The Belko Experiment: Greg McLean On Realizing James Gunn’s Office Terror

– by Edward Douglas

In 2005, director Greg McLean first got attention with his Aussie thriller Wolf Creek, which led to a sequel and a recent cable mini-series, as he continued to work in the horror realm.

McLean’s latest movie The Belko Experiment is actually based on an original idea by James Gunn, who came up with the idea and wrote the script years ago, but got too busy developing Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy to make the movie. He called upon McLean to develop the idea of a group of corporate employees who find themselves in a situation where they need to kill in order to survive the exact reverse of a team-building situation.

John Gallagher, Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) plays Mike Milch, a popular employee at the Belko Corporation, whose building in Bogota, Colombia is thrown into disarray when a voice comes over the P.A. telling the 80 employees that they need to kill two of their colleagues or die themselves. Things escalate as factions are formed and the company’s CEO (Tony Goldwyn), and some of the office’s other alpha males, take things into their own hands by getting their hands on weapons.

RELATED: Our Review of The Belko Experiment

LRM got on the phone with McLean last week for the following interview where halfway through it, we realized the irony of doing it from inside the Fox building, where something like The Belko Experiment could theoretically happen for real…

LRM: I’ve known about this movie for quite some time because I would talk to James Gunn over the years. I also ran into him in Colombia, of all places, at the Cartagena Film Festival and I was like, “What are you doing here?” And he said he was there to check out some locations, so I guess that worked out.

Greg McLean: Did they have Guardians of the Galaxy there?

LRM: No, it wasn’t even that. He was there with his producing partner Peter…

Greg McLean: Right, right, checking it out. How amazing. 

LRM: I didn’t realize he was thinking of shooting “Belko” down there until much later.  I know James had written a script and had it on the back-burner. At what point did he contact you about it, or did you hear about it from other means?

Greg McLean:
I hadn’t heard about it. Basically, I got it sent to me as a directing project from my agent, and it was going out to different directors. I read it, flipped out for it, and I prepared a pitch document for Peter and James outlining my vision for the story. I had a 20-page document full of pictures, images and references, and I wrote almost like an essay on what I thought it was about, how I’d do it and what I think it would be, and they really loved that. Then we jumped on the phone and I just pitched my heart out, and I got the movie. That’s how that sort of happened. Once I got the movie, then I came over to L.A. and then we jumped right into the casting and getting it ready. Next I went down to Colombia to shoot it and away we went. 

LRM: I was curious about the casting. The movie has such a huge cast, so many characters and while some of them are supporting roles, they still have distinguishing moments. How did you go about finding John Gallagher, because I doubt “10 Cloverfield Lane” had even come out at that point.

Greg McLean:
Basically, Peter, the studio and James and I, we put together a wish list for each role. Some people James put forward like, “What about Rooker for this role? What about Sean for this role?” and they were just great suggestions. As soon as he suggested them, I got on the phone with them and got to know them and thought they’d be great as well. Then Peter put forward some names, and we did a lot of testing. We did some auditions for a couple weeks down in Santa Monica with our casting agent. I’d be there just day after day looking at actors coming in, and then other people, like John McGinley, we all loved him, and I came and met him and we talked about it. He loved the movie, and the role, so it was a big kind of group effort to try and get these actors together. We didn’t have much time, so I was thrilled to be able to get this cast together, ‘cause they were just so much fun to work with.

LRM: John McGinley was great, and it took me much of the movie to realize that it was the guy from “Scrubs.” I kind of recognized him but couldn’t remember from where because he shaved his head so he looked so different, but it was kind of perfect casting for him.

Greg McLean:
 Right, yeah, John is a great actor, a really good actor, and brought a lot to the character. He and Tony (Goldwyn) worked really well together, because they were the team in the movie. Look, it’s a great thrill as a director, to be able to get a cast like that together, and they’re a great ensemble, and they made all their scenes work so well, because when you have actors like that, it just makes my job very enjoyable, because I get to watch great actors, work with them, develop their characters, and it’s just a great pleasure. 

LRM: You must have had a great AD (assistant director) to wrangle everyone, because you have points where you have 40-50 people in the room and there aren’t really background actors so much.

Greg McLean:
Yeah, look, the movie in one sense is like an old-fashioned disaster movie where you have 20 main characters just servicing different points in the movie, and the challenge as a director is to keep the audience, keep the audience focused on where they’re meant to be looking at what time, and also not let the audience forget where the characters are. It’s important to keep that very clear to the audience so that the action is clear and can be followed effectively.

LRM:  Let’s talk about Colombia, because I went down there as a journalist basically to get the word out to filmmakers about the film industry there. Was that a real existing building that you found down there? There’s also so much inside the building that you could have shot the interiors anywhere, I’d imagine.

Greg McLean:
Well, the film was always set in a South American city. I think James and Peter went down on that trip to look at Colombia as a place to shoot, so by the time I got on, the decision had been made to shoot in Bogota. The real challenge of finding the locations, and basically the building in the film, we couldn’t find a building that was a very modern building in a very isolated location, so we actually digitally put that building there. There is actually a building in that spot, but we covered it and made it into a more modern building. The exterior of the building is always CG in the film. The interiors, we found three empty floors of an office building in the inner city, so it was a working office building, but there were three floors in the middle of it that weren’t occupied. We went in and took over those floors for a couple weeks and shot a lot of those scenes in there. Then the big scenes, like the big lobby sequence, the lobby was a set, so we found a massive warehouse and we built this huge set, which became the lobby sequence set in there, and we built the interior of that elevator shaft in that warehouse as well. It was kind of a combination of locations and sets. 

LRM: I imagine this isn’t a huge budget movie…

Greg McLean:
Oh, tiny. Minuscule.

LRM:  So is it nerve-wracking to have that many actors while working in a location that’s in three pieces?
Greg McLean:
It was. Look, it was probably an impossible task. Looking at it on paper at the start it was kind of like, “This is an impossible task.” To pull this movie off for this budget, and in this time we had, was tough, but my experience in Australia comes from making low budget films before. I know how to be resourceful, inventive and turn $1 into $100 basically. Some of the skills I learned coming out of the Australian film industry was being resourceful, working things out and creating different ways of putting value onto the screen. Yeah, there were certainly moments where it was like, “This is just crazy. There’s no way we’re going to finish this movie.”

LRM: James put it on the back-burner for a while and it deals with such a dark subject matter as a social thriller, but were there any reservations about doing a movie that is so grim and tough to watch?

Greg McLean:
Not really. I felt like when I first read it, I thought it was an amazing read because all the characters were…for me. The most important thing is that I just love the characters. I thought the story itself was very surprising, and it was something that I hadn’t really seen before, and also, I thought there was amazing humor in the script, so to me the movie is very funny. I loved finding all of those moments of dark comedy in the film. Those kinds of elements to me were really effective as a filmmaker, to find a script that would really pushing the line in terms of going bat-sh*t crazy with how far it goes, but then also finding something that has a really important social idea at the heart of it, which is for me, the monster in the film is the corporate ideology that puts the bottom line above the human spirit, and that, to me is kind of like the evil, scary concept at the heart of it.

LRM: By the way, I’m talking to you from inside the Fox building…

Greg McLean: (laughs) So you’re right in the heart of it. 

LRM: I was curious about that, because some people knowing James’ work might assume it’s a comedy and it does have some humor and some of his regulars, but in the second half it gets so dark and grim it’s hard to laugh.

Greg McLean:
Yeah, but I think dark and grim is good, as long as it makes sense, because a lot of it is consistent to the story, but I can be pretty dark. You know Wolf Creek, so I can certainly go dark.

LRM: What’s James like working with as a producer? He’s a great filmmaker and a lot of ideas that went into the making of this. Were he and Pete able to come down and be in Colombia at all?

Greg McLean:
They came down just for about a week, then went back to L.A. and then they came back in once the cut was done. Look, Peter’s one of the great producers, I think. James is a very great producer, because I think as a filmmaker he understood that a really great producer hires a really good director and then gets out of their way, basically. Once you can have that trust with the director you’ve hired, you then are there to support their instincts and get the movie made. He was good, and I hope he produces more because he was really great on this.

LRM: Are you still working on some of your own projects, too? I know you did a sequel to “Wolf Creek” and a TV show, but have you been working on other things?

Greg McLean:
At the moment, I’m reading scripts, but I finished this movie and I did another film in Colombia called Jungle, which is a thriller starring Daniel Radcliffe, so I shot two movies in Colombia, and that will be out this year as well. Belko will come out, then Jungle will come out later this year and then we’ll see what happens. I’m looking to doing something cool. I’m always looking for a great script.

LRM: Is “Jungle” an original idea as well? When I spoke to Daniel last year, I guess there was a question of when we’d get to see it.

Greg McLean: Yeah, we finished the film. We’re so proud of it. It’s based on a true story about a young Israeli guy who got lost in the Amazon jungle in the 1980s, and he survived by himself for 20 days with nothing. It’s an incredible true story of survival, really, and Daniel does an incredible job of portraying the lead character in a film. 

LRM:  Obviously, as a director, when you put so much time into a movie, you have to have some personal stakes in it, so what would you like people to get out “Belko”? There are some clear messages but from your own point-of-view, what would you say?

Greg McLean:
I feel like it will give people food for thought about just valuing human life, valuing human relationships, and valuing humanity above the bottom line. So much of the world today seems to be about basically forgetting about being a good person and being kind to the people you’re with, and in some ways, the film really is a plea for kindness and humanity in a world that tends to be inhumane sometimes.

LRM: A lot has happened in the time since he wrote the script, and I’m not sure how far along you were when things like the shootings in Paris and Orlando occured, so did those things affect at all what was happening with the movie?

Greg McLean:  
The world’s changed dramatically in many ways since we made the film. As you know, the script was written seven or eight years ago. I think what the film talks about is universal ideas that are kind of timeless, but not really about events that are happening now or five years ago. There’s certainly parallels in some ways, but really the film was written to be a universal story rather than being specifically about a political event.

LRM: Well, congratulations on getting the movie made, and it’s great talking to you again. Glad this movie finally got made, because I felt like I heard about it so long ago now and thought it was an interesting idea.

Great McLean: Right, yeah, yeah. It’s interesting. So many people knew of this script that was going around town for so long, but no, it’s good to finally get it out there. 

The Belko Experiment opens nationwide on Friday, March 17 with previews Thursday night.

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