John Gallagher Jr. The Belko Experiment
Cast: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz
Director: Greg McLean
Genre: Action, Horror, Thriller
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Synopsis: When office workers arrive for work at Belko Industries' isolated high-rise campus outside Bogotá, Colombia, the morning starts much like any other. Mike Pelk (John Gallagher Jr.) smokes weed in the bathroom and flirts with his beautiful officemate Leandra (Adria Arjona) while new employee Dany Wilkins (Melonie Diaz) settles in for her first day on the job. Everything changes when an anonymous voice comes through the intercom speakers ordering employees to kill two of their colleagues within 30 minutes. Many of the 80 employees assume the order is a sick joke, even when steel-plated doors snap shut sealing off all windows and exits. When they fail to comply before the half hour is up, the heads of four randomly chosen office workers explode. Panic reaches a fever pitch when the disembodied voice issues his next command: thirty people must be killed within the next two hours or 60 people will die. Belko COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn), a former Special Forces operative, commandeers a vault filled with guns, assembles an ad-hoc death squad and begins executing elderly and childless employees. In the ensuing melee, ordinary office workers including stoner Marty (Sean Gunn), nerdy Keith (Josh Brener), creepy Wendell (John C. McGinley) and maintenance guy Bud (Michael Rooker) reveal their true colors.
Sprung from the mind of acclaimed filmmaker James Gunn and directed by Greg McLean, The Belko Experiment raises provocative questions while offering a black-humored thrill-ride that pushes ruthless corporate behavior to terrifying extremes.
The Belko Experiment
Release Date: September 21st, 2017
About The Production
One night in 2007, filmmaker James Gunn woke up from a dream with a clear vision of the The Belko Experiment's disturbing central premise. 'In my dream, I saw a shot of the building and people inside listening to a voice over the loud speaker commanding them to kill or be killed," James Gunn recalls. 'I found the concept compelling because I've always been horrified by social experiments that take place outside the comforts of morality. So I set out on a journey with the characters as they were pushed to their limits."
James Gunn faced an unfamiliar dilemma as he began fleshing out the storyline. 'When I write movies I fall in love with my characters," he explains. 'I don't usually end up killing almost all of them off, so that was kind of hard for me. But horror is based in fear: fear of death, fear of disease, the innate fear of predators. The Belko Experiment deals with the fear of people turning against us. On a deeper level, it's about what happens when you're forced to turn against people you care about."
The filmmaker, who says he grew up in a hyper-competitive family dominated by lawyers, bemoans the fact that humans often find themselves pitted against each other by forces beyond their control. 'The idea that trade can benefit society has been lost to the idea of capitalism as some sort of giant battle royal." The office workers caught up in the The Belko Experiment take a wide array of ethical stances as they face their hellish predicament. 'Each employee represents a different aspect of morality," explains James Gunn.
'Mike believes we don't have the right to take anyone's life, no matter what. Norris places a higher value on his own life than those of others. Leandra is a realist with utilitarian leanings. Wendell's an amoral sadist, and Marty's such a tender soul that he's in complete denial of the situation."
With its relatable characters and ingeniously explosive plot device, James Gunn's screenplay attracted backing from MGM Motion Picture Group president Jonathan Glickman, who enlisted Peter Safran to produce the project for the studio's Orion Pictures subsidiary. 'I love to make films that create a visceral feeling of fear in the audience," says Peter Safran, whose resume includes horror hits The Conjuring and Annabelle.
'It's always a wonderful experience to see people in a movie theater feel all the scary moments you've crafted for them on the big screen."
Because his schedule was filled with other directing projects, including the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn chose to produce along with Peter Safran and find a like-minded director for The Belko Experiment. After meeting with a number of talented filmmakers, James Gunn and Peter Safran tapped Australian horror auteur Greg McLean to direct the movie.
Greg McLean, who first gained fan attention for his 2005 cult classic Wolf Creek, says he felt an instant kinship with James Gunn. 'James Gunn and I have the same kind of sensibility in terms of style and the kind of films we like, so we really connected at that level," he says.
Greg McLean says he loved the script's outrageous rats-in-a-corporate-cage concept. 'I remember emailing my agent saying, -No one is ever is going to make The Belko Experiment because it's so violent and crazy!' But once they convinced me they were really going to do the film, I wanted to direct this wild piece of writing. It's funny and violent and shocking, plus James created great characters."
A Shocking Experiment
The Belko Experiment is informed in part by a series of studies conducted by Yale University social psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961. The Milgram Experiment pressured subjects to violate their own ethical standards in order to obey an outside authority. In one instance researchers assigned the role of 'Teacher" to 40 volunteers and instructed them to deliver electric shocks to 'Learner" participants each time they gave an incorrect answer to multiple-choice questions. The voltage ranged from 'Slight Shock" all the way up to 'Danger: Severe Shock." Most 'Teachers" delivered the maximum punishment. (What they didn't know was that the 'Learners" were actually actors who only pretended to receive the shocks.)
'Social experiments aren't anything new, whether it's in the name of science or simply sadism," says James Gunn. 'This kind of -research' has always horrified me and at the same time, perhaps shamefully, also fascinates me."
In The Belko Experiment the filmmakers invite the audience to deal with the question: What would you do in this situation? 'Everybody wants to think they'd be heroic like Mike," observes co-producer Dan Clifton. 'But when the walls come down and people get forced into an extreme situation, everyone's flaws come out. That's when the villain really becomes human nature."
The Belko Experiment brings out the worst in many formerly civilized corporate employees, but one character emerges from the dog-eat-dog carnage as a leader worth rooting for. Everyman-turned-hero Mike Milch is played by John Gallagher, Jr., best known for his endearing turn as a love-struck reporter in Aaron Sorkin's Golden Globe®-nominated HBO series 'The Newsroom." John Gallagher Jr. first met Gunn during auditions for Guardians of the Galaxy and, although he didn't get the role, the filmmaker says John Gallagher Jr. made an indelible impression. 'I think John Gallagher Jr.'s an incredible actor and he's great for the role of Mike."
John Gallagher Jr. says he enjoyed portraying a character of such innate goodness. 'I like Mike because he has an ethical code. In spite of all the insanity around him, he believes we should not stoop to the level of savages and start attacking each other." Armed initially only with the best of intentions, however, Mike is forced to adapt as the deadly game progresses. 'Bit by bit, Mike gets broken down and his survival instinct kicks in. It gets to the point where you either have to lay down and die or fight back."
Mike's main opponent in the office mayhem comes from corporate boss Barry Norris, portrayed by veteran character actor Tony Goldwyn. 'When they sent me The Belko Experiment, I thought it was original, unique and very violent," says Tony Goldwyn, currently starring as President Fitzgerald Grant III on ABC's hit TV series 'Scandal." 'It was a change from much of the work I had previously done. I was already a fan of James Gunn, and when I met with Greg McLean, whose work I had seen and thought was brilliant, I knew I wanted this role."
Norris quickly realises the people who trapped his employees in the building are serious, putting him in an unimaginably difficult position. '-If I don't kill 30 of my own people, they are going to kill 60 of us,'" says Tony Goldwyn. 'So I come to the conclusion that the only the way to save the majority of lives is to sacrifice the smaller number."
Joined by his second-in-command, Wendell (John C. McGinley of 'Scrubs" fame), Norris draws on his Special Forces training and begins taking out people who entrusted him with their lives. 'My character does not go willingly to the dark side," Tony Goldwyn says, 'but once he makes that choice he takes matters into his own hands and goes crazy."
Teamed with Mike against Norris and his ad-hoc death squad is Mike's strong-willed girlfriend Leandra, played by Adria Arjona. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Mexico City, Arjona embraced the role partly out of enthusiasm for James Gunn's ability to infuse The Belko Experiment's bleak premise with his trademark wit. 'I've loved James Gunn's comedic sensibility in every script he's written," she says. 'He always manages to nudge some humor into his stories, which I think is brilliant." Also doing her best to stay out of the line of fire is a resourceful new employee named Dany, portrayed by native New Yorker Melonie Diaz. 'Dany has her own journey in The Belko Experiment," says the actress, who earned plaudits for her breakthrough performance in Fruitvale Station. 'She's scared, but also brave. Dany keeps on running and hiding because she wants to live; she wants to survive and she wants get the hell out of there."
To round out the Belko's staff of doomed office workers, James Gunn re-teamed with some of his favorite actors from previous projects including Michael Rooker, Valentine Miele, Owain Yeoman and Rusty Schwimmer. 'I wrote Bud, the maintenance man, for Michael Rooker," says the writer-producer.
'He usually plays a villain, but here Michael gets to be one of the nicer guys."
James Gunn cast his younger brother, Sean Gunn, as office good-time guy Marty. 'Sean Gunn often plays the -geeky outsider' so I wrote the Marty role for him where he gets to be the carefree life of the party. In every case, these actors really knew how to show the inner struggles their characters face in the midst of this extraordinary circumstance."
The voice matter-of-factly announcing each ghastly phase of the test through the office loudspeakers belongs to actor Gregg Henry, who previously appeared in James Gunn's films Slither, Super and Guardians of the Galaxy. 'When I read the script, it felt like somebody's nightmare," recalls Henry. 'I see my character, The Voice, as part bureaucrat, part military man, and part scientist. He guides everyone through the experiment so he can gather information about human behavior."
Director Greg McLean relied on the talents of this high-caliber ensemble to deliver emotionally affecting performances on a tight schedule. 'I try to find the truth in every scene, so it was imperative that we have actors who could lead the audience to that truth," he says. 'James Gunn and I worked hard to assemble an amazing cast and I can say, without question, these actors really lifted the level of the film."
Headquartered In Colombia
The Belko Experiment's 30-day shoot began on June 15, 2015, in Bogotá, Colombia. Producer Peter Safran championed the South America nation after hearing positive feedback from filmmaking colleagues. 'All my buddies who have done television series down there for Netflix told me good things about the people and the crews in Colombia," says Peter Safran, who also cites the country's generous tax rebate program as a powerful lure. 'They recently instituted a pretty aggressive tax incentive. And when we went down there to scout, we found incredible locations so it seemed like the perfect place to shoot our movie."
Writer-producer James Gunn also lauds Colombia and its capital city for providing a hospitable work environment. 'Bogotá's a wonderful place with wonderful people," he says. 'The whole country has made incredible strides forward in the past 20 years."
Bogotá is located in the center of the Colombia, seven hours from Los Angeles by plane. At an average altitude of 8,660 feet above sea level, the city's 6.7 million inhabitants enjoy a climate that is comfortably cool year-round. Greg McLean, who doesn't speak Spanish and had never filmed in Colombia prior to tackling The Belko Experiment, describes the experience as a major revelation. 'The Americans loved filming in Colombia because it's such an amazing place," says the director. 'We had a very smart crew. We spent a lot of time there meeting and casting great actors who were crucial in creating the reality of the story. Everyone there was very focused on making a great film."
The Office Building From Hell
Although the action unfolds almost entirely within a single fictional setting, the actual Belko Industries campus was stitched together from seven different locations by production designer Carlos Osorio and his team. 'The office building is like the brain where everything happens," Osorio says. 'We saw a lot of buildings before filming began and looked at a lot of offices but in the end we designed our own lobby to interact with all the other locations. When somebody exits out of an emergency door, the stairs, the rooftop or the office, they all come back to the same lobby. It was complicated but in the end I feel like we came up with a design that gave us great continuity."
Art director César Montoya envisioned Belko Industries' seemingly benign headquarters, complete with 'Bringing the World Together" signage, in bland colors that would stand in stark contrast to the impending bloodshed. 'Since it's a corporate institution, we went with monochromatic tones," says Cesar Montoya.
'By using shades of blue, grey, white and black for the furnishings, it really made the blood pop." The neutral tones extended to the wardrobe crafted by costume designer Camila Olarte Suárez. Before production began, she did research by visiting branch offices of several international corporations in Bogotá. 'We wanted to see how people working at a foreign company in Colombia really dress," says Camila Olarte Suarez.
'What we found was that many companies have special uniforms, so we decided to establish a dress code for Belko Industries that each employee had to adhere to." Camila Olarte Suarez and her team custom-tailored about 70 percent of the costumes from scratch including the no-frills skirts and blouses worn by all female employees. To match the slightly sinister uniformity expressed within Belko's corporate environment, visualeffects supervisor Andre Bustanoby oversaw exteriors, including the 'lockdown" sequence in which the entire cube-shaped headquarters becomes sheathed in plate metal. 'All the characters are encased in this massive multi-story office building that essentially becomes their prison," Andre Bustanoby says.
'When audiences see this film, we want them to be immersed in this narrow area, inside and outside the building, which ultimately leads to the climax of the film."
With the backdrop of the no-frills office building, the filmmakers took pains to make the carnage as dramatic as possible. 'Just like the building itself, blood is very much part of The Belko Experiment story," says visual-effects supervisor André Bustanoby. 'We had to ask ourselves, how does the blood look on somebody's skin? How does it fly through the air? How red should it be? How dark? How does the blood feel in a brightly lit room versus a dark office? These are all things we had to think about in order to make the blood feel like a visceral reality."
The filmmakers used 'practical" fake blood as a starting point, and then enhanced the crimson fluids with digital sleight of hand. 'We wanted to create this explosive energy whenever someone gets the top of his head blown off," Andre Bustanoby explains. 'One way we did that was by filming blood against a green screen. Capturing blood digitally gave us the control during post-production to place the blood within digital layers of desks, buildings, behind or in front of someone " wherever we needed it to go."
The gruesome death scenes also required special attention from the effects team. For the first part of the process, Andre Bustanoby and his team made life casts of actors from silicone rubber. 'Once we had an exact replica of an actor's face, we sculpted expressions onto it," Andre Bustanoby says. 'From there, we put animatronics inside the head so we could -puppeteer' facial expressions." Manipulating movements via remote control, VFX artists seamlessly fused flesh-and-blood actors with their mechanized doppelgangers. 'A lot of people die in different horrendous ways. Our job was to figure out clever methods to make that happen in an organic way without sacrificing emotional impact."
The Belko Experiment raises questions about corporate culture, surveillance and manipulation through fear. 'I'd like people who see this movie to think about who they are, what they are, and how they treat others," James Gunn says. 'I want The Belko Experiment to stimulate conversations: Are you a Mike? A Leandra? A Norris? And finally, I'd love for audiences to appreciate how The Belko Experiment is different from other horror movies. Yes, it may be harsher to watch and, yes, it might have more humor, but I think what truly sets this movie apart is its compassion for the characters."
Director Greg McLean believes moviegoers will be enthralled by The Belko Experiment's immersive blend of human drama and high-concept mayhem. 'I love horror, fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers because these genres take you to a different place and show you something you'd never see in real life," he says. 'The Belko Experiment is essentially rooted in realism and fear, which comes from having believable characters. More than anything, I'm interested in stories that have emotional impact, and I believe The Belko Experiment does a very good job of delivering that."
The Belko Experiment
Release Date: September 21st, 2017