Rob Matsushita’s bloodlust sometimes seems insatiable, but never without purpose. In Massacre: The Musical, a film that Will Gartside adapted from Matsushita’s short musical Discordia’s Sunshine Death, the violence offers a grotesque contrast to the gleeful music and goofy humor throughout. Most recently, the insanely bloody action sequences in the web series Chapel that Matsushita created along with Emily Mills, who plays the drug-dealing title character, serve as the visceral hook into a story that dives much deeper than just its blood-splattered surface. Before the first season, containing episodes A-J, wraps up later this month, The A.V. Club spoke with Matsushita about how Chapel began, the fun in killing your friends, and faking decapitations.
The A.V. Club: Chapel started out as a short film entry for Wis-Kino. When did you realize that it would work as a series?
Rob Matsushita: Some of it happened by accident. The second one that we did [“Distracted”] happened as a result of Emily [Mills] and I and two other Wis-Kino filmmakers, Sam Lawson and Josh Klessig, going on a road trip to Louisville for the Louisville Kino. On our way there, we were discussing what the movie was going to be. I mentioned, “Well, you know Emily, you’re here, why don’t we do a sequel to that one?” And then it was also because, eh, Emily’s here and she can act, and she had [on] essentially the same thing she had been wearing in the previous one, which is sort of her wardrobe, her general iconic look.
Then after the second one we decided, “Lets try another one,” and then after the third one, for a long time afterward we kicked around the idea of doing one of these a month. You know, let’s try and see if we can shoot it in three days, go with that rule. And that rule has since gone by the wayside. There are some things you just can’t help. But it was right around when we did “Extremed” that we realized that we had found a formula that we liked, and this was an opportunity for all of us to do things that we wanted to do. I wanted to do a series that was about a criminal anti-hero, and Emily liked the idea that she’s not typically what a female-driven drama series main character looks like. And that was something that has always driven the show, that when you hear “female-driven crime drama,” you immediately assume it’s going to be a blonde in Ray-Bans with huge boobs. That’s the image that comes to my mind. Maybe I don’t reflect what America thinks. Basically it comes down to Chapel being a series we do because it’s an excuse for all of us to work with our friends and kill them.
AVC: The style differences between the three short films and the rest of the episodes are pretty distinct. What did you do differently once you started shooting the series?
RM: With every episode that we’ve done, we’ve learned something new. As far as the difference between shooting “Complicated” and shooting the last episode, “Handcuffed,” it’s kind of night and day. Now we have a whole process. We actually care about whether or not you can hear me breathing on the vocal track. It’s funny because sometimes, when I’m putting together the “Previously On Chapel,” there are some scenes that I try to cut around because I don’t have the source material to re-edit them. Like for instance, a good example would be when [the character] Detective Porter gets decapitated at the end of “Complicated,” which was my first time ever attempting to do any kind of digital compositing effect and, boy, don’t it look it. And unfortunately, it’s a huge plot point for the whole series. People tend to remember little things like decapitating a narcotics officer. But I never feel comfortable putting it in the “previously’s” because it doesn’t look as good as anything we’ve done since then. A lot of that is due to the fact that for a few of the episodes we had my friend Will Gartside, who is a makeup expert who channels gore makeup. It’s nice to have somebody on the set and that’s all they do. We have one person specifically for blood and gore, and it’s not something that we all have to work out on our own, and that’s exactly what “Complicated” was like.
The opening shot of “Complicated” was supposed to be entirely different. I liked the idea where it looked like Chapel was just resting her head against a wall, and then we see blood rush up the side of the wall, and then the camera turns to the side and we realize that she’s lying in a widening pool of blood. We did that in Emily’s kitchen, which had a divot in the center of it, and that was how we found out her kitchen wasn’t level. We somehow picked the one spot in the floor where liquid would not run if you spilled it on the floor. I still don’t know how that’s even possible.
But now we can find people, particularly my friend Will, that that’s all they do. Like [crew member] Nick [Drake] now runs sound, and typically that’s all he does. Plus, we have a storyline. Back before, we didn’t have that. Chapel wasn’t supposed to exist beyond that first one. And astute viewers will note that the cops are on their way and she has a bullet in her leg, so chances are really good that she’s going back to prison.
AVC: She did seem remarkably healed-up by the second episode.
RM: It’s weird because we talked about that when we shot “Distracted.” We talked about the idea of her walking around with a limp. It’s amazing. On actual, real productions, there are people who handle things like continuity and making sure that you don’t make gigantic mistakes like forgetting your main character took a bullet to the kneecap. And yeah, it’s funny when you’re in the middle of shooting something, particularly something that has a 48-hour deadline, you manage to forget gigantic things and just focus on the story. Plus, we also knew that we were showing it to an audience that probably had not seen the previous one. If you want to talk things characters should not have survived, you need look no further than Kelly Maxwell’s “Burke,” [a Chapel character] who survived two gunshot wounds to the face, one to the shin, and one to the spine. Somehow she’s okay. But she has managed to keep up the limp.
AVC: I hadn’t watched that far yet.
RM: Oh yeah, that’s right. I think I just spoiled it for you.
AVC: Thanks a lot.
RM: Sorry about that.
AVC: I was just going to ask about that. This show is extremely bloody/violent, and that seems like one of the big draws of doing a web series, being able to get away with that. How important is it that the violence is somewhat believable, as opposed to the scene in “Extremed” with a bullet going through someone, ricocheting off the wall, and going back into the person?
RM: That whole story was based around that moment. I always loved the idea of whenever you see someone shoot somebody and they show an exit wound, nobody ever thinks about where that bullet goes. Is it possible? Eh. Crazy shit happens. Will I ever say that Chapel is, to quote the advertisements for The Human Centipede, “100 percent medically accurate”? No, I don’t think I’ll be able to say that.
But I think what you’re asking me is, “Do we have an obligation to keep the blood up?” And the answer is, “I don’t know.” “Handcuffed,” which appears to be a lot of people’s favorite, so far is the least bloody episode, and it’s the one where nobody gets hurt or killed. Oh wait, that’s entirely untrue. But that one, for the most part, is sort of an awkward romantic-comedy. So as far as what the audience wants, and as far as us being concerned about keeping the blood and violence level realistic, I think it’s entirely dependent on the tone of the story we’re telling.
AVC: In that particular episode or overall?
RM: In any particular episode. One of things that we’ve done as we’ve gone along is that we don’t necessarily have a consistent tone throughout every episode. And that’s deliberate. We like the idea, at least I like the idea, of changing what the episode is from time to time. We’re all very inspired by Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel and Veronica Mars, and Emily’s getting me into Xena: Warrior Princess right now. One of the things I’ve noticed, particularly about Xena, is that from episode to episode, it will decide whether or not––and you’ll know right away––this is one that we’re taking seriously or this is one where the punches mean something, where the violence actually means something, or this is one where it’s all about seeing Gabrielle in that cute little outfit. This is one where it’s all about being silly.
[Chapel episode] “Famed,” for instance, is all about running gags, reference humor, name-dropping, and also, to some extent, about us learning how to do pick-up shoots by combining the footage from “Extremed,” which we had shot two years beforehand. That one does have a bloody finish, and I would go so far as to say bloodier than usual, only because there are some times that, like [director] Paul Verhoeven once said, you really have to overdo the blood if you don’t want the audience to take it seriously. You want it so far over the top that the audience knows that you’re just being ridiculous. Less blood, and then it’s almost, on some level, almost more disturbing. We’ve fluctuated back and forth.
The violence in “Battered Pts. 1 & 2” is not meant to be in any way comedic. We tried to handle it realistically, though admittedly with the skateboarding and stunt work there, we were going for a certain amount of spectacle and some show-stopping stuff. But there’s nothing funny about what happens to the character Yvonne. There’s nothing funny about the flashback about what happened to Chapel. There’s nothing meant to be amusing about any of that, and that was our challenge. And that was more about the source material that Emily had written, because those episodes were based on her novel that she wrote about the character called The Fix-Up, and that is not a comedic novel. So I decided it wasn’t fair to handle the subject [with comedy]. I took some of the lines and put a little spin on them and added a certain amount of humor, without turning them into flat-out comedy.
AVC: The tone of the show, especially the dialogue, seems to help the viewer distinguish between the serious and not-so-serious moments. Do you write all the dialogue?
RM: Yeah, even in the episodes where there’s been quite a lot of improv. Some of the episodes, a good example being “Extremed,” there wasn’t a script, per se. There was a piece of paper that was an outline, and the outline was the shot list and the script. But that said, I wrote most of that dialogue as we went. When you’re watching and you see someone saying something, typically it’s because I just told them to say that line two seconds earlier, or it was written in the margins. I’ve written the dialogue for the most part, but there are definitely some lines in “Battered Pts. 1 & 2” that are Emily’s, and Emily wrote the love note that was on Chapel’s person at the time of her arrest. That’s all Emily.
AVC: Is a lot of the dialogue from the first episodes taken from The Fix-Up?
RM: Just for the episodes “Battered Pts. 1 & 2,” there’s some dialogue directly taken from the book. Some of it starts as one of her lines and ends as one of my lines, and vice versa. For instance, when she shows back up and says, “How’s everyone doing tonight?” that’s directly from her book, but the additional “forgot my purse” is all me. Usually if there’s a darkly comic spin on the material, that’s where I come in. But that’s sort of my background.
AVC: Was the entire series shot in Madison?
RM: With the exception of two episodes: there’s “Distracted,” which was shot in Kentucky, and the season finale was shot somewhere else, and I can’t say where because it’s a spoiler.
AVC: What are the plans for the next season?
RM: I was just talking about that with Emily, Kelly, and Nick while we were shooting the current episode. We do have a different throughline for this upcoming season. It’s interesting because, now that we’re a series and we do have a certain amount of fans, not a ton, but we have a small but loyal following and they’re not all just college buddies of ours, we’ve become keenly aware that we start falling into some of the same patterns. Every show has a series of clichés; every show has its things it has to do every episode. Glee, I’m looking in your direction. But I like the idea that next season we’re talking about Chapel getting a boss, actually working for someone, and changing the aspect of how she does business. I like the idea of Chapel having a few extra bucks in her pocket and possibly having some muscle on her side. We’ve talked about where Chapel will eventually end up going in the whole thing, and I’ve already decided that once we get to “Z” the series as we know it is over. “Z” is the last one. Unless of course someone should pay me a ton of money to do another one, but I really don’t see that happening.