Septic Man director Jesse T. Cook (Monster’s Brawl) didn’t plan to make a movie about a sewage worker who transforms into an excrement-coated monster after getting trapped in the drainage system under his small Ontario town. The initial idea was to shoot a one-set film about a man who falls down a well. But when Pontypool screenwriter Tony Burgess came to producer Matt Wiele’s house to discuss the project, he ended up clogging the toilet—and the idea for Septic Man was dumped in their laps. While comparisons to The Toxic Avenger aren’t off base, Septic Man isn’t about campy gags: it aims to literally make you gag with a played-straight exploration of the murk that churns beneath our polished lives. In advance of the movie’s Canadian premiere at Toronto After Dark this weekend, we spoke to Cook about his grossest movie to date.
Space: The sewer set is pretty revolting. How did you create the prison-like feel?
Jesse T. Cook: We had a piece of property up here in Collingwood, in our small town. And under a big cover-all tent we built this 16-foot-high structure, twenty feet wide, and then filled it up about halfway with water. And that was our main set. We built it to be practical for shooting, but the funny thing was that the second-last day of the shoot, the whole thing was being filled with water for a scene, and it actually exploded. The set just buckled, and we were scrambling to rewrite the last scene in the movie with this leaking, wrecked set.
What was the vibe like during the shoot, working in such close confines?
I think a brotherhood was bonded with everyone who had to work inside the tank. There were sort of two different crews operating. A crew that was always in the septic tank, which I was a part of. There were maybe seven of us, and we were stuck in there for eight or nine days nonstop. And then the rest of the crew had their various departments all around the main set. So I think when you’re stuck in there for that amount of time and under that much pressure, it’s easy to bond with people you love working with.
How did the makeup design come about for Septic Man?
We worked with the Gore Brothers, who have done six movies with us so far. We told them we wanted five different looks for Septic Man, to show his transformation over time. The design was based on everything from Swamp Thing to Toxic Avenger to Brundlefly, from Cronenberg’s The Fly. So we drew a lot of inspiration from the classics, and tried to put our own spin on them. They did a great job with few resources.
More broadly, what other films or sources did you have in mind as inspiration during the writing and filming process?
I approached it as a simple confinement, survival horror film. Sort of like Saw or Buried. And Tony approached it with all of his inspiration from the world of genre literature. Georges Bataille was a French writer who’s really the inspiration for the whole movie. He wrote under the pseudonym Lord Auch, and the villain in Septic Man is also named Lord Auch. He was a transgressive writer whose stories were all banned, and Tony really drew upon his philosophies for Septic Man. But I came at it as more of a 1980s-type of horror film. Which is my favourite era of horror.
What kind of mood did you want to create with the soundtrack?
Nate Kreiswirth did the score. He scored our zombie film Exit Humanity, which played the Toronto After Dark two years ago. I approached him with this idea of doing a synth-type of soundtrack, giving Septic Man a theme song. Sort of a dreadful, droney-type of synth throughout the film. A Trent Reznor-type of score. And he nailed it.
You’ve mentioned the limited resources you had while shooting Septic Man. What do think are some of the advantages to working on a small budget?
It obviously allows for creativity to flourish, so you’re always trying to work problems out creatively, rather than just throwing money at them. It’s a comfortable budget for us. We’d love to make bigger and better movies, and that’s what we strive for, but with our company setup, we’re locked in to do ten low-budget movies at the moment. We’re just always trying to come up with new ways to tell stories relatively cheaply—but make them effective horror films at the same time.
You run your production company, Foresight Features, out of Collingwood. Why do you prefer your working in your hometown over bigger industry centres?
We all lived in Toronto for a time, but we’re all from Collingwood, we were born and raised here. And it’s sort of a nice, quaint little town to run our company in. It’s nice to be underground and away from the rat race, so to speak, and you can use a lot of resources at your disposal that you otherwise couldn’t. Friends and family can help out. A lot of our old pals from high school helped with Septic Man. Knowing half the town, as we do, you can get away with a lot more than if you were to do it in the city.
Is Septic Man the most disgusting movie you’ve ever made?
Absolutely. That was sort of the whole conceit behind it: we wanted to do something gross and play on the theme of disgust. And to show this blue collar schmuck and his transformation. Him being stuck in the trenches—literally in the shit.