For comedy nerds, Carson Mell should be well-known by now, but after the premiere of his debut feature “Another Evil” at SXSW on Saturday night, he should become a household name. Perhaps best known in the mainstream for writing on TV shows such as “Silicon Valley” and “Eastbound and Down,” Mell’s subversive sense of humor has truly shined in the work he’s produced himself, whether it’s his animated shorts or short fiction. For “Another Evil,” he’s brought along a coterie of comedic actors just as distinctive in their sensibilities as he is for the best “Ghostbusters” film you never knew you wanted, centered on a family whose vacation house in the desert would seem to be plagued by the paranormal as an artist named Dan (“Togetherness” star Steve Zissis) starts to discover some of his paintbrushes have been moved.
As one might suspect from such a subtle form of haunting, these are no ordinary ghosts which necessitates Dan to hire no ordinary ghost hunter in Os (“Better Call Saul” scene-stealer Mark Proksch), an Irish coffee who has hardened himself against the sight of Satan, which he claims to have seen, but has been left vulnerable by a painful divorce. Then again, as Mell uses to his great advantage, is there really such a thing as an ordinary ghost hunter, a profession populated by crazies? Soon enough, Dan becomes less afraid of the ghosts than the guy he’s invited into his house to hunt them as Os begins to see apparitions other than the supernatural kind, mistaking their professional relationship for a real, intense friendship.
Strangely poignant as you can see the small moments of connection that would raise Os’ hopes of a new confidant, “Another Evil” is also blisteringly funny as the ghost hunter’s emotions start bleeding into his work, which when set inside a world so fully realized as the one Mell creates here, leads to frightening results. A film as hilarious and original as “Another Evil” doesn’t come around often and as the film premiered in Austin, I was fortunate to catch up with Mell and his two stars Zissis and Proksch to talk about the unexpected surprises that helped the film, playing the supernatural straight and the usefulness of good props.
I heard this was shot in Prescott, Arizona. How did that location come about and filming in this amazing house?
Carson Mell: That’s my family’s house. I wrote it for that house. I had encounters with a ghost there that felt like a friendly ghost, so that was part of the inspiration.
Was there actually much of a world you created before even put pen to paper as far as a script? This felt like you really thought through the interactions between the real world and the paranormal.
Carson Mell: I just really spent most of the time figuring out the characters, and then build world around them, making the world as realistic as possible without being drab or boring. I like movies where it seems like the things that are being interacted with may be picked out or chosen for the aesthetic but it feels natural [the characters] would be around that.
How did you cast Mark and Steve?
Carson Mell: I was lucky in that I have a very short list of actors that I really respect. I’d seen both these guys in stuff that was a little bit below the radar. I’d seen Steve in “Baghead,” which I love, but I was really blown away by his performance in this short film called “The Intervention” and I just knew he would kill it. Then Mark I saw first in his K-Strass videos on YouTube and I actually was tricked that he was that person to the point where my girlfriend at the time put it on and I said, “I’m not going to laugh at this guy. This isn’t okay.”
Steve Zissis: That’s high praise.
Carson Mell: Then, slowly, I was like, “Wait. There’s really some really good jokes in here. This is written. This guy is a genius.” My sense of humor is very dry, so I was like, if he can trick me, then he could trick anybody and I knew he could really invest himself in this absurd character. That’s the type of acting and humor I like.
Because the chemistry is so great, did you know how those different energies would play together?
Carson Mell: That was luck.
Steve Zissis: We didn’t have a chemistry read or anything like that. We didn’t know each other before. Mark has been pointing out, rightly, that a little bit of awkwardness with us working together right away without having met or talked may probably added the tension and awkwardness that was organic in the performances.
Mark Proksch: Yeah. We were becoming friends at the same time our characters were building a relationship, so I think that helped.
The centerpiece of the movie is when Mark’s character Os gives this long confession that becomes increasingly disturbing and ridiculous as it wears on. Were you able to get through that fairly quickly without breaking into laughter?
Mark Proksch: Yeah, for the most part. I’m happy it comes off as funny, but I wanted to do that as a serious, serious scene for this guy, so I prepared for it as if I was an actual dramatic actor. I figured that the way it’s written is funny, and so you’ll laugh no matter how I perform it, but the script deserves an actual serious performance there. It’s a long scene. I was just very determined to get through it and do it well. I wasn’t really laughing too much until it was over.
Carson Mell: Those guys looked so great in it. There were a few takes that were like 20 minutes long and I forget to yell cut because I was in the other room watching the monitor. I felt like I was just watching a movie. I was like, “Wow, cool. Shit. We’re making a movie.”
There’s also a point where Steve’s character Dan says that Os’ approach conflicts with his “worldview” and though he doesn’t articulate it, it feels like he actually has a lot of thoughts about it. Did you actually create or have any background for these characters that isn’t in the film?
Carson Mell: We did an improvisation. That was great.
Steve Zissis: We mostly stuck word to word to the script. When you have a really great script, you don’t want to go off. It’s not your place to. You’re an actor. But once in a while, on the third or fourth take, we would throw in a little thing here and there. Usually, we were right, which is a compliment to Carson’s talent.
Carson Mell: Steve actually improvised one of the lines, which for me, is one of the most important lines of the whole movie, which I’m glad you did. A couple, actually.
Steve Zissis: Which one?
Carson Mell: Well, in the beginning where you said, “That’s what friends are for.” You’re the one who chooses the word “friend.” [Os] hears that. Boom.
Steve Zissis: That’s pivotal. That was a mistake.
Carson Mell: I just love that. I’m so glad that’s in there.
Was there a particular crazy day of shooting on this?
Mark Proksch: Each day brought its own little thing. Not in a bad way. It only helped the film and the uniqueness of what Steve and I got to do as performers. The climatic scene was challenging logistically, just being outside and burying [someone] in dirt and making sure he didn’t die.
Steve Zissis: Having a fight scene…
Mark Proksch: Having a fight scene where I have a shovel. I had a migraine that day.
Carson Mell: You didn’t tell me.
Mark Proksch: That day was probably the roughest. At the same time, we shot that a couple of weeks later, so it was just fun to get to see everyone again. Again, there’s challenges and rewards. I like physical comedy too. I don’t get to do it too often. That’s something that I really love to do. It was fun.
Did it help having all those gadgets as Os?
Mark Proksch: Anytime I get to have some business to play with as an actor, that’s the easiest way to fake good acting. Having my Nic Nib, which is my nicotine dispenser and all these little gadgets… that’s why actors used to smoke on screen back in the old days is it gave them something to do, so you look natural. It was fun just to get to goof around with that stuff.
For Carson, was directing a feature what you thought it would be? Was it was different?
Carson Mell: In some ways, it was a lot more work and others, it was less because I have always produced all my own work. Getting to collaborate with Riel and Sebastian and actually have people who could help me with everything and do so much of the work made it easier. It was learning how to delegate things. I literally do every step. If I make cartoons, it’s just me in a room and then the cartoon comes out like three weeks later. With this, it was a completely different process.
“Another Evil” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at SXSW on March 13 at 8 pm at the Marchesa, March 14 at 10 pm at the Topfer Theatre at ZACH and March 19 at 11:45 am at the Alamo Ritz 2.