Director, producer/star on the horror comedy
I’m chatting with director McQuaid, and producer/co-star Larry Fessenden, days before I Sell the Dead makes its Slamdance Film Festival premiere on January 16th. Set in the 18th century, Dead finds Fessenden and Dominic Monaghan (Lost) playing the aforementioned Blake and Grimes, respectively, grave robbers who land themselves in all sorts of trouble through their macabre, sometimes dangerous, profession. Joining these two are a number of genre vets including incomparable Angus Scrimm (Phantasm) and Ron Perlman.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: You had worked with Larry in a different capacity on The Roost and The Last Winter, how did you two align?
Glenn McQuaid: I was working for a special effects company when I met Larry for the first time and I threw myself at him. [laughs] I loved his films. I was doing a lot of post-production for commercials and stuff, then I began working with Larry doing special effects which then led him to hiring me as the special effects coordinator on The Last Winter. We all went up to Iceland for a couple of months, a great experience where I got to learn a lot.
Shock: Was I Sell the Dead an idea you had been nurturing during this time?
McQuaid: Yeah, I had made short film called The Resurrection Apprentice and it was a spooky little drama. Nothing much happened in it but it was basically the seed for the idea of I Sell the Dead. It was about a boy’s first night on the job as a grave robber and I’ve always been intrigued by the grave robbing archetype. When I was a kid I saw Body Snatcher and I’ve always been intrigued by the outsiders within the horror genre. [Grave robbers] always seem to have something fantastical happen around them, so with I Sell the Dead, I wanted to take them and throw them against different horror archetypes, like the undead.
Shock: I hear they face much more than just the undead.
McQuaid: [laughs] Yeah, basically the movie is written vignette style. One of the very early drafts were compartmentalized like the old Amicus movies where the different protagonists tell their crazy stories on the job. I pared it all down to one protagonist’s reflection on different times of his life. It starts off with his scrappy starts in the industry – and they’re quite innocent, these guys, they run into a job where they unearth a corpse with a stake through the heart. Of course, they don’t know what it is, so they pull the stake out and antics ensue. It’s definitely a horror-comedy and the Abbott and Costello movies are a big influence on it. I think one of the biggest pleasures of seeing it with an audience is hearing them laughing.
Shock: You mention Amicus and, looking at the trailer and photos, you definitely capture that tone in production value. There’s a Hammer vibe to the setting. How difficult was it trying to recreate that in the surrounding New York City area?
McQuaid: Everybody just dug in and we went location scouting to find some great places. I put together visual diaries with stills from Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis movies. I sat down with everyone in the art department and got them familiar with the world we were trying to create. We wound up in Staten Island of all places and shot a lot of footage out there. Literally, if we tilted the camera up one foot you can see the Verrazano Bridge. But we managed to pare everything down to the bare essentials to get the look and feel. You have to be grateful for dry ice and fog. It lends just a Hammer atmosphere.
Shock: Did you fashion the Willie Grimes character around Larry?
McQuaid: Well, he was in the short film and he had the character down. I wrote the short knowing Larry and hoping he would accept the role. It really was a match made in heaven. Then there’s an actor named Daniel Manche and he reprises his role in the feature film. Again, a long collaboration. So there was a lot that can be left unsaid when you’re working with old comrades and we had a good mutual understanding of what was needed. When it came to making the movie, we invited Peter Phok on to actively produce the film. Peter read the script and couldn’t get Dominic Monaghan out of his mind as the older Arthur Blake. So he pursued him and made sure he got the script. Dominic then became interested. Then Ron Perlman from The Last Winter who enjoyed the script. We also made a comic book of the script. It exists only in sketch form but we’re inking it now and we’re going to get it out there. But to have the script and the comic book was pretty valuable to get it out to the actors.
Shock: A great way for them to get a grasp of the tone…
McQuaid: Instantly, yeah. I think when they got that they knew it was going to be a movie that was pretty broad and nothing too serious so they could have fun.
Shock: Larry, let’s bring you in, talk a bit about who Grimes is…
Larry Fessenden: It’s such a charming premise, it’s the old mentor character. The idea is Willie Grimes is a grave robber and is a salty old character who likes to go to the pub and exhume corpses. That’s how he makes his way in the world. He takes on this young apprentice and they become friends. There’s an incident at the beginning of the film where Willie considers offing the kid since children fetch a good price, but then he decides not to. In that moment, they find an understanding. As it will happen, there’s a strain in their relationship and a dramatic turn happens in the story.
Shock: How does Angus Scrimm come into play?
Fessenden: He’s the man they’re working for. A doctor. As you might know, doctors needed corpses to work on and it was forbidden by the church, so they would have to get them from these unsavory characters like Willie Grimes. Angus plays a particularly nasty doctor who holds the law over their heads.
Shock: I understand you waited for Perlman to finish shooting Hellboy II so you could get him for the film.
McQuaid: Yeah, it was heartbreaking when he went to Hellboy II because we were supposed to get him beforehand, but they shifted. Basically, Ron had to leave early and we didn’t want to re-cast him. For Dominic and Ron, they wanted to work with each other and I wanted to be there for that. It was worth the wait. I had a ton of post-production stuff to do. I could edit while I was shooting and do some special effects. It did kill me to wait six months, but it was worth it because their chemistry is great together. Ron’s such a wonderful old school talent.
Fessenden: Ron plays the priest who comes in and the whole movie is a recollection told by Dominic to Ron of his escapades over the years. Like Angus, it’s a small role, but it was great to have them there and add such a great flavor. Waiting for Ron was nerve-wracking because you’ve got to get agents involved, but he was a real trouper and I have to be honest, there was a time I saw him sleeping on a sound blanket on set. But I think he found it very refreshing to fly from Hellboy II to do our little movie. I think it was the right time in his career to do this little bit.
Shock: How did you and Dominic get along?
Fessenden: We didn’t get much time before we started shooting to hang out but we immediately found a camaraderie and would chat on set while he played puzzles and mind games that were way beyond me. We just fell into it. When you’re working with great actors, that’s what happens. It was a tremendous time. He was cool with my nine-year-old kid, they would hang out. Dom could just do every noise from Star Wars and all sorts of tricks. [laughs]
Shock: Glenn, you wear a lot of hats on this film. Did you wind up in post-production a bit overwhelmed?
McQuaid: You go in thinking you’ve got maybe 25 effects and then it turns into 150 before you know it. It was a gradual building of dread. I had a superb effects team including a great chap named Matt Connolly come on as an effects supervisor. He really just tied everything together. We also used a very prestigious effects company in New York called Spontaneous and they came in to pull off some of our heavier effects. They did it out of the love for the genre. That’s what is cool about independent New York filmmaking. People are ready to pitch in and they’re there for the love of it.
Shock: You’re nearing the Slamdance premiere of I Sell the Dead which must be gratifying, so what are you developing in the meantime?
McQuaid: I’m writing right now. I’ve got a piece set in Dublin, Ireland. It’s a bit of a comedy thriller based on all of the insane people I know in Ireland. And I can’t get Grimes and Blake out of my head, so I’m writing The Further Adventures of Grimes and Blake, if people are interested in seeing more of them. They’re such easy characters for me to write. Any ludicrous or absurd idea I think of can fit these two guys.
Shock: And the future of I Sell the Dead? Obviously you’ve got your fingers crossed that some distribution deal will come about at the festival?
Fessenden: We are most definitely chomping at the bit to get this to the public. We have a long slew of festivals that are interested in it and we’re touring it around the world, but we’re hoping at Slamdance we can land somebody and announce a release date.
Source: Ryan Rotten, Managing Editor