Tales from the crematorium

Ryan Spindell on Clancy Brown, Caitlin Custer and The Mortuary Collection

by Jennie Kermode

The Mortuary Collection
The Mortuary Collection

In the first part of my interview with Ryan Spindell about The Mortuary Collection we discussed the challenging process of finding funding for an anthology film in the modern age. In part two we look at how he cast Clancy Brown and Caitlin Custer in the roles of mortician Montgomery Dark and his new assistant, beginning by talking about how making part of the film as a short, The Babysitter Murders, helped him to get the project off the ground.

Clancy Brown as mortician Montgomery Dark
Clancy Brown as mortician Montgomery Dark

“The short helped us so much with upgrading the amount of talent that we were able to bring to the feature,” he says, “because we didn’t have a lot of money but we did have this one piece so we could show people, like, ‘This is the kind of thing we’re going for.’ We got ADI, which is this really high end special effects company, they saw the short and they said ‘Oh, they don’t make movies like this anymore, we gotta do this!’ and they said ‘What’s your budget?’ and we told told them and they were like ‘Eurrrgh... Yeah, let’s do it!’ And there were times when the head of the company was on set wrangling tentacles and stuff he hasn’t done in years.”

He then explains how he got Clancy Brown on board.

“We sent him a script and they were like ‘Clancy likes the script. He would like to meet with you.’ And i realised that I was having my first official, like, I would have to sit with a celebrity whom I love... and of course he’s intimidating because he’s like 13 feet tall and he’s got this booming voice. We sat down at this diner up in North Hollywood and we just immediately clicked. He’s a huge genre guy, he’s a huge sci-fi guy, he loved the script. And it was amazing because he’s been working forever and he came on our set and it was a tiny set, and we were shooting up in Astoria, Oregon, which is this little tony town where they shot The Goonies...”

I interrupt him to express my delight – I thought I had recognised the location at the start of the film.

“Yeah, that’s it!” says Ryan happily, and continues “The house that we shot most of the stuff in – the big Victorian house – in the beginning of Goonies it’s where Mikey is riding his bike and he waves to his dad and his dad is the museum curator and his dad is at that house, I think.

Caitlin Custer in The Mortuary Collection
Caitlin Custer in The Mortuary Collection

“So Clancy came to this thing and I was nervous but he was just so humble and so sweet, he went way above and beyond. There were some people in town who were huge fans and they would say ‘Can I just talk to Clancy?’ and he would say ‘Oh, come on, let me show you a movie set!’ He was just the best. He kind of provided this sense of community because people looked to the biggest guy in the room, quite literally. When things get really rough in the filmmaking process – which is every second – it’s really good to think about those moments.”

So were there a lot of disasters to contend with?

“Oh my gosh!” he says, and it’s immediately evident from his expression that there were far too many to list. “Every single piece of it was done so untraditionally. We didn’t have a support system. The money and resources don’t necessarily show on the screen but they go into the infrastructure of the film and ensure that everything is done well and people are taken care of and the movie is going to happen, one way or another. With this movie it was much more like walking a tightrope. We said ‘Let’s take all the money and let’s throw it on the screen so we can see every piece of it,’ but at the same time that meant that we didn’t have trailers or infrastructure or safety or time... if I were to go into the challenges we had to deal with, nobody would ever make movies again.”

Starring opposite Clancy is quite a challenge. I was impressed by how well Caitlin Custer handles that, I note, and Ryan reflects on how he first went about casting her for the short, The Babysitter Murders, that eventually became part of the larger film.

"Do you really get your comeuppance for the things that you do?"
"Do you really get your comeuppance for the things that you do?"

“She is one of my favourite people,” he says. “She was recommended to me by an actress friend of mine, Constance Wu. She’s been a good friend of mine for ten years and I was talking to her about this role and I said ‘I need an actress that, hen you look at her, she’s just somebody you want to like. She’s sort of got an innocence, almost like the iconic babysitter look, but she has to have the ability to have this darkness.’ That proved to be a really tricky thing to find. When Caitlin came in it was a no-brainer. She’s peppy and she’s funny and she’s adorable but she doesn’t take any shit. That was a gift from the film gods.

“She was wonderful. So when we got the financing to do the whole feature i called her up and I said ‘Hey, we’re going to do some more shooting wit you and this time you’re going to get to talk.’ The crazy thing is, when we first shot the movie Caitlin was engaged, then she had a baby after the first short, then she shot the second part right after she had had a baby. Then she went away and got pregnant again and then we did pick-ups, and there are shots in the movie where she is eight months pregnant again and we just framed the rest of her out. So she goes from no kids to one kid to one and three quarters kids sometimes in a single scene.”

There’s an interesting scene towards the end of the film where the two main characters have a sort of meta-discussion about the stories they’ve shared so far. I ask how that came about.

“We were taking the different shorts and we were discussing the themes of the movie: what are the things that bind all these movies together? And we kept coming back to this idea of morality. People pay the price for the things they do, and that was kind of boring to me because that’s baked into every anthology genre film ever, right? Through me and my producer Justin talking about morality came these two characters literally talking about what makes good stories and what’s important and what’s not important... and her attacking his old fashioned idea of what stories are supposed to be with something that I believe personally, which is that I don’t believe – especially in modern times and with what’s happening over here [in the US] – I don’t believe evil people get their comeuppance.

Stepping out
Stepping out

“I think there’s something interesting about that debate and playing into the classic style of it because that’s what this movie is a love letter to but I think it’s also saying something new: do you really get your comeuppance for the things that you do?”

This approach also helped him to assert his passion for short films, he says.

“Why does everything have to be 90 minutes? Why can’t we tell these condensed, great little stories for people who want to see them?”

This is also reflected, he points out, in the mortician’s eulogy for a child at the start of the film. “Where he says ‘It is not the length of he story that matters. It is the quality of the content within.’ That’s almost Montgomery saying straight to the audience ‘Hey guys, everything doesn’t have to be a feature.’

“It’s trying to cram a lot into something that, on the surface level, feels like maybe just a popcorn, fun horror movie, but I think that’s maybe something that happens when you work on something for so long that so much of who you are as a person naturally layers itself in whether you want it to or not.”

People have conversations like that a lot at Frightfest, I observe, and ask him how he feels about the film screening there.

“I’m beyond excited,” he exclaims. “I’ve heard nothing but great things.”

It’s also, he says, the first time he has been able to attend a screening of one of his films outside the US.

“I’ve heard amazing things about Frightfest. I love how small it is. I love that I can go and I can see everything... I love Glasgow as well,” he adds, explaining that a family connection means he’s visited the city many times.

As it turned out, Frightfest loved him too, with fans acclaiming The Mortuary Collection as one of their favourites of the weekend and a wonderful return to the kind of anthology films they used to love.

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