“God, I finessed the shit out of this film,” says director Jim Hosking with a booming laugh when I ask about the particular challenges of his fearlessly outrageous feature film debut, The Greasy Strangler. You’ve probably heard quite a bit about the film by now, which follows an adult father-son duo, Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) and Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), who run a walking disco tour by day in their matching hot pink hotpants, while Ronnie skulks off at night as the titular oiled-up murderer stalking the streets of Los Angeles. But it’s when they meet the seductive Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo), who threatens the very nature their co-dependent relationship by courting them both, that things really spiral out of control.
The much-talked-about comedy has emerged as the year’s most “WTF did I just watch?” movie; a piece of rapturously ridiculous midnight movie perfection that inspires divisive, passionate audience response with the full-blast lewd sexuality, heapings of grease-covered violence, bone-dry humor that have become the film’s calling card.
Since debuting at Sundance back and January, The Greasy Strangler has elicited regular gasps, groans, and guffaws from audiences around the world as it made its way through the festival circuit. Some critics saw the film as an exercise in excessive revulsion and some saw it as the herald of a new cinematic provocateur, so imagine my surprise when I found it to be admittedly disquieting, but mostly just delightfully silly. But as it turns out, that’s just what Hosking intended.
“I don’t think of it as gross at all, really,” says the director with an audible hint of relief when I expressed my confusion at the disgust the film has conjured. “I think of it as sort of fun and funny and silly, and quite innocent and liberated. I’m rather baffled, to be honest. I wonder quite what sanitized world everybody else is living in to find this film so gross.”
“I wasn’t trying to make a gross film.” He continued with a laugh, “If I’d wanted it to be gross, I’d have really gone off.”
No doubt, if and when Hosking decides he wants to make a disturbing film for real, we all better batton down the hatches. But The Greasy Strangler was born out of his love for sweet and peculiar comedy — he cited a love for Wallace and Gromit as an example of his taste — made with a lot of goofiness and heart.
“I wanted to make this film because I just found it to be and expression of one side of my personality, and that’s just the very sort of free-thinking anarchic comedy side,” he explains. “I’ve probably always been into a lot of quite bonkers absurd sort of extended, weird comedies.” Indeed, the joy of The Greasy Strangler is watching that concept unfold through the lens of Hosking’s singular vision, and the complete freedom he was granted to execute it.
If The Greasy Strangler seems an odd choice for a feature film debut, that may be because it wasn’t necessarily intended. Hosking had a number of scripts he was working on, and in fact, another was poised to go forward first when his team of producers got hold of The Greasy Strangler script and fell in love.
When I spoke to some of that team at Fantastic Fest, who were familiar with the director through his previous shorts and commercial work, they all pointed to their faith in his vision and ability to turn his exceptionally strange script (co-penned with Toby Harvard) into a fully-rendered world. Elijah Wood, who produced under his Spectrevision banner, explains, “Reading the script in context of the filmmaker that he is, knowing the worlds that he creates and the characters that he populates his work with, you could see what this film was going to be.” Adding, “It’s definitely not something that a lot of people would get off the page.”
For Josh C. Waller, another member of the Spectrevision crew, the script was one of the funniest, most original screenplays that had ever come their way, but even still, it was their confidence in the director that made the project worth the leap. “There could’ve been a very bad execution of this film, so I think it was important to keep Jim’s world-building skills in mind as you read the script.” He didn’t know how Hosking would pull it off, but he knew he could and that he would make it, in Waller’s words, “the classy version” of the script. “I think there is a significant amount of class and pedigree in the execution of this film.”
According to Hosking, once they decided to make the film, it all happened very fast and the trick became finding a cast who was willing to go all-in for the on-screen insanity. Hosking had written the part of Brayden with Sky Elobar in mind, and for the rest, he knew he wanted unknown actors for a few reasons. For one, he didn’t want the spectacle of, “Look, that famous person’s doing something crazy!”, but more importantly, he didn’t want the audience pulled out of the film’s finely-tuned world by a recognizable face.
“I love watching films where you don’t know the cast so then they really are that character, you know? Michael really is Ronnie,” Hosking says. “You don’t look at Ronnie and think ‘Oh that’s Nicholas Cage, he was in Face/Off‘.”
“I felt like I was more likely to get unbridled performances from lesser known actors, I suppose — people who were excited to do the film,” says Hosking. And if unbridled was what he wanted, boy did he get it. The entire leading trio is fiercely committed to the film’s offbeat tone and unusual demands — the vile dialogue about torrents of ejaculation, the glued-on merkins and prosthetic penises, and of course, the thick slathering of grease. “The first scene that I showed to a friend of mine –who’s been a friend for a long, long time– he really went into shock,” St. Michaels says, bursting into his gravelly laugh.
St. Michaels, who has made a career as a union background and bit-part performer, embraces his turn as the vulgar, repugnant Big Ronnie with exceptional verve. And through the command of his real-life charisma, makes the unpalatable character a joy to watch. In person, St. Michaels carries none of Ronnie’s menace, but still makes quite the impression with a bit of a lowkey lothario vibe and the unmistakable air of a man who has lived.
“Michael sort of lurches around a bit like a cartoon character,” says Hosking, reflecting on how he chose his cast of unknowns. “He’s sort of like the conductor in the credits in the Simpsons….it makes me laugh” For St Michaels, you can forget the graphic nudity and heightened violence, the hardest thing to watch in The Greasy Strangler is himself. “I can’t get over the fact that I used to be really cute, and now I’m just an old fart.” Not a beat goes by before De Razzo chimes in, ebullient and completely unrecognizable as her on-screen characters, “You still got it, Michael!”
To be sure, the whole cast is in top form for The Greasy Strangler, but De Razzo’s complete transformation as Janet is particularly impressive and undeniably courageous. The best known of the three primary cast members thanks to her run in TV comedies Idiotsitter and Eastbound and Down, De Razzo had her fair share of compunction about taking the role. Well, that’s putting it lightly.
“Oh, I said ‘Hell no’,” De Razzo says wide-eyed, as if she still can’t quite believe she agreed to do it. “I said no a few times.” But much like the producers, she was won over when she talked with Hosking and understood how his approach would shape the film. To conjure Janet’s fearless sexuality, De Razzo channeled her younger sister, who she says incredibly secure in sexuality and has well remarked-upon “fuck me” eyes.
That’s not to say she didn’t have her on-set doubts, “I was very, very nervous about it just because I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction people were gonna put out there, especially being “plus-sized” and doing that much [nudity], I was extremely nervous.” But as they say, courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s overcoming it, and boy did she buckle up and bring it home.
But there’s one thing DeRazzo wants you to know she didn’t do — that is not, in fact, her ass that chants “Hootie tootie disco cutie” in one of the film’s most surreal moments. “I just want to tell people, by the way, that ass cut, that wasn’t my ass. I don’t have an ass!” She says through laughs. “They had to get a double, I have a tiny butt. There’s no way my butt could clap.”
For the record, the butt double in question had a great time. Hosking recalls getting the shot in a matter of minutes, too embarrassed to properly introduce himself to her. It was the last shot of the day, and she had been quietly reading a book in craft services all day. “She came in, got her butt out, quickly did the scene and then said to everybody, ‘That’s the most fun I’ve ever had at work.'”
The Greasy Strangler is now in theaters.