Matt Cade’s Underbelly (review) is, I have to admit, one of the strangest and most frustrating indie films I’ve seen in a long time. I mean that in the best possible way, of course. Cade used a ton of genre influences to his advantage and managed to create a film that will likely have audiences discussing it long after the final credits.
After reviewing Underbelly recently, I had a lot of questions for Cade that I demanded answers to. Of course, none were forthcoming, cause where’s the fun in that, but I did managed to pick the Texas director’s brain a bit about the origins of Underbelly and just why it’s all right to have singing and dancing in the middle of your horror film.
The full interview follows!
Johnny Butane: Tell me about the origins of Underbelly…
Matt Cade: I had written a fairly expansive horror script, “Hemlock”, that I worked a long time on and was very set on shooting. It was part giallo, part Fulci-inspired undead and sleazy sexiness, part Halloween 3 paranoia and doom, and most of all just cinematic as hell. However, somewhat obviously, as a result of all these influences being thrown in the blender together it was a very tough sell. When the money could not be raised, I decided to write and direct a script that I knew I could not only pull off but create something very special with the resources I had available to me. That script was “On the Road Side of Town”, which has now been renamed “Underbelly”.
JB: Without giving too much away, can you explain the new title?
MC: “Underbelly” seemed to sum it all up. In the story, there are unfamiliar mysterious things going on under the surface of the Texas soil and certainly our baddies (“The Zoo Crew”) would be considered by most to be prime examples of the underbelly of society. There’s also a thread concerning pregnancies in the film but I’d rather not get into that here … The title just works.
JB: It does at that! How did the cast come together?
MC: With only a few exceptions, I wrote the script with specific people in mind. I always knew that Mark Reeb and Jennifer Harlow would play Henry and Jill Rose. Henry is such an internal role, I needed a trained actor who knew how to convey emotion, weakness and torment without going overboard with it in the slightest. Reeb killed it.
Felicia Bianca Lopez, a friend and Austin-based actor, did more with Sweet Lily than I ever imagined possible when writing the role. As for the baddies, I admittingly broke the cardinal sin of filmmaking – I wrote the characters for my friends. I’ve always believed casting non-actors can be a plus rather than a negative AS LONG AS you are confident that, as the director, you can spend the necessary time with them and communicate effectively with them to capture the character. It’s not easy but it’s rewarding beyond explanation to see what Fritz, John, and Joe accomplished. Nobody could have breathed life into The Zoo Crew better, nobody.
Fritz has been a friend for a long time and I was a fan of his music before we ever met. I knew from Page 1 that he would be singing in the film as well. Laura Bailey, John Caballero, and Grant James were all friends as well as talented professional Dallas actors. The few other principal roles were found during the Texas casting process. This approach could have backfired in my face but luckily it worked out. Do you agree?
JB: Definitely, the cast is one of the strong suits. Very rare for an indie venture but you knew what you were doing, especially with Fritz.
Are you concerned how the singing\dancing aspect is going to be received?
MC: First, thank you for recognizing Fritz Beer. He’ll be the first to tell you that he wasn’t sure how this experiment was going to go down but he trusted me and dove in. It’s one thing to ask a friend to show up and stand in the background; it’s something else entirely (and maybe unfairly) to ask them to take on a lead role. I needed someone with the charisma of David Hess – you had to ashamedly like the bastard even as he was doing the most insane acts of cruelty imaginable. Fritz killed it.
As far as the musical sequences, I’m not worried at all. To me it fits in the world of these characters. Throughout the story you get the sense that this crew exists on their own plane. They come and go from town to town and the only rules they live by are their own, which are few if any. Just like Willy Wonka would break it down when he felt the urge, it makes sense to me that the character of Toby Haynes would sing and dance as well on occasion. It doesn’t seem strange to me.
It’s one of the advantages to making a film under the radar, nobody can tell you no and if you want it in there it’s yours. You have to make sacrifices, of course, due to a lack of time and money but you can capture your vision without creative interference. Also, the scenes in question are orchestrated to where they serve a definite purpose in the mood and flow of the story. I’m not just being cute with it.
JB: Very true except for, in my opinion, the goofy golf scene. The rest of it was interesting and well placed…
Speaking of music, what was your thought process for the rest of the score which was very unique?
MC: The golf scene … That was a direct tip-of-the-hat to those drastically inappropriate goof-off moments with Krug and his gang in Last House On The Left, with the hilarious ragtime music playing or the cops with Ada and her chickens. Only my scene is intentionally much more grandiose in its inappropriateness. When you look at what they did just prior to that moment… I do agree completely, however, that it will divide audiences on whether it has a legitimate place in the film.
There were specific descriptions in the shooting script as far as what certain songs would convey. But that only covered the actual pieces performed on-screen and even then my instructions to Fritz were fairly vague. All the other pieces of score were composed by Fritz on his own. I would tell him what I needed and he would e-mail me tracks at a frighteningly fast rate. I would listen, call him up, and we would spend hours making various sounds to each other over the phone until we felt like we were on the same page. I’m a disciple of John Carpenter and without sending Fritz any of JC’s classic early scores to use as a reference I think he came really close to the vibe of those soundtracks. I was ecstatic. I very rarely gave him temp music to go by, I wanted him to create on pure instinct. Although I believe I introduced him to some Goblin, Fabio Frizzi and a few others, he really just did his own thing.
I’m as proud of the finished Underbelly soundtrack as I am the film. Fritz and I are almost done going back and forth on the final mix and it’s honestly made me consider approaching a forward-thinking record label such as Ipecac to distribute the film/soundtrack rather than just seeking out distribution through the various, obvious film channels. The music is just as much a part of the Underbelly experience as the visuals. I truly believe that.
JB: Ipecac, eh? Brilliant, really, I hope it works out!
MC: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of Patton and the label as a whole. From everything I’ve read it appears that their business strategy is something that’s almost nonexistent in the film world, unfortunately. I live in a cloud of music when I’m writing, a lot of it Ipecac, and to be a part of something like that would be ideal. You release your films/soundtracks exactly as an artist would release their albums. I recently discovered Dalek and my brain melted. But enough about that… thanks for indulging me, Johnny.
JB: No problem! So… Let’s talk about the blue light… Have you heard any theories from others about what it might be?
MC: I’ve heard 101 explanations for the use of blue in the film. I expected that and I love that. I don’t see a situation where I would ever reveal my own thoughts on the blue light; however, I do know what it is. It is just so much more interesting to hear others thoughts on the matter. I hear “aliens” quite a bit. Funny story: When I first started tinkering with poster art over a year ago, I was using a photograph of Laura Bailey (Sara) screaming while drowning in the blue light. I was so set to run with it and then months later Lynch’s Inland Empire DVD came out and the cover was identical to what I had. Identical. Of course, I deferred to the great Mr. Lynch.
Just curious, do you have a theory on the blue?
JB: Actually, no I don’t because, in all honesty, I really don’t want to know. It’s more fun that way. Does anyone in the crew know?
MC: Nobody knows. I will say this; basing a film in the great state of Texas lends itself to all sorts of mystery and possibilities. I learned while living in Canada for a few years that there is a substantial curiosity about this place I call home. The minute my new Northern friends would ask me where I’m from, the questions would start to fly every single time. I don’t imagine folks from New Hampshire have that same experience when traveling abroad. Maybe they do, what do I know…
JB: No, I have to say Texas is one of those mysterious states that a lot of strange shit can go down in with only a few people knowing about, so it spreads slowly. Yes, I can see that reaction…. are there really towns there that don’t have their own police still?
MC: Oh for sure. It’s a trip. And some of those little towns that do have police only have one officer, one jail cell, you get the idea. It’s very easy to find yourself in need of help with no signs of help in sight. In such an immensely big fucking state that can be very frightening.
JB: All right, so we’ll move on past the blue light since I don’t want to go too much further for fear of spilling anything … but what about the pipe?
MC: I’m much more hesitant to discuss the pipe than any other aspect of the story and I think that once people get a chance to view the film, they’ll see why. The pipe has been there for a very long time. A very long time. The pipe is the one consistent element in the film that seems to raise everyone’s neck hairs. That’s reason enough for me to leave it be.
JB: So what kind of route are you hoping for in terms of distribution? Any film festivals you’re looking at submitting to?
MC: Several distributors are currently looking at the film and we’ll be contacting others. I’m knowledgeable enough about the horror genre to know that it will be a tough sell without Lance Henrikson in the credits but I’m also optimistic enough to believe that something unique and entertaining will get its day. It just takes that one person to see what’s there, believe in it, and run with it.
We will soon be submitting to select genre festivals. I think this film could thrive in a festival screening, don’t you?
JB: Definitely, yeah. Fantasia is always the one I recommend first and foremost, as it has the best audience and the longest time frame, but everything from Fantastic Fest to Sundance I could see being interested.
I wanted to ask you about… well, the employer I guess is a good word for him. The man with living art. Did you have something purposeful in mind with his look (I’m guessing yes) or did you just want to do something weird?
MC: The Employer is a good name for him. In the script and credits he’s referred to as The Host but while we were in post the Korean film The Host came out, so I’m not sure what to address him as now. I really liked that film.
The look was very specific. He’s a doctor, an art collector, yet he needs to remain anonymous because of the surreal hobbies he’s interested in. That scene and that character were directly influenced by The Last House On Dead End Street. One of the few films that has made my jaw drop as an adult…
JB: I have to admit I’ve never seen it, so that may be why it wasn’t clear to me…
MC: Well, seeing LHODES wouldn’t help a bit. There’s a scene where a guy goes to a social event at an upper-class family’s home and in the middle of the living room there’s a hunchback whipping the wife on all fours. And she’s wearing blackface of course. You can see why that stuck with me.
JB: Man, so many questions about that scene that I can’t ask without giving anything way. Needless to say you did a good job of explaining things without explaining anything.
At one point Toby waxes philosophical about the Waco incident. Was that in the script or did it come up during filming?
MC: The Waco moment was filmed exactly as scripted. I knew before I began writing that I wanted to do several things that you never get to see in films, horror or otherwise. One of those things was to follow the lead characters off the main path. Instead of showing them at just Scene 1 and Scene 2, let’s spend time with them in-between, on the road. I grew up 30 minutes South of Waco, so that event hit me hard to say the least. I was young and it was my first experience being afraid of the government. I wondered how Toby Haynes would feel about the tragedy and it just clicked. It’s my personal favorite moment in the film.
JB: I can’t really imagine what it was like living that close to the actual event; watching it on TV was weird enough. Was a good scene, though, gave us solid perspective into Toby’s personality.
So what’s next? Are there more Underbelly stories in you or do you want to move on to another strange project?
MC: I’ve got a lot of cakes in the oven right now, probably too many. There’s 3-4 more “blue” films, very, very loosely related to Underbelly but all vastly different from one another. Hemlock still interests me if the right resources were to come together… Oh, and I’d like to remake Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Just kidding.
JB: What is Hemlock about?
MC: It’s the story of a man who might or might not be losing his mind and it’s the story of a man who might or might not be ending the world as we know it. These two men don’t meet until the last act but along the way we spend time with slashers, sex show artists, Italian zombies, and other interesting folk. It all takes place in the small town of Hemlock. That’s all I can really divulge at this point.
JB: Sounds pretty cool to me! Thanks for taking the time with us, Matt, much appreciated! Best of luck with finding distro and make sure you keep us up to date with how it goes!
MC: Thank you, Johnny. Any time. I appreciate it!
As Underbelly is still brand-new, I expect we’re going to be hearing more and more about it in the coming weeks. Thanks to Cade for providing us with the first interview regarding the film, hopefully there will be many more to come!