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Exclusive Interview: Alex Winter is back under prosthetics and exploring real-life anxieties in “DESTROY ALL NEIGHBORS”

Monday, January 22, 2024 | Interviews


Over the course of his career, actor/filmmaker Alex Winter has disappeared under extensive special makeup in movies from his cult horror/comedy FREAKED to the recent revival BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC. Now DESTROY ALL NEIGHBORS, which debuted earlier this month on Shudder, sees him once again unrecognizable as one of the titular neighbors who gets destroyed…but not deactivated.

In DESTROY, directed by Josh Forbes from a script by Charles Pieper and Mike Benner, Jonah Ray Rodrigues plays William, an LA sound engineer trying to complete an ambitious “prog rock squared” album. An obstacle is dropped in the way of that ambition when Vlad (Winter, under prosthetics designed by Gabe Bartalos), a troll-like foreigner, moves into the apartment next door and begins making a hell of a racket. When the initially reticent William finally confronts Vlad about the noise, the encounter ends with the latter being decapitated–but his head lives on to torment William, who faces other grotesque developments as well. An outrageous mix of horror and comedy, both accented by the emphasis on practical makeup and gore, DESTROY ALL NEIGHBORS is a welcome return by Winter–who has recently devoted a lot of his time to directing documentaries such as THE YOUTUBE EFFECT, ZAPPA and TRUST MACHINE: THE STORY OF BLOCKCHAIN–to the genre realm.

Were you part of DESTROY ALL NEIGHBORS from its inception, and were you involved with the conception and development of the Vlad character?

All of the above. Jonah Ray is a friend of mine, and he approached me and said he had this movie he was developing, and would I come on as a producer, and maybe play Vlad? And potentially help this gang–Josh and everyone–put the film together, get it financed, put a team together? It’s a little movie, but I loved the spirit of it and I love Josh’s work. It’s very uncommon to be able to get into prosthetics and do extreme comedy with them, which is one of my very favorite things to do, and I felt I could potentially be of some value to them, having been through these wars many times myself. So I came on as a producer and to play Vlad, and we put the whole thing together.

We got to Shudder pretty quickly, and they said yes pretty quickly. Joe Lynch was instrumental in getting us there; he was a champion of the film and had a good relationship with Shudder. It was really kind of stone soup, like any DIY-type, semi-punk-rock movie such as this, where everyone is bringing something, or many things, to the party. We all pooled our relationships and built it together.

How much of Vlad was already on the page, and how much of him did you bring in yourself?

Well, Vlad was written, but it was important to me to not play him as a cartoon character, and give him a real backstory. I didn’t want to portray him as someone who saw himself as a villain in any way, but as a guy who could be perceived either  that way or not by someone who’s on shaky mental ground like Jonah’s character. So I started doing a lot of work to build a history and a sort of three-dimensional life for this guy. And then Gabe Bartalos and I began talking early on about how he would look, and what his vibe would be. I had a lot of ideas about that, and Gabe had great ideas about that; he’s super-talented. And then Bill Corso [who handled the prosthetics on set] came on, who I’ve been working with forever; Bill did FREAKED with me and he did BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC, but I’ve known him since the LOST BOYS days. That was very helpful, and he came in on the conversations, and it became this collective building of a human being, which is what’s fun about prosthetics work. I had a fair amount of time to do all that prep, figuring out who this guy was going to be and how to make him a person, how he talked and where he came from and how he moved and all that.

How do you see Vlad as a person? What’s your take on him and his backstory?

What I loved about the script was that it was a very modern look at the challenges of life today, whether you’re an artist or not. These could be people who end up in these buildings anywhere in the world, really, struggling to live a better life, reaching for something beyond what they have, dealing with the difficulties of getting to that place. I love that this is a story of a collective of people at the end of the line, and I wanted Vlad to be at that place for himself. He’s Romanian, he’s come from a wartorn country, he left after pretty much everyone he knew and loved has died, he’s probably driving an Uber and living in this studio apartment, and he has kind of given up on life. That was the backstory I was playing with.

My [1999 psychological thriller] FEVER was about almost the exact same thing: an artist who’s struggling, and the neighbor next door who may or may not be a figment of his imagination. Those things were already there when I first got the DESTROY script, so it was hilarious to me how similar the themes are. And I’m well aware of what that does the psyche, to live in a building like that; you start to have ideas about the people next door, and who they are and whether they’re intentionally messing with your head. You think they’re the bad neighbor, and then you realize that it’s actually you, you’re the bad neighbor [laughs]!

Have you had any specific experiences that informed that approach to the role?

So many! That was the same when I wrote FEVER; I just remember being in various tenement apartments over the many years of my life, and how even the sounds of the pipes can drive you insane. Just the littlest details can make you crazy when you’re challenged by life, and you’re trying to live a certain way, and you feel like you’re out of step with everyone around you. I remember living in an illegal sublet in New York City, and the woman underneath us was an artist, and she was kind of crazy. At first I hated her, and then I realized she was just an artist who was having trouble, and she was actually good, and talented, and I started to feel really bad for her. It’s a good trope for a rabbit-hole story, which is what DESTROY really is, where pretty much everyone in there is struggling.

Rock and roll is obviously a strong element of this film, as it was in the BILL & TED movies, so was that something that especially appealed to you about DESTROY?

I love music, and Josh comes a music-video background, obviously I do too, Jonah’s been in bands his whole life and is very musically educated. I believe Mike Benner, one of the scriptwriters, was the one who brought the prog rock idea in, which was pretty great, because it’s something that we both love and is also good for parody. That made me respond to the script, just because it was a good idea, but I also felt it was one that had possibilities in terms of what you could do with rock, and the idea of having this grandiose vision while living in a squalid apartment; the contrasts of that are so good. I also relate to overcomplicating your art [laughs].

As the movie goes on, and Vlad is reduced to being just a severed head…

Almost immediately! That’s one of the things that attracted me to the script, that I got beheaded on page 12!

You must have gotten into some pretty strange physical situations to film you as just a talking head.

I love doing physical work; I come from theater, and that’s the kind of stuff I grew up studying. When I was working with Tom Stern, that were the kinds of things we did together, so it has been an evolution for me all through my life. So I welcome anything that involves the body in that way. Josh was intent on doing as much in-camera as possible, which was the right way to approach this movie, just for the visceral effect. So that attracted me to it; I knew I’d be in cramped positions, and they’d be building me rigs. There was a rig in the main apartment, there was a rig in Vlad’s apartment, and pretty much everywhere I went, but I didn’t mind; I thought it was a lot of fun. And we were shooting so fast that it wasn’t like I was ever in a rig for very long. Hanging upside down for THE LOST BOYS was way more uncomfortable, because that was a big studio movie, so we just did it over and over again. With money, you just do stuff way longer for no reason.

But it’s not as if I view a movie like DESTROY as a throwback, right? I don’t look at this and go, “Oh, we’re making something that’s nostalgic for the ’80s.” We did these kinds of in-camera effects at that time because we believed in them aesthetically, and that’s a tradition that goes back to the birth of cinema. You have NOSFERATU, you have VAMPYR, and even Chaplin and Keaton; it’s about the visceral impact of prosthetic or physical effects, and what that does to you. When I made FEVER, it was the same thing: The building was entirely constructed on a stage in Brooklyn, and I was doing theatrical effects with scrim lighting like you would on a stage, and flying walls, and that wasn’t to be nostalgic, it was to give the audience that visceral effect. That’s why I did DESTROY; I was very happy to see filmmakers today, in this age of CGI, who understood that you’ll get more impact from seeing these things actually happening.

The makeup effects in FREAKED were state-of-the-art for their time–and still are, but do you feel those kinds of prosthetics have evolved in any significant way since then?

Absolutely. I think they’re fighting an uphill battle because of CGI. I mean, CGI is a tool and it can be used incredibly well; I use it all the time, and have a lot of VFX friends who are incredible artists and do great work. So it’s not an either-or; it’s not like one is bad and the other is good. But the art of prosthetics is extraordinary, and requires mastery of so much. Someone like Bill Corso is a master on the level of the Renaissance artists, in my opinion, with the ability to paint and sculpt with that kind of dexterity, and then craft these things onto a human form, and give that form expression. It was incredible to see what Gabe Bartalos did in his sculpts, so I do think the craft has evolved. I just believe it’s difficult, because CGI is a great cost-cutting tool, and at the end of the day, they will do that: They’ll just cut costs.

What’s next on your agenda?

I have a film I’m directing in the spring, a pitch-black comic crime drama called ADULTHOOD with Evan Rachel Wood and Josh Gad. It’s about a brother and sister who get inadvertently pulled into a rabbit hole of crime that spins out of control. I’m really looking forward to shooting that.

That’s a very distinct pair of actors you’ve cast…

Yeah; they worked together on FROZEN 2, I guess, doing vocals, and they are amazing, and I’m really looking forward to those two riffing off each other.

Did you intentionally look for two leads with different sensibilities?

Yes; their characters are siblings but they live very different lives, and they get thrown together, and there’s a dynamism that occurs in their differences that’s kind of the engine of the story. So that was important.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).