Winston Wolf. Charlie from John Wick. Crime drama has a long history of cleaners: Not the one who makes the bodies, but the one who deals with them, makes the corpses disappear. They're often a joke, a one-shot gag about how badass the killer is. That's not William, the begrudging protagonist of I'll Take Your Dead.
William (as played by veteran character time and Gemini-winner Aidan Devine) isn't some criminal genius. He's a farmer who's fallen on hard times, then fell in with the wrong crowd (through no fault of his own), and now they use his skills with a butcher's knife and bone-dissolving chemicals to get rid of the cadavers. It's horrific, but it's also the tragedy of an isolated widower trying to keep his daughter, Gloria (Shazam!'s Ava Preston), safe and living as normal a life as possible. As if that's possible, with gangs on the drive, corpses in the basement, and unquiet spirits that may or may not be the damage this life is inflicting on her. That balance falls apart when one of those corpses (Jess Salgueiro) turns out to not be as dead as the gangs thought.
The supernatural-tinged crime drama, which made its Austin debut at Other Worlds Austin last year, is the latest from the bubbling scene in Guelph, Canada: Home of true indie genre filmmakers like Reese Evenshen (Defective) and Gabriel Carrer (In the House of Flies, The Demolisher) and most particularly the collective/studio Black Fawn Films, which Archibald co-founded.
It's the latest picture under their eight-film, three-year deal with Breakthrough Entertainment, an arrangement that has encouraged the team to push the boundaries. Archibald said, "One of out goals is to make sure we were never re-making the movie that we just made." They'd made a body horror (Bite), an occult thriller (The Heretics) and a possession tale (Let Her Out) – all smaller projects, Archibald said, and I'll Take Your Dead was a step up in scale and ambition. "We were used to working in the non-union world, so we trying to write for the strengths of the non-union world. ... This one is something bigger, and it's very character-driven. It's all about performances, and it's not relying on gore a lot."
However, there was also a very personal component to the development of the story. In the mid-2000s, Archibald directed a project for Crime Prevention Canada, a choose-your-own-adventure-style story called Real Choices. "It wasn't really a feature film, it was more of a PSA," he said, "but they wanted something cool the the kids could relate to, so they came to me as a genre director and a horror director, and I'd directed a ton of music videos and street videos."
For the project, he traveled around Canada interviewing teens and adults – many homeless or living in shelters – who had become part of a gang. "It was just mind blowing talking to these kids and hearing their stories about how they were born into this world, and talking to parents who were in shelters or rehab, or counsellors telling their own past stories. It's just astounding how many people get caught up in gang-related activity, and it's not even their fault. A lot of these criminals just know how to manipulate people and suck them in."
That's where he found a core dynamic that would feed into I'll Take Your Dead. "A lot of these people have kids, because that's something that a lot of gangs do, They threaten your kids,. They tell you, 'You're family's never going to be safe unless you do what I'm telling you to do.'" That's why the villains in the film are so willing to threaten Gloria to keep William in line, and why the real people who inspired the character of William can end up committing terrible crimes. "They had done such insane things – not because they wanted to, just because they felt like they were trapped."
Austin Chronicle: William being a farmer is so important. You couldn't have done this if he was a carpenter living in Hamilton. It's that, as a farmer, he's used to dealing with dead things.
Chad Archibald: He's got his butcher room already, and you can tell that he's got a resentment he's built up in his head against the people who get dropped off. It doesn't matter if you're dead or alive coming here, you're generally probably a bad person. He's got it in his head, "These are just animals to me. They're just crazy animals. They're not people. They got killed because they're part of crime."
AC: And it would be very easy to play the part much bigger, but Aidan finds William in quiet spaces. Without him, it could have been a very different film.
CA: [Aidan] came on board pretty close to us starting filming, about three weeks before. He was the last person that we cast, and I had seen him in a bunch of stuff, and Breakthrough had worked with him in the past as well. When he came on board, we chatted with him about how can we make this subtle enough. It's not a gory film where he's relishing cutting up bodies. This is just his job.
A lot of times, when it was a significant moment, we'd play it a couple of different ways, We'd have our one and our two and our three levels, and whenever it got to editing and it started to feel too much, we'd have another take we could throw in and kind of finesse it through his journey.
AC: The other half of the equation is Gloria, and as a character she's reminiscent of Francisca in Nicolas Pesce's The Eyes of My Mother: She's raised in isolation, around some pretty gruesome behavior, but the difference is that William is doing his best to make sure this never becomes normalized for her, especially because she's 12, and that's such a pivotal age.
CA: We auditioned a ton of people, and as soon as Ava came in she just knocked it out of the park, and we absolutely loved her. She's so mature, and that's what we wanted for it. We wanted this character to be a mature little girl, because she's seen so many horrible things. She's been so protected by her father, and she's been homeschooled the entire time, she's pretty much an adult. She was never pampered, she never got a bunch of toys, but she's there, she's helping her dad bring in a bunch of bodies. And she's not afraid of everything. We wanted someone who could grasp this role and make it believable, and even just sitting down and chatting with Ava during casting, you could tell this girl's mature for her age. A lot of people in reviews are going, "She's probably 16 or 17, she just looks super-young." But no, she's 14 years old.
And whenever she came on set, she was a dream to work with. In her scenes with Aidan, he was going, "This kid's showing me up, eh? OK, let's get in this." And he'd work harder, and everyone would work harder.
I'll Take Your Dead is on VOD and Blu-ray now from Shout! Factory.
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