Experienced criminals who rely on their wits in order to survive should instinctively know when they’re being deceived into committing an act that they wouldn’t normally do. But in the thriller, ‘Union Furnace,’ lead actor Mike Dwyer‘s anti-hero, who has become a small-town crook in order to sustain his way of life, is inadvertently manipulated into perpetrating even more brazen acts in order to survive. The protagonist is forced to wager everything in the horror film, which is set to be distributed on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday by Metropol Pictures. The performer, who also co-wrote the script with the movie’s director, Nicholas Bushman, and served as a producer, powerfully infused the petty thief with a sympathetic need to obtain redemption in his grueling world.
‘Union Furnace‘ follows a small-town crook, Cody (Dwyer), who’s struggling to survive in his small, working-class title town in Ohio. When a mysterious stranger, who Cody only comes to know as Lion (Seth Hammond), offers him the chance to improve his life and dissolve his gambling debt, the petty readily agrees. Cody decides to become a participant in a game that the Lion is hosting for wealthy spectators.
The game holds a dangerous catch, however, as Cody and the seven other participants he’s playing against must wager everything, including their lives. Cody and the other participants will have the chance to live the American dream if they win. The players are fueled by the opportunity to win a fortune, because if they lose, they’ll die a brutal death. The eight participants finally begin to accept the terrible choices they have made, and are willing to do anything for their last chance at redemption, before they lose everything they value, especially their lives.
Dwyer generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing, starring in and producing ‘Union Furnace’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker-actor discussed how Bushman and he decided to create a movie that greatly differed from the first movie they collaborated on together, the 2012 comedy-drama, ‘Sandbar.’ So they decided to create a crime-driven thriller that would allow Dwyer to showcase his range of versatility as an actor by having him play the emotionally versatile anti-hero. The co-writer-actor also embraced his duties as a producer on ‘Union Furnace,’ as it offered him the freedom to further offer his creative input on such areas as casting and location scouting during the production.
The conversation began with Dwyer revealing why Bushman and he were inspired to pen the drama together, and what the writing process was like while they were working together on the script. “‘Union Furnace‘ is the second movie I collaborated with Nick on. We made our first movie, ‘Sandbar,’ together, and it’s a father-son story. It takes place in Ohio, just like ‘Union Furnace’ does,” the co-scribe pointed out. “After we shot ‘Sandbar,’ we wanted to do something else right away. I wanted to do something that was very similar” to their first film, but Bushman “wanted to do a 180 on our next project.”
So the duo was able to work together on a new idea for two weeks. “Nick had the character who I play, Cody Roy, on a piece of paper for some time. But he didn’t really have a place to take him. So we just locked ourselves in a room for two weeks, and worked on the story that eventually became ‘Union Furnace,'” Dwyer explained. “We would write scenes back and forth, and read lines to each other.”
The performer then further delved into the reason why he decided to portray the protagonist in the horror film, in addition to working on developing the screenplay. “I was always going to play the character, since the time we started writing the movie. I always thought that I was the best person for the role,” Dwyer admitted with a laugh. “When you’re writing your own lines, it makes it easier to” play a character. “I would literally act out my character” during the development stages, “and Nick would also write lines for me. I would read them out loud, and he would tell me whether it was good or bad, because it’s basically impossible to judge yourself.”
Being able to contribute to his character’s development during the writing process “was really fun, but also scary at the same time,” Dwyer also revealed. He added with a laugh that while they were filming on the set, he would think, “I hope this is working. But I wouldn’t change a thing if we had a chance to do it over again.”
In addition to enjoying the experience of co-scribing the script with Bushman, Dwyer also embraced the process of working with his collaborator as the director and lead actor on the set of ‘Union Furnace.’ “I was producing the movie, as well, and Nick was uncredited producing, as well. We wear a lot of hats on our films,” the performer explained.
So working with Bushman on all aspects of the filmmaking process “was a pretty great experience. We have a shorthand, since we have worked together for so many years. He doesn’t have to say a whole lot of words to help me get in the right place for my acting…But the lack (of words) helped us work quickly. He could just say, ‘That’s not working,’ and I’d get it.” Having that backhand with Bushman on the set “is a blessing. When you know somebody, you don’t really have to say a whole lot of words together to get it right.”
Dwyer also admitted that while he didn’t struggle with the acting on the set, “the producing was a lot more difficult. We’d have to deal with things like if there was a problem with the lighting, or writing people checks. So I’d have to break out of character, and then take care of the issue. I’d have to then jump back into the scene as the actor. It was a whirlwind, but also a lot of fun.”
Following up on his experiences of working as both the lead actor and a producer on the set of ‘Union Furnace,’ Dwyer pointed out that “I had the same thing on ‘Sandbar,’ as I starred in and produced that movie, too. However, there were a lot less characters in that film” than are in his latest movie. “But there are a lot more locations in our first movie than in ‘Union Furnace,’ which is primarily in two rooms for 80 percent” of the story.
In some respects, making ‘Union Furnace’ was more difficult than filming ‘Sandbar,’ because there are so many extras in their latest movie. The producer also divulged that “We also shot in a real, unheated warehouse in the dead of winter. That presents a whole new list of things you have to deal with during shooting. You prepare yourself as much as you can, but then something comes up,” he noted.
“Like I said, we were constantly blowing circuits in this warehouse, and it happened, on average, about 10 to 20 times a day. We’d be in the middle of a scene, and then these hot lights would burn up the set and then go out,” the producer revealed. “I actually built the sets with Nick, as well, so I knew what to fix. So I’d go take care of that, and then run back in” to finish shooting the scene as the actor. He admitted that the process became “really stressful, but I enjoyed it, and I’d do it again.”
Dwyer then delved into what the experience of shooting ‘Union Furnace’ in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio was like. “We decided that the best place for the games to take place was a double-wide trailer. So we scouted a few locations in southern Ohio as we were looking for trailers. But we ultimately decided that the best way to shoot the game scenes was to build the sets ourselves,” the filmmaker also conceded.
“We needed a very dilapidated look for what we were doing. So shooting in a place that already existed presented a whole other list of issues. We would have had to rip out sinks and piping, for instance,” Dwyer explained.
“So we found this warehouse and built these sets. We bough wood paneling at local hardware stores, and then immediately destroyed it. We’d scratch it up and punch holes in it. That wasn’t something that we initially thought we could do-we thought we would have to find” a real location to film the thriller in. The producer added that the crew was “lucky to find the warehouse, because we were able to take out a wall if we needed to. We could also take out a light panel, and put a light down through a ceiling.” So by building their own location, “we were able to control all aspects of the shoot, which really helped in the long run.”
Dwyer then explained what the process of casting the diverse ensemble of actors, including Katie Keene, Kevin Crowley and Keith David, for the drama was like. “Katie and Kevin were both in our first film. We knew they were great and would work with us again, so we wrote parts for them,” the producer shared.
“Nick mainly handles the casting process for our projects, and he really has an idea of who he wants to work with in mind. For the part of Pin Stripe, Nick knew from day one that it had to be Keith. I said, ‘That’s great. Are you going to get him?’ He said, “Yes, I’ll get him,’ and he did, which is lovely,” Dwyer also revealed.
Bushman “has the proper knack for going through the proper channels to find the people we want, and can, cast. Sometimes they say no, and sometimes they say yes. Luckily, we got everyone we wanted for this movie, like David Hayward, who plays Parts Punk…It was a pleasure to work with all of these seasoned actors and actresses on the picture.”
Once the other performers were cast, Dwyer and Bushman were able to have a bit of rehearsal time with them. “We had a little bit of time with Katie, and obviously Nick and I were able to rehearse quite a bit. We’re also friends with Seth, who plays the Lion, and a couple of other of the cast members. So we had a couple of days to work with them, especially Seth-he worked extensively with Nick,” Dwyer disclosed.
“But with Lyle (Kanouse), Tara (Bellando) and Keith, we only had one day to work with them, due to the amount of money and time schedule we had. We worked together for one day to run over the lines in a hotel. I actually had to run out of the rehearsal, because there was a problem on the set with the power going out, like I mentioned,” the actor-producer also admitted. “So I was only in the rehearsal for about 45 minutes before I had to fun out to fix the other problems. But they rehearsed together for about two or three hours. We did run through the materials before we shot it, but we didn’t have the time and money for proper rehearsals, but I wish we did.”
Dwyer then delved into what the process of working with the rest of the actors and crew members was like to create the characters’ physicalities and other effects, especially once they begin playing the game. “Everything was mostly done practically on the set. But I think there were a few computer generated images that we created,” the performer-producer revealed.
In terms of securing the costumes for the characters, “We went to thrift stores to get some people’s sizes for their clothes. Other people would pick out their own outfits that they thought were appropriate for their characters, and Nick and I would approve it.”
However, finding and obtaining the mask that Lion wore throughout the film proved to be tricky, Dwyer admitted. “We wanted something Venetian-looking that seemed like it could be from ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ But the only place we could find it was in Venice. It took about eight weeks for the mask to get from Italy to Ohio, and it arrived about a week before” shooting began, the producer admitted with a laugh. “We thought, what are we going to do? We need this great mask. We only had two of them, so if something happened to even one of them,” the production would have been in trouble. “But luckily nothing happened. We actually still have one of the masks, and Keith has the other one!”
In addition to the actions sequences and overall visuals, the score is also a vital aspect to this type of genre movie. Dwyer then explained what the process of creating the score for ‘Union Furnace’ was like. “Nick and I have worked with the same composer, Frank LoCrasto, on all three of the movies we’ve made so far. I think he did about 95 percent of the music in this movie. Nick would present him with a temp track…and he would riff on them, and lead them in the right place.”
The actor-producer felt that process “was important, because I’m not a fan of keyboard punches and get you out of your seat scares. They feel great for other projects, but they didn’t feel appropriate for this project. So I think this eclectic score that Frank created for this movie really matched the visual content on screen.”
Dwyer then discussed why he and Bushman decided to release ‘Union Furnace’ on Blu-ray and DVD through Metropol Pictures, the film production and distribution company that they founded together. “We wanted to keep the release in house. We’re distributing the movie through our own company, because even though we received offers from other people, we thought it was important to release it through our own home. The most attention we can give it is through our company,” he explained.
Bushman and Dwyer also felt that “We can also tell people that this is a horror movie that’s a little different than what they’re used to seeing. It has a lot of the familiar aspects that they’ll like, but hopefully it also takes people on a new journey into the horror genre.”