Prior, D. Kerry (The Revenant)

As a film journalist, one gets so many invitations to so many film festivals there is no physical way you can attend every single one and live to tell the tale. And there are more cropping up all the time, especially in the horror genre, which is still doing very well at the box office – thank you very much – and boosting DVD sales figures.

But you do try to attend as many as possible on the chance you’ll be among the few to see something groundbreaking and original. Something which, sadly, occurs far too seldom. But every once in a while you just happen to be in the right place at the right time and get to see the world premiere of a film you know is destined to become a hit, if not a cult classic.

The RevenantSuch was the case with black comedy The Revenant (review here), which made its world premiere at the Zompire Film Festival held at The Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon, in May, 2009, and even showed up as part of Dread Central’s “Best of 2009“.

Written and directed by D. Kerry Prior, who has had an extensive career in visual effects working on such films as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Phantasm II & III and who directed the 1996 film Roadkill, the story centers on Bart, a soldier killed in action, whose body has been sent home for burial. The only problem is he’s not entirely dead and has become a “revenant”, which is something between a zombie and a vampire; he rots like a zombie but not if he consumes human blood.

After waking in his grave and realizing something has gone horribly, horribly wrong, Bart calls on his best friend Joey to help him figure out what’s happened and how they can fix it, if it can be fixed. And as this less than dynamic duo set out on their quest for answers and solutions, what unfolds is a standout film that immediately pulls you in and delivers the perfect balance between horror and dark comedy that is sure to place it in the “cult” status along with films like 1985’s Return of the Living Dead and 2004’s Shaun of the Dead.

When I first met Kerry Prior at the Zompire Film Festival, we barely had enough time for a handshake due to his late arrival for the film’s premiere at 9:00 PM. “Get caught in traffic?” I asked.

No,” he replied as he shook my hand and scrambled for the projection booth. “I was still working on the movie.” Immediately I began to think this was going to be the worst premiere in history.

But by evening’s end – despite technical issues with the digital projection fed from a laptop, unfinished audio, and scenes without completed green screen shots – when I met Kerry Prior for the second time after the premiere, he seemed genuinely taken aback, if not in awe, at the audience’s overwhelmingly positive reaction to his film.

What follows is an interview conducted with Prior the night of the premiere with a few follow-up questions since the film has been touring the US on various film festival circuits.

Dread Central: Obviously, the first question is: Where did the inspiration for this story come from? And was it always going to be a black comedy?

Kerry Prior: Usually I cite old European folklore as an inspiration, and that definitely informed the subject matter; but I had several close friends die at young ages – usually in motorcycle accidents – and that is really the heart of the movie. Going to these funerals, especially of young guys, it’s this horrible experience; everybody is broken up, and it seems like it should be this singular experience of mourning. But it’s never isolated from real life: people have jobs, planes to catch; someone has to pay the minister and the funeral director. How does faith come into it? Do you get more comfort from Jesus or popping pills? There’s a built-in irony to the process. And at the end of it, what would you do to get your pal back? There’s also the idea of how do you live your life so that when you die you don’t have regrets? It’s hard to make a comedy about this kind of thing without it being a black comedy so yeah, it was destined to be a black comedy. I think it defines the term.

DC: How long did it take for you to write the script?

Prior: A long time. I wrote the first draft – which is totally different – years ago. Then I rewrote it every so often over the years when I got inspired. A few years ago I had an epiphany about it and completely re-thought the idea. I rewrote it again when I decided to make it and started looking for money. There were maybe fifteen major rewrites. It probably could have used one more good rewrite before shooting it.

DC: How did the project finally come together and go into production?

Prior: When I went into development, I hired a casting director and line producer to get things moving. It was all about trying to get the right people on board in order to get money together – circumventing the Catch-22 of development. When we were cast, and had the money together, we shot. It was a long road.

DC: You shot digital if I remember correctly – explain what you used and how that lent itself to the project.

Prior: We shot with the Red One. I had always intended to shoot film; my background is film, and I’d never shot digital, except for mini DV. But a friend of mine said, “Shoot digital. All the kids are shooting digital these days; embrace it.” So I looked into it. Fincher shot Zodiac on the Viper, and that looked great projected. Robert Rodriguez shot Planet Terror with the Genesis, and it looked great, too, but those were the only films I thought looked good. And I saw other stuff – a lot of other stuff – that I thought looked like crap. Like projected poo. I didn’t think any of the cameras out there would give me a look that I trusted to be consistently good, although the major contender was the Viper because I was so impressed with Zodiac.

Then we tested the Dalsa Origin. It looked really good. But the camera was the size of a mini-fridge with a lens, and the post costs were astronomical. It was actually cheaper to shoot film. And there were a bunch of digital bugs that hadn’t been worked out.

Then I saw the Peter Jackson short shot on the Red One at NAB, which looked terrific, minus a few anomalies, like the muzzle-flash getting chopped off by the progressive chip’s “rolling shutter”. Anyway, we tested it; it looked really good, especially in low light, city nights, fluorescents. Red assured us that the “rolling shutter” problem had been fixed with a software upgrade. (It hadn’t.)

The cameras were all on back order, or I would have just bought one, so we rented. Easy to use. Easy to shoot with. Works pretty much just like a film camera, so it was a smooth transition. For what we were shooting – a lot of night interiors and a lot of night exteriors – it looked spectacular.

I wanted to push the camera more than Peter (Hawkins, the Director of Photography) did, and in retrospect Peter was right; the camera looks better the closer you keep it to its native ASA of 320. It has its own look and it’s best to go with that. But in general it worked great. I shot some of the second unit and loved it.

DC: You shot in L.A. and, as somebody mentioned during the Q & A at the Portland screening, you didn’t shy away from some of the racial tensions and the “gung ho” aspect of the LAPD. Did you intend to make L.A. a character in this movie? Or say something about the L.A. culture?

Prior: The kid at the Q&A didn’t put it as euphemistically as you did. Yeah, L.A. was definitely a character in the movie. I love the city and thought that having this ancient folkloric affliction happen in L.A. was funny. Los Angeles has this odd relationship to racism; there is a bit of racism there and a lot of fear of racism – or maybe fear of being racist – which is also oddly racist. I did the first draft of this screenplay around the time of the Rodney King debacle and the L.A. riots so the smell of that no doubt still clings to the story.

I don’t think that acknowledgment of race is racist. In fact it’s the opposite. But when that kid in the Q&A asked about the use of racial stereotypes, and then the local college paper bagged on the film – and me in particular – for propagating racial stereotypes, it took me off guard. They completely missed the point. I definitely made a choice to show these racist relationships in L.A. because, having lived there for twenty years, I knew that’s what the city is like. A lot of those characters are taken directly from my own experiences. Having to deal with vampirism in that social environment seemed funny to me.

You can’t talk about crime in L.A. without race and racism coming into it. Is fighting crime racist? The LAPD would say no, but they have a history of flagrant racism (not to mention corruption) dating back seventy years. Plus, I felt homogenizing that environment would help to excuse Bart and Joey’s actions, which I absolutely wanted to avoid. Who cares if you are offing some white dude from Central Casting? But when these actions fall along racial lines, it teases the moral ambiguity to the surface. None of that stuff worked if I tried to gloss over these racial issues. Conversely, the stereotype, cinematically, is the “mixed race gang”. The gang with one white guy, one Chinese guy, and one black guy and a chick, all working together to further their criminal exploits, is a typical B-movie paradigm. Where is that? Where do these politically correct, racially progressive gangs come from? Certainly not L.A. Plus, (spoiler alert) a gang of Mexican vampires is cool. A racially progressive gang of vampires is not cool.

DC: Explain the casting process a bit and how you ended up with the cast you did, who all seem to have such perfect chemistry.

Prior: It was a lot of work. I felt the key to the film was the relationships between the four main characters so they couldn’t really be cast independently. We put out a lot of offers and got turned down by a lot of people. We stopped using the word “vampire” or “undead” in our pitch because there were a lot of people who said, “My client isn’t interested in doing a vampire movie at this stage in his career.” One day Leah, the casting director, called me and said, “Happy anniversary. We’ve been working together for a year now.”

We finally got David Anders after a lot of haggling, and everything came together a lot easier after that. Liam (Finn, one of the producers) and I weren’t fifty yards from the restaurant where we met with Chris (Wylde), and we looked at each other and just knew Chris was born to play Joey. I knew David and Chris were great, and they fell in love with each other; that totally comes through on the screen.

It was the same problems with (characters) Janet and Matty. We saw a lot of great people, but it came down to who worked with each other. I stumbled across Louise (Griffiths) in a casting office where she was auditioning for another role. She auditioned, and I knew immediately she was right. And her manager introduced us to Jacy (King), and she came in and blew us away – very precise and studied. She was perfect.

And then all of them at one point or another during production exceeded my expectations and delivered something that floored the whole crew. We knew we had something just watching the dailies.

DC: The ending doesn’t entirely resolve the story. Did you do that on purpose to leave it open for a sequel? Or have any potential distributors mentioned a sequel?

Prior: A lot of people have asked about a sequel, distributors included. For me the story is resolved. Emotionally. Thematically. I don’t know what else to explore with this story. It’s hard to discuss the ending without giving anything away, but my question to you, because you’ve seen it, is, “Is that Bart at the end?” If it is, then, yeah, maybe the story isn’t resolved; but if it’s not Bart?

I certainly didn’t leave the movie open to set the stage for another movie. I tried to devote every element to the themes of this story. But then, a sequel wouldn’t have to tell this story again; there are a lot of characters in The Revenant whose story might be fun to explore. We had a lot of great actors whom I would love to see in another movie.

DC: You’ve been taking this film around the U.S. and playing various film festivals; how has the response been? I mean, the last time we saw one another you were signing the chest of a rather attractive young lady in the lobby of the Hollywood Theater who was rocked by the movie! Have there been similar responses?

Prior: I can’t tell you how many chests I’ve had to sign. I didn’t know that was part of the job. People have been very receptive.

DC: What’s next for you film project-wise?

Prior: I’m thinking something like Paper Heart but with machine guns and kung fu and helicopters and rocket-propelled motorcycles. Lots of blood. Flesh-eating sewage. Lasers.

DC: Damn – can I buy my ticket now???

Thanks to Kerry for taking the time to chat with us, and look for an update on The Revenant (i.e., where and when you, too, might be able to see it) soon!

Erik W. Van Der Wolf

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