Grief can make people do funny things. But hopefully, most people wouldn’t go quite as far as the central characters in Anything for Jackson, an upcoming horror film that had its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival earlier this year.
The film follows Audrey (Sheila McCarthy) and Henry (Julian Richings), an older couple mourning the loss of their grandson Jackson. Unable to move on, they kidnap a pregnant woman (Becker, played by Konstantina Mantelos) in the hopes of performing a “reverse exorcism” and putting Jackson into the unborn child. In the process, however, they summon a lot more than they bargained for…
Full of practical effects and some genuinely skin-crawling moments, Anything for Jackson is one to watch out for. To give you a taste of what’s in store, I recently caught up with director Justin G. Dyck and writer Keith Cooper to talk contortionist ghosts, unconventional IMDb credits, and throwing fake blood into a snowblower. Here’s what they had to say… (Minor spoilers ahead!)
SCREAM: This film is quite a departure for you both, based on your IMDb credits. How did it come about?
JUSTIN G. DYCK: We’ve wanted to work in the horror genre for a long time. I was working as a cinematographer, I met an incredible executive producer, and I said, “Hey, I have a horror movie idea.” They hadn’t done horror films before—they hadn’t done a lot of films, they were mostly television. So they said, “Alright, we’re going to go off to a market, find the right distributor, we’ll come back, and we can work on a horror movie.” Fantastic. They come back, and there’s a script about a monkey and a boy who plays soccer, and they’re like, “Here, how would this movie instead?” Sure, might as well cut my teeth on something and then do the horror movie next. And now, 30 movies later, we got a bunch of Christmas movies, romance movies, and we finally were able to break through and get financing for our first horror movie.
So we were sort of always chasing this and stumbled into this other world. But luckily, that world puts food on the table for my family, so I continue to make Christmas movies even though they’re potentially not my first love.
KEITH COOPER: Justin and I both started on the monkey movie—it was our first one together. Fun fact: I was bit 11 times by that monkey. But before that, I was actually a comedy writer through doing some internet sketches and things like that. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s company Funny or Die found me and just literally offered me a job. So I was doing sketch comedy for about seven years, and then sure enough, along comes this monkey movie opportunity and you don’t pass up those. So we did that and then 29 other versions, even though we kept saying, “We have these great horror movies!”
In Canada, it’s a very different avenue. It’s harder to get those kinds of movies made. I’m kind of grateful looking back that we had the experience because Justin is so organised now from doing so many movies that he was able to keep us on task. I have not learned any organisational skills with 30 movies—it’s made no difference to me. Thankfully, it has for him, and we were able to do it with a 14 or 15-day shoot.
JGD: Yeah, we’re very comfortable on set now and have incredible relationships with actors and crew, and all that came from the Christmas movies. So it worked out.
Let’s talk about Audrey and Henry, because they have a surprisingly sweet and intimate relationship considering the things they get up to in this movie. What was the casting process like to find actors who could really bring both sides of those characters?
JGD: From the concept of the film, it started with Sheila McCarthy. I watched a film called Cardinals, which is a low-budget Canadian indie film with Sheila in the lead, and I just thought she is incredible. We knew, given the budget we were going to have access to, that we would need to find people who lived generally in our area—we wouldn’t be able to fly actors in and put them up and find hotels. So I sent that movie to Keith, he agreed with me, and then he started writing with her in mind. We sent it to her, she liked it, and we were able to go to other producers and say, “This is the script, and Sheila McCarthy is interested.” So that was how that started. Keith, I’ll let you tell the story of getting Julian involved.
KC: I think with Sheila getting on board, it made it a little bit more legitimate for us, which was great. And funnily enough, it was the same thing: I knew Julian [Richings] through friends of friends in the industry and thought, okay, well, if I’m going to write with Sheila in mind, Julian would be absolutely perfect. So basically, I just put it all out there for him. I was like, “Hey, we haven’t officially met. We’ve kind of talked on Facebook a little bit here and there. I wrote this movie with you in mind—I’d love for you to just have a read and see if this is something that’s interesting to you.” And Julian, being the sweetheart that he is, just gave it a read, and then it actually became very easy. Everything just started to fall in line.
JGD: We had lunch with Sheila, had lunch with Julian. We let them know that we do know what we’re doing—this isn’t going to be like some indie sets I’ve been on where you’re gruelling for 24 hours a day and eating Costco granola bars at all hours of the night. We gave him the confidence that we were going to make a movie and it was gonna be done properly, and that was it: they came on. And once you have Sheila and Julian in the movie, the rest of the cast becomes very easy—you just spread the word. We got so many incredible auditions. We had more than we could choose from, and one of the associate producers on board, Rebecca Lamarche, helped us find a bunch of the cast. We just got luckier and luckier as we progressed.
The whole cast is great. And I love how layered Henry and Audrey’s characters are: there’s this interesting undercurrent of classism in the way that they treat the body of a young woman who’s obviously going through some difficult times. Is that something you were thinking about consciously from the start, or did that evolve over time?
KC: It evolved over time, but I was very conscious of it; it was something that Justin and I had talked about a lot. It’s very much about classism, as you say, or just the entitlement that “I’m grieving, so it’s okay for me to do it.” Everything was centred around what their needs were, not this poor woman.
JGD: Yeah, we sort of set up a difficult task for ourselves in making a protagonist and antagonist almost in one. You could argue that Becker is the protagonist of this film, but I think you’d be just as right saying that Audrey and Henry are the protagonists. And this is something I learned from Keith long ago, working on monkey movies and other such things: it’s easy to have the audience feel sorry for the sweet, kindly person walking the puppy with a cone around its neck. It’s hard for you to feel empathy for someone doing something horrible. So we said, well, let’s try. And this is our first crack at that.
The ghosts in the movie are wonderful too. The suffocating ghost in particular is so creepy. What were your inspirations when you were creating the different spirits in the house?
KC: I really wanted to tap into nightmares and the meanings of them. I’d taken a dream analysis course and it was very interesting to me—I’ve done a lot of reading about it since—so I really wanted to play with that aspect. So, take the flossing ghost: teeth falling out in your dreams means money issues, your life falling apart, or things falling out of your control, and Justin had a great take on that ghost saying that is exactly when Henry’s life really starts to spiral out of control. Henry is very focused and organised, he’s got this locked down, but then that happens to him and it’s literally his living nightmare.
JGD: They both have the same goal, but Audrey is much more emotionally charged. Henry is the questioner; he’s analytical. He says, “Well, if this is what needs to be done, these are the steps we’re going to take.” And once those steps become impossible because outside elements have changed them, that’s when he starts losing the control.
KC: Great segue into the little girl ghost, because that is Audrey’s daughter that we learn about later. She is emotionally charged, so her nightmares and the ghosts that appear to her are all based on her emotions and the things that she can’t control that she wishes she could control, including the size difference. When things are really gigantic, it’s very overpowering—which is, funnily enough, where my nightmares come from: these giant ships floating down the street will mess me up really badly in dreams. Justin and I talked about that with the tall ghost coming out, and it was so specific. That was the one Justin mentioned to me at least 25 times—like, “Okay, it’s going to be this, and it’s going to happen here, and then this is gonna happen,” and I was like, “Alright, yeah, you’ve got this one locked down!”
Suffocating, obviously, is more on Becker’s side. It’s her nightmare: she’s trapped, she literally feels like she’s suffocating. Justin, do you want to talk about casting Troy [James]? That’s a fun story.
JGD: Yeah! Keith had written our suffocating ghost and knew that he had to crawl along the ground. And about 20 years ago, I went to an amusement park called Canada’s Wonderland—they had this Halloween special every year where they put up a bunch of haunted houses and have actors walking around scaring you—and I saw this contortionist. I remember I was there with a big group of friends and I saw him do this thing from a distance, and then I just told everybody, “We got to wait here because this guy’s gonna do something!” And we just stood around and waited, and he started chasing people upside down and backwards, so I knew exactly who would be good for this role.
So we start Googling, we find old YouTube videos for Canada’s Wonderland, we get his name, we get in touch with our casting director. She looks at it and says, “Oh yeah, that guy.” He’s been in Hellboy . He’s been in a few Guillermo del Toro projects. He’s now in one of the brand new Welcome to the Blumhouse films [Black Box]. It was on Amazon, I watched it the other day. And I was like, “Oh, he’s taken off! There’s no way we can get him.” So we throw a big casting process, we find another contortionist, she’s perfect, we’re excited to work with her. And then she has to cancel at the last minute. She’s very kind and sweet; she gets in touch and says, “I’m sorry, I can’t make it. But I perform with a friend of mine, and turns out he’s available.” And sure enough, Troy James comes across our desk, and we were so lucky to get him in the film.
KC: I think we made a phone call where she was like, “Yeah, I’ll see if he—” and I was like, “Just say yes! Tell him yes! Whatever it is works!” Funnily enough, that scene also scared Troy. He finally got a chance to watch it, and he told me that he didn’t know when his own scares were coming. So he scared himself in the movie, which I thought was pretty fun.
That scene is incredible and Troy is so fantastic. And you used a lot of practical effects in the movie—was that something that was important to you when you were setting out?
JGD: Very much so. We tried to make everything as practical as possible, partly for budgetary reasons. We knew we didn’t have a lot of money, so if Keith and I could hang out and cook up different versions of fake blood and send them through snowblowers and whatnot then we could save money in the long run by just putting in some extra blood, sweat, and tears ourselves. So we prepared as much of it as we could. We brought Karlee Morse on board to be our practical effects and FX makeup artist, and she brought so much to the project. We were lucky to work with her in the past. So between those few things, it was a more economical way of doing it, and we think just makes for a better movie. It’s just more tactile, more tangible, if it’s there in front of you.
KC: Yeah, and as a horror fan, I’m not a big fan of CG in horror. You need to feel like it could physically touch you. So that was something very early on that Justin and I talked about where we just really wanted minimal invisible effects. Anything that you see is pretty much just to accent things, not to replace.
I’m sure your neighbours loved you if you were throwing fake blood into snowblowers.
KC: There are still some red spots on my garage! It’s still there!
JGD: We were testing in my driveway and it turned out to be the same day as my daughter’s birthday party, so we got in trouble. And we came up with an idea: we got a bunch of blue and green food colouring and we splattered that all over the snow too, so we’re like, no, it’s paint, it’s fun! It didn’t totally sell, but I got in a little bit less trouble.
Maybe she’ll just grow up to be a horror fan!
JGD: I haven’t let her watch this yet, but she’s already trying to sneak through doors and take a peek, so I think she already is a horror fan.
That’s great. And alongside the horror in the film, there’s a vein of pitch-black comedy that runs through it, but you play it completely straight. Were there moments where you had to pull it back or just push it a little bit further to make sure that you were striking the right tone?
JGD: From a directing standpoint, with the actors, we were very lucky that Sheila and Julian both are extremely witty, funny people—we never stopped laughing on set—so there’s a natural comedy timing that comes with them. The other thing is, in my head, I knew there were parts that were funny, and I pushed back against a few notes we got here and there from producers. “Oh, you sure you want this?” Like, “Yeah, that’s funny, let’s lean into that.”
But I was never setting out to make it a comedy. It was all about being real. I thought, okay, well, this is what happens when a movie goes here, but if this was real life, where would that end up? You know, someone who’s a grandparent is probably not that great with social media, so she has to look up the acronyms. That’s really connecting with people as being funny. I’m really happy that people are finding it as funny as I did the first time I read the script.
Now obviously the pandemic has hit pause on a lot of productions, but what’s next for both now that you’ve finally made the horror film you’ve been trying to make for all these years?
KC: We have a revenge movie that we’re doing called Mourning War. It’s with Diego Tinoco from On My Block on Netflix. Justin’s producing; I wrote and am directing it, so that was really exciting to us. A little bit of a bigger budget, which is great, and obviously I’ll need the extra time because I’m nowhere near as organised as Justin. So I’ll be relying on him to fix it, and then I’ll just take the credit.
And then yeah, we have tons! Justin and I, the one thing that we are very good at is we do have a lot of ideas and a lot of prep. When we go to these meetings, we usually have about 10 movies that are ready to go. We’ve got 10 pitch decks, because we know things shift—times change, depending on what people are looking for in the moment. And we’ve had some people reaching out to us, which has been fantastic. So yeah, we’re just going to try and get the next one off the ground as soon as possible, and then just keep the ball rolling and hopefully stay in the horror world. That’s my first love.
Awesome—well, we hope you stay in the horror world too! Speaking of which, my last question is: what’s your favourite scary movie?
JGD: Hmm, that’s a tough one. I think for me, there’s a French film that was a co-production with Canada called Martyrs [2008, dir. Pascal Laugier]. That one was always a favourite of mine. Guillermo del Toro presents The Orphanage is one of my favourites. And then go back to your classics—I always loved The Shining and The Omen. All those films from the 70s were a big inspiration for us. We went back and rewatched those, so they are fresh in my head right now as some of my favourites.
KC: For me, I would say Martyrs is obviously right up there. I think I introduced Justin to that one, and we’ve watched it a bunch of times since. The Changeling is a big one for me. Carrie is a big one for me—I love that movie. And maybe Let the Right One In, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Does that count as horror? In the fantasy-horror world, I like Pan’s Labyrinth.
Good choices. Thank you so much for speaking to us!
KC: Thank you! We’re huge Scream fans.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)