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Brayden & Ronnie in Pink
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL LONDON - THE GREASY STRANGERDirected by: Jim Hosking

Is this the most disgusting film John Waters never made?

We talk dongs, depravity and family dysfunction with the brains behind The Greasy Strangler, the year’s most gleefully offensive comedy

One day while working on his debut feature, Jim Hosking decided that the giant prosthetic penis his prop designer had been working on should be shaped like a mouse’s head. 

“Originally, I wanted the prosthetics to be absolutely realistic,” says the Tottenham-born writer-director, in the flat, abstracted tones of a man who has spent far too long thinking about such things. “But as we started sculpting these penises I ended up wanting them to look like mice’s heads. So I did these primitive little drawings of mice heads with ears on the side, and the penises ended up having a strange shape. But we still found that plenty of people who watched the film thought they were real, which is quite reassuring in a way.”

The film in question is called The Greasy Strangler, and if you happened to catch its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival in January, you’ll have no trouble imagining how its making must have prompted many more moments like this. In the film, a father-son duo operating factually suspect ‘disco tours’ of their local neighbourhood square off when the son, Brayden (Sky Elobar), falls for one of his customers, Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo), and father Big Ronnie (Michael St Michael) puts the moves on her. As this bizarre love triangle unfolds, Brayden begins to suspect that his dad may in fact be the Greasy Strangler, a serial killer who appears before his victims butt-naked and slathered in grease before choking them to death. 

All of which is just the slimmest of pretexts to put some of the most perverted images you’ll ever see up on screen (Big Ronnie’s mouse-shaped appendage gets more screen time than Matt Damon in The Martian), alongside lines as quotably inept as “If I could I’d write your name on the moon... in blood.” It’s a tour de force of bad-taste comedy that’s already been compared to the likes of Tim & Eric, Harmony Korine at his grungiest, and even the Pope of Trash himself, John Waters. Not that Hosking, a self-professed fan of “serious films”, considers his film in the least bit trashy. 

Were you anticipating the sort of reactions the film got when it premiered at Sundance in the US? 

Jim Hosking: I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of response to anticipate, to be honest. I wanted it to confound expectations, but I didn’t want people to be quite so… disturbed. 

What did people seem to find most disturbing? 

Jim Hosking: I think the fact that there’s a lot of male nudity in it, even though (the penises) are prosthetic. Maybe in America people are used to seeing more desirable people having sex. (laughs) Or maybe they didn’t want to see people having sex in such a filthy house. 

Are you a big fan of trashy cinema in general? 

Jim Hosking: No, not at all. I’m much more into serious films. I don’t really think of my film as a trash film, either. I haven’t seen many John Waters films – I’ve got Pink Flamingos on DVD, but I haven’t got around to watching it yet – but people seem to have latched on to his work (in connection with The Greasy Strangler). That’s not really how I feel. I just try to avoid making anything that’s too similar to what’s been before. I want people to watch it and feel rather like I felt when I stumbled upon The Young Ones on TV when I was ten years old. Something where you have no reference for the universe that’s being presented. I remember seeing Brazil when I was a teenager and then seeing a couple of David Lynch films and just being really excited because it felt like a completely different expression. 

Are people surprised to meet you? Because – and I’m not sure what I was expecting here, exactly – but you sound like a fairly respectable sort of guy. 

Jim Hosking: Ha! I met a journalist after a screening of the film at Sundance who said, ‘Out of all the people in this room, you’re the last person I was expecting to have made The Greasy Strangler.’ I thought that was funny. 

Did you surprise yourself with some of the ideas you came up with for the film? 

Jim Hosking: Not really. I think it’s just a classically British trait to appear quite reasonable on the outside but inside there’s all this twisted, devious stuff going on. I like the fact that I seem like quite an unlikely person to make the film. I wrote it with a guy called Toby Harvard, and we’d been working on a few film scripts which are a lot more rigorously written, more deeply considered, so this was more like a spasm or an epileptic fit. We were just trying to make each other laugh, you know?

“I think (The Greasy Strangler) comes from a place of frustration with predictable, conservative, formulaic filmmaking. I can’t be the only person desperate to see a film that really challenges and surprises me” – Jim Hosking

How did the idea for the story come about? 

Jim Hosking: We’d written this other script about a father and son who wanted to escape their lives in the city because the father found the city to be greasy and disgusting. We were laughing about the fact that that the father was obsessed with grease, so I emailed Toby saying maybe he should have some kind of vocation that was specifically grease-related. He emailed me back saying he should be a ‘greasy strangler’. Which is funny, because the last thing you should have when strangling someone is greasy hands. 

Was there any kind of model for Brayden and Big Ronnie’s odd-couple dynamic? 

Jim Hosking: I just like the idea of two people who are very dependent on each other but also make each other’s lives hell. I do write a lot of stuff that’s to do with family and arguing and loneliness – I think I find a lot of comedy there, but also a lot of poignancy. I think the film is about the fear of loneliness, but I wouldn’t say I had anything consciously in mind – I wanted to shake things up, I suppose.

Why did you choose to set the film in the US? 

Jim Hosking: Well, I’d been living in LA for about five years and had just moved back to the UK. But I like writing for American characters with a kind of British sensibility, which is less slick and more desperate and depressing, in a way. It’s quite nice to see an American film behaving like that, possibly. 

Could you talk us through the casting process? 

Jim Hosking: I knew most of the cast apart from Janet (Eastbound & Down’s Elizabeth De Razzo), either through castings or short films and commercials I’d worked on. I wanted the characters to be loveable because the script is quite perverted and grotesque. I didn’t want the film to be confrontational in a traditional way, I wanted to make something which was funny and quite childlike, really. And so I thought of actors I’d already seen who I found really funny, and who make me smile when I think of their faces.

Were the actors game for everything in the script? Was there anything they refused to do? 

Jim Hosking: Well, the script was a lot more sexually extreme than the film, but we had to modify various scenes to make it more manageable for the actors. I think we’ve ended up with something that feels quite graphic on the one hand, but also quite chaste and not very sexual. Somebody told me the film had the least sexy sex scenes they’d ever seen. 

“Somebody told me the film had the least sexy sex scenes they’d ever seen...” – Jim Hosking

How did you go about determining the look of the prosthetic penises for the film? 

Jim Hosking: Originally, I wanted the prosthetics to be absolutely realistic, except that one of them would be really large and one would be absolutely tiny. But as you start sculpting these penises you find you just want to… I suppose I have quite a perverse sense of humour, but I ended up wanting them to look like mice’s heads. So I did these primitive little drawings of mouse heads with ears on the side, which were very pointy, and the penises ended up having a strange shape. But a lot of people who watched the film still thought they were real. Which is quite reassuring, in a way. 

The carwash scenes (where the ‘greasy strangler’ gets clean after his murderous sprees) were an inspired touch, how did you get the idea for those? 

Jim Hosking: I’m never really that bothered about things not making total sense. I just like picking up something that feels right, and if it makes sense to anyone else, I can’t really say. I was just thinking, ‘What’s a funny way to get rid of the grease?’, and the carwash seemed like a really painful way of getting clean. I liked how there was a sort of masochistic aspect to it. 

You worked with Andrew Hung (of 2012 Olympics-soundtracking noise band Fuck Buttons) on the film’s score, did you give him any references to work with? 

Jim Hosking: I had some music of Andy’s that sounded almost like this demented video game music, which I liked because I thought the characters in the film looked like characters in a video game, because they don’t change their clothes very often. I remember speaking to Andy about music from kids’ TV programmes, and I specifically mentioned the singing mice from Bagpuss. I liked the idea of these little characters that sing along within the songs, as if they were getting excited in the film. So Andy did this chipmunk voice, which was his voice but sped up. 

John Waters used to say he made movies to freak out the hippies, is there anyone you’d like to offend with your film? 

Jim Hosking: I think it definitely comes from a place of frustration with predictable, conservative, formulaic filmmaking. I can’t be the only person desperate to see a film that really challenges and surprises me. I don’t even care if I like the film when I see it, I just want to feel something unexpected. There’s no doubt this film does frustrate and even anger some people, and I’m personally fine with that. I think Variety said the film was 93 minutes of mind-numbing something-or-other (they called it “an exercise in juvenile scatology that’s almost awesomely pure in its numbing, repetitious determination to annoy”). Obviously, I’d rather have good reviews, but it’s funny to think of someone sitting there getting really angry about my film. Anything that is a strong statement is going to have passionate defenders and passionate critics. 

The Greasy Strangler screens as part of the Sundance Film Festival: London on June 4 at Picturehouse Central – more details here