A more serious take on slime punk films like Toxic Avenger and Slime City, Jesse Thomas Cook’s Septic Man (review) has more in common with Cronenberg’s tragic transformation tale The Fly.
Thanks mostly to the twisted mind of screenwriter Tony Burgess (Pontypool), Septic Man has a lot more going on under the surface than just a basic story about a man trapped underground inside a tank of absolute filth who begins to transform into something monstrous.
Director Cook spoke with us about the film and how it was one of the hardest, grossest experiences of his professional life thus far – but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a hell of a time doing it.
DC: How was your experience at Fantasia with your latest sci-fi film Ejecta? Is there a favorite project you and [Tony] Burgess have worked on so far?
JTC: Oh, Fantasia was awesome, man. It’s sort of the Fantastic Fest of Canada. Everyone’s open to new, original content and Ejecta went over tremendously well. We got to take Tony Burgess there and Julian Richings, who had a big role in Septic Man, too. We love doing these fests; it’s what gets our films out there and spreads the word.
DC: This is my second time seeing [Septic Man], I just watched it again a couple days ago, and last weekend I was trapped in an elevator and had an unexpected panic attack here in Brooklyn. So, watching it a few days after that and seeing that kind of confinement really hit home for me! Do you have any claustrophobia yourself or fear of confinement?
JTC: (laughs) I definitely do, yeah; my entire life I have, and with this film in particular I wanted to make that sort of claustrophobic atmosphere and do sort of a chamber play all set in one confined space. Initially the idea was just about a man trapped in a well, which I had pitched to Tony Burgess, and his disgusting mind was able to transform it into what he later called ‘a gift’ for him as a writer, to be able to do this movie about a guy slowly entering this existential crisis and transforming into this shit demon. But yeah, absolutely, the idea was about a claustrophobic, in the vein of Buried and Saw; I looked at it as a straightforward survival horror film. Tony was able to add a ton of philosophical underpinnings that only he can add to a project.
DC: Did the space restriction make this one of your most difficult shooting experiences? What was the day-to-day like?
JTC: Well, you see early in the first act there’s a few scenes set outside of the septic tank. Those were fun and easy, and we banged them out fairly quickly; everything in the septic tank was incredibly difficult. It was a big set that we had built with all sorts of windows and secret hatches so that we could film by staying out of the tank for a little bit. But, for the most part, there were seven or eight of us stuck in this nightmare of a film set that became very difficult to work in. Simple things on a film shoot you take for granted, like walking across the set and moving an apple box or tweaking a light – all of those were elaborate coordination amongst the crew that were stuck in there. So we would kind of get in there, shut the door, and we wouldn’t come out for six hours until our lunch because we were worried if you did come out, you wouldn’t want to go back in! It stunk, it was wet, it was cold and just generally uncomfortable – but those type of things tend to develop a brotherhood, I think, with crew members that you’re collectively suffering with.
DC: I’m sure just trying to go out for a smoke break or a “safety meeting” must have been pretty difficult.
JTC: (laughs) Well, thankfully, the crew were all fine with us just smoking right in there and just tossing our cigarette butts right in the septic tank. We had this very squeamish focus puller who, I think, once or twice actually vomited right in the set. We couldn’t clean it up, and even if we could of, it just added to the realness of the set.
DC: How big was the set?
JTC: It was 16 x 20 x 16, I believe. We could do bird’s eye views through the hatch. Six weeks before the shoot, [Jason Brown] had been a production designer on our last films with small acting roles in them, so he was primarily a designer. But we went to him to play the role and who better to build it than the guy who’s gonna be trapped in it. The whole set actually blew up on us. We were filling it with water before wrap, we had to fill the tank up into ten feet of water, and midway through the entire set walls just buckled and unleashed a wave of water and we had to scramble to repair it for the last day of the shoot. We had to change a couple major scenes in the script to work in the fact that the tank could not hold ten feet of water.
DC: With Septic Man, it feels like an origin story. Is there any chance of a Septic Man crossover with Bad Milo? If you saw that film, they could be the shit demons of Groot and Rocket Raccoon.
JTC: I just saw Bad Milo about two weeks ago! Yeah, it would be interesting to explore the character outside of his little hive of where he grew to become Septic Man. You’re right; it was all in the back of our mind that it was supposed to be this kind of origin story sort of like The Fly and Toxic Avenger. Tony [Burgess] was able to add in all sorts of bizarre existential underpinnings so that it does leave it open-ended for sure.
Septic Man is now in limited release in theaters and is also available on VOD across multiple platforms.
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