The workaday drudgery of cubicle culture drains the life out of people, so it was only a matter of time until a movie was literal about it. Billed as “Office Space meets Shaun of the Dead,” Brian James O’ Connell’s raucous horror/comedy Bloodsucking Bastards turns a typical white-collar, corporate environment into a natural feeding ground for undead go-getters. The film makes an effort to get both sides of the equation right, capturing the toxic atmosphere of a company that swirls with gossip and empty ambition before morphing into an action-packed bloodbath as vampires take over upper management. It’s a tricky balance to strike for O’Connell and his improv troupe Dr. God, members of which collaborated on the script and perform in several roles, but O’Connell has a ringer in Joss Whedon favorite Fran Kranz, who starred in the recent horror/comedy standard-bearer The Cabin in the Woods.
Kranz plays put-upon hero Evan Sanders, the type of guy who’s regularly humiliated by his co-workers and always gets passed over for the big promotion. With tension still lingering over a botched romance with his co-worker Amanda (Emma Fitzpatrick), Evan suffers through the spectacle of his boss handing his college nemesis (Pedro Pascal) the management post he expected for himself, but his suffering is not over. When the new hire starts assembling a vampire army, it’s up to Evan and Amanda to stake their colleagues, who pop like engorged mosquitoes. With Bloodsucking Bastards poised to make a run at cult audiences this week, Paste spoke to O’Connell and Kranz about the vampire metaphor, the tricky business of horror/comedy, and the vast quantities of blood dumped on the cast.
Paste: What makes the vampire myth such a strong metaphor for the workplace?
Fran Kranz: As the movie points out really nicely, the work is soulless. There’s no connection to it. There are no windows in the office, just florescent light. Everyone gets pale. There’s no sunlight. This is the first movie I can remember where I’ve seen the two combined this way. Is there some deeper connection to it? Or did we come up with something nice and original here?
Brian James O’Connell: When we got the script, it’s just like Fran said—we’d never seen that before. It just seemed so obvious that we were kind of stunned that nobody had done it yet. I have a bunch of friends who used to work at 1-800-DENTIST, which is the perfect job for actors and comedians and improvisors, because you can set your own hours. Then Mitt Romney’s company [Bain Capital] took over 1-800-DENTIST and they got a company-wide memo on Friday that said, “Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to change. We bought the company because we believe in what it does.” My buddy, who worked there as a manager, came back on Monday morning, and it was a complete lie. They had stripped everything personal in the place. They had painted the walls gray. And that’s where it’s moving now: If your job doesn’t go overseas, if you’re lucky enough to have a job that stays here in a corporate environment, it’s going to be Mr. Anderson in The Matrix. It’s going to be cubicle farms and gray and death. So “Let’s make this office a coffin” is not far off.
Paste: To me, the first monster that comes to mind for an office horror movie would be a zombie, because you can associate them with “office drones.” The interesting thing about vampires is they add that element of aggression.
Kranz: Yes. There’s a cutthroat, competitive nature to it. You think of Wall Street hedge funds and people doing whatever it takes to get ahead of one another, this über-competitive environment. [The film] does give you this zombie culture, this mindless work and counting the minutes to get home. But I love this twist that the vampires thrive in this environment. [Vampirism] was a decision that came from management in order to get the company back on track. We need this kind of competitive edge.
O’Connell: It’s all about the bottom line, about profits by any means necessary. I like to call Boiler Room “Scarface for white dudes.” They all look at it and get jacked about it. “Yeah, bro! That’s what I wanna do! They’re making all that money. They’re bucking the system. They’re doing cocaine.” It’s the same with every rapper and Scarface. Has anyone watched the end of these movies? It doesn’t end well. These are bad people. They die or go to jail. We wanted to tap into this culture of consumption, and vampires seemed to be the perfect monster for that. Once you’re immortal and once you start feeding on people—and you used to be a person—all the empathy just goes away.
Paste: Have either of you had experiences in these sort of white-collar office jobs?
Kranz: No. I got lucky. I’m spoiled. I got my first acting job right after my senior year in high school. But isn’t “the bad job” fairly universal? At least in the zombie sense of it, the boring aspect, the counting the minutes to get through a day. That I think we all know whether it’s in a cubicle or outdoors or what. That cutthroat, Boiler Room nature of the movie… I’ve definitely had friends who have worked in hedge funds or private equity banks and you can see how it consumes them and takes a toll of them.
O’Connell: I have six generations of my family in the restaurant business, so that was always your summer job or part-time job—to work in a kitchen or wait tables or bartend. But I did have a lot of weird, shitty jobs early on. I was born and raised in North Carolina, and one summer in high school, I worked in a factory that made church pews. There were guys in there who had missing teeth and club feet, and there were like chemicals and shit where if you stuck your hand in, it turned white for a day. The first time I looked around, I thought, “Fuck this. I’m going to fucking pay attention in school. I’m not dicking around with this shit for the rest of my life.” Justin [Ware] worked in advertising in Chicago, which is why there are so many marketing jokes in the movie. All the language gets boiled down to what’s buzz-worthy and what’s going to resonate in the marketplace. Not to kick anybody while they’re down, but you look at what happened to Relativity—a lot of their business plan was based on, “We’re going to look at these numbers and see which of these communities are being underserved. And we’ll put this piece together and this piece together and this piece together, and that movie will fit this niche and we’ll make money off it.” And that’s just not true, because you have to be passionate about something. Something has to fucking speak to you, you know?
Paste: Horror-comedy can be tricky because comedy tends to break tension and fear is something horror relies upon. How did you solve for that?
O’Connell: That’s the toughest needle to thread, which is why there are so few [horror-comedies] and why there are so few that do well internationally. Somebody told me that Shaun of the Dead didn’t make any money internationally, and that sounded ludicrous to me. Because that movie is nearly perfect.
The biggest thing is to be honest to both things. My mentor once told me the invention of laughter came through fear. Like there’s a caveman out there hunting and he hears a rustle in the bushes and he’s like, “Oh shit! Oh shit! It’s a fucking saber-toothed tiger. I’m gonna die.” And it’s just his buddy Og, standing up, eating berries. “I thought you were a saber-toothed tiger!” “I thought you were gonna stab me with a spear!” So I always reminded myself of that when we were filming. I didn’t mind if we got a laugh here, so long as it’s a reprieve from, “Oh God, I’m gonna fucking die again.” I think Fran really did an amazing job of tying that all together and being that sort of central core that we can always come back to. There are times when he makes jokes and times when he’s scared, and it always looks real. I can’t imagine anyone but Fran in that role. Horror-comedies are really difficult and if we didn’t have the right guy in the center, it could have gotten off track real fast.
Kranz: I agree with everything Brian said. [Laughs.] The caveman analogy is perfect. To me, the best follow-up to fear is laughter. That was probably how it came to be. They’re so intertwined, they’re so closely connected that there must be some sort of concentric emotional circle there. I feel that the release with laughter is about as pleasurable as entertainment gets, so it’s odd that [horror-comedy] is such a subgenre. When it works, it’s so good, but it’s really hard to get right. On set, Brian would direct me in degrees on playing for horror or playing for laughter. It might even be impossible thing to know on set. It’s something they [the director and editor] have to find later on. Take after take, you give different options. But it would be foolish to answer that question on set [of how much to play for horror or comedy]. With Brian’s direction, we were able to keep our options open. It also helps that the Dr. God guys were so good at improv that the set was already a loose environment. You never felt constricted about hitting a certain emotion or level of terror. And that served us well in the long run.
O’Connell: My first movie [2009’s Killer View] was a straight-up, dark, dark serial killer horror film. Not a ton of blood, but that set was like, “All right, let’s let everybody take 10 minutes so they can pull themselves together.” Then my buddy, the first AD, would look at me like, “You’re a terrible person. Why did we agree to do this?” Bloodsucking Bastards was much more fun to do.
Paste: Did The Cabin in the Woods serve as a touchstone for you in terms of trying to get the tone right?
Kranz: This might be pretty naive, because there are moments in the screenplay early on that foreshadow where the movie is going and the tone of it. There are moments that suggest this may be a horror film or a thriller of some kind, but when I was reading the script, I was totally surprised by the turning of the vampires. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I was so taken with the comedy of the office space and the very real, relatable workplace relationships that it caught me off guard. Before the vampires even arrived, I was sold on the movie and being a part of it. I’ll admit I’m wary about horror films, because Cabin in Tthe Woods is so good and so well-done that I have high standards for them. And as an actor, I want to be seen as someone who is versatile and can appear in every kind of genre. If I was offered just another stoner in a horror-comedy, it would have to be something really great. With Bloodsucking Bastards, I was surprised by the turn into horror, but I was on board long before, because it was such a solid comedy.
O’Connell: I have to agree with Fran. My touchstones are The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Evil Dead II. And when you talk about Cabin in the Woods, it’s just so smart and the execution is flawless. You have to thread the needle with a horror-comedy, but that was like razor-wire that those guys tip-toed across the entire way. When I saw it in the theaters, when Bradley Whitford looked up and there’s a fucking mer-man coming at him, the place erupted. Anybody can make someone laugh and anybody can make someone jump, but can you make them cheer? Can you make them shit their pants with wonder? [Laughs.]
Kranz: I think Cabin in the Woods is the greatest, but I really believe that Bloodsucking Bastards has the ingredients for a larger audience.
O’Connell: Oh, for sure.
Kranz: It’s such a good comedy. Just a straight comedy, deep into the movie. If you have any interest at all in comedy or horror, you’ve got to see the movie.
O’Connell: We’ve gotten very good reviews, and people have been very nice to us, but when we went to the Fangoria Frightmare fest in Dallas—and those are hardcore people, they’re there to cosplay and all that—and almost everyone said, “You know what, man? At first, I wasn’t too sure, because I was like, ‘Where’s the blood? Why are people not dying?’ But this movie was so fucking funny I’m going to give it a chance, and then when it came, you did right by us horror fans. You fucking used real blood and did practical shit.” So we got that from the hardcore horror fans, but I think if you’re the type of person who watches horror movies through their fingers, this movie is for you, too. I kind of got turned off horror a few years ago when it started turning into torture porn. I was like, “I don’t need a close-up of a guy’s dick being cut in half. I just don’t. I don’t need that in my life.”
Paste: You limited yourself to mostly one location, but with an ensemble cast this large and all those practical effects, was it difficult to pull the film off in 18 days?
Kranz: We had a table read in the office where we shot the movie, and there was no set there until about 24 hours before we shot. The ingenuity on this shoot was really off the charts. The shoot was really short, so every day was this miracle of people putting together this world really convincingly on very limited resources. Brian, there was a company there that sold some type of insurance, right?
O’Connell: Right. It was the type of company that’s like [affects announcer voice], “Do you owe $10,000 or more to the IRS? Come to us and we’ll consolidate that…” It was one of those sham companies. The only reason we had access to the space downstairs from that company is because that used to be a shady phone bank for one of those reverse mortgage scams they use to rip off old people. The FBI actually raided that place and the guy running it was an Israeli who didn’t happen to be there, and he f-ed off back to Israel. So we got that space for almost nothing. We could build anything in there. We could destroy anything in there. There was nothing in the contract saying we had to clean up anything. So it was funny, because the guys from the tax place upstairs were envious because some of our stuff was better than what they had upstairs. They were looking at the office we built for Fran and were like, “Does the electricity work in here?” “Yeah, yeah.” “Oh man, when these guys leave, we’re gonna take that office.” And they were doing ROSHAMBO over it. Little did they know we were going to cover all of it in blood and destroy everything. [Laughs.]
Very early on, I got a great piece of advice from William Buck, this old first AD, line producer, and production manager from Arkansas who told me [affects Southern accent], “Look, Brian. The director who comes in under budget and under time gets hired again.” And that always stuck with me. Talent is great, but if you don’t cost anybody or you don’t waste anybody’s time, then you get hired again. So there was a lot of prep and the Dr. God guys—we’ve developed a shorthand over time and there’s no ego. Wherever the best idea comes from, that’s the one we’re going with. And as a director, I know what I want. I have the whole thing in my brain, and I’m very, very rarely precious about anything. I’m not an auteur. I’m not going to come in and readjust Fran’s lapel 45 times in a row and waste time on that. I have my A shot list and my B shot list and my C shot list, and you have to work it as the time goes. When my first AD comes and says, “You’ve got three hours to make this happen,” at that point my job is to make my actors look as good as possible, and be able to watch their performance later and feel good about them. I’m an actor myself, and I know what it’s like to cringe and say, “Oh man, if I had one more take. If I had one more take, motherfucker! Why did you use that take?!” [Laughs.]
Paste: So let’s about the blood in the movie. What was behind the decision to have the vampires explode rather than, say, shrivel into dust?
O’Connell: That was me and the rest of the guys in Dr. God saying, “Okay. We don’t have a budget. What do we do to make this happen?” And I’m a big fan of practical effects—Evil Dead, Dead Alive, and all that. Someone off camera with a bucket [of blood] throwing it at people still looks the best. It’s like the difference between Muppets and cartoons: Muppets are tactile, you can feel them. So our thought was, “We just have to make the first one big.” The first time one of the vampires get killed, that’s the one we put all the money into. We made a dummy and a facial mask and shoved two sticks of dynamite in it—or the equivalent thereof. As long as we can do that, we can trick the audience into imagining that every other time a vampire gets killed. It’s the power of perception. It goes back to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There’s not enough blood in that movie to fill up a cup of coffee, but Tobe Hooper is such a great user of cinematic language that when you have Leatherface pick up the girl, there’s a picture of a meathook, you pan down to the bucket that’s going to catch her blood, and you cut to a close-up of her and she has that facial expression when the meathook is in her back. There’s not a lot of explicit stuff you have to show for the audience to fill in the blanks. So we did that, and when it was time to kill people, we just threw as much blood at Fran and Emma as we could. [Laughs.]
Paste: What about for you, Fran? What are the practical realities of dealing with that much blood on a set?
Kranz: Limited movement. We had to shoot chronologically, which helps, so you ease yourself into it. But there’s no doubt the last few days with Emma and me, they would just walk up with buckets of blood and pour them on us. It was fun, though. There was a point where we were showering out in a trailer in January and whoever went first got all the warm water. I don’t know if you know this, but shaving cream is a great way to get off fake blood. Despite whatever discomfort you have, it’s so fun and so silly. The result is so satisfying.
O’Connell: There was one moment where we were shooting. It was right after Philip Seymour Hoffman died. Fran had worked with him on Broadway, and Pedro had been part of his theater company in New York. And I can remember sitting in the video village and there’s Fran just covered in blood. And there’s Pedro in his suit, looking like the male model adonis that he is. And they’re talking about the New York theater and the craft and memories of Hoffman and how giving he was. I’m sitting here thinking, “These are like two real actors. What the fuck are they doing in this movie? Is it that fucking bad out there for actors of this quality that they’re in this 18-day shoot covered in blood? And it’s my fault! I’m making them do it!” That was the most surreal moment for me.