Interview: Director Rebekah McKendry on her philosophical scarer Glorious

The pandemic gave many a creative time to think as so much of the entertainment industry faced an uncertain future. For director Rebekah McKendry through, it played into her favour.

Presented with a unique, near-singular-set horror film that mused on philosophy and existentialism, Glorious seemed like an idea born from a world that was unsure how to navigate itself.

Streaming now on premiere horror service Shudder, Glorious is a reflective, yet demented film (you can read our review here), and to coincide with its release, Peter Gray spoke with Rebekah about the gateway movies that fuelled her love of horror, how COVID assisted the production, and the unique process of working with Ryan Kwanten and J.K. Simmons.

I’m a massive horror fan, so anytime I get to watch something new I’m always excited for it.  Before I get to Glorious, where did that love of the genre start for you?

When I was a kid, honestly. I have always been a huge horror fan. And it’s always been kind of like this predilection towards spooky material, even before I really understood what horror movies were. If I look back at my favourite cartoons when I was a kid, it was very much like Scooby Doo, and, you know, anything that kind of had this otherworldly quality to it. Even the cartoons and stuff that I was always picking to watch, it was always kind of the darker, ghostly material and skeletons and stuff like that. And my parents really quickly kind of saw this, and their ex-hippies, (so) they almost embraced it to the point where they were like, you know, “What can we do to kind of feed this love?”

When I got into school, and started actually watching horror movies, the rule in the house was, I could watch basically anything I wanted, as long as I had straight A’s. And so I was not a censored child. I probably watched most of these horror films way too young. But at the same time, it’s all I wanted to watch. And so my parents the rule was straight A’s. It’s up to you. It definitely became a huge part of my adolescence.

I completely relate to that.  I remember watching Batman Returns when I was about 7 years old, which looking back is not at all a kid-friendly movie.  I think in some ways it’s almost healthy to be exposed to certain material to help fuel knowing the difference with material.

Yeah, like we watch (horror) with our kids now.  Like my nine year old and I just watched Return of the Living Dead, which, you know, is violent, but it’s “zombie violence” and it doesn’t have anything crazy sexual in it. It’s kind of picking and choosing where we’re heading with it. I definitely had some gateway films like The Burbs and Gremlins and Monster Squad, (they) really were my kind of films when I was (about) 6 or 7 that really just kind of solidified my path forward.

Yeah, we all need those gateway movies. I love the idea that in Glorious, you ran with the idea that philosophy exists anywhere. I want to know was the idea of the rest stop serving as a type of centre for that always in the script?

It was always a guy in a rest stop with another guy claiming to be a God, so that existentialism was always there. And (that) was in when I came on as director. We started doing script passes (where it) was just exacerbating that, like, how much philosophy can we put in? How much mythology can we build out? How many bread crumbs can we sprinkle? And there’s a lot throughout of various mythologies and religions and things like that. But that was my biggest attraction to the script. Mine and my husband’s was that element of philosophy can exist anywhere. We’re big Repo Man fans, which is basically heavy philosophy in a very unlikely place. Even trauma, this mix of highbrow humour, with lowbrow humour simultaneously. And where that intersection is. It’s one that I’ve always been really fascinated by. So when this script came, and I saw that it did have this element of existentialism, we took a couple passes at it, and once we kind of got it to where we wanted it to be we started shopping it around as “Waiting for Godot in a bathroom”, and so it was very much this idea of the philosophy of the absurdist theatre, because that’s another one of my jams. And then bringing that out and using the element of philosophy kind of as part of the tapestry of the movie.

Was this a script that existed prior to COVID? Or was it conceived throughout that period?

Yeah, it had been written probably two years ago, I think, before COVID. And (when) it came to me  (it) was in the bleak time of the pandemic, like we were well past the whimsy of working from home and baking banana bread (laughs), like it was in the “I haven’t showered in days, and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing with my life” part of the epidemic. Yeah. It was a real dark time and seeing this, it really gave me hope of, like, maybe this is something that we could shoot. The rest of the world is falling apart, nobody’s figured out how to make shit. But maybe this is something that we could potentially do.

And so then it became even infusing that existentialism a little bit more, because that’s the biggest thing that both my husband and I were going through at that time was reflecting on our lives. We were having conversations of “Do we even need to stay in LA? Is the industry a thing anymore?” Like, I was looking into getting my yoga teacher certification. We reached this point where we were just thinking “What are we even doing with our lives at this point?” And we wanted to bring that existential crisis that we were going through into the script even more and bring it very much like (the character of) Wes (Ryan Kwanten) reflecting on everything that got him to this point.

In some ways you could say the pandemic really helped the film, given it’s such an enclosed setting and you really only have a few characters. Almost like this was just destined.

I will say the pandemic worked in our favour in that capacity to the point that I don’t know if this film would be made outside the pandemic, because what I read initially, and saw in the script, was not just a really charming, great script. It was a really charming, great script that I think we could do right now! And then it was very much as we were shopping it around we were getting great responses. Everybody was like “God, this script is tight.”

We did shoot this at the height of COVID, where we were all in zones and bubbles and quarantine to the hotel and everything like that. It was still definitely scary times. But we did not have a single case on set. So whatever we were doing worked. A big appeal of the movie was not only is it unlike anything you’ve seen before, and it’s got this great kind of lowbrow highbrow mix, but it was shootable in the awful situation we were in.

I imagine in some ways a character like Wes would be the hardest to cast? I met Ryan Kwanten many moons ago now and he’s just the loveliest guy. He has that ability to be someone we feel compassion for just as much as someone we aren’t sure we can trust. Which is essential here. How did Ryan become someone on your radar for this?

So we had had a lot of conversations about what we needed in Wes. And the biggest thing was that he had to carry the entire movie. It had to be somebody that we wanted to look out for at 80 minutes that had the capability to command the camera and the set when they’re by themselves. It’s a true chamber piece. But, at the same time, they had to have this duality. They had to be the lovable loser, but likeable enough that we want to stay with them for the whole movie, but also have a sinister edge, and comedic chops. Like it’s asking a lot of an actor, because it does have this comedic side to it. And so we started all these discussions about who would work and I had just seen the Joe Lynch episode of Creepshow and I was immediately like, what about Ryan? I’d seen him on True Blood. And immediately my best friend and podcast co-host, Albert King, was like “You mean the soap opera star?”, and I was like, “No, no, I mean, like the vampire.” And he’s like, “No, no, he’s a soap opera star.”

And so I went back and watch some of the old soap operas, and then I watched him and Joe Lynch’s Knights of Badassdom, and that’s when I saw that straight comedy and that he can do this. He has this amazing scope and dynamic next to his performance. And so we asked Barbara Crampton (who serves as an executive producer), who worked on Creepshow (too) if (Ryan) might be interested? A couple of days later I was zooming with him. And it was straight clear from the moment we started talking that he got the film. He got the humour, he got the mix of lowbrow, highbrow philosophy, mythology and gore, somehow all in the same film. And he was willing to go there. That was the other thing, we needed an actor who (was) willing to act the entire movie in his boxer shorts, (who) is willing to be covered with blood and every other fluid that is going to exist in that bathroom. It’s gonna get gross and it’s gonna get uncomfortable. And, additionally, he literally has to put himself out there at one point. It’s gonna have to be kind of a very intense performance. But Ryan was all for it. As soon as I spoke with him, I was like, this is the guy.

I think all those years of being naked and covered in blood in True Blood probably helped him here. And I’m not complaining at all! I remember Ryan from his soap opera days in Australia, and then he showed up on True Blood and it was like, “Oh, you grew up!” (laughs). And then not only do you have Ryan, you have J.K. Simmons on board too! With him essentially voice acting, was his stuff mostly done in post-production?

It was, but we were very conscious of trying to make sure that it does not sound like that. And the way that we avoided that was immense amounts of rehearsals. The nice thing about the pandemic was we had a ton of time and we had zoom. And so we did four or five super long rehearsals with Ryan and J.K. together over zoom where they were just running the script over and over. So by the time we got to set we knew J.K.’s cadence. We knew his tone. We knew exactly how he was going to be delivering each line, to the point that our producer, who was reading (his) lines on set, was able to emulate J.K.’s delivery for each one of those lines. He and Ryan had had so much time working together discussing characters. We dove into the philosophy, we dove into the existentialism, we dove into how much the pandemic sucks a lot, because (this) was still in lockdown. And so we’d had all this time together.

And then we got set. And we had Morgan (Peter Brown, producer) on set reading, just as J.K. had done in all the rehearsals as we worked out the story. And then by the time we got to the soundstage to record J.K.’s portion, the world had opened up a bit and we were able to do that in person. But by the time we got to that point, we also have Ryan’s on set performance. So we were able to use that and have them go against each other for the most part.

Glorious is now streaming on Shudder.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.