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Interview: Bill Oberst Jr. on the Insanity that is “Greatland”

Monday, November 9, 2020 | Interviews

By JOSHUA “PROMETHEUS” SCAFIDI

GREATLAND is a film that has stirred up quite the buzz (and conspiracies) based on its trailer alone. First of all, the film looks absolutely insane, akin to an acid trip in a haunted funhouse…that’s melting. Then there’s the story: GREATLAND is a world where people only want to consume pleasure and forget everything else. A pandemic has taken its toll on the population, a crazy and corrupt election is at hand, and the ruling elites are a bunch of sick and twisted pedophiles. Surprisingly, that isn’t a summary of 2020, and the film started production almost two years ago, well in advance of COVID-19. Interestingly, the film is written and directed by Dana Ziyasheva, who used to be involved with the United Nations and UNESCO. Make of that what you will…I’m not going down that rabbit hole with you. Bill Oberst Jr is in the film, and recently, I had the chance to chat with him about it and get some clarity on what this thing called GREATLAND is. Bill’s a horror geek, such as myself, and is always a pleasure to speak with!

Hey Bill, thanks for the call! So, GREATLAND is upon us.

Yeah, came out on November first on VOD! The strange thing, to me, is how it’s weirdly relevant. This was a couple of years ago. They contacted my agent for me to be in it, and so I looked up the director Dana [Ziyasheva] and I saw she had worked with United Nations and worked in international development with UNESCO, and I thought that was a really unusual background for a filmmaker. She had done documentaries, but this was a fiction piece about this worldwide pandemic and a world where people only wanted to forget things and be pleasured. And then… I had never heard of QAnon back then, but like, my character [in GREATLAND] is part of a cabal of pedophiles who secretly run the world from this luxury island.

In light of everything that happened with Jeffrey Epstein, do you think the film is trying to tell us something?

I don’t know… I saw a comment from someone who was of that mindset on YouTube. It certainly does make for some interesting chatter around the movie.

Bill, for those who are unfamiliar with GREATLAND, can you give us a quick rundown without spoiling too much?

Yeah, it’s set in a fantasy, future world where there’s a worldwide virus, there’s an insane election happening, and the hero of the movie goes to sneak out his childhood love, who’s lost in this cabal of pleasure-seeking elites who run the world. So, the story is sort of his journey. The world that Dana imagined was a world where people only want pleasure, and so because of that, they’re conformists but they’re conformists in a weird way. Like everybody has to seek the same kinds of pleasure and everybody conforms, and they say they’re not conforming, but they’re conforming – by not conforming. It’s really vibrant and brightly colored and I think we should all get high before we see it.

I think I’m high after that prior sentence. Conforming by not conforming. Perfect. Now you play a philanthropist, but that means something a bit different in the film…

Yeah, it’s a little ironic. He’s a philanthropist, alright. So Dana explained the character to me like, he’s one of the ruling elite – but the elite have become so corrupt in their own decadence that they’ve almost lost the power to speak clearly, so they speak in gibberish. Half of his language is Shakespearean, very educated, and high-minded. The other half is complete gibberish.

So, he sits in a bathtub of blood with lotus flowers and there are cockroaches on the lotus flowers. In his mind, I guess he’s doing something really meaningful, but he’s lost in his own decadent irrelevance. You know what? Maybe he’s some kind of parable about pleasure-seeking. I can’t speak for the director, but there’s a lot of different levels.

What attracted you to the role?

Dana. When I looked up her background. My agent sent it to me and said they wanted me to do a cameo role in it, and here’s the director. So, I looked her up. I love when directors come from unconventional backgrounds. Because then they’re bringing different stuff to cinema. That’s what excited me, was her [prior] experience. Lately, especially the last few years, the way the world’s going, I’ve been more into the idea that we’re citizens of planet Earth as much as we are citizens of any nation. So, when I saw that she had been with the United Nations and had this planetary view – that attracted me.

This movie looks absolutely insane, so there have got to be some crazy stories from behind the scenes. Anything you can share?

Well, we filmed at a mansion in Malibu and I don’t think they ever told the owner what it was about. Which is a bit strange considering we filled up their bathtub with blood and brought in trained cockroaches. I remember talking to some of the other actors on set, and none of them really understood what the movie was about, and none of us did. That’s always a good sign to me because most actors, when they’re between scenes, are talking about what’s for lunch. In this case, they were talking about what it might be.

So, there was an aura of mystery around the whole thing?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Totally. It had a very international feel. It felt like a world coming there, not like a Hollywood movie. I wonder if our experience with the pandemic is going to make us more… well, what do you think? Do movies like this have a more of a chance because of the pandemic, or less of a chance?

I think it depends on the viewer, really. I think cynical people will look at it and say, oh they must have known something. People who are less cynical might look at it as prophetic. I do think the pandemic makes it relevant and scary.

When the Titanic sank, seven years before that was that novel Futility, about an unsinkable ship. I wonder if there is something, that when a big thing is about to happen, it’s just kind of in the air…I don’t know. Some people have a theory that the dead know what’s going to happen and want to try and warn us.

What was it like working with Dana Ziyasheva?

It was great. She was very professional. Very reserved. Clearly, she had a vision for what she wanted for the movie and she would communicate with you what you needed to know about it, but she also held back some things, you could tell because this was her vision. Completely warm, wonderful, open, but clearly was a woman in charge, with her own vision. She was very helpful in explaining to me that the philanthropist was not, as you said, truly a philanthropist.

 The first time I saw the trailer, I wrote an article about it titled, What the Hell Did I Just Watch?

I think “What the hell did I just watch?” is a pretty good comment. If I was a filmmaker, I’d take that! What filmmaker would not want that? I love it. The first time I watched it, I felt a little violated, like it was trying to get into my mind in some way. I like that feeling.

What else do you have going on, Bill? Last time we talked you were doing the Gothic Goodnight podcast. How’s that going?

Yeah, it’s great! I just finished up the first season and it will be a special collection on Audible. I just put out the last episode of the season where I asked listeners to call in and leave messages on the future. Also, Take This Lolipop did a sequel, Take This Lolipop 2 and it’s up at takethislollipop.com. I was involved in that. It’s pretty creepy, you just need a webcam.

I checked out a bunch of the Gothic Goodnight episodes. They’re great for helping a horror geek fall asleep.

Thank you, man! I really appreciate that, because that is what I wanted to do. I tried to do it, like, scientifically. The pace slows down, and the volume goes down really unperceptively. By the end, I’m trying to speak in the natural rhythm of a heartbeat. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, and it just puts you to sleep.

Oh, and Josh, something I’m really excited about – November 15th, Age of the Living Dead puts out its second season! It’s an Amazon Prime series, British produced and I play the vampire leader. It’s vampires vs humans in this apocalyptic world.

Post-apocalyptic vampires? How do I not know about this???

It’s going to be a really good season. It’s very well done with very high production values. I also have a movie called Pain Killer coming out. Mark Savage is the director. It’s a sequel to a movie called Stress to Kill, with Armand Assante. In Stress to Kill, I kill people because my blood pressure was too high, and I had to relieve my stress. In this one, it’s a bit more serious. My daughter is dying of opiate abuse, and nobody is doing anything about it – so, I go on a rampage. It’s kind of like a Bronson picture, like a revenge film.

Okay, almost like a Falling Down type of scenario…

Yeah, that’s exactly right. He just kind of snaps and starts going after pharmaceutical people, and low-level dealers in a rage.

That seems fair. I think we’ve all felt like that, at one point or another.

Oh, yeah. For sure. Then I’m playing Hitler in an upcoming film, as well. I’m starting to do research for that. That will start shooting in the spring, in Romania.

You got cast as Hitler? How did this happen? Details, please…

They sent me a couple of roles in the script and then the director said he could see me playing Hitler, and you don’t have to call me to dinner twice.

What attracts you to a role like that, playing such a notorious character from history?

Because he was written as a human being, very nuanced. His dog Blondie even figures into the movie. To me, it’s a real cheat to say Hitler wasn’t like us or that he was inhuman. The whole point is that he was human. He had a childhood like us, and everything. I think the more human you play him, the more frightening it becomes.

Absolutely. So, what’s the film going to be about?

It’s about the Hungarian government, and how some people in the government wanted to corporate with Hitler and other people in the Hungarian government were like, hell no. There was that divide. This is set in the last years of the war and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to play him. He had already survived the assassination attempt, so he was on the downslide mentally, and physically.

All I really want to do from now on is strange rolls. I don’t want to do normal anymore. You just reach a point where you realize there’s enough normal in the world. The little, tiny skill set that I’ve got is to do strangeness, and that’s what I want to concentrate on.

I totally get it. I’ve always felt that movies, not just movies, but all forms of entertainment, are an escape. The last thing I want to do is sit down and watch reality.

Yeah, me too! So, I don’t want to play a lawyer or somebody’s doctor. I want to play the strange and the fantastic. Plus, the older I get, the weirder I look. Nobody’s going to hire me for anything that isn’t bizarre. This face just gets more weathered, and sharp, and angular – and they’re like… No.  “He couldn’t be a doctor […] he would rip your heart out, and eat it.”

Doctor, no. Sitting in a tub full of blood with trained roaches… Sure!

Thank you. Like, if a doctor with this face ever came in and said “Hi, how are you?” You’d be like, whoa!

You mentioned you’re starting to do research for the role. What does that look like for you?

I’ll start by reading, and then by thinking, then by feeling. What I’m interested in, is what things in his life could have gone another way for him to not become who he was. I think about my life, and everybody’s life really, we all come to these crossroads. What if we had taken a different path? Hitler had to have had these points where he thought, I could have gone here, instead.

I like to find the wounds. If you can find the wound, then you can find the character. Like, I decided my character in GREATLAND, even though he’s this elitist pedophile – I decided he was lonely. If a character doesn’t seem to have any type of wound, I can’t relate to them.

How does one prepare mentally to play such a hated character as Hitler? Because to play him, you have to have, not sympathy, but at least an understanding of who he was, and why.

To play any character, I think you need to have a basic understanding of them. You don’t have to like them, but you have to like yourself as them if that makes sense. I’m sure that he didn’t hate himself. You can’t live if you hate yourself. At least not for very long. I’m also sure he was delusional and felt that what he was doing was right. I think of it kind of like, what was the tipping point? What was the point of no return, and if he had realized he was wrong, could there have been redemption for his soul? I don’t know, but those are the questions I think of.

As a human, you want to think forgiveness is in us all, but with everything he did, do we have the ability to forgive?  Tough character to play man. I can see you pulling it off.

Thank you, man. Now, what about people who fought for Germany during the war and believed they were doing it for their country?

You’re only the good guy in your version of the story.

That’s pretty profound…

Bill, I appreciate your time. Always a pleasure chatting with a fellow horror geek! I’ll be keeping an eye out for your future projects, as always! Thanks again for the call!

You too, Josh. Glad to know ya, thanks for your friendship.

Anytime, Bill. Thanks!

GREATLAND is available now on VOD from Indie Rights

Joshua "Prometheus" Scafidi