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Simon Read [Film Festival 09.25.08] post apocalyptic movie interview

[As The Vanguard will be released on R1 DVD September 30th, we present to you an interview projectcyclops did a ways back]
Dead By Dawn, the Edinburgh horror film fest, comes once a year and I eagerly headed to the Filmhouse to meet Matthew Hope, director of apocolyptic zombie survival film The Vanguard. Matt was there with actors Ray Bullock Jnr and Farhan Kahn and director of photography David Byrne, all of whom I am happy to say are awesome guys with a lot of talent. Matthew agreed to field some questions from myself and other quietearthers about his first feature.

Matthew Hope - The Vanguard

I read that part of your inspiration for The Vanguard came from musing over how somebody from an urban environment might cope with survival in the wilderness, then added zombies. How did your cast and crew cope with life in the wild during production?

The cast and crew coped very well considering I made it clear from the start that we would be shooting come rain or shine – and not just the weather! Fortunately for us we were never too far from civilization. Because we were shooting with natural light we had a certain amount of hours in the day that we could shoot. There were a few instances where we attempted shoot in virtual darkness, but we quickly learned from our mistakes. Amazingly the weather held out for the majority of the shoot, and when it did rain we used that in the film. The rain sequences are some of my favorite parts in the film. Although it can be tough to film outdoors. The flare scene toward the end of the film was pretty demanding. We had been shooting from about 8 am and it had been a long day involving lots of extras, and we still had to shoot the flare scene. We returned to our base of operations – my parent’s house – and in the dark and rain we had to first test the flares (we had only enough for one test and two takes) and then shoot. We figured out that we could get two setups but would have to shoot both angles without cutting the camera. The first take was a disaster – technical problems and one of the actors got smoke from the flares in his eyes. Fortunately we nailed it on the second take.

Your last project was a short war film, what made you decide to do a horror feature and is it a genre you'll be re-visiting? Any reason for zombies?

Firstly, from a breaking in point of view, I knew that there was an established market and audience for horror and that I would be able to sell the film. Secondly, I think the film is more post-apocalyptic rather than horror. I’m more a fan of PA than straight horror. Also, using the PA genre allowed me to incorporate a lot of my sociopolitical thoughts on the world we live in today. The idea of zombies came out of two places – some friends of mine we making a straight zombie film and I had never thought about doing a zombie film before; but after coming up with the idea they would be ape-like, it sort of fit with the overall concept of the film. I have a few other horror ideas but nothing concrete. I’ll probably attempt another PA film but only if I can bring something new to the genre; but it’s very much at the forefront of my mind.

To what degree, if any, did the cast help shape the characters and story? Was the script and treatment stuck to rigidly or was improvisation encouraged?

Actually Ray Bullock Jnr who plays Max in the film was instrumental in the writing of the script. He and I had endless conversations and I would send him draft after draft and he helped shape not only his own character but the others as well. Although I did the actual writing, he was a great sounding board and collaborator. During the rehearsal period I encouraged lots of discussion of the script and improvisation. Steve Weston actually came up with the line in Arabic he says in his monologue scene just before he gets his adrenaline shot. Farhan Khan who plays one of the Trackers came up with the idea of the tattoos on the side of his head. Although I’m clear with my intensions for the film, I like to hear everyone’s thoughts and opinions. Some great stuff can come about this way. Once shooting started the actors knew there was no time (or film stock) for improvisations. We did change how some of the scenes were plaid though.

In your opinion what are the best, most rewarding aspects of making a feature film, and which are the hardest and most frustrating?

The most rewarding aspects of making a film for me are the surprises, by which I mean anything from an actors performance, a shot that was not preplanned (example being the shot of Max shaking in the rain on top of the hill and flashing back to his mother), or an edit that comes together better than what you had planned. I guess the hardest and most frustrating part of filmmaking is the reverse of the above – the days when nothing goes according to plan. I remember reading something Francis Ford Coppola said about directing – I’m paraphrasing here, but it went along the lines of “if you’re getting 10% of what’s in your head then you’re having a good day.” The other aspects are dealing with time and budget constraints.

What's you opinion on a lot of the horror films coming out now, films like Saw and Captivity. Some critics see them as an exercise in horror porn, with nothing under the surface. Keeping in mind that Vanguard has plenty to make you think, does a good horror film need a message? An element of satire?

I don’t think all horror films need a message – it’s the story that is actually most important. The films you mentioned I think are trying to push the boundaries of the genre, and one of the reasons for this is because everything has been done before. I also think they are a reflection of the times we live, which in my opinion are very extreme. Personally, they are not really for me; I’m more interested in horror films that come at the genre from another angle, which is what I tried to do with The Vanguard.

Tim Burton's quoted as saying that during production on Batman the whole thing overwhelmed him at several points, especially working with veteran actors he had a few 'whiteouts'. Was there ever a time when you felt, "Holy god, how do I pull this off?" or was it generally smooth sailing? Did you plan every step of the way?
Filmmaking is never smooth sailing. I had only one instance of a Tim Burton type scenario. On the first day of shooting, after the first take I looked around at all these crew members and had a panic attack where the whole film – which had yet to be shot – flashed through my mind. One of the strangest experiences of my life. I remember telling myself, “this is it. Your whole life has been building to this one moment and now it’s time to step up to the plate.” After that moment I just got on with making the film and dealt with situations as and when they occurred.

What are you going to do with the film? Can we expect a dvd release?

The film has been sold pretty much all around the world. Lionsgate are releasing it on DVD in October in the UK and Anchor Bay are releasing it in the US. It’s funny, when I was making the film I used to have daydreams about the thought of somebody like Lionsgate releasing the film and how cool that would be. I actually met them the other week and it was better than I could’ve imagined. Just being there with them and having them tell me how they are going to market the film that I spent the past three years of my life making was mind blowing! Everything you go through – the ups and the downs – are worth it for those moments. I should also point out that my friends Kevin gates and Michael Bartlett (directors of Zombie Diaries) introduced me to my sales agents Imagination Worldwide. Imagination were instrumental in getting me into Lionsgate in the first place. They should always be the first port of call for any horror filmmaker.

Everyone at QE wants to know what you’re working on next, can you tell us anything?

The only thing I can tell you is that I’m working on a revenge film. All I can say is that I’m going to approach it as if I were making a horror film, although it won’t be horror. Although some of the scenarios I’m working on are pretty horrific, and they are based in fact.

This week German director Uwe Boll challenged Michael Bay to a boxing match in Las Vegas, who'd you like to duke it out with in the ring? (note: I know how silly this question is)

If we switch it to drunken wrestling then I’m your man. I don’t think it could be anyone famous – no one sets out to make a bad film! Mine would probably have to be against Ray and Farhan! Hahahahahahahaaha!!!

AgentOrange asks:
You've cited inspirations from Kurosawa and Kubrick, both filmmakers who often disregarded the conventions of the genres they worked in. I'm wondering did you even consider The Vanguard a traditional zombie film when you were making it? Or were you striving for something more baroque in nature that could play on a number of levels?

Absolutely. My whole approach was to turn the genre on its head. One of the main things I wanted to infuse the film with was this idea that Max was like a Ronin (i.e. masterless samurai). In fact when my director of photography David Byrne and I were discussing the design of the film we thought about it in terms of making a samurai movie. I didn’t think of the film as a zombie movie at all. The Biosyns are still humans, which excited me was they had been reduced to a primitive like state (which came out of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey) - that humans and nature had regressed to a simpler way of life. The design of the Biosyns was also another thing that we thought a lot about. I know some purists are unhappy or have said the make-up looks fake – well, that was the point. It was suppose to be stylized and look almost like war paint in some respects. But it was also influenced by Japanese Noh theatre – especially if you look at how Isuzu Yamada is made up in Throne of Blood. Also, I wanted to deal with the scenarios I am concerned about, like “Peak Oil” and over population. These presented a solid backdrop to the main story. My original cut of the film had very little voice over and no front crawl. I wanted to present the world and then I wanted the audience to make up their own minds as to what had happened. This came out of the idea of sometimes catching films half way through and trying to figure out what had gone on. Although I’m not unhappy with the extra VO and crawl, as I think this does add something to the film.

How do you think the zombie genre might evolve now that it's gaining more mainstream appeal?

I think filmmakers are willing to take more chances with the genre. I still think that Romero’s best zombie film is “Night of the Living Dead” and that was made over thirty years ago, but was absolutely groundbreaking at the time. It needs to evolve otherwise it could become a pastiche of itself. I think someone will come along and do something with the genre that no one was expecting that will just blow everyone away. I also think that audiences are taking it more seriously as a genre – and in the current climate you could also imagine a scenario like this actually happening – possibly some kind of genetic mutation, if you know what I mean.

The film looks great! How difficult was it to keep the same woodland locale visually interesting from shot to shot? What visual techniques would you recommend to fledgling filmmakers looking to make the most of their limited resources?

The first part of your question is actually a lot simpler than you might imagine. Just try pointing a 35mm camera outside and you’re instantly given cinema. Keeping it visually interesting depends on the design of the individual scenes and how you cover them. For the first half of the film David and I used a lot wide angle lenses to give it a sense of scope. For the second half we used long lenses to create a sense of claustrophobia.

The best advice I could give to fledgling filmmakers was one of the best pieces of advice I read which comes from Robert Rodriguez’s book Rebel Without a Crew where he says use what you can get. People often ask me how I managed to get tanks and helicopters in my film. The answer is simple. The tanks we got from a place called Tanks-a-lot where you can do days driving tanks. I went and asked the owner if we could use them in our film and he said sure no problem and I worked them into my script. The helicopters we got came from David and I standing outside an army base and filming helicopters taking off.

Where did you get the idea for the hairstyle sported by members of The Company Army?

Taxi Driver.

QuietEarth asks:
I loved the photography, how was the film shot and how did you pull off that hue which dampens the look of the film?

The film was designed to have two colour schemes. The first half we used a light tobacco filter to make it feel warm. The second half of the film had a blue tint because the story became darker. We also used a lot grad filters that are pieces of glass that are darkened at the top. These sit in the mattebox which is attached to the front of the camera. We also tweaked the film in the grading.

Many thanks to Matthew, his cast and crew. All the best for the future.
The Vanguard is set to be released by Lionsgate, September 30th, 2008.

Pre-order the DVD here

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Anonymous (13 years ago) Reply

It must have been awesome meeting these guys. Thanks for the great interview.


projectcyclops (13 years ago) Reply

It was great fun, Matthew and gang are really cool guys. Plus, there was a free bar...

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