It has been with some mild discomfort that “Murder Bury Win” has been picking up awards left and right since it premiered virtually at the Austin Film Festival last fall, surely appreciated by its director Michael Lovan but also bringing with it a sense of irony when he designed it to take on the very idea of competition. A truly inspired dark comedy about a trio of aspiring board game developers who seek to make a killing with the whodunit they’ve been talking up during their day jobs for months, the film follows friends Barrett (Henry Alexander Kelly), Adam (Erich Lane) and Chris (Mikelen Walker) as they follow a lead from their crowdsourcing campaign where a $150 contribution stands out amongst the paltry $200 they’ve collected total, curious about who would have a passion for their game as much as they do. Led to an ominous cabin in the woods, they believe they’ve struck gold upon discovering the random stranger is none other than Victor Von Stubbs (Craig Crackowski), a brand name offering them a tidy sum to give the game over to him to develop if only they’ll keep their names off of it.
The bear trap that greets the three men at Stubbs’ outdoor abode is hardly the only potential stumbling block on their way to the promised land in “Murder Bury Win” and while the game onscreen is described as having plenty of potential, Lovan comes through on the film’s as not only a David vs. Goliath battle of the wits ensues between the nascent creators and the industry’s top dog, setting an intimidating tone with a wall of weapons behind him, but when the offer brings out the different attitudes of the three towards what they want out of the game, whether it’s Barrett, who just wants to have a good time, Adam, who is eager to win at all costs or Chris, who falls somewhere in between. The stakes couldn’t feel any greater for the three, nor were they for Lovan, who threw caution to the wind in largely self-financing the film outside of launching a Kickstarter of his own to finish post-production and regardless of what happens to any of the characters, it is quite winning and with the film now being released widely on digital, the director spoke about how he found the right time to make it, creating a playable game to plot out a story around and assembling his crew in a nontraditional way.
How did this come about?
It was a confluence of events in 2017 that made me say, “Screw it, I’m making a movie.” One, I said I’m going to make a movie, but two, my mother, who’s okay now, almost died and I became her primary caregiver. Then my wife found out she was pregnant with our first child and we found out we were going to get fired on the same day, so instead of leaning into despair, I saw this as an opportunity, like “Hey, I’m going to get some severance and I’m going to have a little bit of free time. Let’s make a movie before the baby comes.” All of that together drove me to make this happen.
When I knew I was going to make a movie, I knew it was going to center around board games in some way. With my best friend John Hart, we just sat in a room, spitballing an idea for hours and hours until we came on this specific story and once we knew what the story was and we thought of how it would work, it had to be this one.
Did you have to develop the game alongside the story when they mirror each other?
I developed the mechanics of the game to coincide with the film itself, so the screenplay was always my priority, but what you’re left with when you’re mapping beats of a game to the beats of your story is a game that maybe is functional, but it’s not very good. The criticisms that you find in the film itself from Victor Von Stubbs around the end of the first act, those are actual criticisms given to me by the actors at our first table reading when they played the board game for the very first time ever. They said, “Oh, are you going to fix it?” And I’m like, “No, you’re just getting more lines.” [laughs]
Did you have actors in mind for this? I’ve heard you went to college with Erich.
Literally, not at all. I was going to shoot this for no money with an iPhone in the woods by myself until I reached out to Craig Cackowski after seeing him at an improv show. I thought he’d be great to have and once he said yes, I realized, “Oh, I actually have to make this a real production,” so I pulled out a lot of loans, I pulled out my life savings, I reached out to Erich and locked everyone in from there. Nobody was who I envisioned. They were just all the perfect pieces to the puzzle.
Once everyone’s involved, does something start happening you weren’t expecting but you liked about it?
There’s a two-pronged answer to that. During the production process, something developed organically that I’m so proud of and that I’ll continue in every movie moving forward, which is what I’ll call a “Screw it” take, wherein you get your line and I feel we got it in the can, then you do whatever you want from then on. Once we got there with almost every single scene and really let actors [feel like] “I’m not going to be judged, I’ll just try new things and not worry about my mark,” a lot of those takes made it into the actual final cut of the film, which explains the wild exhausting nature of some of these performances, which go huge. That comes from those takes.
In terms of the resulting film that’s come out, what I’ve really come to enjoy is everyone’s appreciation for the characters and I find that there is a very clean line in the sand between people that are team Chris, people who are team Adam and people who are team Barrett in equal turn. There is no one who [says], “I’m on all three of their sides,” and it’s a shocker to me because I’m team Barrett all the way personally, but I’ve met a lot of people who are team Adam and I’m like, “What does that say about you? What does it say about him? What does it say about me? What about all the team Chris’?” If you were on a team, whose team would you be on? I’m just curious.
I would be a Team Barrett too because I’m not all that competitive, but I could definitely see that.
Yeah, it’s wild. I’m not trying to make anyone likable or unlikeable when I’m editing the performances. I’m just trying to get people with full fleshed out perspectives who are just trying to do their best in a horrible situation, so to see the response to the film being so dramatically different in terms of whose side they were on, I think people publicly people that say “I’m team Adam on Twitter” — that’s where you’ll find a lot of team Adams I found, and it’s very interesting what it says about that ecosystem.
You have a perfect setting for a horrible situation — a cabin in the woods. Did that idea come immediately?
Oh yeah, it was always going to be a remote creepy cabin because I wanted to play with that idea of who would live up there and what does that say about [Victor Von Stubbs] as a person. Is it a place where he actually lives or is it one of his many homes he’s got based nationally, depending on who he needs to rip off? And a creepy cabin is just something I’ve wanted to shoot in my entire life, so I got my opportunity.
This is a credit to Amy Everson, your production designer and wife — you’ve got to design the packaging for all these games, even the ones you just see in the background. What was that like?
Amy did the “Murder Bury Win” board game itself and she did “Puppies on Fire” [a “Cards Against Humanity”-esque game] as well, and a lot of the other board games were developed by friends and artists I found whose art fit the bill. But that murder wall, that’s not actually part of that cabin. We actually constructed that from found parts on Craigslist on our living room while Amy was pregnant – I’d wake up to the sound of a buzzsaw and I’m like, “What’s going on?” And I’d go in the living room and there’s Amy on the floor with a buzzsaw, cutting through furniture and draping fabric in. [laughs] Amy just really nailed the look across the board. She knew it was a board game-centric film so it had to be colorful and she decided the wardrobe for everybody. She was my ride-or-die all the way from pre-production until now. After these interviews, I’ll be decompressing with her as well.
Is it true you even found your crew on Craigslist?
I think for anyone out there who really wants to make a film but they’re scared to do it, I’m living proof that you can absolutely start with nothing from the ground up, and get it done. My crew is entirely from Craigslist or a few friends that reached out and said they wanted to be a part of it. I got the director of photography first, he brought in my assistant director and then he brought in my sound guy. Then it was like a branching tree. You find the right pieces of the puzzle and everyone else fills in.
How did you find your composers Jonathan Snipes and David Rothbaum? The score is really in tune with each of the characters’ personalities.
Jonathan Snipes and I went to college together and now he’s quite prolific. He does a lot of film work and he’s one-third of the rap group Clipping with Daveed Diggs. He’s been my favorite musician since college and I had him score a lot of my plays when we were in theater school. I reached out to him before I shot a single frame and he just understood the screenplay and we speak the same language in terms of movies. Honestly, it’s everything I could’ve hoped for and more. Very few notes going back to him as he was developing the score.
After taking this circuitous route to directing films, was it satisfying creatively?
Once you got past imposter syndrome on the first few hours of day one, I had never had more fun on any creative process in my entire life, so I absolutely am in love with the idea of telling more stories through film. One way or another, I’m going to make another one. Hopefully, someone else pays for it next time.