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The Cutting Room: Director/Actor James Roday talks Practical FX & “GRAVY”

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Welcome to THE CUTTING ROOM, a new weekly column on FANGORIA.com that highlights the stories that most share DNA of our print counterpart. Rather than just feature the articles and interviews that didn’t make the cut, this column is dedicated to providing a greater lifeline between FANGORIA Magazine and FANGORIA.com.

What is it about cannibals and horror comedy that go so well together? Trey Parker started his career with a musical tale of man-eaters, roaming cannibals nearly stole the show in THIS IS THE END and now, GRAVY looks to add a whole new irreverent flavor to the cannibal horror comedy. On the eve of the film’s release, FANGORIA has caught up with actor-turned-director James Roday, who co-wrote (with Todd Harthan) and stepped behind the camera for this frightfully funny flick…

FANGORIA: How did GRAVY first come about?

JAMES RODAY: Man, I grew up as a horror freak. At that time, I was the only one of my friends who was allowed to watch those movies at such an early age because I told [my parents] that I was fascinated with make-up and monster FX. I really wanted to be the next Rick Baker because I was a six-year-old kid who knew who Rick Baker was. That tells you about everything you really would need to know about me as a human, really. But my parents agreed and they started taking me to horror films in theaters when I was in elementary school, and then they got me the mask-making sets and a FANGORIA subscription, so horror has been in my blood for a really, really long time.

Then when I became an actor, almost not even by choice, I started doing a whole lot of comedy and I started to appreciate comedy in a way that I never thought that I would. So horror comedy became the natural challenge to take on, so I decided on a horror comedy mash-up that so many people have tried and few ever excel at. So I threw my hat in the ring with GRAVY.

FANGORIA: Did you approach the film as a horror comedy, or a horror film with comedy elements? Or even a comedy film with horror elements?

RODAY: My approach was to make a comedy, but make it a dark comedy. It was going to be a comedy from start to finish, and I wasn’t going to take my foot off the gas. As for the horror elements, I wanted to treat that as realistically as possible; early on, we made the decision to treat the nasty stuff very nasty. It’s not like there’s CG or VFX in the movie; all of our effects are practical and so we wanted everything to look and feel as real as possible.

I didn’t want the violence to feel like fake, cartoonish comedy violence; I wanted it to feel like real violence that happens inside of a movie filled with very funny stuff. That was my approach, and I think that had been done pretty well in AMERICAN PSYCHO and FUNNY GAMES. Those films were two of the biggest influences on GRAVY, and I think enough time has passed since those movies that there is space for something to exist in that tone to come along again.

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FANGORIA: How did you put together such an impressive cast?

RODAY: With the horror genre, some actors can be sticklers, especially when you’re working at a budget level this low. A lot of actors will go, “A low budget horror movie about cannibals? Are you kidding me?” And for me, it was important for the actors to understand that GRAVY only works if we get the right cast, and that means we have to get the right sort of character actors to come in and make all of these characters feel multi-dimensional and fresh. And if we don’t get the right cast, the movie is not going to work, no matter how good the FX are.

Once you make actors feel like a project is riding on them, they’ll generally step up to the plate. But after the first read-through, they all recognized it, like, “Oh, we get what this is now.” And there was so many opportunities for improvisation and interplay and pitching ideas that GRAVY felt like an active, friendly production. And in terms of performance, it was like doing theater since its mostly in one location and in the bar area, there was one scene that was 16 pages, so once you set up your master shot, there’s not much else more you’d need to do. It was like doing dinner theater inside of a movie where they get eaten like dinner!

FANGORIA: You got to work with Greg Nicotero and the team over at KNB; what was that like as a director, especially knowing the legacy of KNB and everything they’ve worked on?

RODAY: I actually count myself very lucky for that. It was actually Howard Berger who stepped up and did me a solid. I actually know Howard a little bit and I essentially had to pitch myself to him by saying, “I know you guys don’t do these types of movies anymore, but maybe you can read this script and maybe you’ll see some kind of flash of you as a young man or something.” He said yes and I was so grateful that he said yes because even with everything I said about my cast, if the FX sucked, it would have pulled people right out of the film and I refused to do anything digitally.

So GRAVY works for sure as long as there are prosthetics and practical FX that looked great, and I needed someone who could make ‘em look great. I just got lucky, man. It was a huge, huge favor that I’m willing to pay back for the rest of my natural life.

FANGORIA: What was the most memorable on-set experience for you as a director?

RODAY: Well, I have two. The first would be the day we pulled off the gag with Gabby [Sidibe] where she gets bitten, and that’s the moment that really kicks the movie off and sends it down the tracks where the viewer is like, “Oh shit, this is going to be a wild ride.” We didn’t have the time or the money to do that gag more than once, so you basically have a filmmaker, his entire crew and cast sitting on pins and needles because once the gag is set up, we literally had one shot at it. Boy, did we hope that it didn’t go wrong, and it went off about 90% of the way it was supposed to, so that gave us all proof that we had a real shot at pulling this whole thing off; plus, it was a great gag and Gabby is so good in the movie.

The other favorite experience I have on the movie was with Michael Weston and Jimmi Simpson, who are two of my best friends on the planet. You might remember that they have this big scene in a freezer that lasts ten minutes, maybe longer, of two guys talking in a freezer. That was a roll of the dice in its own way, diverting from the film to let two characters step away and talk to each other, but watching them bring that scene to life in the way that I always knew the two of them would justified having the scene in the movie.

That experience was really gratifying to me as a friend and a writer and a director. One of the most rewarding things about filmmaking is when you get two watch two great actors take something from the page and elevate it to a whole new level. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie, and there’s not a drop of blood in it. Well, that’s not entirely true; at the very, very end, there’s a fun gag but it’s not what the scene is about.

FANGORIA: Do you have anything else in the works at the moment? If you return behind the camera again, would you want to stay in the horror genre?

RODAY: Yeah, I’m not leaving the horror genre anytime soon. I feel like I’ve got so many stories to tell, and it’s always been my goal to become a genre filmmaker. So for better or for worse, I think that’s the track that I’m on, and whatever I do next will likely be in the same sandbox as GRAVY. I feel that, with GRAVY, it was almost like we set out to make a cult film, and I don’t think anyone really sets out to do that; your film just ends up being a cult film. But that’s sort of what we did with GRAVY, and maybe for my next film, I’ll try to do something that really has never been done.
GRAVY opens in select theaters on October 2nd, and hits VOD/DVD/Blu-ray on October 6th from Scream Factory.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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