Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through the Chosen By the Holy Storsh
The subject of cults has been a source of fascination for decades, only growing with the rise of mass media, and permeating our popular culture. Just last week the details surrounding the arrest of NXIVM member Allison Mack had people searching the internet for more details on this mysterious organization. The day after that arrest director Vivieno Caldinelli and actress Kate Micucci were premiering their new film at the Tribeca Film Festival, The Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through the Gateway Chosen By the Holy Storsh (previously titled Corpse Tub). The comedy stars Micucci and Sam Huntington as a new to LA couple who discover their steal of an apartment includes a bathtub used for ritualistic suicide by a cult. As more and more suicidal members arrive the couple finds themselves seduced by the teaching of the titular Storsh. Considering the recent news and complicated plot cults were obviously on our minds when we started the interview.
The Interrobang: I read and watch a lot of stuff about cults so the premise was right up my alley. Do you share a fascination with cults?
Kate Micucci: I do love a good cult documentary. I loved that film Holy Hell and I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about the Manson Family. It’s weird to talk about but I do find it fascinating because I find the mindset difficult to understand. And of course we have the new sex cult in the news, so clearly they are out there.
Vivieno Caldinelli: It’s strange that cults are in so much of the zeitgeist now. Just look at the popularity of something like Wild, Wild Country.
The Interrobang: Just the prospect of mind control is such a primal fear, I think people want to try to understand how and why they exist.
Vivieno Caldinelli: It’s hard to say, but for any cult to exist, some of their teachings have to make some sense, and they need to find people looking for something that’s missing in their lives. And that’s the scariest part, to see how manipulative these groups can be, targeting people who are just trying to improve their lives.
Kate Micucci: I thought about this a lot for my character, but I can understand how it happens to someone. When you’re lacking something, or feel like your life’s missing something, it can be easy to attach to a belief system. And Los Angeles is the perfect town to breed cults because people go there looking for something.
The Interrobang: I was about to say Los Angeles was the perfect place to set the movie because of the history it has with cults.
Kate Micucci: I think most people go to LA seeking something and look for answers in the city. I’m fascinated by LA, I could go on and on about the city. There are constant facades being put up, and the city is like this big facade. And yet, I love it.
The Interrobang: Do you both live in LA?
Kate Micucci: Yeah, we actually live close to each other and when we were shooting the movie we lived about a block away from each other. So we’d ride back and forth to work every day. And we’d talk about the day’s shoot during our drive to work, drinking our Starbucks and eating the same thing for breakfast.
Vivieno Caldinelli: It was great to be collaborating on this and having that time with Kate every morning. Usually, I’m driving to set and thinking and stressing about the day in silence. But with Kate sitting next to me, and with the schedule so tight, that was like our time to plan things. And then at the end of the day we had an opportunity to decompress.
The Interrobang: I know you’ve done horror comedies before. This isn’t really horror but it is a dark comedy and gets pretty bloody. Were things more horrific initially?
Vivieno Caldinelli: They were actually.
Kate Micucci: Lots of blood and guts.
Vivieno Caldinelli: And the whole film was originally going to be more surreal. The tub was going to be almost a literal monster. And that would have been cool, but it would have been a completely different movie. And being a huge horror fan I was initially attracted to that. But what was great is Kate and Daniel (Noah, one of the producers) forced me to use restraint. Because I’m completely desensitized to blood and guts at this point I find it funny most of the time. But hearing the reactions from the audiences, thank God we held back.
Kate Micucci: I have trouble with blood and guts. Just the opening sequence I found hard to watch.
Vivieno Caldinelli: I couldn’t believe people were gasping. I’m like “this is nothing!”
The Interrobang: But you are also setting this in a very typical, ordinary setting. So all that gore feels out of place.
Vivieno Caldinelli: And we took that approach once we got rid of the surreal stuff, especially early on. The film’s almost mundane at first, and then when things start happening people were gasping.
The Interrobang: Had you shown the film to audiences before the festival premiere?
Vivieno Caldinelli: We had done a few test screenings.
Kate Micucci: But I didn’t go to any of those so I had no idea what to expect. I’d seen an earlier cut but never saw the whole thing put together and finished. And I have to say, seeing it with all the music was incredible. I was blown away by the score. I mean, I’m a nerd for score but I was pretty impressed. And for me, music works in very similar ways in comedy and horror, so I was impressed at how the score enhanced the comedy in the film.
Vivieno Caldinelli: When you’re working so closely with people on these films, you leave with these wonderful friendships. Joe and I are super tight now and want to work together. Kate and I didn’t know each other that well beforehand.
The Interrobang: How did Sam [Huntington] get involved in the movie?
Vivieno Caldinelli: Apparently he heard about the film and submitted a self-made tape without even being asked to audition. And I remember casting that perfect person to play Paul was a grueling task.
Kate Micucci: It’s a really hard part because there’s such an innocence to Paul and you can’t fake that. And Sam was perfect for it because he has that wide-eyed wonder.
Vivieno Caldinelli: Yeah he does, that all genuine.
Kate Micucci: He’s an incredible actor and such a great person too. I mean that ridiculous scene he has when he gives the really long monologue while talking to the bird. Watching that with an audience was so great because I had no idea how that thing would play.
Vivieno Caldinelli: Before filming I said I wanted to cut the monologue down. I told you I thought it was too much. And Daniel insisted that it had to stay in exactly as it appeared.
Kate Micucci: I loved it, but even after filming it I thought “it’s too ridiculous.” And then at the Q&A for the film last night, hearing your rambling monologue about why it’s in the film was so great. It was so meta to hear you talk at length about why the monologue just keeps going. I was dying. But anyway, back to Sam who is an incredible actor. Seeing his performance during that scene was so fantastic. I was so happy that the audience loved it.
Vivieno Caldinelli: Sam was one of the only actors on set who’s classically trained. And when you shoot sketch comedy you are always in such a rush to get it done. So you rarely have time to give proper motivation, which comics get. And on this I would just be barking out orders like turn right, walk left. And Kate came over to look at dailies one day and I asked “do you think Sam’s was mad at me?” Because I was messing with his process by just yelling out “look left” and you see the frustration on his face. I just wanted coverage because I wanted the ability to cut away. And you could tell he was processing and trying to figure out some motivation or reason to do that in the scene.
Kate Micucci: After making my low-budget series I’m used to that approach to filming. When you don’t have the luxury of time you just have to get it done. And that’s why I was so happy to have Sam there as my partner. Because he wanted to rehearse and run things with me constantly so we were fully prepared when we were filming.
Vivieno Caldinelli: And I was grateful that you two had that relationship on set. I saw how much trust you had with each other.
Kate Micucci: Being on this movie was so fun, I felt like we were on a high. There were hard days, the heat in that apartment was awful. But I really had the best time over those three weeks. I have such fond memories of making this movie.
The Interrobang: And you get to be so physical. Seeing you dragging dead down the hall and killing people is unexpected.
Kate Micucci: I love doing stuff like that, because it’s so ridiculous. I was so excited to do those scenes.
Vivieno Caldinelli: The day Dana (Gould) was firing you and you asked me if they could put a piece of spinach in your teeth. It’s so ridiculous but you were so eager to include that little bit.
Kate Micucci: The day that I got to slam Sam’s head over and over again on the counter, I remember that being a really fun day. And I realized some things can be funny that I never realized would be funny. I never expected people would groan and laugh at the same time.
The Interrobang: Even the scene with Maria Bamford’s death scene has that balance. She’s so lovable but what she’s doing is so ridiculous.
Kate: Micucci: Listening to her read that school report was so funny, it was honestly hard to get through that scene. Just the idea of Maria Bamford reading a book report is funny.
Vivieno Caldinelli: The way she says the word shit gets me every time. She’s just an amazing person.
The Interrobang: How did you cast all these comics?
Vivieno Caldinelli: We owe a lot of that to Kate.
Kate Micucci: It kind of snowballs. Once Maria came on board Brian Posehn came on. It became a project that interested a lot of people in alternative comedy. Josh Brener’s so funny in it. Dana’s brilliant. And to get Tiika Waititi to play Scorch was this amazing gift.
The Interrobang: Was he already working on Thor at this point?
Vivieno Caldinelli: He’d just filmed it. And it was funny because I think we were both feeling this uncertainty about how people would react to the tone of our movie. I mean he was turning Thor into a comedy and it was possible that some Marvel fans wouldn’t like it. He was literally editing and color correcting that film, so doing me this favor I think felt like a nice break from the pressure of that film for him. And he couldn’t be a nicer person and he’s so funny.
The Interrobang: Who came up with the voice he uses?
Vivieno Caldinelli: That was his idea. And it didn’t feel like I had another director when he was on set. He was just there to play and perform.
The Interrobang: Is it challenging to turn the creator part of your brain off and just work as an actor?
Kate Micucci: You just have to do it because of the speed you’re filming. We literally wouldn’t have had time to create new material on set so I needed to put all my trust in him. Otherwise you’ll just cause trouble.
Vivieno Caldinelli: But for me, having someone like Kate there, I have the opportunity to be a little vulnerable and I don’t have to constantly put up the façade that I know everything. I felt comfortable saying “I’m not sure this will work, but I’d like to try it.” So having all these creative people around me created a very safe environment for me. But it sounds strange, but I love working at this speed. Playing sports as a kid, I would hate it when there would be a time out because I just like to get up and go. And making something like this creates a pressure cooker that I find really fun and invigorating.
The Interrobang: Is that part of the reason you added the countdown?
Vivieno Caldinelli: Not consciously. I just thought of it as a way to separate the film into acts. But now I’m thinking about it as a way to build tension.
The Interrobang: Well, knowing we have to get to seven and seeing how things are escalating by five and six you wonder how you can possibly get to the ending.
Vivieno Caldinelli: That’s the aspect of the film I’m proudest of. Thinking where Sarah and Paul begin and where they end up is such a drastic arc. And then seeing how the pathos of Cartwright (Dan Harman) is just woven into the film. By the end of the film I’m just like “this poor man, he has nothing now.”
Kate Micucci: I love his performance in this. He just came in and improvised the whole time. He was so much fun to work with.
The Interrobang: And he seems familiar with detective shows and film noir so this must have been a blast for him.
Vivieno Caldinelli: Playing a detective was truly one of his dream jobs. He wanted to flip open the notepad and wear that trench coat.
Kate Micucci: The first day, when he shaved his mustache but they left his mustache on and came on set with that trench coat on, I was floored. He’s so perfect for that part.
Vivieno Caldinelli: And I was intimidated about working with him because he’s so hyper intelligent. And I don’t consider myself book smart, so I feared we’d have some kind of creative clash. But he couldn’t have been more collaborative, more fun to work with. Working with such a strong writer as a performer, he wanted everything he did to have a backstory, and I wasn’t used to that. But you can really see that motivation in his performance. Working with him and Mark McKinney was such a dream.
The Interrobang: You can see the influence of Kids in the Hall in this film I think.
Vivieno Caldinelli: The funny thing about Mark and Kids in the Hall is, their stuff seems to have lasted the longest, compared to something like Saturday Night Live. Because they never did anything about pop culture or current events, so nothing’s dated. It’s all this irreverent, character comedy that holds up so well to this day. Even Brain Candy stands the test of time. And it’s funny because when it first came on TV, I was a kid and didn’t get it, it flew over my head. But just before it got canceled I went back to it and realized how brilliant these guys really were. And I can now say that Mark and I have become friends, but I still nerd out a little and ask him about those times now and then.