One of Those Creatures: Remembering Michael Massee

Director Nicholas McCarthy looks back on working with the late Michael Massee, a great actor and complex man, in his film At the Devil's Door.

I met Michael Massee when he came in to read for a part in my second feature, At the Devil’s Door. I shook his hand, and then Michael sat down and we did the scene. He read the lines with the sides on his knee. It was clear he hadn’t looked at them much before walking in, if at all. It was also apparent that he was a confident actor, almost strikingly so. Finding his way through the scene, where he played a kind of agent of the devil, testing a young woman with a game, Michael wasn’t afraid to simply learn the lines in front of me. He seemed relaxed, attentive in a measured way, repeating some lines until they sounded right to him. This was his process, and it was laid out right in front of us in the room.

He also was intense. Michael had a heaviness about him that you just can’t put on. You knew right away he was occupying the space in front of you. He had a searching, weary energy. And these little sheepish smiles that would surprise you, a kind of dark, sardonic touch that I associate with someone who’s spent a lot of time in New York.

After he left the room, the casting director, Emily Schweber, asked me if I recognized him. While there had been something about his face, I couldn’t place it, and I’m bad with that kind of thing anyway. Emily grinned and told me how he had been in a million movies. Maybe I remembered him as the sex shop owner in Se7en, who Brad Pitt interrogates. I realized then that of course I knew him, and that he was also in David Lynch’s Lost Highway.

None of that mattered, because Michael had the role even before he walked out of the room. Usually when I see someone I want for a part, it’s a lot like falling in love. You hope that it happens, but can’t plan for when it does. You don’t know what the person will look like until you see them. The first time they leave the room, you are excited and kind of unmoored. And the reason for that is you’re scared they’ll say no to you.

Michael did not say no, and weeks later came to set for his single day of shooting. I went and hung out with him early so we could speak a little bit. He asked me about the scene, and I talked to him about what I thought his character, Uncle Mike, was after. There were certain lines he had questions about. He sat there and looked at the script, speaking the lines out loud, repeating them, finding rhythms, choosing which word to emphasize. By the time we were ready to shoot, I think he trusted me.

We shot the scene all day, deciding not to rush it. On a movie with such a low budget, this meant I had to forfeit shooting what was originally going to be the opening of the movie, a short scene in a shoe store where Ashley Rickards was going to buy a pair of red sneakers. But I decided to cut it because I was enjoying working with Michael so much.

As the day went on, he became more and more engaged, and the work became a lot of fun. We were toward the end of our schedule, and the experience of making the film had been miserable for me in a lot of ways. It was always cold, and I was sick. The movie was very personal to me, and enough of a challenge that I knew I was going to screw up some piece of it. But working with Michael felt simple: we were searching for something together, and we found it. It was the best day of the shoot.

He came to the wrap party and I spent the entire time talking to him, stupidly ignoring other people I should’ve paid more attention to. But Michael for me had a pull about him, like a black hole. I think he sensed that I was going through an awful time, just as he was. He talked about his current relationship situation, how he had moved into a small apartment and had nothing there but his guitars and these giant dogs, which was a problem because, as Michael said in his hepcat way, “the dogs don’t play.” He told me a story about one of his kids. He talked about sobriety while clutching a long neck Budweiser.

We talked about his career, too. I asked him about Se7en. He said he had never seen the movie. He told me he kept a copy of Camus’ The Stranger next to him when he shot the scene, because he thought the guy was an existentialist. He said he gave the book to Brad Pitt when they were done because Brad had never read it. I asked him about being directed by Lynch. He said Lynch would walk up to him and Bill Pullman and say things like “OK great, now this time, do it like … like Kabuki, Noh theatre,” and then disappear back behind the camera. And he and Pullman would kind of look at one another and nod and figure out a way to hang with whatever the hell that meant.

Nearly a year went by before I saw him again, when he came in to loop a couple of his lines for the final sound mix. It had been a terrible post-production, but I was in a happy mood, relieved this cursed film was coming to a close. Michael walked in, much thinner than the last time I saw him. We hugged, and he seemed really happy to see me. He watched his scene, which he liked a lot, smiling and telling me he dug the way we cut it. Afterward he told me his friend Cheetah Chrome had gotten him in this movie about CBGB, a club he had actually hung out in a lot during the 1970s. They reconstructed it as a set on a soundstage in Atlanta. He said the level of detail was staggering; it looked just like the real place. “They even used the actual doors and things that they got from the original bathrooms. And man, let me tell you, those were some very heavy bathrooms.” He said that it was incredibly depressing to walk into a recreation of a place from his past. “I just thought, where the fuck did 35 years of my life go?”

When we did the sound mix, we had to pitch Michael’s looped lines down to match his dialogue the year before, because his voice was so thin-sounding now.

The movie was finally finished. Soon after, sitting at a bar, talking about it with a friend, I found out that Michael had been the one in 1993 who pulled the trigger on Brandon Lee during the filming of The Crow, accidentally killing him on set. I hadn’t known this when we worked together.

I never saw Michael after that, but I thought about him a lot. After I learned that he passed away, I did something I’ve done with a couple of people close to me that have died too young. I looked up at the ceiling and talked to him. I told Michael he was great, because he was. I told him that I think about him. I also told him to ignore the people who linked his name with his accident in the headline of his own goddamned obituary, infuriating as that was. Shame, shame on them. But it’s somehow stupidly appropriate, their ignorance aside, because I got the sense from Michael that he knew damn well he was better than a lot of what happened to him in life, and now, here in death.

Every day I wake up and try to remember to kiss the ground I walk on because of the good fortune in my life. To not linger on sadness, or wounds suffered. In what I do, I’ve met special people, the kind you just can’t get out of your head, people who seem to walk in odd spaces inside this world. Maybe there’s a reason why many of them are actors. Maybe they know that they have to put themselves on show because they are remarkable, to teach people like me something about myself. The number of hours I spent with Michael Massee barely totaled a day, but he was one of those creatures. He walked strangely, nobly to his own crooked beat, and he seemed to carry a weight of suffering that briefly relieved my own. Some say that’s what an artist is supposed to do. May God bless him.

Writer-director Nicholas McCarthy made his feature debut in 2012 with The Pact, adapted from his short film of the same name. The horror film, which premiered at Sundance, was released by IFC Midnight in the U.S. and spawned a sequel. In the wake of the success of The Pact, McCarthy wrote and directed the At the Devil’s Door, starring Naya Rivera and Catalina Sandino Moreno, which was released in 2014, also by IFC Midnight. In 2016, McCarthy wrote and directed the “Easter” segment of the anthology horror film Holidays. He lives in Los Angeles.