In THE MILL, a businessman (Lil Rel Howery) wakes up beside an ancient grist mill situated in the center of an open-air prison cell with no idea how he got there. Forced to work as a beast of burden to stay alive, he must find a way to escape before the birth of his child.
Ahead of the start of Huluween, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Sarah Musnicky chatted with director Sean King O’Grady. During their conversation, they discussed how THE MILL had everything O’Grady wanted to tackle, crafting a practical set that blurred the past and how playing into the absurdism in the script was the only way to go.
I finished watching THE MILL and man, isn’t that just the darndest, timeliest thing? [laughs]
Sean King O’Grady: Yeah, we didn’t know that it would be. [laughs] It was kind of like the themes of the movie were starting to unfold in real life as we were making it.
What initially drew you to this project outside of the crushing grip of capitalism and having to pay bills and stuff?
Sean King O’Grady: Mostly that, but I was looking for a very specific movie. There were like eight things that I was looking to do. I wanted it to still be a science fiction thriller. I wanted it to be contained. There were certain elements that I wanted to deal with. Obviously, AI was something I was really interested in, and I was talking to my producing partner, and he was like, Dude, you’re not gonna believe this. I have actually read a script that does all of these things. Let me see if it’s available.
So he called Jeff [David Thomas], the writer, and they said that the script was available. They sent it to me that night. I read it and completely lost my mind. It was everything that I had been thinking for years and wanting to do and wanting to execute in a really cinematic way. It was all there on this page. It wasn’t a movie that I wanted to make. It was one that I absolutely had to make.
I think we all can relate to all the messaging in the film, particularly about the work-life balance and sort of selling your soul to our capitalist overlords, for lack of better terms. There’s such a distinctive, visual aesthetic to the world of THE MILL. You have the new technology, but also going back to the pre-industrial wheel and grindstone. What was it like creating the visual aesthetic of this world?
Sean King O’Grady: I’m glad you picked up on that. We were seeking to intentionally create this anachronistic environment where all the elements felt a little off from one another. I think that what’s really incorporated there is that it’s an AI’s vision of all these different, essentially, tools that humanity has built. And AI itself is a tool that humanity has built.
My production designer whom I always worked with Amy [Williams], is unbelievable and developed this space that touched on all those things, and really literalized what we were trying to do conceptually. And it was real. That space was very real. Those were 18-foot walls. It was 15,000 pounds of concrete. It was real dirt. Everything was actually physically constructed, and when we were in that set, you were actually trapped in it. It was a really wild experience.
I’m sure that added to the overwhelming atmosphere, that claustrophobic atmosphere that you get from watching the film, too.
Sean King O’Grady: Yeah, absolutely. It definitely helps. When that door opened and you couldn’t walk out, you really wanted to get out of there.
Lil Rel is fabulous in THE MILL and is so inherently comedic. He doesn’t have to do much to just naturally lighten things up. What was it creating that balance between the lightheartedness that he just naturally exudes and the more serious nature of what’s going on in your direction?
Sean King O’Grady: There’s a long history of people who are actors are primarily known for their comedic performances, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and people who have been doing incredible dramatic turns. I think if you are a really talented, comedic actor, and you want to apply that to drama, I think you can do it. I think the comedy is just incredibly hard and underrated in a lot of ways in terms of how difficult it is to perform and to create a connection to audiences and human emotion. So, I knew that he could do this.
It was funny, because the movie itself, the world of the movie, the world of Mallard, you’ve got this guy that is playing this zero-sum game, where someone lives or dies every single day. And the overlord of this thing is this cartoon duck. And so, the absurdism is inherent. There was never an intentional balancing act between comedy and drama or horror, because all those things were in there and happening concurrently. So, it just worked really well.
It provided that tether to the audience. Because I think without him being so likable and so naturally funny, it could have gotten super dark. And again, that balance wouldn’t have been there.
Sean King O’Grady: There’s a version of this movie that I think could have been melodrama even, but I think it works a lot better when it’s this absurdist sort of tale. And I think that it really is. lt’s primarily a one-person performance. There are other actors who are incredible were incredible and did great jobs and had their own challenges in doing that but knowing that this is Rel onscreen the entire movie, if that actor doesn’t bring something absolutely incredible, the movie just doesn’t work.
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