Popular horror moviemaker Adam Green decided to blend reality and fantasy in his ambitious faux-documentary feature Digging Up the Marrow, but he ran into trouble when real life threw him some major curveballs. How did he—and his movie—survive?
Fate Falls Into a Filmmaker’s Lap
For 17 years now, my production company, ArieScope Pictures, has created original genre films, like the three Hatchet movies, Spiral, Grace and Chillerama, as well as a popular cult television sitcom called Holliston. These titles have been warmly embraced by a loyal and passionate worldwide culture of horror fans, who often mail in deeply personal handwritten letters about what they are going through, and how something I did is helping them get through it in some small way.
In 2010, I was doing a signing at a Fangoria convention in Los Angeles when a guy came through my line and handed me a 14-page pamphlet on which he had inscribed, “Thanks for all of the inspiration you’ve given me.” I thought nothing of it and added it to the pile of random gifts that people had handed to me. Later that night, I opened the pamphlet, titled Digging Up The Marrow: Excerpts From The Journals of Detective William Dekker. Five minutes later, I was texting my partners at ArieScope.
Turns out that the random guy who came through my line was none other than artist Alex Pardee, whose artwork I had known and loved, though I didn’t recognize him in person. Whenever Alex does an art exhibit, it is way more than mere paintings on a gallery wall. His 2009 exhibit, “Digging Up The Marrow,” was about a former police detective named William Dekker who had supposedly discovered a world beneath our feet where monsters live. In the context of the art exhibit, Dekker had gone missing and Alex had found his journals and taken it upon himself to paint the crazy creatures that Dekker described in his writings.
I paced my bedroom floor, trying to make sense of the ideas flooding my head: What if “Dekker” had reached out to a real cult filmmaker—me—in the hopes that I would tell his story to the world? What if Dekker actually delivered on his claims and brought me face to face with “real” monsters? What if these creatures looked exactly like Alex Pardee’s artwork? By using ourselves as subject matter we would ground the story in a very real world and then slowly introduce monsters as realistically as possible. Everyone who would appear in the film would do so as themselves.
The next step was to meet with Alex and see if he was into this crazy, manipulated, half-real, half-fake documentary idea. Thankfully, it was love at first meeting and we were off and running almost immediately, with a first draft presented to the team within three months of that first meeting. We decided right from the start that because of the weird “part-real/part-fiction” aspect to this film, we wouldn’t let anyone in on what we were doing too early. In fact, the less people knew about it, the better the film would play. So in order to stay under the radar, we announced the film as “a documentary about monster art.” Note to other filmmakers: If you don’t want the media asking for set visits or casting news or stills, just throw down the words “art documentary” and watch how little attention they pay. Also, we knew that Digging Up the Marrow was going to take a very long time to complete (It took four years in all).
The first step was building the monsters. By enlisting sculptor Greg Aronowitz, we knew we’d be in good hands. Too often in film you see concept art get changed around completely in the fabrication process, simply because certain things don’t make sense. The beauty of Alex’s art is that it isn’t “correct:” skin, bone structure, weight distribution… nothing is where it should naturally be on a living organism. We wanted to keep Alex’s art intact and create creatures that no one had ever seen before and Greg was more than up for the task.
After each sculpture was finished, the giant clay creatures went off to FX artist Robert Pendergraft and his team at Aunt Dolly’s Garage, where they faced the monumental task of bringing these things come to life on screen practically. As Robert put it, he aged about 20 years upon first seeing Greg’s sculptures—very few of these creatures would be able to be made through typical prosthetics on actors. There is an exceptional 30-minute documentary called “Monsters of the Marrow” that goes in depth about puppets, tracks, garage door springs, tubes, ropes and other methods. Suffice to say, it was a massive undertaking to successfully bring Alex’s artwork to three-dimensional life.
Casting for Realism or Effect
While all of this was taking place, we faced another hurdle: who to cast as “William Dekker,” the eccentric enigma of a man who sends “me” his fantastical story? For weeks we debated the pros and cons of casting an unknown actor, versus hiring a recognizable character actor that everyone would know on first sight. We knew that with the documentary approach and everyone appearing as themselves, viewers may start to think that what they were watching was, in fact, real… until the end of the first act, when the first monster revealed itself, at which point they’d yell, “Hoax!” We had seen other films attempt this and have the entire experience become about whether or not the film was “real” or “fake.” It could be a huge pitfall for the film’s overall playability if we tried to pass Dekker off as real.
Right as we resolved to find a great, recognizable character actor to play Dekker, I got a phone call from iconic actor Ray Wise. Ray had acted in one of the segments of our anthology film, Chillerama, but not my segment. We had never worked together before, and Ray said he wanted to change that. I was impressed: Ray Wise works more consistently than most actors in Hollywood. He doesn’t need to be pounding the pavement for jobs—jobs find him. Yet there he was, cold-calling me. It was fate. We met for lunch at Mucho Mas in Burbank, I showed him Alex’s pamphlet, explained our odd reality/fantasy concept, and he said yes instantly.
The real meat of Marrow was shot over the summer of 2013, mainly in our real homes, the ArieScope studio, or out in the woods in Santa Clarita, where we had created the cemetery set that would serve as the home to Dekker’s supposed entrance into “the Marrow.” The shoot was one of the greatest times of my life: As a director I had absolute creative control, as a producer I had the dream team of artists around me giving their crucial two cents, as an actor I was working opposite the great Ray Wise, and as a fan, I was hunting for monsters. Our creatures were all practical and looked just as amazing up close as they did on camera. Of course there were some visual effects added in post, but only enough to complement was already there in the “flesh.” By August 2013, we were well into editing.
This was where I first started to get cold feet on the entire concept of the film. “The film is self-indulgent;” “it’s just one big advertisement for ArieScope, with their studio, their crew T-shirts, their movie posters, etc”—you name the possible attack, I was already saying it out loud in the edit bay. Thankfully, our editor Josh Ethier remained completely objective. He constantly kept my fears in check by asking, “If this story had been about a fictional filmmaker who made fictional movies who had fictional fans who sent him fictional fan mail, what information would that story need?” It prevented me from ruining my own movie just to save myself from imaginary criticism.
One by one, various filmmakers were invited to our edit suite at ArieScope, completely clueless about what they were about to watch. As always, I received some fantastic opinions that helped us pick up the film’s pace and fix a few issues that we were too close to see by that point. Note: If you’re going to ask someone to give you their time, it should be because you respect their opinion, not because you’re fishing for praise. Try out their suggestions afterwards, whether you instantly agree with them or not.
The ultimate trial for your film, though, isn’t showing filmmakers, who can be too close to the process themselves to truly be objective. We needed to show a real audience—and I wanted to show the most opinionated audience I could find: Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, the home of Fantastic Fest and some of the most outspoken fans and brutally honest critics on the planet. There simply is no audience like a Drafthouse audience.
I sent a screener to Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News, whose annual 24-hour film festival, Buttnumbathon, was only a few short weeks away. I trusted that if he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t post a negative review before the film was even finished—but if he liked it enough, maybe Digging Up the Marrow could test at Buttnumbathon. The next day Harry called. “Can I play Marrow at Buttnumbathon, Adam?” Masochism achievement unlocked.
Alex Pardee and I flew to Austin and settled into our seats for the 24-hour cinematic haul. The beauty of Buttnumbathon is that only Harry knows the secret line-up he’s going to play—and that his unsuspecting audience is one of the most hardcore, discriminating audiences on the planet. I feared the worst as Harry invited Alex and me up to introduce it. We didn’t say much except that the film was not yet finished: There were still no visual effects; the sound and score were temp; there was still no color-correction so what they would be seeing were merely the dailies. I asked for only one favor: “Feel free to say if you liked or if you didn’t, but please don’t post anything publicly that ruins what we’ve been keeping secret for so long.”
One thing you have to love about Texas: They take pride in sticking to their word. Not a single person in that audience spoiled the film online. Save for one exceptionally negative reaction posted online, pretty much everything else was positive. Even better, the film played like gangbusters: laughs, screams, jumps, and best of all, the discussions outside before the next film started were filled with people sharing their theories. They were creatively stimulated. It was everything we could have hoped for and more. We were picture locked.
Personal Disaster Strikes
Then, about three months into the finishing process, the very reality I used for my film became a disaster. One of my best friends, Dave Brockie, passed away suddenly on March 23, 2014. Most knew Dave as “Oderus Urungus,” the lead singer of the heavy metal band GWAR and my character’s imaginary alien friend on my TV series Holliston. But there he was, appearing as himself in the first five minutes of Digging Up the Marrow, proudly wearing his “Oderus” get-up backstage at San Diego Comic Con, declaring to the camera, “I am a monster, I’ve always been a monster, and after I’m dead, I’ll be a dead monster!”
I was devastated. I wanted his scene cut out of the movie immediately. I couldn’t look at it. But the team around me carefully and compassionately talked me down off of that ledge. Not because of the massive financial costs that changing the edit would hit us with, but because they knew I was making the choice for my own personal comfort and not for the good of the film. What finally made me see the light was when someone said, “I know that it’s hard for you to hear him say that, but why would you rob his fans of seeing the last thing Dave said on camera? Especially when it was so apropos of his sense of humor that his last recorded appearance is him joking about his own demise?” They were right. So I left the scene in, knowing all too well that it was going to be a kick in the balls at every screening I’d have to endure.
Three weeks after Dave died, my wife left me. And while she may only appear in Digging Up the Marrow for a total of four minutes, she’s in scenes that show us at home together—there’s a shot of us kissing and a scene of us sleeping next to each other in bed. Throughout the movie my character refers to his “wife.” I wanted to cut it all out of the film but once again the team around me talked me out of re-cutting the film for my own benefit. “Those scenes are in there for exposition and story. If you cut them out just because they’re painful for you to watch, then what happens to the story? It isn’t for you anymore; it’s for the audience.”
I doubt I can ever explain what the release of this film has been like for me—a bittersweet time capsule of my life that now feels more like a work of fiction than actual reality. I’m asked about Dave or the divorce in every interview I do about the movie, on every carpet that I’ve walked for it, and at every autograph signing or appearance I’ve done in support of the film. That’s what you and I do—we’re filmmakers. We wear our hearts on our sleeves as storytellers. In the end, when I went digging up the Marrow, I found the love for what I do with my life, all because I allowed a pamphlet of artwork to take me to dark and wonderful places. My willingness to dig deep and expose my true self is exactly what makes each one of my films worth watching.
So keep digging up your own marrow, my friends. There’s nothing to be afraid of. MM
Digging Up the Marrow was released in theaters and VOD on February 20, 2015. Photographs courtesy of RLJ/Image Entertainment. Visit Adam Green’s blog at ariescope.com for more information on his work.