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The Greasy Strangler

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Mark Burnett, while working full time, has managed to edit a feature film. Said film, produced by Elijah Wood, went on to land a feature in Sundance’s Midnight showing, BFI backing, played the SXSW lineup, and is going to hit the Phoenix Film Festival this Saturday, and the San Francisco Film Festival at the end of the month.

Elijah Wood describes it as “the most disgusting, vile, and all-around grotesquely hilarious piece of cinema…with imagery we will likely never dislodge from our tender, greasy brains. And that is why it must exist!”

Mark kindly sat down with us to answer a few burning questions about what goes on behind the scenes of a film of this caliber.

How did you become involved with The Greasy Strangler?
I have been editing Jim Hosking’s commercials and short films since 2008, and through this time he would send me a lot of various scripts that he had written. At the beginning of 2015 he sent me The Greasy Strangler, which I read and loved. Not long after I read the script, Jim called me saying, “This is the one we are making and Elijah Wood is producing it.” I did think that out of all his scripts this was the most bonkers, so was amazing to hear all the names involved who thought there was a unique film to be made.

Can you tell us a bit about your role in the project? What was it like editing this piece? What drove your editing decisions?
Doing this film, I was the editor as well as Post Supervisor, which meant mentally switching between the creative process and the technical process every other day. I had never worked like that before, but I did learn a lot from it, and it all seemed to flow quite seamlessly.

Cutting with Jim you know there will be tears of hilarity running down your face from Jim himself, the rushes, and where you go with an edit—but I think with anything you’re cutting there are also times when you’re trying to find the film which is tough. Time was quite tight with the edit, so we had to cut quite fast to get an assembly together, which we did in about 2 weeks. I remember watching the assembly and both of us falling silent for a while. We both knew the moments that worked and what didn’t, so we just started voicing our instinctive feelings and used that conversation to start reshaping the piece.

Jim has such a distinct style in comedy and in filmmaking, but he also is a director who loves collaboration. He really wants to know what you think, and, as an editor, that’s a great place to be. Jim has a very clear idea of the beats he needs to hit or the height of absurdity it needs to reach. Sometimes we will be cutting a scene, and both of us are thinking it’s hilarious—but after a handful of runs he would look at it and think that something isn’t right. He’ll say, “We need to make it weirder to fit it to the tone of the film.” Then he’ll just allow you to try strange approaches to a scene; forgetting rules to find the absurd. There’s a scene in the film where two characters play a sort of verbal tennis match for about 90seconds. It’s pushed to a point where you are thinking, “Is this still going on?!” That’s what we both find funny, so with a lot of scenes it was trying to create that element of, “How far can we push things?”

Aside from editing a feature while working full time; what kinds of challenges did you encounter/victories did you celebrate?
Small challenges like keeping continuity in check was always on our minds. The film breaks quite a lot of rules and sits in it’s own world, but we wanted to craft it so every tiny detail felt controlled. The characters would be in these bizarre scenarios, exchanging repetitious dialogue for minutes on end, but Jim was very adamant that it all had to feel purposeful. We did quite a lot of cutouts to make everything feel precise, so—as crazy as this world may seem—the audience will always feel like it’s in control.

I think the biggest challenge was pursuing the path that the film wanted to be. There’s not a great deal of change from the script, but when you’re cutting and sharing the film with people in the offline stage, you get quite a lot of diverse feedback—especially with something that sits outside of the box. The challenge was how to take on feedback, compartmentalize it, and make sure it was still The Greasy Strangler.

The biggest victories were when it got in to Sundance and then finding out the BFI were backing it. Those two things gave the film so much weight, and I was so happy for Jim, Toby (the co-writer), and everyone who was part of this film as it was extra clarification that this film was on to something.

Do you agree with Elijah’s quote about the film being “the most disgusting, vile, and all-around grotesquely hilarious piece of cinema…with imagery we will likely never dislodge from our tender, greasy brains” ? Are you a changed man after spending so much time with this piece?
YES! I remember cutting scenes, really getting into an edit, finding shots, going through takes, and then, as a kind of twitch moment, I’d make a sigh or a whispered comment. Jim would ask what was on my mind, and what that was, was me stepping outside of the film for a second, grasping the footage and realizing how desensitized we had become to the footage. The gore, the Hosking style comedy, the prosthetic ‘members’…all of it had just become normal.

With so many outstanding pieces of cinema launched from the Sundance Midnight slot, you must be thrilled—were you be able to attend?
Unfortunately no. I was in Sydney with my wife and daughter getting a well-deserved tan.

Any other entries you would have wanted to see? Any favorites from Midnights past?
In the midnight section I would have loved to have seen Yoga Hosers. Actually, Jim had to mention this a few times when times were tougher than others, that I’ve been quite lucky to have two films I edited featured in the midnight section. The Greasy Strangler and Shut Up And Play The Hits. So, being bias, Shut Up And Play The Hits is a midnight past favorite.

Anybody you want to thank or push into the spotlight?
Jim Hosking, Toby Harvard (co-writer), Rook Films, Russell Icke and John Smith. Oh, and my wife and daughter. Jesus, sounds like an acceptance speech.