Essays · Movies

‘VFW’ Set Visit: Making Our Last Stand With the Cast of Fangoria’s Latest Feature

We sat down with director Joe Begos and stars Stephen Lang, Fred Williamson, and more to discuss the art of making a truly brutal indie action film.
Vfw Stephen Lang William Sadler
By  · Published on February 14th, 2020

Chat with some critics and you soon realize that most set visits are anything but a marquee event. That is not exactly the case for Fangoria’s latest production, VFW. In the latest by filmmaker Joe Begos, Hollywood legends Stephen Lang and William Sadler take on an army of mutant drug addicts as they defend their local Veterans of Foreign Wars building. And the press that is gathered for their on-location shoot is here to witness one of the biggest scenes of the movie, an all-out brawl between the surviving VFW members and the gang from across the street.

Over the next 24 hours, we’ll watch the cast and crew run through a handful of complicated stunts before gathering outside for a few brief interviews. It’s a cool April day in Dallas, Texas, and most everyone is grateful for the opportunity to spend a little time outside. On the inside, the VFW looks every bit the slaughterhouse you’ll see on the screen, but the outside looks more or less the same, minus the occasional makeup tent and pile of special effects. It’s no wonder members of the VFW keep popping in to check out the film production as they work.

VFW Set Visit 3 Fangoria

The room is split in two. On one side stands Fred (Lang) and the remaining survivors. Across the room stands Boz and his army of mutants. The scene begins with an ultimatum: return the bag of the highly contagious hylophedrine at once, and Boz will let the survivors die quick deaths. Moments later, all hell breaks loose.

There’s a pretty simple idea at the heart of VFW. Most of the movie takes place within a single, worn-down location. Like an old Western — or, perhaps more accurately, a John Carpenter remake of an old Western — almost all of the action is either setting up barricades or fighting for your life as the barricades come tumbling down. The VFW that the crew found in Dallas is perfect, but what really makes it a movie and not just a single solid location is the lighting.

“I like dark, murky colors and really brightly lit neon — but still dark — kind of colors,” explains director Joe Begos. Together with actor-producer-editor-sound designer Josh Ethier, we’ve found ourselves indoors and sitting at the corner of the actual VFW bar. Even with the cosmetic damage and the strategic splatters of blood, it’s still not the worst place I’ve ever gotten a drink. But look up and you cannot help but see bunches of lights twisty-tied together across the ceiling, shattering the dive bar mirage. This is what gives the film its distinctive Begos look.

Under normal circumstances, the pressure of making a feature film would be enough. In this situation, though, Begos and Ethier have effectively been tasked with launching a new production company. Thankfully, Fangoria’s foray into filmmaking dovetails neatly with their filmmaking ethos. “I never worry about what people are going to think about movies anyways,” Ethier suggests, “but with this one specifically, I feel like if they grew up the way that we did reading that stuff and watching that stuff, that they will be excited about this movie.”

If you’ve seen Almost Human or Mind’s Eye, the previous two films by Begos, you’ll see a lot of similarities in the VFW look and feel. The choice of Begos as director was no accident; his personal style incorporates elements of ’80s nostalgia as well as a DIY ethos that will feel right at home for the Fangoria audience. “It’s almost like there’s no difference between making a movie when we make a movie,” Begos adds. “Just they deal with all the crap that we don’t want to deal with and then let us do our thing.”

If there was anything about this film that made the director nervous, it was the caliber of the cast. “I was worried, Begos admits. “Lang came from Avatar, and then he’s going back to Avatar. Sadler just did The Highwaymen and does TV all the time.” Instead of defensiveness, however, the men quickly realized their cast was driven by a willingness to try new things. “There was a punch with Sadler,” Ethier recalls, “which in any script, on any page, in any movie it’s just a punch. And he did four different variations using different weapons and prompts on this punch. It’s just incredible to see.”

Shortly thereafter, I get a tap on the shoulder. It’s time to move on. “We got some heads to blow up today,” Begos concludes with a smile.

VFW Set Visit 2 Fangoria

Fred throws a bag of hypo into the air and the powder explodes, coating the addicts in their favorite form of poison. When the powder hits the air, so does Abe’s (Fred Williamson) cherished cutlass. The first person he kills is almost a gimmie — he slides up behind them and quickly slices their throat. After that, things get a bit messier. Abe sidesteps one attacker before pinning another to the wall, scalp first, with his cutlass. It takes a little extra effort for Abe to pull the blade back out.

“I got the Eastwood audience, I got the Bronson audience, now I got the Fangoria fans. It’s going to work out all right altogether.”

You’re fooling yourself if you think you can ask Fred Williamson a question he hasn’t yet heard in his career. With a resume that includes professional football, multiple black belts, and five-plus decades as a leading man, I’d like to think I’m smart enough not to try. We sit on bar stools along the side of the building, and as I juggle a recording device on each knee, I sit back and let him explain what it means to have one Fred Williamson in your movie.

“My three rules of Hollywood: I have to win the fight, you can’t kill me in a movie, and I have to get the girl in the movie,” Williamson begins. “They have to do two of the three.” It’s not a surprise, then, that this longevity has made him care about the types of characters he portrays onscreen. “I don’t sell performances, I sell images. I’ve been in enough films now to create an image that’s consistent. You know the characters that I play.”

Abe certainly fits the Williamson archetype. He is a man of action, willing to roll up his sleeves and get violent when the shit hits the fan. Williamson prides himself on his lack of body doubles — “I don’t do stuntmen, he says” — and for as much control as he may exert over his own image, once the cameras start rolling, he trusts the director to put him in a position to succeed. “I don’t evaluate people that I work with,” he adds. “I only evaluate my contribution to the scene. If it feels right to me and it feels good to me, that’s fine.”

In the end, though, Williamson’s very presence is a promise that Abe will have a chance to get his. “Sooner or later, the Hammer is going to rise to the occasion,” he concludes. “I might get beat up, stepped on, or thrown through the wall or something, but I’m coming back, and I’m going to take out a few more before I go. If I go. That’s what I sell.”

VFW Set Visit Fangoria

As Boz’s men scuttle with a new dose of hypo in their system, Fred carves his way around the pool table. One man takes an ax to the throat; another to the shoulder. When one junkie tries to climb onto Fred’s back, he spins him off and plunges his weapon deep into their head. Fred smiles as the bodies fall around him

One of these kills is giving Stephen Lang a headache.

Even on a tiny monitor, you can feel the actor’s frustration. He tries once, twice, three times to stop the ax just-so, letting it rest against the extra’s head and selling one of the bloodier kills in the scene. He barks at himself, frustrated that he can’t get it quite right, then decides to ramp up his own intensity. “I think I’ll smile,” he announces to no one in particular. When he finally nails the moment — much to the excitement of the cast and crew — his over-stretched smile makes everything just that much more grotesque.

Later, I’ll ask the actor if there’s a time-honored technique for how to kill someone with a rubber ax on film. Lang laughs. “I think it’s a duet between the camera and the actor, and maybe the person who’s receiving the blow,” Lang explains. The two of us have staked out chairs in a small playground just outside the VFW’s side entrance. The actor is stretched out, clearly enjoying the opportunity to take in some sunshine after hours in the blacked-out building. “If you get one out of three real pure, it’s real good. Because you don’t want to pull the blow.”

If anyone knows a thing or two about action movies, it’s Lang. From the big (Avatar) to the small (Band of Robbers), he is Hollywood’s go-to guy for intimidating figures. And while the rest of the cast may have standout moments around him, Lang remains at the center of everything that happens in the feature. It’s Fred’s birthday. It’s Fred’s film. “You’re talking about a guy who is in a very opaque and stolid way, facing a very uncertain future,” he explains. “The fundamental issue here, one of them, certainly, is facing death on your own terms.”

Our conversation about the experience of the cast takes a more practical turn. “Each one of these guys on this thing is a director in their own right,” Lang explains. “And by that I mean there are actors who have learned from experience, from long years of experience, to direct themselves when necessary.” This makes the cast of VFW the film’s secret weapon on both sides of the camera. The actors are able to block some of their own fight sequences, sell some of the film’s smaller moments and move quickly through an ambitious shoot that requires “five, six, seven scenes a day.”

And as for killing folks with a rubber ax? “You’d think I’d be really good at it now, since I’ve killed about 40 people with it, so far,” Lang says with a chuckle. “But I’m getting there. Possibly by the time we wrap, I’ll become a master of the rubber ax.”

VFW Set Visit 4 Fangoria

Meanwhile, Walter (Sadler) is attacked from behind the bar. He swings his weapon of choice — a baseball bat dotted with nails — into the stomach, and then the neck, of one man, spinning and swinging as the next person attacks. Later, Walter will pop up, grinning, with a chainsaw in his hand. “Look what I found!” he cackles as he shuffles towards the exit.

“He’s not the brightest bulb in the sign, and his heart’s in the right place, and he’s really trying.” 

This is how William Sadler explains the character of Walter Reed. The interviews are running a little behind schedule — in fact, Sadler is cutting into borrowed time to chat with me — but he’s all smiles as we find a picnic table and discuss the film. In a few minutes, Sadler will ask me to explain the name behind Film School Rejects, and then hand me his phone and ensure that he follows the publication on Twitter. For now, though, he’s happy for a chance to talk about his rare chance to play the comic relief.

“I’ve sort of leaned into that he’s one step behind everybody,” he continues. “Anytime you can give the audience a second to laugh, for just a minute, at the outrageousness of the situation, or anything, I think it’s a good thing. I think it helps them come along.” This makes Walter the primary source of humor in VFW, sure, but it also puts Sadler in the enviable position of giving the most well-rounded performance in the film. He’s the closest thing we have to an audience surrogate: confused, scared, and angry, all rolled into one Bill Sadler-shaped ball.

When you spend your career making action movies, you develop a set of skills that is never too far from the surface. “I guess I shouldn’t be, but I’m surprised at how easily we’ve all slid back into these roles,” the actor admits. For him, it was like “riding a bike,” utilizing a set of physical skills he has honed since the 1970s. “You never forget how to throw the punch or take the punch or clobber somebody with a big mouth.”

We chat for a moment about the on-set reminiscing the cast indulges in — the Hollywood version of old war stories — before the conversation turns to Demon Knight. Much like VFW, Demon Knight features a ragtag group of heroes holding out against a group of violent invaders. “We didn’t know we were making a classic when we did it,” Sadler explains. “It was just made with a lot of humor, and a lot of the same energy. Almost exactly the same. ‘They’re coming through the door! Quick, get to the barricades! Shit, they’re coming through the window!’” 

Sadler pauses for a moment. “Yeah, history repeats itself. It’s fun.” 

VFW Set Visit 5 Fangoria

Lizard (Sierra McCormick) punches her way through a crowd of bodies and makes it to the side door. In a moment, after the first wave of killing is done, she’ll slide back inside to recover the remaining hypo. This will put her right in the crosshairs of Boz, who drags her kicking and screaming from the VFW as the remaining hypos descend on the soldiers. Fred is hobbled, but he quickly turns around and gives chase.

Someone should probably give Sierra McCormick a moment to eat. That someone won’t turn out to be me, as I’m plopped down next to the actress as she politely juggles eating her meal and starts working her way through my questions.

“I pride myself on variety. That’s kind of my thing,” she says by way of an opener. Not many actors at the age of 22 can claim credits as diverse as a Disney Channel television show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and VFW, but McCormick holds her own in the star-studded cast as Lizard, whose snap decision to steal a bag of drugs kicks off 90 minutes’ worth of grindhouse classics. It turns out that VFW is less an outlier than you may think. “I’m a big horror fan from the get-go, when I was a kid. That’s exclusively what I watched.”

Before she was overcome by the biker-mutant apocalypse, McCormick was one of the stars of A.N.T. Farm, a Disney Channel series about a school for gifted teenagers. If VFW sounds a bit removed from that kind of role, well, that’s kind of the point. McCormick has spent years playing a certain type of teenage girl, and that has not exactly given her the challenges she wants as an actress. “That’s what is out there for teen girl roles,” she explains. “Very flat, very girl-next-door, boring.” Lizard, of course, is anything but. Her role in the VFW is never questioned; she proves herself capable of holding her own from the film’s first moments.

Lizard also gave McCormick an opportunity to try her hand at fight choreography for the first time. “This was my first foray into stunt work and heavy action sequences,” she adds between bites, “and getting to kind of fight as my character. I’ve been around that before but it’s never me doing it.” What better crash course for someone performing their stunts for the first time than in the midst of all these action stars? “What I learned was, one, the safety is very important, if you don’t feel good about it, you shouldn’t do it,” McCormick notes. 

There’s one more lesson, one that ties neatly to the very ethos of filmmaking itself. While everything needs to be safe, you also have to be willing to push yourself if you’re going to sell the action on the screen. If you allow yourself to be scared on set, you’ll appear scared on the screen. “I had to take the leap physically and mentally and trust myself to do some of these things. And I did and I’m proud of myself for doing it.”

Related Topics: , , , ,

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)