s creative crossover for us, but there’s also a lot that’s not, and so it was kind of fun writing a script with the kind of aim of ‘How can we write a script that both of us can be happy about – both of us coming from different worlds and kind of having different ideas of what kind of movies we love or what we’d like to write?. And then beyond that, Rocko’s a great, big-picture thinker … I would say he was a good kind of overseer and was able to diagnose these big-picture story problems, whereas I was filling in the details. That role kind of changed from time to time, but generally speaking, that’s kind of how it went.”
Acting in a film you’ve also helped write is not an easy task. However, Estevan’s is a wise approach. “Acting from your writing – it’s nice. I can look at my role and [how] my character plays in a bigger picture, and I think of my performance in terms of servicing a bigger [picture].”
The film’s lead character, Arrow (played by Gabriel Cagan), has a very different journey. In preparation for such an outlandish scene, his approach is to stay focused. “I think for me, I’ve got to just focus on the scene and the scene partner. In the back of my head, I’m really excited to see what the FX team has done. It blows my mind just to see it in passing, so when it comes together, I’m really excited about that. But I think I just have to stay focused on Arrow’s journey – his point in the scene [and] what’s going on with his colleagues tonight. It’s quite a pivotal moment happening. So, focused on that but also trying to enjoy it, I think. Trying to be as relaxed as possible because that just helps. Even when it’s intense stuff going on, just being present as much as possible. It’s pretty ambitious, especially tonight. But, you know, we’ve had other night shoots and other ambitious scenes, so being patient, that’s also key, and just being ready whenever it’s time to tell a story.”
Gabriel took an immediate liking to the outlandish script. “I kind of really loved the comic texture of it. All of Hamudders’ in-your-face, slightly garish menu items, and just the tone of this guy – his optimism. He has this consistent, optimistic energy, even if he gets knocked down. He just keeps getting back up, and I think it’s great that he just sort of bounces along like that. But at the same time, it’s got these darker, deeper elements to it as well. So it’s kind of interesting to go [into] these different worlds.”
As Louie, Madeline Barbush had a similarly enthusiastic response to the script. “I was like, ‘What the fuck? This is the craziest thing I’ve ever read! How the fuck are they gonna pull this off?’ But it instantly reminded me of Good Burger – just these crazy-ass fucking characters set in this fast-food joint, but also making larger points. [The script] was like nothing I’d ever read or been sent before, so that was really fucking awesome, too. And I automatically really loved the character of Louie. She reminded me a lot of me in a lot of ways.”
It’s now approaching 4 a.m. The big shot is here. The “Sea of Flesh” has been installed and extras have been carefully placed within it. There’s a palpable, optimistic tension in the air. I overhear Rocko utter a life-changing statement to a production assistant: “I’m not anti-problems. I’m anti-no-solutions.”
At “action,” a melty, gooey sea of groaning extras reaches out in pained hunger toward the camera. It looks absolutely incredible on the monitor. A seismic moment.
Standing back and watching this unholy monstrosity of latex, plastic, spirit gum, and Bisquick goop, I realize that the spirit of independent cinema is a driving force. A powerful force. It’s a force that has afforded every talented, passionate member of this film’s cast and crew the opportunity to create something original, unique and extremely fucking punk rock.
FLAPJAX is still in production. At Rocko’s invitation, anyone interested in lending their support to the film, “whether that be in a production sense, creative sense, physical sense, emotional support sense, or any kind of sense,” can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.