It’s too warm for sweaters when I arrive into the parking lot full of trailers. Summer is winding down, and the crew made up of a specific blend of California types and Ontarians lends to a crowd drenched in Letterkenny tees and Toronto Raptor’s ballcaps. Such is the expected scene of an indie film being shot just outside of Toronto.
I’m visiting the set of Becky, directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s story (written by Nick Morris, Lane Skye and Ruckus Skye) of escaped neo-nazis hunting for loot hidden somewhere in a family’s cottage. They’re thwarted by a young girl, and the mayhem that ensues promises both grit and gore in equal measure.
I’m headed to the cottage where this horror show will go down, in a full shuttle of crew prepping their lunch orders. “Chilly mac and cheese? In the middle of the bush? Brave.” They let me know the only bathroom is already broken and I frantically regret the large coffee I brought for the drive north.
Walking up to the cottage feels familiar, not just because I’ve spent many a summer leeching cottage visits off of everyone in the province, but because the cabin in the woods is a scene I’d watched comfortably from my couch countless times. The Canadian summer is beautiful; sunlight reflects off rippling water, footsteps sound like cracking twigs and the air smells like tasting notes of a small-batch whiskey. It’s the perfect scene for carnage.
Producer J.D. Lifshitz is waiting for me. He doesn’t even hear me come in, as he’s engulfed in a script he is considering for his next project. He stands up from the table in the kitchen, on top of which is a basket full of bagels, and before he can apologize for being distracted, he interrupts himself with “I need a coffee before we go down, can I get you a coffee?”
Lifshitz can barely contain his horror fandom. We immediately gush about our favourite magazines and websites as we pour our coffees from the large urns. Lifshitz pauses to quickly say a prayer before sipping. “L’chaim,” I clumsily spit out as a means of identifying myself.
We meet up with producer Raphael Margules, whose kippah is hidden under his ball cap. He asks if I’ve seen the photo of Kevin James with the swastika tattoo.
We hike down to set on the clearest path against a parade of actors and crew members, each of whom, after identifying me, feels compelled to share a gory tidbit. They’re asking if I got to see the eyeball yet, and Ryan McDonald, who plays Cole, politely pops through with a rubber ruler jutting from his neck. Keri Anderson, the shoot’s still photographer, asks me to let her know when I have some time to see the bloodiest shots. She leans in to avoid interrupting the setup happening around us to show me stills on her camera from days before. Kevin James, to whom everyone keeps referring as ‘Paul Blart’, does not look like the doofus security guard you remember. He’s clad in an orange prison uniform with a swastika painted on the back of his bald head. He has a terrifying look in his eyes I’d never associated with the comedian, and I am immediately spooked to silence. Lifshitz and Margules are quick to tell me their film’s vision of the modern neo-Nazi.
“These are bad guys and they’re presented as bad guys with bad ideas and false righteousness,” Lifshitz tells me, pondering a world where neo-Nazis are increasingly visible. “I think there’s a special catharsis in watching something like this right now, and not taking them seriously. The worst thing you can do right now is take their ideology seriously. The worst thing you can do is make them into big scary soldiers because that’s what they want.”
“Anti-Semitism in North America has increased year over year, over the past few years and neo-Nazis are unfortunately very much in the news more than they have been in quite some time,” Margules laments, “So just having a swastika on his head, and having him be this really controlled character who has these completely distorted beliefs of the world. He has this very controlled rhetoric, and to have that rhetoric just get eviscerated by a little girl and having their opinion be so unimportant to what's happening in the world and their opinions being so just shut down on this movie is, as a Jewish person and as an American, extremely exciting. I can’t wait to have a little girl kill a bunch of neo-Nazis.”
“Ultimately,” Lifshitz tells me, “it’s about channeling aggression, anger, [and] frustration into positive, protective forces.”
We pause our analysis of the political climate; the shot is ready to go. Lulu Wilson, this generation’s scream queen and Mike Flanagan darling, is still grinning from her earlier zip line stunt. But now, she’s preparing to shoot a kill; she’s about to stab a dude to death with a bundle of pencil crayons from her treehouse.
The treehouse is every crew member’s pride and joy. They take me through it, both boasting that its structure was made from scratch while warning me about its sturdiness. The inside is meticulously dressed in kids’ art supplies and drawings, a dog bed, and a janky zipline. Kevin McAllister might hang out here. “This really is like R- rated Home Alone. Or John Wick with a little girl. One of the pitches was Kick-Ass meets Green Room,” Margules tells me as we climb over some mason jars and out of the tiny house.
They’re convinced someone “nefarious” lived in the cottage before it became a choice location for independent cinema. We head into the massive bathroom where some of the crew has set up shop. There are about twelve of the same orange camo shirts I saw on McDonald (who was getting stabbed by Wilson earlier). With that many duplicates of his costume, my guess is he gets pretty banged up. Before we can stop to look at the stills they promised, Lifshitz wrestles over a vanity to show me a hole in the ground beneath it, with a ladder leading to the basement. The basement smells like every one of your friend’s cottages you regret accepting an invite to. Painted on the concrete floor in giant red letters are the words “Hello Baby.” It’s an absolute horrorshow and I can’t wait to sprint back upstairs to see Becky’s bedroom.
Becky, Wilson’s eponymous character, spent a lot of time at this cabin as a kid and has come back as a pre-teen. The room is decked out like a little girl’s and an angsty kid is coming back to it, crayons and toys strewn around beside a denim backpack covered in patches. Melanie Garros, the production designer, greets me, excited to show me the action shot-required touches; the trapdoor-covered hole in the ground and the new windows. They had to build new windows so Becky could climb through them, but needed them to look 20 years old. The room looks like it had the touches of the mother Becky lost; there are stock scenic photos around and folded blankets and boots, but the room has barely grown with her and has a single bed and tiny rollerblades. Becky’s past life was here, and she’s only twelve.
As they reset some things, I have a few minutes to catch up with directing duo Milott and Murnion, along with director of photography Greta Zozula, in the steamy sunroom off the side of the cottage. Milott and Murnion were the pair behind Cooties and Bushwick. This time, they’re mixing their gory sensibilities with this hybrid style of action horror. They can barely prevent themselves from asking if I’d heard about the eye. Though their movie certainly isn’t funny, there was an incidental comedy to the way Kevin James handled shooting this yet-to-be-seen eye gag everyone has cryptically mentioned. Murnion tells me, “the eye on set was probably the funniest moment we had. There’s supposed to be a moment where a character does something with an eye and it wasn’t working. So we’re all sitting there looking at the camera, holding our breath, wondering if he’s getting pissed or acting. And then he finally did it and we all cracked up laughing.”
But James’ Nazi character certainly isn’t here for a laugh. The directors were inspired by Inglourious Basterds’ Hanz Landa. “This guy that can be kind of charismatic and can be like someone that you might trust at first,” Murnion said, “and then when he starts spewing his dogma and his insane Nazi ideas, you're like, wait a minute, what, what just happened there like, how did this guy that kind of looks nice like a neighbor turn into that?”
“I think a big reason why Kevin James wanted to play this part is that he's not trying to make the character sympathetic,” Milott says, “He wants it to be that you hate these guys. These aren't some people turning over a new leaf. They believe in what they believe in and they're not good and that's what he wants to imbue in this character.”
Though it’s heavy enough having Jews produce a film about neo-Nazis, it’s impossible to ignore the weight of having a child actor on a horror set. “With a young star, you have to keep it light, but also don’t get caught up in the seriousness of it,” Murnion tells me. “Make sure that everyone knows that the content is serious and it wants us to feel grounded and feel like it's affecting people in a certain way.”
“We're trying to keep it very chill on set because of the younger actors,” Milott tells me, referring to Lulu and her kick-ass stunt double, Ilora Rosenberg. “But at the same time,” he continues, “like the scene we just shot, the character says the F-word and in three different ways in three different parts. So it's weird when your mindset is like, don't swear around little kids, but obviously there's some pretty gruesome stuff. It's some pretty intense swearing.”
Knowing this set boasts a balanced blend of practical effects and CGI, I sneak into the makeup trailer to catch a glimpse of the gore. McDonald is in the chair changing up his look for the next shot, while prosthetic team Monica Pavez and Karlee Morse get to work. McDonald is prepping for the close-ups of Cole getting stabbed to death with Becky’s art supplies, so the artists are throwing in some particularly gory elements. “I like to throw in glitter when I can,” Morse tells me, “this one’s pretty unique though, in the sense that it's like Home Alone meets Kill Bill and so it's a little girl inflicting all of this, which is kind of fun. So more glitter than usual, but still super duper gory which is always fun.” I get really into McDonald’s face to get a good look at his wounds. I’m struck by his piercing eyes and how painful the glitter and bright pencil shavings on his face look.
The gore lives in this makeup trailer. They’re all asking me mundane questions about where the FANGORIA office is and how long it took me to get there, and I’m looking through their faces to the severed arms and sculpted animal heads. Margules notices it, too, and is glancing around the room looking for his souvenir. “I have an eyeball for you!” Moore exclaims.
Heading back to witness this close-up glittery shot, I notice how many women’s voices are calling out commands between shots. Margules shares with me that they have gender parity, and the heads of almost every department are female. I’m watching them set up the scene, Heath Hensley, Kevin James’ stunt double, is offering everyone iced coffee and chatting about Tom Cruise and Jackie Chan as stunt idols. I ask Ilora Rosenberg, Lulu’s stunt double, about working with a female stunt coordinator (Angelica Lisk-Hann). “I love Ange. Having a female coordinator around is probably my favourite thing ever. It’s awesome. I haven't seen a female stunt coordinator in forever.”
They’re blowing through the shot and the crowd of people are stunned to silence by Lulu’s stomp-and-grunt-laden performance. I’ve barely had a chance to chat with her because she has been at work. Working within the confines of child labour laws, Lulu’s spent her day on a zip line, tackling grown men and yelling through stabbing them with art supplies. “Today was really fun because I got to do some stunts,” she tells me.
I’d seen stills of Wilson earlier, looking like a teenage Louise Belcher, wearing a bunny ears hat, legs over an ATV, gripping a weapon. They’re taking so many measures to protect Lulu, but her vibe suggests that she doesn’t need it. “I don’t like it when people try to not swear around me."
She’s comfortable handling the gravity of the subject matter. “It’s very prominent, it’s not just hinted at,” she says of the neo-Nazis in the film. “It’s really fun [to kick their asses]. I am a pretty tough person, I like to say, so it’s nice to be able to beat people up without consequence.” She only has one kill left to shoot. She looks over at James McDougall, who plays Hammond, sitting in the makeup chair beside her. “Just you!” she shouts, “you’re the only one left!” They’re going to kill him in the lake this coming Friday, which happens to be the 13th.
The last shot of the day has Wilson, as Becky, coming through the woods for one of the ill-fated neo-Nazis. The careful crew, focused directors, and Wilson’s mom, on set keeping an eye on things, are all quieting down in preparation of her line delivery. The cameras roll and Lulu comes trudging through the woods towards us. “HEY, SHITSTAIN.”
Becky is in theaters and on digital June 5th.
Lindsay Traves is a Toronto-based writer. After submitting her Bachelor’s thesis, “The Metaphysics of Schwarzenegger Movies,” she decided to focus on writing about her passions; sci-fi, horror, sports, and comic books. You can find her writing on Daily Dead, StarTrek.com, CGMagazine and Bloody Disgusting and can follow her work on Twitter @smashtraves.