Tomorrow, James Gunn ventures into wild space-opera territory with Guardians of the Galaxy. But just like Peter Jackson, Gunn started out directing gonzo horror — and we're going to take a look at the strange and miraculous journey behind the making of Slither.
Slither stars Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks — at the time, Fillion was just coming into his own, due to the fanaticism behind his recently released series Firefly. For his part, Gunn had written both the Scooby-Doo movies, as well as the hit remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Slither would be Gunn's directorial debut, as well as the first time Fillion would take the lead role in a multi-million dollar movie.
Slither is kind of a mash-up of everything people love about 80s horror movies, including a lot of body-horror and creature effects. A meteorite falls to the ground and a town gets infected by worms that burrow into the brain, zombifying the victims, and turning them into the pawns of the alien that was aboard the space-rock, portrayed by the glorious Michael Rooker.
On his website (which contains a bunch of other details not included on this article) director James Gunn talks about the initial image that sparked the idea of Slither:
"The seed for SLiTHER was planted about seven years ago, when my brother Brian and I were out eating dinner. I had just moved to L.A. We were discussing how much we loved horror movies, and how I wanted to make one. Brian asked me what the scariest thing I could think of was. A vision flashed through my mind: A woman, on her knees, going into convulsions with her eyes rolling into the back of her head as a foot-long red parasite burrowed through her mouth and into the back of her throat, flapping its tail like a docked trout."
And according to the DVD commentary, the title of Slither came shortly on the heels of this initial image.
And in that commentary, Gunn talks about the "gory, over-the-top, funny" horror movies he wanted to pay tribute to. Including Shivers, Re-Animator, The Thing (remake), The Fly (remake), Tremors, The Brood, The Blob (original and remake), Basket Case, Return of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original and remake), and Evil Dead II, among others.
Speaking of influences, some people claim Slither is basically a rip-off of Night of the Creeps. Bloody-Disgusting has a pretty great run-down on why they're not that similar, also Gunn denies ever watching the movie until after SLiTHER was released. He told one interviewer: "Listen, I ripped off plenty of other movies, so there's no reason for me to lie. The truth is that Night of the Creeps is probably inspired by a lot of the stuff that I'm inspired by – basically, It Came From Within; Shivers. Which is a huge inspiration to me, it's one of my favorite horror films. It's very strange to me that people keep going on about Night of the Creeps when there's a much earlier precedent. It seems like they have a shallow history of horror."
A couple of studios wanted to do the movie but Gold Circle with Universal wanted to do the movie right away — a big selling point for Gunn — and they gave the director pretty much complete freedom.
At first, Gunn wasn't even attached to direct the film, he explained:
"I was actually attached to direct another movie when I was writing this film. I was writing this movie and I was going to sell it to have a little bit of money to do an extremely low-budget independent film. But as I started doing the rewrites on this film after I sold it to Universal and Gold Circle, I fell in love with it. I also realized that the tone was really something strange and unique because it was funny and it was scary, and it's a hard balance. And so I felt most comfortable if I directed it myself. Otherwise I foresaw being very unhappy on [the premiere] night if it was directed by somebody else."
The script is full of shout-outs to the 80s horror movies that came before it. For example the town's high school is name Earl Basset High, which is a tribute to the main character in to movie Tremors.
Another interesting fact about the script is that the song by Air Supply that plays while Starla and alien Grant make love was actually written into the script. He picked it because he finds it creepy. Calling the lyrics "stalker-ish".
According to his website, Gunn had Rooker in his sights from the get-go: "Michael Rooker, who plays Grant Grant, has been one of my favorite actors ever since I saw him in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. He's the only actor I considered while I was still in the script-writing stage."
For Starla, Gunn was looking for a "Hitchcock blonde," as he puts it in the DVD commentary. He wanted someone beautiful and graceful in that old school way, but still down to do something as disgusting as Slither. Banks was at the the top of his list for the role, and he was pleased to see her name on the audition list.
However Banks had her doubts, in an interview promoting the movie she said,
"Actually the only thing that they said was, 'You're going to play Starla Grant in a movie called Slither.' And I was like, 'No I'm not. You guys are out of your minds!' But then I read it and it's a great script and it's a fun time," confessed Banks. "I had the best time making the movie. It was a great movie-making experience and I was so lucky to have Nathan Fillion there by my side and Michael Rooker, who's an amazing professional. And James Gunn who just laughs a lot and likes to have a great time, and wrote a raucous movie."
Under Canadian law, movies shot in Canada must have Canadian actors. Actors of other nationalities must be considered a "Star." Fillion jokes on the DVD that his Canadian citizenship is the only way he got the part.
Another cameo of note is that Rob Zombie appears briefly as Dr. Carl.
Gunn compliments the cast, in the commentary, for being confronted with a "ludicrous" and "ridiculous" premise and taking it completely seriously.
Conditions on the set were far from perfect as Fillion recalls in an interview, "It was a horror movie we shot up in Vancouver. It was two months of shooting in the night, in the dark, in the rain, in the woods, in the cold. We were outside. We were out in the woods and everything happens during one evening, so we were there throughout the whole night. For two months, it was shooting at night."
At the same time, in the DVD commentary, both Gunn and Fillion go on and on about how much fun they had, and how close the crew became. Gunn also points out that the film's opening montage is basically a bunch of crew members walking around.
During the scene where Fillion meets Banks on the balcony, about 20 minutes into the film, it was so cold that Gunn collapsed because he couldn't control his legs. Both Gunn and Fillion give Banks kudos for shooting the scene wearing only a dress.
In the DVD commentary Gunn explains that viewers are often confused by why, in the scene where Grant kills Brenda, the baby has a tomato. In the original script, Brenda explains that tomatoes are cheaper than toys — and that by the time the baby is finished playing with it, the tomato is nice and tenderized.
Right before Alien Grant kills Brenda, Rooker originally had a speech about how much he enjoyed being human, which seems to have been cut for simply being superfluous.
Throughout the movie, Michael Rooker gets covered in more and more make-up and prosthetics saying, in a more recent interview for The Walking Dead, "The make-up took only two hours [for The Walking Dead], and you got to remember that I had done Slither, which took seven-and-a-half hours for make-up, which was crazy, crazy."
But apparently, this helped with the realism for Starla and Grant's final scene together. Rooker tells another interviewer:
"You know, when we were talking about the makeup… sometimes the make up… luckily for me it really didn't get in my way. Even though it's a tough makeup; it's a painful makeup to wear all day long. It's… sometimes the pain involved can fuel emotions going on inside your body at the same time. You know, you got to just use what you've got. I mean you're emotionally in pain in this last scene, and you're physically in pain. They help each other. So the makeup and the actor sort of become copasetic and utilize one another (laughs) in a way that... unfortunately I wish I wasn't in pain, but am usually. And it's in this makeup. But um… I don't really think about the makeup. When I'm out there doing it I haven't been really concerned about it all; except what the other actors are giving me. You know, I just work it. That's all."
During filming, Fillion went to Gunn with a concern that they were making a funny movie asking, "Is this going to be scary? Because we keep making it funny." Gunn assured him that they were making a funny movie... but not a comedy.
In an interview Gunn elaborates on this, saying: "It's a balancing act. I mean, we had to be scary but we were also very funny. Luckily we had a cast that was having a good time and I really think that helped us a lot to sort of go back and forth between the horror and the humor. And, in the end, I think it helped the movie a lot."
The prop dead dog that falls from the ceiling when Starla goes into Grant's horror filled basement looked so realistic, and so much like the actual dog that was on set, that Gunn actually had a hard time looking at it.
Michael Rooker actually dislocated his shoulder shooting the scene when he first attacks Starla, but never actually said anything to Gunn about it until after the film had wrapped.
Lloyd Kaufman, the old head at Troma Studios (and Gunn's old boss) plays the old guy sitting at the desk in the police station (He is credited as Sad Drunk). Apparently he had a line — and Gunn almost gleefully admits that he cut it from the movie.
The scene where the Mayor and Trevor are staking out the Strutemyer farm, looking for Grant, was entirely improvised by Gregg Henry. Also as they wait the Alien Grant Monster emerges from a field. This was actually a practical effect. What the viewer sees is a giant puppet, surrounded by puppeteers that were then digitally removed from the movie.
Later on, when Starla confronts Alien Grant, Rooker the tentacle that is seen come from his head is actually mechanized and during filming as Gunn puts it, it was, "Tearing off the back of his neck, so we couldn't shoot for very long."
As painful as they were sometimes, Elizabeth Banks said she was grateful for the film's practical effects:
"Well, you know, for actors not doing CGI is the best because we actually get to like hold things and touch things. It's so much easier for us. It makes my job really easier so I was really grateful for all that. And I personally, I think it looks better on film sometimes. I mean, CGI, you've got to really go there, you know? If you're making 'King Kong,' great. But that wasn't the budget we had so… I'm really glad that we had actual things to touch and feel and KY jelly thrown at us and blood splattered. (Laughing) It was kind of great."
Tourneur's line, referring to the Alien Grant Blob Monster, "That's looks like something the fell off my dick during the war." Was originally in the script, intended for another actor, but cut from an early draft. Tourneur didn't originally have any lines in the script so Gunn, gave him that one. When all the naked town folk are joining the naked blob at the end, Bill deadpans, "Now that is some fucked up shit." This line was made up by Gunn seconds before the actor says it.
A lot of improv is a result of being really prepared, as Gunn points out in an interview,
"I actually think the actors…if I'm extremely prepared and I know exactly what I want, then that gives me a lot of freedom to improv and do a lot of things that are fun on the set. And to allow each actor and each person who's creatively involved in the film, from the production designer to the DP, to add their own thing that's creative to the movie. I think it's really important to the creative process, to let everyone have their own individual voice be heard, even if it's in a small way. So I just like directing. I'm more comfortable in that position."
When Kylie was escaping from the bathroom, after pulling the worm out of her mouth, she puts on a blue sweater. Gunn notes that they only had three of these sweaters, so when Kylie's mom vomits on her, it had to count. The first two times didn't work, so they went outside the third time, rehearsed, and then nailed it.
A lot of what Bill radios to Shelby is improved, because the script had to be changed at the last minute. Originally, actor Jenna Fischer [The Office] only had a cameo. According to the DVD commentary, the actor who was originally supposed to be the Police Radio guy had to drop out, due to a scheduling issues. Luckily Fischer was going to be in town to visit her husband, James Gunn, so he gave the part to her.
Originally, in the first draft of the script, the Mayor MacReady (a nod to The Thing) was supposed to be killed off in the barn with all the other bit characters and become just another zombie, but Gunn liked the humor the character brought so he kept him alive.
Another big change was made for budgetary reasons. In the film, towards the end, while Bill is sneaking through the Police Station, he is attacked, rather lamely, by a deer alien monster. Originally the thing was supposed to be a giant set piece, but as Gunn puts it because of time and money it was "slowly whittled away." It seems to be, by far, his least favorite scene in the movie. Though Gunn notes the only thing that came close to saving that scene was the fact that Fillion was slamming himself really hard against the floor in an effort to make it look more realistic.
For those who want more about the special effects check out this great video:
The fact that the first act is so slow is intentional as Gunn states that he wanted the movie's pacing to go faster and faster as it goes on. Originally the movie's first act was much longer, with a lot of it ending up on the cutting room floor.
While cast and crew were filming on the Strutemyer farm they had to constantly deal with storms, which became a nightmare as the ground turned into nothing but mud. In fact, during the barn scene they had to edit out the storm that was raging in the background. The scene was made more difficult because of the fact that the crew forgot to put horse hair (a common material used to muffle rain…I guess) on the roof, so the sound of the rain almost ruined the footage.
Eli Roth, one of Gunn's good friends, had this to say after the release of the film, "In 15 years, nobody is going to be watching Ice Age: The Meltdown. Everybody is going to be watching DVDs of Slither."
SLiTHER cost roughly $30 million dollars to make and market. Unfortunatey it only made a fraction of that back. The head of Universal said, "This was a conscious attempt on everyone's part not to simply put another entry into the horror category but to try something different. This movie was an attempt to bring a new genre or a subgenre into the public eye. This movie took a great swing to try to bring that genre into fashion."
Elizabeth Banks seems to be okay with the film's cult status, and seems to sum it up nicely, "You know, I've had a couple movies that didn't do so hot when they opened, but ultimately found a great audience. I feel like really good movies do that. I mean I get more tweets about "Slither" for instance, which is a beloved movie by me, and the people who made it, and I find tons of people love that movie."
Gunn seems to mirror this sentiment saying, "But you know, they [SLiTHER's audience] keep catching onto it more and more so I'm totally cool with it. I was overjoyed with the reception and that just in of itself feels good, that people who saw it really reacted warmly to it. That was a fantastic feeling." He goes on to say, "I mean it's like I get almost as many emails about Slither now as I did opening weekend. It's continuing to have some sort of life beyond what it started out as."