'Slice' Director And Cast On Their Wild And Weird Horror Comedy [Interview]

One of the most talked about streaming releases of the week was dropped on the unsuspecting public on Monday like a new album by Beyonce, Radiohead or Kanye West, with nearly identical fanfare, due in large part to it being the big-screen acting debut of Chance the Rapper (or as he's credited in the film, Chance Bennett). The film in question is a horror-comedy offering called Slice, the feature writing/directing effort from Austin Vesely, who has worked previously with Chance and some of his label mates on music videos over the last few years.

Slice opens with the murder of a pizza delivery driver (played by Vesely) in the part of town occupied by ghosts — and there's nothing spooky about it. The film takes place in a version of reality where ghosts and other supernatural beings are just a part of day-to-day life. Chance plays a werewolf, who also used to deliver Chinese food; there are also witches about. The town's only pizza place (owned by Paul Scheer) is built atop a gateway to hell, and it's partly up to another delivery person named Astrid (the great Zazie Beetz) to find out who's being what becomes a string of murders of her co-workers.

/Film spoke with several members of the Slice production, including Vesely, just hours before the film's world premiere in Chicago, where it's release plan was announced (the film is being distributed by A24, which has an impressive history with releasing unconventional horror films). Joining the filmmaker was Beetz, who most recently kicked serious tail as Domino in Deadpool 2, as well as appearing in the epic second season of FX's Atlanta. She also has somewhere in the neighborhood of six films scheduled for release in 2019, including the latest from Steven Soderbergh, High Flying Bird.

The third member of this interview gathering was noted film buff Sheer, the co-host of two Earwolf podcasts, How Did This Get Made? (on which he talks about bad movies) and Unspooled (where he and co-host Amy Nicholson are working their way through the AFI's top 100 movies list). Sheer also starred in such films as The Disaster Artist and Popstar, as well as series like The League. We get into the origins of Slice's story, capturing the proper horror/comedy balance, and the challenges of shooting in Joliet, Illinois (home of the infamous prison from The Blues Brothers).


I heard you talking to someone earlier about tech checking your film earlier today and seeing you name on the big screen for the first time. What was that feeling like?

Austin: It's bananas! It's absolute crazy. It doesn't quite make sense to me just yet. But even walking down the hallway to the theater and seeing the digital readout that said Slice outside the theater, it was heavy.

And you're not going to get many chance to have that experience with this film, at least on the big screen.

Austin: And I'm glad that happened here in Chicago, where we made the movie.

Paul: What's so crazy about this movie is that when it was just a spec script, there was a poster up on line for it.

This is a comedy-horror film, which can be fairly awful if done the wrong way, but it can be beautiful when done correctly. Tell me about the balance for you—how funny did you want to make it, how gross and bloody do you get on the horror side?

Austin: To me, it's primarily a comedy. What I like about horror is that it's got these very recognizable genre conventions, and what's fun about that is that everyone recognizes them and you can subvert them easily. That just gives you a lot of room to play around and go into this genre that people know and love and play around with it. It's more of a comedy masquerading as this horror film. But you're right, it is a precarious tone. I think it was all in the casting when it came to figuring out who was going to be able to ride that line. But there's a spectrum of performances too.

There's a spectrum of performers just on this couch. Was your approach, when in doubt, go for the comedy?

Austin: I think so, but then when I saw that I feel like it's not true. The auditions we did here in Chicago, we had all of these amazing theater actors come in, and one guy in particular, Tim Decker, who I think about a lot because he so is the tone of the movie. He came in and he's not telegraphing the humor; he's really committed to what the world is.

Zazie: But that's what works so well about his performance—he's not trying to be funny. He's just committing to the world, and the world in itself is so ebullient that going straight there, it still works.

Paul: I'd also argue that one of the things that's so defining about this movie is how good it looks. That's the thing that's often missing in these slapdash...like you said, when horror-comedy goes bad, because it's like they don't care. I feel like, "No, it's got to function as a real thing." This thing has a defined set of characteristics, and Austin's fingerprints are all over this. It really does like a movie you made and not just a collage of different ideas.

You make it seem like this doesn't take place in this world exactly. So where are we playing exactly?

Austin: Yeah, yeah. It's like middle-America, but it's middle-America where ghosts exist and people are like "These fucking ghosts." They just annoyed by it and take it for granted that this is where the world is. "Oh, we had a werewolf problem." Stuff like that. It's definitely not the universe we're living in, as far as I know.

Paul: Also, it doesn't comment on it that much.

Zazie: It's just assumed that ghosts and things are a part of the world around you.

What was the germ of this story?

Austin: It was about six years ago, I was thinking of ideas for movies, and it was just like "Pizza delivery, horror—that sounds like a good idea." I ended up writing a version of it that was more grounded in the world that we live in, it still had it's own tone, but it was more of an Edgar Wright tone. Eventually, I started to develop it, and there was this book that I really loved called CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders, and there was a little thing in this novella where he places ghosts in the universe and deals with them like they're a pain in the ass. "The ghosts are out there booing and wooing in the parking lot all the time when I get off work," and I thought that was so funny and I'd never seen it quite done in a movie. So that was how it became something else and it started to be about putting in these other horror genre conventions. Let's put in ghosts and werewolves into this pizza/middle-America story and see how that goes.

Are there certain horror tropes that you subverted as well?

Paul: I think this movie keeps you on your toes because you don't quite ever know what kind of movie you're seeing. At the beginning, you're like "It's this," and then it switches to something else.

Zazie: It's almost a bit of a genre shift by the end as well.

Paul: Yeah, and I'd even say at certain points, the lead of the film even shifts. It passes off a bit. People do things, then they go away, then they come back again. It's a very fluid, different thing. I think one of the things that's so interesting about it is that in this world of indie film, there's often a very similar type of script that you see—dramas, dramedies, and then there's horror. And this is unlike all of those. For that simple reason, it's exciting. When I was growing up, when I saw indie films, it was everybody doing their own thing and each one felt very unique, and not just "We're in a family and things are troubled."

Tell me about your characters.

Paul: You should go first, because I can speak in context to your character.

Zazie: I'm one of the only characters who survived from the short film [script].

Austin: Actuallym you both did.

Zazie: My character's name is Astrid. It's difficult to talk about without revealing too much. Somebody close to me gets killed, and I go out for revenge.

Paul: She used to work for me, and you come back to the pizza place to figure out what the deal is.

Zazie: Yeah, I get the team together to help figure out what's going on. There are killings happening in the town, and we're trying to figure it out. I'm emotionally spearheading it.

Paul: And I'm upset because all of this is diluting my final money totals [laughs]. This is a work-stoppage situation. I'm looking at it from a commerce perspective.

You've worked with Chance a lot in the past, but making a film is a huge jump in many ways. When I saw that he was in, I wasn't in anyway concerned with his performance because he was so good on SNL. Talk about the discussions you two had, and how involved was he in creating this with you? It sound like most of this came out of your head.

Austin: It is, and that's what was great about it. He was so willing to get on board with what I was trying to do, even when it was extremely strange. I think that comes from us having a comfortable working relationship form the past several years. We were working together but we were supplementing his art. So in this case, it was the opposite.

Paul: When this movie was being shot, it was right at the point where Chance went supernova.

Zazie: His album was released that year.

Paul: Right. I think right before I started shooting, he was on Ellen, and I think of Ellen as being the marker of grand success. He was on tour when we were shooting, but at that moment, he was exploding into the cultural mainstream.

How was he to direct?

Austin: Luckily, part of writing this werewolf character, I was writing it with him in mind. I was thinking of his voice. We all know that Michael Jackson werewolf in "Thriller," so I was thinking "What is Chance the Rapper as a werewolf?" [laughs] He's kind of a rascal, just wily dude. It was a lot of fun to play around with him on that.

slice available online

When you bring in these really fun people to be in your movie, do you give them a chance to customize their characters, play with them a little bit before you start shooting?

Austin: I felt that way.

Paul: I don't know if it was as much changing as it was having a real collaborative experience. One of the interesting things about Austin is that he's a first-time feature director who was so open to making the best product. We work with a lot of people who, the first time out, want to hold onto every idea, every instinct. And allowing us to go in different directions, whether of not you used them or not, I think it speaks to someone who to do a lot of great work because you're willing to be a collaborator.

You shot this mostly around here?

Austin: Yeah, Joliet.

Are there recognizable locations?

Austin: [laughs] For Joliet residents.

Did you get the Blues Brothers prison in there?

Austin: Yes! It's in the background of a scene that Zazie is in.

Paul: One of the cool things about Joliet is that people were psyched that we were shooting a movie there. They wanted to participate. I remember our producer driving to set, and he saw a cool car on the side of the road, very unique looking. And went there and asked "Can we use your car?" And they said, "Yeah, sure!" That's not something you're going to get anywhere else.

Austin: That guys was like "Yeah, you can use my car. Do you want to use my other car?" But no landmarks you would know unless you're from Joliet. It's that middle-America thing again. I grew up in smaller towns—I've only been in Chicago about eight years. One of the things about it was as I was writing and developing this, it's funny to think about werewolves and ghosts in Bentondorf, Iowa. I needed a place that was city-adjacent.

Zazie: And then also being in that kind of bubble helped us. We were all staying in Joliet, which is right off the highway, and there were days when I was like "I need to get the fuck out of here." [laughs]

I hear they have a lovely riverboat casino.

Paul: [laughs] I remember being in that hotel, it was isolating because even getting to Chicago was like 45 minutes, so now we're talking about a two-hour drive back and forth.

Austin: I remember Zazie was here when the first season of Atlanta came out. She's having this big, huge moment and she's in this hotel in Joliet.

Zazie: Yes, September 6, 2016. I was in Joliet.

Talk about transitioning the short film script to a feature. What did you grow upon, what did you create from scratch?

Austin: I really liked the idea, and when I started adding those supernatural elements, I realized that there was a lot to play with here. What it started doing for me was giving me this political look at the town that it takes place in. As a viewer, that's something you can take or leave—the politics—but I became more interested in the culture of the place by expanding it. I started to write it as a pilot, and started thinking of it as Twin Peaks—it's really about the place—and I was really interested in exploring the culture of this city, where these ghosts exist and other people exist, and what is this weird dynamic happening here?

When you say politics, is there a metaphor going on here for the world today?

Austin: Yeah, but it wasn't overtly written that way. That's just how it shook out.

Zazie: It definitely reads that way [laughs].

Austin: Yeah, there's some allegorical stuff happening in there. Again, that's one of the beautiful things about horror and those recognizable conventions. These movies do this.

What do you remember responding to specifically about your characters? What did you latch onto and try to build upon?

Zazie: For Astrid, I latched onto her motivation of love, that she is embarking on her journey because it's a real, and she's reaction viscerally to a very traumatic experience. I liked that within the hubbub of this world, she felt very like the beating heart of it all.

Austin: There's an anger in her too.

Zazie: It switches on an off. I wouldn't necessarily say that she's the lead of the film. The story does focus on multiple storylines—there's a reporter, and the narrative in the pizza place, my story separates from the pizza places for a while.

Paul: She is the driving narrative of the story, which is trying to figure out what's happening. For me, it came down to less of a character thing and more of the script and the people who were attached to it. I'd seen these videos that Austin had directed, and the script was so different; it made me excited. This was something I wanted to be a part of. When I first read it, I was like "What's the underlying thing in here?" But it brought me in in a way that I'm not often brought into things. I can diagram most movies pretty simply, but with this, I was like "I don't know exactly what this is, and I'm really enjoying it."

I actually had my second child right when I got offered to do this, and it was tricky because I left about a month after her was born to go do it. I wouldn't have done that normally, but I liked this so much. I really wanted to do it, and it allowed me to do some fun stuff.

Zazie: And the team felt to passionate, and it was really driven by everybody wanting to be there and wanting to make something good, and that's a really good energy to be around. You could pick up on that right from the beginning.

Paul: I will say one thing too, my father-in-law passed away during the shooting, and this whole team took the entire week of shooting that I had left to do, and we shot everything in one day so I could be there for my wife and kids. That was so impressive to me. This team was so competent to be like "Let's go!" and we all jumped in, especially the camera. They were wrestling with a million things, but everyone jumped in and was a team player, and when I think back on this movie, I think back on that. It was an awful, sad time, but it was also an amazing time to see everyone just committed to do it together.

Is this the start of something new for you, Austin? Do you have more movies in you, perhaps a drawer full of scripts?

Austin: Oh, yeah.

Paul: What if he'd said "No"? [laughs]

Austin: One and done. "Hope you liked it; see you later." I'm excited to keep going. I don't really know what I'm doing; I'm still figuring it out. I'm not thinking I need to do another thing where I flip horror, but I think a lot of the ideas that are in this that have more of a political bend, those things will be present in future stuff.