The McCoubrey Brothers’ ‘The Grey Matter’: A Nostalgic, Original and Highly Charming Horror Comedy That Leaves You Puzzled but Wanting More

When we took a peak at the McCoubrey brothers‘ well-received short film entitled The Grey Matter, we somehow found ourselves catapulted a couple of decades back. Let us get this straight—not in a bad way at all. The disturbing, endlessly entertaining and often quite bizarre horror comedies we grew up with suddenly seemed as alive as back in the eighties—and this was a feeling these talented filmmakers obviously wanted to evoke. But nostalgia is far from being the only card in the McCoubrey sleeve: The Grey Matter is quite simply a wonderful film that left us—puzzled, yes—but definitely wanting more. This dark horror comedy centers around a socially awkward office worker, a perfect nobody, who wakes up one evening upon suffering a weird injury. His head bleeding extensively, he puts a white bandage and simply goes to work the next day. He suddenly finds himself at the center of attention of an attractive co-worker who previously hadn’t even remembered his name. As she openly flerts with him, something really strange is in the air, but they nevertheless go on a date. A few glasses of wine, some clumsy massages and a few gaping wounds later, the situation somehow manages to become even stranger, as you realize you’ve become involved with this bizarre little world governed by some different rules.

As you watch this film, you’re being exposed to some rather weird imagery, but since the characters on screen hardly respond to it in the same manner as you, or any other sane person, would, you get the distinct and slightly disconcerting feeling that you stumbled upon a private party of some sorts, where you’re the alien, the uninvited guest, who doesn’t fit there at all. For a short film, The Grey Matter certainly shows quite impressive production values, but this hardly comes as a shock if you take a brief look at the authors. Writer and co-director Peter McCoubrey has plenty of experience as a music video and TV commercial director and editor, while his brother Luke, co-director here, usually deals with cinematography. It is to his address that we should send our compliments regarding the visual identity of this brilliant little flick. Joining forces with editor Ron Patane, whose resume includes such films as Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines and A Most Violent Year, they made sure the film got all the professional treatment of a high-budget Hollywood movie. Visually really impressive, demonstrating some practical and pretty inventive use of FX, The Grey Matter is well-acted (Ebon-Moss Bachrach from Girls and Lucy Walters from Shame) and easily creates a grotesque and distorted, but extremely charming atmosphere that totally sucks you in. It’s one of the most interesting and clever short films we’ve ever encountered and as such deserves your full attention.

Just remember. If it leaves you puzzled, scratching your heads… don’t scratch too hard.

What made you become a filmmaker?
There are two films that made a strong impact on me in my formative years, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. When I was an adolescent, my friend’s older brother had a poster for A Clockwork Orange hanging on his bedroom door. I always assumed it was some wild album cover for a rock band I wasn’t cool enough to know about. Later on, I stumbled upon it at the video store and convinced my friends to rent it.

At this point in my life, my cinema education had consisted of pretty mainstream affairs. I wasn’t at all prepared for the visual and auditory onslaught of violence, sex and sci-fi that A Clockwork Orange would be. My initial reaction to the film was not necessarily positive. It made me feel kind of “icky” and it was so unlike anything I’d ever experienced, but the film made a lasting impression. I would revisit it many times in my teenage years and eventually I became obsessed with it. That’s about the time I came to realize that the “director”, Stanley Kubrick, was essentially the “author” of the film and I immediately sought out everything he touched.

Around the same time I discovered Brazil via my father, who was a massive Monty Python fan. Again, I found myself initially drawn to the VHS box artwork of a smiling man’s head exploding, an angel and a samurai emerging from within along with the title of the film scrolled out in pink neon. The film had a similar effect to Clockwork’s. It made me feel uneasy at first. The world it depicted was so dark and uninviting. I wouldn’t even discover the brilliant comedy and social satire of the film until I was much older. Yet at the same time, I found myself attracted to it. The film stayed with me in a way very few films ever really did. The distorted images from wide angle lenses, the dystopian set design, and those hard to understand (for an American teen) English accents. I grew to love it the same way I loved Clockwork and a new found interest in cinema was born.

I didn’t know at the time but these two films are really what sparked my interest in filmmaking… long before I even knew I was interested in filmmaking. I became obsessed with all aspects of films and filmmaking. I was one of those kids who would rent everything at the video store and found myself seeking out more obscure, foreign and alternate cinema. Years later, that same friend’s older brother went off to film school when we were all still teenagers. He returned after his first year with a Super-8 camera and we spent that entire summer shooting, splicing together, and watching the little films we made. I was hooked. It was then, I was probably 15 years old at the time, that I knew that I wanted to pursue film school and eventually become a filmmaker.

When did you realize it was what you were supposed to do?
That’s a hard one to pinpoint. My brother Luke, who’s my co-director and cinematographer, and I always sort of knew we wanted to be filmmakers since we caught that initial bug in the summer of the Super-8 films. I eventually went off to film school in New York and he followed a few years later.

I spent my four years working on what would ultimately be a disastrously campy and just plain awful sci-fi thesis film. It took me a while to realize just how awful it was and when I finally did… I was devastated. Having graduated, I no longer had any access to film cameras, equipment, and editing tools. I felt like that was my one shot at ever being a filmmaker… and I had blew it. I managed to get an entry level job at a commercial post production company and redirected my goals. I would perhaps try to work my way up the ladder to someday being an commercial editor… but the directing bug never left. Many of my friends from film school started to give up on filmmaking altogether as the reality of living in a city as expensive as NYC started to hit. However on the side, I kept up with the one aspect of filmmaking that anyone can always do… writing. I lived and breathed cinema and never stopped working on story ideas and scripts.

Then the digital filmmaking revolution started to hit and suddenly filmmaking tools were much more easily available. My brother and I just starting making little shorts and “video experiments” with friends on nights and weekends as much as we could. It was sort of like our second film school. Those projects led to a music video for a friend’s band, which led to more music videos, higher profile projects and eventually commercials which is how we make our living today. On one hand, it’s easy for me to say that I’ve known ever since that fateful summer, that filmmaking was what we were suppose to do. Hell… it’s half way worked out for us so far… and it’s what we get paid to do. We’re living the dream as working filmmakers, but there are so many gigantic goals that lie ahead of us that we’ll always be a work in progress. Making a feature film is the big one on that list of goals and hopefully… that’s what’s next up for us.

Who are your directorial role models and why?
How long can this list be? Obviously, Kubrick and Gilliam are huge for the reasons I stated earlier. I revisit Kubrick’s films more than any other director, they’re so rich and powerful I make new discoveries and am consistently reeducated upon on every viewing. We always make it a point to see 2001: A Space Odyssey every whenever it plays on the big screen. If pure cinema is a thing, 2001 is it. Gilliam’s humor, world building, and visual aesthetic are unmatched by any filmmaker. There’s a playful enthusiasm to his work that I find endlessly inspiring, even when delving into the darkest places Gilliam always finds the humor in it. We love all of his films but in addition to Brazil we’re particularly fond of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Time Bandits, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The Coen Brothers are the masters of tone as far as we’re concerned. They create characters and worlds that are so rich and dynamic that you never even know if you’re watching a comedy or a drama because many of their films can work so well from both viewing points. Barton Fink is our goto movie about making movies. It’s right up there with  for me. Fargo might be the best suspense crime comedy ever, The Big Lebowski creates a world where near cartoonish almost slapstick comedy characters fit so seamlessly in our reality and Raising Arizona might be the most artfully handled and composed madcap comedy ever.

David Lynch is a one of a kind. Every one of his films is a masterpiece. He can create horror and suspense better than many horror directors and at the same time his films have moments of quirky hilarity. He’s able to bend the rules of narrative in a way that only a filmmaker with an immense understanding of the medium could. The way he uses sound design is unparalleled.

We love Roman Polanski and have a particular soft spot for his under appreciated film The Tenant. The way he depicts fear and paranoia in that film is incredible, as is the score by Philippe Sarde which was a major influence on the score composed for our film, The Grey Matter by editor/composer Ron Patane. Also in an odd turn, Polanski plays the lead role after having just fled America. It adds a certain meta layer of weirdness to both his performance and the film’s overall tone.

David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Videodrome are two films we find endlessly compelling. Body horror nightmares that are highly inventive, socially aware, and technologically advanced (for the time). Videodrome is extremely punk rock and experimental while The Fly is perhaps the most grotesque studio hit ever made.

Spike Jonze & Charlie Kaufman (both working together and separately). When I first saw Being John Malkovich I wanted to quit filmmaking… it was that good. It’s the perfect blend of comedy, drama, and sci-fi with a brilliant meta twist. I was in film school at the time and I remember thinking my grand cinematic plan had been upended “damn it! I wanted to be the one to make a true genre and reality bending elevated comedy” It feels like some lost Philip K. Dick novel translated to the screen with a tonal accuracy never really achieved in any of his actual adaptations.

Seconds by John Frankenheimer was another huge film for me. So ahead of it’s time. Early use of body cam. Surreal sci-fi with a satirical social message. My love of that film led me to the similarly themed The Face of Another by Hiroshi Teshigahara and eventually all his films.

Bergman, Orson Welles, Robert Wise, Todd Browning, John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro, Fellini, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jim Henson, Jim Jarmusch, Joe Dante, John Landis, George Romero, Philip Kaufman, Edgar Wright, Woody Allen, Scorsese, Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Micheal Haneke, Wong Kar Wai, Mario Bava, Dario Argento — Seriously this list could go on forever and I still be kicking myself for not mentioning several names… which is why I’m such a massive fan of Cinephilia & Beyond!

Why did you make The Grey Matter?
Ever since we were kids we’ve always gravitated towards genre themes whether it be horror, sci-fi, or fantasy. We’re attracted to the idea of creating a completely brand new world we can play around in, whiling having fun establishing a set of unique rules. It could be very similar to the world we live in… with just one little twist, or a completely alternate reality. That’s one of the things that’s most exciting to us about filmmaking. If you set up the world correctly, the audience will go along with any type of lunacy that you can throw at them.

We always wanted to make a film that was a unique blend of horror, comedy, and classic cinema. It partly stems from a love of the grind house indie horror of the 70s & 80s when Times Square was still filthy and dangerous. In the 80s, guys like Jim Henson, Stan Winston and Rick Baker led a revolution in practical make up effects and animatronic puppetry. Nowadays it seems like many filmmakers rely too heavily on CG, when they could have easily shot something practically. It’s like they don’t want to spend the time up front trying to figure it out on set and would rather deal with it in post. Don’t get me wrong, we love properly used computer graphics and use them a lot in our film… but there’s nothing quite like photographing real objects in real environments. So creating a weird little cinematic creature, at least partially using practical elements, was always high on our list for achievements within this film.

Another thing we admire, are movies that don’t pander to their audience. It’s great when you have to pay attention to the details… or even re-watch a film a few times in order to really figure what’s really happening. We love it when films don’t provide easy answers and are subject to multiple interpretations. Some audiences find that type of storytelling off-putting… but we really enjoy it when it’s done well. If our film ends and you find yourself scratching your head, give it another watch (if you liked it that is). We intentionally never spell out what’s happening to Simon. Aside from making the film generally more mysterious and intriguing, we enjoy it when a film leaves you with something to think about, have a conversation about… or even argue about.

What do the compliments from the likes of Guillermo del Toro or Terry Gilliam mean to you as a filmmaker?
I should say that I sent the film out to many filmmakers that we admire in hopes of eliciting any response. The Guillermo del Toro bit was more of a joke on my part because as the quote indicates he wasn’t actually able to view the film due to technical difficulties. My brother and I are huge fans of his and we thought out of all our favorite directors he might get a kick out of the film because of his affinity for the genre. I’ve seen him speak a few times over the years and his enthusiasm for filmmaking is unparalleled and infectious. So I just took a shot in the dark and emailed him the film… pretty sure I’d never get a response. Then a few days later I got a response and I was thrilled. I opened up the email and realized he was writing me to tell me that he wasn’t even able to view the film because Vimeo never works for him. I uploaded the film to Youtube in hopes that he’d still check it out, but I don’t know if he ever did… but it’s still pretty cool that he even wrote back to me at all. Who knows he could write back tomorrow saying he loves it! …or hates it!

As for Gilliam… if it wasn’t clear several times before in these answers, he’s an idol of both Luke’s and mine. Luke had the rare opportunity of a lifetime and shot a short film with him few years ago. Needless to say, I was both incredibly excited for Luke and beyond jealous. He’s managed to stay in touch with Gilliam and before we launched the short film online, we send out an email with the trailer. Gilliam responded to Luke’s email saying the trailer looked good… and funny! (the highest compliment we could get from someone of Terry’s comedic background) but we have no idea if he’s actually watched the full film yet. He might still chime in next week… or next year.

Those caveats aside, I think getting recognition from the filmmakers that you admire is the ultimate compliment. Their films are the reason we wanted to make films in the first place. Their careers and contributions to cinema have had an enormous impact on our lives. They’re our mentors and any form of recognition or compliment from one of them holds tremendous weight in our minds. I can only hope that someday our films will be seen and enjoyed by more of our filmmaking role models. —Peter McCoubrey, writer/co-director

Film Festivals:
NITEHAWK SHORTS FESTIVAL—Brooklyn, NY—November, 2014
SHOW ME SHORTS FILM FESTIVAL—Auckland, NZ—November, 2014
SIDEWALK FILM FESTIVAL—Birmingham, AL—August, 2014
SAN ANTONIO FILM FESTIVAL—San Antonio, TX—July, 2014
BROOKLYN FILM FESTIVAL—Brooklyn, NY—May, 2014

Starring:
EBON MOSS-BACHRACH (Girls, John Adams)
LUCY WALTERS (Shame, Power)
CARTER ROY (Found Footage 3D)
JASON GRIFFITH
DEBRA ZANE
THOM WOODLEY

Directed by THE McCOUBREY BROTHERS
Written by PETER McCOUBREY

Director of Photography: LUKE McCOUBREY
Editor & Composer: RON PATANE (A Most Violent Year, Blue Valentine)
Produced by ASHLEA HARTZ
Co-Producer: IRENE FITZSIMMONS
Costume Designer: MALGOSIA TURZANSKA (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, In a Valley of Violence)
Production Designer: STEPHANIE BARKLEY
Executive Produced by LUKE McCOUBREY, PETER McCOUBREY, & EMILY WIEDEMANN
Creature & Make Up FX: TATE STEINSIEK (SyFy’s Face Off, The Amazing Spider-Man)
VFX: PHOSPHENE FX (Boardwalk Empire, True Detective)
Re-Recording Mixer: DAN FLOSDORF (Blue Ruin, The Place Beyond the Pines)
Colorist: TOM POOLE (12 Years a Slave, Drive)

The McCoubrey Brothers, Peter and Luke, began their filmmaking careers with several music videos that immediately garnered them accolades from MTV, Pitchfork, The NY Times, and Entertainment Weekly. Their MTV series The Gamekillers was the highest rated program in it’s time slot as well as the recipient of a Cannes Lion and One Show award. They created the The Left Right Project as part of a series of international short films based around the Adidas Superstar sneaker. Peter has directed alongside Academy Award winning director Spike Jonze for the Beastie Boys music video Don’t Play No Games. In addition to directing, Luke also works as a cinematographer and has worked with several directors including Derek Cianfrance, Ron Howard, Steve Buscemi, and Terry Gilliam. Currently the brothers direct TV commercials and content for brands such as Apple, LG, Bing, Axe, American Express, EA Sports, & TWC. They are repped by Radical Media for commercials and both live in Brooklyn. More info can be found at: mccoubreybrothers.com

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