I can picture the faces of the executives as the film begins. It’s the first time they’ve seen it, the first time the director’s let anyone with money, or marketing savvy, or a neck-tie enter the screening room. The director’s taken precious care with this cut, with this sound mix. He personally supervised yesterday’s dry run to make sure every seat in the house is comfortable and free of squeaks, that every line of dialog is audible and every low tone rumbles the house (but doesn’t blow the speakers.) The projector has been calibrated, the lens cleaned, the bulb (or Blu-Ray laser) tuned to perfection.
But, despite this, what’s up there on the screen… is… well… odd. At least to the suits. Maybe they weren’t at every meeting. Maybe they didn’t pay attention during principal photography. Oh, sure, they read the script. Well, a couple of them did. Most just read the coverage, watched a few dailies, maybe drooled over the publicity photos of the leading lady, and, of course, the fiscal ledgers from the director’s previous film. They knew what they were getting. Sorta. They knew it would be a “tough sell.” Probably. But the real question comes at the final frame: did we just make an arty picture?
The executives narrow their gazes, exchange glances. A few cough. Who will speak first? Who? Doesn’t matter. It comes out something like this:
“This movie (2001) (Repo Man) (After Hours) (The Big Lebowski) (Blue Velvet) (Rocky Horror) (Donnie Darko) (Rushmore) (Brazil) (Pink Flamingos) (Shock Corridor) (Re-Animator) (Freaks) (Shivers) (Shakes the Clown) will get someone fired. Probably me. We’re in trouble, boys. Not because the film is bad. It’s actually pretty good. It’s obviously a personal vision well executed. But we’ll never say that. Or, if we do say it, we’ll say it so damn loud the whole world will just have to go along with us. To change it is impossible/too late/too costly. It is what it is. What we have here, boys, is a cult movie.”
Cult (n. kuhlt): a group of people bound together by devotion to an object, a rite, a set of rituals, symbols, ideals, a person, etc. Or, some fucking movie.
Enter Don Thacker, writer and director of a movie that’s not even out yet. It’s called Motivational Growth – a one-location story with less than a half-dozen characters split into ten “episodes” and made on a budget of less than a quarter million dollars.
Don’s an affable kid with a dream – to make you like the unlikeable. It’s hard to declare his new horror (?) comedy (?) the feel-good movie of 2013, but something makes we want to say just that. Sure, it has blood and dismemberment, and vomit (lots of green vomit,) a talking patch of mold (more on that later,) and is about a suicidal shut-in named Ian who, when we meet him, has rice in his Iron & Wine beard and hasn’t bathed or cleaned his apartment in a very, very long time.
But, despite this, you really like Ian. You feel for his circumstance, even though we are never told the reason for his isolation. Ian is who we all would be if we were stranded on a desert island. On purpose. With a television. That breaks. In the first scene. And leads us into Ian’s story as strongly as ‘an arrival’ or a ‘meet cute.’
Recently, Motivational Growth had a private screening at one of the big ol’ movie houses in Chicago. Sponsored by the filmmakers, it was an invitation-only affair. Not a premiere, more like a rewarding social experiment. In some ways, it was not too different from the executive screenings of previous cult classics, except that in this case the movie and the moment were low-budget, low-risk, and high-reward.
After being taken in by the film and its qualities, I stayed for the obligatory Q & A where Thacker revealed that he hadn’t intended to make a horror movie. When I cornered him later, he added, “I have been calling it a dark comedy, but I feel that a story with the sole purpose of getting you thinking has a hard time being labeled with a genre. I'm not saying it's a ‘genre defying mind bender’ or anything. In fact, locking a genre would really help me get it sold, so I'm not trying to be arty. I ask what genre people think it is. I've gotten everything. I can tell you, though, that it seems to resonate most with horror and sci-fi fans.”
Adding to that connection is the casting of two actors with strong genre pedigrees.
Rising horror starlet, Danielle Doetsch is certainly eye-candy, but also delivers a genuine and charming performance. In the films Under the Table, Bikini Girls on Ice, Weapon, and The Catastrophe at Catalina, she is, in the most literal sense, a scream queen, having screamed her way through all of these films with operatic perfection. In Motivational Growth, Doetsch plays Leah, the love interest. Producer Alexis Nordling once declared, “The film would not work without Danielle’s performance. She’s the ideal, all-American, girl-next-door – someone Ian can fall in love with at first sight and still be considered attainable. When she arrives at his door, there had to be chemistry and with Danielle and Adrian (DiGiovanni, who plays Ian) it was definite. We looked a long time for an actor like Danielle and she was perfection.”
And then there is The Mold. Yes, that’s the character’s actual name. And it’s actually mold – the gross kind (well, not to be all behind-the-scenes, but essentially a sophisticated puppet that resembles a talking patch of mold.) Having trouble picturing? Does it help to know that The Mold is voiced by Jeffrey Combs, the legendary character actor, star of the Re-Animator films, as well as From Beyond and Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners? Combs brings big choices to such parts. And, boy, does he bring ‘em here. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you could Oscar campaign for mold, there’s a good case to be made for his performance in Motivational Growth.
So – you’re getting the picture, right? Vomit, blood, talking mold, a pretty girl with a good scream, a guy with rice in his beard… This is where the executives start to sweat. But I’m here to say, they shouldn’t. This movie aims to entertain and succeeds. People will talk about it, recommend it, find it. Cult, yeah, sure – but that Rocky Horror cult sure racked up some dough. It’ll play at midnight screenings, but could as easily be a prime-time ick-fest choice or even shown with the sound down at a college party. It’ll definitely get a reaction. It’ll definitely be remembers. And there’ll be the gossip. For a film like this, there’s always gossip. There’s plenty to see here, folks. Plenty to see.
In fact, buzz has already started about the film for 2013. Director Patrick Rea (Nailbiter) has said, "Motivational Growth is a zany and twisted tale that is well-crafted and entertaining." Nationally-known horrorhound columnist Dr. AC (Horror 101) raves, “A terrific exception to micro-budget filmmaking, one that requires no forgiveness for technical shortcomings (i.e. there are none) despite its ambitious scope and vision.”
But how gross is gross?
“The trash, the set design, the blood and the goo, the vomit, The Mold – these are things that I wrote, sure,” says Thacker. “When I hired my department heads, though, I did so after examining who would best lift my ideas beyond my own ability to execute them. I provided a huge amount of artistic freedom to the Art, SFX/Creature and Makeup teams and that paid off on a colossal scale. I relied on the professional artists I'd hired to make professional art. Achieving ‘just the right amount of gross’ is where I step in. My responsibility is the through-line. I say, ‘needs more blood’ or ‘wow, I just threw up a little in my mouth, maybe pull the puss back a bit,’ or whatever.”
Despite these tactile elements, you still like Ian and his story. Actor Adrian DiGiovanni is in every scene, up against some great character actors such as Pete Giovagnoli, Ken Brown, Hannah Stevenson, and others. Physically demanding, the role of Ian was not an easy one to cast or to play, but DiGiovanni is certainly a talent to watch, as he carries a ninety minute movie on his shoulders with great skill. Thacker adds, “There is a certain amount of lethargy built into the experience, especially at the front of the piece. It's a film about an agoraphobic slob and I needed to express that. I want the audience to be the slightest bit annoyed to be stuck with this guy for the opening fifteen minutes before everything starts to go bonkers.”
With one bonkers film under his belt, what’s next for Don Thacker and his fledgling film company, Imagos Films? “I am most excited about this twisted little mind-break sci-fi thriller,” he says. “It’s about a group of pink-slipped particle physicists with access to a mothballed super-collider who, in an attempt to make themselves relevant again, fold reality in half. I've been working with Fermilab and the folks at the Tevatron site in Batavia, IL, on and off for a year now on the story. I want to tell a human story wrapped in hard science fact.”
Motivational Growth will be released to festivals in 2013 and wider distribution thereafter. You heard it here first (or maybe second or third), people. Consider yourself part of a cult.
Motivational Growth trailer can be found here:
Imagos Films Corporation Website:
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director. Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts. He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man. He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, on various labels. His website is darrencallahan.com.