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Grimmfest Interview: Evan Marlowe for ABRUPTIO

Updated: Feb 4

“Everyone’s a puppet”.

Having recently had its British premiere at this year’s Grimmfest — ‘Manchester’s International Festival of Fantastic Film’ — Evan Marlowe’s latex-Lovecraftian-LA-noir could easily be mistaken for a paranoid rendition of Spitting Image by way of Philip K. Dick. Indeed, there’s satire lurking under the surface, but Abruptio is far more absurdist as we descend rapidly into a double dose of Kaufman by way of Charlie’s postmodern self-awareness and Lloyd’s Troma-inspired independent filmmaking. All the while, conspiracy theories collide with the grotesque as sad-sack Les Hackel awakes to find an explosive device implanted in the back of his neck and is forced to carry out the most heinous of crimes to stay alive. As he attempts to work out those controlling him, his world becomes stranger and all the more sinister.

Evan talks about his absurdist odyssey and puppetry in more detail...

The film is very much about control. Writer, director, producer, editor… are you a control freak?

[Laughs] Don’t forget Cinematographer! I think most people who love horror would consider themselves a freak of some kind. But ‘control freak’? I’d say that’s out of necessity. That’s how it’s been all my life, whether it’s writing novels and songs or making movies. You either put yourself at the mercy of others or you teach yourself how to get the job done. Within reason, I would let others teach you how to fly a plane or remove an appendix, but in the creative fields, life’s too short to wait for the right people to come along, and when they do, they’re very often busy with other projects. I’m certain if we had the budget for a proper team of pros, I’d loosen control. Well… maybe just a little.

There is obviously a crucial reason why puppets are used to feed into the mind-bending plot of Abruptio. Was this a conscious starting point or merely something that happened during the early stages of development?

I asked my wife recently — since my memory from ten years ago (when I wrote the script), isn’t great — and she said the idea for puppets came from a dream I’d had. I woke up with the idea of realistic puppets instead of live actors. I’ll have to believe her, but that does sound about right. Clearly, the themes of the script motivated the use of the puppets, which probably in turn gave me reason to expand the ideas further in the script.

The film is a distinctive mix of your interests from crime to horror and surrealism. I would love to hear more about how this helped shape the film.

Director Evan Marlowe

My love of cinema is very broad, and I’m still always discovering. The goal for me is to let these influences inform my storytelling without becoming overt. In the case of Abruptio, though, I was intentionally alluding to a particular influence — mainly 1970s horror and sci-fi. There are tons of references. But beyond that, dark comedy and noir are in my blood. There’s a nihilist vibe not only in its cinema but in the stories of Raymond Chandler. You feel the grime on you when you’re done, realising that all the misery we’ve just been through has been for nought; that life is an inescapable series of misfortunes. And then surrealism does away with our ability to rationalize it. It binds our hands behind our backs, humbles us in ways we can’t understand. I revel in that sensation. That said, Abruptio, in my opinion, ends on a much more upbeat note than that.

Spitting Image is bound to be referred to by British audiences, but Abruptio, on one level, plays like Mike Judge’s Office Space and Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America. These examples are hugely satirical — again, do you look for this in your storytelling, or find it naturally plays out?

I can appreciate satire — Veep is among my all-time favourite shows. But these days, much of real life has devolved into satire, which makes satirical work a tough business. Even Armando Iannucci has admitted as much. I’m far more interested in subtlety and ambiguity, so I probably wouldn’t be very good at straight satire.

Before it descends into madness and surrealism, diving a little deeper, I love the ‘Hollyweird’ vibes that harken back to Brian Yuzna’s Society. Why do you think that cult movies often tap into such specific parts of the LA underbelly?

LA has a very long and complicated history, and filmmakers have been wise to exploit it. Not just cult films, but mainstream ones like Chinatown, where the city is at war with the suburbs over water. There’s a glitter and glamour to Hollywood, which is utterly transparent and yet never fails to draw people in. Not to overgeneralize, but what drives many here is self-promotion. And when the usual tactics don’t work, people will go to extremes to stand out. It’s inherently a very weird place. As a subject matter, it’s an eternal fountain.

Do you think there are going to be more of these comments/reflections in light of what is currently happening with the strikes? For example, more from outsider filmmakers exposing the elite, explicitly and/or through the classic allegorical tales we have seen from the coded, to the B-movies and beyond.

I can’t say what the outcome of the strikes will be, but I doubt it’ll affect the landscape much. My hope is the whole thing burns to the ground and financiers will put more dollars behind independent filmmakers who aren’t interested in superheroes. But when you expose the elite, as you say, you bite the hand that feeds you, so it’s tricky. Fortunately (and unfortunately), the cost of entry into the marketplace has dropped. You can get relatively cheap equipment and make attractive films. So regardless of what happens at the big studio level, I would hope this accessibility will result in more filmmakers taking greater risks. I’d love that.

How did special makeup effects artist Jeff Farley become involved with the project?

I believe via my wife, Kerry. He worked with Drew Daywalt, who, before becoming a hugely successful kids’ author, directed her in a classic short film, “Bedfellows.” We were very fortunate Jeff came aboard. He’s extremely talented and hard-working.

As well as producing, I’m assuming Kerry is a major soundboard?

Yes, I run everything past her. She’ll agree or give me feedback, or many times rein in my instincts that may go too far. That’s probably kept me out of hot water a few times.

The artistry (and puppetry) of animatronics are a huge part of science fiction and horror movies. Why do you think movies starring puppets are so rare, despite the nostalgia and huge influence of Jim Henson across film and television? He proved that it doesn’t have to be just ‘kid stuff’.

They say never work with kids or animals… and they should add puppets to that list. Maybe that’s why filmmakers have shied away from them. Of course, nowadays we can create any image digitally without all the bother on set from practicals, so there’s even less incentive to use puppets. But we’ll see if other filmmakers follow suit in the coming years. I’m intrigued to find out.

What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

Their empty popcorn boxes and soda cups.

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