‘Slice’ Director Austin Vesely on Beer, Pizza and Working with Chance the RapperSeptember 10, 2018
Pizza, murder and werewolves: That’s the premise of director Austin Vesely’s first feature film, Slice, starring Chance the Rapper, Zazie Beetz and Paul Scheer. Set in Kingfisher, a fictional town conjured on the outskirts of Chicago, Slice tells the story of slain pizza delivery drivers and the hunt for their murderer. In a Hitchcockian fashion, Vesely makes a cameo in his own movie, acting as the first pizza delivery boy to have his throat slit.
It’s no surprise that Chance the Rapper made his acting debut, other than starring in Vice’s 2015 short "Mr. Happy", with longtime friend and collaborator Austin Vesely. Vesely has been producing quality music videos out of Chicago since the era of Kids These Days; a vital Chicago group featuring Vic Mensa and other members Nico Segal & Stix that went on to form Chance’s Social Experiment band. Vesely was the brain behind a multitude of Chance’s music videos such as “Brain Cells”, “Everybody’s Something” and “Angels”.
Vesely caught the attention of A24 film group early on after releasing the concept art in Chicago Redeye in 2015. With the promotional poster being the only tangible fragment of the movie, the film group behind Moonlight, Ex Machina and Lady Bird decided to wholly back the young director for his first major undertaking.
I met Vesely at Longman & Eagle, a popular spot in the director’s own Logan Square neighborhood, which is notorious for its $1 PBRs on Monday nights. To both of our disappointment, Half Acre’s Animal Law was tapped out. So, I went with a cloudy and tropical IPA called Son of Juice from Logan Square’s Maplewood Brewery. Austin opted for a rising staple in the Chicago craft beer scene, Pipeworks’ Ninja vs. Unicorn.
Where is your favorite spot to have a beer in Chicago?
The place I go most often is probably Boiler Room. I love to get the PB&J deal. You get a shot, a beer and a slice of pizza. I like to just sit there and watch movies on silent.
What’s your go-to local brewery?
Half Acre is probably my favorite. I’m a big fan of Daisy Cutter. I like Lagunitas a lot, too. They were only in California and then came to Chicago. They appeared on the scene and then were just everywhere.
If you could have a beer with anyone that has ever lived, who would it be?
Definitely Stanley Kubrick.
I like Stanley Kubrick [as a director] the most, because of how diverse he was in what he took on. He was making something that was a comedic satire with nuclear war with Dr. Strangelove. He made 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is more like a piece of music than a film, but revolutionized film visuals. Then, he jumped back and made A Clockwork Orange, which is sort of punk-rock, smaller and weirder. He tackled a lot of stuff that I thought was interesting. The director who is living that I like the most is Paul Thomas Anderson, for a lot of the same reasons. He can make Magnolia and then make Punch-Drunk Love next, and I love that. Then, he makes something like Phantom Thread, which I feel like was really misunderstood. It’s like a romantic comedy, but it’s just not telegraphing the jokes. I think that’s cool, because it pushes the genre of what a comedy can be or what it should be. People will get that soon. Read it as jokes and it’s a totally different film.
What is the perfect beer to pair with a slice of pizza?
Just a classic Old Style works for me. I don’t get too picky about the pairing, because I really don’t even get that picky about the pizza.
How did you get your start in filmmaking?
It was always a lifelong hobby and something I was always interested in. At the end of high school, it was kind of that time to be making a decision about what I wanted to do with my life. At the time, I was really politically motivated. By then, Barack Obama was running for President. I was canvassing and doing all of that. At the time, I was going to go into journalism, which felt like a creative avenue into politics. I went to the University of Iowa for journalism, but started taking film classes, because that’s what I was actually really into. I thought, ‘I should at least actually give this a shot.’ So, I moved to Chicago. I’ve been here for about eight years now.
At what point did you realize you were going to devote your life to filmmaking?
Not to disparage journalism because, obviously, it’s really super important at a time like this, but for me it wasn’t the creative outlet I wanted it to be. I kind of realized that my perception of being a journalist was really actually informed by movies about journalists. I think Robert Downey Jr. in Zodiac is like the coolest dude you know, but journalism isn’t really that. So I think it was taking those classes and just starting to make stuff. When you’re taking film classes, you’re making stuff all the time. I was thinking at the time, ‘Oh man, this is fun. This is the thing that really motivates me.’
What was the first project that you put out?
The thing that I first really worked on as a film was in high school. Me and Elijah Alvarado made a short film together for our school’s end-of-the-year festival, to which only like two or three films were submitted. We won! That was the first one where it was like me and another person operating the camera, and there was a script and stuff. We were really trying to make a ‘film.’
What was the first music video you ever shot?
The first one I made myself and directed was for Vic Mensa and Nico Segal for the song “Clear Eyes”. They had done a video they didn’t like and I was really into the idea of doing tilt shift at the time. It’s this way of shooting something and doing a focus effect that makes real places look tiny. I pitched that idea to them, and they were way into it. It was my first one for these two straight-up Chicago guys—one from the North Side, one from the South Side. We were just driving around together in Nico’s busted- ass car finding good- looking Chicago places, because Chicago was the star of the film. It ended up being this lovely homage to Chicago in the fall.
The idea of Slice is absolutely bizarre. When and how did that concept come about?
It first started to germinate like six years ago or so. It was sort of just a note I had written in a notebook. I think I was drunk at the time, and was just like, ‘Pizza gets ordered to people’s houses. Drivers get murdered.’ I kind of just left it alone. Elijah was talking about doing a horror short film festival, where we just get all the people we know who make movies to submit a little short, horror thing. I had this idea about pizza or whatever, and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you should write that, and we’ll make that for the thing.’ So, I went ahead and wrote it, and of course, we never did the festival, but I had this little script and I liked the idea. I sat on it for about a year initially and then was like, ‘Ok, there’s something here.’
Did you know it was going to wind up being this colossal feature film?
Man, no. To write something of that scale that was going to have a budget, cast and crew, it was kind of a pipe dream really. I was writing it more for my benefit than anything else. I never expected it to be an A24 movie with this star-studded cast. All this stuff that was just amazing twists and turns that happened along the process.
A24 is by far a leading film studio right now. How was it working with them?
It was great because right out of the gate, it was obvious that they weren’t trying to make it an ‘A24’ movie. They wanted me to make my movie and put it out. They were going to help me make it the way I wanted to make it. That was really cool, because they were more or less hands off, except when we wanted or needed help, which was really nice. They were excited about empowering.
What’s your favorite A24 movie?
Tough. I was really into Swiss Army Man and Good Time. I’ve watched Green Room like five times and it still gets me on the edge of my seat.
How did you go about assembling your team, from the cast to the crew?
The core three people who were the earliest to be involved would have been Elijah Alvarado, Brandon Riley and Chance. I’ve been working with Chance on music videos and stuff for seven years or something now. In 2014, when I started adapting it into a feature, I was talking to him and was like, ‘Hey man, would you wanna be a part of this if I were ever able to make it?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever you need.’ Elijah’s always just sort of been my creative conscious. He’s a person I can bounce stuff off of and he’s been doing that since high school with me, so it’s comfortable. Brandon had rented a camera for me on a Kids These Days video, and we got along right away. He’s such a great business person, which is something I’m less good at.
After that, A24 came on and there were great people there who were there advocating for us. The casting thing was something A24 was really big on helping out with. We had a local casting here with a company called PR Casting, which brought in the most incredible Chicago talent. We then had a New York-based casting director who was giving us options for L.A. and New York actors. That’s how Zazie Beetz, Paul Scheer and Chris Parnell came along. Wildly, I think one of the last additions was Joe Keery, who came through our Chicago office, because he had been here doing stuff with his band Post Animal.
What was it like to work with the composer Ludwig Göransson on the score at the same time he was working on the Black Panther soundtrack?
Totally crazy. We were talking to a couple of people but this was an idea Pat Corcoran [Chance’s manager] brought in and he’s like ‘Hey, have you thought about Ludwig?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve THOUGHT about it.’ Almost right away, we got him on the phone. He watched the movie, and at that point, we kind of had a working cut that had a lot of John Carpenter temp tracks. He was like, ‘We should do something like this, but make it distinct and update it a little bit.’ He wanted to use all these analog synths and real old-school stuff that I don’t know enough about, but I know it sounds good.
I went to L.A. to sit down with Ludwig in October of 2017. He had one big room where he had the temporary visual effects of Black Panther, like the wire frames up on the monitor and he’s showing us all the cool drum stuff he learned when he traveled to Africa for that score. There was one thing that will always stick with me. See, the talking drum is this thing he used a lot. The pressure put on it changes the pitch. He says that in certain villages, there’s not a word for musician, it’s just storyteller, and there’s certain rhythms you can do that sends certain messages to the community. He brought in real talking drum players, so there’s stuff that they’re playing that we don’t understand what it is, but it’s relevant to the story. I’m listening to this and just thinking like, ‘That is so next level.’
Let’s talk about Chicago a bit. What makes Chicago’s atmosphere so special for a young filmmaker?
I think the basis of it is that I’m a Midwest dude. I’m originally from northwestern Illinois, from a really small town where of like 800 to 900 people. I moved around a lot. My dad worked for the army. Chicago was my first impression of what a city really was. Coming and working here, I found this music community that was really vibrant and more vital than any other arts community I’ve ever been around. Being able to find a place in that was really meaningful and conducive to making more and better work, while sort of pursuing this other career quietly. Making the movie here was incredible. We shot it in Joliet. The thing about doing something like that is that you can make an independent film that has a lot of scope, because people have your back. There’s a little bit less cynicism I think in a place like Chicago.
What do you want people to get out of Slice?
I just hope people have a good time with it. I hope it’s something they can have fun with. The true goal is to just go and have a good time.