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The Jay Baruchel-directed Random Acts of Violence, which just came out in Canada, is one of the first new movies to release in theatres since before the whole COVID-19 pandemic began. (And, because of everything I just mentioned, it’ll also be available digitally and on-demand, before releasing in the U.S on August 20th.)
Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter to Baruchel how people watch the movie as long as they get to. That’s because the filmmaker and his writing partner/childhood friend Jesse Chabot have been working on Random Acts on-and-off for the better part of the last decade; they first signed on to adapt the graphic novel about a comic creator haunted by a serial killer re-enacting his character’s fictional kills back in 2011.
In between, the NDG-born actor/filmmaker made Goon and Goon: Last of the Enforcers (his directorial debut), a pair of How to Train Your Dragon sequels, played (*a fictionalized version of) himself in This Is the End, and starred in the surrealist FXX series Man Seeking Woman. And all that ensuing life experience translated to a much different take on the story than we might’ve gotten back in the early 2010s, Baruchel told Complex.
The 2020 version of Random Acts—which stars Jesse Williams as the Slasherman creator, Jordana Brewster, and Baruchel, and takes place on a road trip from Toronto to New York Comic Con—is far more meta and confrontational, mixing the requisite gnarly kills and slasher scares with an explicit challenge of the genre’s penchant for fetishizing violence.
We reached Baruchel by phone to chat about how the message behind his sophomore feature evolved over the years, his rep as a proud Canadian, and whether the diehard Habs fan is hyped for the return of the NHL.
Hey Jay, how’s it going?
Going pretty well, thanks. Yourself?
Not bad, although it’s still a little weird to be doing phone interviews with someone when you’re both in the same city.
Yeah, weird, eh?
How have you been doing? How have you been coping with all this?
Oh man. I was made for this. I am thriving. [Laughs.] No, I am very lucky that I’m healthy and everyone in my life is healthy and happy and all that stuff. So there’s inherent privilege in knowing that. But having said that, yeah, I mean, I did a whole bunch of interviews yesterday in my basement. That’s a fucking career-first for me.
Has having a movie to promote helped give you a little more sense of normalcy?
Not really, to be honest. It still feels bloody weird. Ours is one of the first movies to come out during all this weird shit. And it feels like we haven’t completely figured out how the airplane works. This is like the Mark 1. But also, at the end of the day, it’s not really that fucking different. We made a movie and we hope people dig it. And I get to talk to people after they watch it. And I’m sure some of them curate their responses so as not to offend me too greatly. [Laughs.] Not that it matters. If people like the movie, they’ll find it—however that happens.
"We want to take the fun out of our kills. We want them to be as hard to go through as we can muster."
I guess now’s the time I should tell you that I did really dig this movie.
Oh, fucking eh, man. Thank you. That would have been the specter haunting this conversation.
I’m a big proponent of the idea that you know within the first 10 minutes if a movie’s on your wavelength or not.
I agree with that completely. I even got it down to a specific minute 17. And I learned this from seeing what time I was bailing on shit on Netflix. Every single time, it was always a minute 17. So I was terribly focused on minute 17 of my film. I was just very, very, very mindful of having a strong first period.
I know this has been in the works for a long time. Obviously, you’ve had plenty of time to think about that first minute 17… But what was it about this story that made you want to stick with it?
That’s a fucking very good question that we’ve asked ourselves time and time again, Jesse and I. I think it was just we believed in what we were saying—or rather, we believed in what we were asking. I think [the movie] ends up asking a lot of questions and fostering a debate. And we really dug the tone and dug the substance of those questions. It lent itself to a really harsh and confrontational story.
And even if all that sort of flowery intellectual shit is meaningless, ultimately, the most important thing for a horror film is to be scary. And what is scary now, when it seems like every fear has been capitalized upon to the point of exhaustion? We were like, ‘You know what’s fucking really scary that no one seems to be talking about? The fucking creative process.’ [Laughs.] It’s bloody horrifying. And questioning artistic responsibility—or anybody’s responsibility—to the energy they put out into the world. That seems real, and we knew that we could make something really harsh.
Totally. This is not a pleasant watch in places… I mean that as a compliment, just to be clear.
That was what we tried for, man. That means the world that you said that because that was Rule #1 for the whole production writ large: We want to take the fun out of our kills. We want them to be as hard to go through as we can muster. We wanted our violence to unfold as close to verisimilitude as we could afford to do.
There’s a sort of music and a rhythm to normality, and then a car wreck happens, or a bar fight happens and, all of a sudden, that music goes away. And now is operating at its own meter. And you lose control, and you’re either in the midst of it or watching helplessly as it happens—both terribly horrifying. So that was the energy that we were trying to articulate. And we were sick of every pint glass shattering in a bar fight in a movie. Because that’s not what fucking happens! And it’s way grosser for the glass to not break, right? So that was the gist of our approach to the kills on this movie.
"I am an absolute religious Habs fan, but I’m not asking for this weird sci-fi bubble fucking tournament where, like, half the players are fucking testing positive anyway. However, I’m well aware of the fact that I’m going to watch every fucking second of it."
I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but early on, there’s a line from Jesse Williams’ Todd about how he’s trying to put “medicine in the sugar” with his comics. Even though now everybody just wants all sugar all the time. What ratio of medicine to sugar were you aiming for here?
Somewhere around three parts medicine to one part sugar, ideally. For [the movie] to be successful on the levels that we’re interested in, it has to be successful on that base, immediate level; it has to function as a horror film. I’m not gonna shit on anybody else’s movie, but it has to scratch all the itches of other horror films. But I also think that we wanted to trigger some questions in people. I want people to question their viewing habits like I do.
Stephen King had a column in Fangoria for a little while and he talked about what he likes in horror films and what he hates. And one of the things that he hates in a slasher film is that there’s way more sympathy and character development for the killer than there is for the fucking oversexed white kids he’s killing, right? His argument is we can name Jason. Can we name any of the fucking kids he’s killed through a dozen movies? No! And if we can’t name them, you can’t call them the protagonist. Jason’s clearly the protagonist. And therefore, what is that experience as an audience member, but nothing short of vicarious sadism? Which is not necessarily wrong in and of itself! I fucking didn’t even realize that was what I was experiencing, you know?
So it’s just about approaching the movies and music and books we intake the same way we approach food at the grocery store. Which is just, look at the fucking ingredients. You still might put the junk food in your cart. You might not give a shit about Xanthan gum, but you’re still looking. You’d rather know what’s in you.
There are moments in here that feel very real and honest. Like the fight Todd and Kathy get into in the motel room. That’s some almost Marriage Story-type shit… even though they’re fighting about a group of kids getting brutally murdered because of a comic book.
[Laughs.] Right, but they’re talking about themselves! And [Kathy’s] viewpoint is deeply important, because I think it’s closer to the one that I subscribe to. And their argument in that hotel room is also an argument I have with myself—because I am a big true crime fan. But rare is the book, or documentary series I’ve watched, that seemed to approach the subject matter with the appropriate amount of solemnity. The same thing with Jason and his kills, it applies [there] too...
We can all rattle off the names of serial killers like they’re fucking rock stars, and yet we can’t name the people they fucking brutally murdered? We can’t name the families who have a profound hole in them forever? Again, none of it’s wrong in and of itself, but I guess I’m trying to say that if your relative was brutally murdered and then it was covered on a podcast called My Favorite Murder... That might seem a bit distasteful to you.
Was that perspective something that grew out of the seven or eight years you spent thinking about this story?
Definitely. We wrote the first draft of the treatment [when] we were still in our 20s, and with every failed opportunity, every time the movie got some interest or found a home for a second, then ultimately fell apart for whatever reason—usually it was just down to Jesse and I being a precious and not being willing to make the compromises you need to make sometimes. But we were also like, we’d rather not make the fucking movie than make a shitty, forgettable, garbage version of it. Honestly. We’ve got enough other shit going on, right?
But with every failed opportunity, we weren’t content to let the thing just acquire dust. We kept being like, ‘Alright. God wants us to open the hood up again.’ So we ended up treating it like a fucking thesis project because we just had nothing but time to do it. And we acknowledged that we don’t necessarily think the same shit as we approach 40 that we did when we approached 30. That’s just inevitable. And it would be gross to fight for 10 years to protect this thing and then make a movie with immature viewpoints that we don’t subscribe to anymore. The conversations that we had about our script are in the movie. What Kathy says to Todd is a version of an epiphany Jesse and I had about ourselves.
You’ve become known as a guy who reps Canada proudly. I remember talking to you a few years back for another Canadian indie you did, and you said something that really stuck with me, which was that this country needs more movies that don’t hide their Canadian-ness. I think we’ve definitely seen that shift in Canada’s music scene, but do you feel encouraged by what we’re seeing in film and TV now?
I think it’s definitely better than it used to be. And I think not enough people give credit where credit’s due, because I think if English Canada has a greater sense of itself and its cinema and TV in this new era, I see Trailer Park Boys as the reason for that. I truly do. They made a thing for them and for us, and we liked it enough that the rest of the world paid attention. And that’s how it’s gotta happen. And the same thing with Letterkenny, that process played itself out again. That being said, I know there’s still an inherent fear up here of this concept that there’s such a thing as “prohibitively Canadian.”
And it was something that I fought through two Goon movies, where I was banking on the fact that there’s not an American in the world who’s enjoying this film and then sees a Nova Scotia license plate and hits pause and throws the remote at the wall, like, “I’m fucking done! I thought this took place in the States!” [Laughs.] Like, that doesn’t happen. And it’s insane to pretend it does.
I’m still greatly offended at a childhood of watching movies that I knew were Canadian but when it came to an insert on a wallet, there was, for some reason, American money in there. Out of some servile hope to end up in Blockbuster… As if the Queen on money would mean like, “Naw, that’s it, guys. You fucked yourselves. You shouldn’t have filmed the Queen on your money.” So, yeah, we’re definitely better than we used to be. I still think there’s a ways to go. But I’ll say this: How I know we’re better than we used to be? Not once throughout this entire production did anybody ever tell me the character shouldn’t come from Toronto or the car can’t say Ontario on it. Never once. And that’s a first.
And the moment we first start to feel unsafe as an audience is when they cross the border into the States. That doesn’t seem like a coincidence.
Oh, you noticed that, did you? [Laughs.] That was a very specific phenomenon I was trying to articulate cinematically, which is that road trip—if you’ve ever driven from here to there, you feel it as soon as you cross. And I hadn’t seen a horror flick that articulated that. So, yeah, that’s all very, very deliberate.
I know I’ve got to let you go, but your movie opens in Canada the same weekend the NHL returns. I’m not going to ask you which one you’re more excited for, but that seems like it’s going to be a big weekend for you…
It definitely could be. [Laughs.] I mean, the NHL, it’s one of these things... Every once in a while, being an adult fan of a pro sports team, you are more aware of the living satire than others. And this will be one of them. Because there’s nothing about this that needs to happen. I am an absolute religious Habs fan, but I’m not asking for this weird sci-fi bubble fucking tournament where, like, half the players are fucking testing positive anyway. This is just a bit cart before the horse. However, I’m well aware of the fact that I’m going to watch every fucking second of it. And if our collapse is inevitable, I hope it happens in the first round.
I feel the same way about baseball opening day. It’s all really strange. And yet I’ve got an alarm set on my phone for ten minutes before the games start.
Exactly! It’s ridiculous. No, I won’t miss a second of it, even if I’m like, ‘Who the fuck is clamoring for this?’