In Production: Something Evil at Brackenridge Hospital
Wrestler-turned-actor Dustin Runnels getting bloody for Scare Package
Talk with Austin actor Dustin Runnels, and the conversation inevitably turns to professional wrestling, and the new wave of twentysomething superstars that are redefining that industry. "God, to be that young again," he said, and he should know. For 30 years, he's been a legend of the industry, much of it as WWE's Goldust. Now age 49, the future hall-of-famer is swapping this famous black and gold face-paint for stage blood in Scare Package, the upcoming horror anthology from Austin's Paper Street Pictures.
Producer Aaron B. Koontz developed the film with his Paper Street producing partner Cameron Burns after his last feature, Camera Obscura, as a way to work with a roster of rising talents from L.A., Minnesota, and, of course, Austin. There's a heavy local contingent to the director roster, including Emily Hagins (Grow Up, Tony Phillips, whose segment "Cold Open" is the literal cold open), Chris McInroy (whose shorts "Death Metal" and "Bad Guy #2" were Fantastic Fest selections), UT RTF alums Courtney and Hillary Andujar, plus Koontz, who handles the wraparound. The team aims to complete postproduction by December, with an eye toward the 2019 festival circuit.
On this day of shooting, they've taken over the abandoned Brackenridge Hospital on Red River Street. It's the perfect indoor shooting location for a horror film, with so many empty rooms and spooky stairwells, but then all the power and lighting provisions of a modern (if empty) hospital. That could explain why the previous tenant was Fear the Walking Dead: Burns, a burly, soft-spoken presence on the set, points down the corridor to that show's set dressing, with the walls covered in mold and decay to represent the end of the world. Scare Package's aesthetic is easy to distinguish: Rather than the quiet rot of zombies, the walls are splattered with fresh blood, and gouged by brutal impacts. (Fortunately, the landlords don't mind, since the whole structure is vacant.)
Dressed in a faded letterman jacket, with his hands in chains and a splash of gore and grue across his fingers, Runnels fits in. He already made his film debut in another Austin film, 2014 Southern Gothic road trip Meet Me There, and by transitioning from the wrestling ring to the silver screen, he's following in the footsteps of friends and peers like the Rock and Dave Bautista. But while his agent is in Hollywood, he's still based in Austin. There are a lot of positives to filming locally, like sleeping in his own bed rather than being on the road as a wrestler four days a week. Plus the magic of cuts and edits means he doesn't really have to do the stunts that will turn up onscreen. "It's weird," he said, "because I'm not doing anything really physical, and my body's used to it. But I'm loving this. I'm having a blast. It has been the funnest week I've had in a long time."
Where wrestling and acting intersect is they're both about telling stories, about taking the audience to a conclusion they'll believe. While Runnels loves the new wave of wrestlers picking up his laurels, and is often in awe of their athleticism, they'll come to him for advice, and he's happy to give it to them. "Sometimes they go too fast, and they need to let things settle. Less is more sometimes, but that's just the old-school in me."
But while Runnels is a master in the ring, with years of experience on TV and in front of the camera, he's a happy student of screen acting, and sometimes he has to catch himself when he feels that muscle memory kick in. When it comes to working in front of a live audience, he said, "We're always waiting for a beat. Like when we're doing a backstage segment, we're waiting for a countdown, and we're waiting for a beat because we're waiting for the crowd response in the arena. With this, I caught myself waiting for a beat, when I just need to go right for it."