Fantasy horror comedy Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls is just one of a few features playing in the Midnight section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by filmmaker and YouTuber Andrew Bowser, it’s inspired by ‘80s supernatural horror movies like Gremlins (1984) and Fright Night (1985), Bowser’s consistently amusing fifth independent film centers on Bowser’s viral Internet character, a nerdy, anxious occultist named Marcus Trilbury (Bowser) who goes by Onyx the Fortuitous.
Restless from his chaotic home life and a burger joint job, Onyx receives an opportunity of a lifetime when he and a few other eccentric practitioners of the black arts are invited to meet his idol, Bartok the Great (Jeffrey Combs). The group of Bartok devotees is initially under the impression they’re there to participate in a Satanic ritual that will grant them immortality. However, Onyx soon discovers Bartok and his green-haired lackey Farrah (Olivia Taylor Dudley) have much more nefarious intentions up their sleeves. It’s up to Onyx to confront his own demons in order to upend the evil, demonic forces at play.
Although Onyx the Fortuitous marks the character’s big screen debut, Bowser has played the Onyx for a little over a decade now, appearing as his Hot Topic-wearing, theatrically verbose persona in the web series Welcome to the Shadow Zone and a series of amusing viral clips that have accrued millions of views online. In addition to performing Onyx, Bowser has also written, directed, and acted in several other independent features as well as helming videos for companies like Nerdist and Funny or Die.
Bowser discusses with Sam Rosenberg how he conceived Onyx, translating the character from online to the feature space, and coming up with the film’s practical special effects.
Sam Rosenberg: You’ve played Onyx several times before. How did you conceive that character? Did you draw from certain types of personalities you’ve encountered over time or from your own experience or was it a mix of both?
Andrew Bowser: The way I explain it always is that Onyx is a manifestation of my middle school self, kind of frozen in carbonite. He came about because I was taking improv classes and trying out character work. I don't get nervous to perform Onyx now, but back then — it was 2012 — I got really nervous getting up on stage for an improv show or any kind of sketch performance. If I had to perform a character that was really cool and mellow, whose catchphrase was like, “Hey, man, it's all gonna be okay,” I wouldn't be able to do it. My nerves would override that character and it wouldn't be very believable.
I remember having the idea I should try to create a character that kind of helps me channel those nerves and that anxiety. I've had, as many of us, a list of insecurities and anxieties that probably crystallized during my adolescence. When I investigated myself personally, I found a lot of obsessive thinking, anxiety, hyper specificity, and fixations. Then, Onyx came from that. He really came from looking inward and letting all of those elements come to the surface.
So the things that I might try to keep low-key with Onyx, I can be just as tense and just as nervous as maybe I truly am deep down, which is part of why performing him is so cathartic. It's also part of why it's so exhausting [laughs]. Because to perform Onyx, I really have to sit into all that stuff that's stressing me out. There's nothing that doesn't stress Onyx. Everything stresses him out.
I think the first idea I had for him was if he was saying something that he was positive of like, “What's your favorite movie?” — say it's Pumpkinhead, which is one of my favorite movies — he would still be so insecure and so nervous to make any affirmative statement that he would immediately backpedal and say, “Uh, Pumpkinhead? I don’t know.”
Saying “I don't know” was the first idea that I had for Onyx, even before I'd made a video with him. I just knew that the “I don't know” was really the little key in his psyche. He does know his favorite movie is Pumpkinhead, but he's really scared of looking foolish in front of someone or saying the wrong thing. That was my way into him and that's what he is for me. He really is a cathartic way for me to deal with my own issues.
Sam Rosenberg: Did Onyx’s fashion sense, like the fedora and the vest, come later on? How did those elements come together?
Andrew Bowser: This is embarrassing, but I have to talk about it. I remember being in middle school and thinking, “What would make me look cool? What if I had the guts to wear a hat? Am I a hat guy? Would people say, ‘Oh, Andrew’s a hat guy now.’” The tie, those arm warmers — it really comes from me at that age of wanting to look cool and piecing together what I thought might look cool. Another one of Onyx’s favorite movies is The Crow. He really just wants to dress like The Crow. That's where it came from.
The first time I performed as him, I bought a lot of pieces to his wardrobe that are still pieces in his wardrobe, if they're not the exact pieces, which some are. They are just repurchased replicas of the original outfit, but the arm warmers, I think, are the same ones I had in 2012 when I made his first video.
Sam Rosenberg: You’ve been playing this character for a decade now. What compelled you to turn Onyx’s story into a feature?
Andrew Bowser: When I did the first video in 2012, I made a few jokes in the video about Onyx’s stepdad being named Todd or him having a job in Arby's that he didn't like, him wishing he could be called Onyx the Fortuitous and not Mark. They seemed like throwaway jokes, but I found that when that video got popular, some friends of mine where I worked said, “You got to make another one.”
I don't think I had thought about making another one, but when I did, I kind of returned to those jokes as if they were canon, as if they were real, lasting backstory for the character. Then, I did another video and another video. I always went back to kind of building out that world for him and his internal life as well. After six or seven of these viral videos, I realized I kind of know what this guy does, what his life is, and what his dreams are.
I made a web series when I was at a place called Nerdist called Welcome to the Shadow Zone. That was the first true test of if he could be stretched into a more fleshed out narrative context. I found that he could, at least from my perspective. While we were shooting the second episode of Welcome to the Shadow Zone, my friend Ryan Stanger, who plays Onyx’s stepdad Todd, said, “You got to let your character win at some point.” I was like, “What?” He said, “You beat up on this guy so much. You need to make sure he comes out on top at some point.” I was like, “I guess,” but it felt so foreign to me.
Because again, investigating where this character comes from, I am probably heaping shame and heaping a lot of negative things on myself and myself as a kid. I was like, “Can I let Onyx have maybe a more adventurous narrative and have him be a winner sometimes?” That's really where the film came from, kind of putting Onyx in a context where he wasn't just a joke, wasn't just a meme, wasn't just what the Internet might think he is, and give him a real kind of hero's journey. That's what I sat down to write, something that maybe could bring Onyx from being an underdog to being more of a formed hero.
Sam Rosenberg: You backed a portion of this project’s budget through Kickstarter. What was it like translating Onyx from the small to the big screen? How did you initially envision the project and how did it compare to the final result?
Andrew Bowser: I think the film that we have now is eerily similar to what I set out to make. I think along the way, though, certain things threatened to make it not that movie. When we finished the Kickstarter, the script was 124 pages long. I knew that was too long. Some sequences were just written too big. It really took me reshaping the script to be shootable, to be manageable, and practical for what time we would have.
Then, there were locations lost and I thought, “Oh, well, maybe we aren't gonna have this element.” Or there were moments where our budget got so tight. There was a time where I thought, “Do we need to just cut the ghouls as an idea, as a concept entirely for budgetary purposes?”
There were all these moments where I think what I wanted the movie to be definitely came under fire just because of the process of production. But ultimately, we did get that location that we wanted and we were able to keep all of our creatures. I was able to modify some of the sequences that were written too big to be smaller, but still in there. They still exist, just in a more modified state. I think the version that we have is what I wanted to make. The heart is the same. The journey is the same. The bones are the same.
Sam Rosenberg: The tone and energy of Onyx the Fortuitous is very ‘80s, even though Onyx himself feels more like a creation borne out of the late 2000s emo era. What made you want to hearken back to the ‘80s specifically and also have this 2000s look present at the same time?
Andrew Bowser: I think it's super interesting that you mentioned that because it's actually something that's always kind of bugged me about the character. I've always been trying to reconcile when I created him in 2012 with what he was what we just talked about earlier, with him being kind of a representation of my childhood. Even just stylistically, those can be at odds with each other.
That's actually one of the reasons why — and this is very inside baseball — I wanted his wardrobe in this film to pretty much lose that throughout the entirety of the film because I want him to be a little more evergreen in how he looks, even just from a fashion perspective. That was the challenge: Does Onyx make sense in a movie that is a throwback to Gremlins or Fright Night or Ghostbusters when he was kind of born of the Internet in 2012? And yes, I purchased a lot of those clothes at Hot Topic in 2012. He's wearing tripp pants that all my friends in college wore in the early 2000s.
So it's a mix of eras and I think ultimately that's why I pushed him to wear other clothes in the movie and shed that look, even if it's his Meat Hut uniform or if it's the robes that they're asked to wear once they're at the mansion. It was more important to me that I scratched the itch of my ‘80s throwback love than honored stylistically the era that Onyx was born out of as far as the Internet is concerned if that makes sense. I wanted to try to push them into a little more evergreen space.
Sam Rosenberg: The practical effects are great and bring such a fun, nostalgic energy to the movie. Can you elaborate on how those came together and what inspired the puppetry?
Andrew Bowser: I pictured a lot of the creatures in the movie being prosthetic makeup and really only Beefy Bad Boy, the little mascot, being a puppet. I reached out to Adam Dougherty, also known as KreatureKid, to design that puppet. He read the script and said, “What if they were just all puppets? The ghouls, the demons that you see in the nightmare sequence, etc.” I've been a fan of his for three years from the horror convention circuit. I'd seen his work and I'd even bought toys from him. I just trusted his take. If that was the vibe that he got from reading the script, then I should listen to it.
He sent me some sketches of what the demon could look like if it weren't a man in a suit and if it were a puppet. All of a sudden, I realized, “Well, yeah, that's what it should have been along.” I am inspired by Jim Henson and even The NeverEnding Story. There was an Alice in Wonderland movie, Dreamchild, where Jim Henson's Creature Shop supplied three or four creatures. That was a real touchstone. Labyrinth was a touchstone, obviously.
When Adam sent me the Dreamchild references, I realized, “Oh, yeah, everything should be a puppet.” Then, you can heighten someone's face. You can amplify things with makeup and make them look more cartoony, but you can't go as far as you could with something that doesn't have to fit a person inside. Those ghouls can look a lot closer to what I truly imagined when I wrote it if they're puppets.
It was really him and his experience and his whole team in Denver that made them what they were. I visited the shop, I think, twice. We even did a little R&D. We shot a sizzle reel to just see how the puppets were moving and how they functioned and then dialed in that even further from a visit to the shop.
Sam Rosenberg: I imagine it’s also much less expensive than CGI.
Andrew Bowser: I think so. There are ways to look at it where I think on a bigger film, if you needed many, many, many, many puppets, there might come a point where it tips and it's easier to do CG. But for us, it was much more manageable to have them be practical puppets. Like you said, it kind of releases that nostalgia… aroma is what I was gonna say?
Sam Rosenberg: I know there was a bit of a tease at the end of Onyx the Fortuitous that suggests there may be a follow-up, but do you hope to continue playing the character for as long as you’re able to? Or are there other non-Onyx stories that you’re interested in telling in the future?
Andrew Bowser: Without a doubt, there are non-Onyx stories I want to tell. I have probably three other features written right now that are not in his world but that might be in the same wheelhouse that I think could make sense to do. If anyone asks, “Do you have another script that isn't Onyx, but it's totally similar?” I have those, but I also really love the idea of making a second Onyx movie, just because I realized he unlocks a lot of what I love about film. I wasn't sure if he could, but sending him into this world of monsters and mayhem got me close to the vibe that I grew up on with those ‘80s films.
I've already been writing the sequel. It's even coming easier than the first one because now I have all these wonderful actors’ voices in my head that played the characters in the first one, so I can hear them and I could find their dialogue easier. There are more creatures. There's less setup needed, so you hit the ground running.
I really love the idea of at least getting to make a second Onyx film because it would be the kind of lean and mean, maybe more adventure movie. A little bigger in scope, but not overreaching what we might be able to accomplish. I would love to do that, but I also have these other scripts that I had actually been pushing for years before writing the Onyx scripts, so if someone wanted me to circle back to one of those, I happily would.