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One of the less emotionally intense films to premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – unless you consider summoning ancient evils emotionally intense and in that case, what are you even doing with your Friday nights? – is writer/director Andrew Bowser’s Kickstarter success, Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls. This mouthful is a campy treat for horror fans, and for fans of Bowser’s viral YouTube character, Onyx the Fortuitous, an amateur occultist with high anxiety. Amid the candy colors, zany creature designs, and an off-the-wall premise, Onyx has a pretty stand-out cast, including Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs, genre legend, Barbara Crampton, and Terrence Carson. The movie also stars Rivkah Reyes, Melanie Chandra, Olivia Taylor Dudley, and Arden Myrin.
In his first starring role, Marcus J. Trillbury (Onyx the Fortuitous) is a burger-flipping Satan worshipper with hopes of escaping the humdrum of his everyday life at home. One day, fortune shines on Onyx when he answers an open call to meet his longtime hero, the occultist Bartok the Great (Combs). The call provides Marcus the opportunity to join Bartok, along with four other devotees, in his spooky mansion where they will perform a ritual to summon an ancient god. Unfortunately, something isn’t quite as it seems, and Onyx the Fortuitous may be — Abaddon help us — their only hope.
Ahead of Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls’ premiere at the festival, Bowser, Reyes, Chandra, Dudley, and Myrin joined Collider’s Steve Weintraub in the Collider Studio at Park City to discuss the movie. During their interview, they discuss how Onyx went from Kickstarter to Sundance, how they pulled everything off on a tight budget, and bringing Bowser’s vision to the screen. They describe the movie as an “‘80s throwback” similar to Gremlins and Fright Night, talk about working with the genius behind the film’s creatures, Adam Dougherty of Kreature Kid, and what Bowser learned from editing in his garage. He also reveals how he got Jeffrey Combs involved, the found family aspect, and why the movie isn’t gorier. You can watch the interview in the player above, or read the full transcript below.
COLLIDER: I am here with everyone behind Onyx, and I am really happy you’re here. I want to say congratulations on pulling off this film, making it, and being part of Sundance. You are one of those Kickstarter success stories.
ANDREW BOWSER: Yeah, thank you so much. It’s a wild ride. We were just talking earlier about how it seems like yesterday we were running that Kickstarter and now we’re sitting here with you. It’s amazing.
Almost everyone watching will not have seen the movie yet, so how have you been describing the film to friends and family?
BOWSER: I’ve been saying it’s an ‘80s throwback monster comedy in the vein of Gremlins or Fright Night, but through a modern lens where Onyx goes on a supernatural adventure.
For people that don’t realize, you kind of went viral on the internet playing this character and doing newscasts and getting on TV. Not only did you get on TV, but you were delivering lines. You had to give enough to the television station that they would want to put you on television. So I’m curious, what was it like? How did you pull off getting on TV so often as Onyx?
BOWSER: Well, this is quite a bomb to drop, I was never on TV. What I would do is I would rip news videos and then film myself out in Burbank and splice them together, and then release them as such. But I was never actually on TV.
OLIVIA TAYLOR DUDLEY: But people thought he was on TV.
BOWSER: So much so… you thought I was on TV. Well, so much so, to where a producer of one of those news segments on a radio interview said, “I can’t believe we let you talk for that long and I don’t remember letting you on the air.” And I said, “You didn’t, it was a joke.” But yes, they appear as if they’re real newscasts and that’s how we kind of floated on the internet over the years.
Okay, first of all, that’s amazing. And second of all, I totally got fooled and I say congratulations because that’s awesome. So this is a movie I really enjoyed, and I really can’t believe what you were able to put on screen with the budget that you had. It’s crazy because I know how movies are made. So, for all of you guys, can you talk about what it was like being part of a project like this where everyone is clearly doing like double work? You’re carrying whatever you need to carry in between scenes, you know what I mean?
DUDLEY: I mean, of all the other projects I’ve ever worked on as an actor, or a producer, this was the most fun anyone’s ever had on a set. And I think the vibe, even from the moment we met everybody, everyone knew this was something special that they poured their hearts into. So everyone on set was willing to help every department and know that everything should go on screen. We didn’t have any divas, or anything like that. Everyone had so much fun that I think it just really comes through on the screen.
ARDEN MYRIN: It felt like summer camp. I mean, it was a blast and I think that every department got to really show what they could do, whether it was as a performer or the art department, or costumes or hair. Everybody got to strut their stuff and honestly, it felt like a $30 million movie. It did not feel… the way it was run, it was treated like a big-budget movie. The first AD was incredible, the crew was incredible. There was no part of it that felt remotely low-budget at all.
It’s, to me, a testament to Andrew. Everybody loves him. It starts at the top and he’s a star, he’s the writer, he’s the editor, he’s the director, and everybody wanted to do a good job to help bring his vision to life.
BOWSER: Well thank you. I mean I was so fortunate to have department heads and producers, and this cast that supported the vision. I mean everybody put in 120% every single day, even out overnight in cemeteries with snow and rain. Everybody showed up and impressed me every single day.
MELANIE CHANDRA: This was the most respectful and calm working environment I’ve ever had on any production. And that tone was set by Andrew. Everything just seemed to work, and every department had a unified vision and I think that’s why it also was very seamless.
MYRIN: I think to your point of even you thought he was on [TV]. I really think he’s a genius. I did not know Andrew before this and I have been nothing but blown away, and he’s a graceful person, he’s a kind person, and it’s his vision without being heavy-handed about it. I really think he’s a very unique special talent.
How much do you pay her to say that?
BOWSER: I’m paying her in Saratoga.
MYRIN: I love waters, gotta stay tight and fresh and hydrated.
RIVKAH REYES: Yeah, no, I echo what everyone said. It was the most fun I’ve ever had on set for sure, and I just felt supported through the whole process. This is also like my first time like as a non-binary person playing a non-binary role in something, and I felt very respected on that level, too, and it was just such an honor to watch the whole thing come together.
Again, you didn’t have Marvel money to make this, but there are some creatures in this, and how the f did you pull this off, like no BS?
BOWSER: It really took finding a special artist. His name is Adam Dougherty and his shop is called Kreature Kid. I’ve been a fan of his for years from going to Monsterpalooza, and horror conventions all over the place, I’ve even bought toys from him. I reached out to him to just do a character design for one of the creatures and he read the script and he said, “Well Bows, what if I did all of them?”
He was really trying to launch his new shop, leading up his own shop for the first time, and so I lucked out that he responded to the material. And his talents, I mean they’re just endless, and his whole team of puppeteers and fabricators, they did something that I don’t think any of us thought they could do with the time and the money that we had.
Yeah, I’m sure you guys saw this stuff on set and were like, “Is this a bigger budget movie than I’m thinking it is?” Because some of the creatures looked incredible for the budget you had.
DUDLEY: Yeah, we really lucked out. I mean Adam and his whole team poured their whole hearts into it. Through the design process when we were looking at the different iterations of the puppets, they just kept getting cooler and cooler and cooler. And then when we finally got on set and saw them, I mean our minds were blown like it just didn’t seem real there. They’re incredible, and we’re gonna have some of them at the premiere.
When you were making this, did you even think about Sundance as a possibility, and what is it like for all of you guys to have this here at Sundance?
REYES: I still can’t believe this is happening.
MYRIN: It’s so cool, we’re so happy to be here.
REYES: I thought we were literally being punked when you told us that we got into something.
BOWSER: I mean, I guess you must think it’s a possibility because you submit. So somewhere in there is a level of optimism that drives you through production and drives you to get the film done in time to submit to an amazing festival like this, but truly I did not expect to get the call. No, it was mind-blowing.
CHANDRA: They revealed the news to us in a very brilliant way. So one Sunday afternoon, he got all of us together on a Zoom and said it was for press, EPK, asked us some questions about the movie and then he asked, “How did you guys feel when you heard that Onyx is going to Sundance?” It was amazing.
REYES: We screamed so loud.
DUDLEY: When he told me, he came to my house to me and I didn’t believe him and I pushed him across the street multiple times until he was into a fence.
BOWSER: Yeah, hard.
MYRIN: I just feel so proud. Like again, I’ve said this before, but as a creative person, I find it very inspiring to watch somebody who’s very much stayed true to his vision, and that the biggest independent film festival in the world responded. Like if you stay true… and his heart… it’s been nothing but good vibes on this. It just made me very proud. It’s inspiring that if you protect your vision, you protect your magic, the world will respond, and it was very wonderful. We just had the best time making it.
So you get in the editing room, you have all your footage, what surprised you in the editing room? What changes did you make that you were not expecting?
BOWSER: I can say that, because I’m also the editor of the film, I get a little fixated on continuity. I really switch into editor brain mode and I stopped thinking about performance to a degree. I start getting a little lost in the weeds, and Olivia was with me in my garage while I cut, and I think what I was surprised by was how even if I cut something exactly how I imagined cutting it, it was important to have a second set of eyes to say, “Well have you thought about…? I know you really want to match the movement of the hand in that scene, but what about a different take because of the performance? So she helped me kind of step out of my editor mode, and rework something based on pacing or performance because I can get a little too binary in my thinking when I’m in editor mode.
DUDLEY: I will say, about the script, Andrew writes the tightest scripts, like everything he ever writes I absolutely love. Everything that’s in the script is in the movie, nothing got moved around, nothing got changed. We only cut two scenes out of the whole thing. He writes to the edit and then directs to the edit, and it’s all there and it makes for the editing process to just be a really fun process because you’re not scrambling trying to find things. It was all there in the beginning.
If you don’t mind sharing, how many shooting days did you actually have?
BOWSER: We shot for about 20 in Massachusetts [in a] wonderful town called Lennox in the Berkshires, and then another five in Los Angeles. So about 25 days.
For people that don’t realize, that’s not a lot of time to make a movie.
BOWSER: Especially with puppets involved.
I was going to say, as a fan of Jeffrey Combs, I was very happy to see him in this. What was your inspiration for casting him?
BOWSER: Well, I mean, I’m a huge Stuart Gordon fan, Re-Animator, From Beyond, and so I’ve always hoped to work with both Barbara [Crampton] and Jeffrey at some point. But I actually think it was Barbara when I told her about this project that brought up Jeffrey. He hadn’t come to mind, maybe because I knew Bartok was bald with a long goatee, and I was kind of basing them off of Hammer Horror villains. Then as soon as she suggested him, it hit me. And I was like, “He’s the guy, he’s the guy.”
One of the things about the film is, it’s about a found family, you know? Can you talk about that aspect of the film?
BOWSER: Well, it was all about finding the ensemble. I’ve told the story that I started writing the script and I thought maybe it would be a pretty gory horror comedy where Onyx and a group of other occultists were killed off one by one, and he was splattered in blood like Bruce Campbell.
But I just… I didn’t have the heart to do that when I started writing these characters. I realized it was more important, and it was more centered with the heart of the film to give Onyx some friends and some companions. Then once, you know, I met these people and we got on set, one of the first things we did was a dinner conversation between all of us and I knew that it was the right alchemy. It was the right move to have it be a group effort going on this adventure.
REYES: And I really loved shooting that day, too, because it was all of our first days on set. So we were actively getting to know each other while the characters were getting to know each other in the scene as well.
MYRIN: We shot at this haunted mansion. It had extra juice, you know? It was, for sure, haunted. We stayed at what felt like a haunted inn. My room, for sure, was haunted, but that made it fun. I mean, that added to the element of like, “Here we are out in the mountains, like in these very beautiful, beautiful, interesting historic buildings that are so haunted, making a horror movie.” You couldn’t believe [it], you couldn’t have picked a better set.
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.
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