Greg McLean rose to cultural prominence in 2005 as the director of the intense, poetically violent Outback-set horror film Wolf Creek. Since then, the filmmaker has distinguished himself as an orchestrator of horror with an intense locational bent, whether it’s the perilous river of Rogue, the desert of Wolf Creek 2, or the Grand Canyon of The Darkness. In The Belko Experiment, McLean tries his hand at rendering interiors for a change, while returning to the visceral, hard-charging violence of his breakout hit. On the phone last week, McLean was jovial and enthusiastic, discussing his favorite filmmakers, the pyrotechnics of violence, toying with an audience’s expectations, and the importance of maintaining a narrative’s architecture of emotion.
I haven’t seen Wolf Creek in years, and I can still remember those landscapes. They’re as chilling as any of the violence that occurs in the film. Similarly, with The Belko Experiment, I think of those gray sheens of the office building. Which is to say that your cinema has a strong sense of place. Is this a conscious or intuitive choice?
It probably goes back to the filmmakers I love. I love David Lean, Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, Scorsese, and many others. Filmmakers who basically set up, well, sense of place really is the phrase for it, using imagery and sound and music to create an atmosphere so that you feel like you’re immersed in that place. Context is everything.
Can you comment on how you got together with screenwriter James Gunn, and how that collaboration worked?
James and [producer] Peter Safran decided to try to get the film made, and they hooked up with MGM and sent the script out to agencies to seek directors. I read it and completely flipped out over it. It was so much fun and so crazy. I loved the characters, the writing, and what it was saying. And I created a 20-page visual presentation for James and Peter and wrote an essay on what I felt the film should be and what I could bring to it. Sometimes, you read things and you think, “Oh, that could be good,” and sometimes you read something and absolutely fall in love with it. I felt like this was an opportunity for me to explore some pretty interesting territory as a filmmaker, and to show some skills that I hadn’t shown before, [pertaining to] action, interiors, and creating a very intense thriller story that has an incredibly huge cast. Those challenges were attractive to me.
Is there any singular sequence in the film that was particularly challenging?
The big execution scene in the middle [of the film] was a massive challenge. You have 15 members of the main cast, 20 or so featured extras, and maybe a 100 more extras. We had about five days to shoot it, and so the planning for that scene as a filmmaker was really intense. I storyboarded everything, and I do setup plans. I did little maps of all the camera moves, all the lens changes, and really worked out exactly how to do it. But even with that, it still doesn’t—you still gotta work out how to actually stage it. Because so much of it is about making sure the actors feel comfortable and are being supported, and are being creative in terms of coming up with what their views of the different moments are. That [scene] was a real mountain to climb.
The Belko Experiment was shot in Colombia and was very low budget for what it was. We had a big cast, very little time, and a lot of the visual effects—fire, rain, blood—that slow a film down. So, it was absolutely crucial as a director to have an incredibly clear vision of how to execute the production, or otherwise you just wouldn’t get the film shot. It certainly got intense, because we were shooting 16-hour days, day after day, week after week. By the end we just sort of crawled out of there half-dead basically, but it was worth it because I’m really proud of the film, and I thought we captured same amazing performances and some great moments.
It’s interesting that you mention the execution scene in the lobby, because it feels like the heart of the film. Another scene that I’d like to point out, where it feels like the film really takes a turn, is that murder sequence in the stairwell. As someone who follows both your and James’s work, I’m tempted to say that this is the scene where The Belko Experiment transitions from a James Gunn film to a Greg McLean film.
Right, absolutely. You can feel the temperature change during both of those moments, because they’re played emotionally very seriously. In the screenings that I’ve been in, you can certainly feel the audience going “Okay, I’m now moving from a light, kind of interesting, fun idea to something extremely dark.” The film goes in extremely dark places in terms of what the audience is confronted with.
Certain casting choices feel like a part of your plan to play with tone and audience expectation. I think of John McGinley’s casting. Some audiences may associate him with Office Space, for instance.
When McGinley’s character does what he does in the stairwell, it feels like a definitive way of saying “this isn’t Office Space.”
Right. There are certainly some meta things going on with the casting. Even Tony Goldwyn, who plays the president [of the United States] on Scandal, the fact that it’s him being this raw does lend a different quality to [the character]. Even Michael Rooker, who usually plays the bad guy and is killing people, plays a guy here who’s really quite innocent and dies very quickly. It reverses your expectation. I think that was one of the really fun parts about the cast that we got. Not only are they great actors for those roles, but their pasts do lend themselves to interesting, creative moments in the film.