Filmmaker Jay Baruchel Discusses Cinematography, Creativity, And Cannabis

Film veteran Jay Baruchel discusses his transition from comedy to horror in this exclusive interview.
Filmmaker Jay Baruchel Discusses Cinematography, Creativity, And Cannabis
Ken Woroner/Shudder

Jay Baruchel has gone from comedy to horror in his young directing career. Following up Goon: The Last of the Enforcers, Baruchel is testing new waters with his second feature film, Random Acts of Violence. It is a horror movie that doesn’t soften any blow, cut, or scream. The new Shudder release follows a cult comic book writer (played by co-writer Jesse Williams) as he becomes the target of his cult comic’s subject—a small-town serial killer. 

Baruchel is no stranger to projects with passionate cult followings, such as the loveable Man Seeking Woman and the wonderful Goon series. Of course, Baruchel has been a part of movies that struck a mighty chord in pop culture, but during our interview with the filmmaker, he talked to us about a few of his cult favorites, smoking and moviemaking, and the experience of directing his first horror movie. 

Are there any movies that specifically influenced Random Acts of Violence? 

There’s a handful of movies. One’s a movie called White of the Eye. It’s a weird serial killer flick from the early ‘80s that’s just got crazy, crazy steadicam photography. Irreversible, that was a big fucking influence, and Zodiac. Especially those two movies for our approach to the gore. There’s The Red Shoes, an old Powell and Pressburger movie. Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that is one of the scariest movies ever made and one of my favorites, so I’m certain that that forced its way in there in a big way too.

Why The Red Shoes? Was it the use of color that influenced you?

Yeah. Specifically, there’s this one sequence in that movie when they’re doing the ballet and you’re onstage with her. That whole sequence, I get goosebumps just thinking about it, it’s utterly magical. There was an energy and a vibe to it that I think was color, but also painting in what the camera was doing. I don’t know why, but when I was watching, I was like, “Oh, this is the movie. This is the thing.” I came in with a strong instinct of this pinkish hue. 

What did you learn about lighting a scene when it comes to shooting gore? How did you and your cinematographer, Karim Hussain, want to make the practical effects look just right?

That’s everything, yeah. It’s all sleight of hand. It’s all just what magicians do. The practical aspect of the gore, that was deeply important to us. Deeply important to us in the abstract, just as a rule. We knew that we wanted to do everything in-camera as best we could. If we have to have any CG, we want to just use it for what CG should be used for, which is sweetening, cleaning up, and all that different shit. There are about seven CGI shots in the whole movie, not counting the animations. Everything that we did was add rain, add fire, paint out a wire, add a blade. It was tiny little touches. With sleight of hand, it’s down to everything. It’s where you put the camera, it’s how you block the thing out, it’s what you decide to draw attention to. 

You’ve got to figure out the gore as a story itself. Each kill, each sequence—if you do your job right—it should be a microcosm of the story and it should have three acts to it, contained within the kill itself. If you figured out the emotional beats in it, you work backwards from that. Once we know what’s most important about the kill and what we want to communicate, then we can figure out everything else. We can find blocking that serves that. Once we know the blocking, we can decide where to put the fucking camera, and make sure that we aim it this way and not this way so that we don’t do ourselves any fucking favors.

Does the timing involved in creating suspense at all compare to comedic timing?

Yeah, absolutely. It is absolutely the same. I’d go one further and say that it’s all that, whatever the genre. I think it’s all a game of playing with people’s attention and energy and focus. And trying to keep all of their attention on this box and playing with their attentions once you have it. Between comedy and horror is a very, very, very apparent specific similarity because they live or die on pacing.

They’re more visceral too.

Correct. I think that they’re both direct genres that bypass your brain and go right to your heart. That’s not to say they don’t have anything for your brain, but I’m saying like punk rock and metal and hip hop, I’d say these are things that are very direct and immediate and get you in your gut. I think they’re both very direct and similar in that respect.

Good: Last of the Enforcers being the first movie you directed, what did you learn from that experience you kept in mind making Random Acts of Violence?

They were mostly tactical ones, to be honest. I knew that I had to parcel out my anxiety a bit better. It was having been through it A to Z now once before and knowing that it is a series of fucking marathons. Coming out of Goon 2, man, my back was fucked and I had really bad acid reflux. We cut both movies in my basement. Cutting a movie in my house, in my basement as a bachelor with a bunch of other bachelors, is very different than cutting a movie in the basement with my wife. 

When I think of cutting Goon 2, I think of this one specific night. We knew the producers were coming by the house in the morning to see where we were at. We’re about to break for fucking Christmas. We really wanted to fucking nail the thing. We had cut all day and we had to screen it once before we all went to bed. 

We started this fucking screening in the basement after staring at the bloody screen all day. At midnight, I remember just sitting there in my basement, wearing sunglasses, just gripping a bong, like, “I’m losing my mind here. I’m losing my mind. I’m just with my fucking sunglasses on trying to cut this, trying to make sense of this hockey fucking movie.” I lost my mind. I actually lost my fucking mind.

That sounds like a horror movie.

It fucking was, man. We had this old, dirty, shitty dead tree in my yard that we called the kicking tree. We would just take a break and I’ll just jump-kick this tree or hack it with a hatchet. Then we’d go fucking wrestle in the basement. It was so stupid.

That was your distraction?

Indeed. I guess I was a bit more mindful of my wellbeing a bit more this time. I was way more planned, way, way more planned. It was this smaller story with way less characters and fewer action scenes, so it’s slightly easier to plan that. I mean, by the end of prep on Goon 2, we hadn’t finished our shot list. By the end of prep on Random Acts of Violence, we had gotten through six drafts of our shot list. We had no choice because we had 35 days to do Goon 2, and we had 20 on paper to do this one. Really, 19 and a half to be honest.

Do you smoke at all to relax while you’re making a movie?

I have a whole metric. I put a whole great deal of thought into this. When I’m on set, I never smoke. I can’t smoke any dope on set, I don’t want to. Set’s big boy pants time. So much time and money, there’s too much at risk at every fucking second of the day on set. I can’t afford to do that. But throughout writing and throughout all of the edits and all the post-production, yeah, I definitely smoked weed the whole fucking time. I cut it at my house for fuck’s sake. 

I live in a country where it is completely legal across the board recreationally. I don’t even get any crosslooks when I’m doing the mix and I go outside and smoke weed on the street. No one’s even looking at me anymore. It definitely helps me. 

How was it growing up with that acceptance of recreational smoking? 

I grew up in Montreal, but now I live in Toronto. Toronto, I think, tends to be a bit more uptight than where I’m from, which is terribly Libertine. I’ll say this, yes, there’s a huge tolerance. It was effectively legal my entire life. You would have to be a dickhead to get arrested for smoking weed. You’d have to go up and blow smoke into a cop’s face and pick a fight to get in trouble for it. 

I have a very vivid memory of being a teenager, like 19, I was smoking a joint as I was crossing the street. After crossing the crosswalk at the stoplight, there was a cop car and I looked at them and I thought, “Uh oh. Should I drop it or should I hide it?” Then they both just burst out laughing and gestured for me to keep smoking. It was the best. 

I remember as a kid being 11 or 12, and I walked by an older fellow smoking a joint on the street and I ran home to my mom and I was like, “Mom, this guy was smoking weed.” She said, “Okay, did he offer you some or something?” I was like, “Well, no.” And she’s like, “Well, what did he say to you?” I was like, “Nothing.” She goes, “So he was minding his own business?” I was like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “So, what’s the problem?” I said, “Okay. That’s a fair fucking point.” So, that’s the tradition I grew up in.

When you’re not editing your own movies, are there any other specific movies or shows you enjoy watching more after you’ve smoked?

Oh, absolutely. My shit is documentaries on YouTube. Every single night I’ll smoke weed and watch something and work my way through an old history series from 20 fucking years ago. Anything to do with the second World War, the first World War or the Crusades, that shit, I inhale it. It’s my get out of my head and relax thing, putting on a fucking old BBC doc. You just go fucking time traveling in my head.

By the way, as a fan of the Goon movies, it’s nice knowing they were influenced by cannabis.

Probably. There’s literally quotes out there of me saying the movie emerged from clouds of weed smoke in my bedroom. It absolutely did. That movie was made almost entirely by stoners. So yeah, that was a fucking blast.

Movie fans and sports fans both love those movies. There’s such a crossover.

I know. It’s weird, but it’s really, really cool. There are certain bands like that. The Smiths are a great example of that. You can picture a Smiths fan in your head, but then you’re like, “Oh, a shitload of gang bangers and fucking skinheads like them too? What the fuck?” I’m not comparing sports people to skinheads, but I’m saying there’s a bunch of fucking guys that would have tried to kick the shit out of me in high school that fucking love me now because of this fucking thing. It’s cool because a lot of fucking hipster movie nerds like the thing too. It’s the best.

Do you think you’ll make a third one or that’ll happen?

Oh boy. We would love to, and we actually have broken down actually two or three other possible stories for it. There’s one version, which is a continuation and it’s all after retirement and it’s all about Doug and Eva’s daughter playing junior hockey. It’d be almost like a John Hughes kind of thing where she’d be twice as tall as the biggest guy at her school and shit. There’s a lot of people making fun of her, but she’s fucking super good and beats the fuck out of everybody. Maybe Doug coaches her High School team, something like that. 

The other story, we’ve called it an “in betwee-quel,” that would take place in between number one and number two. There were fucking five years that went by between the two movies, so there’s five potential Highlanders seasons. We came up with a pretty cool story for that, we think. I would love to, that would all depend on whether or not the world wants it.

Man Seeking Woman was fantastic, too. Were there stories for more seasons planned? Would we have seen [your character] Josh Greenberg become a father or ever get divorced?

Absolutely. Simon very specifically built season three. We all went into season three knowing this was probably our last go, but in case it isn’t and we would love to do more, let’s build an ending that would be satisfying, but would also set up potential new stuff if we could, if we got that chance. Had it continued, it would have absolutely been about married life and parenthood. The opportunities for what we did on that show for our fun little sequences would’ve been fucking crazy with parenthood. So yeah, we always kind of hoped, but we all went into season three feeling we would not get another go. To be honest, I didn’t think we’d do more than the fucking pilot.

I was like, “This show is so weird. I love it, but there’s no way that they’re going to keep funding this,” especially when it’s on a network that I didn’t even know existed. Most households in North America don’t subscribe to FXX. The first time someone told me about it, I thought they were either joking or they got the name wrong. I was like, “FXX? You mean FX?” Like, “No, FXX.” “What the fuck is that?” We were on Wednesday at 9:30 or 10:30, so there were not a ton of favors. 

I kept thinking they’ll cancel us. We all thought, “Oh, we’re doing a whole season. We’re doing a second season, too? We’re doing a third season, are you fucking crazy?” It just didn’t seem like that would happen because we were having too much fun, and we’re doing a too honest and truthful and artsy show. I’m deeply proud of it. When it ended, Simon said, “I’d rather be The Smiths than the Rolling Stones.” [Laughs] So we have three great fucking records and you wouldn’t skip a single track on any of them.

[Laughs] Exactly. It’s sad when it ends, but sometimes less is more, right? There are only three seasons, but they’re very consistent. No disappointment.

That’s it. Inevitably we would have gotten spread thin at some point. Every show passes a certain point. I’m happy that by virtue of getting cancelled, our integrity will be intact forever. It’s got a really cool, connected fanbase. I think it was that rare thing where people saw themselves in the show. It doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it takes a crazy show with penis monsters to do it.

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