EXCL: Jeff Buhler, Committed to the Insanitarium

How this writer’s gross-out flick landed at Sony

Caution: Slippery when wet. That’s a welcome admonition for pupils of the putrid seeking gory out-of-the-norm hospital horrors. With Insanitarium, Stage 6’s low-budget (less than $3 million) direct-to-DVD shocker, they’ll get just that. Crunchy, droll celluloid junk food to nourish and titillate the gag reflex. Something to offer fans of flesh-eater fare.

Desperate Housewives‘ female wet dream Jesse Metcalfe plays Jack, a young man who has himself admitted to a local psychiatric clinic to watch over his suicidal sibling (Kiele Sanchez). While there, he discovers resident doc, Gianetti (Peter Stormare), is experimenting on his patients with a drug called Orpheum. The side effects? Cannibalism!

The man responsible for this medical nightmare is Jeff Buhler, a writer celebrating a helluva busy year. He also adapted the upcoming Midnight Meat Train adaptation for director Ryuhei Kitamura. Insanitarium marks his directorial debut. Shock meets Buhler at a coffee shop on Melrose in Hollywood to dissect his sick mind.

ShockTillYouDrop.com: Insanitarium is a pretty wild effort for a first-time director. How’d you get Stage 6 to pony up the bread to make this baby?

Jeff Buhler:
[laughs] When I was going around town pitching it, I would describe it as Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor meets 28 Days Later with a little bit of Blue Velvet thrown in. I’d get these looks like, “Oookay, interesting. Maybe we’ll have to take a look at the script before we decide what to do.”

Shock: Is it a script you had written pre-Midnight Meat Train?

Yeah, it’s an idea I had before that job. I was in the process of working on it when I met Mason Novick, who was at Bender/Spink at the time and is now on his own doing movies like Juno. Mason really liked the script and had some ideas, so we developed it a little bit together. Brought it around. Then it ended up at Screen Gems/Stage 6 at Sony with Nick Phillips who was someone I knew socially. I brought it to Screen Gems a year earlier in a different incarnation. Nick really championed it then but they were trying to movie away from low budget, super gory films. I think they realized that world makes good money and came back to it. They were amazingly hands-off during the process, too.

Shock: Was your involvement a package deal? No offense, but it seems very unique that they would go with a director who was untested.

I was very fortunate. At the time I was prepping to do a short that would be a calling card to use as a sample to get a directing gig. Insanitarium came up and before they sent out the script, I told my reps, I’m not sure if I want to attach myself as director. I wouldn’t want to block the project from getting set up and going forward. It was one of those situations where if I didn’t attach myself now, I’m never going to be able to do it later. I always had the option of un-attaching myself if someone else was interested in directing. Luckily, both Mason and Nick felt I could handle it and do a good job. Plus, it was a project that has been rattling around in my head for five years, so I had the whole thing shot in my head multiple times. When I told them what I had planned for the movie, they were fine with it.

Shock: You just leapt right into the fire, didn’t you?

It was a good experience, but frightening. We shot for three weeks at this hospital called RFK Memorial which has been shut down since 2004. It’s a hospital that hasn’t been used much and we looked around town. A lot of hospitals had the old, creepy vibe. What we wanted was something more modern. My attempt was to make it a little more high-tech, clean and sterile as opposed to a grungy, old mental institution which we’ve seen before.

Shock: The House on Haunted Hill, Jacob’s Ladder hospital look…

Yeah, and a lot of those had a color palette where they’re like green and blue and everything is dirty. The streets are dirty. The walls are dirty. I thought it would help us stand out and catch the audience’s attention to do a stylized version of a mental institution. White. Steel. Glass. Very bright colors. Heavy over-lighting like that feeling you get when you stand under fluorescent lights for too long and you feel like you’re losing your mind. We tried to replicate that feeling. We were very fortunate to find the place we did because they were building a huge wing of the hospital they just abandoned when they ran out of money. We turned it into a soundstage and built our maximum security ward in there, couple of bedrooms and other things. Then we shot on locations for exteriors pick-ups.

Shock: This is an incredibly wet film. Very violent and very gory on an ’80s splatter level.

That tied into one of the reasons why we shot on 35mm. There were some special FX that we wanted to do in camera that we didn’t want to rely on post-production. That was an intentional design of the production over-all. Almost all of the FX were practical. The blood was squirting everywhere. It was all over the walls. When people get their arms ripped off or their guts eaten, they’re actually doing it. That ended up being one of the greatest advantages, not only because it was a blast, we just never reached that point where we were like, “Oh, crap, we’re running out of money – how are we going to get these FX done?” Obviously, we couldn’t get everything done on set, but we minimized things as much as possible without using CG.

Shock: What I found interesting about Insanitarium is how straight it plays the material, even when it rises to the occasion to deliver gorehounds what they want.

As genre at the story is, again, it’s very grounded. We tried to take a realistic approach. There’s not winking at the audience. It’s what would happen to you in this situation. This applied to all of the actors – except for Peter Stormare, perhaps, because he is a little bit crazy and I don’t think you could play his part 100% straight. He’s absolutely fantastic in this. Jessie Metcalfe, who we’re all familiar with from a bunch of pretty boy roles, so to speak, this was an opportunity for him to do something that is a little rough around the edges. We allowed him to be unshaven, mess his hair up a little bit, cover him in blood, and show the tattoos. A little bit closer to what he is in real life because he’s not that guy from Desperate Housewives. I think it was a fun opportunity for him to sink his teeth into it. The actors took this film very seriously. We had intensive character meetings, went over everyone’s motivations. We covered the grounds on that to give it as much depth as we could and the result is a strange brew. There’s very weird subject matter going on, so it’s just unnerving and odd.

Shock: Let’s talk about Kiele Sanchez, you’re leading gal, for a minute…

Who you may remember being buried alive in the second season of Lost. She and Jesse play brother and sister. Usually, you have these romantic leads, but I wanted eschew that formula and try to create a loving, intense, emotionally-driven relationship that’s not a romantic relationship. It’s brother and sister. They had a great chemistry. On the other side of Jack, Jesse’s character, is Kevin Sussman who’s is hilarious and plays a neurotic, paranoid patient in the asylum. In the midst, he goes through his own development. He has to find his inner action hero.

Shock: Did you hire FX artist Matthew Mungle based on his work on Midnight Meat Train?

Yes, I saw the prosthetic work he had done on that film. I think it was when I was on set and I saw a body of Rampage Jackson lying on the ground, I was freaking out because it was so realistic. We gave Matt some interesting stuff to do. They had to build a cat…there’s some trouble with the cat. They’re really good at realistic prosthetic work and blood and guts. When I say that we tried to keep it grounded, that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of blood. At one point, I was running around with a bucket of fake blood trying to dress the set and I was just smearing it all over the walls. After a while of telling people that we needed more blood, it became evident that I had to show them what I meant.

Shock: Out of this orgy of viscera, what did you walk away with now having gone from writer to director?

I did a lot of research and thinking about the film before this. I talked to a lot of director friends and the one thing I was genuinely surprised about the experience was how much a director is an answer machine for everybody on the crew. The clearer your vision is, the easier it is to answer questions confidently as they come up. It was a huge asset that I had worked on the script for years and knew the ins and outs of the characters and what I wanted to do stylistically. The homework had been done. In between takes, people would just run up to you and there would be a barrage of questions. It was overwhelming. Despite the fact that we were shooting the film for such a low budget, it was awesome to see so many people get behind the film and make it something special. That was a huge surprise to me. I was concerned about morale. When you’ve got a short schedule and limited resources, morale can be a problem.

Shock: You’ve got one of the original members of Tool, Paul D’Amour, to contribute the soundtrack. How did you arrange that?

He’s a friend of mine. He’s also a brilliant musician, a musical genius. He’s been writing some soundtracks for independent films.

Shock: The folks at Stage 6, what has their reaction been like to your depraved little opus?

They love it. I think they’re happy it’s Stage 6 which is two degrees removed from Sony. [laughs] It’s weird stuff. One of the screenings we’ve had was at nine in the morning with four executives. It’s tough to wow them at nine when they want their coffee and Blackberries.

Buhler has undoubtedly been bitten by the directing bug, but before he pursues other efforts behind the camera he’ll be finishing up a script entitled The Hell Within with Dennison Ramalho. Read more about that in this news item.

Source: Ryan Rotten


Marvel and DC