Zyzzyx Rd.

Interview With Actor And Producer Leo Grillo

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How would you describe Zyzzyx Rd.?

It is a suspenseful and twist-filled thriller that begins after a married accountant (Leo Grillo) is caught in a roadside motel having an affair with a beautiful seductress named Marissa (Katherine Heigl) that he met in a Vegas casino. When her enraged boyfriend (Tom Sizemore) busts in on them, he is forced into hand to hand combat and inadvertently kills him. Faced with the harsh reality of betrayal and murder they are forced into the desert to dispose of the body. He needs to make a conscious decision, and does...with ultimate consequences in an unpredictable story that will keep you guessing all the way to the end.

How did you become involved with the film?

I was interviewing John Penney (the writer) to commission him to write a script, which incidentally he has written and we are shooting in another week, called "Magic". As an afterthought I asked him what he was working on and he jumped out of his chair and he told me that he was working on this film called "Zyzzyx Road" - three people in the desert - and I thought, "Wow, what could it cost?...that'd be great!". So I read the treatment and said "okay, let's make yours!". So we went ahead and made Zyzzyx Rd. and of course it's so creative, and cost a lot more than I thought, because three people in the desert means you have to do a lot of interesting stuff to keep people's attention. It is a scary thriller.

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Your involvement in the film was both in front and behind the camera - as an actor and the executive producer. Was it difficult to combine both roles and which did you find most challenging?

Yes, and I'm getting better at it, because that is my combination - an executive producer and actor. I made one mistake on that movie - I signed the checks. So even though I tried to pretend I was only an actor during the shoot, everybody came to me with problems because it was my name on the checks. So in a week when we start shooting our next movie "Magic", my name is not on the checks and nobody is going to know that I'm anything other than an actor. But yeah, it was challenging. Fortunately when I go out there when they say "action" I'm in character and I can do it, but it's not as pleasant as it is to the other actors who are just focusing on their acting. On the business side there's constantly problems, so yeah, that is a challenge.

Was both acting in and producing the same project a new experience for you?

No, I did a movie before that when I was an actor and producer, and when I was in college I had a theater company - I was producer, actor and sometimes director. So I'm very used to being a producer to create projects for me to act in. That's what the stars do and that's kind of a natural thing that just comes to me.

What attracted you to John Penney's script?

It was exciting - 3 people in the desert - how much could it cost?!

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The majority of the film is set in semi-desert type locations with barren terrain and desolate roads. Was it difficult to film in those conditions?

It's not a "semi" desert, it IS the desert - the "Mojave Desert". It's a mining community, they were very active in the 20's and 30's; they mined silver and gold and it was the "Silver Queen Mine" which has became the "Golden Queen Mine", and when I got the location it was because I knew we had everything there. We shot entirely on location, including in an active mine and abandoned mines. It was incredible.

What were the challenges that you faced?

It was hot, about 110 degrees outside and then when we went in the mines it was freezing, it was in the 40's. Rattlesnakes were a constant problem, we had to have constant rattlesnake awareness, we had a rattlesnake wrangler on the set to collect them and release them in another area on the property. The heat was difficult for some people, but you do get used it in a few days. But I love the desert so ultimately it was fine.

When and where was the film shot? What was the duration of the shoot?

It was a three week shoot, an 18 day shoot, with two insert days, with a combination of one day out on location and one day on an insert stage. It was shot last year in Mojave, California at the "Golden Queen Mine" during the summer.

When did the casting process take place for the film and how did Katherine Heigl get involved with the project?

You have to sell a film with names that will be recognized out of the United States. So you get lists of names and when I saw Katherine Heigl's name I remembered her from Prince Valiant, because when I saw her in Prince Valiant she was fabulous as this warrior queen or princess and I thought "who is she?!". I forced myself to remember her name for future reference.

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When her name came up on a casting list, frankly I just said "get Katherine Heigl". Nobody knew who she was except one manager friend of mine, and he said "you're getting Katie?!"... (he had worked with her before) and he said "this is going to be great... You and Katie Heigl, this is going to be great, I can't wait to see this!". He knew the chemistry would be there.

What was it like working with Katherine Heigl?

Katherine and her mother and her sister were on the set a lot together. When Katherine was not working, she was in her trailer with her sister. She is very professional. She comes out, does her thing, and then goes back and prepares for her next scene.

Her mother Nancy and I struck up a friendship because we both have daughters, so we talked quite a bit. I like her mother a lot. Her mother had been a guardian to her in the business when she was a child actor, so her mother is very familiar with the business and shooting. She is a very pleasant lady. We had many conversations about Katherine - about professional stuff and about personal stuff.

I think Katherine is very solid, very rooted, she has a very solid family... she's real. She's not affected. There's no pretense, she's not all hung up on herself, she does not have a huge ego, she's very solid, she's a professional. She's good stuff. Katherine spent the first week in her Lolita outfit which was very skimpy lingerie, so for a third of the movie, she was running around a very scary desert with cactus, Joshua trees, black widows, tarantulas and rattlesnakes. When she is given a job to do, she fearlessly gets it done! She is courageous and she really is a great sport.

Would you like to work with her again in the future?

Oh in a heartbeat, sure... Katherine is a doll!

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Tell us about your experiences shooting the film?

Do you want an anecdote?! I worked with Tom Sizemore, and he is my alter ego in the film. Tom and I would go to very strange places in the script. What we ended up having on camera, was not necessarily what the director had in mind. We experimented a lot. Something happens between actors sometimes and you get an actor like Sizemore and an actor like myself and we both like to discover what the scene is about and create. And if he throws a snowball at me, I'm going to duck and pick one up and throw one at him, and he's going to pick one up and throw one back... so when actors do that, anything that happens is unexpected and exciting. So that was a wonderful experience going to strange places with Tom Sizemore. He had fun, I had fun. We want to work together again.

Was the filming process an enjoyable one?

All filming is enjoyable. Anyone who says it's not is just simply not a real actor, they're just collecting their paycheck, and wanting to move on to the next project. All acting is enjoyable, therefore all of the film process is enjoyable. The behind the scenes and the filming process of producing, is people management and you're dealing with people with talent so you're dealing with an unusual mix. You're having to find out that you're dealing with something that is not measurable on paper, you're having to find out who really has talent, and who to get rid of and who you need to replace. They're always mixing and firing and coming up with new people and then ultimately you come up with the best people that you're ever going to get by the time you start shooting. And if you had another month, you'd probably fire them and bring in someone even better... I like the whole process very much. It's a collaborative effort to tell a story and exciting when all the minds come together and get excited about the characters and what the movie is about and everyone gets behind it.

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Any behind-the-scenes stories you would like to share?

That was really my shot gun in the movie. Props brought a shotgun and it was ugly and terrible and fake so I brought my real one. I shoot a lot, so I did a safety exercise for everybody every time we went to use the shotgun. I opened the chamber, put my finger up the barrel, to show everyone that it was empty before we used it, which is not only courtesy, it's safety, so that no actor is going to get hurt.

Without giving too much away - Katherine Heigl effectively has two roles to play in the film. She seemed to have a lot of fun portraying the Lolita-esque Marissa. Did you enjoy the contrasts in her portrayal?

Between the two, it was of course much more fun working with the Lolita-esque Marissa, because here's this very beautiful adult woman, playing this teenager doing the teen thing and it was fun dealing with Katherine as a teenager.

We had one scene where Katherine plants a kiss on me as part of the scene. We're both one or two take actors so we move right along really quickly. There's no rehearsing, she's a pro and I'm a pro and we just do it. When you get your head spun around by a Katie Heigl kiss, you kind of wish you were a method actor and had to do the thing twenty times!

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The contrast in her portrayal.. well, let me share a behind the scenes anecdote - and tell you the level of her commitment. Both Katie and I did a lot of our own stunts. In the last scene of the movie, when Katie is crossing the road, she trips and falls into the sandbank on the side of the highway, and of course they had to film her falling into the bank three or four different ways, and they had to do the scene several times because of all the action that was happening, so Katie did her own stunt and fell into the side of the road. And every time she did, her forearm would break her fall, and she picked up little tiny cactus hairs from the cactus that was in the ground. When the scene was over, back at her trailer, she had a million little cactus things stuck in her arm and little red bumps. I taped her arm and stripped it off like a wax job. She was in pain, but she just kept doing the fall over and over again because that was what we needed. That's the kind of girl you want in your movie.

Similarly as the film evolves, the viewer sees personality changes in your character Grant and the whole perspective of the film switches several times. As an actor was it challenging to show those differences?

Whatever that mechanism inside of you is that makes you an actor and lets the people see who the character is through you, you just trust that that is going to work. The interesting thing was to know where we were in the film at any one time. As you know, a film is shot out of sequence. If you read this film in sequence, it was difficult enough to figure out what the hell was going on in the script, but to then to shoot it out of sequence, many times even the director would come up to me and say "okay, now what are you doing in this scene again?!"

That was very challenging. But as long as Grant knew what was going on, I could trust Grant and Grant would tell me what was going on. Challenging, but nothing insurmountable, it all worked out quite well. There were some things that people questioned... they'd say "ummm, what happened there?" and I'd tell them to just trust, because I knew it was true, and even though it looked wrong to them, I knew it was true, therefore it was right. And later in editing, they knew it was right.

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For instance, there's a moment when she's (Marissa) hysterical, she's totally flipped out in the car, she was so scared because she thought she was almost just killed, and Grant comes back in the car and just holds her and gives her a "there, there, everything is going to be fine". It was so weird that he was not empathizing with her on a different level and was very detached from her. And people watching the scene wanted to know why it just went flat like that, and I told them to just trust it. Later you learn of course why he did what he did and what he was responding to, and it makes sense. Yeah, following this kind of thriller out of sequence is a challenge.

Did working with a small cast make it easier or more difficult to film?

Easier to film with a small cast because you fly right along and you have a comradery. You cover each other and without getting specific, there are times when actors are generous enough to cover their partner. If something happens that throws something off and it's not as good as it should be, or something definitely interfered with the performance, even if the director thinks it's fine, you can read it and pick up on it, and sometimes you tell the director, "oh I don't know if you saw that but I slipped and the camera picked up my whatever..." so they do it again. You're really into each others head. It's a dance. It's better with smaller cast, I think.

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What did you learn from making this film?

I learned to take my name off the checks so nobody knows I'm a producer when I'm on the set and I can focus on acting only. I learned that when I disagree with a Director of Photography, yet again, that I'm right, because even though they have the title, I know a lot about the equipment and the photography. So when I catch mistakes and they deny it, we find out later I was right, so I trust me over them. I suppose we all learned a lot.

I learned that with an 18 day schedule, and a motivated director you can deliver a saleable film that you're proud of - you have to have a non-primadonna in the directors chair, someone who wants to get it done and wants to get it right and fast and not sit there trying to get it better and better and running over schedule. I learned that the little engine can really climb the mountain.