Indie-horror company SpectreVision has helped usher some pretty strange films to the screen over the past few years, from director Ana Lily Amirpour’s Farsi-language vampire tale, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, to Craig Macneill’s birth-of-a-serial-killer drama, The Boy. But, in terms, of sheer weirdness, SpectreVision founders Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah, and Josh C. Waller have really outdone themselves with The Greasy Strangler.
Directed by British filmmaker Jim Hosking, the movie stars Michael St. Michaels and Sky Elobar as a father-and-son team who conduct disco-themed walking tours of Los Angeles and fight over a woman named Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo from Eastbound & Down). Meanwhile, an array of folks are being horrifically butchered by the titular maniac (also played by Michaels), a grease-covered monstrosity with an outsized penis.
The film, which is in theaters and on demand on Oct. 7, is produced by Wood, Noah, and Waller, along with Alamo Drafthouse cofounder Tim League, Kill List director Ben Wheatley, Andrew Starke, and Ant Timpson. At last week’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, the trio spoke with EW in a no-holds-barred manner about overseeing Hosking’s twisted creation — and why it’s actually “a sweet, lovely story.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, Josh, I want to start by pointing out that, just before you turned up, Elijah and Daniel were handed tubes of Greasy-branded lubricant.
ELIJAH WOOD: That’s right.
DANIEL NOAH: They have one for you, too.
JOSH C. WALLER: What?
WOOD: Yeah. The marketing potential for this film is quite extraordinary and unlike any that we’ll probably ever encounter again.
I’m just now concerned about the direction of this interview, frankly.
WALLER: I just want to leave the interview. Because I feel like me having a tube of that grease is way more important than anything I’m going to talk about right now.
The last time I spoke with you three together was at the 2015 Stanley Film Festival, where you basically suggested that the Greasy Strangler was going to be the craziest film ever made. Did it wind up being the film you expected to make?
WOOD: It’s actually a fair bit tamer than the script, for a variety of reasons, and ultimately for the better, I think. The actual screenplay was more intense — primarily sexually. It was more graphic than the film we made. But, ultimately, we made the movie that Jim wanted to make and we were all in support of him making. As you know, all films morph, and transmogrify, and become the thing that they are, as a result of a variety of elements. It’s actually better than the thing that we read. It’s better than we hoped it wold be. It’s sweeter and more endearing than we had anticipated. Yes, it’s crazy and, yes, it’s graphic, and shocking. But at the core it’s actually a really sweet kind of lovely story. [Laughs]
WALLER: That speaks to Jim as a person, I think. He has all these crazy, bizarre ideas. It’s hard to give someone like Jim notes because you have no clue what’s going on in his mind. But Jim is one of the sweetest people ever. He has so much heart and he’s just such a skilled filmmaker. Even though it’s his first film, he knows exactly what he wants, and knows how to articulate that on the screen.
Tell me about casting the film.
WALLER: I was in the casting room with Jim, and it was fascinating. Michael St. Michaels just stood out, you just knew. And Sky was someone that Jim had worked with a few times before. And Elizabeth was just a godsend. She wasn’t who I imagined initially, and then it became evident that she was the one. What a gutsy, incredible, brave performance.
Earlier today, Michael told me he learned how to act by taking non-porn roles in porn movies.
WOOD: [Laughs.] Oh my god!
NOAH: The crazy thing about Michael is he is the character — well, except he doesn’t kill people, that we know of. He has had the longest, weirdest life. He opened a punk club in San Diego, he’s talked to me about being to Area 51. Yeah, he acted in porn. He’s like [his character] Big Ronnie in that there’s crazy stories all the time, where you’re not quite sure if they’re exactly accurate, or if they’re exaggerated. It’s very uncanny how similar he is to Big Ronnie.
WALLER: It was important for Jim — for all of us, but specifically Jim — that the cast be unknowns, Elizabeth notwithstanding. There were known actors that came in to audition for Big Ronnie. Great actors. Acclaimed actors.
WOOD: There was a very brief conversation that we and Jim had about extending the bounds of Jim’s normal universe, where he tends to populate his shorts with people that we’re not familiar with. There was a brief conversation as to whether we should extend outside those boundaries and look to people who were a little more familiar. And it got shot down so quickly, and we all felt very strongly that that would be a massive mistake, because the thing that makes Jim’s films special are the way that he populates them, the fact that they feel unique. Those characters are so iconic within that universe. If you populate that universe with something that’s familiar, suddenly the entire thing falls like a soufflé.
Right. If you cast Tom Hanks, then it becomes, “The film where Tom Hanks has a foot-long greasy penis.”
NOAH: I’ve got to say, I would watch that though.
WOOD: It was interesting to see people’s reactions [to the film] and it still is to this day, because so many people have different strong reactions to the film, most of it extremely positive. But I think some people have this reaction to the film that it’s almost made by a provocateur, as if it’s trying to elicit an uncomfortable response. But that’s not Jim’s intention at all. And that was very clear on set as well. It’s very carefully measured, he cares about characters, there’s intention behind all of their actions, he’s not really setting out to make something to shock people.
NOAH: There are scenes in The Greasy Strangler that I swear are as classic, in terms of comedy bits in cinema — like, I would put them with Laurel and Hardy, or Martin and Lewis.
What were was the most difficult aspect of the production?
NOAH: The c–ks.
WALLER: Designing the c–ks was a lengthy experience. Lengthy, eh? Yeah, that took us a few weeks working with our makeup artist and Jim being like, “No, that c–k is not going to work, no. I need another c–k.”
You premiered the film at Sundance. What was that like?
WOOD: That was incredible. I mean, to premiere that film at Sundance, especially with the response that it got, which was extremely mixed. There were some very adverse reactions to the film. A few people walked out. But there was also a great deal of praise. It felt like this greasy, gnarly little film had taken over Sundance.
NOAH: I will say, of the films that we’ve made, this is the only one where I truly had no idea what the movie was going to be until we saw it at Sundance. That was the first time that I fully understood what the film was.