As hustling psychic detective Shawn Spencer on USA’s Psych, James Roday got to play in almost every possible sandbox thanks to the show’s many themed episodes and its ability to pull elements from multiple genres. But as a filmmaker, Roday seems laser focused on being a part of a fresh revolution in the horror genre. With Gravy, his first effort as a director on a feature film, he begins that push. (Roday previously directed eight episodes of Psych and an episode of Battle Creek.) A gory invasion film, Gravy features a clever script, a well-curated soundtrack, some well-known actors (Sarah Silverman, Paul Rodriguez) and a few faces that will be familiar to Psych fans (Jimmi Simpson, Michael Weston, and both Roday and Dule Hill all make appearances).
Here the director and co-writer of Gravy talks about trying not to go crazy when thinking up ways to kill people on screen, why he chose not to star in the film, his thoughts on balancing a career as an actor and a director, and the chances we’ll see more Psych in the future.
What films did you pull inspiration from?
I would say the two that drove the way we structured the movie and the way we attacked it the most were Funny Games and American Psycho. Funny Games, because I think it is the quintessential home-invasion movie, or in our case, restaurant invasion. And then American Psycho, because tonally, I think that was sort of the closest to what we wanted to accomplish that we could come up with.
How do you, personally, get into the head space to construct what are some pretty innovative kills? Tell me about the pressure to be original in that way.
Yeah, you can make yourself crazy trying to come up with kills. But, it’s also one of the most fun elements of making a genre movie. I think for us, our priority was, let’s write the best movie we can and we can always spend two weeks thinking of kills once we knew we know we have a pretty good script.
There were early drafts of the script where it was just like, “when Hector dies” or whatever. And then we kind of went back and filmed some of the kills around the scenes. Then also, we were somewhat limited by how much money we had and that forces you to be creative too.
All of the effects in the movie are practical and prosthetic. The margin for error was pretty much zero and on our schedule with our budget, we knew we were basically gonna get one shot and that’s it.
The majority of the prep was just planning the gags and making sure that they were as close to perfect as they could possibly be before we would roll the camera. Luckily Howard Berger over at KNB sort of took pity on my tiny little movie and stepped up in a huge, huge way, which gave me so much confidence that we were going to be okay.
Obviously you worked with Jimmi Simpson and Michael Weston before. Were those parts written with them in mind or did that just come together?
The movie was written about 10 years ago with nobody in mind, really. It took us so long to get the movie made that there were a lot of casts that kind of came and went. People were cast for a little while and either outgrew their roles — like, literally got too old for them — or went on to do other things.
Mike and Jimmi were on the most-recent incarnation… I would say probably two years or so they were locked in as those two guys and I felt pretty confident that if we got to make the movie those two would stick, because they’re also two of my best friends and they really didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Was there ever a thought for you to star in it?
Well, you know, I directed some television up until that point but it was my first feature. And you really do want to take the best swing that you can with the first movie, and it just seemed unnecessary to play a big role and add that to the list of responsibilities. That’s not to say that it’s not right for other people, but it just didn’t feel right to me.
I wanted to be able to sort of micromanage every aspect of making this film and have no excuses at all if it didn’t turn out well. And the only way I could do that was by not pulling double duty. So, that was my approach.
Do you feel like at some point you’re going to have to transition to focus more wholly on writing and directing or do you think you can still juggle both for a while?
Good question, man. That’s kind of precisely where I am. It’s hard to be equally passionate about everything. I mean, you say that because you feel guilty saying that you like one more than the other… especially since this business is incredibly fickle and you’re just lucky to be employed, period. But I think you kind of have to know what you would rather be doing and that kind of has to drive what direction you actually go in.
I’ve been acting for a while and I have been incredibly lucky and it has been a good run, but directing is something that I have always, always, always known that I wanted to do and I take that seriously. And new opportunities are starting to pop up now for me to direct and it kind of feels like that’s probably what I should be doing, at least for now. Does that mean that acting kind of moves to the periphery a little bit? I think it has to in order for you to put everything you have into the directing thing.
You got to be really honest with yourself and know what you want to do and you have to pursue that with sort of everything. If you’re gonna stay in no man’s land and try to keep yourself available and open to everything you’re probably selling yourself short a little bit in terms of what your real potential is.
I want to become a better director, I want to keep directing. In order to do that, I may have to choose a directing project that, at least on paper, doesn’t feel quite as exciting as an acting gig that’s sitting over here that I could also do. You’ve gotta make choices and hope they’re the right ones.
Some of the Psych episodes that you directed, like “Nightmare on State Street” and “Heeeeere’s Lassie,” were horror-themed. Gravy is a horror film, Skin Walkers is a horror film: Is that where you want to primarily focus your attentions or are you open to doing straight-up comedies and dramas?
I’m definitely open. I grew up as an only child and a fan of cinema; I grew up romanced by movies. But I have to say, horror is in my blood and I would probably feel less obligated to stay in that lane if I thought there was more good horror happening. But because I don’t necessarily feel that way, I do think that I want to sort of be one of the guys who is out there doing justice to the genre. Because of that, I suspect I will stay in this lane for a while.
With more serious horror or with comedy-horror like Gravy?
I think both. I think they’re both tricky. I think comedy-horror is especially tricky. Generally, the success is marginalized because you either hit the comedy or you hit the horror, but I think generally hitting both is a really tough tightrope to walk. Even with something like Gravy, we did sort of put it in order [of] comedy first, horror second, so we didn’t make ourselves crazy.
But, straight horror is, you know, I was raised on that stuff and I think there is only so many haunted whatever movies that you can watch regardless of how well crafted and well executed they are before you just say, “Well guys, this is great, but what?” Someone has to have another idea. Like, they must. Someone has got to have something else. I think that is part of the challenge. And I think a lot of guys and gals are trying to crack it with varying degrees of success and it’s exciting to be in a position to maybe take a shot at that.
Is there a possibility that we might get a Psych movie at some point? I know that when the show went off the air it seemed like the window [for a TV movie] was open for that a little bit. Has there been any discussion about that since the show went off the air?
You know, a lot that stuff happens way above my pay grade, but I can tell you that the interest is there from all the people that would make that decision and the cast absolutely adores one another; so, you wouldn’t have to twist anybody’s arm to make it happen.
I think it’s mostly a matter of timing, schedules, and money — which is kind of what it always is. There is certainly no resistance to the idea. It’s just a matter of finding that sweet spot where they have been gone for long enough but not too long. Where the interest is still there and the fans still want it and you really want to strike at the perfect time. I think that is what most of the discussions have been about.
Gravy opens in select theaters on Oct. 2 and will be available on-demand and on DVD and Blu-ray October 6 via Shout! Factory.