Last year The Dead premiered at FrightFest 2010. This year the directors Howard and Jon Hughes are running a live commentary for fans at Frightfest 2011. We managed to get a few of our own questions out to Howard.
What drew you to Africa in the first place, and why did you chose to place your story amidst a zombie/walking dead outbreak.
Africa came to us way after we had decided to make a zombie movie. My brother Jon and I knew we had to shoot a living dead movie ever since seeing Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as young teenagers around the time when we first started experimenting with Super 8 film & making short movies. Dawn affected us deeply and the concept of the dead attacking the living stayed with us but it took more than 20 years until we would actually do it. By then I had directed and Jon had been DOP on well over 100 TV spots but Jon had been chipping away at notes on the script over the years – it always involved a stranger in a strange land but it was when we ended up in West Africa shooting adverts it hit us that our living dead movie could have a lot of deeper meanings and a strange beauty to it if we did it in rural Africa. That’s when I became very serious about it – serious enough to close the production company doors and resurrect our zombies! It felt like we had a chance at doing something totally different and that felt exciting.
So as we understand it, the shoot was quite a gruelling one? Was there any day in particular where it all got on top of you?
The shoot was a fucking nightmare! The reality of getting just one shot in the can (and it was in the can as we were shooting 35mm film) was horrific. I will never be able to put into words how tough that shoot was. The truth is, every day got on top of me as I had the responsibility of producer as well as directing but I had so much invested in the film financially and emotionally that I had to finish it, even if that meant coming home in a body bag which very nearly happened for a lot of us. I can’t really choose if it was the knifepoint mugging that bothered me most, or being told at the hospital that our actor Rob Freeman might die of Cerebral Malaria at any time in the next 24 hours, or the constant sickness the crew would be affected by, or the armed police extracting money from us almost on a daily basis. A low point comes to mind when a police officer was taking me off to a local jail for driving without the licence that was stolen from me in the mugging when Jon and I decided that the best course of action was to kill this corrupt and nasty policeman and bury him at the side of the dusty track so we could get on with the damn shoot. Luckily we didn’t as there were witnesses and we realised we would have had to take them out too and that was going to get messy! When I look back on that moment, the fact that at the time I genuinely thought that taking someone’s life it was the best course of action to deal with the situation in order to stay on schedule, it convinces me our minds were truly at an all-time low!
Do you think there is a danger of there being perhaps too many zombie flicks around at the moment? How do you justify The Dead in this currently crowded market?
There is definitely way too many zombie movies around and that’s why we would never had gone ahead and made The Dead if it could not have given audiences a totally different experience –the fact it is a journey film – hopefully a beautiful one, which takes you through locations across Africa that have never appeared in any other movie means you’re going to get something different with The Dead whether you like zombies or not, or horror at all. We have noticed during the festival screenings and previews that so many people come up after and say they were tired of zombie films but had a great experience with The Dead has been truly rewarding to hear. Of course you can never please everyone but we have also had a lot of people say they were very moved by the emotional aspects and even a couple of people shedding real tears towards the end and being quite affected by the images of Africa which we have tried to keep as ‘real’ as possible. We hope that the power and beauty of Africa within a horrific context will give people something different but we’ll have to see when it comes out next month…
When financing the film was there any danger in someone wanting you to compromise your material to make it more market friendly, (or God forbid, joke friendly).
Funnily enough, there was NO danger of this whatsoever. It has happened to us SO many times in the past either on commercials or otherwise than with The Dead, Jon and I were so insistent on doing it our way that no one was even given a copy of the script in advance of the shoot. I quite literally mean no one – even Amir the executive producer who raised finance was not shown the full script until post-production. None of the investors either. Jon and I decided we didn’t even want to hear anyone’s opinion on it in case we accidentally listened to it. We simply wanted to make the film we wanted to see and if other people like it then great. We just said ‘it’s a zombie movie set in Africa’ and that was enough to get people on board! The trouble is, that was all very well but we didn’t realise how much ‘control’ we’d actually lose with the nightmare production situations. We had to make a lot of changes to the script to get it done and even tear some scenes out completely which was sad.
How did you find your leading actors for the film?
I had met Rob Freeman before at some film related event a few years back and had him in the back of my mind for a part if something came up. There was something about him – en everyman appeal and when Jon and I were discussing the character Murphy, I recalled Rob’s bright blue eyes which was an important visual for us – to contrast with the environment and African people as much as possible and we decided to re-watch some of his work (The X Files, Smallville, etc) and were very impressed with his abilities. He was also a fitness fanatic and we needed someone who could endure the tough times in Africa. We auditioned him and he was great. It just clicked. We feel was destined to play the part of Murphy. That’s how we felt and I don’t regret it at all as I don’t know another actor who could have endured what he did plus 2 weeks on a hospital drip and STILL insisted on staying to finish the job!
Prince, the co-star was an amazing discovery. We had considered flying an African actor out from UK or America but that would not have given us the true local flavour we were after so, we put out the word for local talent to audition in Nigeria, Ghana & Burkina Faso West Africa and in walks Prince and just nails it from a cold read. He oozed everything we wanted in that character and was incredibly talented. His presence physically was right and he had a dignity that we really wanted. He was truly wonderful and a dream to work with. We have put his original audition online and I believe it will be on the DVD extras.
The film may be dialogue light in long stretches, but it is always visually engrossing. Was it your intention to have your visuals as lush as this? It looks very much like a graphic novel.
Thanks! Really glad you liked the look. Strange as it may seem, we really wanted the film to be beautiful before it was horrific so I hope this comes across. We are also believers of film being a visual medium (I have a saying when directing commercials: if the script can work on the radio, that’s where it should stay) and Jon and I were also tired of ‘talky’ films so whilst we were writing the script, we decided not to put any dialogue in unless it was completely necessary. We would analyse each other’s dialogue ideas and throw out any words unless either one of us could justify its necessity. We were also growing tired of the constant twists and turns which was becoming the trend in screenplays. We are also not big fans of heavy CGI or FX movies so we wanted to have the whole thing feeling very natural, and to keep it simple. We were going back to basics with an A to B plot following this guy on his strange journey and like it or not, you’re going with him… We also didn’t want him to be a ‘hero’. He’s just some random guy who fate decides was in the right place at the right time to survive the crash.
You premiered the film last year at Frightfest. Were you happy with the reception the film received?
Frightfest was great and it was amazing to see our images on the 55ft screen in the huge 1400 seater Empire 1. When Jon and I first walked in to do the tech check it was so daunting as it was like a stadium or something, but it went down well and that was a real relief actually as you never know if it’s working or not but we were very appreciative for the kind feedback from the audience. We’re incredibly grateful for the support of anyone who parts with their hard earned cash to go and see The Dead as it’s that support that will allow films to get made in the future and us film makers are frankly nothing without that audience.
And this year you intend to do a commentary. Will it be just the brothers, or will you have a host (like Alan Jones)?
Alan’s a fantastic presence, I did a radio show with him and he’s brilliant as he says exactly what he means and doesn’t censor it for anyone which is a rare quality but I think apart from an intro, it’s us Ford Brothers on our own! Jon and I are planning to blurt out as much of the gory details from the shoot as possible during our time, at least to get it off our chest if nothing else! We’re also intending to reveal some exclusive details so it’ll definitely be un-censored. Personally, I would recommend this event for anyone who has seen The Dead already as it’ll be the ‘spoiler’ from hell if you haven’t!
Frightfest have done this before, with the film Hatchet. They released that commentary on disc as well; will you go a similar route with this recording do you think?
I understand that Anchor Bay are considering putting it on the DVD or Blu-ray but I’m hoping it’s just too shocking for them want to play it again!
What project are you going to be working on next?
I’ve got a couple of feature projects in development and have been offered a couple of films too that were not right to say yes to. I’m personally not desperate to jump back in and make another film unless it really means something to me. To be honest, we’ve had a pretty grim experience making The Dead and I want to see if it’s been worth all the effort and sacrifice. If enough people go and see it on anything other than a pirate download then it will have been worth it and we’ll do it again hopefully on a bigger scale. Either way, I want to make films that not only entertain but also have a deeper meaning and those projects don’t seem to come along very often.
Thank you very much for your time, and all my best wishes for the film. I will look forward to seeing you at FrightFest 2011!
Thanks a lot Steven, very happy to be featured on Filmwerk and I hope you and your readers enjoy the strange journey of The Dead when the time comes… Very best, Howard
Well you heard it folks. Howard and Jon will be presenting a live commentary at this year’s FrightFest. We suggest you get booking now and save me a front row seat!
The Dead is out in theatres September 2nd, 2011.