Interview : Steven Garbas on the ‘genre-shifting’ ‘Peppergrass’

”So far all the critics have been good about spoilers, even the ones who hated the end.”

Steven Garbas

During the pandemic, a pregnant restaurateur tries to rob a priceless truffle from a reclusive World War 2 veteran in a new revenge horror-thriller from award-winning filmmaking duo Steven Garbas and Chantelle Han, Peppergrass.

The film, which Han also stars in, snared some great reviews from festivals a while back and is now getting a digital release via Terror Films.

Okay, how did you manage to stay secret about those twists in the film? And did you come up with those before putting pen to paper or during the process of writing the script?
So far all the critics have been good about spoilers, even the ones who hated the end. The aggressive “genre shifting” throughout the film has only started to surface in the reviews more recently. Until then it was mostly critics who thought the second act was weird.
I had that ending from the start. I knew I wanted to do a The Killing vibe since the truffle is such a MacGuffin.

How long ago did you begin writing the project?
We wrote a draft in June 2020 and shot in November.

And how much did the script change over the course of the project’s development?
We shot almost exactly what was in the script. And edited almost exactly what was on the shotlist. It was eerie.
Sometimes the pig, Hector, wouldn’t do what we needed, so we’d make a change there. He was 900 pounds, so he really had to want to do something or it wasn’t happening.

Was financing something that was locked in before that process began?
We were actually going to make a movie about the exotic dance industry. We were cast and financed and had sent the master budget down on the Friday and on the Sunday, pow: COVID lockdown.
We waited around for a week and then finally heard one of the investors was pulling out. The other was staying but we couldn’t get the film done for that money. Eventually we decided to move up Peppergrass in the slate since we thought we could get film shot with the new numbers.
Our company was already on the hook, so I needed to make a film or die.

How many Tim Horton’s did you pay the cast to do the film? ha! In all seriousness, how did you find this wonderful team?
We shot in a very remote location (we actually had to build our own road in), so there was literally zero Tim Hortons given to anyone.
Chantelle Han (my co-director and lead) was cast to play a dancer in the film that got scuttled, so we got Netflix to release her early from a series shooting in Alberta to make Peppergrass. My cinematographer, Grant Cooper, was found during my hunt for the DP who loves to shoot the darkest (he just won a CSC award for Best Cinematography for Peppergrass last month.) Todor Kobakov always scores my films, no matter how shattered the budget is.
So we had the personnel more or less, we just had to recalibrate from an urban, stripper film to a rural, horror one. And in 8 weeks.

Did the pandemic mess with your plans at all?
As I mentioned, we lost an investor and had to make a completely different movie. Then we had to make all our plans in a shuttered bar that I own in Toronto. The province had decreed that we couldn’t even be in the bar, so it felt like we were committing a crime, planning a crime. The condo next door would take photos of us from the balcony when we worked on the patio to report us. Like genuine surveillance. It was a strange time.
And then we shot for like 18 nights. The cast and crew took over this 1 star motel that refused to do any cleaning services as part of their “covid protocol”. So imagine what the grips and art department’s rooms looked like after a week. The sets had to be closed, so there were no visitors, no wives, no friends, and no one could leave, even on off days. The basement of the motel was used by the local hospital to shelter meth addicts in withdrawal, so there was moaning and smoking from below at night.
Probably the biggest direct hit from the pandemic was that we were meant to premiere at this major festival, but the program moved online and then was slashed to three films and we didn’t make it. Apparently the CEO/Art Director of the festival hated Peppergrass and personally axed us. Thanks dude.

What about in terms of the release – how long ago did you make the deal with Terror Films? Did it take a while to get a release?
We decided to do a full festival run because of omicron. We had a sold out screening in Toronto one month and then an empty theater in Los Angeles the next (actually there was a dog in a pram beside me, but he belonged to some staff I think.)
We took offers all year but approached Terror ourselves after our last festival in London. We did the deal in January and it’s coming out this week, so five months or so.

Did the shoot require relocating at all?
We built a 5 mile road to this remote location to film; no cell coverage, no plumbing, no electricity. The road wouldn’t hold so we kept having to pour more gravel (10 tonnes by the end.) We destroyed 2 production vans, three pickups, and several production vehicles on that damn road. A swamp claimed an F150 one morning.
The cast and crew couldn’t leave and no one could visit. A couple weeks in, the squib guy showed up in the woods at night and we looked like a cult. He hated us and couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
He got stuck on our road and needed a bobcat to get out.

With the film marketplace seemingly flooded with I.P and franchise movies exclusively these days – what do you believe will happen to unique and original ideas like yours going forward?
I think the franchises are leaving a massive hole in the market that we can help fill. Right now, it’s almost an artform of its own to break through, but I think over time a strong film will find its audience. Letterboxd ratings, deep diving cinema podcasts, exhaustive genre reviewers, well curated streaming platforms like Mubi and Criterion; these are working to separate the wheat from the chaff.
So I try to be lean to a fault with a budget, to minimize the risk to my investors. I think the era of big budget, challenging, adult-targeted storytelling is gone for now. I don’t expect Sony to put out a Broadcast News or a Courage Under Fire in 2023. And I think even a hit like Karel Reitz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman would have an impossible time getting greenlit today. But good films are being made. And discovered. I’ve seen more great films this year than the previous 7 or 8 probably.
I always think of those dead films of the last hundred years. The last set of eyes that watched a film before it vanished. But that film can always be great again. If it isn’t physically lost, it always has another chance to be appreciated. If Peppergrass is smothered by Thor and Spiderman and Indiana Jones this summer, it could still have its day in 50 years when some cinephile discovers it on some harddrive in an attic.
And they can look it up and see that the director hanged himself in a bus terminal washroom and it’ll only enhance its mystique.

Peppergrass is out today from Terror Films

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