February 16, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST

Five years ago, writer-director Adam Green had an idea for a movie called whose cast would include himself, his wife, and his friends. One death and one divorce later, he began to have second thoughts.

In Digging Up the Marrow (released to theaters and on VOD and iTunes, Feb. 20), Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) plays a retired cop who believes monsters live just below the surface of the earth. In the hope of capturing them on film, he seeks out the help of Green, director of the 2006 slasher movie Hatchet, who plays himself. In fact, with the exception of Wise, everyone in this faux documentary plays themselves, from artist Alex Pardee—whose paintings of monsters largely inspired the film—to GWAR lead singer Dave Brockie—who is filmed in his outlandish stage costume, proclaiming that he’s always been a monster and will still be one after he dies—to the director’s actress wife, Rileah Vanderbilt.

Green finished principal photography in 2013 and, in December of that year, screened an early cut of Marrow at the Butt-Numb-A-Thon in Austin, TX., an annual mini-festival hosted by Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles. Then the director’s life fell apart.

On March 23, 2014, Brockie, a friend of Green’s who had costarred with him on the FEARnet sitcom Holliston, died from a heroin overdose. Around the same time, Green separated from his wife. On a personal level, these two events devastated the director. They also left him with an as-yet-unreleased film which featured a wife from whom he had split and a pal who actually passed away referencing his own demise. The director says that now, even the “real” parts of the film seem fictitious: “So much has changed.”

Green first had the idea for Digging Up the Marrow in 2010, after a fan sent a letter to his production company’s office claiming that Victor Crowley—the Kane Hodder-played Louisiana swamp-dwelling killer from Hatchet and its two sequels—was an actual person.

“This fan claimed Victor Crowley was real, and that I had f–ked it all up in Hatchet, and I got the mythology all wrong,” says Green. “It was super creatively done. There were pictures of swamps, of areas circled, like, ‘This is where he was really born.’ It was just fan fiction, but it was really well done and very entertaining. I said, ‘Why don’t we go down to New Orleans with a camera and interview this guy and have him prove it?’ But ultimately, nobody wanted to do that. The thing that really got me to throw the package out was when Will [Barratt, Green’s cinematographer] said, ‘What happens when this guy Deliverance-es you out in the swamp?’”

Shortly afterwards, Green was approached at a horror convention by Pardee, an artist whose work often features grotesque monsters.

“I was doing a signing at a Fangoria convention here in L.A., and a guy handed me this pamphlet called Digging Up the Marrow,” recalls the director. “He said, ‘Hey, I wanted to give you this, just to say thanks for all the inspiration you’ve given me.’ I was like, ‘Okay,’ and he left. That night I started reading it, and I recognized the artwork almost immediately. I already knew Alex’s artwork, I just didn’t know what he looked like. So I had no idea that was him. Whenever he does an art exhibit, it’s not just paintings hung on a wall in a gallery—it’s always a story, it’s a very immersive experience. The story for Digging Up the Marrow was that a former Boston police detective named William Decker had contacted him and commissioned him to paint these monsters that he claims he’s seeing. I was like, ‘Wait a minute—what if William Decker also reached out to a cult filmmaker?’ So I called Alex. It all just clicked together really easily. I had a script ready within two or three months.”

Green decided early on that the creatures featured in the film would all be built practically rather than computer-generated. “There’s a little bit of visual effects that were added but the monsters you see are practical,” says the director. “Even though some of them are only onscreen for a second, you can see these things in real life, and look at them right up close, 360, and they look like real things. It’s remarkable. Like, the first one you see in the movie, there were six people operating that thing and the head weighed 120 pounds.

“What’s really cool is, [for] the DVD and Blu-ray, our sculptor, Greg Aronowitz made this 30-minute documentary about the making of the monsters, with all this footage that I didn’t even know these guys had shot,” he continues. “So it details how it went from Alex’s artwork thorough Greg’s hands as a sculptor into [makeup effects department head] Robert Pendergast’s hands as the main fabricator and the one who actually built the things and operated everything. They all just kept pushing each other and helping each other to make it better. Because Alex’s artwork doesn’t really translate into the practical world. The bone structures, or the sizes and weight of things, it doesn’t make sense—which is what is so great about it. But we didn’t want to compromise the artwork, so Alex supervised every step of that. I have no skill when it comes to that stuff—if you handed me clay, I could maybe [make] a stick figure. But it was really cool as a fan to sit and watch those things come to life.”

In addition to Green, Brockie, and Vanderbilt, the list of people who play themselves in Digging Up the Marrow also includes Barrett, Hodder, Phantasm director Don Coscarelli, and the movie’s editor, Josh Ethier—who, in a meta-twist, is now best known for playing an alien monster in the recent horror film Almost Human.

As much as possible, Green tried to keep his cast in the dark as to what exactly they were appearing in. “Will Barratt was the only one who read the whole script and knew everything,” says the director. “Every other actor that showed up, they were just given their pages. I said, ‘We’re making this documentary about monster art,’ and they were just like, ‘Okay.’ And they did their scene. A lot of them have seen it, and they’re floored because they had no idea what they were actually doing.”

Green himself seems to have had the most fun shooting the many outdoor sequences with Wise in which their characters go in search of the “monsters”—in reality, or in the film’s reality anyway, unusual-looking people who live underground to avoid persecution.

“One of the joys of making this was, every night we would go out monster-hunting,” he says. “I took it very seriously and it was very real to me. My whole life, I’ve always wanted to see one, I guess because I’m not scared of them. You know, E.T. is the best example I can use. I saw it when I was eight, and there were so many other kids that were terrified. But I would have been Elliott. I would have been showing him my Star Wars. I don’t think that there are monsters that are out there to eat us. And especially the angle of this mythology, these aren’t monsters so much as actual people who retreated to their own world. There is a message that I hope gets across with that. In a weird way, I hope people maybe think of monsters as not so scary. If it’s sitting in the closet, maybe it’s because it likes you!”

When Green learned of Brockie’s death, his initial inclination was to remove his footage from the film. “I wanted to take [the Brockie footage] out, and the team around me was like, ‘Why would you rob his fans of seeing that last thing of him on camera?’” says Green. “So they talked to me off that ledge. Then I ended up getting divorced from my wife, and I was like, ‘All right, let’s cut all of that out.’ There was no way to cut that out and have the story make sense. So we had to leave it.”

While Green remains extremely proud of the film he admits that watching it can be a very strange experience. “It is a weird time capsule,” he says. “That was the risk I took in putting my real life out there. [But] at this point the movie’s not for me anymore. It’s just a movie.”

Adam Green and Alex Pardee will attend special pre-release screenings of Digging Up the Marrow in Boston, MA. (Feb. 16), New York, NY. (Feb. 17), Austin, TX. (Feb. 18), and Los Angeles, CA. (Feb. 19). Pardee’s new collection of art, Doppelgangers, is published March 13. You can see the trailer for Digging Up the Marrow below.

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