On October 2nd, Scream Factory released the cannibal comedy Gravy into select theaters and will follow-up with a subsequent VOD release on October 6th. Helmed by first-time feature filmmaker James Roday (Psych), the story follows a group of restaurant workers on Halloween who are held captive by a twisted trio who plan on doing much more than robbing or killing them- they want to devour their hostages as part of a weird ritual they practice every October 31st.
Co-written by Roday and Todd Harthan, Gravy stars Michael Weston, Jimmi Simpson, Sutton Foster, Lily Cole, Molly Ephraim, Paul Rodriguez, Gabriel Luna, Gabourey Sidibe and Sarah Silverman.
In anticipation of its release, Daily Dead recently had the chance to catch up with Roday to discuss the long journey to getting Gravy made finally, how his lifelong horror fandom fueled his desire to direct a genre film, his experiences working with his talented ensemble and why he didn’t want to star in Gravy while also directing.
Great job on the film, James. What I think is really fun, because obviously you're known for your TV work and for being a funny guy, but it didn't even dawn on my until about two months ago what a big horror fan you are. They've been playing His Name Was Jason on cable a bunch lately, and I noticed that you were in that, and then I put two and two together. And so Gravy seems to be right up your alley, being able to mix horror and comedy.
James Roday: First of all, let me just say that I had so much fun doing His Name Was Jason, but when I said yes it didn't occur to me that I was going to be the only dude who hadn't been in a Friday the 13th movie who they would kept cutting to, as if my opinion somehow mattered (laughs). And when I finally saw it, I was like, "Wow, it's just all alumni... and me"(laughs). Friday the 13th fans must have been flipping through their trivia books going, "We don't get it. He was never in it. Why is he on this? Why do I care what he thinks about the franchise?"
But in all sincerity, the coolest part about that was showing up and having five or six of actual Friday the 13th alum in the waiting room with me, waiting to do their interviews too. That was pretty cool. It's kind of crazy, the staying power that franchise has had. It's unbelievable to me.
And I grew up a horror fiend. The first thing I thought I wanted to do for a living was make monsters. I convinced my folks to get me a subscription to Fangoria when I was like six, which is also how I was allowed to watch horror movies as a 2nd grader, because I sold them on the fascination with special effects. That just kind of grew as I grew, and then my love for comedy developed. I have to be honest, I go into every comedy/horror experience hoping for the best and generally being disappointed, so I guess I feel like if I'm going to bitch and moan about how difficult it is to strike the balance and nail this genre, then I should probably dry and do it myself. That way if I succeed, I can start bitching and moaning with a microphone, and if I fail, then maybe I should shut up then.
So that was certainly part of the motivating factor behind this because it is a really tough mash-up, horror and comedy. I always thought that was interesting, because the line between laughing your ass off and getting scared crazily is actually pretty thin. It's weird how similar the two genres are, and yet it's so difficult to make it work. That was sort of the fun of it, knowing most of these things don't work, we have no money, we have no time, and we're going to try anyway.
I totally agree. I tend to enjoy horror comedies the most just because I like to enjoy myself when watching terrible things unfolding in front of me and Gravy does an admirable job of embracing the absurdity of the situation and then injecting that sort of element of surprise because it gets even more weirdly twisted as you go deeper and deeper into the movie.
James Roday: Our directive starting off was, let's shoot this like a low-budget restaurant comedy that everybody thinks they've seen before, and then pull the rug out from under them and see if we can't get them to hang on and go on this ride with us. And that was exactly how we did it. The first ten or fifteen minutes, you're just like, "Wow, this is going to be a fairly low-brow, run-of-the-mill comedy with waiters," and then we just go into overdrive and we never really look back.
I don't think it's that hard to make a movie funny, or necessarily that hard to make a movie scary. I think what gets muddy is when you really are trying to accomplish both. At some point, you become focused on one over the other because as you're making the film you see which one is working better, and you're like, oh, well then we need to probably push it more in this direction than the other.
With Gravy, the movie is so overwritten, there's not a breath of air in there. There are so many jokes jammed into that script. We had committed to the comedy that way when we started making the movie. Aesthetically, I could actually try and insert hooks on the horror aspects, and making sure that the gags were as good as they possible could be, and that they were unflinching, and that we weren't letting you off the hook and we weren't stylizing the violence in a way that you could feel like, "Oh, that's goofy." We wanted people to die in horrible, realistic ways that forced you to question how you can keep laughing after that.
That was ultimately where we landed in terms of how are we going to make this film. We're going to write it really funny, we're going to cast amazing actors so we don't have to worry about that. We're just not going to pull punches with the genre elements, and we'll see what kind of movie that makes.
What I think it kind of interesting about the movie is that you have your villains who come in and terrorize these poor people who are working at the restaurant. They're supposed to be bad guys, and you're supposed to dislike them, yet because of who you put in these roles, you can't help but almost cheer for them, in a way, because they're so good together and there's just so many great beats between them too. You just can't help but want to keep watching them.
James Roday: That's the mindfuck, isn't it? Jimmi and Mike are two of my best friends. They have a sort of shorthand with one another, that sort of exploding chemistry that we already knew was going to exist, and making it really difficult to not have empathy for your antagonists, even though you also have empathy for the people that are fighting for their lives. I thought that it would be fun to play around with that dynamic.
This cast overall is so eclectic and almost unexpected. Because, like in the case of Gabby, she came up being known for her dramatic work and here we see her get to have a lot more fun. It’s an unusual ensemble but they all worked very well together.
James Roday: Yeah, we got really lucky. And we did want to see how eclectic we could go, so that when people are reading about what the movie is and then see who's in it, it just doesn't make any sense. I kind of wanted people asking, what the hell is Sutton Foster doing in a cannibal comedy? That kind of stuff really appeals to me, and luckily, we've convinced them all to go on this crazy ride with us.
Like with Gabby, for instance. Gabby is a laugh riot. She is hysterical as a human being, she's got one of the biggest personalities you'll ever come across, plus she loves horror movies. This is right in her wheelhouse, which of course nobody knows, because most of her career she's been playing against that. I think for her it was an opportunity to cut loose and have a really good time.
And then someone like Sutton, who's a Broadway sweetheart, I think she was kind of mortified and terrified by this script, which was why she felt like she absolutely had to do it. It was so far outside of her comfort zone that she said she would have felt like a coward if she hadn't said "yes."
I'm curious - coming into this as a director, because you've been in front of the camera for most of your career, was that a daunting challenge for you to step behind it and be the guy in charge? Suddenly, now you’re the one that everybody answers to and you're the guy running the ship.
James Roday: It was definitely different, but it was the thing I was most looking forward to, also. This has been a long road, trying to get this movie made. My best friend Todd and I wrote this movie almost ten years ago, and it took a solid eight years to finally get someone to sign off on paying for this crazy cannibal comedy.
So when you live with it for that long, as daunting as the task of directing your feature may be, you also know the movie backwards and forwards, and you do have all of those answers and you're ready to go, especially since I've been directing for years on Psych and kind of built a vocabulary so that I wasn't just bullshitting my way through the experience. I was ready, and I think that that helped the cast. I think that gave them some level of comfort.
I also never would have acted in this movie for that very purpose. I wanted to be able to say I'm putting my entire focus on running this ship and keeping it tight and making sure everything is happening the way it's supposed to be happening. I know a lot of first-time actor-filmmakers cast themselves in parts, roles in their movies, and that may well work for them, and that's not to take anything away from that choice or that process, but for me, I think it would have been a real disservice to the film and to this group of actors that I put together if I had been wearing two hats and running back and forth like a fool.