Filmmaker Joe Begos has had an extremely busy year. His neon-soaked descent into madness, Bliss, has been making the festival rounds for the last six months, and his latest, VFW, just recently celebrated its world premiere at the 2019 Fantastic Fest and will also be screening this weekend at Beyond Fest in Los Angeles at the Egyptian Theatre.
Last week, while in Austin, Daily Dead chatted with both Begos and one of the stars of VFW, the badass Stephen Lang, who portrays a veteran in the film that finds his titular locale that’s meant to be safe haven for him and his friends under attack by a gang of thugs one fateful night. During the interview, the duo discussed how VFW came together, their collaborative experiences, and how everyone came together on set in order to kick some ass for their brutally fun horror/action hybrid.
Joe, let's start off by discussing how this came together. Was this something Fangoria approached you about or had you reached out to them about wanting to work with their team?
Joe Begos: Yeah, so the producer and the dude who owns Fangoria, Dallas [Sonnier], was my manager a long time ago—six or seven years ago, I guess. He's the one who discovered Almost Human and got me signed to a big agency and just got that sold and all that stuff. Then, he went off to be a producer himself and I was like, “Let's fu--ing make a movie together.”
He would always send me scripts and none of them really attracted my interests. But he called when I was trying to get the money together for Bliss, and he was like, "I just bought Fangoria and we're going to do this whole slate and I'm going to send you scripts, three of them." The only one that appealed to me in any way was VFW, because I had never written anything before like that. Also, I had never directed anything that I didn't write before. I had read a lot of scripts and for me, it always needs to be something that felt like it could still fit in my wheelhouse and work, and it wasn’t just repeating things I’ve done or it felt like I was just doing it for the sake of doing a job. VFW was the first one where I felt like I could take this material and do enough with it to make it mine, where when you watch it, it feels like a Joe Begos movie even though I didn't write it.
I just wanted to take the challenges of doing another script and working with different producers and seeing what that environment was like, because it was probably going to happen at some point in my future. That is, unless I failed here. What's interesting to me, I got hired for this based on my first two movies, and then I made another movie that was completely out of left field, and it was a weird head trip to bounce back and forth between aesthetics so much. But I think it's cool that there are two movies that I've made coming out, they're so fu--ing different, but still so me, if that makes sense.
Stephen, for you, what was the initial appeal coming in, in terms of your character Fred?
Stephen Lang: I think that Fred has basically drawn the parameters of his life. He takes the same route to the VFW hall every day, he picks up his friends, and he opens up the place for business. That’s it. The world has deteriorated around him, but when everything goes sideways, he draws the line here, because this VFW is where he's comfortable, and this is where he's going to defend, and this is where he's going to probably end up dying behind that bar, it seemed to me. So, he's a man who's at peace with the fact that life is really fu--ing rough, and it's been a tough ride for him, with a lot of disappointment over the years.
Well, I was going to say, we've seen it before in films, and this film also reflects it in a very thoughtful way that society mistreated veterans over the years, and it’s great how these guys come together here, and share this camaraderie as they live their lives in this world that doesn’t understand the things that they’ve experienced. Was that sense of togetherness there on the page, or did that come out when you guys were there on set and going back and forth between all of you?
Stephen Lang: I think it was definitely a part of our off-screen life, part of our improvisations. Plus, we also talked about the fact that there are things we understand about Vietnam that are different. We have an understanding of why Vietnam is different than Korea and why Korea was different than WWII, and less than understanding for them about what Iraq and Afghanistan were like. It's respect, it's a passing on of knowing that however different these conflicts were, that in the end, war is war, war is hell, and whatever you've gone through, on some level you're going to continue to go through what we're going through because of the circumstances in this story.
What I love about movies like this, where it's an ensemble piece, you can see all the pieces clicking between everybody on screen. There's a palpable chemistry onscreen. Did it just come naturally? What was that collaborative experience like for you guys?
Joe Begos: Well, I feel like myself and the actors had the same idea when I came to them, that we're going to be open to working this stuff on set and we're going to be open to finding a fluid way to do this. Because you know, if you just read the dialogue that's scripted by somebody who has no idea who's going to be in the movie, it can start to feel stale and you'll lose that chemistry. But if you've got all these guys there, it's like, “Let's fu--ing work through this and let's make it feel real.” I wanted to let these guys bounce off each other because they have embodied these characters so well, and I know what I want out of the scene.
We worked together in rehearsals to find the flow, but also, we would just improv the dialogue a little bit. We were always on the same page about what the scenes needed to reach, where the out is, and how we should get there, and as long as we had those three points, we could all work together to figure out the most organic way to achieve that. Everybody worked together so well, and there were no egos on set, either. It was always about what's going to make the scenes work, what's going to make the movie better, and what was going to make all of us look better.
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[Photo credit: Above photo from Joe Begos' Twitter page.]