By CHRIS HALLOCK
Multi-faceted film director, comic book author, and toy craftsman James Felix McKenney began auspiciously as part of the talented outfit at Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix, lending his ingenuity to a variety of low-budget horror and sci-fi projects. His early features, the eccentric supernatural film The Off Season (2004), and blood-soaked satire Canniballistic! (2002), heralded a talent with his sights set on idiosyncratic and biting work in the genre.
McKenney continued to develop his unique voice with Automatons (2006), a tribute to ’50s sci-fi with a pointed political edge, Satan Hates You (2010), a gloriously blasphemous Jack Chick tract come to life, drenched in technicolor gore, and the arctic terror of Hypothermia (2010), a character-driven monster movie pitting a vulnerable Michael Rooker against a toothsome fish-man. Through this assortment of work, McKenney cultivated the themes of isolation, alienation, paternalism, religious dogma, and human resilience representative of his diverse filmography.
McKenney has returned with his first feature in over a decade. WRACK (available via Blu-ray and Vimeo VOD on September 6 from Studio Midnight) is a minimalist post-apocalyptic sci-fi film set in the distant future, centered on a small group of disparate masked survivors. The foursome’s tenuous cooperative is jeopardized by visits from a pair of frightening beings believed to be angels by the group’s overtly religious members, provoking a violent ideological conflict in which faith and science collide. Although WRACK was produced prior to the COVID pandemic, the film stands as a testament to ambitious low-budget filmmaking crafted under austere conditions.
RUE MORGUE recently chatted with McKenney about his latest work, handcrafted cinema, and the Glass Eye Pix retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art featuring his 2006 film Automatons.
It’s been about ten years since your last feature, Hypothermia. Why such a long hiatus?
There were a lot of things I loved about making Hypothermia, but there were some things that sort of killed some of my enthusiasm for feature filmmaking. Mostly, the “necessary evils” that come with what can be an insanely expensive art form. So I spent some time trying out new things. I started making and selling my own toys, including my line of Sea-Borgs action figures, which is something I am getting back into again now. I had a radio show for a bit and co-hosted a podcast. I even became certified as a dog obedience trainer!
But I was still working in film during this period. I did a lot of freelance editing and some animation stuff, worked on some other people’s films and directed a few shorts and a music video. I think I just needed a little time to remember why I love making movies. I don’t care one bit about show business or the entertainment industry; I just like making things. In that respect, the freedom of micro-budget films makes me happy with very little of the stuff that doesn’t.
Where did the idea for WRACK originate?
It started with the masks. I’ve always been drawn to artificial faces and always wanted to see a film where the characters never expose their true faces. This was a few years before The Mandalorian gave us a character who keeps his face covered 99 percent of the time and also before the pandemic. I needed a reason for the characters to be masked, and I was writing for things I had access to, such as the field where I was living at the time. Science fiction is my favorite genre, so I know that’s the kind of story I wanted to tell with some horror elements sprinkled in. The story just took shape around those elements.
How was it working with actors who are fully masked for the duration of the film?
We shot the whole thing in short bursts. It was probably six short days over a month-long period. So the actors didn’t have to spend long periods of time in costume. The actors could hear me with no trouble and never complained about the fact that one can barely see out of those masks. They were all troopers and instinctively knew how to exaggerate their movements just enough to sell what they were saying without the use of facial expressions.
The beauty of the mask is that you can’t see anyone’s mouth, so if someone blew a line, it didn’t matter. We could just keep going. That way we didn’t have to do a lot of takes and could keep moving. I love shooting MOS and dubbing everything in later. It’s how we did Automatons, and I’ve always admired the Italian filmmakers who don’t shy away from it.
So once I finished the rough cut, we all got together and recorded the dialog in the fictitious language that you see in the movie. Our lead was unable to make the session, so Jennifer Boutell (who appeared in our films Automatons and Satan Hates You) ended up dubbing the part of Neshma.
Tell me a little about your process for designing and creating the elaborate costumes, masks, and props for the film.
When Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell the Dead wrapped, I took a dozen or so bags of background wardrobe home with me to use in a future project that Larry Fessenden and I have been talking about doing for years. I still haven’t gotten around to making that movie, but over the years those bags were getting a little mildewy, so I figured I’d better use at least some of the material while I still could. Most of the fabric elements in WRACK came from I Sell the Dead, except for Merjan’s jacket. That was one of the ones that Angus Scrimm wore in Automatons.
I had recently made a mask I liked for a music video I did for my friend’s band, Two Dark Birds. I was happy with how it came out and wanted to make some less organic versions for WRACK. I spent weekend after weekend in my studio making masks, props and those little food creatures, using the same techniques I’d used for my toy and prop making. I only did sketches of the character designs. The rest of the items were designed as I built them, using items I had on hand or could get cheaply.
How has the pandemic changed the way you approach film production?
I know it seems like a pandemic movie because of the timing and the masks, but we actually shot WRACK just a couple of months before COVID hit the US. When it was time to do the dubbing, it was during one of the lulls in the pandemic. We recorded all of that stuff one morning in my studio, which was its own building with a big garage door and plenty of windows, and we observed social distancing. Ironically, the one person who wasn’t recording with us was Jennifer Boutell, who ended up getting COVID immediately after I asked her to record Neshma’s lines for us. Luckily, she’s a pro and was able to record them on her own once she had recovered.
Other than that, it’s just been delay after delay in getting going on filming new projects that I’m scheduled to be working on. But that’s okay with me. I’d rather everyone be safe. These are just movies.
Tell me about some of the film’s ideological and generational conflicts (religious dogma vs. science and paternalism vs. impetuousness of youth). It seems some of them may have been drawn from our most recent tumultuous cultural and political climate?
It’s funny, it’s fifteen years later and I’m still bothered by the things that I was bothered by when we made Automatons but even more so. Things like: How when people should be pulling together, they do just the opposite because they can’t let go of their petty grievances and the way people will believe what they want to believe, even when the evidence is right there in front of them. The religion vs. science debate is pretty heavy-handed in WRACK, but we live in a time where subtlety seems almost non-existent. I guess when you’re living in chaotic times, you never have to look too far to find something to write about.
How did you go about creating the film’s unique language?
I wanted it to sound vaguely Russian or Eastern European, so I started off using sounds that we stereotypically think of when we think of those languages. I also sprinkled in some Japanese sounds and Greek word roots, but very few of the sounds are being used the way they are in the real-world languages. I didn’t necessarily want it to sound alien, but I wanted it to sound foreign to every audience member, regardless of what language(s) they speak.
How did you prepare the actors for learning and responding to the dialogue?
We shot all of the dialogue in English, so the characters could interact properly. That part of it all was pretty traditional. When it came to doing the dubbing, everyone read from a version of the script with the lines from the fictitious language sitting on the page with the English translation and stage directions just below them. That way, the actors could read the “Wrackian” dialog without having to learn it and still see what is going on in the scene.
I’m sorry to hear of the passing of musician Tim Feleppa. How did you come to collaborate with him on WRACK’s mesmerizing score?
I met Tim years ago when we were both working construction. He was just such a sweet guy and we became friends pretty quickly. We had a lot of mutual musician friends, and they all held Tim’s musical talent in the highest regard. On our last day working together, he turned to me and said, “If you ever need any music for any of your projects, I’d be happy to make some for you.”
A while after that, he and his brother sold the house they were living in. Tim told me that after owning his own place, he couldn’t bring himself to pay rent, so he spent about a year or so living in his car, making music on his iPad. He would post these compositions, along with some of his older stuff, on YouTube and Soundcloud, and it was really amazing stuff.
He let me use some of these pieces for a video I did for a local non-profit and for a short film called Candyland. He was so humble and easy to work with, and the music was so good, I knew he was the guy for Wrack. I asked him if he wanted to do it and he enthusiastically agreed. I described to him the sort of things I was looking for and he immediately started sending me stuff. Between these new compositions and some selections of his existing work, I had a full soundtrack for the film almost a full year before we began shooting!
I was shocked and devastated when I heard that Tim had suddenly passed away last summer. The thing that often happens when you’re making movies for no money and doing most of the jobs yourself is that it takes a really long time to finish the film after it’s been shot. I would send Tim little clips that included his music to let him know I was slowly making progress, and he always responded with so much excitement and enthusiasm. The fact that he passed away just a few months before I finished postproduction just eats away at me. He never got to see the movie that his music made so wonderful. It’s heartbreaking.
Why did you decide to self-distribute instead of taking the traditional route?
It didn’t make sense for me to make a movie for only $1,500 and then spend that much or more on distribution. Festival fees, travel, delivery expenses, legal fees – they all add up.
I already had a distribution label, Channel Midnight Releasing, that I originally set up to re-release my first movie, CanniBallistic! along with Nathan Wrann’s film, Burning Inside. We released Burning Inside in 2010, just as physical media was really starting to die, so the CanniBallistic! release was put aside. But now, with streaming becoming more accessible through various outlets, it seems like a good option for an odd little film like WRACK, which will have a very limited audience. But we’ll still produce a small run of Blu-rays for the collectors! Once WRACK is out there, we will also put out that long-delayed CanniBallistic! remaster, which has also been completed.
How did it feel getting a screening of Automatons (and some of the other films you were involved in) by MoMA as part of the recent Glass Eye Pix retrospective?
It’s a huge honor. I mean, this retrospective is all about Larry, and deservedly so. Of course, MoMA wouldn’t give me the time of day if it wasn’t for all he’s accomplished. I feel very fortunate to have been and continue to be a part of it all.
Would you consider WRACK and Automatons part of the same universe?
They are definitely in the same world. WRACK takes place tens of thousands of years after the apocalypse in Automatons. I have a whole backstory in my head about where these people came from and how those Automatons items that you see in Merjan’s lab are able to still exist, some still in working order. In the first movie, you see the planet as completely uninhabitable. In Wrack, you see the world has healed itself, although not completely. The land appears to be lush again, but it’s still somewhat toxic. The two films are very much linked. I also have prequel and sequel stories from Automatons written, so I may someday return to this world in some form.
WRACK will be available via blu-ray and Vimeo VOD on September 6 from the filmmaker’s Channel Midnight Releasing label at https://www.studio-midnight.com.