The New Most Dangerous Game: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’’s James Gunn pens horror tale of a twisted 'Belko Experiment'
Minor office annoyances take a backseat to full-on carnage in director Greg McLean’s The Belko Experiment, out March 17 from BH Tilt and Orion Pictures. Forget TPS reports—the goal here is staying alive, as 80 employees of Bogotá, Colombia-based Belko Industries are trapped in their office building and ordered by an unseen master of ceremonies to slaughter their co-workers or be killed in turn.
A cracklingly fun melding of workplace comedy and brutal horror, it’s no surprise that Belko springs from the mind of writer James Gunn, who wrote and directed the horror/comedy Slither and dark superhero comedy Super before being tapped to direct Guardians of the Galaxy and its upcoming sequel. But Belko was born long before Baby Groot took his first steps. Taking a break from doing sound mixing on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, out in May, Gunn explained that he wrote the script for The Belko Experiment back in 2007 after he dreamed up the trailer. Literally. “I had this dream that was pretty much exactly what the trailer is now: a bunch of people sitting around in an office, and a voice comes over the loudspeaker and says, ‘In the next two hours, you have to kill three people.’ And they’re all listening and thinking [the voice is] joking, and then all of a sudden the walls close up around the building.”
Initially excited to direct a “more specific, more controlled” film after the outright craziness that was Slither—in which a small town is set upon by an alien parasite that causes its victims to undergo some truly gross bodily transformations—Gunn backed away from Belko after real life intervened. “We had a budget. We started scouting locations in São Paulo, Brazil. And then I got divorced, and I really wanted to be with friends and family. I wanted to have fun, and I didn’t feel like I was in the headspace to go down to Brazil and start shooting a movie about people’s heads exploding and killing each other.”
So the script got shelved... until seven years later, when Guardians of the Galaxy came out and proved a massive success, both critical and financial. “John Glickman from MGM called me up and said, ‘Hey, I still have that script The Belko Experiment. I still love it. I wonder if you want to do it,’” Gunn recalls. “And I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t have the time to direct it. The only way I would do it is if I had control over everything, basically.’ And he said, ‘OK. It’s done. Here’s a few million bucks. Go do it.’ And that’s what we did.”
Here enters another key piece of the Belko puzzle: Aussie director Greg McLean, who burst onto the horror scene in 2005 with cult favorite Wolf Creek. McLean read Gunn’s script and was hooked instantly, drawn in by the “counterpoint between realistically drawn and very believable characters—very non-genre sort of characters” and the outrageous situation they find themselves in. “Taking a quite extreme situation, but doing it in an extremely believable way—that’s the main thing I got excited about. There’s a lot of humor in the characters, and a lot of heart. It’s an effortless kind of humor, as well. It isn’t gag-gy, but it’s very funny because the humor is coming from a very human place.”
The characters in The Belko Experiment for the most part aren’t the sort of people you’d imagine murdering a co-worker, which is of course the point. Leading the ensemble is John Gallagher, Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) as Mike, a nerd-adjacent mid-level executive who takes a hard line against killing under any circumstances. If only his boss, Belko’s increasingly ruthless CEO (Tony Goldwyn), were on the same page. There’s the normal collection of corporate worker bees, among them friendly Peggy (Rusty Schwimmer), stoner Marty (Sean Gunn, James’ brother and frequent collaborator) and poor Dany (Melonie Diaz), whose first day on the job is turning out somewhat worse than she hoped.
Gunn, who also produced Belko, worked closely with McLean on the casting process, as evidenced by the handful of Gunn regulars in the ensemble. (Michael Rooker, who worked with Gunn on Slither and both Guardians of the Galaxy movies, puts in an appearance as a maintenance worker.) “Most of the people in this movie are my friends, who were doing me a favor,” Gunn says. “Obviously my brother Sean, but also Rusty Schwimmer, Valentine Miele, Stephen Blackhear, Joe Fria, Mikaela Hoover, Abraham Benrubi.” Gunn was also familiar with Gallagher, who auditioned for the role of Peter Quill in Guardians. “Although he wasn’t right for the role, to this day that may be the best audition I’ve ever seen in my entire life. He’s a great actor. And a great guy.”
Cast assembled, shooting commenced in Bogotá, split between a warehouse big enough for the required set and an office building with three floors that could be re-dressed to suit Belko Industries’ needs. From there, McLean went into beast mode, flying through an estimated 45 to 50 setups a day over a period of six weeks. “It was a very tough schedule,” he admits. “At the time, while I was doing it, I remember thinking, ‘This is the toughest physical shoot I’ve ever done in terms of the amount of material to do in the time,’ because there are extremely large action setups every day for weeks and weeks.” But he’s also used to working with budgetary and time constraints, coming as he does from the Australian film industry, where “there’s not really a big-budget culture. Things are always lean and mean.”
A tendency towards meticulous preparation means McLean can “make a hundred-thousand-dollar art-house budget look like a million dollars. It’s all about delivering more value and more quality for what you have to work with, and what that means is when I do get a decent budget, I can make a five-million-dollar film look like a twenty-million-dollar film, which is what we came close to with this movie.” Storyboarding every single shot and going into each day with a detailed plan means that McLean can be more flexible when it comes to working with the actors. Film students, take note: “Once you have an extremely solid backbone of how you want to shoot something, then you’re able to improvise, because you know you can always go back to a plan. If you don’t have that plan in the first place, you can’t improvise, you’re nervous about getting the day’s shots. You’re stuck. For me, [directing] comes down to extremely focused planning… I have a good day if basically I’ve said two words, because the plan is so clear and people feel like it’s under control, and they have a safe space to be creative, to free up their best work.”
Gunn, with producing partner Peter Safran, was on-set to witness this well-oiled machine for part of the time, and he admits that it was “difficult for me, being a director, to step back into a writer role again.” You might think it would be refreshing for Gunn, whose last two films have been big-budget spectacles, to return to the indie world for a spell. But Gunn demurs on that point, countering that “on Guardians, I get to do every single thing I want, because I have an idea and I can make it happen. Not only through the budget, which is not unlimited but is large enough, but through my creative experience with Marvel, who trusts me from what I did on the first movie and lets me do my thing.”
But surely the man who directed Slither—decidedly R-rated, decidedly gory, decidedly gross, decidedly not in any way Disney-appropriate—must relish returning to no-holds-barred horror, where he can explode as many heads as he wants?
“Being able to go out and do an R-rated horror thriller, that was a lot of fun,” Gunn acknowledges. “That was a completely different part of myself that I’m utilizing than when I’m making Guardians. For me, it’s all about who I’m speaking to in the audience. At first, when I got hired on Guardians, I felt like there were restrictions. I can’t shoot somebody in the face in Guardians of the Galaxy, at least not with a bullet. But I found that that restriction allowed me to become more myself. Because I think in some ways I can use harshness to cover up whatever is the more vulnerable side of myself. And through making Guardians, I was forced to have to deal with not going the easy route of just shooting someone in the face. I had to figure out another way around it. And it made a more emotionally enriching film, in certain ways.
“But again, I still have the desire occasionally to shoot someone in the face.”