While the millennium may have started out with such mainstream PG-13 offerings as The Ring and The Others, by the middle of the decade horror fans had begun to demand more graphic violence and explicit gore in their movies. Yet even as Platinum Dunes and Rob Zombie began to explore sleazier avenues with their slasher remakes and torture porn flicks, Canadian filmmaker Ryan Nicholson was pushing the boundaries of taste with his low budget splatter picture Gutterballs.
Blending elements of American slashers, Italian giallo and ‘70s rape/revenge features, Nicholson’s movie saw patrons of a late-night bowling alley falling victim to a masked killer who brutally dispatches of those he felt were responsible for the gang rape of one of the young regulars. While his earlier films, Tortured and Live Feed, failed to find their audience, Gutterballs would become one of the most talked about horror movies of the decade.
This would in part be due to the original murder scenes, including a ‘death by 69.’ The graphic special effects were created by Michelle Grady, who would team up again with Nicholson on his subsequent pictures. After stealing the show as the crazed Janitor, horror star in the making Dan Ellis is set to make another memorable appearance in the director’s latest venture, Star Vehicle.
Dan Ellis looks back on the making of the movie and his subsequent roles.
Having taken pivotal roles in Ryan Nicholson’s last two features, Gutterballs and Hanger, was the role of the driver in Star Vehicle written with you in mind or did you have to audition for the part?
Well, both. Ryan and I had been talking about Star Vehicle, off and on, since the Gutterballs wrap party. After we wrapped Hanger we both thought he was going to do Evil Feed (the sequel to Live Feed) but pre-production was on hold and the opportunity to do SV presented itself so when he got the green light from the producers he told me SV was the next project and he had a part for me, if I wanted it.
Originally I was to be the drivers boss but as he started writing the script he said he wanted me to play the driver because he kept seeing me in the part and was writing it with me in mind. We had several talks about the part while he was writing the script and when the time came to cast the other parts he told the producers that ‘Dan is playing the driver’ but they still wanted me to come read, so I went and read for them and the rest is history.
How would you compare working with Ryan on this movie to your first collaboration, Gutterballs? How did you first become an acquaintance of Ryan and what do you think it is that keeps bringing you both back together?
It’s like apples and oranges. When we worked on GB we didn’t really know each other aside from an audition and a couple read-throughs but by the time we wrapped we had become good friends and established a level of professional trust. All the films were a blast to work on and I can see how Ryan applies what he’s learned from his previous films every time we shoot.
When you have a trust, professionally, you are naturally going to want to work with those individuals and I trust Ryan just like he trusts me. I know he won’t offer me a role that I’m not a good fit for, just to put me in one of his films. Just like I wouldn’t take a role that I thought wasn’t a good fit, just to be in one of his films. Besides us being friends I really like the films and characters that Ryan offers me and we really do have a blast making movies together!
Describe your character and what part does he play in the story? What was it about the script that intrigued you so much and how did you prepare for the role?
I play Don Cardini, a jaded driver for production companies, a horror movie buff and fan (bordering on obsession) of a scream queen named Riversa Red (Sindy Faraguna). He gets a job transporting cast and crew for a low budget horror film and discovers Riversa is attached, but things don’t turn out as peachy a he would like and things take a turn for the worse. The script wasn’t even done when I told Ryan I’d do the part and that’s because of our history. If Ryan tells me he has a part for me I trust him because he knows me so well.
About two months before we started filming I started rehearsing my lines in the car and that became my space for going over my lines so anytime I had to drive anywhere the radio was off and I was running lines. Then I started running my errands ‘in character,’ going into shops and being Don to anyone I met, I’m surprised I didn’t get punched or thrown out some of the time, drove my wife nuts also (sorry honey).
Gutterballs is notable for its excessive violence and nudity, while Hanger promises to be even more over-the-top. How does Star Vehicle fit in amongst these and are there any specific moments (such as the ‘death by 69’ or ‘bowling pin rape’) that may cause the film notoriety?
I think SV is more of a splatter fest and might have a wider audience of interest. It’s brutal and there’s, nudity, gore and plenty of the red stuff in there but it’s different than what was done in Hanger or GB. As far as ‘notoriety’ goes, you’ll just have to watch and decide for yourself but there is some crazy stuff going down for sure! There’s a horror movie being made within the movie, so there are gags for both films being done throughout.
How long did principal photography last and whereabouts was the movie shot? Was Ryan working with a higher budget than his previous films and, while Gutterballs was all in one location, was the environment that Star Vehicle was shot in more of a challenge?
Well as far as the budget goes you’ll have to ask Ryan because, honestly, I have no idea. Principal photography was fifteen days mostly in Maple Ridge, BC at a huge log cabin style house on about 5 acres of wooded land and it was hot, there were mosquitos EVERYWHERE and once again we shot during some crazy hours. There were a total of six different locations and all of them were perfect for the scenes we needed them for and luckily they were all close together except for the last day, we shot in Vancouver at Grindhouse Video (an awesome store for good horror and hard to find stuff). I keep telling Ryan to write a ‘Mid-day Killer’ movie so we can get some regular sleep! Most of the time the schedule was 7pm to 5 or 6am then the next week we’d be in at noon to 3am.
What were the main obstacles that the production faced during filming and were there any major issues you were forced to overcome?
I think the schedule was the hardest thing to get used to for most people. I didn’t mind the schedule, hell I knew from working with Ryan before what to expect, so for me it was my appearance. After I read the script and started to get to know the character, I sent Ryan a text ‘Hey, what if Don had a perm?’ and seconds later my phone rings and it’s Ryan, ‘I love it man that’s great! Lets do it!.’ I had already grown a beard for the role and now with the perm and everything dyed darker, I had a hard time getting used to looking at myself but it helped me get into the role.
Then there’s the heat! We broke records three days in a row and being out in the sticks on those hot days with the wardrobe, bugs and being covered in that sticky sweet blood was something else! All and all I had a great time but I could be covered in shit filming in hell and be happy because this is what I love to do. My relationship with Ryan helps also, if he was some raging arsehole then I doubt it would have been as bearable.
Are your co-stars Ryan Nicholson regulars or are there any recognizable faces amongst the victims? Was it true that Debbie Rochon was once attached and who eventually took her role?
There was a little confusion about Debbie’s involvement in this project that turned out to be a big misunderstanding but everything got straightened out. I am the only one from any prior Plotdigger films, with the exception of the crew, that was in this one. The female lead, Riversa Red, was played by Sindy Faraguna. She was cast from auditions and did a fantastic job with the role.
With much of your previous work being notable for its gore, was the set of Star Vehicle a rather messy affair and were you subjected to much makeup yourself?
Christian, this IS a Plotdigger film! Ha-ha-ha. We went through gallons of blood! One of the guys on set joked about me being Ryan’s Bruce Campbell, because of the abuse Ryan gives me and how he loves to spray me with blood any chance he gets. It’s nowhere near the prosthetics I had to wear for Hanger since there were only two days where I got them applied for Star Vehicle but it was daily for Hanger and on a much larger scale.
When are the filmmakers hoping to have the movie released and do you know if they intend to screen it at any festivals or give it a theatrical release?
There’s been some talk of trying for a small theatrical release but I know it will be out on DVD at the very least. As far as festivals go, I’m not sure, they still have to get the edit and all the wonderful post production things done. The uncut version of Hanger is due for an October release in North America and that is the main focus right now.
Another project you had lined up was with Bind, which would mark the directorial debut of Gutterballs producer Dan Walton, yet this film has been suspiciously quiet of late. Are you still involved with the movie and what other work do you have in the foreseeable future?
Yes, I’m still attached and I just spoke with Dan the other day about Bind and he told me that we are ‘locked for a September shoot.’ There were some snags with the project over the past months that had Dan pulling his hair out at times but he says we are on schedule now. Ryan and I are always talking about projects and I know he has about three or four ideas he wants to do Evil Feed and Gutterballs II being two of them.
I get a lot of messages telling me that we HAVE to make a sequel to GB and I would love to do that! My friend and very talented effects guy as well Marcus Koch (100 Tears) has a film he is trying to get off the ground called Babydoll. It’s a fantastic script but, like most things, it’s all about getting funds to do the project and sadly he’s been a victim of our economic situation when it comes to financing.