Filmmaker Greg McLean gained attention on the horror scene with his second feature WOLF CREEK (the sequel showed up eight years later), with the giant crocodile movie ROGUE landing between them. McLean’s last film, THE DARKNESS, starring Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell was a fun, supernatural thriller from last year, and it set the stage for him to get ahold of a script by James Gunn (SLITHER and the two GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies) that he wrote a while ago based on a nightmare.
THE BELKO EXPERIMENT concerns a U.S. company’s office in Colombia where 80 American work and are trapped within the building at the mercy of a mysterious voice that tasks them all to kill an ever-increasing number of their fellow employees until one is left standing. The film feels like a deviant social experiment, but it’s also a nervy commentary on corporations and human behavior. It’s bloody, raw, often shocking, and I really liked it. The day before I left for SXSW, I had a chance to talk to McLean (a native Australian) on the phone about BELKO, it’s unsettling messages, and its extraordinary cast, which includes John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Michael Rooker, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Sean Gunn, David Dastmalchian, and a host of quite familiar faces. Please enjoy my chat with Greg McLean, and be very careful of SPOILERS, especially where it concerns who lives and who dies in the movie…
Greg McLean: Hey, Steve.
Capone: Hi, Greg. How are you?
GM: Good, man. How’s it going?
Capone: Great. Congratulations on this, first of all.
GM: Thank you.
Capone: Let’s start with an obvious question: How did you and James Gunn first connect, and how did you get a hold of this script?
GM: Basically the script was James and Peter [Peter Safran, producer] deciding to put the movie together. MGM was a fan of the script, and they worked out they wanted to make it. They then sent the script around to directors, and I read it, and it blew my mind. I just fell in love with it immediately. I prepared a big pitch document for James and Peter, talking about how I see the film, what I think the film could be, and what my vision for the movie was, and I presented it to those guys and they really liked it. Then the next thing you know I was over here and we were casting. So it was a pretty quick process.
Capone: As I watched it, I was marveling at the fact that you have so many characters, and we have to know where everybody is at any one given moment, and they’re all at a different emotional place as well at any one given moment. Did you have a giant flowchart of everybody’s physical injuries and emotional state? How did you make that work?
GM: Look, the only way to pull off a movie like this is to have incredible planning. My whole thing is basically: the movie is made in pre-production or it’s not made at all, and that’s particularly true if you have a limited budget and time. So for this movie, I used all of my previous experience in planning to hyper plan each scene, each set up. So I storyboarded the entire movie, then did visual plans for all of the action scenes and emotional charts for each of the actors, so we could basically chart where and how and who was feeling what at which time to keep track of everything, because it’s obviously a very complex action film over different levels. We’re constantly cutting between locations in the building and different characters and situations. Without having that level of planning, there was no way I could pull it off.
Capone: I don’t know if you had the luxury of shooting any parts of this chronologically, because that would be the easiest way to do it keep track of everything and everyone.
GM: We tried to make it as sane as we could. For example, sequences like, there’s a scene where Sean Gunn and Abraham Benrubi are in the cafeteria, and all of the heads blow up. We then went, probably the same day, back in that location to shoot Adria [Arjona] arriving and killing John McGinley, so because we knew that space would have to be vaguely the same, we tended to move in those spaces progressively. I think that was the same, for example, with the big execution sequence. That set goes through a particular series of events. It begins pristine at the start of the film, but it ends covered in blood, covered in bodies, covered in water, covered in smoke. We used the big set pieces progressively, just so we’d keep track of what was going on.
Capone: So you at least used the sets chronologically.
GM: When we could, we did. Because we didn’t have the money or the time to replicate blood patterns, so once you blow up a head in the room, that room has to be shot progressively, basically.
Capone: You actually shot this in Colombia, but because most of it takes place indoors, you could have shot it just about anywhere. Did shooting somewhere that was foreign to your American cast add to a little bit of anxiety and to that sense of isolation?
GM: What I think it did do was, we got much more bang for our buck in terms of shooting in Colombia verses shooting in L.A. It certainly did have a school camp quality with all the actors being away from home. There was nothing else really to do but to hang out with each other and do the movie. Essentially, it’s an ensemble piece, so as a director, I have this huge ensemble of actors, I’ve got their focused attention for the entire time we’re here, so that enabled us to really focus on doing the best possible work we could, but also they were separated from their regular lives. So really I believe it did influence how the ensemble looks, and you can certainly feel the strength of the ensemble because the acting in the film is so good.
Capone: I think it’s John Gallagher who has the line toward the end about how it never made sense why they had to work in Columbia, and I’m like “That sounds like a very true statement.”
GM: Right, right. Yeah, there’s some truth to that, for sure.
Capone: This is a film that people are going to be uncomfortable with. Not just because it’s bloody and extreme, but because there are moral choices being made here that I’m guessing a lot of people, looking at it from an audience perspective, are thinking, “I would never do that. I would never resort to that.” Some people have walked out. Is that a “mission: accomplished” as far as you’re concerned if somebody gets that uncomfortable?
GM: Oh, for sure. I think the challenge as the director for the movie is to try and make a movie that is ultimately entertaining and a fun experience for the audience, but was also able, at the same time, to take them into very uncomfortable and dark places. What we’re watching is basically a group of characters who are forced to kill their best friends, to kill their loved ones, which is a shocking and horrifying idea, but the challenge tonally is to make that watchable and also not to forget you’ve got to get the audience out of that horror by having those moments of comedy. So it’s balancing the black comedy, the action, and the humor, and trying to find a tone for the overall movie so the audience is able to feel the emotion of those things, but also at the end of it be released from the whole experience.
Capone: Another thing you did to add to the authenticity of this is you have this amazing cast of actors who, with a couple of exceptions, everybody knows their face, but few people know their names. I used to work in a big office, and that’s how it was. You see the same people every day. You’re like “I know that person but I don’t know their name.” You have your inner circle that you do know and are friends with, but everyone else is a face you say hello to in the hall. Talk about who you decided was going to be in this thing.
GM: Once we were into it, and Peter and James and I were in L.A. working o,n casting, essentially we put together our wish list of people, and I think we got our first choices for everyone. I think part of it was, people loved the script, actors love the script because the dialogue is so great, it’s so funny, and it’s so moving and so crazy. Who's not a fan of James Gunn and Peter, who has made some of the best horror movies over the last 20 years? Some people were familiar with WOLF CREEK and my work.
When we met, I could see how this film to work relied on having really phenomenally realistic and felt performances, so the emphasis became from the onset having the best cast we possibly could assemble to make it come alive. And then James reached out to a lot of people he knew for roles. [Michael] Rooker came down, Sean was a great, great idea for Marty, and we put it together like that, so it did come together pretty quickly, and we got a dream cast. I think James said this is the best cast he’s ever seen assembled, and I have to agree. For me, as a director, it was such a dream to have this bunch of actors to bring the movie to life with. We had an absolute ball working on it.
Capone: The one face who jumped out at me was Rusty Schwimmer,, who I know because she’s from Chicago. Actually you have a few Chicago people: Rooker and David Dastmalchian are from Chicago. But I know Rusty’s name because I’ve seen her in 100 different things, but a lot of people only know her as that woman who pops up in every TV show, or is buried somewhere in the cast of a movie. I just thought it was amazing she got such a great role here.
GM: Yeah. Rusty, I love her so much. We had so much fun working on this. Actually, her and John Gallagher and I had one of the funniest nights on set where we were probably delirious because we were shooting for so long, shooting long hours, and it was in the middle of the night, and we had that big scene. We’re leading up to her death scene, and the three of us went into this group hysteria just laughing at Rusty doing this hilarious character and just being ridiculous. She’s very funny. I have huge affection for her, and she’s great in the movie too.
Capone: A lot of people make a big deal that this is all set in this one building, but you forget how many very different environments there are in an office building. From the basement, to the roof, to the offices, the elevators, the stairwell. You’ve got a fairly decent selection of locations to choose from. Talk about building a world within a world we’re familiar with.
GM: That was one of the very appealing things to me as a director to find a script where the challenge was, how to keep that visually dynamic and visually different and basically take the audience on a journey within an enclosed environment. So what we did was I worked with my DP and production designer and worked out different color schemes, different spacing, different emotional qualities for each level. The top floor, for example, which is the executive floor, is very wide and open and has earth tones and very soft lighting. As you go down to the next level, it’s still a nice place to be, but it’s a bit tighter, more people, it's a bit more crowded. Then you go to the next level, and it’s grayer, people personalize their space more, so it’s getting more lower class. Then you go to the basement, which is in blues and greens, and it's dark and dirty, and no one wants to go down there.
So it was all about trying to create very specific emotional qualities to each space, and then as the story progresses, the challenge was then saying “Let's take it from being very normal feeling, a very normal world into a hellish, almost abstract-colored space where the color scheme goes from regular nice blue-white fluorescents into bright red and bright pink and blue—almost abstract colors—to really try to represent the idea that we’re going from complete normality and the mundane corporate world into complete chaos and anarchy.”
That was really the design challenge, from a directing point of view, to really try to make sure that was clear, and I think there were certainly some people as we’re making it who were going “Wow, this film is really weird. Do you really want to make it all blue and red and have flashing lights, and do we really wan to have projection over the guys in the final fight scene?” And I’m like “No, trust me. We have to heighten these moments so that they become more than what they are just on the page, and we have to really go for it in terms of our design choices and our lighting choices and create visual interest and emotional impact.” So all those things worked out pretty well, I think.
Capone: Speaking of that projection sequence toward the end, there is a mention in the voiceover that Belko Corp. has several different locations, and then, of course, there is an indication that if there is ever a sequel it could be a contest of champions. Has there been any discussion about following this up?
GM: Very vaguely. Not seriously yet. At this point, I think I and the actors and James and Peter are very proud of this film. We hope people embrace it. If they do, it would be always great to have a follow-on movie, but we’re not quite at that stage yet.
Capone: There are a couple of sequences where I think you pretty much literally have the entire cast together in one room. What were those like to sort of coordinate, and were those the days you most looked forward to? Were those days different in any way?
GM: Those were certainly the biggest. For me, to pull this movie off, I thought it was going to be a real challenge because of the limited time and money we had. Those big scenes, I love staging big sequences like that. Way back when, I used to work in opera and theater, so to me it was like staging a play, because basically you’re orchestrating these sweeping moments of action that are continuous and trying to keep focus on particular elements and trying to focus on details within that as well. So for me, it was fun to stage that, but it was certainly a challenge because we had a limited amount of time to do it.
Thankfully, we had such great actors that were able to commit fully and adapt and grasp concepts quickly. Tony Goldwyn as an actor, I mean, what a joy to work with he is, because he’s also a director himself, so he’s very intelligent, very precise about his character and his performance; it was great fun as a director working with him and trying to work out that performance and trying to make sure that we nuanced his performance and his character so that he didn’t come across as just a bad guy. We wanted a man fully human and fully conflicted about the choices that he has to make, and he doesn’t want to make any of these choices, but because of the scenario he has to.
Capone: Last think I want to ask you about is, there’s a funny exchange with John and somebody towards the end—I think it’s the same conversation where he talks about being in Colombia—in which he says that the work they’re doing no one seems to care about it.
GM: “No one seems to give a shit about the work we’re doing here anyway.”
Capone: That’s sly commentary. That’s how all of us feel who have ever worked in an office. It’s like no one gives a shit. Was the idea to give a little jab about cooperate America while you’re telling this story?
GM: I think that’s a little jab, but there’s a big jab there, which is that, for me, one of the things I felt like the script was about. The monster of the film is not just cooperate America, but cooperate philosophy as a thing, because when you put the bottom line above humanity and above compassion, you have a scenario in which evil can thrive. So to me, that was the invisible monster in the film—the corporate mentality. That’s the evil in the film, and what we’re watching is all these people trying to survive and trying to deal with existing in that insanity. Even thought the film looks at everyone going crazy, the insanity is any system that pits human beings against each other like that. That to me is the real insanity, and there’s a real craziness in that cooperate madness.
Capone: Well you did a hell of a job. Best of luck with this.