Brand New - Exclusive Interview With Jon And Howard Ford Directors Of The Dead
By James Whittington
Thursday 2nd Sep 2010
Howard and Jon Ford brought their movie The Dead to FrightFest 2010 and it played to a very appreciative crowd. Its an intelligent and apocalyptic zombie movie, taking this well plundered genre to new heights. Horror Channel had the chance to speak to these rising stars about their movie and what inspired them to make it.
HC: Did you and your brother always want to work in the film industry?
Jon: Interesting question. The very term film industry implies a sausages factory mentality which I think is the problem with most movies. The Dead has been made from the heart rather than the pocket, a very rare thing these days. So in answer to your question...no not really. I didn't make The Dead because I wanted to make films I made films because I wanted to make The Dead! If that makes sense. This movie is the reason I started filmmaking! It's been my lifetime ambition! That sounds a bit dramatic but it is the truth!
Howard: I remember being completely obsessed when I was about 10 years old as to how what I was seeing on the TV or movie screen actually got there - I had no idea how films were made back then but for some reason I was hooked on being a part of that creation. I nagged our parents for a camera for my birthday & Christmas combined but at the time they couldn't afford it. When Jon got a part time Job after school I helped convince him the best use of his hard earned cash was to buy a Super 8mm camera and we went out and shot little movies with friends as actors etc. I remember wanting to make films so badly that I couldn't sleep just thinking about it! I also tried to convince some friends to cut up their clothes for a zombie short but thankfully no one wanted to be a part of it - at 13, with almost no experience it would have been shockingly bad!
HC: Do you have any favourite directors that have influenced your work?
Jon: If I had to credit one director as my main influence it would be Sergio Leone. A true master of composition and attention to detail within an epic context.
Howard: I agree with Jon, Sergio Leone was incredible but I also feel that even though some directors are not necessarily consistently good, I can still feel inspired by some of their creative choices on particular movies or even particular sequences even if the whole movie isn't good and I cant help making a mental note of lenses/camera moves, composition etc as I’m watching a film and hopefully those moments that resonate with me a director add additional inspiration to my own instincts when on set. For example, some of David Fincher’s work is beautiful and also M. Night’s The Sixth Sense contained fantastic choices, with subtlety and power.
HC: Are you a big fan of the zombie genre?
Jon: I'm a massive zombie fan especially the 70s and early 80s ones. Romero, Fulci, Grau etc I'm almost embarrassed to admit it but I can recite the dialogue off by heart for several of these movies.
Howard: I have always been a huge horror fan and The Evil Dead is probably the reason I got into film making! The original Dawn of the Dead blew me away too but my tastes in film run from the obscure to the mainstream depending what mood I’m in on any given day!
HC: Where did the idea for The Dead come from and why set it in Africa?
Jon: I started making notes on the script for this movie in the 1980s almost as a backlash to watching too many crap zombie movies, in a way I was writing the zombie film I always wanted to see. The Africa thing came about because we were looking for a stunning visual canvas in which to set our scenes, a place which could provide a threat as dangerous as the zombies themselves. We wanted beauty as well as horror on screen in the same frame! Yin and Yang.
Howard: Setting it in Africa was the hook. To be honest, I would never have wanted to make ‘The Dead’ had it not been for the setting that makes it so unique. It had to be different somehow and also give audiences something different even when there are no zombies on screen. Jon and I had shot many TV commercials in Africa and felt it was the ideal place to set it.
HC: The Dead is a very tense movie, sometimes edge of your seat stuff, was this important to you so it didn’t just become “another zombie movie”?
Jon: Thanks very much! There have been some very bad zombie movies made lately. We had to try and make this one something special. We wanted a moment by moment tension to give the audience a taste of what it might be like to be in this horrific situation
Howard: Very relieved the tension worked for you! Thanks. The film had to pay off in this respect. I hope that the film has a little bit of a rollercoaster ride about it and gives you a jolt when you least expect it, but also at times exactly WHEN you expect it to. I was very conscious of this when editing the film because its all very well being clever in the shock moments but sometimes you just want it to happen when it should happen and also I hope you think its going to happen but you’ve just been lead down the garden path..
HC: I can sense nods to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, is this deliberate?
Jon: Yes there are some nods of honour to those movies that inspired us. I kind of had the music to Zombie Flesh Eaters going round in my head most of the time while shooting this film! Howard and I would also quote lines from various horror movies to relieve the tension while filming.
Howard: There are also nods to such an insane mix of movies it could geek people out if they spot them! We must have been 8 or 10 years when we saw a movie one night on TV called Lost in the Desert about a young boy who survives a plane crash and finds himself isolated in harsh elements without food or water. Some of the vibes of that movie never left us... Also films like Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear). Some of our other inspirations are so random sometimes from such an obscure horror movie it’ll be fascinating to see if audiences pick up on them.
HC: The zombies are traditional; meaning they are slow moving but driven by their taste for flesh. Why did you go for this zombie style?
Jon: Howard and myself agreed right at the start that our Zombies would creep up on their victims rather than run like Olympic athletes, fly, disappear and re-appear or some other ridiculous movement that a reanimated corpse might make. In our film once you're with the concept that the dead are coming back to life and searching for human flesh everything else is gritty and real! Come on! They're dead! Rigor mortise is setting in! It's enough to ruin anyone’s chances of a sprinting career.
Howard: Yup, at very best they should only stand a chance at the burger eating contest! The other important thing is that when you show fast moving zombies running at you, the scene instantly has to become an action sequence whereas the tension you gain through creating suspense is much a much more powerful tool and ultimately a more satisfying experience.
HC: Was it a hard movie to cast, especially the two lead characters? (I would just like to say they give stunning performances)
Jon: Thanks I agree we were very lucky to get these guys! Rob Freeman was the only guy for the job! An incredible actor and in hindsight I seriously think he is probably the only actor on earth who could have survived the suffering that he did, to make this film! Prince is a fantastic guy and the most talented up and coming Ghanaian actor. David Dontoh we had worked with before on a Guinness commercial and from then always wanted to get him in this movie.
Howard: It was logistically hard as we cast from various different continents but we are extremely happy with our choices. Rob was destined for this role, such a fantastic actor but also he refused to quit - and when I say that, I quite literally mean it. After he got Malaria and almost died, I offered Rob a way out. Jon & I would re write the script but Rob absolutely refused to quit, and I’m grateful for that as he’s fantastic to watch and I can’t imagine the film without him. Also Prince was an incredible discovery. We scoured for his role in the UK, Nigeria even the US but in he walks to the Lintas ad agency in Ghana and just nails it! I found his original audition the other day and it gave me goose bumps!
HC: It’s a character driven movie rather than effects driven; did the script go through many drafts?
Jon: Even though I had been adding to the script since the 1980s, when Howard and myself actually sat down together to write this thing through, it was very quick and we knew that we wanted to keep the raw energy it had and that if we messed about too much it might lose some of that spontaneity. Also neither of us are fans of big effects movies! You can't get emotionally moved by CGI so we wanted characters you can believe in; once you're emotionally involved then you're hooked.
Howard: Absolutely agree. We were also very conscious of not overloading it with dialogue. We wanted it to be a visual piece and avoid chit chat or cheesy dialogue - we also wanted it to be sparse as it was also about loneliness and isolation and how death strips every comfort zone away from you. Often one of us would suggest a line of dialogue and the other would shoot it down unless it was ABSOLUTELY necessary. What was great about it was we had total creative control, apart from the production nightmares of course!!
HC: Talking of effects these are remarkable and very well realised, was most of these achieved on location?
Jon: We wanted to achieve as many effects on location as possible to keep it feeling real. This also gives the actors something to work with. The problem with CGI is that even after all this time it's still in its infancy.
Howard: also, the human eye is so sharp audiences notice when something is fake. Even though they might not be able to identify what is wrong with the image. It just doesn’t sit right and that’s the problem with CGI. It was so important we did as many things as we could organically, so the audience can feel they are really in this land and on a real journey… Once you get past the fact that the dead are returning to life, everything else has to feel real!
HC: The film is at times as bleak as the landscape even apocalyptic in theme; did you fear that it might become a bit too intense?
Jon: Never! Too much tension is never enough! You're right the theme is a bit apocalyptic. To be honest if the dead do start to come back to life and attack the living it would be very apocalyptic! LOL
HC Would you like to return to the zombie genre?
Jon: There were so many things we had in the original script that had to be abandoned that these could easily fill another script. So if the fans like it then absolutely!
Howard: Yup, if the fans want it and this film proves successful then that will pave the way for more… The Dead 2 is already being talked about…. If we do do it, it will be with more money and with more armed guards!!