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Arrow Video FrightFest 2021 interview: Mike Manning opens up about bringing ‘Slapface’ to the big screen

The actor and producer talks to us about his new film.

Mike Manning
Credit: Shudder

Actor and producer Mike Manning is very hands-on with his latest project, the horror film ‘Slapface‘ directed by Jeremiah Kipp.

For the film Manning takes on the lead role of Tom and he also produces the film. Prior to ‘Slapface’, Manning has been very active in the industry and has won two Daytime Emmy Awards for his work on the ‘The Bay’. He’s also produced documentaries such as ‘Lost In America’, shining a light on the homeless youth in the US.

I spoke with Mike following ‘Slapface’ screening at Arrow Video FrightFest to discuss how he brought the project to the big screen, talk about the challenges of wearing different hats while making the film, and to delve into his character Tom…

As you know from our conversations prior to this interview, I’m a little bit obsessed with this film…

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I put my heart and soul into this film as an actor and as a producer. It was really the first time that I had done something like this – taken on a producer role, finding the scripts, packaging the movie, seeing it through all the way through, and then also acting in it with a large role. I was very nervous going into it and the fact that it’s being received so well by you and others is really, really sweet. It means a lot to me.

How did you come to get involved with ‘Slapface’ and what was the journey like to bring it to the big screen?

I found the script through Joe Benedetto, a producer in New York. Joe and I had worked together on another project. I had produced this movie called ‘MFA’ a couple of years prior and it premiered at SXSW, it won a bunch of awards and it did really well. It was a genre of film, a horror thriller, so I reached out to Joe and I said, ‘I had success with this other movie ‘MFA’. I’m looking specifically for a horror/thriller’. When I find projects, I like projects that transcend the genre, obviously having commercial success and if it’s a horror, having those scares. I like movies that say something and that’s what I told Joe. He connected me with Jeremiah, who wrote and directed ‘Slapface’. Originally the script was between a father and a son. Jeremiah grew up in upstate New York and he spent a lot of time with his grandparents and a lot of time watching horror movies. That was the reason behind him creating ‘Slapface’.

It was a father-son story and I reached out to Jeremiah and I said, ‘I don’t want to put any pressure on you. I want this to be completely your decision. How much more heartbreaking would it be if this was a story between two brothers instead, and if it wasn’t an abusive father, but it was a brother, not abusing his kid brother, but doing it because he feels like that is the correct thing to do. That is how to discipline him. That is how to be a good role model because that’s what he learned from his father’. He called me the next day and said, ‘Mike, you’re right. I’ll make the changes’ and I said, ‘well you know I want to play Tom right?’ and he goes, ‘yes, absolutely’ (laughs). Kudos to Jeremiah, every time I’ve asked him to do something creatively, he comes back and he just amazes me. It was that same way through the writing process, through the directing process, through even scoring the film. I paired him with a composer and what they would come back with was just amazing every single time. Jeremiah was just a godsend to me for this particular project (in terms of) who I wanted to work with creatively.

Slapface
Credit: Shudder

I said this to Jeremiah when we spoke recently but what really connected with me was the bullying aspect of the story. I could relate to Lucas because I was bullied as a child so that part of the story resonated so strongly with me…

That goes back to wanting the film to say something and we really wanted to lean into the bullying aspect because that’s something that a lot of people (are affected by). The reason that we go to the cinema is for that escapism and to go and forget about our lives for two hours or whatever, but also to see ourselves in these characters. I think that any young person or somebody that had experience of bullying, can watch this movie and understand exactly what Lucas is going through. We just struck gold with August. The reason that we liked him for this is because we knew that he was professional and that he could carry a movie because he was on the Disney series, ‘Girl Meets World’. He also understood the genre because he was in ‘The Nun’. It was the perfect amalgamation of the type of actor that we’re looking for and he just blew us away. He showed up on set and he just brought such a tenderness and the pain that (Lucas) was feeling was so truthful. He did that every single day, every single take and he was just a rock star. I have a little brother, I’m the oldest of three, so it was easier to step into that world with August because he was so good, so truthful and so committed, that I felt like for a lot of the scenes that we were shooting it wasn’t acting, which is a really nice place to be. It was just being and caring about him and being the older brother. That’s what I think you see on screen. You see that relationship and that tenderness and the chemistry. I think in a large part that’s because of August.

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There’s a lot of character development in this film too. We really get under the skin of not only Lucas but your character Tom. Was that appealing to you to be able to show such a range as an actor?

That’s what first made me fall in love with the character and the story. I’ve been in L.A. now for 11 years and I feel like for a large part of my career, I would be cast as the boy next door or the jock, or the frat guy. Work is work and I’m not going to complain about it but for me, I saw this film as an opportunity to play a character that I wasn’t the obvious choice for, and a character that had that depth and had that range and would show those levels throughout the course of filming. I saw this as an opportunity as an actor to show that and showcase that skill set. I love playing these types of characters. I love playing complex, broken characters. The thing that I love about Tom is that deep down he has a good heart. He’s genuinely trying. He’s an alcoholic, he’s mean and he abuses his younger brother, but at the end of the day he’s trying so hard. For the audience, it would be my hope that people are still rooting for him, and they’re still rooting that these brothers make it, that they are there for each other and that they heal. That’s what I think is special about Tom in the story that Jeremiah made, he’s all the things (I mentioned) but you still are rooting for him to wake up and to succeed and to be a good father figure to his brother. That’s what made me fall in love with the character.

That’s how I felt about Tom. While I didn’t condone his behaviour, I could understand it and I was rooting for him while watching the film. Your performance is so perfectly played, surely this is going to open some big doors for you?

I hope so. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I thought for a second that I was going to go into politics because of my time on ‘Real World’. When living in Washington, DC and lobbying Congress, I thought that I was going to go into politics. When I chose Los Angeles and I chose entertainment, I needed to scratch that itch as an activist and as somebody that cared about certain social issues so I started producing documentaries. The first documentary I produced was about child abuse happening in reform camps. It was a situation where I met the director, we had coffee and she said, ‘look, I have all this footage, I don’t know what to do with it’. I said, ‘I don’t know how to produce, but let’s figure it out’. We ended up selling to Showtime and at the same time I had just finished a Disney movie so people had started reaching out to me as an actor and as a producer.

Slapface
Credit: Shudder

Ever since then it’s been this balancing act of trying to navigate the two and for a while I tried to pick one or the other. I was like, ‘I just want to produce, I really want to lean into this because I have some momentum over here’. Acting is hard. It’s all based on rejection and waiting by the phone for a job. I didn’t want to do it anymore but then something would happen where I really want to do (an actign project). What I’ve discovered, since then is that I don’t have to choose. Some of the greatest actors that I respect are also doing both they. When they’re committed to a role in somebody else’s film, they are committed 100% but in the meantime there is a power in creating stories. I’ve produced movies that I haven’t been in at all.

I produced this movie called ‘Jinn’ and it was coming of age story about a young black girl who is discriminated against not because of the fact that she’s black in America, but her mother converts to Islam. Being most being Muslim in America, is why she’s discriminated against. It was mostly a black cast so my face had no place in that story but this is a story that needed to be told so as a producer I wanted to tell the story. That’s how I’ve sort of navigated it. At the end of the day, I’m a storyteller. There are some stories that I read and I fall in love with and there’s a place for me in that world, and there are stories that I read and I fall in love with and there’s not a place for me in that world. Both both are OK.

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What were the challenges of having to juggle so many roles on ‘Slapface’?

It’s gonna be a bit before I do something like ‘Slapface’ again. At that point I had just been a producer and then maybe had like a small cameo or two, or just been an actor. I had never done both to that extent at the same time. I think I lost years of my life by not sleeping on ‘Slapface’. There was one day, as an example of balancing the right brain/left brain creative and logistical, we’re driving the crew van. It’s August, myself, some other actors and the crew and everybody, and we’re driving to this location up the hill because we shot in upstate New York. The woods shots we shot where we were staying as well. We were staying in this place called Willow Lakes so for half the shoot, we would just wake up and walk to set, which was amazing.

This day, we’re driving this 15 passenger van and it rained so we were driving down this muddy trail. The van gets stuck and I’m driving it. The more that I’m hitting the gas, the more it’s sinking. Someone was like, ‘oh shit, we have to stay on schedule’ so we said, ‘OK, everybody we’re gonna shoot this shot at the end of the day. Let’s flip the schedule. Everybody go to the house and get ready and let’s keep shooting and keep filming to make our day’. Everybody else leaves and I’m stuck there with this van trying to dig it out of the mud. I’m on my hands and knees with mud everywhere – under my fingernails, on my shirt, on my clothes – digging and putting branches out. Finally this neighbor, God bless him, comes out and helps me get the van out of the mud. After 30 minutes of doing this, I drive the van back to set, I walk inside, I have mud all over me and they’re like, ‘Mike, so sorry but you have to shoot in 15 minutes’. I was overwhelmed and I was tired. I washed myself off a little bit and I told Jeremiah, ‘I am so exhausted right now, I don’t know how this is gonna go but let’s just see what happens’. To his credit, he said, ‘Look Mike just do the best you can and we’ll see what happens’.

It was the scene where Tom confronts Lucas and (my character) backhands him and he falls on the couch, and we scream at each other. After that I grabbed him and I hug him and I hold him close, and then we have a moment. That wasn’t scripted. That was a result of me just being tired and fatigued, and also just wanting a hug in that moment. I was very nervous about shooting that scene because I was just so exhausted but it’s one of my favourite moments in the film, where you finally see this older brother at the end of his rope doing the best he can. (August and I) had formed that relationship on set where there was the trust, and there was the space to be creative, and there was the space to take risks. I knew that even if I messed up, it was okay and we just went for it.

Mike Manning in 'Slapface'
Credit: Shudder

The film also really highlights the cyclical nature of bullying and delves into the fact that bullies often bully people as a result of themselves being bullied…

That’s exactly right. Tom learned slapface from his father and his father was an alcoholic. Yes, he is abusing his brother, but he’s doing it because he was himself abused by their father. In their minds when bullies are bullying, especially when they’re younger, they don’t realize that they’re inflicting the same pain that they themselves have experienced and gone through. I’m glad you picked up on that because that was something that Jeremiah put into the script very purposefully and I hope audiences take that away. I hope people watch this film and think to themselves, am I a bully? I hope that it makes them think about bullying and evaluate their own lives and check in and say, ‘am I involved in a situation like this where I can possibly stand up for somebody or be there for somebody or listen to somebody and help somebody possibly going through grief or loss or abuse?’ some of these things that Lucas is going through.

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The way the film handles the abuse element is so beautifully done because Tom is called out on it and he has no idea how to react. He’s shocked that the accusation has been levelled at him…

Exactly. That’s what happens, right? We’re always the heroes in our own story and if something happens it’s somebody else’s fault. In Tom’s mind, he’s not an alcoholic, he’s a great big brother, he’s not abusive and he’s doing everything right. Then this outsider comes in and looks around at this mess and says, ‘this is not OK. This is not how you should be living’ and it’s the first time that Tom’s been confronted like that.

‘Slapface’ was part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2021 in August and is showing at GrimmFest on 14th October 2021. It will be coming to Shudder in 2022.

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