Actor Ted Raimi loves horror so much that he’s dedicated much of his career to it, providing fans with an endless array of memorable characters from Evil Dead II’s Henrietta to last year’s morally complex Travis Hackett in video game The Quarry.
Up next for the horror stalwart is Failure!, an ambitious, violent thriller premiering this Sunday under the Fantastic Pavilion at this year’s Cannes’ Marché du Film.
In Failure!, Ted Raimi produces and stars as a man forced to choose between financial ruin and murder with little time to process, resulting in a crime thriller that delivers on violence. That’s burying the lede, however, as Raimi’s latest takes on the daunting task of capturing this moral conundrum through one single take.
Ted Raimi exclusively spoke with Bloody Disgusting about Failure!, detailing the challenges of making a single-take feature-length thriller.
The producer/actor shares how Failure! came together.
“My producing partner, Marco De Molina, is best known for producing multitudinous amounts of huge budget music videos for big stars. And Marco was nominated for a Grammy for one of his videos last year. He wanted to start getting into the feature world and decided to start with a short from a director that he knew named Alex Kahuam, and it was called ‘Red Light.’ It was a traditional slasher, and he wanted me to do it. By doing so, we would have a short that we would then be able to take to investors and see if we could raise money.
“We made it. It turned out quite nicely, I thought. We couldn’t raise the money, unfortunately. But then the director of that short wrote a script, and he gave it to Marco, and Marco passed it along to me, and he said, ‘You’d be good in this.’ I read it, and it was pretty radical. It was one take only, one shot. Yeah, isn’t that bananas? One shot, that’s the idea. So, it’s 87 pages. It is essentially a three-act play with no intermission.“
Raimi’s comparison emphasizes the ambitious scope of the film’s concept, shot in one continual take rather than a series of long takes connected through deceptive, clever editing.
“That’s how I approached the doggone thing,” Raimi explained the daunting task ahead of him as an actor. “So I was pretty shocked. I got it so fast. They were going to shoot it in three weeks. I went, ‘Are you guys out of your doggone minds?’ I said to them. Because learning 30 pages in a week is a lot, and then you’re having me learn 90 pages in three weeks. It was a great deal of work to prepare for that one. But then they brought me on as a producer as well, so my duties increased to producorial as well as theatrical.”
When asked what would happen if a take was ruined, Raimi succinctly answers, “Start over from page one.” He adds, “And it was quite a challenge, but it turned out great.”
For Raimi, it wasn’t just the single-take concept that appealed to him, but the character and the film’s violence as well. He explains, “The scenario was very enticing because there are no cuts; it’s an hour and a half and no cuts. And I felt capable of doing such a thing because I got my training in theater first. I started doing theater when I was 16, so from about the age of 16 through about 22, I was doing almost exclusively theater. I started doing films from there. So that was nice knowing that I was capable of that kind of stamina in front of the camera. I felt very blessed and lucky, and I knew that I was capable of things that some actors trained exclusively in film, who may be fantastic actors, would tire out after 10 or 20 minutes of nonstop acting. It might be challenging, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad actor for not being able to do it, but it’s very much like the difference between doing sustained pushups and sustained walking.”
Raimi continues, “There are different kinds of muscle strengths. That’s number one. So, I was interested in that. It was like being back and doing a play again. Number two, the genre I loved. I love thrillers. And number three, I love violence. All three were there, and I was very excited to have them all. One thing that I insisted on but was already there when I read the script was that the guy who plays opposite me for most of the movie is also on camera for nearly as long as me without a break. I asked my producing partner, Marco De Molina, ‘Who are you getting for this other part?’ What was so important, not because for the usual reasons of ‘I hope they’re very good,’ or’ I hope they compliment me well,’ or ‘I hope they have a name.’ The reason I asked him was for a generally very unusual reason, which is that person also needs to know theater.
“That’s because when you’re on stage for an hour and a half or two hours doing a play, you cannot be perfect the whole time. It’s absolutely impossible. It’s like watching a concert. You see somebody at a club; they’re going to fuck up sometime during that two hours at some point. They save themselves because their fellow band members will bring them back. It’s a live show, and this is just like that. I needed somebody really good at theater, and they got somebody, and that was a guy named Noel Orput, an LA theater actor. That’s just about all he does.”
A project this intensely precise on a technical level likely required extensive rehearsals and preparation, right?
“You really need to rehearse it like a play,” Raimi answers. “It takes three weeks, and then you perform the doggone thing. But no, we had three days, so it was a lot of praying.”
To exacerbate the complexities of this production were the choreography and practical effects that came with the film’s on-screen violence. Raimi candidly elaborates, “We struggled with that one. We’re like, okay, so we have practicals here; we got blood. We knew we couldn’t do anything too extreme because, of course, it would take time for that actor who was the recipient of the violence to go off camera and have proper prosthetics put on them by a proper makeup EFX guy. The very few guys, great guys, couldn’t do it in the minute and a half they had to perform; that is impossible. We had to figure out ways to show the gore while not getting everything we wanted. So, there’s plenty of blood, as you might imagine. It was a question of camera angles. We tricked them with camera angles. And when I say camera angles, it doesn’t mean there was cutting, like trick cutting. There’s no cutting.
“We did have a few seconds to do some tricks and get that actor good and gory. But yeah, there are limitations. So really, in effect, it’s precisely like performing violence in a play. Right? Good old school, 18th-century tricks like blood packets and stuff like that had to be employed because there’s simply no way to get that actor off camera and, of course, apply those prosthetics to get them back on. So, we had to do old-school stuff. I mean old school.“
To highlight just how much of an endurance test this production was for the actors involved, Raimi gives surprising insight into the film. He tells us, “There’s one moment where the camera turns to a group of people who have entered this particular scene, away from me, and they have a page and a half of dialogue amongst themselves. During that moment when the camera moves away, every time we would shoot shot the movie, which is one take; every time we shot it, I would collapse in a seat and put my head in my hand just and breathe for just a few seconds, so glad that the camera was off me. Then I have to stand up again about 45 seconds later and go at it. Technically, I had a one-minute and 30-second break every time we shot it.“
As for what we can expect from his character, Raimi gives a tease.
“Well, I’ll tell you this. He does choose murder, but that isn’t to say that the financial ruin is or is not achieved. Now, he does choose, but that doesn’t mean he gets what he wants. I’ll leave it at that. There is still a mystery there. It is really a character study more than anything else about a man and his family and deciding in a rather extra extreme and extraordinary way. If you love your children, how do you help them, rescue them, and provide for them? It is an age-old dramatic question. Along with that, there are, I think, elements of Shakespearean tragedy. There is a father figure that helps him out very much in the vein of Hamlet, or even going back further to the Greeks. It might be Antigone, if I’m not mistaken, that has these father figures helping out a character at a precipice in their lives trying to go one way or another. And depending on which bifurcation that character takes will change everything. There’s some neat classical cool stuff in there as well. I can tease you that.”
When asked what he took away most from this experience and playing a morally complicated character, Raimi’s answer highlights how near and dear the genre is to his heart.
He tells BD, “It is my hope that I will find scripts as good as Failure! and The Quarry for my next picture. I do love the violence and the gore. I just do. I can’t seem to stay away from it. I’ve been offered other things that were straight dramas that I’ve turned down, and I was wondering, when your bills come due, you go, ‘Should I have taken that movie?’ Maybe I made a mistake, but no, I’m glad I stuck with what I felt was most in line with who I am.”
Failure! makes its debut this Sunday at Cannes’ Fantastic Pavilion.