Bathroom buddies

Rebekah McKendry discusses working with Ryan Kwanten and JK Simmons on Glorious

by Jennie Kermode

Glorious Photo: Christine Ramage

“Not everybody is going to be like ‘Lovecraftian glory hole - sign me up!’” admits Rebekah McKendry (known as Bekah). “But those people will be my best friends.”

She’s talking about Glorious, which recently screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival and is about to become available on Shudder. It’s the story of Wes (Ryan Kwanten), a man fleeing the ruins of his broken life who stops at a roadside rest stop, uses the toilet and finds himself trapped there with someone or something sinister (voiced by JK Simmons) in another stall. As the story develops, Wes is forced to reevaluate his sorrows in the face of something which could put everything he knows in peril.

Wes prepares to make a bad decision
Wes prepares to make a bad decision Photo: Christine Ramage

Bekah and I met shortly after Fantasia and discussed the films we’d seen there. I recommended Skinamarink and Next Sohee; she recommended The Pez Outlaw, whilst our enthusiasm for The Harbinger was mutual. She tells me that the script for Glorious came her way during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when nobody was shooting anything so she had plenty of time to read. it was passed on by a friend, Jay Goldberg, who would go on to become a producer on the film, and she tells me that the core idea changed very little between that original draft and what can now be seen onscreen.

“It's a guy who is in a bathroom talking to someone he believes is a god, and then all of this horror comes out of that, and he's not able to leave the bathroom, so he's basically trapped in there. And I read it and was immediately like, this feels like something that we can really tease out and possibly shoot during the pandemic. And so I went up to my husband [filmmaker David Ian McKendry] and was like, ‘What if I told you that I just read something that could be like a Waiting For Godot in the bathroom?’ And he was immediately like, ‘Go on. That's an interesting pitch.’ I sent it over to him and he read it and he was like, ‘I think we can do this.’

“We called up the original writer, Joshua [Hull]. And we were like, ‘We want to take a pass at this and we want to bring in a lot more philosophy and mythology to it, and then we think we can shop this around and see if we can get it going during the pandemic.’ Three weeks later, we had a draft of it ready to go and started taking it out. Philosophy and mythology is definitely my husband's jam. So we knew that that was the biggest thing that we wanted to bring into what was already a really tight script with a really charming set-up to it. The characters of West and Ghat were already there, and then it was just bringing out the mythology and bringing in a lot of the existentialism that we were all facing during the pandemic.”

Rebekah McKendry directing Ryan Kwanten
Rebekah McKendry directing Ryan Kwanten Photo: Christine Ramage

Going back to our discussion of The Harbinger, I mention that I interviewed its director, Andy Mitton, and that we discussed the way its themes take in the pandemic and the fact that it has been a really interesting time creatively. A lot of people seem to be doing very different work as a result.

“Oh, definitely,” she says. “I mean, shooting this during the pandemic was a feat in itself, and I question if this movie would have been made had it not been for the pandemic because it is a chamber piece. I mean, it's one dude in the bathroom with a voice and then a bunch of special effects and weird stuff happening around him. When we were shopping it around we knew it was weird. We knew it was this heady mix of highbrow and lowbrow that is not for everybody. We knew it was transgressive. We kept saying ‘This movie is not for everyone,’ but my motto on set was ‘I am making this film for friends I have not met yet.’ People who have the same sensibilities and the same sense of humour as I do.”

It was perfectly suited to shooting during the pandemic, she says, because for the most part it involved only one person, but that created challenges of its own. How could she keep it visually interesting? I ask her about how that concern fed into the set design.

“There were definitely discussions of could we use an actual rest stop,” she recalls. “And we could have at the time because it was the middle of the pandemic, and nobody was really travelling, but then it became a question of how fucking gross is that? No matter how much bleach we pour on a real rest stop, it's still disgusting. And the other thing was that when you're looking at shooting in a bathroom, bathrooms in general just suck for filmmaking. Everything's reflective. It’s not even just the lights, it reflects the sound, it's echoey. And we needed to be able to control a lot of elements of it, because I wanted the camera to be constantly moving and I knew that if I only have a box, I have to shoot every inch of that box. So I needed to make the camera go high, I needed to scoot it along the ground, I needed a bathroom stall that I could pull walls off quickly.

Behind the scenes on Glorious
Behind the scenes on Glorious Photo: Christine Ramage

“You know, we had to be able to pull a urinal out of the wall. I wanted to shoot through the glory hole at various points. So we knew we had to craft something from the ground up. Then it just became like, how do we design a bathroom that we want to spend 88 minutes in? And then it became more of a design question of what can we put in the bathroom that works to our advantage philosophically?”

She comes from a theatrical background, she explains – that’s the context in which she met her husband – and she’s done a lot of stage choreography. “The idea of having one person on stage was not daunting for me,” she says. “It was immediately like, ‘Okay, well this is what we're going to have to do to achieve this and keep it interesting.’ I looked at things like some of the one man plays I had seen to see how we could approach this. But it did mean that we needed to be able to keep him moving.

“This happened by kind of happenstance. When we got to the soundstage in Mississippi, where we shot this, down the hall from it they had an actual theatrical auditorium. We needed a place to run rehearsals while they were building this set, and I was like, ‘Can we just use the stage?’ And so we did three days on the stage in the auditorium where I taped out the bathroom. That's where we did our blocking, and it reached a point, after three days of rehearsal, where we could run the film from start to finish with somebody in the audience reading Ghat’ts lines.”

Ryan does a lot of work in TV series, which tends to require adapting quickly to new sets. I ask if that helped.

All action on the Glorious set
All action on the Glorious set Photo: Christine Ramage

“Oh, he was amazing!” she says. “Ryan and I, we had a lot of rehearsal time before we even got this set. That was the nice thing about working during the pandemic. Time is the one thing everybody had. So knowing that he and JK would never be in the same room together for the actual shooting of it, we did multiple Zoom rehearsals ahead of time where I had both JK and Ryan just running the script over and over. We had big heavy conversations about philosophy and existentialism, and gods versus men, and their paths and how they're intertwined, and the toxic masculinity that is infused in the script. That's what the script is for me, it’s about toxic masculinity, and we had all these big conversations about that.

“But most of what we did was just run the script from start to finish over and over, so that by the time Ryan got to set he knew JK’s tenor, he knew his tone, he knew his cadence on any of these lines. And then we also had our person on set who was reading for Ghat, emulating JK’s delivery. And then when we finally got into soundscape, we were able to do a lot of our recordings with JK in person by that point in the pandemic. It opened up a little bit. We were able to use Ryan's performance from the actual set and play it against JK, so it really worked out, but it was all because we had so much time to just run the rehearsals, so everybody knew every move before we got to set.”

I ask how JK came on board.

“That was a wild one,” she says, laughing. “So when we first finished our pass on the script, I sent it over to Morgan Peter Brown and Joe, because we've worked with them before, and I sent it out to a couple of other production companies that we've worked closely with before, and I sent it over to my regular DP in Los Angeles. And I was like, ’I know nobody's doing anything and we're all on lockdown, but do you think if we quarantined for two weeks, we could shoot this in my garage or something?’ And he emailed me back with ‘We're not shooting this in your garage. It's really good, and I'm sending it over to JK Simmons.’

Wes sees the light
Wes sees the light Photo: Christine Ramage

“I was completely shocked. I was like, ‘Oh my God, are you serious? You're sending JK my glory hole movie?’ And he was like, ‘JK loves weird stuff, and loves anything with mythology, but he really loves Lovecraft. And he's going to dig how it is this heady mix of highbrow and lowbrow. And I was like, ‘Okay,’ and 48 hours later, we got a call from JK’s rep, like, ‘How do we make this happen?’ I remember that moment because Dave and I were both dancing around our kitchen table. It was just this moment of like, ‘Oh my God, we've worked together and created something that somehow has some power behind it. And being able to get an Oscar-winning actor on board was just a ridiculously good feeling. That justified what we were worried was too weird movie. So weird that no one would get it.”

I ask her about how she cast the character of Brenda, Wes’ former girlfriend, because her role is pivotal in a way that reminded me of The Vanishing and the original Spoorloos.

Bekah nods enthusiastically. “We were in Jackson, Mississippi. She's out of New Orleans. And when we were looking at all the audition tapes that came in, there was something so real about her, I felt like I knew her. It was immediately like, ‘Oh, no, I've met her at parties before,’ you know? I didn't want Brenda to be this angelic creature. I wanted her to be real and fun and something different for Wes. She had a girl next door quality to her. I just wanted her to feel like somebody you know. And her performance is amazing. We just needed somebody who could be charming and win you over with personality.”

We’re running low on time at this point, so I ask her about the special effects and she you put that side of the film together.

Glorious poster
Glorious poster

“The special effects are definitely primarily practical,” she says. “I always like to take that as far as I can push it practically on set, knowing that I'm going to clean up scenes in post. There's obviously certain things that we could not do on set, so I knew that those elements would have to be done in VFX. And then it was about how we could create a marriage – I always like to think of it as like a partnership - between practical and CGI effects from the get go.

“Without giving reveals, the very first effect that we really see is Ghat’s sac, we'll call it his amniotic sac, dipping down below the bathroom stall. It's a painter's tarp, painted kind of speckled, full of milk and glowsticks. And there's literally like four grips, they lowered and lifted it up and lowered and lifted it up, and then in post I just had to add tentacles inside of it. At one point we stab it and then we watch the fluid drain out. So everything was about how could we achieve this on set.

“We really did rip a urinal out of the wall. The blood rain was entirely practical. The monster was primarily practical. He's a little puppet about three and a half feet tall. He sits in my living room now and my daughter puts bunny ears on him at Easter time. He's like a member of the family now.”

Glorious screens on Shudder from Thursday 18 August.

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