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Interview: Talking Through Bathroom Walls With Rebekah McKendry

Photo Credit: Shudder

Glorious is about two visitors to a men’s public bathroom who hold a long, deep conversation, although one of them turns out to be somewhat different from typical visitors to such places. Two of our critics (Sean and Brendan) have already declared their admiration for this film; so although there was no need for me to review it myself, I watched an early copy and was so blown away that I sent an email straight after asking whether I could interview the director.

Note there are some mild spoilers in the later parts of this interview. I would strongly recommend watching the film on Shudder first. If you have already watched it, I’m afraid this article may well spoil the mystique of its terrific cosmic atmosphere… read on and enjoy at your own risk.

Rebekah McKendry lives and breathes horror cinema and has done for many years. Fascinated by her career, I opened (well after a little small talk about kids) by asking whether it was the product of a deliberate roadmap or the result of a series of flukes. “Most of it kind of came as I went,” said Rebekah. “One thing I always planned to do was get a Ph.D.; even when I was an undergrad, I always knew, because my Mom had been working on a Ph.D. at that time and she was really inspirational. That was the only part that was ever planned. I was living in New York City, having just moved there straight out of my masters programme, and hadn’t really figured out what I wanted to do yet. I’d not got a job, just working part-time in a yoga studio, and the New York City Horror Film Festival was happening. I really wanted to see all the films, but I was just 20 and didn’t have any money, so I volunteered to work the festival. I was celebrity liaison, so just even at that point, I was meeting people like Mike Gingold, Tony Timpone, Mick Garris, an amazing group of people. I was thrown in head first and it was then that I started talking to Mike Gingold and he and Tony encouraged me to apply for an internship at Fangoria that they had at the time. I applied, and then a week later I started my internship, barely old enough to drink; but I worked my way up the company. I was an intern for a couple of months and I had this theory that if I kind of hung around long enough after my internship was over they might pay me and start giving me other jobs, and they did! It worked!

“So I was at Fangoria for a really long time, and I’m still with them, hosting a podcast for them and I love them dearly. It all kind of happened by happenstance: if you asked me at that time what I wanted to do with my life, it was something in performance, but I was a dancer at that time; I would probably have said ‘choreography’. And it was just that internship at Fangoria that showed me that’s where I wanted to make my career.

“The filmmaking really came out of that. During the time I was at Fangoria, I started working on the radio show with Dee Snider and Debbie Rochon, so I learned all about how to run a radio show, which led to podcasting much later in my career. Fangoria had a small TV network at the time, and I started PAing for the TV network as well, and I was doing script supervision, and assisting the producers and directors; then after a while, they let me start shooting. I was shooting some of the interstitial stuff and the station IDs and stuff like that. Gradually, it became bigger and bigger: ‘we’re sending you out with a camera, and you’re going to cover this concert’ or ‘this horror convention’. And it got to the point where my husband and I realised we knew how to work a camera, we got the basics of editing: what if we started making stuff on our own? That was all because Fangoria let me hang out on set and get stuck into doing things.”

Ryan Kwanten as Wes with director Rebekah McKendry on the set of Glorious
Photo Credit: Shudder

So learning on the job rather than learning through studies? “My gosh yes,” said Rebekah. “All of my academic stuff has been film theory focused until I got to my Ph.D. That was a double with film theory and physical production. I’d never even held a camera until I was begging Fangoria to let me production assist on some of the sets.”

Bringing her career up to date with Glorious then, I told Rebekah that when I watched the film with my kid, we both had our eyes and mouths wide open the whole time. “Awesome film!” interjected my teenager. “Well it’s not a ‘family film’,” said Rebekah, “but I love that you watched it together because I watch horror films with my kids all the time.”

I asked Rebekah what it had been like directing what was essentially a duo when only one was ever really seen on screen. “You know, we had so much rehearsal going in,” answered Rebekah, “that it was never really a question of how it was going to work when we put it together. We made it during the height of the pandemic, so the biggest thing that we had was a lot of time. We did a lot of Zoom rehearsals going into the actual production, so by the time we got to the set, we’d been working with J.K. [J.K. Simmons, who plays the mysterious Ghat] and Ryan [Ryan Kwanten, who plays the heartbroken Wes] together for weeks, so they both knew how each other would deliver it, they knew exactly what each other’s tone and pacing sounded like. When we got to set, the person who’d been reading for J.K. (that’s one of our producers, Morgan Peter Brown) had memorised J.K.’s delivery of every single line, so it was just like having J.K. on set with us. And then we were able to go back in and do J.K.’s recording, and by the time we had him in the sound studio, the world had opened up a little bit and we were able to do that in person. Then we had Ryan’s performance! So it was all those rehearsals that really made it feel like an organic conversation; but the actual production on set, ninety percent of the time was just Ryan, with Morgan stuffed in the actual bathroom. The bathroom was so small there was no place we could hide him to read Ghat’s lines, so we had to put him in Ghat’s actual bathroom; but it was dark in there, so he read his lines with a little clip-light. So apart from him in the stall, it was just—yes—Ryan and the camera, so we called it ‘dancing’: like ‘this is the dance we’re doing today’, because it was just Ryan and my DP [director of photography] with his steady-cam, moving around him through almost the entire film.”

We’re essentially talking about a story with an immense scope playing out in a limited location. I asked Rebekah what that dichotomy was like to work with as the director. “The years that I spent working at Blumhouse,” recalled Rebekah, “well every single time I was in one of their big meetings of what they’re looking for, the big company stuff, I kept hearing this phrase come up: ‘high concept, low production.’ It’s kind of the idea they employed in The Purge, a massive film with a huge idea, you know, but just set in a single house. And so that always stuck with me, though I left Blumhouse years ago: a massive concept taken down to a small location or a single person who’s experiencing that concept. I always found it so powerful. When we first read the original version of this script, immediately I loved the idea of the god: that’s what the original script was; a god in a rest stop on a tour. Immediately, I thought: what if the world is ending? What if it is ending and we’re just stuck in this room? We knew it was the pandemic, and we couldn’t have a full cast, we couldn’t shoot hordes of people running in total mayhem. We kept saying there was a $10m version of this film, we could feel the global impact of everything happening, but this is what we were able to do. We loved how small and quaint we had to think of it, but it always had to be the entire world ending embodied in just Ryan Kwanten.”

After I’d slept on it and looked back on Glorious, I saw it as two characters reaching their own crisis points; and then it made sense that the film was set in a bathroom: that’s where you sometimes go to break down, to give in to your stress or escape from it briefly. Rebekah agreed: “as we were doing the later drafts of the script, I really looked at it as two males dealing with toxic patriarchy or ‘daddy issues.’ They’re both realising they are toxic in some capacity, they’re both forces of destruction, coming to their own realisations of what they are capable of, but it’s all happening within this rest stop.”

Rebekah McKendry, Bob Portal, Morgan Peter Brown on the set of Glorious
Photo Credit: Shudder

Yet you could hardly call it a bonding conversation; they hardly relate to each other, from what I recalled. “I definitely think that Ghat was more relating,” said Rebekah. “Ryan’s character spends the movie fighting it all.”

Going back to something Rebekah had mentioned earlier, I asked whether the set was a real bathroom, or made specially. “No, this wasn’t a real bathroom,” said Rebekah. “This was a straight-up set. We thought about shooting in a real bathroom. It was the pandemic, so we were looking around at all of these rest stops and were told ‘no-one’s coming here now, so you can use this.’ So we had all these places that were available, but we kept running into a couple of issues. Firstly, no matter how much you bleach a rest stop, it’s still disgusting. There’s still something so gross about crawling around on the floor for four weeks, which is what we were asking Ryan to do. The other thing is that bathrooms are so film-unfriendly: everything is reflective, everything creates an echo and there is height anyway. So looking at all the shots, every time Ryan is in the stall, we have the front door taken off the stall to fit the camera through; or we have the side of it taken off. Every single wall of that set came down at some point, and we really did pull the urinal through the wall. So we knew that we really did need the set to be really functional in that capacity, we needed to be able to control all the elements: I needed to be able to control exactly that break that we see in the mirrors—which was intentionally broken—so that you can see Ryan in the top half and you’d never see the camera in the bottom. So everything was carefully controlled.

“That urinal pull actually was wild,” she continued, “because when you see it shaking, it’s literally our amazing set dec person Alfred on the other side of the wall with a handle stuck into it, lifting it up and down. Then after we cut and retooled it, he literally pulled it out of the wall, so it was a wild thing to get to that stage.”

I read an interesting line in a tweet about Glorious recently: “even if you can save the world, you still have your sins”. I asked Rebekah whether that was how she saw the message of the film. “That’s how we always saw it,” she said, “because it became a big script question as to whether—this is really a spoiler point—Wes lives through the movie. I won’t say which way we ended, but that was a heavy debate we had going into this because we had both versions of the script: in one, Wes gets to save the world and he lives; and in the other, it shakes out very similarly, but he dies a horrible death. It always comes down to this: does saving the world and sacrificing yourself redeem you of all the shitty stuff you’ve done up to this point? The way I ended up going is the way the movie ends: no, this is how it is.”

I guess however your life ends, you’ve still done what you’ve done while it lasted; and that reflects what I had seen in the film, an element of guilt, especially as Wes looked back on life with his ex-girlfriend. “Well it was definitely a big scripting conversation,” Rebekah mused. “Really, a big, heavy evening in the middle of my living room with all of us discussing whether there is any way to overcome sin? Can one thing balance out another?”

Rebekah McKendry, director of Glorious
Credit Ama Lea

I hadn’t been expecting a moral or philosophical story when I had pressed ‘play’ that night! “Oh no one does!” said Rebekah, “and I love that. One of the biggest compliments I’ve received is that it’s ‘high-brow/low-brow’, because it’s kind of this real low-brow set up with a glory-hole in a bathroom, and we open with vomit; but we’ll end with discussions of religion and morality, and your place in the universe, and existentialism. I love that we were able to achieve that in a bathroom.”

Rebekah had talked about the script and the way it had come together, and I couldn’t help recalling that there were three writers. I asked Rebekah whether she and they had collaborated from the start or whether they had brought it to her almost fully formed. “The way that this came together was this,” Rebekah said. “The original short story is by the first writer, Todd Rigney; a fantastic short story writer. The original script-writer, Joshua Hull, had optioned the short story from him; and so the original script that I read was based on that short story. Then we [Rebekah and her husband David Ian McKendry] optioned the script Joshua Hull had written, and my husband wrote the story that you finally saw before you. So it’s got a lot of all three of the writers in there: each time, it developed a little bit more and it got a little different. In this most recent pass, we got a lot of what we were going through during the pandemic, a lot of the existential crises, a lot of looking back on the past.”

It sounds like a genuine shared product, despite distinct stages to the writing. “Yeah, and it took a while too,” Rebekah added, “because Todd Rigney’s short story was I believe from almost a decade ago, and then Joshua Hull’s script was from a number of years ago. Then during the pandemic, I reached a point where I was like ‘just send me scripts’, I was so antsy to do anything. One of the producers, Jason Goldberg, sent me that one, and thus I joined that process. The script had apparently been floating around for some years, but reading it during the pandemic, I was immediately struck with the feeling that this was something we could really do.” It certainly worked.

Now having spent some time finding out about Rebekah’s career and this latest film, I took a step back and asked her for some personal insight: what is it that she loves about the horror genre? “I’ve been working with the horror genre like I said since I was about twenty, and it’s my home,” Rebekah said. “What I love about the horror genre is that it is constantly surprising me. I am constantly in a state of ‘oh that’s heavy! I never saw it that way.’ And I’m always on the lookout for the next thing, on the search for a great film I haven’t seen. I still get scared: as soon as I stop being scared, I’ll get a new job, and that’s never happened. I still get excited sitting in movies: I’m going to see Bodies, Bodies, Bodies this weekend and I’m so excited to go and see it. So I still get that same energy to see a new horror film that I had when I was sixteen, and I just love being able to combine fear and meaning and bury stuff like social issues inside of it all. I find far more social issues in horror films than in any other types of movies.”

And some very ancient themes, too, from what I understand. “There’s so much mythology in Glorious,” Rebekah said. “We thought about doing just traditional Lovecraftian mythology, but that’s been done before and we really wanted to try something different. So we mixed a bunch of mythology together to get to that point; mostly my husband’s influence. Lovecraft is the strongest, but we bring in Greek mythology, a lot of Sumerian, and even the final line is straight from Jesus on the cross in the Bible. We did the same with philosophy too, because there’s Sartre mixed in with ‘no exit’ and the theory of Hell being other people; it’s infused with a lot of stuff!”

What Rebekah is describing sounds like something timeless; not just this latest film but horror stories in general: there is an ongoing endurance about them. “We certainly hope so!” agreed Rebekah.

Interviews are finite though, so I ask my usual closing question: what’s next? “Right now, I am literally in post on Elevator Game, just finished cutting a scene before hopping into this interview. Elevator Game is based off of an internet legend from about a decade ago that if you’re in an elevator and you hit buttons and go to floors in a certain sequence it will unlock a curse. You will either play the game right and walk away or you’ll play it wrong and be cursed forever, and this woman arrives and rips you in half, which is super-fun! I shot that in Winnepeg in May, June, and July, and now we’re in post, so it will probably be coming out about this time next year. Then I’ve got some other stuff, constantly spinning multiple plates to see what lands next.”

Rebekah McKendry’s Glorious premiered at Fantasia in August this year and is now available to all via Shudder.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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