"Evil Dead" Descendant Bros Brett and Drew Pierce Bring "The Wretched"
A TCFF Horror Movie Entry Made in Leelanau
By Patrick Sullivan | July 27, 2019
Brothers Brett and Drew Pierce grew up downstate with a father whose interest in filmmaking and special effects led him to work with Sam Raimi on the cult classic Evil Dead.
Fast forward nearly 40 years: The Pierce brothers are all grown up and bringing their own horror movie to the Traverse City Film Festival — one that was shot in Leelanau County.
Northern Express reached out to Brett Pierce to talk about the film, becoming a filmmaker, and making movies in Michigan.
Northern Express: Tell me about your film The Wretched.
Brett Pierce: It’s a horror film. It’s basically my brother and I’s kind of new spin on a modern, dark fairy tale. We wanted to update the myth of the witch. We spent a while reading a bunch of “witch” myths, and we cherry picked our favorite little pieces to create a new one. I kind of want to keep everything about the movie a surprise, because I want people to see it and just absorb it.
Express: How did you go about making the film?
Pierce: It’s completely independent, I guess, is the best thing to say about the movie. Drew and I both live in Los Angeles now. We’ve lived here for a while, and we both work in production. My brother is a storyboard artist for a lot of movies, like, fairly big movies, and he’s also designed posters for these movies, and he also designed our poster. I worked as a producer in reality TV for four or five, six years. We just kind of decided again, like we did with [the brothers’ 2011 film] Deadheads, we want to make our own stuff. We tried to get The Wretched made out here in Los Angeles. We tried production companies, studios — almost got it moving a couple times with that — but after being disappointed, we just said, “We’re just going to raise the money ourselves, and we’re going to put the production together ourselves. We’re going to find all of the people, and we’re going to shoot it back home.”
Express: Do you have any funny stories about making a film in Leelanau County?
Pierce: Some of the funniest stuff was how helpful everybody was. My producer, who is from Los Angeles coming there and then asking for help from local governments or [from a landowner to shoot on his or her land] and getting a shoulder shrug like, “Yeah, sure go ahead, do it.” It kind of cracked him up because we’re just so used to in Los Angeles, where if you want to shoot anywhere or do anything, it’s such a huge ordeal. You find kind of crabby people because they are so used to people wanting to shoot in their backyards, they are just sick of us being around.
Express: Leelanau is such a serene and picturesque location, kind of the opposite of scary. But I guess if you think about it, paradoxically, that makes it an interesting, compelling place to set a horror movie.
Pierce: Yeah. Yeah. Our opinion was — we love horror films, but here are a lot that are less than great — part of the problem we’ve had with horror movies, I would say in the last 10 years, is they start, and there’s this sense of dread through the whole film where it never lightens up, it never lets you feel comfortable in the environment it’s in. And I think to really scare somebody, the best way to do it is to show them the comfortable home, the beautiful northern Michigan woods, the beautiful marina that we shot at, and then slowly let the creep creep into it. During the day, make it look wonderful, make it look beautiful, and then at night, with the long shadows in the hallways and the tall trees, let that make the place feel creepy when you do your horror beats.
Express: That makes a lot of sense. A lot of horror movies are pretty claustrophobic.
Pierce: Yeah. We always joke — we go see these horror films, and they’ll be like, “We’re moving into a new house!” and you’ll be, like, “That house looks like 40 people were murdered and buried in the walls. Why would you go in there?” I want to see a nice house that I want to go into, and then it can be like, “Oh, this place is actually creepy.”
Express: You filmed your earlier movie, Deadheads, also in Michigan, didn’t you?
Pierce: Yeah. We filmed that kind of all over the state. We grew up in Detroit and Royal Oak, and we shot that in the Royal Oak area, kind of bouncing all over the place. It was a much smaller movie; it was our first film. But it was a great experience. In many ways it was kind of like a film school experience.
Express: So, you came back to Michigan to make The Wretched, which sort of runs against the flow, since Michigan slashed its film incentive program, and moviemaking in the state has dried up. What made you chose the state while so many other filmmakers have decided to go someplace else?
Pierce: Honestly, for Drew and I, we’re comfortable with Michigan. It’s where we grew up. It’s where our stories are, in our brain, all the time. I feel like every time we’ve written a script, we’re seeing Michigan in our heads. We got the incentive the first time around for Deadheads, and that was great, but with this one it was my brother’s in-laws were living up in Northport, and we were just visiting, and we were there for the Traverse City Film Festival with Deadheads, and we just fell in love with the area. We kind of wrote things around the locations there.
It literally started with we were up in Northport, and there is this beautiful marina there, and my brother’s in-laws run the sailing school for the kids there. And that became a big part of the movie. It was, “I love this marina, and I think we could probably use it in a movie, and it’s such a great backdrop, like Jaws.” So, we’re like, “Let’s start there.” Then we started writing the story. It was a couple of rural houses, kind of a Rear Window situation where this kid becomes convinced something creepy is happening next door. So, then the goal was just to find two houses that looked good and felt right and were next to each other so we could create those kind of voyeuristic moments.
And we just literally drove up and down the peninsula for like a week and a half, just staring out the window, like, “Those two houses look good!” “Those two houses look good!” We were driving through Omena, and we saw the Sunset Lodge, a bed and breakfast up there, and they have these two big beautiful houses, and they also have two other houses on the property, and we were like, “I think we can make it work.”
Express: So, you were at the film fest in 2011. What was that experience like?
Pierce: Oh, it was the best. I could not compliment the festival more. It’s something we’ve enjoyed more than anything. In truth, I think Michael Moore realizes that, for an independent filmmaker, one of the hardest parts is when you’re done, you’re going to have to go to film festivals. And almost all of the film festivals don’t help you out with the cost of getting you there and keeping you there. So, you’re just incurring more costs and going more broke as you try to promote your movie. The nicest thing about the Traverse City Film Fest is when we got there, Michael Moore just said he wanted us there, and he wanted us to stay for as much of the film fest as we wanted to so we could see other filmmakers’ movies and meet other filmmakers and talk to people in town about the films. And it’s just — we went to a lot of film festivals with Deadheads, and my brother still calls Traverse City his favorite one. In a weird way, it was such a relief to just be able to go to a film festival and just enjoy the film festival and not necessarily have to worry about how you’re going to survive and make it to the next one.
Express: That’s awesome. You’ll be back this year?
Pierce: Yes. We’re coming for the whole thing. It’s because we love it so much. We’re going to get there the day before the fest starts, and we’re going to leave the day after it’s over.
Express: From my perspective, you’ve sort of got a connection, through your father, Bart Pierce, to Michigan film royalty.
Pierce: Yeah. Sam Raimi. … He was just kind of a guy who was obsessed with stop-motion animation, basically photographic effects, like the old way they used to do it. And [my dad] was in his late 20s, and he ended up meeting Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell and the Evil Dead crew. At the time, it was funny, because they thought of him as the old man because he was in his late 20s, and they were all like 18 to 20. But they recruited him to basically put together the big finale in Evil Dead with another photographic effects artist named Tom Sullivan.
Express: And I understand that as a boy, as your dad was working on that scene, you walked in on a screening and were traumatized?
Pierce: They kind of took over my parents’ house in Detroit. After they shot the movie in Tennessee, they decided that they needed a bunch of special effects and to do a bunch of pick-up shots. So, my dad and Tom Sullivan started trying to do all of these effects in our basement. And a lot of those guys piled in. It was, basically, my dad worked all day — I think he was a bank teller — and would come home after work, and then work into the night or all night with Tom, doing the big effects finale. At some point they had thrown up a screen in the basement, and they were projecting the big finale of Evil Dead — which is extremely gory and disgusting, it’s like this demon basically exploding and guts shooting out and this horrific scream and all of this stuff — and they didn’t realize I had come downstairs into the basement.
So, essentially, I just walked down the stairs, and I saw all of this horrific stuff going on on the screen, and all of a sudden, the lights got thrown up, and my dad noticed that his 2- or 3-year-old was standing there, completely horrified. And it scarred me. I hated the basement. I would not go down there. We lived there until I was 14 or 15, and I hated the basement the whole time.
Express: And yet you became a horror movie director.
Pierce: I became a junkie. It was weird. I was a late bloomer because I had this unrealistic vision in my head that horror was so terrifying because of that experience.
Express: But then you’ve come full circle, because didn’t that scene make it into Deadheads in the background on a drive-in movie screen?
Pierce: It did! Yeah. We did the drive-in scene, and we had this last-minute thought — maybe we could call Sam Raimi. We know Sam, but we see him maybe once every five or six years or talk to him on the phone briefly about something or something, but we were like, “Maybe he’ll let us use a clip from the movie, and wouldn’t it be cool if we used dad’s sequence in the movie?” Nice guy that he is, we call Sam and his assistant, and they made it happen for us.
Express: When you brought Deadheads in 2011, you had a midnight showing. And now that you’re coming back this year, you’ve got the Saturday midnight spot at the State Theatre for The Wretched. That must be pretty exciting.
Pierce: I mean, the State Theatre is so beautiful. It’s just so much fun. We’re trying to let everybody know. We did have a lot of people locally that helped or worked on the movie so we’re trying to let everybody know, “OK, that movie that you all worked on, it’s playing in the festival down the road.”
Express: It’s so rare for a film to be made in the area. People should be excited.
Pierce: They should shoot more stuff there, though. It’s funny. It’s so beautiful. One of the things we’ve gotten complemented on, because we’ve had to test different edits of the movie and show it to people out here, is just how beautiful our locations are. We always get so many complements about it and I’m just like, “It’s our home state. It’s Michigan.”