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Austin Vesely on Slice, George Saunders, and Making Chance the Rapper into a Werewolf

The director’s debut feature premiered last night and is streaming now.

Vesely, right, with Chance the Rapper on the set of Slice   Photo: Danielle Alston/A24

It’s been six years since Austin Vesely heard through the grapevine that local rapper Vic Mensa and trumpeter Nico Segal weren’t happy with a music video they’d filmed. So the Chicago-based director reached out and asked: “You guys gonna shoot another one? ‘Cause I got an idea.”

The duo took him up on his offer. The result was 2012’s “Clear Eyes,” and soon, Vesely was also shooting videos for the likes of Neko Case, Eryn Allen Kane, and, most prominently, Chance the Rapper.

On Monday night, Vesely’s debut feature, a campy horror film called Slice, premiered in Chicago. Now streaming on iTunes and elsewhere, the film stars Zazie Beetz (Atlanta), Joe Keery (Stranger Things), Rae Gray (Fear the Walking Dead), Paul Scheer (The League) and, playing a werewolf, Vesely’s old pal Chance.

Hours ahead of Monday’s premiere, Vesely sat down with Chicago.

On Twitter, you share a range of films that you watch and admire. How did you land on making a campy horror film?

I don’t think there was a conscious thing. It was just an idea that I had for a short film, a goofy pizza-delivery thing with the drivers getting murdered. And then I started adding supernatural elements, and it became this monster movie hybrid.

That came from George Saunders’ book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. There’s this moment in the book where the guy who works at the Civil War theme park goes out to his car, and there’s a ghost family from the actual Civil War era, and he’s like, “Ah, these fucking ghosts.” He can’t stand them. But they’re just a part of the fabric of the universe, and that was just so funny to me. George is good at that: he puts you into a world and doesn’t totally explain the rules to you.

What are the rules in Slice?

Ghosts exist alongside humans. You die, and you come back a ghost just about right away. And that can create an interesting dynamic when it comes to solving crime.

Is there something about this current moment in America that lends itself to horror?

Horror can be this exploration of cultural ills. Right out of the gate, you’re hearing in the movie that ghosts have been relocated to their own side of town, and there’s this sort of arbitrary division between the living and dead, which elucidates the arbitrary nature of all sorts of divides between people. All of that stuff is kind of heady, and as a viewer you can take it or leave it, but at the end of the day, it ended up being this political exploration.

Take me back to the very beginnings of making the movie.

The real journey began in 2014. I had a version of it written out as my first full-length feature script, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. Around that time, I was starting to get to this place where making music videos clearly wasn’t a career path; it just wasn’t lucrative. 

So, I was in this mode where, “Should I go to back to college? I don’t really know what I’m doing.” And then this [producer] Brandon Riley hit me up and said, “Do you have a script that can be made in Chicago?” He showed my script to an investor, and within two days, he said, “OK, we have $100,000 in escrow. Let’s start finding the rest of the money. On the same day, I had gotten reaccepted to the University of Iowa, so it was this true fork in the road.

How did you know Chance could act?

There’s that charisma I always knew he had. There’s a movie-star quality to the guy that came through when I was making music videos. I hardly ever had to direct him. My job was creating the scene, but if you put him in front of a camera, you’re going to get something good. Part of what’s amusing to me about his character is that it’s this werewolf, but it’s Chance Bennett. It’s my friend, it’s this rascally kind of guy that everybody has gotten to know, culturally. It’s like, if he were the same guy but instead of a rapper he was a werewolf who delivered Chinese food, what would he be like?

How many movies do you watch a week?

Maybe 10? I’m up all night.

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