Pushing yourself past your set comfort zone in order to explore new experiences and potentially gain an insightful advantage in your personal and professional lives can be a difficult challenge for many people. They can be forced to explore and question their own moral judgments and values, and how far they would willingly wreak havoc on other people’s lives, just to gain an edge of advantage in their own. The main protagonist in the new independent horror-thriller ’13 Sins,’ the down-on-his-luck Elliot, is forced to physically and emotionally test his moral judgment for his own financial gain. The actor who portrays him, Mark Webber, who’s known for starring in more dramatic films that relatably explore the emotional confines of relationships, also pushes his boundaries in his first true action role.
’13 Sins,’ the first film from writer-helmer Daniel Stamm since he gained widespread acclaim for his 2010 horror-thriller directorial effort, ‘The Last Exorcism,’ follows Elliot as he’s struggling to financially provide for his family. His pregnant fiancé, Shelby (Rutina Wesley), wants an expensive wedding; his mentally ill brother, Michael (Devon Graye), whose medical insurance is no longer paying claims; and their father (Tom Bower), who’s nonchalant about paying bills. Having just been fired from his menial sales job, Elliot is in desperate need of money.
Elliot then receives an anonymous phone call from a cryptic benefactor, who invites him to play a game. As long as he follows the rules and complete each of the 13 challenges, money will be wired directly into his account. The game begins with the seemingly trivial task of swatting a fly, for which he receives $1,000. So Elliot begins to think he can easily win the game, and have his monetary problems solved. But the actions become increasingly appalling and violent as the game continues. If Elliot decides not to complete all the tasks, he can be sent to jail, having committed such crimes as setting a church on fire and wrangling a corpse in public. But if he successfully completes all 13 challenges, the charges against him will be dropped, and his financial troubles will be solved.
Webber generously took the time recently to talk about filming ’13 Sins,’ which is now available on VOD and will be released in select theaters on April 18, over the phone. Among other things, the actor discussed how he was drawn to the role of Elliot, and the script overall, because the protagonist has such a dramatic character arc over the course of the story, and he has never starred in such an action-driven film before; how Stamm, as both a writer and director, has a real passion and vision for making movies, and has a great process to get exactly what he wants in telling a story; and the main interesting question the film poses to its viewers is how far they would push their moral boundaries to obtain what they want and need in life.
ShockYa (SY): You play the lead character, Elliot, a down-on-his luck salesman who unquestionably participates in a life-or-death, dangerous game to make instant money, in ’13 Sins.’ What was it about the character, and the script overall, that convinced you to take on the role?
Mark Webber (MW): Oh, the 13 challenges (laughs) attracted me as an actor. I thought, this will be a fun movie to make. I’m someone who has done films that aren’t necessarily as heightened as this movie, and are rooted in a little bit more of a reality and relationships throughout my career. When I received this script, I was like, this is my action movie. I get to run around and do some pretty crazy things.
The arc of the character started out pretty weak and pathetic, and then really evolved. To experiment with how that could come across on screen was really fun.
SY: Since Elliott is naïve and timid when the story begins, but soon becomes more willing to take on the outrageous challenges presented to him throughout the film, what was the process like of completely transforming the character’s mindset while you were shooting?
MW: It was really fascinating. Daniel Stamm, our director, is a pretty extraordinary guy in how he helps facilitate that process for me. When you’re doing a movie that builds an intensity, you have to track your emotional state throughout the film. You really have to jump into a certain level of intensity, and tracking it emotionally becomes pretty challenging.
So to have someone like Daniel, who is on top of that, in my corner gave me a certain level of freedom to really dive in and have fun with what I was doing. It also helped me convey a sense of panic, paranoia and stress in a way that felt very grounded in a reality.
SY: Speaking of Daniel, he both co-wrote and directed ’13 Sins.’ What was the experience of working with him, as both a scribe and helmer? Do you prefer working with directors who also penned the screenplay?
MW: Yes, I love that. I think when you’re starting off with a director on a base level who has a really great understanding of the material, that helps. Daniel had a really impeccable rehearsal process that was really intensive. He had us dig really deep in how we were going to connect with the other characters, like Eliot’s brother, father and fiancé.
Daniel’s a real-deal filmmaker, and has a real passion and vision for making movies. So it’s really great as an actor to be with someone who knows exactly what they want, and has a really great process on how to get there.
SY: Speaking of the rehearsal period, did that process help you build your working relationships with Daniel and your co-stars before you began filming?
MW: Yes, I’m a big fan of rehearsals. Obviously, having a bit more time to rehearse is great. But if you don’t, I think the way you go about it is even more valuable. Daniel had some really interesting games set up for the other actors and me that helped facilitate a connection and higher level of intimacy, within about an hour.
One example is that me and Devon (Graye), who played Elliot’s brother, and me and Rutina (Wesley), who played Elliot’s fiancé, Shelby, with one another in a room. We were left there for an hour with a set of index cards, with about 15 or 20 questions on them. Each question became even more intense and revealing. It was to the point that one of the questions said, “Reveal a secret to your co-star that less than five people in your life know.” (laughs)
When you’re doing that, you leave a day of rehearsal going, wow, I’m really connected to that person. When you feel like that, you really get vulnerable with that person in your process of how you like to work.
SY: While you had that rehearsal period before you began shooting, did you and your co-stars improv at all while you were filming? Do you think improving helps build an authenticity to the character?
MW: Yes, we definitely did some improv. I love improving, and think it’s great. I’ve made a few movies that were entirely improved. I think improv is really effective when you have a really clear story, emotional beats to hit and a trajectory that everyone is on. It also helps when you have a clear understanding of who your character is, and how you effect the story. Improv can help inject a level of spontaneity that films sometimes start to lack.
Films are made as a series of repetition. A lot of times people are trying to perfect a line, moment or shot over and over again by doing numerous takes. Sometimes that’s really amazing, and you get epic performances and shots. But sometimes that undermines a real level of spontaneity that happens in real life, when people are having a conversation, or looking at one another. That’s where improv can be really awesome.
SY: The action sequences intensify with each new challenge Elliot is presented. What was the process like of shooting the stunts for ‘13 Sins?’ Did you perform any of the stunts?
MW: Oh yes, I pretty much did everything, except jump out of a window. (laughs) That was a stunt guy. Other than that, I did pretty much everything. I was running around, and picking up a guy who was pretending to be a corpse. So I had to lug around a 200-pound man who was pretending to be dead. (laughs) That was pretty challenging. Pretty much everything in the film was me.
SY: The film also focuses on the question of how people would push their moral boundaries to obtain what they want and need in life. Do you think audiences can truly relate to Elliot’s struggling throughout the story?
MW: Yes, I think so. I think that’s the main hook of the film, and is the thing that makes it interesting. As an audience member, you get to engage how far you would go, based on your own morality level. Quite frankly, I think everybody in life is concerned with money and providing for their family. How you acquire your income and are able to provide, and what you’re willing to do with your life and career, is something everyone is put up against. This guy thinks this seems doable, and it becomes a snowball effect. He wants to be a provider, and it gets pretty intense.
SY: ’13 Sins’ is based on the Thai film, ’13: Game of Death.’ Were you familiar with the original film at all before you began shooting this movie?
MW: I knew the movie existed, but I never thought I was remaking another film. I didn’t watch the other movie (while we were making our film), and that wasn’t out of disrespect. But for me, watching it would severely compromise my betrayal, if I was trying to recreate something that happened before. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t be a part of a film, if that’s what we were doing.
Daniel made it very clear to me that our movie was inspired by another movie, but it’s different in so many ways. He wanted my character to be very different, as well. I still haven’t watched the other film, but I want to now. I’m curious to see the other movie, and I know a lot of people love it. But it was important for me to have my own version of the movie we were making. On the set, there was never a feeling that we were recreating something else. We were just making our own film.
SY: The movie was shot on an independently, on a smaller budget. Did filming independently pose any challenges on the set, or did you feel it added to the story’s creativity?
MW: It’s quite interesting how the industry defines independent films. I guess this technically an independent film. But (the film’s distributor) Dimension (Films) and (studio founder) Bob Weinstein were involved. But it never felt like we had a studio breathing down Daniel’s back, and was doing things, as per their request.
But in terms of the budget, it was a little bigger than the studio films I’m accustomed to making. So it felt like we had a little bit more of the luxuries that a studio film could afford, without the complications of working within a studio. So it was quite nice, and we had the best of both worlds.
SY: The movie is currently playing On Demand, and will be released on April 18 in theaters. Are you personally a fan of watching films on VOD? Why do you think this platform is important for independent movies like this one?
MW: Yes, totally. As a filmmaker myself, and gearing up to make my next movie, I had to take an honest look at the films over the last five years that I’ve watched in the theater, versus on my computer, television or sadly my iPhone.
What I think is really great about this movie is that you still want to see horror films and action movies in the theater. People are really drawn out to go sit with a bunch of other people and experience a movie like that, on a big screen, which is great. I love going to see movies in the theater, and I always will.
But there’s also something nice about being able to sit in your living room and watch this mass amount of films. So I do think these kinds of movies do benefit from being thrust into people’s homes right off the bat, considering how many films audiences are watching at home nowadays, versus at the theaters. But it’s cool to be a part of a movie that people would still want to go see in a theater.
SY: Like you mentioned, you have also began directing films, in addition to acting. Do you have a preference of acting over directing, or vice versa? How has acting influenced your directing style?
MW: Yes, definitely the latter. I’m really into directing right now, because I get to give back and put people in movies. I can also put together a crew, and give people a certain level of respect and admiration that I didn’t necessarily receive so much throughout my career, just as an actor. I do love acting.
But nowadays, I want to make movies with my friends and people who I admire. I’m sick of the game and the way actors have to chase opportunities and fight for them. So I’m gracefully bowing out of that process. I am leaving myself open to wanting to work with other talented filmmakers who have a knowledge of what I’m capable of as an actor, and want to come to me with specific opportunities that they feel would work for me.
SY: With ’13 Sins’ having horror and action elements to it, what is it about both genres that you enjoy so much?
MW: Well, purely as a performer, it’s fun to be in a room, pretending to cut off somebody’s arm. (laughs) I’m never going to do that in real life. So working with prosthetics, special effects, blood and gore, and also screaming, taps into that little boy version of myself of why I wanted to be an actor. It’s total escapism and dressing up, and totally crazy.
A lot of the reasons why we like to see films is to escape and see a different aspect of life, other than our own reality. I think seeing a big acting movie can be really fun, like watching James Bond jump out of airplanes and land on top of trains, is cool. You don’t see that in everyday life
SY: ’13 Sins’ played at last month’s SXSW in Austin. Were you able to attend the festival at all?
MW: No, I wasn’t, but I wanted to attend. I have a new little baby at home. I was in Texas for about 24 hours. I got there, went to the midnight screening, and was on a flight the next morning. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay, because there were films I wanted to see there. I love South by, and the slate this year looked pretty awesome. But at least I got to sit and be exhilarated by watching our movie with a crowd.
SY: Besides ’13 Sins,’ do you have any upcoming projects lined that you can discuss?
MW: Yes, I have a move (that was released on April 4), called ‘Goodbye World.’ I also have a movie called ‘Laggies’ with Keira Knightley and Sam Rockwell that’s coming out this summer. I also have another movie called ‘Happy Christmas’ with Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham that will also be coming out in the summer.
I also have the Lionsgate film, ‘Jessabelle,’ which is also coming out this summer. I also have my film, ‘The Ever After,’ which I directed and also wrote with my wife (‘Warm Bodies‘ star Teresa Palmer, who also appears in ‘The Ever After’). We’re also trying to put that out this summer (laughs) So there will be some options this summer, and someone will hopefully go out and see them! (laughs)
Written by: Karen Benardello