Michigan-born independent filmmakers Brett and Drew Pierce have achieved a major box-office milestone that has put them in the same sentence as historic blockbusters like Avatar, Titanic, Black Panther, and The Sixth Sense. Their low-budget, Michigan-made horror film, The Wretched, has topped the domestic box-office charts for five straight weeks since being released exclusively to video on demand and drive-in theaters on May 1, tying it with movies that had the benefit of nine-figure budgets and left theaters with a 10-figure haul.
What the James Cameron-directed, CGI-infested blockbusters cannot be credited for, however, is being able to dominate the box office during a global pandemic that has left millions of Americans homebound, unemployed, and movie theater chains with “substantial” debt and doubt that they will survive what is now a monumental financial crisis that is far scarier than what the Pierce Brothers cooked up.
“It feels completely unreal, honestly,” Brett says. “And we're an independent Michigan movie, so being lined up with all those other films — it's nothing you would have ever imagined was even possible. It's surreal, but I also think it's surreal because we're locked up in our apartments and houses. The outside world is occurring, but everybody's hidden inside. So, it's strange. But it's great, too.”
Since its release, the film has grossed $864,494. When compared to 2020's highest-grossing movie so far, Bad Boys for Life, which grossed $440 million worldwide, it might not seem like much. But for the team behind the scrappy Michigan-made flick shot throughout the Leelanau Peninsula, it's already exceeded expectations.
Drew says the major benefit of making independent films like The Wretched is that they're able to maintain creative control from start to finish.
“The disadvantage of making a major studio movie is now they have to fit, like, a global strategy,” he says. “But for us, it's about having a story we want to tell in the way we wanted to tell it.”
“Does Drew like it? And do I like it? Then OK, let's make that,” Brett says. “And that's so freeing. We have friends that work on Hollywood films, and they're definitely jumping through a lot of [hoops] just to try to make something that they feel good about.”
Despite the film's general sense of uneasiness and its stomach-churning central creature — a nightmarish child-eating witch — for the Pierce Brothers, The Wretched is something they felt very good about.
The film follows Ben (John-Paul Howard), a sulky teen who visits his father (Jamison Jones) for the summer amid his parents' pending divorce. Ben takes a job at a marina, where he makes friends with go-with-the-flow type Mallory (Piper Curda). It isn't until mysterious things start happening as a result of the family renting the home next to Ben's that his summer vacation takes a turn from making out and truth-and-dare to investigating the case of a missing boy and discovering the disturbing truth about the boy's possessed mother (Zarah Mahler).
Drew says when the coronavirus pandemic hit, they were kind of bummed to think that the film that took three years to make might not get a theatrical release at all. The film's production company, IFC Midnight, stayed true to the film's release date, however, despite the odds against them. Meanwhile, most of the summer's most anticipated films — Wonder Woman 1984;Fast and Furious 9; the latest James Bond entry, No Time To Die; Disney’s live-action Mulan; and A Quiet Place Part 2 — cautiouslydelayed their releases, some up to a year. Others, like The Lovebirds and The High Note, opted for VOD releases.
But then IFC pivoted to a drive-in release, even going as far as to create drive-in centric marketing materials. The Wretched first opened in just six drive-ins in four states and, early on, the Pierces were concerned that even a drive-in release might put people at risk for coronavirus. But once IFC assured the pair that drive-ins were able to safely practice social distancing and set capacity limits, the brothers realized their film might be a unique opportunity for people to get out of the house and have a social experience without being social.
“We're kind of a drive-in movie anyway — it's a creature feature,” Brett says. “So it was kind of perfect. We kind of joke that we think we were probably making a drive-in movie the whole time and just didn't know until it happened.”
On Wednesday, The Wretched will begin its run at the Ford-Wyoming Drive-in in Dearborn, where the film was supposed to screen last week but was thwarted when the drive-in was hit with a cease-and-desist order for defying Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order, which has since been lifted. It's also where the Pierces, who grew up in Detroit and Royal Oak, were often “dragged” to as children by their cinephile father, who had worked on the special-effects team for Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, to watch Planet of the Apes marathons and “cheesy” 1950s sci-fi flicks, experiences they now look back on as being formative.
At its core, The Wretched is a cumulation of refined storytelling, campy '80s horror, hair-raising mythology, Michigan's diverse landscapes, and, of course, some low-budget practical effects magic.
“I get the sense that when an audience sees practical effects that they like on screen, they just react to it so well, and they can't stop talking about it,” Brett says. “I'm sure you get that a little bit with CGI, but I feel like you get it more with practical effects. People just feel that it was grounded and real.”
Drew recalls talking to native Michigander and Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell about the beauty of practical effects when Campbell said he was “so tired of kicking at tennis balls in front of green screens.”
“I thought that was a funny way to describe it, but that's what it is.”
While the Pierce Brothers continue work on what they say is a “unique take” on a werewolf story, they see the success of The Wretched as nothing but positive. They anticipate the film will open doors when doors in the film industry start opening again, but they don't have any plans in wavering in making films authentic to their independent roots.
“We'll never be able to work on or push something through that we're not excited about or passionate about from like a story character perspective,” Drew says.
Drew says he and his brother don't determine success in terms of dollars, nor do they make movies for the sole purpose of making money. Instead, they heed the philosophy of Walt Disney, who once said he makes movies to make money to make more movies.
“We quit our good jobs and sacrificed everything to make movies,” Drew says. “All because we just love the process and love telling stories. So the big win for us would be able to just make another film.”
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