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The grueling and grotesque Septic Man is about a sewage worker, Jack, who wants to make some extra money helping a small Canadian town solve their water contamination issues that all seem to be issuing from a badly corrupted septic tank. Soon, Jack finds himself neck deep in shit — quite literally — and trapped in the sewer. As he begins a disgusting transformation down in the much, he discovers he is also not alone in the suffocating, smelly dark. Septic Man is screening as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival’s Gross-Out Night, and we caught up with director Jesse Cooke.

Describe your film in 10 words or less.

A confinement horror that is also a superhero origin story.

What inspired you to make this film?

I wanted to play with the idea of a confinement movie, and the myth of the man who becomes trapped down a well. We brought that idea to Tony [Burgess] and he flipped it on its head. He came up with the idea that it should take place in a septic tank, and that the protagonist can’t get out, can’t interact. It became not so much a body horror as a body fluid horror that way.
Bruce [McDonald] and I were very inspired by the idea of chamber plays as well, and the work of Samuel Beckett and George Bataille. It’s from Bataille’s book “The Story of the Eye” that Lord Auch originated. It’s not what you might expect from a movie about a man trapped in a tank of poop.
It also fits very well with Tony’s affection for small town catastrophe; the apocalypse coming to a small place.

What was the best thing about production? Most frustrating?

This is one of three films that I collaborated on with writer Tony Burgess (Pontypool). Tony is like a crazy uncle who lives one town over, and we’ve been looking to collaborate for a number of years. He’d become a close friend. We ended up doing three films, and he was a delight to work with. He’s an absolute genius and it was nice to have a writer with his talent help flesh out the stories. It was a big weight off shoulders, knowing we could trust him.

The two other films that we worked on with him are called Ejecta, which is a science fiction film, and Hellmouth, which also features Stephen McHattie (Pontypool) and a cameo from (Hard Core Logo director) Bruce McDonald. Both of those will be done in January.

What’s the one thing you want people to know about your film?

We wanted to make a challenging and divisive film, one that people would struggle with. We also wanted to leave some things open-ended, to not make out answers too clear. When Jack is roaming through the sewers and can’t get out, things take a turn into a nightmarish fever dream, where reality becomes distorted.

Plus, he is literally becoming a shit demon. As villains appear at the end of the maze, it’s like a trip into hell, and Jack emerges into a different world.
Some people will want more closure but we didn’t want to explain too much.

The makeup in the film is particularly grotesque. How did you go about conveying Jack’s hideous transformation?

We loosely based the makeup on Seth Brundle’s fly makeup from David Cronenberg’s The Fly. We didn’t want the audience to know exactly how much time had elapsed with Jack was trapped int he sewer, but rather show that passage of time through the makeup as he slowly became more putrid. Showing the transformation happening was the tricky part.  We end up watching a superhero’s transformation through the film, though we really don’t know if in the end he will wind up a hero or a villains. It’s a descent into the depths of that character.