Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Interview With Mike Masters & David Francis, Co-Directors Of "Reel Zombies"

There's plenty of differences between how a studio film is put together and how an indie film is put together. From the way it's inevitably supposed to be seen, to the way it was shot, to the people involved, to preproduction... all the way back to that one moment in time where someone thought, "hey, I've got an idea". Well, actually, that might be the only moment in time where a studio film and an indie film are, at the core, exactly the same. "Aha!" You know? That moment where an idea is born...

For ease of explanation, let's remove the scenario where a screenwriter writes a feature on spec and a studio picks it up... most studio scenario's involve hoards of marketing people, producers, executives, development teams and writers. That "Aha" moment is taken away and put through the grinder. "How about we add a monkey? Could we tone down the violence here? Maybe the lead should be a girl? She needs a non-simian sidekick. How about a love interest? No, it can't be the monkey... and make it PG-13. Can we work Ted Danson into the film? Axe the monkey." Indie film is, usually, drastically different. Once that "Aha" moment happens, something sort of magical can take place... That "Aha" is nursed, massaged and grows. It starts as that brief strike of genius, but then it's nurtured by like minded people with a common goal and, hopefully, can turn into something great. I think that must have been what happened when they came up "Reel Zombies".

How do I explain "Reel Zombies"? It's, sort of, the third installment into the "Zombie Night" series from David Francis. I mean, the second installment was renamed "Awakening", but you really can't consider this a sequel... I don't know. On a side note, for interests sake, we actually discussed "Awakening" with David a while ago, you can find that interview
here. Long and short, I was aware of the "Zombie Night" films, but you don't have to be to get this. However, you'd probably get a few more of the jokes. Anyhow, maybe it was because I was aware of those two films and maybe it was because I talked with David about "Awakening", but when I watched "Reel Zombies", I knew that they must have had a big "Aha" moment. Really, it's pure genius. Within minutes of firing it up, I was shaking my head, thinking to myself... this is gold, which quickly turned to... wow, you guys nailed this one. I don't want to say too much here, as we go through a lot of it in this interview. However, know this... as far as I'm concerned, this film should be required viewing for any indie horror filmmaker or fan of the indie horror genre. You need to see this film, plain and simple. We had the chance to discuss it with co-directors, Mike Masters and David Francis. Great interview, great film... and definitely worth your time.

So, we talked to you a while back about "Awakening" or, as it was originally called, "Zombie Night 2". What have you been doing since then?

Mike : The Reel Zombies festival tour has been pretty involving with trips so far to Portugal, Australia, New York, Michigan, North Carolina and LA.

Dave: We’ve been traveling everywhere and having a blast with festival folks around the world.

Tell us a bit about "Reel Zombies".

Mike: Reel Zombies is a mockumentary about all of us, the filmmakers, from Zombie Night 1 and 2, attempting to make another zombie film in a time of a real zombie apocalypse. It's basically our way of exploring a lot of the successes and failures (mostly failures) that we've experienced on the first 2 movies in a light hearted way. It's about the spirit of indie film making in oft times less than perfect circumstances.

Dave: I wouldn’t say “failures” as much as “unsuccessful endeavors”… What makes Reel Zombies so compelling is that we actually made the first two movies, there’s a history behind this mocumentary that really, no one else has. There was so much history to draw from that this film is rich in both characterization and story.

What was the approx budget and how did you secure financing?

Mike: We don't really talk like to talk specific budget numbers. But it was less than the first two films. Financing was secured through private investment with Dave and I paying for a large percentage of it off the sales of Zombie Night 1 and 2.

What did you shoot on and how long was the shoot?

Mike: It was about a 25-day shoot and shot on a Sony Z1. The camera gave us a great, but modern EPK style look for the film. We wanted attractive images, but at the same time, for nothing to look staged or overlit. If there are moments where things blow out, or where audio is less than perfect, those could kill you in a different film, but in this case, it all adds to the realism of the world we've created in which a documentary filmmaker is basically following us around in a run and gun fashion.

Dave: that was the shoot length, the hours of footage was tremendous. Many features will shoot 20, 30 or maybe 40 hours of footage, we shot over 80! Although we worked from a script there was a fair amount of improv in there so the editing process was quite daunting. Mike and I spent almost a year cutting this movie together. The assemble edit was over ten hours long. By the time we got that cut down to three hours it got really difficult to bring this to a 90 min feature. We work well together though so there weren’t any scenes we’d really argue over. Mike and I are both such opposites that we mesh tremendously well when it comes to film making. What I don’t want to do, he’s the strongest at and vice versa. It works great for both the production days and post days.

In our pre-production meetings there were questions from other production staff members as to why we weren’t shooting on film but as Mike said, it wouldn’t have worked for what we wanted. We needed this to feel grittier than we shot our first two movies while maintaining quality that the audience is willing to accept.

Personally, I thought the film was ingenious. I'd love to know how and when you came up with the idea and what everyone's reaction was when you told them what you wanted to do?

Mike : I came up with the idea upon returning from the EFM in Berlin. I was overwhelmed by the amount of product out there and available, and I realized if we were to ever do another zombie film, it needed an original hook. In this case, Dave and I had just finished cutting together Andrew Fruman's feature length making of Documentary/EPK for Zombie Night 2 and I realized it was actually better and more entertaining than the film itself. Indie filmmakers, and specifically, horror movie filmmakers, tend to be a strange and eclectic bunch. The Zombie Night franchise has been no exception. I wanted to see these characters (us) in a different scenario. I've always been a big fan of mock docs (FUBAR being one of my favorites) and it was a real "eureka" moment when it hit. I was just getting ready for a late Valentines dinner with my then girlfriend and now wife and executive producer, LeAnne Armano. It was all I could talk about during dinner and I called the key principles involved: David Francis, Steve Papadimitriou, Sam Hall and Paul Fler. They were all on board right away and within a week I was pounding away on the script.

Dave: Mike called me a few days after watching the finished product of the making of… doc for Zombie Night 2 with the idea. I remember standing on my back deck when he told me the concept and I was speechless. Simply put, brilliant. Mike would send over pages of script and every one brought a clearer image of what Reel Zombies would look like with it. Most often, there are numerous rewrites of a film script but this one required very little. Mike is an amazing screenplay writer and he outdid himself on this one.

One of the keys of making a mocumentary is making it believable, and bad acting in a mocumentary can come off even worse than bad acting in a narrative piece. Talk about creating and maintaining the look and feel of a documentary.

Dave: That was a concern from the beginning. We knew that the main characters were going to be us, hell, who better to play Mike and I than ourselves but when it came to there rest of the cast of the movie within the movie we had to be very careful that they were able to free flow with us, not an easy task. The returning characters (and crew now to act as the characters they are) had all known each other for years before shooting and we knew how each other will react to a given situation. However, when bringing in outsiders, the outcome would be uncertain. In the audition process we tested the actors’ improvisation skills and personalities to make sure we would all be able to read off each other and it worked better than we could have hoped.

Mike : For me, it all started with the script. You have to establish the rules of your universe and then follow them. In this case, we went for a more realistic character driven style like a FUBAR, as opposed to the hyper realistic, highly entertaining, but ultimately you know you're watching something very contrived films of Christopher Guest.

There's actually a scene in the film where you discuss screenwriting and how you never really follow the script, anyhow. How closely did you actually follow the script, how much was improvised, but followed an outline and how much was completely made up on the spot?

Mike : I'd say 90% of the film is scripted (in terms of events and plot points) There was a lot of freedom with dialogue as it was really important to me that everyone speak in their own voice. The shooting script was 123 pages. I never in a million years thought we'd shoot it all (since we never do) This time though, we not only shot all of it, but we added about 10 pages worth of material. It certainly made for lots of choices in the editing process. Hence, a very long editing

Dave: It was crucial that the cast have the opportunity to believe in their characters, really get into their heads. Without being able to have that freedom to have their own voice the audience would never believe what we were putting in front of them and ultimately, if a mock documentary isn’t believable the film-maker has failed.

What advice would you pass on to other filmmakers, looking to make a mocumentary?

Dave: Do something fresh and new, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself but make sure you can see the project through to the end. Neil Simon said, “If no-one ever took risks, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor”.

Mike: Write what you know. Shoot what you can. Do something that's within your means, but still something an audience will enjoy. If you try to emulate another's style, it's not necessarily going to fit with the story or resources at your disposal. One thing Mock Docs share with real docs is the potential to augment your story as you go along. Watch your footage and be flexible in adjusting the script to what is and isn't working.

"Reel Zombies" has already won a few awards at festivals. Tell us a bit about how it's being received versus, say, how your other films were received?

Dave: we never bothered with festivals with the first two movies; at the time the main concern was to get them to market! Now that we are more established and have a much more festival worthy project we are taking our time and letting the festival circuit carry us along for the ride and what a ride it’s been!

Mike: Much better! Zombie Night 1 or 2 were never festival pieces, but I always knew this one would be. It's done really well at genre festivals. It's nice counter programming for a horror festival that has all these dark and gritty films to be able to show something like Reel Zombies, which is a comedy, though still within the recognizable zombie subgenre.

How's the distribution process going for "Reel Zombies"? What have you learned from your past experience that you're applying now?

Mike : It's moving along. There are offers, but none that we can't afford to wait on. On the first two films, we were desperate to sell, in this case, there's less of a burning desire because the film is already achieving one of its goals which is being seen and enjoyed by audiences at festivals. The plan would be to finish the festival run this year and then take the distribution offer that makes the most sense for us at that time.

Where can people find out more about "Reel Zombies" and/or check it out?

ReelZombies.com and there's also a group on facebook.

What's next? Do you have any new projects in the works?

Mike: I've got a horror film called Corridor which will hopefully shooting in January/Feb 2010. We're just in the equity phase with it now after having developed the project for close to 2 years. It's the first time I've been able to secure government funding, which in Canada, is almost a must for anything with any sort of a budget. I'm looking forward to getting away from ultra low-budget and having the ability to tell a story in a little slicker and more stylish way. It's a great
script by Halifax based writer Josh MacDonald. My co-producer, Craig Cameron, and I have also attached extremely talented commercial/short film director Evan Kelly, who will be making his feature film directorial debut. I'm excited about it.

Dave: I’m taking time off while we enjoy the festival run. Next year I’m planning to start pre-production on a Mad Max style feature called Wasteland. With any luck, Mike and I will co-direct again!

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