Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Interview with Kevin Gates, co-writer, director and producer of "Zombie Diaries"

I've said it before, I'll say it again... Dead Harvey is usually a little late to the party. Either that, or we're the guys that never make it to the big party, we were having too much fun at the pre-party.... or maybe we're the guys who got too drunk to even show up at the party, I don't know. The point is, we rarely have breaking news, exclusives or things like that. The reason is, more than anything, we're just fans and filmmakers ourselves... more than we are a media outlet, anyhow. We just get to shit when we get to it. Quite frankly, we've never made a dime off of doing the site, but we have met a lot of wicked people, found out about a lot of kick-ass projects and helped promote a few films along the way. This interview with Kevin Gates, the co-writer, director and producer of "The Zombie Diaries", is a prime example of why we do what we do... mainly because I thought the movie kicked ass and I'm pretty stoked to hear about how they got it done. But that's not all, we may just have some exclusive news this time around, just read to the end.

If you're into indie horror, I'm sure you've either seen "Zombie Diaries", heard about it or, at least, seen the ads... unreal box art, by the way. It's easily one of the most successful indie horror's of the year and with good reason. I hate to knock Romero, I really do, but both "Zombie Diaries" and "Diary of the Dead" set out with extremely similar premises and "Zombie Diaries" is the one that delivered the goods and it did it on a fraction of the budget. It's one of the best first-person, cinema verite style, horror films that I've seen in a long while and, for indie horror fans, it's a must see... period.

We had a chance to discuss the film with Kevin Gates and this is definitely one for our filmmaker readers. There's some great insight, great thoughts and it's a good read.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what brought you into the world of indie horror filmmaking?

I'm from Hertfordshire in the UK. I started off studying painting before discovering a film-making course at my local art college when I was 18. Having always been a horror film fan it really appealed to me. From then on I ditched my paintbrush and started making Super 8 shorts, before studying film-making at university. My influences mainly stem from the movies I grew up watching. Italian horror cinema - the likes of Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, Joe D'Amato, Lamberto Bava etc. And of course, John Carpenter and George Romero. My favourite film of all time is Carpenter's 'The Thing'. For me it's the perfect movie.

Film School: Yes or No?

Film-making has changed so much in the last 10 years that I don't think it's as essential. At the same time, I went to film school and it made me much more disciplined in my approach, which I think is very important. I also picked up a lot of technical skills. So there's a choice. Either spend your money on film school, or spend your money on buying some HD equipment and learn yourself. I think there is a myth with a lot of the digital generation whereby anyone with a camcorder considers themselves a director. That's not the case. You've got to learn your craft. Whether that's at film school or working your way up on other people's productions, the choice is yours. But once you've reached a certain level, there's so much scope now with low cost equipment to say "Right, I'm now going to make my own film" and really go for it.

Where did the idea for “The Zombie Diaries” come from and, if you don’t mind me asking, did you come up with the idea before you heard about Romero’s “Diary of the Dead”?

Mike and I are always coming up with ideas for movies - usually horror movies. Often I'll say "No way, that's awful" or vice-versa. On this occasion Mike said "How about a short zombie film, but shot like Blair Witch?" I pondered on this for a little while, before saying "Okay, but how about feature length?" It went from there.

The idea was conceived late 2004, so about two years before Diary of the Dead was even announced. We premiered our movie on Halloween 2006, so way before Diary. There has been a misconception in the US because Diary of the Dead was released first, but that's because The Weinstein Company own both films and was just a scheduling decision.

How did you go about securing financing and what was the approx budget?

100% private investment. I'm not going to reveal the precise budget and the reason being that it doesn't matter. The film is what it is. There have been wild reports on the internet of incredibly high and low estimates for the budget, but we've never officially revealed it and I like that mystery.

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

The movie was shot for the main part on a Sony VX2000 MiniDV camera, with some additional nightvision shots done on a Sony handycam. The credits sequence in London was actually shot on a Canon MV30 – a camera which I loathed. I got revenge though when the camera was rolled down a hillside for the sequence where the character of Matt is shot by Goke. I think that pretty much destroyed the camera, which belonged to Mike.

When you’re dealing with that whole ‘cinema verite’ style of shooting, low-budget films can lose believability due to amateur actors, people trying to remember lines, stuff like that. You guys nailed it. I thought it never lost believability. How did you deal with that? Was it in your approach with the actors, was it pre-production… or?

We were very fortunate with some of the actors we got hold of in London. We didn't even hold that many casting sessions as we knew the people we wanted. The approach was to use a lot of improvisation, but to be careful that the story wasn't lost by too much deviation from the script. With certain scenes, the actors really didn't know what to expect so often the reactions were genuine. A good reference for this is the scene where the two guys go up the stairs in the farm house in 'The Outbreak' segment. They didn't know what was waiting for them in the bedroom, so they really felt like they were there.

It wasn’t over-the-top gory, but there was some extremely gruesome scenes to say the least. On top of that, the gore that was in there was very effective. Talk about dealing with effects on a low budget.

We used professionals for the effects and make up. Two of the guys (Scott Orr and Mike Peel) I'd worked with before and along with Cesar Alonso, they formed a great team to create all the zombie make ups and blood and guts. The effects were very elaborate and time consuming, but that's because we needed absolute realism. Because of the stark nature of the filming, we needed to go right up close to the zombies on occasions. For that reason, the effects had to be as believable as the cinema-verite approach.

The film offered a very bleak look at humanity and it ended on a bit of low note. Talk about deciding to go against the Hollywood ending.

I've always preferred downbeat endings. My favourite films 'The Thing', 'Night of the Living Dead' etc all have a very bleak tone at the end. It's something that sticks with you much more than a Hollywood ending. I think the whole tone of the film is that in this post apocalyptic zombie-infested world, man is gradually going to become extinct, therefore it wouldn't be right to have an optimistic ending. Saying that though, the character of Leeann does survive at the end. She's probably been through a horrendous ordeal at the hands of Goke and Manny, but she is alive. That's a slight ray of hope.

Tell us about some of the hurdles you overcame to get the film done. Any advice you can pass on to other indie filmmakers who might be just setting out to make a film.

Actors and script are still the most important factors in any film. Your film is only as good as your weakest actor or worst line of dialogue. You also need a fresh approach, especially if doing a horror film. To make your movie stand out, it has to be different. At the time we were the first movie to cross zombies with a video diary approach, so it was fresh. Plus we altered the timeline to make it non-linear and to make the audience think a little more. It had the right ingredients and it was different and that's one of the reasons it's been successful.

Did you enter festivals? If so, how did it do? Talk about the festival circuit… is it something that every indie horror filmmaker should consider doing?

The festival circuit is awesome and essential for an indie film to be a success. I attended Sitges, Cannes and Frightfest. The film itself has played all over the world from Argentina, Brazil, USA, Mexico, Spain UK and even Indonesia. Certainly the fans at the horror festivals are the most passionate and it was an honour to introduce the movie at Sitges and Frightfest. The film went down a storm at Frightfest and was the biggest selling movie there in 2007.

Tell us about the process of finding distribution. How did that go and what insight could you pass on to other filmmakers who are looking for distribution?

Have lots of screener DVDs of your movie and send them out. Sales agents and distributors will watch them. I would say to be careful though as there are a lot of sharks out there who are looking to rip off first-time film-makers. We found ourselves a great sales agent who sold the film brilliantly. A sales agent is vital in my opinion as they know how to sell your film, what price it should be sold at to a distributor and they'll be able to sell your movie in such diverse places as Japan, Brazil, South Africa and even the Middle East! Our film has been sold pretty much everywhere in the world now and has hit the top of the charts in a few countries.

But you've got to have a product that is original and stands out from the crowd for a sales agent to be interested. Certain ones specialise in genre movies, so do your research. We had a degree of fortune with The Zombie Diaries in that there was a whole flood of Blair Witch style movies that followed (Diary of the Dead, [REC] and Cloverfield). We didn't latch onto this wave, but we were able to ride it a bit. The film was thus very easy to sell and in many territories, for a lot of money.

Where can people find out more about “The Zombie Diaries” or, better yet, buy a copy?

There's more info over at and the movie itself is available pretty much everywhere, either in stores like Best Buy or Walmart, or online retailers like Amazon.

Talk about the indie horror genre. Where do you feel it is now and where do you see it going?

For the indie film-maker, DV is dead now, that's for certain. I think The Zombie Diaries was one of the last break out movies to be shot on DV. So ditch your DV camera and upgrade to HD as that's the minimum requirement for the indie film-maker.

In terms of content, we've been through torture porn and the like in the last few years. The films that I've enjoyed the most in the last year are 'Let The Right One In' and 'The Orphanage'. Two much slower paced horror movies, but both absolutely brilliant. Zombie movies will still be around for a while longer though and there is always a market for horror. The video market is going through a lot of problems right now with the credit crunch and global recession, but if you've got a good film, it's always going to sell.

What’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the works?

Well I can tell you that a trilogy of movies is in the works for The Zombie Diaries and you're the first to hear this. Added to that I have another horror feature script called 'Forever Darkness' that is gaining a lot of attention. I've described it as 'Pitch Black' meets 'The Mist'. I'm also working alongside Terry Marcel, producing 'Hawk the Hunter' - a sequel to the 1980 cult sword and sorcery movie 'Hawk the Slayer', so the next year looks to be a very busy and exciting time.

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