AJ Bowen (A Horrible Way To Die) had both You’re Next and Grow Up, Tony Phillips at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, TX. While the first film was one of my favorites of 2011 (and one of my favorites of 2013 – it holds up), you probably need no introduction to it – except for the question many of you ask at this point, “where is the trailer?” The answer to that seems to be that it will be paired with Evil Dead in the first week of April. Update: It’s March 28th for the trailer. I’m going to miss not getting that question every day for 18 months!
The latter film, Grow Up, Tony Phillips, is the 4th directorial effort from genre favorite Emily Hagins (My Sucky Teen Romance). While it’s by no stretch of the imagination a horror film – it is a sweet and poignant look at Halloween and what it means to embrace that holiday in an “age appropriate” manner. In that regard it’s almost a (funny) dramatization of a character that might have appeared in An American Scream. If you’re a fan of Hagins’ earlier work, I’d recommend checking it out regardless of genre – it’s definitely a more polished iteration of that aesthetic.
AJ Bowen plays “Pete” in the film, and the role couldn’t possibly be more different from what he achieves in You’re Next. I caught up with Bowen after the fest wound down to talk about what it was like to have two films there and get his thoughts the delicate nature of moving in and out (and back into) the horror genre. I also tried to scoop him on Ti West’s upcoming Eli Roth produced The Sacrament – but he did an expertly friendly job of shutting me down on that one.
It was interesting to catch both Grow Up, Tony Phillips and You’re Next at the fest because they were made during two different periods of your life and career.
Yeah. It was a great problem to have to figure out how to be present for both those movies at the same festival. There were also several movies that it didn’t work out for me to be in, and a few of those were at SXSW this year as well. So this year in particular was a personal experience for me because I wanted to catch up with all of these great movies and also be there for You’re Next and Tony Phillips.
It was important for me to be down there for Emily [writer/director Hagins]. When I got down there I told her, “this is great. But just so you know, when you don’t have a genre angle to your movie the criticism is going to be different and it’s going to be harder to make a sale right off the bat.” And she was actually very zen and looking forward to that part of the process. I’ve never heard a filmmaker tell me before that they were looking forward to criticism. So that was really cool with me to be involved with.
It’s interesting to track her career and her growth. At this point it’s not about her age for me so much as it is the fact that people talk about her age. She’s a couple of years older now and you wonder what it would be like to be in that position – do you start self defining as “young” and grade your own work on a handicap?
Right. I can’t imagine trying to go through that – forming your voice while putting something incredibly personal out there every year or two while you’re changing. I don’t think I would have been able to do that.
What was your reaction to the script when you first got it, and how was it executing this with her?
I’ve known Emily and all of those guys down in Austin for several years. Most of the movies I’ve done have played in Austin or at Fantastic Fest. So I wound up getting to know that community really well. And right after the Fantastic Fest where You’re Next played a year and a half ago, I got a call from [producer] Paul Gandersman saying, “Emily’s thinking about writing a script. We’d love to write a part for you.” I got on the phone with Emily and she told be the basic idea, and I accepted. And that was a full year before I got involved with the movie.
So having already known her, I kind of had an idea of how she would work. There are so many “A type” personalities in filmmaking where you think everyone’s fighting but it’s really just talking stuff out… there’s a lot of strong personalities. Emily has a different approach to it. She’s very soft spoken but she knows very clearly what she wants and has no problem informing people when that’s not what she’s getting.
One of the questions that came up during the Q&A at the premiere was, “a lot of the dialogue seemed improvised.” And I was the one who answered that question and the answer was, “I didn’t want to improvise.” I know the term “mumblecore” is so dead at this point, but I’ve been in what other people would define as that world for a few years at this point. And you can get improvisatory and figure out the beats and switch up the dialogue, and that’s great as an elemental tool when you’re preparing to shoot the movie and you want to find new ideas on set – but often times it can just come across as being unprepared and unprofessional. So I like using it as an option, but I don’t like the process of not learning lines and saying, “oh it’ll come to me!” So I avoided doing that for a couple of weeks on the shoot. But then we got to the scenes where Emily would ask me, “well what would someone your age say here?” And I’m into striking dialogue if I can. It’s such a visual medium that I think it’s better if we can elude dialogue and show what we’re saying instead of telling it. So injecting subtext into scenes is sort of my MO and that’s what we did.
Out of any movie I’ve worked on, the final product was the closest to the script out of anything I’ve ever made. I don’t mean that as an insult to anything else, it just is what it is. It’s also nice to be at the fest and have people mistake me doing something comedic for having range [laughs]. A lot of people don’t know that before I started doing scary movies I was pretty much in the world of comedy. It’s not really very different, you’re playing an emotional beat out.
I’m also very aware that when I do something non-horror that people may feel like I’m jumping ship on it. I understand because I grew up on it and it’s my favorite genre, but it’s not why I got into storytelling. I wanted to tell a lot of different stories, so when her script came along I was getting tired of genre work because after a while it just gets exhausting to do the same thing. No matter how good the scripts are, it’s not as creatively fulfilling after a while. But Emily’s script still has that vibe of Halloween and that aesthetic. So even though it’s wildly divergent from what I was making the day before I shot that movie, it’s something people can watch with their kids around Halloween. They don’t have to watch Martyrs [laughs].
You mention “jumping ship.” The horror audience is sort of proprietary like that, I remember telling a few readers when I met them that The Descendants and Young Adult were some of my favorite movies of 2011 and they were upset.
Yeah, I’ve thought about that a lot. On the one hand, the horror community is incredibly supportive and there’s a loyalty there that you don’t find in other parts of the film world. But I think that goes both ways, the don’t want to feel betrayed. It’s funny you mention those other movies because those were my favorite movies that came out that year too. So you don’t want to betray that sense of trust but, at the same time, it can be a bit reductive. None of us that watch movies just watch one particular kind of movie. And I know so many actors that started in genre film, and so many of them are full of sh*t. So with horror it’s certainly a bummer when you watch people faking it in order to go and do other things.
So I don’t want there to be the confusion of, “oh, this guys’s to good for horror now.” I love horror. But, to be honest, I’ve spent eight years making them so if you have a problem with me doing that [something else for a bit], f*ck you.
It can be healthy even. “Let me out for a bit so I can bring something back.”
Yeah and also all these movies don’t just have to be all violence. There can be something else to them. One of my favorite movies is Something Wicked This Way Comes because it’s spooky. Why do we have to reduce what we enjoy to something so specific? So yeah, it’s a bummer but at the end of the day this is my life and I’m the one who has to pay my bills, so I’m going to do it in the way that’s inspiring to me.
This was my 3rd time seeing You’re Next, and I’m sort of surprised the shine hasn’t worn of yet. In fact, it may be getting better for me and your character is a big part of that.
For me, the most personal relationship I’ve had while working on a movie is with Simon [Barrett, the film's writer and one of its' producers]. Someone came up to me after the SXSW premiere and asked, “how does it feel for Simon and Adam [Wingard] to be sh*tting on A Horrible Way To Die.” And that’s not what I got out of that conversation at all. They were just saying that sometimes that movie is a bummer and they wanted to make a movie that didn’t bum people out. It was a new experience for all of us, trying to make a movie that didn’t alienate the audience.
In terms of my character, and why I mention Simon specifically, is that I really feel I understand Simon’s tone and intent as a writer. So when you’ve got Adam [Wingard; director] there keeping us on the rails, Simon and I are very collaborative and I wouldn’t want to do anything that portrays that trust. So I decided I had to play it sincerely. For me, the character is 1000 percent committed to Sharni’s character and we just took it from there.
It was an interesting dynamic for me as a performer, because when we were doing improv I had to lose every argument. I would have to be emasculated and lose every argument to Joe [Swanberg]. I had to be the black sheep, so in that regard it was a bummer to shoot. Everyone in that movie is so godd*mn talented. I’ve been on the Swanberg bandwagon for years, so it was awesome to watch him shine. But, for me as an actor, I was having to portray this pathos which hopefully comes across the 2nd or 3rd time you watch it.
I think the family is one of the reasons the movie kind of sings to me. It feels like an authentic unit, as dysfunctional as it is.
Yeah, it was awesome because half the people we worked with on that movie we hadn’t worked with before, and it’s great when you find someone who can be part of the tribe. Everyone did a great job on that film and one of the reasons I know this is because people don’t notice how amazing some of them are. It’s unfair that nobody is talking about Wendy [Glenn] and Nicholas [Tucci]. It took us two days to shoot that dinner scene and Nick and Wendy were amazing to me. And you can’t show everything we shot obviously because the movie has to move forward, but she’s playing a vegan and the conversation turns to her shoes and whether her shoes were vegan or not. And when they started talking about that, I lost my sh*t every time. Whenever they started on that Joe would start smiling and when I saw that I couldn’t help it.
Sometimes when I get bummed out by the rigors of being an indie actor, I remember that I got to hang out with my friends at that table and I got paid to be there. My hope is that when people see the movie they’ll see how all the parts of it work together. Getting to work with Rob [Moran] and seeing his approach to the material and seeing him develop a relationship with Barbara [Crampton], I was really struck by that the second time I saw it. That was fascinating to me. And I’m glad everyone laughed at the family photo!
From Eli Roth we already know that The Sacrament takes a found-footage approach to a Jonestown type scenario. Can you add anything to that?
I can neither confirm or deny anything about it. But I’m very excited. I’ve been fortunate in the past couple of years to work on movies that I’m more excited about than not. There are a couple that are out now that I’m not really into, and I’m not going to do those anymore. I’ll be a farmer instead, life’s too short.