In just his second feature film, writer-director Nicholas Bushman has delivered a savage indictment on society, personal desperation and the cost of surviving in a world gone mad.
Union Furnace is harrowing, and fascinating. It imagines a world where the Haves and the Have-Nots interact on a single night, an invitation-only golden ticket to prosperity for the sole survivor of a twisted and brutal Wonka-esque series of childhood games amplified with razor-sharp consequences.
BVB: Blood Violence and Babes was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to Bushman by phone about his vision and what inspired him and his longtime collaborator, Mike Dwyer, to concoct such a deliciously evil house of horrors.
We hope you enjoy reading our conversation!
BVB: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
BVB: I just got the chance to finish Union Furnace last night, and I was just – I was blown away. I mean, it’s a fantastic film.
NB: Aw, thanks.
BVB: And it made me even more stoked to talk to you.
BVB: It’s funny because there have been a lot of other films that fall into this kind of particular subgenre, films like Cheap Thrills and 13, where there’s this competitive dare type of challenge going on, and there are players that are picked, but I have to say, watching Union Furnace it really brought something fresh to what is kind of a familiar set-up, and it did things that I wasn’t expecting.
BVB: You know, I got the distinct impression as I was watching it that this is a film very much in tune with our current political climate, for instance.
NB: Yeah, more so now, because we shot it a couple of years ago. It really seems more relevant now (laughs)
BVB: Yeah, when I looked on IMDb, I saw that this was shot, what, 2015 because you’ve got another film that was shot last year that’s about to come out.
NB: That’s true, yeah, Stranger in the Dunes.
BVB: Right! So, what inspired the story? How did you and Mike (co-writer/actor Mike Dwyer) come up with the story behind Union Furnace?
NB: Um, OK, yeah – we, um, the whole thing started when Mike and I were finishing up our first movie, which is called Sandbar…
NB: And it had a very, very, very lengthy post-production process. We were going crazy just with the desire to make a new film, just kind of anything, we just wanted to start shooting something new right away. The irony now is that it’s taken so long – we did do that, we shot Furnace really quickly, but it’s taken a long time and is actually coming out now. So, the initial sparks for the film came from just something that could be done very cheaply, at a single location, for the most part, and with the idea of the games, that’s something you can do in one location but would automatically be very visual.
NB: So, you wouldn’t have – it wouldn’t be My Dinner with Andre. I love My Dinner with Andre.
BVB: (Laughing) Right!
NB: It would be very exciting to watch this thing. Just the general thing – use your disadvantages to your advantage. They’re trapped in a single location. They’ve got to do this stuff. So, that’s where it initially came from. And it definitely grew to be a little bit bigger once Keith David signed on, and all these things, but we still managed to write it in a couple of weeks and shoot it in three weeks.
BVB: Oh wow…
NB: It was an intense, quick process. Yeah, it was crazy.
BVB: That’s amazing. I really liked that you don’t tell us much about the location necessarily, or much of the backstory of a lot of the players.
BVB: But it struck me while I was watching it, this could be happening today anywhere across like the Rust Belt, for instance, in a blue-collar community where people are struggling with unemployment and addiction. Did you intend – and it kind of ties back in to what we started to talk about – but that political kind of undertone. Was that on purpose, or did that just development as you were going along?
NB: Um, I would say a combination of the two. Accidentally on purpose (laughs)
NB: We loved the concept. We thought that this is a bad-ass, cool thing to do. But as soon as we actually started getting it down on paper, the implications of the games and the community and stuff definitely seemed to resonate far beyond just your standard horror fare.
NB: Or we hope so, anyway.
BVB: No, I think it absolutely does. I think a lot more people are going to pick up on that once they see it.
NB: Yeah, good!
BVB: I really dug, there’s this underlying menace that kind of crackles throughout the film, yet you deftly balance a difficult line, I think, for more than half the film where viewers are unsure what’s really happening to the eliminated contestants.
BVB: So, this is kind of a multi-pronged question, but, I was wondering one, how you came up with the escalating series of games and challenges, and also how you determined when the right time would be in the film to kind of start showing the consequences for the players as they began speaking up and out at Lion Man and other people in the audience.
NB: Right. Right, right. Because of how quickly we wrote the film, a lot of the choices we made were instinctual and they just – for lack of a better word, they just felt right while we were writing it and making it. So, um, in terms of how each game plays in the film, one of the things that was really exciting to me was that each game could kind of feel like a different movie each time. One movie, almost like a comedy, or dark comedy, and then the most horrific thing you’ve ever seen. That was exciting just from the structural standpoint, in addition to the practicality of it, that it could just constantly be shifting gears.
BVB: Right, when you go from musical chairs to having the last three contestants have to eat a piece of Keith David’s brain. I mean, it was jarring and horrifying in the best possible way.
NB: (Laughing) Yeah, I remember writing that scene. That’s a good example of us knowing there would be seven games, but not really knowing what each one would end up being, honestly, when we started. It was a very – it was a nonstop process, basically us locked in a room for two weeks. But I remember writing that after musical chairs, it was like four in the morning and that just kind of came out. I was like, oh my God (laughing).
NB: I was shocked!
BVB: Right, you scared yourself!
NB: Yeah! Well, you want to scare yourself! That was kind of always the thing. I mean, this is kind of an obvious thing to say, but what would really freak me out, and that’s true.
BVB: I love the, ah – there’s – you use practical effects really well, and they’re sparsely placed throughout the film, but that scene, and I can’t remember the character’s or the actress’s name, the young woman, she’s the first one to have to dip the spoon in, and that brain…
NB: Katie Keene, she’s amazing.
BVB: Oh my God, it was so gelatinous and it was slopping off the spoon, and it just made – as a viewer –
BVB: you’re like, ‘Oh my God!’ It puts you right there.
NB: Yeah, that’s as much the effect as her performance. She really sells it because it was like this jello-y thing with food coloring on it. It wasn’t that gross, but she really brought it for that scene. She’s amazing.
BVB: Yeah, her and Mike were phenomenal. They both really brought you in – as viewers, they brought us in and kind of put us in that position, especially at the end when he makes the, ‘I’m gonna do whatever they ask me to do, and I hope you’re OK with that.’ And then when it comes time, you see the hesitation because he realizes, you know, am I a man or am I just an animal performing here? You see the quandary that he’s feeling, and it was fantastic.
NB: Oh good! I’m so glad to hear that, man.
BVB: I also have to tell you, I am a huge Keith David fan. He is such an iconic actor, and I always go back to that role he had in Requiem for a Dream where he plays the skeezy, kind of upper-class…did you have him in mind from the outset, or was that just you were hoping? Was he someone you wanted to get, or did it just kind of fall into place?
NB: Oh, he was someone we absolutely wanted to get. In the throes of writing it, just writing the movie, we got to that first green room where you actually kind of properly meet him, and it kind of instantly, oh this would be a great Keith David role.
BVB: Oh, that’s cool.
NB: It kind of was – we didn’t, we were going to make the movie for nothing initially. I mean, literally, we were just going to do it on a cheapo camera and shoot it in someone’s basement. He was kind of a gateway drug, actually (laughing). ‘Well, we might need a little more money.’ It became very – we were adamant it had to be Keith David. And we had a firm start date. It was in a couple of weeks. I was like, I’m going to call his people and see if he’s interested. It was a dream come true because they were like, ‘Oh, we really like this, and yeah, he’d be interested.’ I talked to him, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ I said, I’ll see you in two weeks. So, two weeks later, he was literally filming the movie.
BVB: Oh, that’s amazing.
NB: We did it all in a week. He had a week-long gap in his schedule where he could fit it in. It was amazing. It was really a dream come true because he was the first, and only, choice, honestly.
BVB: Wow, that’s awesome. The stars aligned. I’ve got two more questions, because I know we’re running out of time. I really wanted to ask you about this because you made some very interesting editorial choices in how you framed certain key moments. In particular, I’m thinking about the second to last challenge when you’ve got Cody and the two women, for example, you never really show what’s happening, although it appears they’re kind of fighting, having sex, doing something violent and naked.
BVB: Why did you choose to leave that moment, and others throughout the film, kind of to the viewer’s imagination? Was that intentional?
NB: Oh, definitely. That one, for sure, we thought it would be really good to have, just in the natural evolution of writing it, to have that one game you wouldn’t quite know what was going on. And it would be up to you to decide how horrific it is.
BVB: I thought that was very smart.
NB: It’s up to you, but I think it is pretty horrific what’s going on (laughing).
BVB: Oh yeah, your mind immediately goes to that dark place, the dark web, so to speak, where you’re going, holy crap, I can’t believe I just thought of that. That was awesome.
NB: Or maybe they’re just playing Twister, who knows (laughing).