07.03.13 | Lowell Bartholomee and Rafael Ruiz
At last count, HOLY HELL features about 100 speaking roles. No one in their right mind would ever set out to make their first feature on a tiny budget with such a large cast. Fortunately for us we were making this in Austin and had several years of local theater and voice-over experience under our belts. Finding brilliantly talented people to fill the roles wasn’t going to be hard. It was really the best asset we had. Here’s just a tenth of how lucky we are.
KEN EDWARDS (Lane)
Ironically, Ken is one of the few actors we didn’t know through theater or voice work. Ken is an honest-to-God working actor and you’ve seen him in several things on the big and small screen. We met him through Shiraz Jafri (who also has a cameo in the movie), an Austin filmmaker and all-around awesome guy. Shiraz created “That Banned Show”, a very irreverent sketch show that Raf worked on and Lowell appeared in. In fact, Lowell played the same character as Ken in one sketch and you’d have to see it to make that make sense (which it does). Ken had also starred in a low budget horror film that Shiraz had a small role in. (So you can start to see how this sort of thing works in Austin.) Lane was one of the roles we took a lot of time to cast, not just because he’s so central to the film, but because we had a tricky time matching an actor to the part. Once those roads led us to Ken, we didn’t look any farther. We got him a script and he agreed to do it based solely on the material and our mutual connections. Ken was one of the few actors we met and got to know while making the film and we couldn’t be happier with how it worked out.
The other half of what we regularly referred to as “The Kens.” Lowell knew Ken from as far back as 1997 or so through theater and film work and had been present at several cast parties where Ken had sworn to quit acting and start getting into “real life.” We see how well that worked out and the world is a better place for it. It turns out that Raf had worked on a production of TALK RADIO that Ken had been in at Hyde Park Theatre back in 1995, but neither of them realized this until almost the end of the shoot. We really lucked out when Ken agreed to play Pardo. It helps that he’s one of the kindest and most generous people you could hope to know and throws himself into his work with more enthusiasm than anyone else on the set. (Those who have seen him get zotzed by William Fichtner in DRIVE ANGRY can attest to that.) What Ken may not know is that he was also cast because he’s married to Cathy, who is without debate his “better half.” We figured if Ken was in the movie then Cathy would get to hang out with us, too. Keep that a secret because it’s good for him to think he won the role on talent alone.
ELLIE McBRIDE (Claudia)
The role of Claudia was written for Ellie. She also has the extremely mixed blessing of being Lowell’s then-girlfriend (now wife). These life choices resulted in her house (the central location in the film) being invaded by what served as production offices, storage, Raf’s living quarters, and the bulk of the shooting schedule. Ellie managed to work a full-time job throughout the production and never once murdered anyone after months of having people show up early in the morning and late at night to make a movie. (A lot of that goes to explain the “now wife” part.) Her performance speaks to how much better prepared she was than even the filmmakers when it came time to shoot. During production, Ellie had to go to Smithville to shoot a scene with Brad Pitt in TREE OF LIFE, directed by Terrence Malick and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. She came home to talk about working with Brad and Terry and “Chito.” (“Who’s Chito?” “The cinematographer.” “You mean Emmanuel Lubezki?” “His friends call him Chito.” She was now on a nickname basis with a couple of living geniuses.) We had to remind her that when she was done goofing around with cinematic man-gods, she needed to come home and do pick-ups on our little church-horror comedy. Despite that, she still said “yes” when Lowell popped the question at the end of the year. There’s really no explaining that.
EDWIN NEAL (Bolton)
Ultimately, HOLY HELL was inspired by a deep love of horror movies, particularly the ragged grindhouse flavored ones from the 70s. Lowell was lucky to have met and become friends with Ed over several years of running an anime dubbing studio in Austin. Ed was one of those actors you could bring in and throw any manner of roles at and he would do something special with it. Added to which, he’s a riot to hang out with. That he also played The Hitchhiker in crown-jewel-of-the-70s-horror-pantheon THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE only added an extra bit of perfect detail to him being in our movie. It also allowed our cast-many of whom were acting in their first movie- to gain one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon since Ed was in JFK. Our biggest regret is that we were so tightly scheduled that we didn’t have time to just run a camera on Ed and get him to tell us stories of his life and career. There’s a seriously hilarious documentary to be made there. (Feel free to steal that idea because we’d love to see that movie.)
Lowell met Tiger when she literally didn’t come up to much higher than his knee in 2000 when he managed to act in three shows with her mother Peyton Haylsip (also in the movie). At the time, Tiger would camp out under the dressing room table with her books and whatever else sparked her preternaturally advanced imagination. He still has a drawing she made of him somewhere in the archives. Since then she’s gotten a lot taller and her talent has grown even more. She’s currently in New York studying music at NYU and is already earning awards for her stunning songwriting skills. (NYU Steinhardt Songwriter Scholar Award for Excellence in Songwriting from the Songwriters Hall of Fame!) Which probably means we were able to work with her right before she became too famous to show up on weekends to dork around with us. Tiger and Peyton lived in Dallas at the time and would arrange a handful of days they could come and work on the movie. Needless to say, Tiger was never not ready for anything. Which teaches us that you should always look under the table because there might be a brilliant artist making pictures there.
DAVID WALTER (Aaron)
We had written a number of young roles into the movie and while Austin theater boasts of a great number of fine actors, it can be difficult to find the pre-college kinds. Raf went to Austin High and had remained friends with Billy Dragoo, who runs the theater department there and is something of an Austin legend/guru/helper in the larger community. We were able to set up auditions in the theater at the school where we met a number of really capable, very young actors. We threw them improv ideas and tried a few different scenes to see who could do what. David was one of those kids who you knew had to be in the movie. To be so young and to have that kind of presence and timing is remarkable. We cast three or four of the kids, but David was probably the one who had to be on set the most. He was a joy to work with except for maybe the time he cut most of his hair off after we’d only shot about a third of his scenes. If you watch the movie and wonder why that one character seems to wear a lot of different hats in various scenes, well there you go. Mystery solved. We had an idea that there was going to be a lot more improv in the film than there ended up being. We can chalk that up to thinking something’s a good idea because Judd Apatow does it (it was 2008) and then realizing that takes certain skills that need developing over time.
Natalie is currently one of the three people who runs the internationally renowned Fusebox Festival every spring in Austin. In 2008, she was a technical wizard and performer who could often be found in the rafters or guts of a theater making a show possible or a theater viable. Lowell had never worked with her as an actor, but luckily ran into her at a party thrown by Cyndi Williams (also in the movie) a week before they shot the fake movie scenes. It seemed like a good idea to ask Natalie to jump into the mix and she agreed to do it. We had no idea what magic she was going to bring. She clicked with the cheap horror movie aesthetic immediately and delivered some of our favorite line deliveries in the entire film. And she was willing to jump into hastily written scenes and throw on a red sequined dress for no discernible reason and deliver the goods. In a just world, we would build a really great horror movie around the actors who starred in our fake horror movie and give them a chance to really shine. Maybe on the next film.
BARBARA CHISHOLM (Annie Linford)
There are actors and there are forces of nature and Barbara is definitely the latter. For years she’s been one of those people who takes the stage and you have to be on your game just to hold your own on it with her. This was another case of having an actor in the film whose talent and accomplishments were well beyond our pay grade. But as with many actors in the film, years of doing theater together and dubbing anime gave us access to talent we probably otherwise would not have had. Barbara is one of those people who you can call and ask, “Do you want to come out on Saturday and play an insane religious zealot and yell at some of your best friends?” and she will say, “Where and what time?” Barbara’s character represented the kind of person in the real world who just makes it harder on the rest of us. A person who is willing to gum up the works at a moment’s notice because they don’t understand something and are afraid of what they don’t know. Pretty much the exact opposite of Barbara. I think it was a sign of how even-handed we tried to be that we cast someone with so much charisma to take on this role. In the time since the movie was shot, the world has given us Palins and Bachmans and in retrospect we should have been a lot harder on these people. (Hey, we thought after eight years of Bush II that people would be tired of being crazy. Our mistake.) We would still ask Barbara to play the role, though. Because if you can have Barbara Chisholm in your play or movie, have Barbara Chisholm in your play or movie. To do otherwise would just be insane.
Lowell met Travis and Melanie in 1998 on a production of MACBETH in which they played the most notorious murderous bastards in all of Western drama. In the time since, they had many opportunities to work together: both of them appearing in a production of Kirk Lynn’s THE JINN for Lowell and Ellie’s theater company the dirigo group and Travis had starred (with Peyton Hayslip) in Lowell’s first full-length play THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. In addition, they had voiced several characters over the years at the anime studio. So when it came time to cast the pinnacle of grandiose religious villainy, there was really only one way to go. Both of them are seriously accomplished actors who are maybe never better than when they’re acting together. Since the Potters only appear on television, their schedule was fairly light: one afternoon in front of a greenscreen representing everything that can and does go wrong in modern media. But in a couple of short hours they masterfully created the perfect Big Evils around which everything else spun. Interestingly, Travis probably has one of the most extensive film resumes of anyone involved in the film, having built sets for Rodriguez, the Coens, and many others. But it doesn’t take long once you’ve heard either of them to know that there’s no better place for the Deans than to have them up there turning dialogue into gold.
DOUGLAS TAYLOR (Terry)
Doug is a mainstay of Austin theater. Lowell met him on one of the first shows he did in 1997 when Doug jumped in at the last minute to replace an actor who apparently would rather have died than do the show. Talking to Doug backstage, he quickly became aware of Doug’s sharp wit and his extreme unwillingness to put up with nonsense. So, they became fast friends and have collaborated on a number of projects since, including Lowell’s first foray into writing and directing at Frontera Fest in 2000. Doug was asked to join HOLY HELL for a truly thankless role. It only had three lines and the character was there only to show that there were more people involved in our central church than our core characters. After so many years of working together, it should have been apparent that you don’t bring Doug in to take up space in the background. After his first of what was supposed to be two shooting days, it was clear that Doug was going to be in the movie a whole lot more. We never wrote him any more lines. We didn’t have to, because when Doug is dropped onto your deserted island of a project, he will soon figure out how to build a fire, put up a hut, and before long open his own resort casino.
Rupert Reyes is a pillar of Austin theater. He’s a co-founder of the Latino Comedy Project and currently runs Teatro Vivo, one of the leading theaters in the city, with his brilliant wife Jo Ann. He’s worked with a number of companies and is one of the primary forces in the propagation of bilingual theater in the States. He’s an accomplished playwright (PETRA’S PECADO), actor, and storyteller. Beyond that, he is one of the sweetest, most generous, kindest people you could ever hope to meet. (And if you meet him, let him tell some stories because the man can really tell a story.) Lowell was fortunate to meet Rupert while shooting a video piece for “Krypton is Doomed!” by internationally renowned playwright Kirk Lynn (also in the movie). Rupert is in HOLY HELL for about four seconds during the opening credits. We’re pretty sure his life accomplishments to screen time ratio is so misbalanced that it sets some sort of record. Considering that our opening credits contain one of the country’s best improv artists, a stunning Shakespearian actor, one of Austin’s best actors and directors, a person who could honestly be considered the heart and soul of Austin theater, and one of the founders of an internationally adored theater companies there’s a lot of competition for that title. In short, there’s no logical reason why someone like Rupert is in a first feature for a short period of time except that that’s how the Austin theater scene works. And the list of favors we owe to an enormous number of actors will never truly be checked off.
There’s a reason Austin works the way it works, both in general and in the theater community in particular. A local actor said that it has to do with no one protecting their turf and everyone willing to jump in if it makes it easier to put up a production or run box office or get someone’s medical bills paid off. There’s a lot of truth to that. We’ve seen the community come together for reasons large and small, for the ridiculous and the sublime. In the end, it does rely on a spirit of cooperation and collaboration that few cities can boast. In the larger media centers of the country there is often a spirit of “if they get that job, it means I don’t get that job, and what can I do to make sure that doesn’t happen.” The Austin art scene seems to thrive on an attitude of “if they get to do that I’ll get to see it” and that has given way to a massive number of projects both on stage and on film (or its digital equivalent). From the outside this can be seen as precious, insulated, or- as Austin is often thought of- as just more of that hippie-dippy bullshit. Sometimes, maybe that’s true. From the inside it’s something else, particularly if you have a project you’re trying to take from wild idea to finished product. A friend of ours once asked, when talking about the Austin theater scene, if this was a cult. Well, it actually sort of is. But if all cults acted like the Austin arts community acted the world would be a different place. And there would be less reasons to skewer them with movies like HOLY HELL.
Join Austin Film Festival at the Made In Texas Film Series Screening of HOLY HELL Wednesday, July 10th at 7:00pm at the Texas Spirit theatre at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. For more information on the screening, click here.