Mike Dwyer co-wrote and stars in the genre film UNION FURNACE, about a petty car thief in a small, hard-bitten Ohio town who gets sucked into a variety of violent games perpetuated by a troop of sinister masked characters. The games test how far the characters will go for money, including the caveat that only one contestant will escape with their life — and a fortune. Cold and desperation are a palpable presence in UNION FURNACE, and themes of survival, resilience, and the dark side of the American dream light up a grim scenario with surprising moments of optimism and humor. The band of misfits playing the games includes several memorable characters besides Dwyer himself, featuring outstanding performances from genre favorite Keith David, as well as Kevin Crowley and Katie Keene, who appeared in the first film Mike Dywer co-wrote with Nicholas Bushman, SANDBAR. For a genre film, UNION FURNACE manages to avoid clichés, imply a lot of the on-screen violence, and keep the tension and the stakes high throughout, creating a compelling viewing experience that engages the audience’s imagination all the way to an unexpected ending.
BE FOREWARNED: SPOILERS MAY BE ROAMING AROUND DOWN BELOW…
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: How did you come up with the games the contestants played?
MIKE DWYER: The idea was what you can have people do to make money. We came down to this troop of people who has been doing it a long time. We tried to whittle it down to what was more surprising than not.
How did you come up with the character you played?
(Co-writer Nicholas Bushman) had the idea for Cody Roy. He didn’t know he wanted him to be a car thief, but wanted to follow how crazy his journey can be — how he can end up risking his life in a room with masked characters.
How did you manage to finish shooting the film in four months?
It was written, shot, and edited in four months — written in two weeks, shot in just three weeks. That made it pretty intense. It was also unseasonably cold weather in Ohio, which lent itself to the intensity. You had two days of pressure to get it right. That intensity actually helped the film.
Speaking of the Ohio setting, how were you influenced by the setting and the cold?
The setting was paramount. We scouted a lot of beautiful, sad, and lonely places in Ohio. The hills were great on screen. The coldness was big — you can feel it, like you can in John Carpenter’s THE THING. That makes sense since the whole movie is about survival.
What was it like working with the rest of the cast?
A couple of actors had been on our first film (SANDBAR), Katie Keene and Kevin Crowley. Lightening the mood during the film was very important since it was this dark thing, we would come in dancing, and doing everything we could do to lighten the mood.
How did you manage to set up some cliches in the film and sidestep them, such as the confrontation with the armed guard and the fact that the main character died? How deliberate was that?
That was paramount. We were making a genre film with familiar tropes. We wanted a villain who wasn’t a faceless psychopath — not what you’re used to watching in the genre movies. Then we had the lion masks and all the dancing around — for something that was very dark, we wanted to give it a sense of humor and life.
How did you decide to imply a lot of the violence without outright stating it?
That was intentional. We knew people were familiar with pain and suffering — the audience can come in with their own imagination. When you do to dark and nasty places, the question is how and when you want to show it. But the questions are better and more interesting than the answers, that was intentional.
How did you manage to stay in the character of a small-time crook?
It was tough — I was always going to play the part. The hardest part was going to those dark places — it was hardest when the cover was blown. We had a very small, tight crew — so when we had to jump right back into something that was dark, we had to run right back in and be electrocuted. Nick and I formed a strong bond.
What was it like working with Keith David?
THE THING is one of my favorite movies, so it was like a dream come true. THE THING was a big influence on us, and we wrote the part for him, we always knew he would be playing it. He’s very funny, and he also sings like an angel and he would break out on the film in this unheated warehouse which added such a great flavor to everything. We were blessed to have him.
What did you learn from shooting the film that you would pass on to aspiring filmmakers?
Find a movie you are passionate about — get a great catalog and use that as an influence and an inspiration, and borrow from it but don’t replicate it. If you can get an audience to do your homework and are passionate about it, just go out there and do it and have fun with it.
Speaking of influences, what are some movies that were influences on you?
Nick had a terrific knowledge of movies — he was a huge giallo fan, and Dario Argento was at the top of the list. THE EXORCIST was a big influence, and also this great film called SALÓ which is kind of the ultimate horror film. EYES WIDE SHUT was of course an influence with the masks. We wanted it to be a genre film but a little different, a genre film in a new way.
And speaking of the masks, how did you design the masks for the film?
We had no budgets for molds, and we really wanted masks that are real. 95 percent are one of a kind, masks we bought from England, and a lot of them are from the 1960s. And we knew for the lion mask we wanted something Venetian looking, so we actually found this mask maker out of Venice, which was perfect. We got this lion handmade mask a week before production, and it became this beautiful main image for the film. It ended up being perfect since a lion is this natural predator in the wild.
How did you come up with the ending for the film where your character, the main character, gets shot? That was surprising.
For the ending, we don’t know until the audience knows. We didn’t have a preconceived notion of what would happen. Sometimes I think it’s important to surprise yourself.
UNION FURNACE will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Aug. 15th!