“It was a long one today,” a co-worker of Mandy (Angela Bettis) can be heard saying in the opening moments of Brea Grant’s wily dark comedy “12 Hour Shift,” just as the nurse is about to head in for the day, prepared to pull a double. She’s wise to take an extra long drag off the cigarette she’s finishing since what’s about to come is unimaginable, but she has a pretty good idea when every day brings fresh horrors in the wilds of Arkansas, underpaid and overworked, but ready to put her head down for the greater good.
Although Mandy finds nothing amusing about her circumstances, the same can’t be said for Grant, who allows one to admire the world-weary health care worker’s fortitude even more when she’s the only one who can keep calm as the hospital admits a murderer (David Arquette) under specious police protection, the matriarch of a famous local restaurant (Missy Stahr Threadgill) expects extra attention, and her side hustle with a fellow nurse Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner), providing organs of the deceased to a black market seller (Mick Foley) is jeopardized when the go-between Regina (Chloe Farnworth) loses track of her latest delivery and will likely require a new parts by any means necessary. That said, no one ever bothers looking for a heart in Grant’s wickedly funny second feature where chaos reigns and the body count mounts.
As other incisions are made, the writer/director wields a rapier wit as she follows Mandy, who feels she’s seen it all, into unknown territory, with the anxiety, already running high in anticipation of the new millennium with Y2K fears in 1999, making everyone at the hospital behave in strange ways. “12 Hour Shift” becomes a brilliant mix of tones and textures as a result that Grant juggles effortlessly, pulled together by a knockout performance from Bettis leading a wonderfully go-for-broke ensemble and an evocative score from Matt Glass that helps set the film’s frenetic pace. Grant was poised for a breakout spring as a filmmaker with “12 Hour Shift” set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and “Lucky,” a thriller she wrote and starred in for Natasha Kermani, due to debut in the Midnight section of SXSW, but will have to wait for when the coronavirus recedes to showcase her brilliance. Still, we couldn’t hold back after seeing “12 Hour Shift” and Grant was gracious enough to talk about what audiences have to look forward to, figuring out such a dynamic shoot in what’s largely a single location and how she was able to craft such an outrageous comedy that’s medically sound.
How did this come about?
I started working on this screenplay about three years ago. Up until that point, I mostly made my living as an actor, but I write all the time and I got inspired because I have an elderly father and I was spending a lot of time in the hospital and it reminded me of growing up in East Texas, and [the experience] made me want to write a love letter to East Texas set in a hospital. I kept just watching these [nurses], mostly women, who are heroes. They made me feel better and I could tell they were grumpy with me half of the time because I was being very irritating, but it’s just the things they have to put up with, just in my situation alone is crazy.
One of the things I loved the most about this is how it’s Mandy’s story, but every character seems to be the lead in their own movie that you enter whenever you go to a new room. Was that something you had in mind from the start?
Yeah, that was the goal and my producers were on board with that from the very beginning. We wanted people to ask [of other characters], “But what’s their story? What are they doing the entire time?” Because this entire movie takes place over the course of 12 hours, so each character has to be accounted for, where they are, and we dip in and out of their lives, and we made sure that we got really good character actors to come in and flesh those characters out. Matt [Glass, the cinematographer] and I also crafted what each room would look like and we wanted to give them a different look and feel, so [in] one room, everything is very static and still. It’s the room they can breathe in and [in another] room, there’s a lot of close-ups and it’s very claustrophobic, so we kept them all different to hopefully make them feel different because that’s a difficult thing to do as a filmmaker when you’re just in this one location.
How did Angela come into the mix for this?
I’ve been a fan of Angela’s for a long time — I loved “May,” and there’s also a movie called “Drones,” which I saw that at Fantastic Fest a couple years ago, and I was like, “Wow, she has so much range.” [Initially] I sent it to Angela’s team and the role was originally written a little bit younger where both of the main women were the same age, so they said, “Oh, we don’t think she’d be into it,” and this is good/bad advice for filmmakers, but I sort of ignored that and went around them…don’t tell any agents or managers. They would hate that. [laughs] We have a mutual friend in Amber Benson, and I got Amber to pass her the script and she read it. Essentially, I told her I would love for you to do this movie and we’ll make it work for whatever you want to do for the character and she was on board. We met a couple times and then we were off to Arkansas and shot it.
Was it tricky finding the right location for this?
I credit my producers a hundred percent on that. We shot in a working hospital, and [there was a] floor was about to be renovated, so no one was using it and my producer Tara Perry, who’s also plays Dorothy in the movie, her father knew of this hospital in Arkansas. I love shooting in small towns because you can just go there and ask them if you could use it, so we took over this entire floor of a hospital for about a month, which is an indie film dream because we could use half of it to hold cast and [house] our offices and the other half to shoot in. It made it such an easy experience compared to a lot of other indie movies.
Of course, there are actors’ schedules to consider, but could you actually shoot all of this in sequence with that kind of control over the location?
Oh my God, not at all. [laughs] We really shot almost all of it in the same hallway, which you may or may not be able to tell, and the problem is the characters go in and out of the same rooms five or six times, but it happens at different points in the script, so there’s just no way to shoot it all together. What we started with shooting, which I think this was Matt Glass’ idea that ended up being really smart was to shoot a lot of the stuff that took place in the hallway first, and I felt like all the actors could get into their characters because essentially they’re just running from one room to another, changing clothes, walking again and getting all of that stuff established because people go in and out of rooms so much, we knew we were going to need that connective tissue. I also knew this film has to move. Everything has to constantly be moving. The camera has to move, the people have to move, so it’s very rare that the people are just sitting still and that was really important.
It made me do a double take to see that Matt Glass did the cinematography as well as the music as well, and the score works so perfectly with the those long fluid takes. Were those ideas intertwined at the start?
Yeah, and he’s also my producer. [laughs] He’s also a director and he co-directs with Jordan Long, and I did a short with them a couple years ago and they asked if I had any features and I said “Yes, I have many.” They read this one and they really responded to it, and are used to doing everything and everything is in house for them, so from the very beginning, Matt was going to shoot it, Jordan was going to produce and Matt was also going to do the score and the visual effects because he does it on all of the movies.
[As for the music] we were listening to the same stuff, [particularly] the score to “Us,” [which] was inspirational to us and then we pretty early starting making a Spotify playlist of different scores we liked. But I was never totally sure what the score was when we shot it and when we were editing, we kept throwing in ‘90s songs. None of it quite felt like it fit and my lovely partner who is a music producer [said], “Maybe you should make it all drums at the beginning.” So a lot of the music at the beginning is just drums and Matt had this great idea where each character has their own music that comes into play, so he took all of those ideas and ran with them. I’d love to say we had that planned from the beginning, but we didn’t. I think it just ended up working insanely well. [laughs] It really makes the movie and it would be totally different without that score.
You’ve said that some of the stories that inspired you came from the early ‘90s, was the pre Y2K setting always in mind for this? It looks like it made some of the production design touches a lot of fun.
For sure. I’m a child of the ‘90s and I love the ‘90s, and when thinking about this movie, I love that story about the person who wakes up and their kidney is missing in the bathtub – do you know that urban legend? I wanted to take that and ground that in a reality I was really familiar with. The movie is wacky for sure, but it’s quite grounded compared to where I grew up. [laughs] And I think anyone from there would agree with me, so I used those kinds of stories, and there’s a lot of little easter eggs in there like that have more urban legend [elements] if you watch really closely.
We also have this amazing production designer Gypsy Taylor, who came up with really good stuff and we were able to pull from the actual hospital. They let us use their actual equipment from the ‘90s, so what you see is actually from that era, and I should mention because it was a working hospital, a lot of the background nurses are real nurses and they would come up in between their shifts and hang out with us and give us such good advice. We would call them and ask them for help about any of the medical stuff and they’d be like, “Oh yeah, this is realistic or that’s not realistic. It was super helpful.
When you come from an acting background, is there anything you like to do for your actors that you’d want from a director yourself?
Yeah, I work on a show called “Eastsiders” on Netflix with Kit Williamson, who’s also in this movie, and I learned this from him where he tells the actors from the beginning they will always get their own take and in their take, they can change the script, they can change the emotion, they can do anything they want. He promises them they’re going to get this improv take essentially and it’s the first time I got to do that on a feature. I think the actors really appreciated it – some more than others. [laughs] But I had a lot of improvisers on this movie — in their lives, they’re just very funny people, so they basically would take the script and just run with it, so I used so many of those takes, parts where they said the most hilarious lines or they just got to the heart of the scene quicker than I felt I had in my writing. It obviously adds time to every day, but it made a huge difference finding really funny and cool moments.
Is there anything that happened that you weren’t expecting, but it’s in the film and you really like about it?
Well, there’s a musical sequence in the middle of the movie…
I’m so glad we hit on this. I didn’t know if you wanted it kept a surprise, but I can’t believe that wasn’t planned for.
Matt asked me the other day if that’s a secret, and I’m like, “No, I think we should tell people about the musical sequence…” [laughs] Originally, I was trying to get a song for that and I had reached out to a couple different big ‘90s artists. Basically, all of them said no or we couldn’t afford it, but then I was in Arkansas a few days before we were about to shoot that [scene] and I was like, “Oh, we have this cool chapel that we’re not using. I bet there’s a really creepy church song we could use.” So I did a search for public domain church songs that I grew up listening to and I found this wonderfully creepy one that has blood in it – “Blood of the Lamb.”
Luckily, we had multiple actors on that set that sang and Tommy Hobson and Tara Perry both used to be on a kids’ TV show where they sang together, “The Fresh Beat Band,” so I [asked them], “Could you guys learn this song? I’m going to have you guys sing it and I’m going to record it and we’re going to see if we can make it all work together.” That was such a happy little moment. It’s my favorite part of the movie.
I loved it so much.
Yeah, my pitch for the movie is you won’t get bored because there’s a musical sequence every 20 minutes. [laughs]
“12 Hour Shift” will be available in virtual cinemas and selected drive-ins starting October 2nd. A full list of VOD options is here.