Director Ryan Spindell and star Clancy Brown chat about their new film The Mortuary Collection
If you followed The Pitch’s Fantasia Festival coverage this past August, you may have happened upon our review of The Mortuary Collection, an ambitious and entertaining horror anthology by first-time feature director Ryan Spindell. You can experience its atmospheric and visual delights for yourself when the film debuts on Shudder later this month.
The Mortuary Collection takes place in a sleepy small town where a mortician, Montgomery Dark (legendary character actor Clancy Brown) tests out a would-be assistant (Caitlin Custer) by telling her freaky stories about the corpses that have come under his care. It’s a celebration of classic horror and great storytelling, exploring the ways a good setting and narrative structure draw us in and keep us hooked.
The Mortuary Collection is an impressive movie from top to bottom, but Brown adds gallons of morbid fun to proceedings–not to mention some genre bona fides that horror fans should be rightly excited about. I spoke with Spindell and Brown about the process of making The Mortuary Collection, and a career’s worth of memorable movie roles.
Ryan, I wanted to start by asking you how this project developed. I know this kind of grew out of your short The Babysitter Murders. What made you want to do an anthology-style film?
Ryan Spindell: It actually started off as a feature anthology before the shorts. I have this great love for the old Twilight Zone series, and anthology movies in general. It started with Creepshow, in the 80s when I was a little kid. I always thought it was a kid’s movie because it opens with animation. It would sort of trick me into thinking I could watch it, but halfway through there’s all these adult horror sequences.
I loved that format, and it had kind of gone away. I know it was also really popular in the 70s with Amicus Productions. I wanted to play with the format in the genre space, and I thought there are so many great genre short stories that don’t have a platform. I sat down and started writing a movie that honestly I kind of knew would never get made. I just felt like I needed to exorcise that demon.
I wrote it in about a month and started sending it around. It turned out yes, it was never going to get made. People weren’t very stoked on the format. But I’d made shorts prior to that, and I thought to myself, I have a feature made of shorts. I could make one of them and show people how cool I think this could be. Of the stories, The Babysitter Murders was the most contained. We switched gears, did a Kickstarter, and raised a little money so we could make it our proof of concept.
What do you like about working in horror?
Spindell: As a creator, horror is the genre you can play the most in. My background is in fine arts. As a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I read a lot, drew a lot, built things a lot. I wasn’t even really into the horror genre, but around eighth grade I saw Evil Dead 2. For the first time I could see the filmmaker in the movie. I could see the practicality of making these things come to life, and I could see how much fun the filmmakers were having. I thought all the stuff that I love so much as an artist, I can play with within this medium.
Because I hadn’t watched it my whole life, I was consuming every single good, bad, terrible thing I could. I found myself drawn to filmmakers who lean into artistry and worldbuilding. In other genres, like in drama, you can’t just decide to slide the camera across the floor in the middle of a sequence, because it’ll take you out of the moment. But in horror, that stuff is embraced and encouraged.
You quickly learn, though that making the scares, the gags, that’s the easy part. It’s the storytelling and characters are what you want to put energy into, because without that, you kind of have nothing. This story is the fruition of different aesthetics I love that I want to pay homage to, but it also allows me to really delve into the storytelling process, in a meta way.
You mentioned Amicus and Creepshow, and as I was watching the film, it felt like there were lots of other influences, too. What else did you draw from?
Spindell: From the beginning, we thought, if we’re going to do multiple stories, let’s tap into different subgenres. It was the perfect venue to do everything I’ve ever loved.
I’m a kid of the 80s, so Spielberg is heavy-handed in there, so are the anthology movies of the 70s, and original EC comics. The Twilight Zone is probably the biggest influence on everything I’ve ever done. This allowed me to make a kitchen sink movie, which is an inclination you get anyway as a first-time filmmaker, like I may not ever be able to do this again, so let’s do everything I love at once.
So, given that you’re a genre fan, were you excited about getting to work with Clancy? Are there any roles of his that you’re a particular fan of?
Spindell: Everything he’s in! My favorite movie for a good part of my life was Starship Troopers, so that’s always gonna be at the top of my list. Also, I don’t know if Clancy likes this one or not, but Pet Sematary 2 just destroyed so many kids. That was one of three horror movies my family had on VHS. Interestingly, that one and Creepshow were the ones my siblings and I watched the most.
Clancy Brown: Not the original Pet Sematary?
Brown: Much better movie, though.
Spindell: I watched Pet Sematary 2 within the last year, and I thought it was awesome.
Brown: Well, you know, Stephen King hated it.
Spindell: Well, he also hated The Shining.
So, now that we’re on the subject, Clancy’s character, Montgomery Dark, anchors this film, and it takes a very specific kind of presence to pull that off. Clancy, in my brain, you’re exactly the guy I go to for that. How did this role evolve?
Spindell: When I first wrote this movie, it was very much a love letter to the genre’s past. So, when I first wrote the draft with Montgomery Dark and the stories he was telling, it was very much an archetypal character. It was Angus Scrimm in Phantasm, it was an amalgamation of all these hosts we’ve seen throughout time.
As the movie progressed, and we started thinking about the stories, we started realizing it’s fun to make an homage film, but we didn’t want this to be just an homage film. We started thinking about how we could twist every element into something more interesting. How can we set the stage with things people love, and start to twist it into something they aren’t expecting?
What I was thinking about with Clancy’s character is that we always see the Crypt Keeper, and we enter the mansion and he gives us a story, but what’s he doing when we’re not there? What is the Crypt Keeper doing day-to-day, and why is he just waiting in this house to tell his stories? I started thinking how much more interesting and tragic that character might be, somebody sealed up in this fortress and reduced to a lonely lifestyle where the only interaction he has is through funerals.
Brown: I don’t know how my name got on Ryan’s list.
Spindell: Pet Sematary 2, I just told you!
Brown: Well, they told you, Ryan, that this movie would never get made. The “they” in this business are wrong about a lot of things, so I think it was just lucky that the stars aligned to bring us together.
I didn’t know anything about Ryan, hadn’t seen his short. But when someone asked about it, I read the script, and thought “Wow, this is awesome,” and that made me want to watch the short. I watched the short, and I was captivated by the short not from the get-go, but as it progressed. I was blown away by how it had captivated me. That just tells me that this guy is a real director, and knows what he’s doing, knows how to tell a story on film.
Ryan knows how to tell a story. He’s an instinctive storyteller, on a level of Spielberg or J.J. Abrams. The story comes the easiest to him, even though he says it doesn’t. It’s how to tell it that’s the challenge and becomes most fun.
What attracted me about the character was exactly what Ryan said. It was a sort of a conglomeration of characters we’ve seen before. But there was a depth there that hadn’t been brought to it. It was way more than The Crypt Keeper or The Tall Man. He had his own story, his own dark past that is just alluded to, but because we’ve spent so much time with him, we realize this was a bad, bad dude back in the day, and he was finally getting his chance to be set free again upon the world.
Spindell: I didn’t know you’d read the script before you saw the short.
Brown: I always read stuff before I watch stuff. You have to. Actors are good at tricking themselves into liking things. This was the first time I could read the script and then see how it was executed. It was better because it was a short. I’ve read scripts and watched other people’s movies, and you can’t really tell with full features sometimes.
Spindell: I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right. With a feature film, you have all this time with the actors for it to sink in, and you can trick yourself into thinking you’ve watched something incredibly well-told. But the challenge of putting together a short is so intricate and specific. You have only a scene or two to set it up, to turn it, to get it to finish in a big, interesting way.
Brown: You gotta know your cinematic shorthand, tell the audience what’s going on without telling them what’s going on. (to Spindell) You do that really well.
Ryan, you mentioned your background in visual arts earlier. Something that really impressed me about the movie, in addition to the storytelling, was the production design. How were you able to get so much mileage out of the resources that you had?
Spindell: When I got into movies I was working in the art department. I got a lot of firsthand experience working in this department that was the last person in any meeting. They had the least amount of money and were the least supported. It was causing me and other designers to bend over backwards and take out credit cards to try and make something interesting.
With this movie, because I was a producer, I was in the budget meetings right at the top and I said, “I want to make the kinds of horror movies that I love. I want to make this Terry Gilliam-esque, Jean-Pierre Jeunet-type stylized world, and I wanted to put as much money as possible into production design.”
That meant we had to make sacrifices with other resources. If you’re shooting, you have to get it exactly the way you want it the first time, because you’re cutting corners in other places. The result is that our art team had more resources than normal. Not as many as they needed, though, so they get a ton of credit. They crushed it.
Brown: They crushed it. It’s so good.
Spindell: Because this movie was impossible to pull off for the budget we had, we started by shooting two shorts back-to-back in Los Angeles. The art team went so far above and beyond, but now that we had that aesthetic established, we had to keep it going through the entire movie, especially Clancy’s part, which is supposed to be the most robust part. Everyone on the art team, they fell in love with the project as much as I had. It’s incredible what they pulled off.
Clancy came on this project knowing that we didn’t have a ton of resources. I remember talking to him in the early days, saying “You’ve worked with some of my favorite directors on the planet, and you’ve been on these big projects. You know what it’s like to have this infrastructure. Welcome to The Mortuary Collection, we have none of it.”
Spindell: He could’ve been the world’s biggest diva, but instead he was the glue that held the whole production together. I can’t sing Clancy’s praises enough. It’s that king status, you know?
Brown: Yeah, yeah. (mutters) King status…
Clancy, like Ryan said, I know you’ve worked on many different kinds of productions, and seen how filmmakers used their resources. You also had a front row seat to how that worked here. Were there any elements of this experience that stood out to you?
Brown: It’s one thing to sit in a diner to talk to Ryan, who’s enthusiastic about it, and had some critical success with his cute little short. You sign on for that. The rubber hits the road, though when you meet the rest of the team.
My next thing was going in for a makeup test. I’d seen the drawings, but I didn’t know what it was gonna be. So, they told me to go to Amalgamated Dynamics (the character effects studio behind It, Tremors and Death Becomes Her) and I thought “Oh, someone was nice to them at ADI.” As soon as I walk into ADI, they’re as enthusiastic as Ryan about the whole rig. They show me what they’ve built, and they just can’t be more excited to build Montgomery around me, and about the show in general. You see someone of that caliber getting excited, and you think “I’m not the only one Ryan’s fooled here.”
So, we’re shooting in Astoria, and everybody’s pulling in the same direction. Everyone knows this isn’t gonna be easy, they’ll have to go the extra mile, mainline coffee, put in more hours. Along the way, as we continued to shoot, and everyone saw the product, that makes you even happier to be part of it. I’ve seen that a couple of times. I’ve never seen it on anything with a budget, because then the budget becomes what it’s about. You don’t see it too often, and certainly never executed as professionally as this.
Spindell: Clancy, do you remember how the initial prosthetics were a lot more intensive? We initially created these amazing prosthetics, he had big jowls and deep-set eyes, and he was leaning more toward Creepshow-y, type of host. Then when he was in the makeup, it looked amazing, but I realized covering Clancy’s face was a huge disservice to the work we wanted to do, and the tone we were trying to create, which had some cartoonish qualities, but was something else altogether.
Brown: Yeah, that’s not all that uncommon. When you first have it, it’s like a sculpture, and then you put it on and you see what moves and doesn’t move, and you work from there. I think you made the right choice, though.
Spindell: I imagine it’s not that uncommon, but I remember making that choice on set, right before shooting, and it was a gut instinct move. To this day, I have anxiety that I almost made you wear all those prosthetics. Those little decisions keep me up at night.
Clancy, having worked on all these studio tent poles and independent projects, as well as TV and voiceover work, what have you learned about the kinds of projects and people you like working with?
Brown: It’s always about the scripts. I’ve fooled myself a few times that I was reading a good script, and I’ve fooled myself that I was working with good people before, but you know, nobody sets out to make a bad movie. It just sort of happens sometimes and it’s always a sincere mistake, even though people get all bent out of shape about it. I don’t really have a formula, I just like a challenge.
I feel like every one of these jobs I get is by accident, and at some point in the making of these things, whoever’s in charge thinks “Man, I wish Vincent D’Onofrio had been available.” I’m sure I’ve disappointed as much as I’ve pleased.
Spindell: I don’t feel like your body of work reflects that, or the fact that you just consistently keep getting more jobs.
Brown: I think it is because Vincent isn’t available, or (Ron) Perlman. If Perlman’s not available, and D’Onofrio isn’t available, then they’ll come to me, eventually.
Spindell: You actually would’ve made an awesome Hellboy. I’ve never thought about that before.
Brown: That’s my big joke! I’ll introduce myself to people and say “Hey, I’m Clancy Brown,” and they go “Oh, I loved you in Hellboy.”
Spindell: Oh my God.
Brown: But yeah, I liked Ryan’s ideas. I wanted to be in every one of his shorts, but I had to be content hanging out with Caitlin Custer (lead actress). Caitlin was awesome. Caitlin and Ryan are the two people who’ve been with this show the longest.
Caitlin is fantastic. I know she was in The Babysitter Murders before this, too.
Spindell: Caitlin was one of the first pieces of the puzzle to come along when we were making the short. We didn’t really have any resources for casting, so I just went to my acting friends and said “who’s the best actor you know?” My one friend who knows everyone was like, “I’m in acting class with this girl Caitlin, and she’s amazing” I thought she was a little too cute and pretty, but then I sat down with her, and within seconds I realized she was everything. She’s sweet, but has this darkness under the surface that she can pull out at will.
She made the short with us in 2014, and then she got married, and then she had a child. So when we were going to shoot with Clancy, I called her up, and said “We’re doing it, we’re doing the feature. Are you in?” and she said “I kind of am, but I just had a kid. Let me see if I can figure out a way to bring her up to Astoria because I need to be with her. She came to Astoria with her husband and child, and they hung out with us and we made that piece of the movie. After we shot the movie, she got pregnant again! So when we went to do pickups, there are some scenes where she’s fighting monsters and she’s eight months pregnant.
Oh my God.
Spindell: There’s a sequence we shot that she starts in one room unmarried, walks through a door and she’s married with her first child, and then goes through another door and she’s seven months pregnant with her second child. She’s lived a whole lifetime in the process of making this movie. She’s one of the most amazing actresses I’ve ever worked with, and I can’t wait for people to see her. It’s almost criminal how little she’s done. I think this movie is gonna pull her back onto the stage.
Brown: She’s so centered and grounded. You never got the feeling she had any agenda except getting this thing done. She wasn’t trying to get on the cover of a magazine or any of that bullshit. She was just in the movie with you doing it. I love her for that. She’s a rare actress, this one.
Clancy, you’ve done so many forms of productions, but often very similar types of roles. Do you find that the kinds of roles you get fit how you see yourself, or has it been a challenge to get to the root of some performances?
Brown: I think people have a better idea of what I’m good for than I do. There was a time after Shawshank Redemption that I was getting every prison guard role offered to me that you can imagine. After Pet Sematary 2, I was getting lots of monster policeman roles. I’m not a little guy, I’m a big guy. I don’t fit anywhere. I don’t know why I fuckin’ work.
Spindell: (laughing) You know that’s gonna be out there in the world now.
Brown: It’s true, though, I have no idea.
Have you found that all the voice acting work you’ve done has given you some room to play around some? How did you get into that?
Brown: I’d just had a baby, my first child who’s now 25. I’d been working out of town all the time, and I decided I wanted to work in town, to be with my baby for the rest of her life. So the best thing to do there was voiceover because all that production was being done in L.A. at the time. It also coincided with the industry reaching out and being a little more creative in their casting.
Then you get in a room with those people, and they’re so sweet and enormously talented. Rob Paulsen and Kevin Michael Richardson, it’s a joy to be with them and hang out. Tom Kenny is a genius at it. Bill Fagerbakke has a real facility for it. The guys I work with, I’m kind of hanging on, but I enjoy being in the room with them.
We talked about this a little earlier with Pet Sematary 2, but given how accessible streaming has made everything, has anything come back up that you’re surprised folks have connected with? For example, my editor thinks we’re about to get a big renaissance for Cast a Deadly Spell, given the popularity of Lovecraft stuff lately.
Brown: Right? That’s kinda interesting. Cast a Deadly Spell is a good example. I haven’t heard about that for years and years, and now I’m hearing about it more. That was such a good idea. What do you think Ryan?
Spindell: I think you were awesome in City of Lost Children.
Ryan, you said you wanted to do a Gilliam or Jeunet-style movie. Did you ever tell Clancy you wanted Ron Perlman for this part, he just wasn’t available?
Brown: Story of my life!
Spindell: Ron Perlman’s a bum, you can write that down!
You sure? He’s pretty active on Twitter, I feel like he might come for you.
Spindell: Oh, I know, I actually love his Twitter feed.
I did want to say, because The Mortuary Collection premieres on Shudder, and because Shudder is horror-specific and highly curated, one new thing drops a week maybe, and they have over a million followers. All those people watch every single new thing. Even though we didn’t get the opportunity to hit theaters, on October 15, a million people will have the opportunity to see Clancy in this movie, and I feel like (to Clancy) you’re gonna get a bit of an assault from horror people. You’re gonna have to be choosy about stuff in the future. I think it’s gonna be overwhelming.
Brown: Well, I think I’m only ever gonna do anything you do.
Spindell: We need Monty’s prequel! Like, how did he get to the mortuary?
Brown: Who would you cast as a younger Monty?
Spindell: Ron Perlman.
The Mortuary Collection premieres on Shudder Oct. 15.