I know it’s easy to fall into the trap of hyperbolic phrases when attempting to describe a film which has a lasting (or perhaps in this case, scarring) effect on you but trust me; when I say that you haven’t seen anything quite like Jim Hosking’s wilfully weird feature debut The Greasy Strangler, I really, truly, absolutely mean it! Following a foul mouthed father/son duo as they give erroneous tours of dubious Disco landmarks, consume copious amounts of greasy food and find themselves in a love triangle with a “hootie tootie disco cutie”, all while a greased up serial killer does his thing, this is a film which makes no concessions for audience comfort. Hoping to come to terms with what the hell I’d seen, I caught up with Jim to find out how this strangest of strange projects came into being.
How did you and co-writer Toby Harvard develop the concept from a private joke into this final greasy father/son love triangle murder story?
It was never a private joke, at first. It came fully formed as an image of a greasy strangler, like a vision. And from that we just added what we found funny, and what we would want to see if we had been innocent moviegoers stumbling into the dark to see a film called The Greasy Strangler. We wanted to tell a story with no great suspense or surprises, with a monstrous labyrinthine amount of tension for those in the film and yet very little tension for those watching the film in the cinema. So if there was a private joke, which there wasn’t, it was just that we found it funny to go against the convention of having plot twists and story revelations. We wanted to even be boring within the film. I find that funny. A lot of people may not though. But really when it comes down to making a film, you have to simply do what makes sense to you.
What kind of reception did you find when people read the script? Was its unique strangeness a help or a hindrance in getting the project made?
The reception was very favourable because we started with Andy Starke of Rook Films who really enjoyed it, and then he was very careful who he shared it with. However I’m sure some people were shown the script and couldn’t get onboard, but I just don’t know that much about that. I think having unique qualities can only help a script. If your script is going to stand apart from obvious commercial or genre considerations then there better be something uniquely strange about it I’d say.
The film contains, as you’ve described it, lots of ‘unappealing nudity’. Did that prove an obstacle when assembling your cast? It feels as if the tone of the film could have thrown many actors.
Well, I really meant unappealing to some people. Not unappealing to me. I suppose I was imagining how the average moviegoer might react to the nudity. I keep using the word moviegoer for some reason! I actually think the nudity is totally normal and fine. It’s very rare to have a perfect body. You have to spend a great deal of time honing it, and most people have got better more interesting things to do with their time than fart around in the gym for hours every day. The nudity was definitely a challenge for Elizabeth De Razzo, who played Janet, and I don’t blame her. If Sky and Michael found it challenging or daunting, they never made that clear to me. The tone of the film definitely would have thrown many actors. I also didn’t want it to be creepy. Maybe it is creepy to a lot of people, but to me it’s absurd and funny and human. I didn’t want to cast dark disturbing characters. All the characters in the film have a lovable childlike quality to them.
That’s the nature of this kind of film. You do what you can with the time you have and you think on the fly.
I have to mention the excellent costume design and of course those disturbing father/son genitals. At what stage did the characters’ looks cement themselves in your mind? Did you draw inspiration from anywhere?
I do draw inspiration from loads of places, for sure. But it can just be a mish mash of stuff in my head. So I might mention to Christina Blackaller the costume designer that I want Brayden in butterscotch colours and in pleated trousers with a rollneck jumper and shoes the same colour, but I don’t know why or where from. I am definitely drawn to film makers whose styling I admire. That could be Fellini, Fassbinder, Kaurismaki, or it could be a picture of a German man in some leisure wear that I found online. The looks of the characters is a definite collaboration with Christina. I believe in using other people’s resources and having them express themselves, and also having the work be as fun and involving for them as possible. So while I do have strong opinions, I don’t want to get too prescriptive. And sometimes my ideas can be challenged and rightfully shut down. At the last minute I wanted to change Paul’s look, the blind guy who runs the car wash. I suddenly wanted him to be in denim shorts, denim sleeveless jacket and leather boots. Christina was having none of it. And she was right. Paul’s formality in the film is really adorable.
You shot the film in a spritely 18 days, was it tough to fit everything you wanted into that time? What was your set up?
It’s very hard to shoot a film in 18 days. But I wanted to shoot this with a deliberate camera, few set ups, and I didn’t want this to feel naturalistic, handheld, I didn’t want loads of coverage. And even though this meant that I would have less shots, I felt this would just add to the repetitive constipated claustrophobia of the film, and would give the film a beautiful look. I wanted the subject matter to contrast with the production value. We shot with old 50s Kowa primes and with an Alexa. We obviously used a dolly when we could. And we used a ladderpod once. It was relatively straightforward though. Yes, I wish I’d had more time, some scenes were compromised. That’s the nature of this kind of film. You do what you can with the time you have and you think on the fly.
There are several eye bulgingly fun effects in the film not to mention the huge amount of greasy food consumed on camera. What was your balance of practical vs digital effects? Can you share the recipe for the tasty grease slathered on everything?
I wanted everything to be practical originally. But the cost seemed prohibitive, strangely enough. So a lot of effects ended up being CG. I think they look great actually. It became more outlandish than I had originally intended, but it just seemed to work so well with the characters’ faces, wardrobe, the look of the film. Funnily enough, the eye-popping rigs we built on some of the faces are still on them in the film, we couldn’t remove them, even though we ended up using CG eyeballs. Again, you just let the film evolve and remain flexible and go with what is feeling right as the circumstances change, because tight budget and tight logistics will take their toll. You have to be resourceful. The grease was made of thick bacon lard and some beef dripping. It was very meaty and juicy, and the boys loved wearing it. That’s not strictly true. I don’t know quite what the grease was. I could lie to you. But the truth is that whenever anyone told me what was in the grease, I glazed over and felt so bored that I lost the will to live.
I wanted this film also to feel very odd. It’s like being trapped in a washing machine going round and round and round.
Several gags extend into a heightened level of absurdity as they play out. How did you know how long was long enough? Was there much back and forth in the edit to find that comedic sweet spot?
Well, my feeling was I wanted these scenes to be as long as possible, too long even, but without it becoming so obscenely long that we lost everybody. This film was always going to lose people. but really I just sit in the edit suite with Mark Burnett my editor, and we try things and we watch and rewatch, and come back the next day and rewatch and we hum and ha and we eventually decide on something. Which is usually the riskier longer length. This film is populated with oddballs who have no concept of when it’s time to shut up and move on, so it felt okay to play these scenes out with much length.
Andrew Hung’s score is this insidiously addictive ear worm which has been bouncing around my head ever since I saw the film. How did the two of you arrive at that playful sound?
I talked to Andy about the mice in Bagpuss. Beyond that I had chosen Andy because I loved what he did. I just flattered him by telling him sincerely how much I loved his music, and that I wanted him to fucking go for it and do whatever the hell turned him on!
This is your feature debut, was it just a case of doing more on a bigger scale or did this require a different approach from the way you’ve made shorts?
It’s totally different to making a short. It’s like running a marathon as opposed to running the 100m. You have to have a strategy. But you can also make little mistakes along the way and they aren’t as costly as the mistakes you might make in the 100m. Yup, it’s a shitty analogy, and I’ve made it! I wanted this film also to feel very odd. It’s like being trapped in a washing machine going round and round and round. And so I am yet to make a more conventional feature film. That will be the next test.
I know you have several other projects in development, are they as equally off the wall as The Greasy Strangler?
I would say that they are all distinctive in different ways. The Greasy Strangler is a pretty raw rude beast, and maybe some of my other scripts are a little more refined. But they’re all individuals. None of them are conventional I’d say.