Jay Baruchel investigates artistic responsibility in his new horror film Random Acts of Violence
Jay Baruchel is probably best known for his acting career, where you’ve seen him in productions like This is the End, Goon, Tropic Thunder, Knocked Up, etc. etc. But the Canadian actor behind so many fantastic and manic roles is just now releasing his second directorial film: Random Acts of Violence. Written, directed, and starring Baruchel, the slasher title is a mix of comic book art dissertation with a road trip that leaves pools of blood in its wake. It’s messy on more than one level, and it premieres today on the Shudder streaming service.
Here is our quick chat with Baruchel ahead of the release of the film.
Pitch: The first question I have regarding the movie is: which political hack on YouTube is Hard Right Jay [his character from the show Letterkenney] based on… and why is it Ben Shapiro?
Jay Baruchel: [Laughter] Yeah, you have to ask Jared Keeso and Jacob Tierney. That’s a them question. I think there’s a lot of Ben Shapiro in there, certainly. I definitely think there’s at least a strain of (Gavin) McInnes and a suggestion of (Jordan) Peterson as well.
In doing your prep for that, is that just what the YouTube algorithm was already giving you anyway, just as that’s what they give to everybody?
[Laughter] Holy fuck. They just told me to come up and be as big an arsehole as I could. I’ll say this—there was a time when Alex Jones was nonpartisan and was just a fucking tinfoil who had some crazy, interesting ideas. So there was a period where I watched shit on his website before he became the de facto mouthpiece for a sitting president. Then I realized he was just a fucking right-winger, but he had no politics for a long time. This is all to say, I did my time on Infowars, I kind of knew what I was referencing.
I remember hitting up those episodes and being like, “How the fuck did they get Jay for this,” and then remembered a decade ago, the wonderful movie The Trotsky, then it was, “Oh.” Had to connect the two.
Yeah, there’s the Jacob (Tierney) connection, absolutely. There’s also—I’ve known K. Trevor Wilson since I was sixteen. Nathan Dales, I directed in Goon 2, as well as Dylan Playfair and Andrew Herr. We’re all in Goon 2. There’s a bunch of people involved in that show who were friends of mine from long before, so I was a massive fan. All of my friends would get together five hours away from me on this fucking show and I was like, “Yo, when can I be on it?”
I like how it’s a personal attack against you, that they have—
Correct! No shit! I was like, how many fucking seasons? Squeaky wheel gets the grease, is the moral of the story.
So what’s it like to take on your—this is your second film, right? As a director?
What did you learn from the first that made the second one easier for you; or harder?
That’s a very, very decent question. What I took from the first one in terms of what I just wanted to have a better handle on was—I parceled out my anxiety and energy a bit better this time. A movie is a series of fucking marathons—you know, on the short end, preproduction is a month and a half to two months. Then you have production, then you have the edit, then you have post, you know. It’s a series of endurance races. Roger Avary had told me that years ago, he said, “There’s going to come a bunch of times throughout the process where you’re going to feel like you did it, you crossed the finish line. Just remember that you didn’t.” So, I was a bit more mindful of that. One of the biggest things I had to learn on the first time I directed was—I’m a set animal. I’ve been on set since I was twelve, I’m thirty-eight now, and it’s the only place in the world outside of my or my mother’s house where I don’t have any anxiety. It’s the only place where I’m comfortable. I just assumed there wouldn’t be an aspect of on-set that I didn’t feel comfortable with. When I got to direct my first blocking, I had been through countless blockings my entire life.
I had been through them my entire life as an actor. I was one of the sixty people standing there, having someone tell them what to do. Being the person that has to then tell the people, who are all just staring at you, as someone who’s got anxiety disorder, that was more trying in a way that I just didn’t realize it would be. I think I bullshitted. I don’t think anybody could tell, I certainly didn’t stare at my feet or anything like that, but I just had to. So just parceling out my anxiety a bit better.
Is it difficult being a second-time director and also being an actor in the film? That always seems like a tricky spot, especially in something as stylized as this.
Oh, yeah. I didn’t do it by choice. My interest in cinema and directing is not a function of my interest in acting, I acted in it to help get the thing made. The best analogy I could make is that it’s a small business. If you have a Subway franchise, you’ll have to wear way more than one hat, you don’t just get to sit there with sandwich dollars rolling in, you’re probably going to have to make some fucking sandwiches. This is a small movie, the same kind of thing. There’s a bunch of hats, and sometimes the most efficient thing is for me to wear a few of them. For whatever combination of reasons, my face and name still has some degree of currency in cinema, so it helped get the thing going. I did the bare minimum because it’s deeply uncomfortable for me.
If I never have to edit together a scene that I’m in again, it’ll be too soon. Having to sit there with my poor editor Andrew (Gordon Macpherson) and be like, “You think I look cooler in this? Is my mouth open in a normal way here, what do you think? You think this looks like something a person does?” It’s just mortifying, man. There are shots in the movie where it looks like I’m just a character thinking about stuff, but I know I’m just looking down at my feet because that’s where the fucking mini-monitor is and I’m making sure it looks okay.
Why a horror movie now, and why this story right now?
For me, we wrote the first draft of the first treatment for this thing ten years ago. We didn’t have it come out now by choice, we just tried to get ‘er going and made a small movie—it’s a miracle. It takes a ton of things happening for it to finally come to fruition and a lot of shit has to go right. This is the shit we’re interested in. My writing partner and I went to high school together and we made horror movies in high school on the weekend and we went to see everything that came out. We queue up at Fantasia every summer and we swap issues of Fangoria. We come by our connection and our interest to it very, very honestly, and now is just—this is how long it takes to get a small Canadian horror movie-going sometimes. The better part of a decade. Contained in the graphic novel are some questions in a conversation we thought were really interesting.
A question about what responsibility anyone has for what they put out into the world as well as this idea of a broken mind seeing pain and cruelty as a form of creative expression. That kind of laid bare and distilled a debate to us, to its core. From that broken mind’s perspective, he is one hundred percent honest in being authentic in the medium he’s chosen to paint in. It’s fucking horrendous, right? But it serves as a great glaring example of a distillation of that question about responsibility and what anybody has for the shit they put out there.
We were grade eleven kids during the Columbine thing. For people that came after and don’t realize it, it was this profound paradigm shift in how we understood each other, and it had a massive societal impact and sadly, it was distilled into a really facile debate: on one side, “Antichrist Superstar made kids kill other kids,” which is fucking horseshit. But equally horseshit was this idea that creative carte blanche is the same as having no responsibility whatsoever. I thought that was utter horseshit too because I think that every single one of us puts anything out into the public, there are strings of it that connect to us.
This is why we’re given the chance to vote behind curtains, so that if we choose to keep our opinions to ourselves, no harm, no foul. But the minute you go out there and share your opinion, you owe to the world a continuity of discussion and debate. You deserve to hear the rebuttal. More to a point, none of us are devoid of responsibility in anything, and why shouldn’t that apply to artists as well? What sucks is that people are used to condemnation or rebellion, as if there was no other nuance. As if there’s no other discussion. As if there’s nothing that can be contradictory and truthful at the same time.
These questions and these discussions, which were ones we had quite earnestly in high school because we went to a fine arts high school, we were groomed to discuss and own up to the things we enjoy, and try to understand why we enjoy them. Sometimes it can be irreconcilable. Either way, it’s profound and truthful.
I just released a book on the video game Postal that came out in 1997–
Where the last scene is shooting up an elementary school, and how so much of Columbine was blamed on them. I had been working on the book for three years because suddenly it’s the same people from 1999 that had been brought into the White House to blame it on video games instead of on guns, that the Trump administration is bringing back now. Everything old is new again, and it’s the shittiest game in the world.
Yeah, no shit! To assume it has any sort of cultural significance is kind of… [Laughter] And it’s hard not to see them as just the same as the comics code people in the 50s, then Tipper Gore in the 80s and 90s, it’s all the same garbage. The problem is, though, is that they act as great foils for people who say, “I can do whatever I want,” and my point is yes, you can do whatever you want but don’t pretend that you don’t own a piece of it.
If I yell out into the street, “Go fuck yourself,” to a bunch of kids, that might fuck with some of them, they might go home and their appetite might be lost or whatever. But I am responsible in some way or another. I have the freedom to do it, I’m not talking about my rights, I’m talking about my responsibility which is a different fucking thing. We only seem to be able to understand what we’re told to do and what we want to do. There’s a whole other series of questions about “should.” Even if you don’t get to “should,” just shine a political light on yourself and try to attack what’s in you, and why you get something out of what you get something out of.
What was the trickiest in-film kill to pull off, from an effects perspective?
Probably when we off the kid in the backseat of the car, I would say. [Laughter] I’m not laughing because it’s funny, it’s just—that’s a fucking horrendous, horrible thing and it’s supposed to be. We had to figure out a way to do it that wouldn’t be shitty for the sake of shitty, without sacrificing any impact but also wouldn’t fuck a kid’s head up. I had two young actors in my movie and the scenes they’re in are pretty fucking heavy, especially the kid that plays young Todd.
We had to have a shrink on set, a child psychologist to clear everything with. Having been a child actor myself, I was terribly mindful of not wanting the kid to see anything worse than what he’d see on Halloween. I’d say that would probably be the trickiest one, just because of a whole bunch of different moving parts, emotional and philosophical and logistical.
Random Acts of Violence is out today on Shudder.