Admittedly, I don’t know how to describe what I witnessed All bloated and full of worms. The film depicts the adventures of Roscoe, a motel janitor “whose girlfriend brought another man home for strange rituals”, and Benny, a peculiar man “trying to manifest a baby from a inanimate sex doll”. When the duo ingest hallucinogenic worms, all hell breaks loose as Roscoe and Benny spin out of control on their drug-infused bender.
After speaking with writer/director Alex Phillips, I got a better understanding of why he’s built transgressive horror that will divide audiences. As he says below, “If you’re making a movie with no budget and you’re not beholden to anyone, why not be more adventurous? Take a bigger swing and a bigger risk. In a landscape where IP and franchises dominate, filmmakers like Phillips are taking a different path, telling original and polarizing stories on their terms. Even though I had trouble understanding the plot, I commend Phillips for crafting a story that got me thinking and reacting long after the movie was over.
In an interview with Digital Trends, Phillips explains his use of psychosis, addresses the moral ambiguity of the characters, and picks the best movie ever shot in Chicago.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: How did you settle on worms as a hallucinogen? Was another insect or animal in the running?
Alex Phillips: No, it was always verses. It always seemed right to me. I love that they are so ubiquitous and exist under our feet. I think they’re kind of a good metaphor for a cycle of life and all that. There’s a poetic reason for it, but also, they’re so wet and wavy and organic. I say “organic”, but I don’t mean it scientifically. I didn’t do well in biology.
[Laughs] But they seem to be able to exist in your body as an organ.
I read this story as your perspective on psychosis because you have experienced it in your life. What was the main theme that you tried to incorporate from your experience in the film?
Yeah, you took the words out of my mouth. The main theme for me, at least in a nutshell, would be psychosis. But, I wanted it to be less of a psychological realism of storytelling because I didn’t think it was honest about the experience of psychosis.
I also think there are a lot of movies that are pretty adventurous with their storytelling, and I feel like if you’re making a movie with no budget and you’re not beholden to anyone, why not be more adventurous with that ? Take a bigger swing and a bigger risk. Psychosis, but also trying to tell a story in its own voice and form, which is a pretty big risk, because the most successful people are the best.
There were a lot of challenges after the film was shut down during the pandemic. I read that you went back and had to change some scenes and rewrite things. Now that it’s finished, do you think you’ve made a better movie than what you originally wrote, or are there things you wish you could have taken from the original?
Yeah, I mean it was cool because… Well, the pandemic, none of that was cool.
[Laughs] This introduced a million problems for the film, and the only way to fix them was with a creative solution. It made every issue that came up another layer of care that went into the film. Before the pandemic, everyone was really passionate about finishing the movie, and then when the pandemic happened, it made finishing more vital.
It was like, “Well, we have to do this. We have nothing else to focus on right now. With that in mind, it definitely made the movie what it is now. I try not to think if it would be better or worse just because it happened, and it exists in the only way possible.
A lot of characters do bad things, but I don’t know if they’re necessarily bad people, especially Roscoe and Benny. How did you see these characters? Are they morally good but under the influence of worms, or are they in a gray area?
Well, they sure do bad things. That’s for sure. [Laughs] I guess I don’t know. I think a lot of movies right now are morally very obvious. Instead of being judgmental or allowing an audience to easily judge those people who do bad things, I thought it would be more interesting and more empathetic to all of humanity if we could see ourselves in characters who do bad things. I don’t want to excuse the doll because that’s obviously rude and not a good thing, but I think it would be really easy to make Benny a bad guy.
I know Trevor Dawkins, who plays Benny Boom. He is an extremely charismatic person. I think it’s more complicated and appeals to viewers and takes us more on an arc for him if we recognize ourselves in him. We have to fight with him [and] this thing that we absolutely do not want to go. But that’s kind of the point of a horror movie, you know.
Did it affect some of the actors’ decisions on how to play each character? They are morally complicated and ambiguous. They’re neither good guys nor bad guys.
Yeah. All of those scenes and all of the dialogue turns it all into a less static idea and more like a process of feeling around. For me, it makes the film more dynamic or active. There was a time when the first time we were shooting the scene with Benny and he was opening his package to get the baby out, there was a back and forth between Trevor and me trying to figure out what was going on here .
I think his impulse was to make him evil. Instead, it was like, “No, let’s make him like he’s learning about himself with us.”
While staring at that baby with a huge mouth.
You oversaw much of the film’s special effects. I know you worked with Ben [Gojer] on the puppets and all the effects of worms. What special effect was the hardest to create?
I wouldn’t take anything away from Ben’s expertise because he’s really mastered this stuff over time. We have been working together for a very long time so it was really cool to see him grow. For me, he’s the best I’ve ever worked with to do this stuff. Working with him, I would come up with this wacky idea in the script, and that’s obviously a huge request.
Basically, the entire script is a huge request from every actor. Also for Ben, I would write in all these effects. Then it became a process of discovery because we have so little time and days to figure out what’s vital to the story. Everything was, but it was about figuring out how to tell the same scene, but narrowing it down and choosing the right things.
It was cool to come into the workshop. There were very long nights when we filled hundred foot pipes with worms and mud. Also, [while] working on the choreography for the cocoon thing at the very end, we were talking about how to shoot that and all that. A lot of my input was trying to figure out how the cover would work and how to cut out like a mask changing from moment to moment. Try working with Ben to say, “OK, we should have these steps so there’s a progression of how these things work.”
What was the idea behind the religious speaker on television in the motel? I felt like I was hypnotized and fed propaganda.
Yes, that’s kind of why he’s there. I had more story for him, but I cut it, and it just became an extra layer of the dream. There’s a bigger worm conspiracy out there, and he’s representative of that. This motel almost looks like a shady dream.
Since this movie is based in Chicago, what is your favorite movie set in Chicago? There are so many to choose from, so you can name a few.
Oh, man. It’s awesome. That’s a very good question. My brain immediately went to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Where Thief.
I had Thief on my list. I immersed myself in Michael Mann and revisited his films. I’m like, “This guy always has his fastball.”
Have you seen man hunter? This one doesn’t get enough love.
Yes. He basically created Thesilenceofthelambs.
Yeah. It’s his weirdest. Also, I live one block from The Green Mill. During the climax, it’s one of the dive bars that they blow up. Every time that happens, I’m like, “Yeah, Chicago!” [Laughs]
All bloated and full of worms is available to stream on Screambox.