Exclusive: Graham Reznick talks Deadwax, Shudder’s spine tingling new original horror series

Don't listen to this vinyl, Deadwax on Shudder is worth your time. Pic credit: Shudder
Don’t listen to this vinyl, Deadwax on Shudder is worth your time. Pic credit: Shudder

Shudder’s new original series Deadwax is so darn good that parent network AMC might just steal it from them.

Written and directed by Graham Reznick, starring Hannah Gross (Mindhunter), Evan Gamble (Hap and Leonard), Chester Rushing (Stranger Things) and Ted Raimi (Ash vs. Evil Dead), and after four episodes watched for review ahead of our interview with Reznick, Deadwax needs to be on your radar.

Someone at AMC should grab this one to spool out into a longer format TV drama, as they enjoyed critically acclaimed success with The Terror this past summer.

For those who might be unaware, Shudder is a subscription video-on-demand service featuring horror, thriller and supernatural fiction titles owned and operated by AMC Networks.

Graham Reznick has melded sound and vision for a terrifying effect in Deadwax. Pic credit: Graham Reznick
Graham Reznick has melded sound and vision for a terrifying effect in Deadwax. Pic credit: Graham Reznick

Sound designer turned-director and writer Graham Reznick has taken a familiar sounding premise and spun it into an intriguing idea completely unlike anything seen on TV.

Artistic obsession, curses, and vinyl-loving audiophiles? The opening scene makes it clear that some records must be shelved for eternity, for fear of a gruesome demise.

Reznick and Shudder dice up his 2+ hour long short film into perfectly snipped episodes that pull you in and do not let you go.

Thank the cracking good below-the-liners working with Reznick as well as his own eye in selecting an excellent acting ensemble, headed by Hannah Gross and Ted Raimi.  In concert, they all turn in a creepy mystery yarn about a hard-to-find record so potently lethal that people drop dead listening to it.

In addition, Shudder will also release the Deadwax soundtrack from Mondo/Death Waltz Recording Company, produced by Death Waltz founder Spencer Hickman. The double-LP limited release will have Reznick’s original score along with twelve exclusive tracks featured in the show from the electronic artists that helped inspire the series hair-raising sound.

And don’t doubt that Reznick completely understands the power of music combined with a visual to hammer down the anxiety and the scares.

His sound design is bracing, spare, menacing and effective in relaying the narrative as we watch Etta (Gross) unravel a mystery as rich clients commission her to get the goods. She has an aversion to doing it ethically as we see her break into homes like a cat burglar in her hunt for the requested vinyl holy grail.

All in, Reznick gives us eight tight episodes in this first season (hopefully there will be more), as Deadwax fills our heads with the unfortunate demise of sound engineer Lyle M. Lytton and his haunted recording, one so elusive and rare that just a mere note or two will send someone over the cliffs of insanity.

Reznick artfully shows one unfortunate policeman Perry (Evan Gamble) mentally devolve over time from his brief interlude hearing Lytton’s cacophonous evil death dirge.

There are lots of narrative strings here, including poking a stick at the vinyl-obsessive folks, the playing a record backward thing, the idea of “audio archaeology” that imparts an evil or portentous energy with ancient audio equipment and players.  All of these things and more are wrapped up in a tense cryptic tour de force turned in by Gross who took this role and made it memorable.

Reznick’s Deadwax is an excellent, eerie surprise that demands your attention and should be watched by anyone who is a fan of the genre. It’s well done, while quietly being LGBTQ positive (Etta is in a passionate relationship with a woman), and delivers great performances while being somewhat subtle and utterly terrifying all at the same time.

Etta (Hannah Gross) is in a passionate relationship with Lana (Tracy Perez). Pic credit: Shudder
Etta (Hannah Gross) is in a passionate relationship with Lana (Tracy Perez). Pic credit: Shudder

We spoke to Reznick ahead of the premiere this Thursday on Shudder:

Monsters and Critics: I’ve seen the first four 11 minute increments of Deadwax and it feels like it was meant to be seen all in one sitting and then Shudder sort of dissected a little bit. Can you talk about that?

Graham Reznick: It was actually always intended to be split up into these episodes, but the way that I thought about it, since the full running time is about two hours, I always kind of thought about it as a film, but a film where there are these distinct three-act arcs every eighth of the way. Sometimes it’s about 10 minutes, sometimes it’s about 15 to 20 minutes. But it was designed with those act breaks in mind.

We weren’t sure at first how we were going to roll it out… if we were going to do an episode a week or something, or all at once. I’m kind of glad that people are getting to see it all at once.

I think they ought to be released at the same time. But I do like that since it was designed that way, every credit break is designed to be part of the show. It has this break to music that almost acts as a palette cleanser before the next chapter begins.

M&C:   I feel that. The overarching premise, to me, is whatever art it is. In this case, it’s music, whatever you’re obsessively drawn to can also consume you. What are some of the overarching themes that you were playing with, with Deadwax?

Graham Reznick: That’s actually right. As a creative person but also as a person who loves to experience art and music and film and narrative, I go down the rabbit hole so easily with anything that I like.

If I read a book, and I am enjoying that book, I will just stay up all night for two days straight to finish it because I can’t stop. It’s terrible. I have to not read books over 800 pages. I’ll have to shelve everything in my life for a couple of days, which is not a great thing.

But, I also love and respect that art and stories and music can have that power over people. I think it’s a really rare thing and it’s something to be cherished about humanity.

If we didn’t have that, we would be so numb, and I think for some people it goes away. And I think for other people, it stays strong, and for most people, it’s a balance.

There’s always a fight to find that balance, especially if you’re someone who’s passionate about the things that you like. It’s always a challenge to find that balance, and I think one of the things that I wanted to really explore with Deadwax was examining the relationship to that balance for people who collect vinyl.

Vinyl can be a very obsessive hobby for a number of reasons. Sometimes it can be about just collecting, sometimes it’s about music, but it’s a tricky thing to balance the obsession with your humanity.

M&C: The opening was a great juxtaposition between death and sex, and I really liked how it kicked off.   Visually and through lensing, it is really hard to grab someone immediately. Can you talk about that and your DP?

Graham Reznick:  My DP is Gordon Arkenberg who I’ve known since 1999. He was a fellow NYU student with me at NYU, and we’ve worked together for a very long time on almost all of my projects. He actually teaches the Science of Cinematography at NYU currently.

He’s a very, very sharp cookie and he’s one of the best, has a great eye, and he always elevates what I’m looking for, and finds things that I wasn’t aware that I needed for the story. That’s one of the greatest things you can ask for in a collaborator.

In terms of the opening, yeah, it’s always a challenge and you always hear that – it’s drilled into your head when you’re in film school and just starting in the industry, but no one’s going to read your script if the first ten pages aren’t amazing.

And then you hear, oh, it’s the first five pages. And then you hear it’s really the first page. The first page has to be amazing. If that first page isn’t amazing, they’re not going to read further.

But I honestly think it’s even the first couple sentences. People very quickly make judgments right away. So that challenge to find a good hook and find a good way to bring people in right away is always on filmmaker’s minds, and especially something like vinyl.

If you are a vinyl fan, you’re probably just in with the concept no matter what. It’s like, oh, that seems like something I’m interested in. If you’re not, vinyl can seem like it’s something that is elitist or not for everybody, which is to some extent true.

It’s slightly expensive and there’s a lot to learn about it. I don’t want people to not feel like they can’t get engaged in the story. It was definitely something to think about, for me, to try to find a way to bring people into the story and not scare them off.

I think that the goal with Deadwax was to tell an interesting story first, have it be about vinyl second. If people enjoy the story and learn something about vinyl, that’s great. I want them to enjoy the story.

M&C: Hannah Gross, by the way, was a perfect pick for your main character, Etta. There’s a very cryptic air about her in this character…

Gross plays Etta with the right amount of restraint and cool cunning. Pic credit: Shudder
Gross plays Etta Pryce with the right amount of restraint and cool cunning. Pic credit: Shudder

Graham Reznick:  I love Hannah. She is just fantastic. We had mutual friends and we went out to her, and she liked the material. I was over the moon because she is just such a fascinating and confident actress.

She brings so much to the screen. A very different role than what she did in Mindhunter, but she studied some film noir for this role. I gave her Kiss Me Deadly to look at.

I don’t know if we talked about Alphaville but the way I saw this character, and I think what she brings to it is kind of a combination between Lemmy Caution and Anna Karina at the same time, which is a rare combination.

And you always see these sort of male hard-boiled characters. It’s a trope and a classic archetype. The hard-boiled male character is hardened and doesn’t care about anything, about just getting his way and solving the mystery, and I wanted to apply that to a female character, and I think she just carries it off beautifully.

M&C: Perry’s descent into insanity is really well done. Talk about the aural and the visual ideas you had in your mind to combine and relay this loss of sanity.

Perry listens for a second and is irrevocably damaged. Pic credit: Shudder
Perry listens for a second and is irrevocably damaged. Pic credit: Shudder

Graham Reznick: Sure. It’s hard for me to talk about it without giving things away, but I’ll try to say it in a way that is a little more circumspect.

Well, first of all, Evan Gamble who plays Perry is really great as well. He was in a show called Hap and Leonard that Jim Mickle was the showrunner for, Jim and I had worked together.

We’ve known each other. He’s also from NYU. So, there was a great in-the-family sort of sense to be the casting and piecing together of the show, and Evan came highly recommended. He just blew us away with his commitment to that, to insanity.

We shot a lot of it in risky ways using lens techniques that are in-camera, a lot of in-camera lens techniques. And then doing a lot of things with the soundtrack to express the idea that he is becoming or he is going out of phase or out of tune with the spectrum of our reality.

There is a very defined set of rules that I want to set up narratively that the audio and visual was in line with.

So things that may seem at first kind of like a distraction start coming into focus as the series progresses, and if we get to do more past the first season, they’ll become further into focus. All of that stuff lines up to what happens in the Sci-Fi realm of the show.

M&C: Where does Deadwax go? “Audio archaeology” is so intriguing. Do you explore other fables like the ancient Sirens luring sailors to their death or ideas in Deadwax? Do you go back in history? Do you stay with the current character? Where do you take the story?

Graham Reznick: Sure. I have a number of different ideas for where the overall mythology and overall story will go after Season 1 if we do more. I don’t want to say too much about it specifically because I don’t want to spoil where Season 1 ends up, but I will say that for me, and just in general with vinyl, vinyl is a medium, a means to an end.

Ultimately the obsession is not about the medium but what’s on the medium. The music, the power that holds. In a way, this first season is kind of zooming past the medium into the music itself.

If we do more, then yes, we would go very deep into things like archaeoacoustics. I’m delighted that you picked up on that. We planted that as a seed for some future fun, and that will play in very heavily.

And then, we would also look into a lot of different types of music besides just electronic music. That was sort of a part of the way that I could get the show made in that it is music that I also create, and I have a lot of friends who create that kind of music.

It was an easy way for me to fill out the show with a lot of great music from great people, and that would continue, but we would also bring in some other types of music if we go further.

I don’t want to say too much about where it would go, but yes, we’d go into the past a little bit.

M&C: How did you get to Ted Raimi?

Raimi adds an air of gravitas to the teleplay. Pic credit: Shudder
Raimi adds an air of gravitas to the teleplay. Pic credit: Shudder

Graham Reznick: Ted actually came in to audition on his own. I’m not sure if he heard about the project through casting, or through an agent or a manager. I wasn’t even there that day.

Sometimes you stay for all the casting sessions, sometimes you don’t. I was there for a good portion of them but I just didn’t happen to be there that day, and the casting agent Lisa Fields, who is great, sent me an excited email saying “look who came in today.”

And I was like, oh my gosh, and I had a different idea in my head for that character, just a different type. And Ted came in, and his approach to it was just so right and counterbalanced Etta’s stoicism in just the right way.

Ted plays it with this aging record-store clerk [with] smarminess and snarkiness. It’s just perfect. And I’ve always been a fan of Ted Raimi. He’s just such a fun actor. I’m a big Twin Peaks fan and he’s got a small role in that but a great role.  It was a joy to get to work with them and he brought quite a bit to the screen.

M&C: Do you see this going past Shudder into the sister network or expanding in a way where it’s in a broader bigger platform?

Graham Reznick: It’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to. The goal of this was basically to get these two hours made and get them as good as we can get them.

But I’ve never thought of it – it does happen to be short form, and it does happen to be – I think it’s the first original scripted show for Shudder, they’ve done some other non-scripted and some other exclusives.

We’ve never thought of this as anything other than the highest quality we can make it. I don’t see a difference between it being on a fledgling network or being on a network like AMC that has been around longer.

I would approach it the same way. The scope is a lot smaller for this, but hopefully, the narrative quality is up to snuff for everybody.

M&C: Music and sound are so powerful in evoking emotions and fear. As a filmmaker and as a music maker, which filmmaker have you appreciated who has really understood connecting sound and vision?

Graham Reznick: There are so many, and then there are many more who I feel could connect those things and don’t, but the obvious easiest one for me to mention is David Lynch. He was part of the reason I became a filmmaker.

I saw Fire Walk With Me when I was young. I always knew that I wanted to be on an artistic path, but I didn’t know you could do that with film, and Fire Walk With Me completely blew the doors open for me, and the way that he sees the gestalt, sees the film, the narrative and the visual and the sound and the music as parts of one whole, that was incredibly eye-opening.

Nic Roeg is another. I think Nic Roeg does it better than most people. There are so many, but Lynch and Roeg were two of the original big ones for me. And of course John Carpenter and Dario Argento in the horror space. They command music and visuals in a way that creates something that’s more than the sum of its parts.

I think that’s the goal, for me, of all filmmaking is to use all of the elements at a filmmaker’s disposal to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts and brings the viewer to a new place.

Deadwax begins streaming in its entirety (8 episodes) on Thursday, November 15, 2018, on Shudder.

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