Rebekah McKendry on Finding God in the Details of “Glorious”

"Glorious"
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“The universe has a favor to ask,” a voice (J.K. Simmons) coming from the next stall over says to Wes (Ryan Kwanten) not long after he has all but puked his guts out in a rest stop in “Glorious,” unaware that he’s about to have even more pulled out of his system. Exhausted already from leaving a painful relationship, Wes is stranded in no man’s land after pulling over to the side of the road, burning his bad memories in a fire pit and letting out the rest in a commode after finishing a bottle of Jack Daniels, only to discover he isn’t alone in the bathroom. Still, he may be the only one on a mortal coil, discovering in Rebekah McKendry’s devious thriller that when God works in mysterious ways, it could involve showing up through a peep hole.

While “Glorious” is a one man show when Wes finds himself talking to someone that may or not be a deity, hidden behind a suspiciously Lovecraftian piece of graffiti on the wall of the stall, it invites everyone else in as his efforts leave start to become an extension of pulling himself out of his own misery, having questions posed that may be coming from above (or below) but they might as well be coming from within. McKendry, working from a thoughtful screenplay from her husband David Ian McKendry, Joshua Hull and Todd Rigney with inventive staging to match, ends up finding freedom in the limited setting, toggling between Wes’ past and present to reveal how he’s occasionally gotten in his own way and that the mess he has ended up in, quite literally in a space that obviously hasn’t had a routine maintenance check for a while, may require a deep scrub to fully be able to see through again. With the film now streaming on Shudder following a celebrated premiere at Fantasia Fest earlier this summer, McKendry spoke about pulling off the shoot in the midst of the pandemic, projecting a much larger world than either the constraints of its setting or budget would allow and having her leads Kwanten and Simmons create such a rollicking back and forth when they could never physically be on the same set together.

How did this come about?

It was the height of the pandemic, maybe a month or two in, and we were done with the “Everybody be cool and bake banana bread” [phase]. The whimsy of the pandemic had worn off and it was when everything just started feeling really bleak. I had reached this point where I started putting out e-mails to a lot of my producer friends, [saying] “I’m desperate to read something, send me scripts” and Jay Goldberg, one of my friends who is a producer on the film, sent me over the original version of “Glorious,” which was called “Old Glory.” I read it and [the plot] was still a guy trapped in a bathroom with someone who he thinks is a god, and immediately, I thought there was just something so charming and accessible about it. I kept saying, it was “My Dinner with Andre,” but it was in a bathroom and I loved the idea of mixing the lowbrow of the bathroom with the highbrow of this conversation.

The night before I read it, my husband and I watched “Repo Man” for a bajillionth time, but we’re both huge fans of that movie and Alex Cox in general and what we love about it the most is that it’s heavily philosophical [about] 1980s consumerism and how we seek our own identification and how we define ourselves, but all through what is effectively a lowbrow setting, so looking at the script, we were thinking “We could really push this and do something even more, where we could bring in a lot of philosophy and a lot of heady conversations about what we were all going through during the pandemic,” so we approached the original writer and were like we really want to take a pass at this and see if we can make it more heightened than it already is. Within a couple weeks, we had a version that we felt good taking out [to financiers] and that’s the wildest thing – our immediate response was we knew it would go one of two ways — and it was this way with every company — either they loved it and wanted to immediately have a conversation with us or we would quickly get an e-mail back saying, “This is not us. This is not our style.” Sometimes we don’t even think they read it. They probably saw the word “gloryhole” in the pitch deck and they were like, “Nooope. Not us.”

Once you get past that, was the idea of getting the most out of a single setting intimidating? The bathroom becomes such a dynamic locale.

Actually, we had a lot of conversations about how to do the bathroom because it was the pandemic and there were actual physical locations where it was like, “No one’s traveling here, feel free, you can use it.” But the bathroom had to be my third character because one character is actually there, the other we never see, and what we do see in lieu of them is this bathroom, so this bathroom had to perform in very particular ways. I needed the sink to work. I needed to have a vent that we could actually crawl into. I had to have a window. I needed to be able to pull a urinal out of the wall. What we realized as we started moving forward was that it was even more than that. Bathrooms themselves are incredibly reflective, and with that, it’s not only painful to look at when you’re filming, but there are also a lot of echo issues and like most bathrooms you look at, they have the wall of mirrors, so [we wondered] how do we not catch ourselves constantly when we’re running around with a camera?

Immediately, [we realized] we had to create the bathroom from the ground up because I needed to be able to fly walls — those mirrors are broken in a very specific pattern so that you could see the top part of Wes’ face and he could look at himself in it, but you’ll never catch the camera that’s usually right around shoulder height right beneath him. We also do actually pull the urinal out of the wall and the sinks work, the vent works — you could crawl through it and we had a good eight feet worth of vent on the other side so that we could see him crawl in. Everything had to be really functional on that set and it also gave me the ability to production design a set like a character as well. We ended up doing a very specific blue and purple shading with it. I wanted this to look like it was the hottest rest stop in 1978 and then just time forgot it, so we did some cool racing stripes around the sides and went from there.

I’ll never get to bring this up in polite conversation again – what went into designing the glory hole? The art surrounding it actually plants this idea of the monster that could exist behind it rather brilliantly.

This was the movie of awkward conversations. [laughs] We got really good at it because most of my designers were guys and I’d have to have these really awkward conversations about glory holes in men’s rooms and after a while, it’s just like “Okay, this is going to be a weird conversation movie and everyone’s going to have to roll with it.” But with the artwork, I had contacted Clint Carney, one of my friends from Horror Pub Trivia here in Los Angeles and he’s an amazing artist. Admittedly, I found that out because he sits there [on trivia nights] and he doodles on our answer sheet, so he would turn it in and I’d be like, “Who the fuck drew this?!?! This is great.” It was always Clint and that led me to stalk him on Instagram and be like, “Oh my God, he’s like a next level artist.” He already knew Lovecraft, of course, so I reached out and was like, “I need something Lovecraftian” – tentacles are cool…and the big [notes] that I gave him was there’s a hole in the middle — and I explained exactly what it was [laughs] — and I was like, it needs to feel like a god, but not too godlike. I just wanted it to be euphoric and at the same time, because it is a glory hole, I want it to be sexual but not sexy. It should be something that is off-putting.” That was all I gave him and what is in the movie is straight up what he delivered within 24 hours. He came back with a pencil sketch and immediately, I was like, “Yep, that’s it.”

But [in terms of] awkward conversations, there was a day I remember I was in the production office and all of a sudden I hear over walkie, “Bekah, can you come to set?” And I walk in and our set dec guy Alfred is standing there with a drill. He looks at me and [says], “How wide does a glory hole need to be?” And all of a sudden, it was this pause in the room as everybody pondered this and then we had to have this actual conversation about what is regulation glory hole size — it still had to be practical and we still had to black [out] the other side so you could still not see through it and we were using a camera that was like a pen cam that you could stick in because we knew we wanted to go in both directions and we wanted to be able to shine lights through it, so it had to be able to functionally exist on set while also looking like it’s potentially a real thing. Then it was also a question of height, so we also had lots of weird conversations about that. [laughs]

Still, it gets the job done – this is what Guillermo Del Toro needed to do to get his “At the Mountains of Madness” adaptation under budget. Just have a striking image upfront that allows you to imagine the rest.

I love that and going back to the origins of this tale, it’s always Lovecraft. That has been the one enduring thing, so we made sure that Lovecraft was infused throughout and definitely comes to the forefront. This is what it takes to get Lovecraft made.

It takes Ryan Kwanten too apparently. What was it like to work with him when you may have to be essentially his scene partner for a lot of this?

No, the way we worked it was we had tons of rehearsals beforehand with Ryan and J.K. We knew that they would be recording their performances separately because we were at the height of the pandemic and we could not have a lot of people in the same room and we’d be limited to the amount of crew we could have on set, so we had many Zoom rehearsals with the two of them going in, so they understood each other’s tone and pacing and how everybody was delivering [dialogue], so that by the time they actually got to set, there was really no question as to what J.K. was actually going to be doing with each of the lines, so much so that our producer Morgan, who actually read the lines on set, had been sitting in on those rehearsals and memorized J.K.’s exact delivery for every one of those lines. Then when we got back into the actual recording studio, the world had opened up a little bit and we were able to record J.K.’s sessions in person and we knew exactly how he had been delivering them, so we had Ryan’s lines to run against him and even though it was something that we knew it was going to be recorded separately, it turned out beautifully. It was never really a question of what the other person was going to be doing.

Did you find the limitations actually made you less guarded about how heady you could make this? It seems like a lot of things that might be shrouded in metaphor are able to come across directly here.

Oh yeah, the phrase low budget/high concept got thrown around a lot when we were pitching this and that was always the idea – you can have a heady conversation with just one person in a room. The movie still has to be compelling, it still has to push us forward. But at the same time, we were very aware of what type of constraints that brought. It was one room, one person. We knew what we were going to have to do filming-wise going in and that it was probably going to have to be a shorter movie. Even the original script I don’t think was ever longer than 85 pages. Because of the nature of it, we don’t want to overstay our welcome.

Since I find it remarkable that anyone’s able to be productive in this time, what’s it like having a movie coming out of it and such a good one at that?

It’s a wild one, I have to say. I did a lot of work during the pandemic, which is weird thinking about how shitty and depressing it was. But I have the new “Bring It On” Halloween film coming out that I co-wrote during the pandemic and we got this off the ground and we did a number of script doctor jobs and sold a Lifetime film, so we ended up doing a good amount of work. [With “Glorious”] it was always his volatile question of will this ever get made? Even leading up to shooting “Glorious,” we were weeks out waiting for numbers to dip, and when we ended up shooting, most of us had just gotten our second vaccine, so it was a question of will this vaccine hold? Is this going to work? So we were all so conscious on set and we were all in zones [on set], which has become so commonplace in the industry now but at the time, I was shocked [to learn] “I can’t even talk in the room with my costume designer?” Like I was FaceTiming her and she was literally the next room over, but it worked and somehow we made it through production without any COVID scares, which I can’t say unfortunately on other projects I’ve worked on since then. We definitely keep trying to improve and get better at the way we’re controlling it, and the pandemic was a lot of highs and a lot of lows. It was a lot of “Holy shits, I just sold a movie” and “Oh God, my kids are still home from school.” It was just a whole thing. [laughs]