Tracking the scent of a werewolf movie leads to some strange corners. Back in September 2016, Austin Vesely, the 28-year-old director of Slice, a pizza-delivery slasher spoof starring longtime collaborator Chance the Rapper, sent me a message to meet in J-Town, the nickname for Joliet, a once-booming steel mill city in northeast Illinois. The location was a hardware store. Customers browsing hammers were unaware that the back of the store was overtaken by a film crew. One room doubled as the office of the mayor, played by Chris Parnell, who obsesses over a collection of nudie paintings that would blend in well at Scatman Crothers’s Florida pad in The Shining. He presides over the fictitious (and haunted) town of Kingfisher, a surrogate for the outskirts of Chicago, Vesely’s adopted hometown. With Chance, Vesely has found a creative partner whose mission extends beyond the arts to the civic health of his community, whether he’s ushering voters to the polls, resurrecting a wayward media outlet, or raising money for public schools through his SocialWorks nonprofit. Prior to Slice, Vesely and Chance partnered on numerous music videos, including the single-take sock hop “Sunday Candy” and “Angels,” which saw Chance surf a CTA train and reclaim the same LaSalle Street corridor the Joker tore up in The Dark Knight.
The drive from Chicago to Joliet was streaked with reminders of the duo’s Midwestern roots and how far they’ve traveled since Slice was announced in 2015. Past U.S. Cellular Field (now Guaranteed Rate Field), where Chance hosted his Magnificent Coloring Day festival and where he serves, officially or otherwise, as a club ambassador for the White Sox. Past exit signs for 79th Street in Chatham, the neighborhood that shaped him (“79th Street was America then,” he raps on “Summer Friends,” rhyming “Jolly Rancher kids” with “Grandma’s crib”). Past signs pointing westward to Iowa, the one-time home state of Vesely, who knew at age 6 that he would be a director — a dream realized when he drove from the Quad Cities to Chicago for film school in 2010 and, five years later, cruised into a distribution deal with A24, the Oscar-winning independent studio named for an Italian motorway. Following Slice’s nearly two-year postproduction process, A24 introduced a savvy online marketing campaign revolving around images of blood-soaked Domino’s boxes and headless Little Caesars. The full-length trailer topped iTunes. Then, after a 20-city, one-night theatrical release and simulcast Q&A with Vesely and the cast in Chicago on Monday, A24 made the film available to stream online at midnight — the studio equivalent of a full-moon howl.
Joliet is perhaps best remembered onscreen as the jailbird home of The Blues Brothers, though because of Slice’s mix of humor, horror, and practical effects, it shares more DNA with other early-’80s John Landis works, namely the “Thriller” video and An American Werewolf in London. Only with pizza. Throughout the five-week shoot, strange things were afoot. The crew spoke of witnessing bizarre arrests and pullovers on the town’s main drag during production. The local doughnut shop that served as the film’s pizza shop got occasional knocks from confused customers wondering if they could grab a slice, not a cruller. This sense of citywide menace is incorporated into the fictional pizzeria’s catchphrase, “Relax, it’s perfect pizza,” which delivery people shout to put homeowners at ease when their doorbells ring. It’s understandable, considering Kingfisher borders an actual ghost town, where the undead openly wander the streets and hang out at city council meetings, seeking representation.
After the screening on Monday, Paul Scheer — whose character owns and operates the pizzeria, which may or may not double as a portal to hell — was quick to praise Joliet’s unique energy. “I often find that in movies like this, where you’re in a small town, it’s good for morale,” he said at the premiere after-party. “It galvanizes everyone — the actors, the crew. In Joliet, they were the most accommodating people I’ve ever encountered.” When a crew member spotted a cool car in a driveway, he explained, a simple knock and request to use it in the film for free was happily accepted. Relax. It’s perfect pizza.
In 2016, the late-summer air was trapped inside the hardware-store set. Gun magazines like Recoil littered the floor. “Manischewitz, it’s hot in here,” gasped Marilyn Dodds Frank, a veteran Chicago stage actress, between takes. Her performance elicited laughs from Vesely, who was hunched over the monitor, ponytailed and rail thin, his steepled fingers hiding a smirk. He soon drifted outside at sunset, wearing a red-vinyl Perfect Pizza jacket over a T-shirt on the verge of disintegration. The shoot was nearly wrapped, and he was feeling wistful. He recounted one particularly breakneck sequence in the production schedule in which he and Chance left town to attend the VMAs at Madison Square Garden in support of their nomination for “Angels.” Almost two years before Chance’s public support of Kanye West, the young rapper’s mentor, would reach President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, Vesely recalled the gravity of standing beside Chance when Kanye declared him “the future” from the stage. (The endorsement overshadowed “Angels” losing to “Hotline Bling.”) Cocktails were served during commercial breaks, Vesely explained, and he was “pretty toasty.” The next day, he was back in Joliet on the Slice set, filming his death cameo.
The following April, Vesely sent another message to meet for a day of pickup shooting, this time in an abandoned warehouse on the west side of Chicago. Chance was just days from departing for a national tour, but the studio and Vesely wanted to capture a face-to-face encounter between him and Zazie Beetz, who receives top billing as Astrid, the town vigilante and moral compass of the film. Beetz, a month after being cast in Deadpool 2, flew in from New York for another day of work. The mood on set was relaxed, confident. “That’s an Oscar right there,” Chance joked after only a few seconds of rehearsal. Between shots he hummed Lauryn Hill and talked Prince on the one-year anniversary of his death. At one point, a take was disrupted by the most Chicago-centric hat trick of sounds possible: an L train, a police siren, and Chance’s daughter Kensli cracking up off-camera.
Earlier that month, Chance posted video of Kensli doing push-ups at center court of the United Center. After the shoot at the warehouse wrapped, the stadium loomed in the background as Vesely drove beneath the elevated tracks of Lake Street to the next location. Beetz was riding shotgun. Vesely played her the new Kendrick Lamar record, released just days earlier. A year later, Lamar would win the Pulitzer. Beetz would be Emmy-nominated. Chance was already a Grammy winner. Vesely would be hired to consult on LeBron James’s HBO series The Shop, lock his first feature, and direct a pilot starring Hannibal Buress. The trains overhead couldn’t keep up.
The journey finally ended Monday, when the Slice premiere was held at the ArcLight Cinema in Chicago, a couple of blocks north of the former Cabrini-Green grounds where Candyman once lurked. (Now he’d be wandering the aisles of a Target.) News trucks lined the cul-de-sac in front of the theater. Inside, the screens of four packed auditoriums were filled with images of body bags and blunts smoked in slow motion. Despite the grandness of the multiplex screen, it still felt like the kind of movie you’d catch on VHS in your friend’s basement. In the title sequence, there’s an early clue that sets the tone — an animated eyeball drips down and settles as a pizza topping.
While waiting for the simulcast Q&A afterward, an audience member in the back row punctured the silence with a werewolf howl. Once underway, Vesely spoke about the weirdness of working with Beetz during the cultural watershed of Atlanta premiering on FX in 2016. “It was this big moment in her career” — Beetz costars alongside Donald Glover in the critically acclaimed series — “and I had her quarantined in a hotel in Joliet,” he joked. Scheer interjected, “Joliet is not nowhere — there’s two Chipotles there.” Beetz remained humble about the process, despite her ascent to blockbusters and awards speculation. “I love small-budget work,” she said. “There’s such an earnestness that comes from people who are wildly creative and want to make things. … I always came into [acting] because of the high of building a community.”
Few understand community- and culture-building in 21st-century Chicago better than Chance, though his take on acting as a time drain was characteristically confessional. “Just being honest, I don’t like shooting movies,” he said. “I don’t like being on a set or in a trailer. Austin knows this to be true. It’s very different than the way I execute my music after it’s written. But the reward of the final product is always something I thoroughly enjoy for a long time afterward.” Having revolutionized the process — he was the first artist to win a Grammy for an exclusively streaming release, for one — he actively eliminates middlemen while speaking out on the political and cultural issues that consume him. It’s perhaps appropriate, then, that a movie that launched with concept art posted to Instagram in 2015 now lives in the streaming space, not cinemas.
It was undeniably Chance’s presence that made the event pop Monday, as evidenced by the waves of iPhones that shot up like liberty torches when he entered the theater lobby. Droves of kids in “3” hats bought up Slice merchandise, which was appropriately not bagged but packed in takeaway pizza boxes. Whether he wants it or not, for a night he was a movie star. And with that, he was gone. It called to mind the moment on set in Chicago a year back when he wrapped his final take of the project. There was little ceremony, just an opportunity to vanish out the back with his family. A crew member relayed into his walkie-talkie, “We’re turning the world onto Chance.” It’s the other way around.
James Hughes is a writer and editor based in Chicago.