November 14, 2008
Striking DVD next Tuesday from Dimension Extreme, "The Zombie Diaries" is the second mockumentary about a zombie apocalypse to hit DVD this year -- the first being George Romero's "Land of the Dead." Part of a new wave of mockumentary horror, the film has been well received by some critics and you can expect to see eSplatter's own review later this week.
We were lucky enough to catch up with one of the film's co-directors, Michael Bartlett, to discuss the making of the UK's first and so far only zombie-apocalypse mockumentary film, which is enjoying a global release.
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR 'ZOMBIE DIARIES'?
I saw a film called 'Ever Since The World Ended', which was a post-apocalyptic documentary showing the world after it has been devastated by an unknown virus.
I liked the premise but wanted to see more of the apocalyptic world; I wanted to see empty streets and ghost towns; I wanted to see the sheer savagery that would be caught on camera in a lawless society. Kevin and I have always been very big horror fans, and we decided to move forwards with a film that essentially mixed the Blair Witch Cinema Verite style documenting the post-apocalyptic world, with the classic zombie movie. The reason for this is that we are both big fans of Romero's films, and zombie movies were making a resurgence in the market-place. As much as you love an idea, it is important to ensure it has some sort of a shot commercially, especially if you want to continue to work in the movie business.
HAD YOU CONSIDERED MAKING IT A STANDARD NARRATIVE FILM INSTEAD OF A MOCKUMENTARY?
No. The hook was 'Blair Witch meets Night of the Living Dead' - totally original at the time, so that is exactly what we wanted to do. The entire film actually began as an e-mail I sent to Kevin laying out that exact high-concept.
WHAT WAS YOUR APPROACH TO THE FILM?
Well when we began discussing ideas we decided to look at the movies of this genre that had already been made and look at their good and bad points. The movies we studied were: Blair Witch, Last Broadcast, The last Horror Movie, Man Bites Dog, Cannibal Holocaust, and a TV movie about aliens gate-crashing a thanksgiving dinner - the name of which I cannot remember, although it was quite funny as it claimed to be uncensored footage even though all the bad language was bleeped out! We realized quickly that keeping a single story seemed to make most of the aforementioned films fizzle out, so that is why we decided to press ahead with three different stories. I've also been a big fan of thinking movies that challenge the viewer. There is already enough mindless gore / horror-comedy out there.
After talking to people about these films, some also complained that a lot of violence was shown off screen and they wanted to see more, or at the very least, see something, as that is what would happen in real life. So that is why in our film, you see a child murder without any cutting or moving away. People are voyeuristic by nature, and you see this a lot when the people holding the camera sometimes video things they probably shouldn't.
People will inevitably ask why the cameramen keep filming rather than running, but think of the footage that comes out of the USA every year from Tornado Alley.
How many times do we see a huge tornado moving slowly towards someone, and you hear their wife screaming for them to come inside, but they keep filming? Just another minute, honey...
We wanted to depict this bleak world as realistically as possible.We wanted the audience to see what a real zombie apocalypse would feel like.
There are no cheesy one-liners or dicks going around cracking jokes or making overtly obvious social commentary - and the reason is because this is supposed to be found footage, and people don't behave like that in real life when presented with situations of chaos. Look at the footage of the bbc news team who were bombed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, or the footage of families who lost loved ones in the Tsunami of 2006. These pieces of footage were windows into those moments in history. That's what we wanted to hold true to.
MANY OF THE SCENES LOOKED LIKE THEY WERE SHOT IN PITTSBURGH. WAS THAT INTENTIONAL?
No, not at all. Kevin and I are massive fans of Romero, and will always try to slip in little homages to him, but the link of Letchworth Garden City to Pittsburgh is purely circumstantial. I would like to think of Romero's film and our film as being two movies that capture the same incident from two different perspectives, so I think they will always be linked in that way at the very least.
WERE YOU AWARE OF 'DIARY OF THE DEAD' WHEN YOU MADE YOUR FILM?
We scripted Zombie Diaries in 2004, and shot it in 2005, so it would have been impossible to know about Romero's film without a time machine that enabled me to travel into the future. And even if I could do that, I would never be so disrespectful to the great master as to steal his idea.
I grew up watching his films, Martin and the original Night being my two favorite works.
One thing Kevin and I always try to do with our movies is make new and original films. No idea is entirely original, but whatever you do should always have some sort of fresh angle or approach. When Zombie Diaries was released in the UK in 2007 it shot into the Virgin top 10 and was hailed for its originality as there was nothing like it. Fast forward a year and now there's both Diary of the Dead and [.REC]. The only thing that disappointed me about the whole Diary and Diaries issue is that when Romero's film was announced well after our premiere, not many sites mentioned The Zombie Diaries, and sites like AintItCool did everything they could to ignore the film. Suddenly we became branded as Romero rip-offs and an almighty flame war erupted on various online forums about our film. Now the movie is being released by The Weinstein company I feel we are last getting some decent recognition for our little survivalist horror. It is critically acclaimed, and has been number one in some European territories already. It is thanks to the buzz spread by sites like Dread Central and podcasts like MailOrderZombie that this has been possible. And to set the record straight, our film was finished before Romero even announced he was going into production on his flick.
HOW DO YOU CAST ACTORS FOR A MOCKUMENTARY?
The casting for Zombie Diaries varied slightly from the norm, as we knew the film would involve a lot of improvisation. Actors were asked on the spot at audition to improvise entire sections of the film in addition to the standard readings. It was a chance to see how good they would be - some actors can pull that sort of thing off brilliantly and others are way too conscious of themselves to get anywhere near the mark. We wanted to find this out early on, so by the time we got to set we knew we had a great team.
Once the actors has been cast we then set about creating full back-stories with them. We went over and over the material, even though most of it wasn't in the script. This was done to give the actors more to draw from, and maybe it came across in subtle ways, maybe even non-verbal ways. It was just very important for me that we created this real world where this was happening. Realism is so important in this kind of film.
IS IT MORE CHALLENGING TO SHOOT A CINEMA VERITE FILM THAN A STANDARD NARRATIVE FILM?
In some ways, yes and in other ways, no. I have been super critical of a lot of other movies shot in this style because the realism is so important; I just cannot stress that enough. This means very good acting and a much more fluid style of filming. We didn't run as much stop and start filming as you would on a conventional film. We didn't need to worry about polished sound design or award winning lighting set-ups. Because we are trying to create something that looks real. You still block everything like you would on a conventional film set, but the takes are much longer as you have jump cuts at your disposal to sow it all together. So the filming is easier, but you have to work harder with the script, actors and editing to get the end product. One fluffed line and the audience is immediately snapped out of the realism. Also remember it's shot on digital. So just via the medium people are automatically harder on the performances. I recommend people watch the 'making of' featurette on the DVD to gain a better understanding of what I'm talking about.
One funny anecdote: We have real people being interviewed at the beginning of the film. We stopped people in the street in Letchworth and asked them about their thoughts on bird flu. Most people just answered using the word 'virus' so we were able to cut the footage into our film. There was one journalist who said the performances in our film were terrible, especially the 'fake interviews' at the beginning. This illustrates that a lot of people don't even know what good acting and performance is. We've taken some criticism on the acting, because people become so used to 'acting' in the conventional sense, that they don't know how to react to people behaving like they would in real life. That IS good acting. But it's amazing how many people don't get it.
If people want an example of bad acting they should look for films where people behave in ways that are artificial and not like a regular person. Two classic examples are: 1) Cloverfield when Beth is asked to leave a video message for Rob in front of her boyfriend and asks him to get her a drink. The way that scene played out is frankly embarrassing and awkward to watch. The second would be when the statue of liberty's head comes flying down the road. People stand around like robots, moving their hands up and down mechanically as they video what has happened with their cell phones. No one is scared, no one seems to be upset or asking questions. It just felt very 'fake'. And you know what? The journalist who said our interviews were fake also thought the performances in Cloverfield were brilliant. To his credit, when I challenged him on it, he did write me an apology and say he felt like a prick. I'm not saying we're going to win Oscars here; but the point I'm trying to make is that when you make this kind of film REALISM IS KING.
WHAT OTHER PROJECTS ARE ON YOUR PLATE RIGHT NOW? ARE YOU FILMING A NEW HORROR MOVIE?
Kevin has just completed an incredible script entitled FOREVER DARKNESS, which is a cross between THE MIST and PITCH BLACK. This is very likely to be the second or third film from us. We are looking to keep the core of our filmmaking team together because it works so well.
I've written a Time Travel film entitled TIMELESS, which takes a very original spin on the genre. I can't say too much about these projects at the moment, but I am currently in Los Angeles to discuss them with a number of studios and independents.
CAN WE EXPECT 'ZOMBIE DIARIES 2'?
Zombie Diaries 2 is all ready to go and we have already been approached by three different companies to make it. Unfortunately we are caught up in some sequel rights issues at the moment. Kevin and I are looking to try and resolve this as soon as possible, and I think once we are a few weeks into the US release of Zombie Diaries we'll have a better idea of how likely a sequel is. From my experience talking with journalists and fans, it seems people are keen for more of the same. There are definitely more diaries out there waiting to be found, I assure you...
Talk about this story on ESplatter's Message Board
Gotta scoop? Drop a line to Lucius Gore, editor