Randy Ser is a man of many talents. After cutting his teeth on Roger Corman productions and obtaining degrees in Design, Acting and Directing, Ser’s diverse journey continued with one simple goal in mind; well-crafted storytelling. Driven by the love and desire to tell engaging, terrifying, entertaining and complex stories, Ser embraced all facets of the industry. A talented and versatile player, Ser quickly became a respected and valuable asset, especially in the realm of Production Design. Through his vision and execution, Ser helped define vivid worlds on well-known projects like My Name is Earl, The Mighty Ducks, The Middle TV series and Sam Raimi’s 1990 classic, Darkman.
Stepping into the driver’s seat for his latest project Cruiser, Ser donned his director’s cap and worked alongside long time creative partner Sam Hensley Jr. A found footage shocker, Cruiser recounts the events that transpire in a small Georgia town after a mysterious, musically inclined figure begins a night of terror by murdering a police officer and stealing his uniform and car. Told through a series of police cruiser car cameras, cell phones and surveillance cams, Cruiser is a unique and dark addition to the popular sub-genre.
In a cinematically serendipitous synchronization of events, Cruiser is being released on VOD by Gravitas Ventures August 25th, a mere day after Darkman celebrates its 30th anniversary. Embracing the concurrence of events, I recently had the privilege of speaking with Ser and we talk all things Cruiser, his diverse background, working with Sam Raimi and how his contributions shaped Darkman‘s powerful world.
“I was drawn to the Universal horror films of the 30s. It just sucked me in as a kid. So, I was preordained at that point to want to get involved with filmmaking and with horror filmmaking.”
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: Cruiser is an interesting story, especially in today’s current climate. How did you get involved with the project and what initially attracted you to it?
Randy Ser:Sam Hensley Jr., who wrote the project, and I have been producing partners for over 25 years. He wrote this script for Shuler Hensley, who is a Tony Award winning Broadway star, and who also happens to be his brother. He starred in Oklahoma! with Hugh Jackman and he also played Frankenstein’s monster in Van Helsing with Jackman. We really wanted to do something where we could all work together. So, Sam came up with the idea, wrote the first draft and sent it to me. I have to say, in my first read I was captivated in two very different ways. As a filmmaker, I was captivated by the fact that it was a found footage piece. I started seeing an approach to it that would give us a much more cinematic style to found footage. Multiple availability of different cameras rather than the perspective of just one camera. At the same time, as my mind’s eye was seeing that as a filmmaker, my reading it as a viewer completely unsettled me and made me realize how terrified I was by a number of things:
1) The subject matter. A person impersonating a police officer after killing them. And then going out on a killing spree. 2) Having a very strong person who would classically be called a ‘damsel in distress’ (but was very far from that) captured in the back seat to bear witness to Cruiser’s reasoning, rationale and his actions.
NOFS: Shuler has such an incredible voice and I thought it was really neat how we see him use it in Cruiser. Was that always part of the plan? Something he contributed? And what exactly was he singing while we watch Cruiser execute his victims?
RS:In the initial draft, Cruiser does not sing. It’s something that kind of organically grew as Sam and I worked together on evolving how we would bring the story to the screen. As we started talking about the chopping and the gore, and watching these horrific acts — which as horror fans we’re accustomed to and want to see — we wanted a way that we could confound the senses and to really unsettle the experience. So with those conversations, and Shuler’s natural talents, that led us to come up with this idea of this very calm, tranquil, unsettling, organic, harmonic sounds that would juxtapose the sounds of human flesh being chopped to pieces.
As far as what he’s singing, there are many pieces. Each kill has its own unique song. Some are in English. Some are in German. Some are from operas. One of them is a lullaby. How questionable would it be for someone to hear this wonderful, simple lullaby while watching somebody’s head being eviscerated. And Shuler is the one who went in…we spent a good amount of time during prep discussing Cruiser. Who he is, what has brought him to this point and who he might be. Why the music would be there and what the music might be. And he then set about choosing those pieces. There are clues! If you went through and translated the songs, within the songs there’s going to be beats, words, moments that will bring you into what is in Cruiser’s timeless mentality.
NOFS: It’s interesting how the story is mostly told through a series of fixed, stationary surveillance cams. What did you enjoy about this structure? Did you find it resulted in any particular challenges?
RS:Actually, the script had elements of that. Sam wanted it to be a script where it wasn’t shot from a single camera. Part of how we work is as he writes, I contribute how we’re going to shoot it, how we’re going to edit and what the final cut is going to be. So, a lot of those camera angles were things that I would add as we devised how I would want to tell the story. And in a lot of ways, and a lot of the scenes particularly the kill scenes, how I wanted to orchestrate those scenes to the music, to the tempo of the cuts, to the experience. We were very careful and I spent a lot of time in the planning of the angles and how to orchestrate that.
Then of course, we brought in our Director of Photography, Andrew Tucciarone who had his hands full trying to figure out how to do all that. How to give it verisimilitude, which I believe it is, but still feel very cinematic. Also, part of what he and I played with was switching from color to black and white. Switching from sound to silence. And again, those were other choices that I put into the script. A way to either overload or deprive the senses. What I wanted was, in depriving the senses, for the audience to experience what is going on in someone’s mind during the last moments they know they are going to be alive. That’s what all of that was used for.
We also had cell cams, which gave us the ability to have a little bit of movement. We had high angles in parking lots and the cars had 3 or 4 positions, so we had a lot of options, but Andrew had to go in to and figure out how to use those to give us the nuances of grain. Or harsh light. And also to bring what I wanted in regards to getting into the mind of the victim as they’re experiencing their last moments.
“[Darkman’s warehouse] was my chance to do an homage to Frankenstein’s lab in the castle. It’s a complete play of light and shadow.”
NOFS: It seems incredibly beneficial to be so involved so intimately in the process so early on.
RS:That is how Sam and I work. We’ve always worked like that. It also helps the cinematographer, the production designer, and the editor particularly. It also prepares me for something like this where we have to shoot very fast, over the course of a short number of nights. It helps me be prepared to know that if something is not working or if something has to change we can adapt to that. Or, if something incredibly wonderful happens in a moment of creativity, we can go with that still knowing where each scene, each beat, each cut needs to go.
NOFS: You have such a diverse background including acting and theater experience. How did this help you when directing Cruiser?
RS:I’ve never talked to anyone about this, but Lori Beth Sikes who plays Tara, and Shuler never met or spoke to one another until the wrap party. I did not allow them to have any contact outside of their scenes together. They showed up to the set at slightly different call times. We didn’t have money for separate trailers, but their individual pop-up tents were set up very far apart. They were brought to the set at very different times. And I told everyone, once Lori Beth was in makeup, from that point on, nobody was to talk to her. She was to be alone in her head. And what she and I did every day was, in the afternoon, we’d have a phone call where we’d talk about where she had to go that night. What she had to experience. And we’d talk about personal moments we wanted her to feel and bring to the audience.
I would do the same thing with Cruiser, but in a slightly different way. Shuler is very gregarious. He would come and be joking and having a great time and 15 seconds before he was about to go in the car, he and I would get together, I’d look him in the eye and I’d tell him what I wanted him to say or do to Tara when he got in that car. And not say anything else other than dialogue. But it put them both in the mindset of what was happening that evening. They never really knew each other, or talked to one another until the film was complete. When the audience feels what is happening in that car, it’s because we brought it prior to that. And we kept it that way throughout the shooting. And you might not know it, but I’m laying on the floor of the front seat of the cruiser. And in there, watching on a very small monitor, I’d talk to them very quietly as things were going on. There was never a moment where the momentum broke. I’d talk to them and we’d continue. We’d drive or be towed. I think it really helped with what inevitably came to the screen.
Hot at the Shop:
NOFS: Alright, shifting gears here to Darkman which turns 30 this month! The film has a very classic monster movie look and feel to it. As the Production Designer on the film, was this always part of the plan?
RS: As far as the look of it, Sam always intended for this to be a dark, realistic and comic book world. That’s how he saw it. What I brought to him…I was drawn to this style as a child. I was drawn to the Universal horror films of the 30s. It just sucked me in as a kid. So, I was preordained at that point to want to get involved with filmmaking and with horror filmmaking. And this was a Universal film. So, what Sam and I ended up merging together on, was bringing that Universal horror feel. It brought a very dark noir, comic book horror type feel to it. And part of those 30s horror films, and in particular Frankenstein which was always my favorite, it was always a play between light and shadow. And Darkman is living between those two worlds.
NOFS: The film has so many great, large and elaborate rooms. Which one was your favorite to work on and design?
RS:A good portion of all those rooms that you’re speaking of were all constructed sets. And it was a lot of fun in particular because computers weren’t really around back then. We did everything by hand and had to figure out everything the old fashioned way and shoot it where it went together in the camera. That’s the way I loved doing things. But as far as my favorite, it was definitely Darkman’s warehouse/living space/lair/lab. That set to me was my chance to do an homage to Frankenstein’s lab in the castle. It’s a complete play of light and shadow. It had this great two story furnace and the flame would constantly play off of Darkman in there. He could come into light, he could disappear into shadow. And in that space, in my mind, I could feel at some point Darkman could develop the skin and successfully have it hold in daylight. And then, he could run out screaming into the day…I’M ALIVE!!! (laughs) This was a childhood fantasy film moment that kept playing in my head all through adulthood and with Bill Pope’s cinematography, Sam’s shooting, the use of the space, the understanding Sam and I had about what we wanted the film to look like, it really played in that set. It told a story and took you into the subconscious world of the character.
“Movie magic is wonderful. Every time we get to do something like that, I’m just a little kid in a candy store. To this day.”
NOFS: I wanted to ask about the awesome scientific machines we see in the film. The burn table in the hospital and the skin machine in particular. Did you have a hand in those?
RS:As the production designer, I designed or oversaw everything regarding the look of what goes in front of the camera. In response to those particular two elements, yes. I completely designed them. They’re both kind of interesting. The spinning bed when he’s strapped to the table…you can’t really do that to a burn victim. The pain from being spun around like that would be unbearable. But there really is a table that instead of spinning like a knife throwing device, you’re laying horizontally and it will rotate you to where you’re laying face down. Because of the pain, you can’t move and it’s to relieve pressure. So I took the reality and brought what I thought would be the way that Sam Raimi would see that device.
As far as the skin machine, that was me designing Frankenstein’s machinery. But Sam wanted the thing to work continuously in one take. Normally, you’d build something like that and it would be done in cuts and pieces so you don’t really need to make it work. The challenge he presented to me after I showed him the design was, ‘I wanna shoot it all in one take, move along and watch it happen.’ So, we don’t really build things to do that in movies. We build things to be shot in a way that seems like it does that. So that brought me to the challenge of how to do this. All of us in the art department were brainstorming about how we could make this happen and somehow we came up with the idea to build it like an illusion. Like a magic act illusion. Because people who do that know how to make these devices that have to operate live, continuously in front of a live audience. So, we actually found people that built all of the illusions for one of the big magicians at the time. They did it all out of a warehouse in Los Angeles and we took the design to them. We told them how we needed it to work and they approached it like that, and they built it like that. There was only one place we had to cut.
When it’s making the hand, which is the big time when you see it work all the way, Sam Raimi had the idea…if you remember those old pin cushions where you push it and it would hold a shape and you’d push it back? In the 80s those were a big table top game. That’s how you could see what the machine was building. You could see the pins push in and you could see the shape of the hand. The only thing we couldn’t do was when that thing pushed in, there would be no room in the mold behind it for the thickness of the hand to be. So, the whole machine operated all the way through until the hand pins pushed in and made negative space where you could see the hand that was going to come out of there. So we had to lock the camera, cut there, opened the mold, put in another backing with the hand in it, re-closed it and started the camera back up again having it work in camera, in live action time with no computers. And then you rolled the camera and it just picked up without missing a single frame. Movie magic is wonderful. Every time we get to do something like that, I’m just a little kid in a candy store. To this day.
Cruiser is available on VOD August 25th. For more info on the film, you can give em’ a follow over on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. You can also check out more of Randy’s art direction work in the new Quibi series The Fugitive starring Kiefer Sutherland. He also worked as a Second Unit Director on Bennett’s War, currently streaming on Netflix. Have you checked out Cruiser? Have some good memories to share about Darkman? Let us know over on the official NOFS Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!