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Exclusive Q&A: “POKER NIGHT” director Greg Francis talks Eklund and Perlman!

For this writer, one of 2014’s biggest end-of-year surprises was POKER NIGHT, which was an exceptionally engaging and clever horror flick that mixed the elements of a kidnapping thriller and dark comedy. Yet the film plays as well as it does for many reasons: POKER NIGHT not only has an exceptional cast, featuring Ron Perlman, Giancarlo Esposito, Beau Mirchoff and Michael Eklund, but a truly talented writer/director in Greg Francis. With the film hitting home media this week from XLrator, FANGORIA chatted with Francis about two of POKER NIGHT’s most prolific performers…

FANGORIA: One of the highlights of POKER NIGHT is it’s eccentric and memorable villain, played by a brilliant Michael Eklund. How did that character develop and when did Eklund come into the picture?

GREG FRANCIS: Michael was amazing. There are times where, with the kind of movies you and I like, at one point, there’s a dude sitting at a computer writing it. And as that dude, there were times where I was like, “Man, that’s really funny,” but then I’d look back and go, “Should I make this reality? Do I really want to do this?” I remember people turning to me while we were filming Michael’s scenes and going, “Is this a comedy? What is this?”

To me, it’s really funny, but it’s a “disturbing funny.” I’m nowhere as good as him, but I remember getting angry when I would see Quentin Tarantino films because he would show you something really disturbing but he’d make you laugh at it.. But that was really interesting to me and I loved the villain character, and for whatever reason, the humor was just really easy to write. But at the same time, the character does stuff that isn’t to be laughed at, but I was cautious as to make sure there wouldn’t be anything in the film that was too graphic either. It was a really fine line we had to work with.

Michael Eklund was really inspired casting, too. When we were casting the role, it came down to him and Matthew Lillard. This was right after Lillard had done THE DESCENDANTS and right before he did THE BRIDGE, and I heard he was interested. I thought he was an interesting choice, too, but my problem with casting this character was finding someone who was willing to wear a mask, which would bring their physicality out.

But as anyone who has seen the film can point out, Eklund is unbelievable. I have a love for Michael Eklund, and I have it for Ron [Perlman] and Beau [Mirchoff] since they were on the project the longest with me. Eklund came in to the project and just embraced everything; he works hard and he gives everything to his performance.

The first scene we shot with Michael was something we cut with him on a couch, and our cinematographer, Brandon [Cox], and I had the frame on the couch. Michael came on set, wanted to know where the frame was and then just started doing things and moving around. It was such a physical performance and from then on, we decided that whenever we shot with Michael, we would always start with a wide shot.

Originally, we also had about 20 different masks and suits; our costume designer, Beverley Huynh, came up with the idea that he’d be dressing pretty dapper. But we brought in Michael, and he tried on all the masks and we just watched him; he almost moved differently with almost every mask. But it organically just settled onto the mask we used, and it was like the whole character came to life in a matter of seconds.

Michael, as a collaborator, is an amazing actor and worker. I actually feel kind of bad because I do feel he gets kind of stereotyped into creepy roles; I told him I wanted to write a romantic comedy for him because he’s such a light guy. I remember one time we were shooting a scene in the third act when he shoots a character, and Eklund is there and he’s screaming because for the entire movie, his character is in control, and this is the first time that he’s not. So we’d get ready to do the scene, and I’d walk up to him and he’s just cursing to himself, and we’d shoot the scene and as soon as I said cut, he’d run out to a hallway, pick up a book and start reading.

So we set up the scene again, he’d run back, we’d shoot and then he’d run back and start reading. I caught on to this and so I ran off and picked up the book, and I want to say that it was H.G. Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE. It was something so innocuous, and I remember asking him, “Michael, I don’t want to intrude on your process but what are you doing?” And he goes, “I’m in such a dark place with this character that I just wanted to take a few seconds to come out and clean my head.” I just thought that approach was fascinating.

And Michael was game for anything. He mixed some very physical comedy with some really dark, disgusting stuff, and he was down for it all. And I remember sitting down with him and telling him that his character was the most important one in the film. He’s really the true co-star of the film.

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FANGORIA: Well a lot of times with horror films, once you bring in the guy with a mask, you know it’s a body double or a guy in a mask and they only bring in the actor for the big reveal and voiceovers. But because Michael has such a unique, fluid physicality to his performance, you know that it’s him.

FRANCIS: If there’s anyone who can make you fall in love with a serial killing pedophile, Michael Eklund is that man.

FANGORIA: You said before that you also share that same bond for Ron Perlman. What was it like working with him, specifically?

FRANCIS: Oh man, I have a couple of really good Ron stories. The first was maybe the second day he was on set, I sat down with him for lunch and I remember asking him, “Ron, you’ve got 200-250 titles on your IMDb page. You’ve done this a thousand times. Is there any way you can tell if a movie is going to be a piece of shit as soon as you walk on set?” And he goes, “Greg, I tell ya… I’ve done movies where the director says, ‘Cut! We’re moving on,’ and I’ll have no idea why we’re moving on, and I’ve done movies where I’m in sync with the director because everytime he says we’re moving on, it’s the perfect time to move on. But then I’ll see the movie, and that doesn’t mean anything. If there’s any thing you need to know, it’s who the editor is.”

The other good Ron story that I have is from the day we’re shooting the scene where Beau gets shot at and Ron saves his life. And when Ron came to set, we had a little disagreement about his wardrobe; what he initially planned, he didn’t like, and so we had to change things around. And I’d shot a week prior with just Beau and Eklund, and Ron was the first big name to come on set, and already I was having problems.

So we get ready for the scene and Ron goes, “By the way, I know the scene calls for me to tackle Beau, but I hurt my knee last night, so I can’t do anything physical.” So I plan out the scene and have it so Ron would yell, “Get Down!” and that’d be it. So I tell this to Ron and he says, “Wait, I’m supposed to save this guy’s life… and I’m just gonna yell at him? Well, man, I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but I read your script and it’s a good script, and I don’t think that would do it justice.” So I made it so that he drags Beau down so that he wouldn’t have to use his knee, but I thought that I lost Ron Perlman’s respect because I couldn’t come up with anything besides a yell.

But after that, he was great. He helped me make a tough call and it turned out great. He’s an amazing guy.

POKER NIGHT hits DVD/Blu-ray tomorrow from XLrator Media. You can see the film now on VOD and Digital HD Platforms. You can also read FANGORIA’s chat with Michael Eklund in FANGORIA #339, now on sale.

 

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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