Check the Gate is a column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we sit down (virtually) with director Jay Baruchel to discuss his camera’s playful nature in Random Acts of Violence.
Every horror fan has a film bubbling in their brain. Tom Savini and KNB EFX made it look too damn fun. We want to get in the muck with them, stir in the prosthetic limbs, and swim in the Karo syrup. We see your helicopter-propeller-zombie-chop, Mr. Romero, and raise you a flaming defenestration. Horror is a genre fueled by one-upmanship. A gnarly sight enters your mind, and it starts to twist and tumble, eventually spilling forth on your canvas, messier and grosser, and hopefully equally unforgettable—jolting the next hungry creative to do their worst.
Random Acts of Violence is Jay Baruchel‘s stab into this adored grisly genre. Based on the comic book by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, the film is a vicious road trip following an artist (Jesse Williams), his wife (Jordana Brewster), his assistant (Niamh Wilson), and his publisher (Baruchel) as they navigate a press tour that turns bloodier and bloodier by the mile. Taking inspiration from a series of real-life murders, the artist is eager to end his gory comic book saga and free himself of the nightmare scenarios he routinely resurrects on the page. His publisher is less excited; the Slasherman killer possibly even less so, as he sprinkles corpses like breadcrumbs behind their traveling band.
“I’ve been seeing this movie in my head every day for the previous f**king decade.”
Baruchel couldn’t suppress Random Acts of Violence. Once it got inside, it stayed there. Whatever else he may have been doing at the time, the film brewed in his imagination. Before there was a hope of a green light, the film formulated behind his eyes. He knew what it should look like; he knew how it should behave. It was merely a matter of realization and finding the team to help make it happen.
Random Acts of Violence is vile and upsetting, but it’s always playful. Baruchel is not chasing authenticity; he’s tripping in the fantasy, splashing his characters’ emotions upon the frame. You may not recognize the reality, but you’ll clock the feelings. It’s raw, wet, and bright, all of which is signified by its purposeful color scheme.
“Fire and water!” shouts Baruchel. “Cyan and amber!”
Before anything else was discussed between Baruchel and his cinematographer Karim Hussain, the two filmmakers landed on the film’s thematic sheen. The two have known each other since Baruchel was sixteen, working on Matthew Blackheart: Monster Smasher, a Canadian TV movie once covered by Hussain while writing for Fangoria. As the years passed, the two waited for their moment to collaborate, and when it arrived, they erupted upon each other.
“Cyan and amber was the second or third thing out of his mouth,” says Baruchel. “After like, ‘Hey, it’s been a while. Nice to see you.’ And I said, ‘Okay, that’s actually quite similar to the vibe that was in my head.’ I wanted this kind of violet-pink, which is the cumulative effect of all the Christmas tree lights firing at once.”
While the producers were still working out the film’s prep-time budget, Baruchel and Hussain party-crashed their office. Their excitement to collaborate couldn’t wait. The film within Baruchel roared to get out.
“It’ll come as no surprise that we got through six f**king drafts of our shot list with a week left in prep,” Baruchel proudly boasts. “All Karim and I do is talk about this stuff, and there was a huge surplus of ideas.”
With the color concept locked into place, they began to plot the camera’s role in the movie. Once Random Acts of Violence unveils its horror, Baruchel refuses to let the image rest. The frame is not a picture on a wall. It’s surfing this hellish tour with the rest of the gang.
“Our movie lives in Steadicam,” he says. “We think of our camera as this other character in the movie. It’s this sort of curious ghost. It can get up really, really close — to an almost fetishistic point of view — but then it can also fall back and drift around and go where it wants to go. We wanted to add a bit of dynamism to our violence.”
Horror must be felt. Scares succeed only when the audience can imagine their presence in the characters’ place. The camera drops you under the killer’s blade, or just far enough away to imprison you as a voyeur.
“We wanted some of our kills to put the audience in the victim’s shoes,” he says. “In some of our other kills, we wanted to make the audience feel like a helpless bystander, that they were close enough that they could see what was happening, but not close enough to stop it.”
As a lifelong horror fanatic, Baruchel takes extra glee in executing the film’s kills. His Slasherman has several icons towering over him, but there is a bliss to be found in challenging Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers’ wickedness. How did it feel to enter that splatterfest arena?
“It was the coolest,” says Baruchel. “It was the coolest! In the moment, there are too many fires to put out for me to really be able to notice [or enjoy it]. Because we did that whole thing in ten hours, start to finish. It’s not a ton of time to do something that’s got a bunch of moving parts to it.”
“That whole thing” being the Slasherman’s flesh-rendering introduction, where he traps three hapless teenagers in their van during a torrential downpour. The sequence is loud and violent, and up-close. It was designed to slap the hardened and rip apart the crossed arms of prove-me horror stans.
“It’s all theory until you’re there on the day,” he says. “You hope that if we do all this, that we’ll get it, but you can’t guarantee it. This was exactly what we had in our wildest dreams. There was definitely pride in that, but it was also just like, I owed it to my actors and my crew. They were all having to stand out there underneath these God awful fucking rain towers, and most of them don’t even work half the time. And the fucking kids in the car just had to get murdered again and again. It’s the worst Groundhog Day you can imagine.”
Misery and toil is part of the mixture. Pulling the vision out of his head and onto the screen meant Baruchel had to torture his crew, and it could not be in vain. Random Acts of Violence must terrify.
“To make something legit scary,” says Baruchel, “it has to be unpleasant and clumsy and as unmusical as possible. We just tried to bury the sequence.”
The curious ghost and the Christmas tree colors take a break. The Slasherman’s intro becomes its own movie with its own pace and logic. The threat, once revealed, carries over the rest of the picture.
“When a killer enters a house in a movie,” Baruchel explains, “or when a cop gets in the car and follows the bad guy’s car, if you’ve ever seen any movie, you have an internal clock that starts ticking. You know that you have four to seven minutes, and then this will all be done. I wanted to do my best to bury that clock.”
Baruchel had the actors riff and ramble during the scene. When people get nervous, they blather. We all think we can improv our way out of any situation.
“If you’re talking, then you’re still okay,” he says. “So I told them, ‘Okay, let’s find something funny and bullshitty for you guys to rag each other about. When you realize it’s too late, when the shit really hits the fan, just keep talking.’ If you’re talking, you’re okay.”
As a genre fan, Baruchel knows what the viewers are thinking. He drafted the scene as if he was sitting in the crowd shouting at the screen. They want the kill, but once they get it, he wants them to regret it. The Slasherman attacks and the stabs don’t stop. Nor do the screams or the very human blather.
Random Acts of Violence achieves ugliness and beauty. It’s got gloss and purpose, but it’s also wild and berzerk. After percolating for decades, the film finally seeped loose from Baruchel, and it’s a slippery bloody assault worthy of the films that fed its director. It’s got sights you can’t forget.
Random Acts of Violence hits VOD, Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on February 16th.