By Travis Johnson

Working from a script by James Gunn (Dawn of the Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy) The Belko Experiment sees a mixed bag of American office workers stuck in a hellish scenario wherein they are compelled to kill each other, or be killed themselves. It all quickly descends into brutal, bloody anarchy, as only director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) can orchestrate.

How did you come on board The Belko Experiment?

I was sent the script as project to consider to direct – loved the script and got on a call with James Gunn and [producer] Peter Safran and pitched my feelings for it and we went from there. They dug my take on it and we all went into the studio and once they were on board we started prep.

What was it that attracted you to the project?

I loved the combination of comedy, extreme violence and heart the script contained which gave it an outrageous and crazy tone I was really attracted to. It was kind of punk rock with an interesting theme as it’s core and I felt I could bring it to life in a really interesting way.

How did you find working with James Gunn? I understand it was an older script of his, but was he still a presence in the creative mix?

It was fun. He’s a film fanatic and so am I – so once we connected on what the movie I wanted to make was, he was supportive as a producer throughout the whole process. It was a script he was going to do originally, so was invested in the material as the writer. And I’m a fan – I genuinely loved Guardians of the Galaxy. It moved me greatly. All that said, he was a very really good resource when I needed it in dealing with the studio in post production. It’s extremely helpful to have a producer on your side who’s movie has just made a billion dollars at the box office when working in Hollywood. Add to that Peter Safran, who’s a phenomenal producer and super smart guy and has produced hit after hit and you get the picture – so it was a blessing getting to make a totally batshit crazy little movie with the protection of two 1000 pound gorillas. Trust me, without that, this movie would never ever have got made – or at least would look nothing like the finished movie audiences can enjoy in all it’s madness.

Did you have much freedom to alter the script, or was it locked pretty tight?

I signed on because the script was great, I didn’t want to change much at all. We changed a few minor things throughout but it’s basically the script that was written originally. I am extremely jealous of Gunn as a writer. His dialogue is so much fun for actors. Fun to direct, too.

Were there any other films or books that influenced your approach to the material? 

My references creatively were Drive, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. I admired greatly the elegance and simplicity of Drive, the incredible camera movement of Casino and the utter, crazy madness of The Wolf of Wall Street. And yes for me, the movie stylistically was an exercise in counterpoint – the mundane vs the horrific, the ordinary vs the insane, the madness of corporate ideology broken down to it’s most primal form,

How much hand did you have in the casting? There are a lot of Gunn regulars in the ensemble.

I cast all my movies – to me it’s almost the most important thing for me as a director. I was lucky to access some cool actors who’d worked with James before like his brother, Sean, and Michael Rooker – who absolutely owned their parts and were really great people to get to know. There certainly was a warm ensemble feeling to the cast and on-set, as many of the people did know each each from LA.

The film is very deft, tonally. What’s your approach to balancing humour and horror?

It’s all instinct and the challenge of the movie for me was to find balance in the tone. The film fails or succeeds because of this balance and I think I got pretty close to getting onscreen what I set out to do. It does walk a fine line between humour, pathos, madness and violence – and everything plays a part in keeping this whole thing on track so it doesn’t tip over too much into one area. Actually that’s one of the main things that attracted me to do the movie – I wanted to direct something where the challenge was to walk that line between drama, comedy and horror while hinting at some larger ideas. I always try to find things I don’t know how to do so I grow as a filmmaker.

I think this might be the largest cast you’ve directed. How did you go handling this large an ensemble?

I loved it. I adore actors, really enjoy working with them and learning from them so the ensemble aspect was really appealing to me. And the cast we assembled was so fantastic – I had a blast working with them. Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Josh Brenner, Adria Arjona, Rusty Schwimmer, John Gallagher Jr., Brent Sexton, Melonie Diaz – so much talent! I also come from a theatre and opera background, having done the directors course at NIDA before assistant directing for Neil Armfield and Baz Luhurmann before directing the first Oz Opera production of The Magic Flute, so ensembles were nothing new to me. We also has an incredible group of really amazing Colombian actors working with us who bought so much to the movie also.

Were you limited in the amount and type of gore you could portray, as compared to the Wolf Creek films?

Nope. There was no limit. I got everything in I wanted to get in. In fact I pulled a few things back!

Critical reviews have been mixed – why do you think that is? What are some critics missing on this one?

Yes the movie really divided people. People either really loved it and got it, or really hated it. Much like the original Wolf Creek, which was also loved by some but hated my many. Mainly for being too confronting and intense. This movie has a similar “take no prisoners” approach and I was really wanting to push the boundaries by making something really unfettered and embracing the insanity of it. That energy in the movie really pissed off and offended some people, particularly in America. Deeply offended some people, in fact. Which I was very happy with. I certainly had no illusions when making the movie that I was trying to please anyone else but myself. That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wish it made $100 million for the studio and got a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. But those things aren’t up to me. I focus on finding stories that will challenge me and help me grow as a director and storyteller. And give me an interesting time, which Belko certainly did as it was the toughest shoot I’d ever done. That is, until I made Jungle right afterwards!

The Belko Experiment screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 12 and 16. 


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