Brea Grant chats to us about making her latest directorial outing 12 Hour Shift, plus working with Rob Zombie, Lucky and more.
“I hadn’t made a feature film in seven years,” Brea Grant tells me, “so I knew I was going to fight to keep it the movie that I wanted to make and something I could be really proud of. I wanted to take a lot of big swings and if that meant it was stylised stuff that people were like ‘I hate it!’, I sort of didn’t care.”
“I just wanted to make a cool movie that I would enjoy watching.”
While Grant’s 2013 debut feature Best Friends Forever remains frustratingly elusive in the UK (we’ve checked, it’s nowhere!), you’re likely to be familiar with her work in front of the camera. She’s appeared in the TV shows Friday Night Lights, Heroes, Dexter and Pandora (a show on which she also writes and directs), while she’s appeared on the silver screen in the likes of Halloween 2 (2009) and Pitch Perfect 2. Recently, she’s appeared in genre standouts Beyond The Gates and The Stylist.
Grant’s return film behind the camera, then, is 12 Hour Shift. It’s a 90s-set odd, blackly comic low budget treat that’s difficult to categorise and a pleasure to experience.
Mandy, played by the brilliant Angela Bettis, is a nurse, drug addict, killer, black-market organ trader and our protagonist. A simple bag o’ guts pass-off goes wrong and then just about everything else in Mandy’s orbit follows suit. With her cousin Regina (scene-stealer Chloe Farnworth) pinballing around the hospital, seemingly at war with the concept of order, Mandy has to protect her neck and somehow source a functional human kidney.
We have to imagine that its unfamiliar set-up and awkward between-genres placing made 12 Hour Shift a difficult film to get made. We first encountered it at the August online FrightFest horror film festival of 2020, where it perhaps pressed against the admirably flexible genre boundaries that define the FrightFest programme.
Grant’s film is plenty bloody, violent and prone to gruesomeness, but it’s not really a horror. I’d call it a black comedy, Grant refers to it as a heist movie. It’s even been called a nurseploitation movie.
So, we ask her, was it not just a nightmare to set up?
“You know, every indie movie is its own special set of nightmares. My producers had done a short film with me that I wrote and directed called Megan, 26, and they enjoyed the experience of working with me, they liked my writing, and they said if you ever have a feature you want to make send it our way.”
“Well, two of them happened to be from Arkansas, so I sent them the script and they really, really liked it. They’d only produced one other movie before that and the producers had directed it themselves, so they were not prolific but they were very motivated. They loved the script and they got it into the hands of an independent financier who I love and adore and they were so lovely. They had no notes on the script, they just were like, go make this movie, we think it’s really fun. Which is a dream come true.”
“I had sent it to a bunch of other places that didn’t like it. They thought it was not genre enough, not horror enough, or they didn’t like the main character. Or they thought it wasn’t believable, which I was never trying to make a believable movie, you know? I mean, there’s some stuff that’s set in reality, but I wasn’t trying to make a, you know, a gritty 90s film. So these financiers were on-board from the beginning, they loved it.”
The issue of the unlikable lead is an interesting one. I was struck when watching the film that the character of Mandy is a fascinating protagonist, but asking the audience to stick with her while she does horrific things is a display of confidence from Grant as a filmmaker. She banks her entire movie on us wanting to spend time with Mandy in spite of what she does. That’s some risk, I suggest.
“Well, my aim with the movie was to create a female anti-hero. I don’t think we see it much in media. But I love an anti-hero story, I love when we’re following the person who is in that grey area of morality. You just don’t see it that often with women”.
“That was the original goal of the movie. I will admit, I got the note many a time during writing that people felt like she wasn’t likeable. I just had to trust in Angela and trust that we could make her a powerful and interesting enough character that you want to watch her.”
“I don’t care if she’s not likeable, there are many men that are not likeable that we follow from beginning to the end of the story. We follow them because they’re interesting human stories, and women also have interesting human stories. So I just wanted to do the same thing.”
“For the most part, I would say people were on-board, especially after the movie was made. I mean, people will call out that she is obviously a drug addict who kills people, who isn’t nice to people. But at the end of the day, she’s a compelling and interesting person and that’s what we go to the movies for. We’re there to see stories that we don’t know anything about, right? I mean, I feel like I’m a very nice person, I don’t need to watch a lot of me on screen. I’ve seen me a lot!”
In truth, we could have spent our entire interview with Grant (who’s every bit as nice as her quote suggests) just peppering her with questions about the buzzing and busy screenplay for 12 Hour Shift, which she wrote on spec.
“I think, weirdly, that is the way a lot of people are getting movies made these days,” she explains. “I think there’s a generation older than me who thinks it’s crazy that all of us are writing on spec hoping to get our movies made and they somehow are still getting paid to write movies. I’m hoping there will be a day where someone pays me to write as I go. It hasn’t happened so far. “
“I wanted to write something that took place where I grew up, which is East Texas. The film didn’t end up taking place there, but that was where it was originally set. It took me probably about two years to write it. The original script was just the Mandy character all the way through, it was her POV. As the script developed I realised I kind of wanted this second character Regina to also have a POV. The script developed from there.”
“Even as I got closer to shooting, I was still rewriting and making changes and trying to make sure it all fit, because at its core, it’s sort of a heist movie and everything has to fall into place. I needed to account for every single character. By the end I was still I was still doing tweaks and rewrites until my producer said, you have to stop.”
Perhaps the most striking element of Grant’s film is how precariously balanced it is. As each disaster seems to nudge two further incidents into spinning off in different directions, the story is something to be kept up with.
How, then, did Grant keep track of exactly who was where and when? After all, 12 Hour Shift is the kind of chaos on screen that can only be created by precision on the page and behind the camera.
“Before we shot I had a wall in my house dedicated to the script and I had each scene on a card and I tracked where everything was and where everyone was, so I knew nothing would get lost.”
“The other thing is this is a low budget film, but I insisted on having a script supervisor. I had only had one in television, I didn’t have one on my first film. A script supervisor is so valuable over something like this because she was able to know, oh, the clothes here are wrong or that there’s this number of vials of drugs in her pocket. She kept up with that because there’s only so much time on set and we didn’t have a ton of hands. But having her there and knowing she was gonna do a great job, shout out to Kimberly [Roper], that that really helps with the production side of things.”
With our script conversation in place and the backers on-board, it was time to move onto production. Grant thinks they had 18 days to shoot the movie, but says that someone (perhaps it was Angela Bettis, although she’s not sure) thinks they had 20. They all agree there was also an extra day for pick-ups. 18 days, 20 days; it hardly seems like enough.
Particularly when you consider the visual asides, the flashes of style that contribute massively to the feel of 12 Hour Shift. It seems that the film that came out of this austere shooting schedule is an unlikely one. So how did Grant achieve style on a schedule, without having to sacrifice anything that isn’t narrative necessity?
“A lot of it came during prep. Some of it came on the day. The EMT dancing down the hallway was part a necessity and part me having a good time. But we actually lost David Arquette during the shoot because he had to go to wrestling, do a wrestling match? I guess you call it a match, I don’t know [laughs]. Let’s call it a match.”
“We had to get the camera from Chloe [Farnworth] down to show that David was leaving. I knew we could follow Tommy, who plays the EMT, down the hallway on our makeshift dolly. But I had Tommy, and while I was there I was like, well if I have Tommy here I know he dances and sings. I wanted to use both of those things because he’s so good at both why would I not? I think the day before I said could you learn a whole bunch of 90s dances, the length of this hallway? And he did. So the conclusion is hire Tommy Hobson because he can really do anything.”
I question how a sequence like a slo-mo Cheetos fight in a car park can find its way out of a filmmaker’s head and onto our screen. The idea of communicating visual ideas can be a difficult one to comprehend from the outside.
“You know, it it’s gotten easier over the years. For my first movie I feel like I had a lot of trouble with it. I write comic books, I’ve written four comic book series, and so for my first movie I drew everything out like comic book panels, because it was the way I knew how to communicate. With this I did some drawing, I’m a horrible artist and no one wants to see my drawing. What I mostly did was use figurines,” Grant stops to laugh, “to show what we were doing on a map when I was talking to people.”
“I also, during prep once I was in the location, I took photos of every single shot that I wanted and they put them on a board so everyone could see it at the beginning of the day, which I was hoping, and it did, end up saving us a lot of time because then production design can see, oh, we’re only shooting this angle today. Everyone can see what is going to be shot.”
“The other thing that really helps is my acting background, I think. I’m not scared to get in the shot and be like, now I’m this person, now I’m this person.” She acts out being people on opposite sides of the screen. “I realise this is not a video interview and no one knows what I’m talking about! But I act out the scenes for everyone before the actors get on set, and that really has helped me to, I think, help everyone else to visualise what’s in my head.”
“I think you nailed it, though, one of the biggest struggles as a director is to get what’s in your head into everyone else’s head. Because I know what it is, I live in this chaotic universe that is my mind, but it’s hard sometimes to translate it to other people and let them know ‘I think this will work. This will work if you just put some faith in me’. It is a lot. The scene where they’re singing, they break into song, my producer and DP Matt [Glass], was like, there’s no way this is going to make it into the movie. Once it was there, it worked out great. But I think it was a leap of faith in me and my strangeness.”
After capturing Grant’s vision, the film headed into post production. By a stroke of luck Grant had another film headed into production just as 12 Hour Shift had to be edited.
“My editor is Amy McGrath, she edited my first movie. She is now an editor who works pretty strictly in television. When we first started shooting I reached out to her and begged her to do my movie for the very little money we had to offer her and she said, look, if you can get it done before I go back to the TV show she was working on it and then yeah, I’ll do it.”
“So what that meant was, I shot this and then she needed a couple of weeks alone with it. I love my editors to have a cut without me. It opens my eyes to so many things and Amy and I almost have a shorthand at this point. She came in the first thing she said was, you need to cut this scene. I was like [sharp intake of breath expressing dramatic shock and horror]! As a director you’re like, that scene took a whole day to shoot! She was right. There was a scene completely cut out that she was 100 percent correct on. Then we just went through it.”
“What was weird is I was shooting a film I wrote and that I’m in called Lucky while we were editing. So it was a lot of work during that time, going back and forth. I would go to my editor’s house and then go shoot Lucky, and sometimes that would mean I was working a very long day. But for the most part, I could give Amy notes and she could take off with them. The editor/director relationship is such a close one and I feel like she’s very honest with me and I’m very honest with her and that helps a lot. But she also immediately understood the humour of it and where it should be scary and where it should be funny and that was really helpful. I think it comes from, she’s in TV, she’s used to working in a rush, you know? So she was able to get it done pretty quickly.”
Personally, I saw the pair of films just two months apart, and it seemed like Grant just burst onto the horror scene. I wondered if this was how life would be from now on; a new film written by Brea Grant every two months. Sadly, that’s not how things have shaken out. But how did it come to be the case that her movies have arrived so close together?
“Lucky actually got greenlit first. Epic Pictures read it and wanted to attach Natasha [Kermani, who directed Lucky] and then they were ready to go. Then we got the financing for 12 Hour Shift. Weirdly, the dates swapped and we shot 12 Hour Shift first and then we shot Lucky. I think I had a three week break in between. So I got home, I tried to get back in fighting shape to have my face on camera. I worked with an acting coach because I felt like I was still out of practise. Then we shot it. We were in post for both of them at the same time.”
With our time coming to an end, Idecide to detour the interview. While I’m a huge fans of both 12 Hour Shift and Lucky (review here) there are writers on the Film Stories team (just me) who are extremely fond of Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 and Grant’s work in it. I decided to take the opportunity to satisfy our (my) curiosity about the making of that film, partly prompted by the The Devil’s Rejects poster that sits above my head in my office, and Grant was kind enough to indulge the questions.
“I loved making that movie. I still talk to Scout [Taylor Compton] and Danielle [Harris] pretty frequently. It was awesome. Rob is a real artist. The thing I remember most is that he would rewrite the script overnight, come in with new pages, let us play with things. He was very much about us making the characters our own. At the time I was coming off of television as an actor and no one had really let me do that, because television is such a top down industry, right? So I came in and I had ideas that, like, my character was going to go to art school and things like that, and he loved the ideas that I had.”
“He would also go in and change the sets and stuff beforehand. He wanted everything to be really perfect and he was very hands on. He was a really great director, I loved working with him. I think he just had such a very strong vision for things, which obviously can be polarising. But I like to think maybe I take a page out of that book. I like that he takes big swings and makes movies. I also love The Devil’s Rejects. I think that’s my favourite of his.”
It’s exciting to hear that Grant has affection for it. In fact, she tells us, I might not be quite so isolated in appreciating Zombie’s 2009 slasher sequel as I may have thought.
“You know, I don’t do conventions really. I’ve done like three ever in the history of my career. But I did a Halloween reunion one and I was so glad I did because I felt like Halloween 2 didn’t get the attention that the first one did and people didn’t like it as much or something. But going to that convention, there’s so many Halloween 2 fans who came up to me and they have props from Halloween 2 and they loved the movie and they want to talk about the movie. It was such a fun experience for me.”
I wonder whether the studio meddling that afflicted the production of that film impacted her experience on set.
“Well, I was so unfamiliar with how sets worked at that time! I had been on Friday Night Lights and Heroes but I hadn’t ever been on a big movie at all. I don’t know if I would have been aware enough to know that something was going wrong. I did know that we had a certain amount of shoot days and they got cut by a couple weeks, I think. They pulled a bunch of shoot days from him. It affected my schedule, but I was so worried about doing a good job and not fucking up this movie that I wouldn’t have noticed that he was stressed out, probably even if he had told me to my face.”
I wrap up and thank Grant for her time. I ask, as I tidy away my notebook and hover over the ‘leave meeting’ icon, whether the actor, writer, director, producer, graphic novelist and podcaster can think anything else she’d like to be doing.
“Don’t I have enough jobs?” she asks with a laugh.
I respond by pointing out that she had enough jobs a few jobs ago.
“I do love doing new things, so as more technology comes about and other doors open, I imagine I will do new things. I think I really thrive in a place where I don’t know what I’m doing. The more I can learn about something and dive in and be an amateur the more I love it. I would like to write a pilot on a television show. That is something I haven’t done yet. I also want to do bigger movies, franchise movies. I want to do something like that, play in that world.”
FrightFest Presents and Signature Entertainment present 12 Hour Shift on Digital Platforms 25th January
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