By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Jay Baruchel has become a familiar face in lighter fare such as TROPIC THUNDER, THIS IS THE END and THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, and for animation audiences, a familiar voice as Hiccup in the HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON films. He was also a writer, producer and co-star of the hockey comedy GOON and made his directorial debut on the sequel GOON: LAST OF THE ENFORCERS. For his second turn at the helm, he’s made a deep dive into the dark side with the adaptation of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti’s (very) graphic novel RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE, which he scripted with Jesse Chabot.
Currently in release in Canada and coming to Shudder August 20, RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE focuses on Todd (Jesse Williams), creator of the popular, fact-based SLASHERMAN comic. He’s been having trouble coming up with a conclusion for the series, and is anxious to give it some extra depth, so he goes on a promotional road trip with his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster), publisher Ezra (Baruchel) and assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson) into the rural areas where the real-life killer did his dirty work. From the start, Todd is confronted with the ramifications of turning actual, gruesome tragedy into entertainment—particularly when that murderer comes out of retirement to claim victims around them. (See our review here.) While investigating the treacherous boundaries between life and art, RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE is also an intense work of horror filmmaking, and a game-changer for Baruchel.
As a creative yourself, what was it about the RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE comic that spoke to you?
That’s a very good question. I think we saw the chance to make something scary and harsh about a subject matter that wasn’t overly trod upon. There are a whole bunch of scary-house movies, a whole bunch of scary-space-station movies, but we hadn’t seen a great many horror flicks about the creative process and artistic responsibility, and that seemed pretty fertile ground to us. There are a few reasons for that, and I could get overly analytical, but I think the start of it had to be that my writing partner Jesse and I went to high school together, and the one we went to was a fine arts high school. We got out of school two hours later than everyone else in the city, because in addition to all the normal stuff, we had to play an instrument and paint and sing and act. And so analyzing that process, and looking at it from different angles, was something that was drilled into us at a young age, and the [RANDOM ACTS] story seemed to lend itself to a lot of stuff we’d been thinking about anyway.
This material is very different from the kind of films you’re usually associated with. Was this a conscious decision to switch things up for yourself?
Yes, but not as a response to anything else I’d done, but just because that’s where my interests lie, and always have. I’ve been a horror and action movie fan since I was a kid, and all I’ve ever really wanted to do is make horror movies and action movies. I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a career as an actor that has afforded me and my family opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise have, but all along, it’s been a matter of time till I got to do a film like this. So in a sense, I’ve been in film school for about 20 years, and this has always been the stuff I’m most interested in, which probably stems from my falling in love with Alfred Hitchcock when I was around 14. I understood from his cinema that these were colors I would want to paint with if I was ever lucky enough to get to make a movie.
Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti are credited as producers on the film; what was their involvement?
To be honest, they were stewards of the soul of the thing, but they were also quite respectful and deferential toward the movie we were making. Our film was based on the material they created, but they also knew we were trying to do some additional stuff with it, and we got their blessing. I have to give credit where credit is due: Palmiotti was nothing but supportive and a booster of this movie the whole time, especially with the differences, the things we changed or adjusted that weren’t in the original comic. He not only endorsed that, he supported and encouraged us to make the movie we wanted to make. The coolest thing was that he was there to say, as creator of the thing, that we had license to find our own voice with it.
Can you talk about the changes you made for the movie?
It’s hard to talk about that without giving a bunch of things away [laughs], but there was a bit less connective tissue to the past in the comic. The dialectic of our film was first articulated in their comic, but our characterizations are different, who the killer is is different, and there’s not a trippy, seven-minute-long, Ektachrome flashback sequence in the graphic novel. I hesitate to use this term, but I can’t think of a better one: The movie is just slightly more straight-ahead. It’s not a totally straight-ahead story, it’s just that on the scale, their version is closer to straight-ahead than ours is.
Can you talk about the casting of the film, and playing one of the roles yourself?
I’m very, very blessed to have gotten Jesse and Jordana, and then I had to suffer editing myself [laughs]. I know my being in the movie helped get it on its feet, but I am also the performance I enjoy the least in the movie! It was one of those things where we wrote the first treatment nine years ago or something like that, and independent Canadian cinema is nothing if not difficult and time-consuming! But the reason I mention that is, these characters live as ones and zeroes and ink and paper, and there’s a profound blind spot, because no matter what, once you find your actors, they’re going to take ownership, ideally, and their blood is going to be in those characters, and they will become experts. About two minutes into chatting with Jesse, and two minutes into chatting with Jordana, it was apparent that I had found my Todd and Kathy, and I had to do everything I could to make the movie with them. And I told both of them, “I want you guys to push back; I want you to be the defenders and protectors of your characters. You are now the experts, so I want you to tell me when you think this is something your person wouldn’t do.” It was a neat moment, and it happened quite quickly with both of them.
Finding our killer was a bit more difficult, and had a lot more moving parts to it. But it was one of these great movie stories of seeming like we were screwed, and then, at the 11th hour, having Simon Northwood come in, and the best thing ever happened where it couldn’t be anyone else but him. We cast Simon two days before we started shooting, which was very stressful, to be in the last week of preproduction on a horror film and not having found our killer yet. We were making all sorts of plans, like, well, we don’t see him without his mask on for the first week or two, so maybe we can just get a body double. And then it’s, OK, fine, we get a body double, but for whom? What are we going to do, get the double first and then find an actor who resembles their body shape? That’s crazy!
Then Simon put himself on tape at the last minute, and I don’t remember how we hadn’t seen him before, but as soon as I watched his audition, he was literally the fucking guy. It was legitimately the best take on the character I had seen, and it was like, why the fuck did it take until the very last second [laughs]? What was super-cool about casting him was, he’s a very talented stunt performer and martial artist, so whenever the kills were happening, there was an added layer of safety and protection from having him be the one interacting with our cast. In addition to creating interesting action, stunt performers’ jobs are often to watch out and to make a working environment safe, or contribute to it. So I could breathe easy knowing that he was watching over them, even as he was pretending to kill them.
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