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Fantasia 2016 Q&A: Director Bobby Miller on “THE MASTER CLEANSE”!

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After catching THE MASTER CLEANSE at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, there was no doubt in my mind that I had just watched something uniquely special. A small movie that’s equally sweet and creepy, THE MASTER CLEANSE is a creature feature with a Cronenbergian sensibility. Johnny Galecki (best known for his role on THE BIG BANG THEORY) plays Paul, who attends a spiritual retreat focused around a cleanse in an attempt to turn his life around. Yet, this cleanse isn’t what Paul expects, and soon he’s looking right into the eyes of all his problems in the form of a strange little monster. The movie quickly turns from a dark comedy into an odd little horror flick, with plenty of weird monsters to keep fans of puppets and practical FX beaming. FANGORIA got the chance to check in with writer / director Bobby Miller, who also offered up some exclusive pictures from his debut feature, which is still seeking distribution amidst its many festival screenings…

FANGORIA: Where did the idea come from to tell a story in which thoughts and feelings manifest into physical monsters? 

BOBBY MILLER: The beauty of ‘genre films’ is that you get to smuggle ideas inside of them. This film is about personal baggage which could be a real snooze-fest, if treated straight forwardly. But, through the lens of a comedic creature feature, it’s way more palatable. I love the idea that you could watch a movie and be entertained by it and then think about it some more and want to revisit it for what’s underneath.

FANG: What other films influenced your storytelling? Watching THE MASTER CLEANSE made me very nostalgic for some of the kids’ creature films I loved when I was young. It felt like an adult story for fans of movies of that ilk.

MILLER: Yeah, I grew up on all those practical effects films of the 80s and 90s, like GREMLINS, E.T., and BEETLEJUICE. All of that stuff is in my bloodstream. As I got older I discovered Gilliam, Lynch, and Cronenberg. I’m a fan of any filmmaker who creates a distinct tone. So, people like the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson are pretty high up there for me too.  Someone had mentioned the idea that this movie is for people who grew up on the creature features of the 80s and 90s and who are in there 20s and 30s now and dealing with adulthood and relationships. That this is the creature movie for this time in their life now. I really like that idea and wish I had thought of it.

FANG: What went into creating the creatures’ look and how they behave?

MILLER: In terms of look, I really wanted to ride the line between cute and disgusting.  I wanted the human characters in the film to have a conflicting relationship to them. I felt like our personal baggage can be sort of cute and cozy at first.  Like, when I’m super depressed, I’ll rock a comfortable pair of jogging pants, order some Chinese food, and watch a movie I love. That aura of depression can sometimes be a comforting blanket. So, I wanted the creatures to be cute, but when you get closer, maybe you’re not sure about them.  Just like our personal baggage.

As for behavior, I just think of my relationship to animals and how there are moments where you kinda look into an animal’s eyes and see God or something. There can be a really profound connection between a human and a creature. (Just ask my cat, am I right folks?)  Me and Johnny talked a lot about how the scenes with him and his creature should be meditative and soulful. There’s of course a layer of absurdity and comedy over top all of this because, well, they’re goopy creatures.  

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FANG: So after you had worked out the concept, how did you go about actually having them built and what was it like working with the puppets on set?

MILLER: It all started with designs from Shreya Shetty. From there, we had Nicholas Podbrey and Werner Pretorius leading an incredibly talented crew of artists who handled all the practical effects. There’s a wide range of techniques we used: hand puppet, rod puppet, men-in-suit, animatronics, and a combination of all of them. Working with puppets on set, for me, is a real joy. There’s a moment where you’re watching a puppeteer perform on the monitor and sometimes you’re like, “yeah, that’s a dead puppet,” and other times there’s something that happens – where the thing actually feels alive, like there’s a spirit in there and that’s fucking magical.  It’s something that I think permeates the crew too. Everyone gets excited when we’re working with puppets. Everyone turns into little kids. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

FANG: And it was really delightful seeing Johnny Galecki, Anjelica Huston, and Oliver Platt in such a small, offbeat movie. How did you attract such an impressive cast?

MILLER: Candy. Apparently actors love candy. It’s crazy what Oliver Platt would do for a Mars Bar! Honestly, I think they were attracted to it because we painted a pretty clear picture up front of what we were trying to do.  We had these beautiful paintings from Shreya, and had shot a test scene with Johnny and a puppet, and I feel like once people saw that stuff they understood the tone of the film and could get behind it. In terms of getting people to read the script, I feel like once we broke through the barrier of agencies and this thing was in actors’ hands, people oddly responded to it. I think it’s because they’re used to getting a lot of safe romantic comedy scripts or something, and this probably was an exciting change of pace. At the very least, they wanted to meet me. And from there, I had a killer bag of candy waiting for them, so it was kind of a done deal. Johnny signed off on this after a couple of Kit Kat bars.

FANG: What are the constraints of making a small movie?

MILLER: This was an ambitious movie for me to do my first time out. Just getting the tone right on top of all of the creature FX, multiple locations, an ensemble cast, et cetera. It was basically like what I’m told shooting THE REVENANT was like. But, with like 170 less days of shooting.

FANG: What festivals can we see it at soon? 

MILLER: We have some more coming up throughout the year that we can’t announce yet. But, you can follow us online at themastercleansefilm.com There’s a screening schedule page there and you can follow us on social media things if you’re into that. 

About the author
Madeleine Koestner
Madeleine Koestner is a writer, filmmaker and performer. She plays a ukulele and sings songs about ghosts in small venues in New York City. She likes beer, synthesizers and movies about death games. Sometimes Madeleine does special FX makeup and gore for low-budget horror movies. You can follow her on twitter @DVDBoxSet, but do so at your own risk, as she's really weird and inappropriate.
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