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A Fatal Visions Interview: Mark Savage on Purgatory Road

Purgatory Road poster

 Thornbury, 5 Nov. 2018

Way back when Fatal Visions was produced with an electronic typewriter and a photo copier, Mark Savage’s wild actioner MARAUDERS became one of the first of many Fatal Visions screenings. Savage was interviewed in issue four about MARAUDERS and soon became the spearhead of Hong Kong coverage in the Chinatown Beat column.

Thirty years on the description in that first interview of Savage as “an incorrigible filmmaker”, holds. While PURGATORY ROAD is the first Savage film since SENSITIVE NEW AGE KILLER to get released within Australia, he already has his new film PAINKILLER ready to go. The following interview was for the international release of PURGATORY ROAD which now, finally, is seeing the light of day on streaming services in Australia  and New Zealand:, itunes & Google Play.

Michael Helms (L) and Mark Savage (R)
Michael Helms (L) and Mark Savage (R)


Michael Helms: Where did the journey down PURGATORY ROAD begin?

STRESSED TO KILL (2016)Mark Savage: I went on a road trip with co-writer Tom Parnell, we’d previously made STRESSED TO KILL and POND SCUM and had decided that we wanted to make films together over an extended period. We were driving to Northern California because I wanted to show him Mendicino where DEAD AND BURIED was shot. This was just after AFM where we’d gone to push STRESSED TO KILL with the foreign distributor. So with that out of the way we drove to Northern California. While we were driving on Highway One in an area called Big Sur, which is really spectacular, we had this van in front of us that was blocking our way and I said to Tom, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we made a film in this area and maybe that van could be a confessional?” I think the reason I was always interested in the idea of a moving confessional, or in a way a moving world within a vehicle, really came from my love of the Fellini film LA STRADA. I always loved the fact it was Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina driving place to place and they’d stop and she’d put on a show. That idea always fascinated me from a personal viewpoint of just owning a van. It’s like an Australian thing too of just getting in a van and travelling. From that we just started talking about who might be in the confessional with the priest. Next came, “Well, he’d have someone with him who would be loyal to him through thick and thin and that would be his brother. So we began this conversation about these two brothers who were on the road. Initially, they would be driving from town to town and there wouldn’t really be a base. That was the initial idea. In the final move they do have a base, a house but they do go out to several places where they set up shop. The local people come there. Most of the people who would come to confession were from areas where there wasn’t a church. This does happen a lot. In the olden days there were tent evangelists and also now they’re expected to run a church from maybe seven towns all going to the one town to go to church. Also, there’s areas where they don’t have cars so how are they supposed to get around? So, mobile confessional and that’s pretty much where it came from. We then started writing the script and we wrote it back and forth. Initially we wrote it from a scenario. Then we divided it up into tasks within the script. Tom would say why don’t I write these scenes and I’ll write these scenes. Then once we’ve written the scenes we’ll then get together personally and go through every single line, every single word and that’s how we’ll do the re-writing. Then after that we’d separate, because Tom’s from Florida and I’d go back to California. So then what would happen would that I’d go to Tampa for a few days and stay with him and then go back to California. Then we’d do the same thing again. It went through about 17 re-writes.

MH: Is that number usual?

MS: Yes. You might not want it to be that many but it’s more out of necessity. You know as a writer, you go through things and note, that needs to be fixed and so does this and that and other things. It’s a structural thing as well because you start looking at it and notice that it’s not working well because if your character had done this there was no way he’d have done that. We just went through a lot of iterations. We sent it out to a couple of people here and there just to make sure it makes sense. That’s what you’re usually asking people not, “How great is it?” It’s more like, “Is it clear? So that’s how we got to that stage and from there we had a script. What changed also was that the original inspiration and shooting it in Big Sur suddenly became illogical to set that type of story in California because it is really a story of the South. People are more religious there. They are also more religious in the sense that they would use a mobile confessional. California is not really a religious state. There is religion there and even where I live in Orange County, in the Laguna beach area, there are more churches and it is more religious than LA but it didn’t make much sense having a mobile confessional there because people would just go, “That’s ridiculous”, whereas in Mississippi where we set the movie it was a lot more acceptable and anecdotally it was accepted as a concept because occasionally we would stop to get petrol and people would get out of their cars come over and ask if they could confess! (laughs) I’d have to explain that at that moment there was no priest there and it’s a movie prop. They were surprised that it was a movie prop. So that validated our decision to go from California to the South.

MH: Was it festooned in the graffiti style we see the truck in the film?

MS: Yes it was.

MH: How did you arrive at that production style for it?

MS: What you’re seeing on the van is not painted it’s a wrap. The van itself is a white van. What they do, when you see a formula one car with all those stickers on it, they aren’t painted on they are what they call a wrap. It means that you put on a skin. What we did is that we designed it first in 3D on a computer. So went through it and put all the words like Repent and Bible quotes and then shifted them around until we were happy with them. This was fantastic because I wanted something like a wrap because what if it rains while we’re out shooting and the paint runs. Even though Tom had bought the vehicle for the production he did say that he’d like to sell it at the end. So then it became and issue that would mean that it would have to be repainted but he knew someone whose business was wrapping vehicles. So we came up with the words and on the computer was able to play around with them. Even the fonts! You could distort them. Ultimately, we had a version that we signed off on a file that was sent to these people and was printed out onto these sheets of abut 30 that were about half a metre by a metre.

MH: It looks so natural that it had been vandalized over a certain period.

MS: It was very convincing and you don’t see the seams either. It’s not cheap but very effective. It was 3 grand was about half of what the vehicle cost. You don’t see the seams but one of the interesting things though was that for the style of van, a place down in the Salton Sea in California where I go a lot, there’s a place called Resurrection Mountain. There’s a guy who bought this small hill and covered it in plaster and paint and built these man made caves which were constructed as some sort of tribute to his late wife. He’s got all these old painted vans from the 20s & 30s just sitting there and the design was so interesting that I saw and thought it would be perfect for the confessional van. Of course there was nothing I had to go on there for the confessional van because no one has ever done a confessional van. It’s not like I could look them up and find out how they were designed. The confessional van is also something like the Tardis in the sense that it’s a certain size on the outside and had to be a little bigger on the inside. I had an altercation with the original builder of it because I said to him that I needed something that is three times the equivalent of what a confessional would normally be. I mean I certainly understand the size of a confessional, I grew up Catholic and I went to confession so I certainly understand the way it works. Initially I rolled up to the studio where the set was built and he showed me the confessional and it was just the same size of a regular confessional. I said, “What’s this?” He said, “That’s what a confessional would be.” I said, “Yes, but I wanted it three times bigger. I’d given you measurements that said 14 feet by 7 feet because we needed to get tracks and lights in there.” He said, “Yeah, but it wouldn’t be that big.” I said, “Had you ever done this before and since when does a set have to be the same size as the real thing, you need room to move.” Ultimately it got repaired and was expanded back out again.

Still from Purgatory Road

MH: Was that the biggest production hassle that you had to face for PURGATORY ROAD?

MS: It was probably the most frustrating but we had a tornado during the production. When we were shooting the opening scene where the little boy sees the thief and shoots the father who falls on the floor. I remember Chris Smernes saying, “Mark, we’re going to have to wrap it up here or go down stairs beneath the house because there’s a tornado right there as she pointed out the window and we could indeed see a tornado”. It was explained to me that it was quite common in that area to have tornadoes. That was kind of surreal so we ended up cutting that night a little short and probably not getting all the shots I wanted to but it actually ended up fine because I changed around a couple of things. If you haven’t seen the film then I advise you to miss the next part of this interview because there’s a point where you see the father shoot himself and originally there was blood and brains all over, the things I needed to shoot when the tornado was coming which was the stuff that had to be shifted. Ultimately, it didn’t matter of course because the father character returns later. If we’d seen the blood and brains been blown out then it would’ve been, “Oh, he died”. One thing I could say that was a development from the script the father was never in the original script. The father came up as an issue because it became an issue where you’ve got the two brothers and what are they doing with the bodies? Initially what they were doing with the bodies was an idea that was influenced by an old horror book that I’d read called The Sucking Pit which is by the writer Guy M. Smith who was one of the leading writers in the 70s in England. You had James Herbert and then there was Guy Smith working for publishing company New English Library. There was this bog where local murderers and miscreant would throw bodies into it and they’d disappear. It sort of had a supernatural element to it. In that the bodies would never float to the surface seemingly being pulled into a supernatural abyss. So the original idea for PURGATORY ROAD was that there’d be a bog in the backyard. That was in the first couple of drafts. The Holy bog. So you’d have to actually have them going out there and performing this ritualistic thing of throwing the bodies into the bog. The bodies would submerge but sometimes something would surface and they’d have to push them down again. Then it would be sucked down and would bubble up again. But when we were finding the locations, and on a film like this when you don’t have a massive budget, it’s not easy to be going back and forwards between a whole lot of different locations. We had to build a bog in the yard of the house and the first house that we had that didn’t end up being the one we used. The owner said, “So you’d like to build a hole in the back yard”. We were like, “Yes we would”. But then it became a real issue of how deep the hole was going to be and it did really have to be quite deep if you want to submerge a full size human being inside there. So you’d probably have to build something that was eight feet deep and it just became a logistic nightmare. Then because of the time of year it was there was a lot of rain and it became an issue of the bog getting too muddy and not being able to keep it clean on the edges and it would lose its definition, and this was more in the script than finding it . So that then became an issue if not that the father came in and we really needed another element here. An element that’s more about what’s going to happen to the bodies but because I think it is more interesting the idea that the bodies are used for something and that it becomes known that the Father is literally eating the people who have offended him. He’s eating the parts of those people, cannibalizing them and becoming insane as a result. So that’s how that changed.

MH: Who cleans the back of the van?

MS: Well, the only time it’s hinted at that there is work going on in the van you see the brother underneath the van in the beginning and he’s like fixing it and the brother says to him, “If we had some more money we’d be able to fix the van”. That’s the only time that it’s suggested. Originally there was a scene where you’d see them taking a few things out and doing that but it was just getting in the way of the overall flow. But also because confessionals are always dark places you could’ve been kneeling in one without knowing what’s really in there. I mean, we could’ve all done this without knowing. The lighting in the confessional in the movie is not like the lighting in a regular confessional because we have a combination of purple and gold lighting. That was really a stylistic choice because I just didn’t want regular confessional lighting where the priest might have a slot of lighting from where he speaks but the penitent is in the dark. I just couldn’t have that because it’s not visually interesting. You don’t really see the walls in it and other times there’s pools of darkness as well so to me even though it would’ve been bloody you wouldn’t have necessarily seen anything. But they do clean stuff up. There’s one time when there’s a girl in there just before the cop comes along and you get the sense that they did do something to clean it up but I just didn’t want to focus too much on it.

MH: Could you give us a wrap-up of the story that you eventually concocted?

MS: It’s the story of two brothers but principally a little boy who at a very young age witnesses a thief robbing his house. The thief confronts him and the boy being intimidated lets him run off with a lot of money. We then cut to them as adults and he has grown up and is a priest. He’s on the road with his brother in a mobile confessional but unlike most priests who are very forgiving of most sins he’s forgiving of all sins except for theft. So, when he comes across someone who appears unrepentant about the fact that they have stolen something he visits upon them his own form of salvation which is by killing them that is what he believes will allow them to get to Heaven. He does actually believe that, he’s not doing it in a malicious way but he himself has been so impacted upon what he saw as a kid that he has a form of paralysis from that childhood event but he wouldn’t and couldn’t have done anything anyway because he was just a kid. He pretty much spends his entire life feeling guilt and blaming himself for the destruction of his own family. So it’s really all about someone who is living with something from the past that they’ve never been able to reconcile. The family didn’t lose a fortune but it was the only thing the family had. Because the father shot himself he feels it’s his responsibility. The older he gets the more responsibility he feels to get the money back that was stolen from the family. That’s really the premise of the film but there’s a lot of conflict because the brother is supportive of him but he’s starting to feel that what they’re doing is not right. Into that situation comes another person. The Priest is Gary Cairns and the brother is played by Luke Albright. Into their lives comes a character who is a woman who is probably even crazier than the priest. Mary Francis is played by Trista Robinson. She comes into their world and does them a little favour which is pretty much how she insinuates herself into their world but she also has her agenda which of course, the priest doesn’t see coming. That comes to a head in the last third of the movie where nobody is what they thought they were. Everybody’s own personal agendas clash and that’s really where the conflict comes from.

MH: How was the female character developed and why was she female?

MS: It was somewhat developed with her in mind because I’d worked with Trista on a slightly horror based children’s web series that was called FEELS LIKE FOREVER. She played a regular teenage girl in that actually. She’s not in her teens but she looks fairly young. She was playing a 16 year old when she was 25 at the time. I got to know her well and she was a big horror fan and also into serial killers. Her name in PURGATORY ROAD is Mary Francis Shipman and I’m suggesting there that she’s the granddaughter or relation of Britain’s most prolific serial killer Dr Harold Frederick Shipman. I just love the idea of someone who is purely driven by their own nature without any blocks, boundaries or inhibitors. The idea of her being a woman rather than a man introduced a whole area of contrast to the film. You also have the sexual side of the woman too because she’s around a priest who happens to be quite sexually curious which happens quite early in the movie where they do kill a couple and you see him staring between the woman’s open legs. He’s so distracted by it which to me is so incredibly realistic because it’s a priest who doesn’t get to touch anybody so it’s all about looking, voyeurism and observing. It also means that he’s in a much more vulnerable position when she arrives and he’s also super smart. So the idea of introducing this super smart & super manipulative woman into the trio and she makes up the trio, can only lead to disaster which of course is the gristle to the drama. There was no real stopping and determining what she would do. It was more coming with ideas like whenever she kills someone she always gets the blood and licks it. She kisses people after she kills them to which parallels what he does which is stabbing women in the confessional and leaning in and kissing them as they take their dying breath. So there was interesting parallels established between the two of them. So you basically establish the parallels which brings them together but then you’re also showing that people who are so parallel there’s no way really that they can live together because they are too parallel. That eventually becomes the reason why there is the ultimate conflict. The climax definitely revolves the conflict in a fairly bloody way with only one person between all three of them left standing. Mary was a combination of Issei Sagawa the Japanese cannibal and Rose West (I even sent Trista the Rose West book as she wasn’t aware of her). Trista is short in stature too I think she’s 5 foot or 4 foot eleven and she’s also got a child’s voice. She can modulate that but that is her own voice it’s not like she’s putting it on but has a very interesting voice which I found fascinating.

Still from Purgatory Road

MH: She’s actually more menacing for it.

MS: Yes, I think so too. She’s not obviously evil but there’s a weird irony to that voice and what she’s doing. She’s very capable she knows what she’s doing. That line when she’s killing someone, “I cook too”.

MH: That’s hilarious.

MS: She’s also quite self-deprecating as well. So I just wanted make someone really colourful. At some point I’d like to do a sequel about her life. There is a PURGATORY ROAD novel coming out which I’ve written. The first 100 pages of the novel are from before the film begins. So this gives a lot of background to the characters. The film is really written and the novel in a sense is written by the father because you’ll notice at the end of the movie when the van drives off you start hearing all this typing. Then at the very end of that if you stick to the credits you see the book come up and it’s by Alvin Kirby. So that novel which I’ve written in a way is if it’s written by Alvin Kirby, it is his story. I really like that idea of bringing back the novelization. But having a novelization and the value you add to it is that you give people even more than just in the movie rather than making it word for word and scene by scene of the movie. I like the idea that it’s expanding the whole universe of the film.

Panty-clad Killer by Alvin KirbyMH: In many ways PURGATORY ROAD is your most personal film. You’ve already spoken about the crotch shot which is incredible to see and comes on like a personal fetish film made for someone on order from the WAVE company.

MS: The sexual element in the story which is introduced quite early because father Vincent shoots a woman and she falls in a certain way that allows her legs to open up and we see that she’s wearing white panties and her thighs are kind of bloody. Absolutely super important because later on you’ll see how Mary Francis is able to seduce him because if I hadn’t shown that it would’ve seemed like he’s a priest and he’s being very regimented about it because that’s the whole point he’s not killing people willy-nilly because he’s enjoying it, he’s killing people because he really believes the thieves will only receive their salvation from death. Whereas the other thieves or other sinners, he’ll have a pep talk to one where he puts up a webcam in someone’s room and he’s spying on a man too. And even his attitude too towards homosexuality is quite liberal. You have the line where the guys says, “Well, I put a webcam up in someone’s house”. Then he says, “Does she know about it?” The guy says, “No. That’s the worst part, she is a he”. The priest then says, “No, no. Let me be the judge of that.” That’s the worst part. So, he’s even quite understanding and open minded about a gay relationship. So, he’s not going to suddenly castigate the guy by saying, “Oh no, it’s even worse because he’s homosexual. Did you pay for the webcam?” “Yes, I even got a coupon and got 30% off”. Then the priest says, “Well, that’s in your favour”. So he establishes that very clearly. That was why it’s very important that you’ve got to show that he’s got some sort of sexual interest or sexual curiosity otherwise when Trista seduces him it’s not believable if he caves in to that because people will go, “No because he’s very regimented, very set in his thinking. He’s got his own thinking, his own mental structure. The other thing too is having the woman I had there lying on the floor, I didn’t want to have a young sexy woman there because this is also something that you don’t see in a lot of other movies, especially American movies or Western movies. You don’t see older women portrayed in a sexy way. It’s just a given if you’ve got a 20 or 25 year old. That’s who we usually see in that kind of scene. The woman that we had, Melody, I auditioned several women and the auditions just entailed them walking in and turning around and showing their legs because I needed to have someone with very good legs but a little older. I didn’t ask for someone who was younger. This was logical too in that they had a daughter. The daughter who you see in the photo and she’s also married to a black man as well. So I wanted to have that addressing the issue of interracial; no issue. The fact that she’s older she’s still sexy so that to me was what I really wanted to show. I liked the idea of provoking the audience a little bit by making them go, “This is acceptable”. It’s not like something that hasn’t been accepted like in the South where you couldn’t have interracial marriage and on the other side which is how people get socialised where a 20 year old is sexy but a 50 year old is not. The idea was that he’s getting turned on. What I wanted to convey was that with sexuality it hasn’t got anything to do with the age but it is the form and that the legs and the angle and stuff. But anything here he’s going to turned by that. The idea was that he’s focussed on that, it’s drawing him in because of the way it’s shot, we’re moving in on him like that and then moving in on what he sees. That took about 20 shots to get that panty crotch shot. We originally had a guy on the dolly who just couldn’t get it right and a couple of people also had this attitude, “Why do we have to spend so much time on getting this shot when it’s just a shot of a woman’s crotch. No it’s not. It’s got to be moving in and moving down because that’s where he wants to go. It’s his vision not just a static shot. What you’re seeing is where he wants to go but of course, his brother pulls him away from it. That’s the thing he’s always pulling him away from it. So that attitude to the sex it is a fetishized shot and you’ve got the white underwear and the blood and fairly white thighs as well. The blood reads very clearly on that as well but I do find in way that putting those kinds of elements in it will definitely alienate some parts of the audience as well. American films especially do steer away a lot from sexuality. You don’t see a lot of sex in American studio films, indie films have some. It’s a bit like the difference between Stephen King and James Herbert novels. James Herbert novels have a lot of sex while Stephen King has very little. I guess he’s reading his market and his market is more mainstream. Americans feel much more comfortable with violence and are more comfortable with her being shot than they are with her lying there with her legs open. That to me is a major difference between American & England and even Australia. Maybe Australians would be more comfortable with the sex side or maybe we’re in between, I think.

Still from Purgatory Road

MH: Can you please talk about violence and your approach to presenting violence in PURGATORY ROAD?

MS: The violence in PURGATORY ROAD is pretty harsh and sudden. The first piece of violence in the movie is in a flashback sequence which is at the beginning of the movie, originally it was further into the movie but in the edit it became necessary to establish early on that this is how he is because this happened when he was a kid. I made this decision watching the first cut and just thought, “That’s got to be at the beginning. Also there’s going to be more attachment to the character if he’s just shown killing thieves. The audience will ask, quite naturally, why is he doing this?” I think people have to know to some extant why he is doing it. The violence in it is pretty sudden and definitely deliberately brutal. It is brutal and harsh but not like a Paul Greengrass film (THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, JASON BOURNE, UNITED 93 etc) which is very documentary-like in style. The film is really traditional in the way it was shot in the sense that there’s not a lot of hand held, it’s all on dollies, cranes and tripods and I’m using the lighting to enhance the violence. Despite it being brutal I’m using the lighting to put it in a more surreal place. So that’s why I’m using odd angles and even odd blood coming out. In my favourite sequence where it came out right is where one character gets it in a parking garage. That was like she comes down stairs and moves across all these cars and it’s kind of choreographed. It still all happens in the one shot but I think the approach to it was brutal but aesthetically I’m still trying to make it pictorially impactful. Sometimes I like the idea of giving something brutal a real beauty so there’s a contrast as well. There’s a major stabbing scene that’s shot from a Chapman crane from very high above and it’s very brutal because we’re not cutting away to hide the impact. I don’t want to soften it for any reason. If there’s an audience that’s not going to watch because it’s too brutal that’s fine because it’s not a general audience movie. I think that would completely do the story a disservice to go, “Well let’s make it more general audience”. No, it will never be a general audience film. But, I must say and this is just anecdotal and it’s nice to hear this from people, I’ve had quite a few people who’ve watched the film and later on they’ve said, and recently we’ve just had another screening at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival in Australia and someone came up to me and said, “I don’t really like horror movies but I like this and really like the story of the brothers”. To me that was a big compliment to hear someone say this. What I also believe as well is that I really like stories about human behaviour and to me the genre is really the picture frame you choose that’s the style of picture frame you use to tell your story of human behaviour. Whether you go from a Dracula film about desire and wanting to be wanted, an Ed Wood film which again is about desire and wanting to be close to people and wanting to fit in they are within genres but they are human stories. To me the best horror films are still human stories. I mean, I’m not really interested in a film about a faceless person going around killing people one after the other because the horror films I love even when I look at genres like Jess Franco when he’s got his own oeuvre his films are really about human behaviour, every one of them. It’s about the way we react as humans to desire, to murder, to isolation, to loneliness, to alienation, that’s what makes it so interesting. So, if someone says to me, “I’m not into horror films but I like this”, I can at least in some way, in a humble way, I can say to myself that I managed to tell a human story that impacted on the person and the fact that it is quite bloody at times, certainly I don’t believe there’s anything in there where I was just throwing in gore to please gore fans and not that I have anything against gore fans because I too am a gore fan to some extent but in this I’m not saying let’s have twenty more times more blood and guts shots. To me I’ve got enough to convey what is necessary but at least if you can have the story staying in the forefront for people instead of going, “Oh no that was too much”, then I might feel that I failed with the story. But then again it’s always what the market is because sometimes your market is just blood and guts. Even if you look at the early Herschell Gordon Lewis films you could argue, and again there’s always some human story in them, but that market certainly wanted a lot of blood and guts and that was probably the main thing they came for. I feel like I’m somewhere in between. I didn’t make the film for people by setting out to scare people, there’s no jump scares there.

Still from Purgatory Road

MH: How do you feel about PURGATORY ROAD now that’s it has played film festivals around the world? Are you truly happy with it?

MS: First and foremost the reaction from people who really like these movies is really important to me. I don’t really care what someone who loved PRETTY WOMAN thought about it but I do care about someone like yourself and a few other people who I respect. If they enjoyed the movie and got something out of it that means a lot because you sort of set the bar. To make the movie at least when your making these movies and you’re low budget enough, though you’re not too high a budget and this wasn’t super low but it certainly wasn’t high, but certainly when you make a film like this you can control the elements.


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FV double bill

Over the decades Fatal Visions has been involved in programming, sponsoring and introducing many screenings across Australia. Here’s a favourite of two films over two (early week) nights that remain hard to see in any format. The venue was The Kaleide Cinema in Swanston Street on the RMIT campus. We’d started programming screenings there in the late 80s when it was known as the Glasshouse Cinema for the visionary Brenda Murphy who was running it under the banner of Anemic Cinema. Ten years later Megan Spencer was in charge and we were back to do a tie-in with the Fringe Festival. ABERRATION is a snowbound tale of marauding lizards(!!?!) that was shot in Wellington, NZ. It was one of two features made by the mighty international Grundy company who had previously produced ABBA: THE MOVIE and wouldn’t make too many more. STYGIAN was the first feature for James Wan and Shannon Young who would both make more features.