Jay Baruchel doesn’t give up easily.
The actor spent a decade trying to get “Random Acts of Violence,” his twisty look at a serial killer whose murder spree is inspired by comic books, made. Part of the problem, Baruchel admits, is that he wanted to direct a straight-up horror film, which puzzled backers who associated the actor with his roles in comedies like “This is the End” or “Tropic Thunder.”
The hesitation may also have been related to the fact that “Random Acts of Violence” seems equally interested in unsettling its viewers by examining the moral quandaries surrounding all the on-screen bloodletting, while raising questions about the responsibility artists have when it comes to depicting cinematic carnage. The central character in the film, the writer of a comic book called Slasherman, discovers during a book tour that he may have triggered a fresh wave of murders. That’s heady stuff for horror filmgoers, who may prefer their scares sans a dose of culpability. “Random Acts of Violence” debuted last summer on streaming service Shudder, and is currently available on home entertainment platforms. On the eve of its on-demand and Blu-ray bow, Baruchel spoke to Variety about making “Random Acts of Violence,” why he prefers directing to acting and his memories of George Miller’s abandoned efforts to direct a Justice League movie.
Did your vision for “Random Acts of Violence” change during the nearly a decade it took to put it on screen?
As I crawl towards 39, I’m a different fellow than I was at the close of my twenties. We didn’t want our film to reflect who we used to be. Every year we had a script and for a combination of reasons it didn’t materialize into a movie, we’d lick our wounds and so on, but we always saw it as an opportunity to keep opening up the hood. We’d go back in there and try to make it as good as it can be. It’s a game of millimeters getting an independent horror movie made, particularly in Canada. You fight for a thousand dollars here and there. It dies many deaths before it maybe becomes a thing. Thematically it was always about the same thing, but we just got more precise with what we were saying.
Why was it difficult to find financing?
The project we had in mind was maybe different than the one people involved in financing wanted to support. A lot of people assumed because of my involvement it would be a comedy. A lot of them assumed it was some version of “Shaun of the Dead.” From the outside looking in, horror movies look like a relatively easy prospect, but any film is a prohibitively expensive endeavor. A movie about a couple breaking up in their apartment over 90 minutes would still be hundreds of thousands of dollars of someone else’s money to shoot. What is the production cost on the high end of a painting? What is the production cost on the high end of a record? They don’t even get close to the smallest movie with the leanest amount of production values. I read stories about Michael Cimino playing sleight of hand with studios over “The Deer Hunter” and convincing them he was making one type of movie when he was making another. I’d think about doing that for a minute, but ultimately I’d rather just work with people who want to make the same fucking movie that I do.
Why did you want to make the movie?
I was interested in the conversation that it inspired on the cyclical nature of inspiration and artistic responsibility. Jesse Chabot, who I wrote the movie with, we went to high school together. When we were in grade 11, the Columbine massacre happened. For everyone that came after, it’s hard to overstate the kind of paradigm shift that it created. Shortly thereafter there was a binary, facile conversation. On one hand, you had people saying Doom and Marilyn Manson nuked these kids’ brains and turned them into evil people, which is utter horse shit. But then I’d see equally horse shit where the other side just argued they could say whatever they want and there’s no strings attached. Reality and truth is more nuanced than either of those options. Absolutely people can say whatever they want or paint with whatever color from the spectrum they’d like, but nothing we do takes place in a vacuum. If I go out in the street and tell a guy to go fuck himself and he punches me, I can’t say that I asked him to punch me, but I can’t really say I’m not responsible in any way for what happened to me.
One of our primary goals was to trigger some sort of self questioning in our viewers. I was trying to push them towards a phenomenon I’ve noticed in myself that I wasn’t necessarily thrilled by which is I can name Jason and Leatherface and Michael Myers, I can’t name most of the dozens of people they’ve killed in their movies. I can name Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy and Dahmer and all these people, but I’d be hard-pressed to name more than or two of the people they brutally murdered. There seems to be a correlation between those two things. I tried to unpack this in myself after almost an entire life of watching horror movies. If I’ve seen all of the Jason movies and I don’t know any of the kids he offed, I have to ask myself, was I watching their stories or his? I would have to argue I was watching his and if that’s true, what is that viewer experience? It would have to be slightly north or south of vicarious sadism. I wanted people when the credits came up to ask themselves what they’d been getting out of this stuff before.
I know you want to inspire some self-examination, but the movie still has a lot of violence. How did you balance some of the larger moral issues that you wanted to raise with delivering the kinds of slasher scenes that horror fans expect?
I made a decision to take away some of the choreography from the killings. I wanted to show people a clumsier and unmusical and angry and messy kind of violence. But, yes, anytime you paint with those colors there’s a chance that somebody will see something that wasn’t intended, but I don’t know that I could have argued our points or supported our thesis without putting the audience there. It’s a movie designed for horror fans, made by horror fans, with the goal of looking inwards a bit.
Do you prefer directing to acting?
Infinitely. It’s all I ever wanted to do. I’m very fortunate to have had the acting career that I’ve had. It provided me with a life that I wouldn’t have otherwise have had. I am very very grateful. However, never once was it my raison d’etre. My first day on set was in ’95. I was 12 or 13, but as much as I’ve adored it, it was never the first thing I thought about when I woke up or the last thing I thought about before I went to bed. Never, never, never. Directing, however, was all I ever cared about. Being on set was the best film school in the world. I was always proactively a sponge on set. There’s something more singular and pure about directing. It is devoid of vanity or self image. When I am acting, I am made up and dressed up and have lights aimed at me. It is bloody impossible to not be self-conscious to some degree. When I’m directing there is none of that. There’s a pure drive to create special movie moments. I never hit the wall when I’m directing. I hit the wall as an actor constantly.
Would you stop acting?
If that was feasible, in a fucking heartbeat man. In a fucking heartbeat. If I never had to worry about my complexion or any of that shit ever again, I would be a very happy man.
You were originally going to play Maxwell Lord in George Miller’s “Justice League: Mortal” before the film was cancelled. Was the character going to be very different from the version that appeared in “Wonder Woman 1984”?
I haven’t seen it. I know the character’s in it, so I can’t speak to what they did versus what we were going to do. I can speak to the crazy fucking fever dream that would have been “Justice League: Mortal” by George Miller. I just spent ten minutes talking shit about acting, but my time in Australia with him is everything I adore about the craft. He treated it like a play. We workshopped it. We had a full-on dramaturg on set and did super, super earnest Meisner technique shit and ripped apart and unpacked the script just for the sake of itself. It was art for art’s sake. George is one of the most important filmmakers of all time and part of the reason I wanted to be a director was “Road Warrior.” I have no idea what they did in the new one, but in ours we had psychokinesis and blood coming out of my tear ducts and a whole bunch of crazy, cool shit that would have been a blast to do. We were painting with pretty vivid operatic colors.
Are there other kinds of movies you’d like to direct?
All I really want to do is make horror movies and action movies for as long as someone lets me. I don’t know that I’ll ever make a movie where someone doesn’t at least get the shit knocked out of him.