Diet of worms

Alex Phillips and Ben Gojer on psychosis, special effects and All Jacked Up And Full Of Worms

by Jennie Kermode

All Jacked Up And Full Of Worms
All Jacked Up And Full Of Worms

With the second half of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune currently in production, there’s a lot of talk about worms in film circles, but Alex Phillips’ Fantasia international Film Festival contribution All Jacked Up And Full Of Worms focus on the creature in its lowliest form, the humble earthworm, and it will make you look at them in a whole new way. Following junkies Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello) and Benny (Trevor Dawkins) as they become obsessed by a new fad, eating or snorting worms in an attempt to get high, it’s an exploration of psychosis which is dazzling and revolting audiences in equal measure. I met up with Alex at the festival for a chat about it, which was enhanced by an unexpected contribution from the film’s credited ‘worm effects guy’ (and producer) Ben Gojer.

Alex has eaten worms himself, he says. “And I’ve snorted them, too.” But this was strictly in order to work out what would be possible for the actors in the film. The story, he says, was very personal.

“I call it an autobiographical film, despite it being totally gross and crazy, because it's supposed to be sort of an expressionistic take on my experience with psychosis. I wanted to express what it was like to feel crazy, and in a way that wasn't necessarily psychological realism driven, because that experience is not psychologically real, so it doesn't make sense to me to express it in those terms.”

We discuss the way that the characters in the film developed.

“Benny Boom comes from someone who I worked with a long time ago, who I ended up on some sort of strange journey with, to buy drugs for my girlfriend's best friend. He was a DJ in Chicago and he called himself Benny Boom, and he and I took a million trains and a million buses and ended up far away in a fast food restaurant, making a drug deal that was ill advised and kind of scary. So they come from personal experience, but they also come from dreams and family and the past, and all sorts of stuff. So I tried to pull in experience and then also come up with people who are maybe larger than life.

There’s a couple in the film who are really violent all the time and everybody just accepts it, which is something I’ve found to be surprisingly common in circles like that.

“Yeah, I kind of feel that way. In a city or something, like in Chicago, something horrible can happen to you, or right in front of you, and you just sort of like, keep on going. Tragedy strikes or, you know, you lose a limb, but yet you're completely expected to keep on walking.”

The characters are clearly troubled, yet it still feels like they are trying to get something out of life and to live life as fully as they can, despite being unable to do so in the usual ways.

“Yeah, well, it's a very complicated thing,” he says. “You know, wanting something is not the same thing as it being good for you, or it being right. The movie is actually more body based than intellectual. I think the best art is stupid in that way. That's why the monologue at the beginning is about your stupid machinery, forgetting your preconceived notions, like, listen to your organs. I wanted to let these characters follow those dark impulses and complicated feelings. They are all looking for purpose and meaning despite the horrible things happening to them and them not even really being able to process them.”

Did that affect the way that he worked with the actors?

“Yeah. Sometimes, the actors would approach something with a pretty preconceived notion, like a top down approach where they're like, ‘This is bad, so I will perform it as bad,’ or, you know, ‘This is a bad guy or a good guy.’ I think a lot of movies are like that. You know who the bad guys are. And I wanted to tell a story about characters that we like, even though the things that they are doing and saying are bad. I think that the most interesting type of art is when you see yourself, when an audience can see themselves in complicated characters. So I would ask an actor to soften a delivery of a line or something to it to make it less like they’re moralising what the character is saying and more just living it as the character.”

It seemed to me, from what I could see on the screen, that quite a bit of care was taken not to have worms injured during filming. Was that the case?

“Yeah, for the most part. I'd say that 99% of the worms were unharmed.”

We discuss the worm effects and he brings in Ben Gojer. who designed them and happens to be on hand, to explain a bit about his methods.

“We had a few different kinds of worms that we used for different shots,” says Ben. “Like, there are close-ups, where you see a macro shot of a beautiful worm moving around. There's some other shots where people are just waving things around in the background. So we have different ones for different procedures, and another big part of this was there's moments around the film where people vomit worms, and at the end, there's like a worm geyser, people spew a ton of worms. A lot of my R&D went into developing a worm geyser system, because I've done vomit rigs before, but the tricky part here was having vomit delivery systems like a hose that was small enough to fit under wardrobe but wide enough to let some solid worms pass through.

“We had a team of people to help us execute it on set, and I had some assistants come and help me and my studio fabricate everything, but I oversaw all of the special effects for the project. So we built the worm intestines, the worms, cocoon, puppets, all that for the film.”

There’s a lot of good technical work in the film generally, I note, and ask Alex if it bothers him that a lot of people will is that because of how they’re reacting to the subject matter.

“I can't really worry that much about that,” he shrugs. “The kind of films that I am inspired by and want to make are like that, or use literary techniques like dream logic to get you in out of scenes. I don't know – that stuff really resonates with me, and that's the kind of film that I think there is an audience for and I think people are looking for. Maybe it's not as large as a Marvel movie, which maybe has a wider audience, but I mean, that's just not the kind of movie that this is. I think the best movies come because it's like part of your voice, and it's what you know, what you want to say so I think it will find its audience in that way.”

He’s pleased that it has elicited a strong response so far.

“I feel great about it. Honestly, like I think after our première, it was clear that there were some people who really understood what it was and were really excited by it. That's the most encouraging thing that you can ever get. And the fact that it's polarising – that's a success to me, you know? If it's either you like it or you don't, that's much better than a lukewarm response.”

Getting beyond the focus on worms, there's a lot of other stuff happening in the film – lots of disparate parts which gradually have to be pulled together towards the end. Does that reflect experiences that he had, and the way that he made sense of the world, at that time in his life?

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah. I mean, the beginning also is establishing all these disparate things, bringing in this man on television who's telling us like a sermon, basically, or his personal religious experience through eating worms. And then through him, we're entering the sex motel and through the sex motel we're meeting Roscoe, who's cleaning it. We're going in and out of all these spaces, and meeting all these people, and then we're understanding each of their individual goals. I guess it's about two main characters, but it is very much an ensemble film in a lot of ways. It seems to make sense to me to have a lot of different characters to talk around an idea. It's all about the different facets of it, and that their experiences can express the different ways of looking at the same – or living through the same – sort of concept.”

The media side of it, and the guy on television, reminded me of Videodrome, I tell him – the way that people get certain ideas through the media and then go off and explore them in extreme ways.

He nods. “There's this professor at Northwestern University named Jeffrey Sconce. He wrote this book called The Technical Delusion about people who are expressing their psychoses through scientific experimentation and through technologies, and how new technologies influence psychosis and vice versa. I sort of an I kind of bastardised one of his concepts for the for the idea of echopraxia, where you see yourself on TV and the TV is talking to you. It's a regular psychotic idea, but I wanted to explore it through media, through television, through seeing yourself on TV and that being like a message for a character, a driving force for a character throughout the film. It’s interesting to me. And then it also gave us a lot of opportunities to move in and out of televisions and use mixed media, to make the film more dynamic and create the world.”

We’ve talked about actors and we've talked about reactions, but I ask if we can discuss a little bit about casting and how he found actors who were not only right for the part, but were happy to do the things required of them in the film.

“Yeah,” he says. “A lot of the people who act in the film are my friends who I've known for a while and I've worked with before, and most of those people are local, except for Betsey Brown and Philip Andre Botello, who both did great jobs. Betsey is from New York and Phillip’s from LA. But, yeah, I mean, it's a small movie and we're a small community, and we all want to help each other make work, so it wasn't as hard as you might think to make people do the strange things that I had them do. All we had to do was talk about it upfront, you know, and share the scripts, talk about what the goals are, why are we doing this this thing that's challenging or morally wrong, you know? And just work around these challenging moments in the film. W e came to an agreement because we trust each other.”

He’s currently working on an erotic thriller coming up called Anything That Moves, he says, which will involve working with a lot of same people; and he’s thrilled to be at the festival.

“I am so excited to be at Fantasia events. Having the world première here is great. It's opened a lot of doors, and I feel like the film has found its audience, and the support is amazing.”

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