By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Over a career that has encompassed more than 100 roles since 1989’s THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, actor Bill Sage has appeared in horror films ranging from AMERICAN PSYCHO to Jim Mickle’s cannibal-family story WE ARE WHAT WE ARE. Now he has taken on the truly deranged lead of WELCOME TO WILLITS, and tells RUE MORGUE about it in this exclusive chat.
Opening today in select theaters and on VOD from IFC Films under its IFC Midnight banner, WELCOME TO WILLITS is the feature debut of director Trevor Ryan and screenwriter Tim Ryan (based on their short WELCOME TO WILLITS: AFTER SUNDOWN). Sage stars as Brock, a pot farmer and crystal meth/alcohol abuser living in the wilds of Northern California with his wife Peggy (Sabina Gadecki). He has recurring flashbacks—or are they just hallucinations?—of being abducted and tortured by extraterrestrial visitors (creature effects by Vincent J. Guastini), and believes they’re still coming after him. When a group of young vacationers wind up camping on his property, his addled mind sees them as the enemy, leading to a great deal of bloodshed. Sage’s committed performance as Brock makes him just as scary as any alien…
Is Brock the craziest character you’ve played in a film?
Yeah, definitely. He’s also one of the funniest. The part came to me at the last second, before I had a chance to fully digest how funny it was. The producers got in touch and pitched it to me, and then kept asking for an answer before I’d had a chance to read the whole thing [laughs]. And I was on a plane the next day and started working. It was full-on. You know, I’m pretty clean, and there was a guy on set who was more familiar with some of the crystal-meth shit. I just kept handling the pipe, like I work on any other role—I just handle the material over and over and over again.
Just in terms of the drug aspect of the part, there are three components: You’ve got the crystal meth, which is going to rile everything up, you’ve got the weed, and then the alcohol. I assessed him as, in his own way and left to his own devices, pretty intelligent—if he wasn’t so messed up. But he’s paranoid, absolutely paranoid; he’s got the us-vs.-them mentality on steroids. He’s a very inquisitive man, but he’s got all the answers, which is kind of a deadly combination. And then I kept it at about 10 percent of me winking at the audience. Which is not something I usually do, but I saw this as a piece of satire.
Brock goes through escalating levels of madness throughout the film. Was that difficult to maintain, especially shooting out of sequence?
Usually I’ll sort of plot through a character when I’m shooting completely out of sequence, to keep track of him. The very first scene I’m in was the very last one we shot, actually. And some of the fight stuff at the end was among the first things we filmed. I just sort of tracked where he was, and at what level. This has been going on for a while with Brock, but it certainly rises to a fever pitch from the beginning of the movie to the end.
Would you say he’s kind of like Walter White from BREAKING BAD times 10?
That’s really good [laughs]! I didn’t put that together at all, but yeah, I guess that’s a short description. That didn’t occur to me, maybe because I was thrown into it so last-second. I was really flying by the seat of my pants. I took a red-eye in and read the script a second time, and was sort of sleep-deprived, and I thought, “Well, that’s kind of what he is; I’ll just drink a lot of coffee, and I’ll smoke a few cigarettes”—even though I don’t smoke. But I’m good at dropping habits easily, so I can pick up smoking cigarettes and then quit them. The girls helped me a lot, Anastasia [Baranova] and Sabina, because I did most of my scenes with them. I sort of jumped right in, and they welcomed me, and we’d just go over the next day’s stuff. Because I had most of the talking, we would run the scenes over and over again.
How about the scenes where you’re being tortured by the alien, where it was just you and the performer in prosthetics?
I just left that till the day. I trust myself in those kinds of situations, that something I couldn’t possibly plan will occur, and it did. I think the decision I made was that time is relative, so I don’t know that he is necessarily cognizant of everything that has occurred. What might have been a split second of time he was gone was an eight-hour torture session for him. That’s horrific to think about, and I remember really considering that on the day.
And as monstrous as Brock seems, one of the great things about any story is that everyone’s got their reasons. I take what I call a Johnny Cash approach to any role that I play: that nobody’s beyond redemption. Something has occurred that has made him the way he is, and what is that? What I decided was that things happened, whether they were in his childhood or whatever, and through the drugs and alcohol, he has imagined that he was taken away—or he actually was taken away. I treated it like he actually was, because that’s the way an actor has to treat it—but it can be subjective. There’s room for that kind of approach.
Was this your first time working with these kinds of physical creature effects?
I think it was, yeah. They were terrifying to look at. I loved that they weren’t CGI; it’s kind of great when you can have a smoke with the guy you’re about to shoot a scene like that with [laughs]. They were phenomenal, the guys who were in those suits; some of them were just guys from the crew, guys I was already hanging out with.
When you were shooting all nights, out at that remote location, did that help you get into your character and his situation?
Yeah, that location helped a lot. I’d been through Shreveport before, but I’d never been out in the woods there, and parts of it can be pretty dire. I love Louisiana, and I love Shreveport; it’s definitely a depressed area, but the people there are great. The local people we had working with us couldn’t have been better. But it doesn’t take place there, that’s just where we shot it. It takes place in California, but the location figured so much into the vibe that I improvised a line where Peggy’s parents are going to be visiting—that was in the script—and I said something like, “Why can’t they just stay in Shreveport like my parents?” I just threw that in because we were so taken with that location.
Trevor went through a certain amount of this story, by the way; he’s a fascinating individual, He’d been incarcerated—it’s information that’s out there, so I feel OK saying it; he did three and a half years of a four-year stint for pot farming, which in my mind is absolutely fuckin’ ridiculous. He’s honestly the nicest, most responsible member of society. So he was able to talk me through things like the way you’d check the buds; he said, “Maybe he has, you know, kind of a personal relationship with each of them,” and I was like, “Trevor, that’s fuckin’ great!” That’s what good directors do: They sort of stay out of the way, and then at the right moment… He has a background in that kind of stuff, so that’s part of why he and Tim wrote the story.
I think another reason is because we’re at a time in our culture where we’re so unbelievably divided, and now, when the film is actually coming out, the country is even more divided. That was one of the things that really turned me on to the story, even though I had very little time to process it. I look forward to working with the Ryan brothers again, which we’re going to do. They’re talking about another script Tim has written, and we’ll see if we’re able to get that underway.
You’ve done a few different kinds of horror films in your career; are there any particular qualities you look for in a genre project when they come your way?
Yeah, it’s that very thing we were just talking about. One thing I appreciate the most about this genre is—I’ve done a lot of theater, I’ve done a lot of television, but indie film is a real love of mine, and there’s nothing more indie than horror and sci-fi. What’s great is that…take Jim Mickle, for instance. He wanted to get COLD IN JULY done, but he couldn’t because no one would give him they money. But he got a small amount, I mean a small amount of money, to do MULBERRY STREET, which was his first feature. Then he tried to do it again, and they gave him a little more money to do STAKE LAND. And then he tried to do it again, and they gave him more money to do WE ARE WHAT WE ARE. And WE ARE WHAT WE ARE went to Sundance and Cannes, and he got the money to do COLD IN JULY. So you can, as in WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, tell a story in the horror genre that’s just as significant as in any other genre. I’ll be looking for more of the kind of horror films where there are two different stories being told at the same time. That’s what really intrigues me about it.