Horror as a business is cyclical, like many others. A good ghost story comes out and makes a splash, and soon there are a million more coming out. Right now one of the popular trends is zombie movies. Some love them; some hate them. I personally love a good gory zombie fest. But a lot of fans say, “Why do something that’s been done so many times before?” Well, lucky for us, Matthew Hope, a filmmaker who decided to take his bite at the zombie craze, took some time to answer that and a few other questions for us.
Morgan Elektra: First off, tell us a little about yourself… your 30-Second Life Story.
Matthew Hope: I started out as production assistant on a few independent films (I don’t like the term low budget as I think a film should be judged as a film and not on its budget). I decided not to go to film school and opted instead to learn on the job and also by trial and error by making my own super 8mm movies with friends. I’ve been writing scripts for years and wanted to break in through writing, which I thought, naively, would lead to directing. I wrote a couple of independent features that were produced, one of which had a limited release – but I was not happy with – and the other hopefully will find an audience at some point. After that I decided to make my own films because it was starting to look like I would never break into the film industry. I made a short war movie and was satisfied with the results enough to make me think I could direct a feature.
ME: What do you like best about the horror genre?
MH: What I love most about the horror genre is the freedom it allows you to create your own worlds and rules. Two films which do this really well are Mad Max 2 and The Omega Man. Although not technically horror films, they have a great sense of dread, especially Mad Max 2, as you have no idea who the villains are, and not knowing I think makes it much more scary. Back story and exposition would just weaken their appeal. These two films greatly influenced The Vanguard.
ME: What do you say to people who disparage it?
MH: First of all, two of the best horror films of all time (in my humble opinion), The Exorcist and The Shining, were made by two highly regarded filmmakers. And horror films have always had mass appeal, and I think that’s one of the problems; something that is hugely popular shouldn’t be taken very seriously. I don’t think any director goes into the horror genre not taking their film seriously.
ME: Every story has a beginning. What started you down the path to being a horror fan and, ultimately, making horror movies?
MH: My earliest recollection of the power of horror was seeing the trailer for The Shining at the cinema when I was 5 years old and being completely freaked out by it. I don’t think that ever left me. And I guess the flip side to that would be watching films like Re-Animator and Basket Case, Nightmare on Elm Street and even the Friday the 13th series in the 80’s. I still enjoy Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. I liked the satire of Romero’s zombie films. I am also a fan of what Coppola did with Dracula and the use of old techniques from horror films of the 30’s and 40’s and the over-stylization of the film. There are some techniques used in The Vanguard which were taken from the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and I have to give credit to my DP David Byrne for suggesting them to me. When it came time to make a feature film, I wanted to make a horror film because I was interested in the technical aspects of it. It’s much harder than people think and much more interesting than just filming two people in a room talking.
ME: Zombies are incredibly popular right now, and there are many movies coming out in that particular sub-genre. What made you decide to try your hand at it?
MH: I’d never thought about doing a zombie film before, and it just seemed to fit perfectly with a wilderness idea I had. I also wanted to do something with guns and excessive amounts of blood! The other aspect of doing a zombie/post-apocalyptic film was I could take the things I was reading – the end of oil in the next ten years and over-population – and make them the backbone of my film. There is no dialogue for the first 30 minutes. There is voiceover which helps move the story along and gives you just enough information as to be not totally confused. My DP and I were also really interested in telling the story completely visually – at one stage we even considered having absolutely no dialogue at all. We abandoned that idea for fear of disappearing up our own arses. Because zombies don’t speak, they just seem to fit naturally into what we wanted to do with the story and style of the film.
The other interesting thing for me was the idea that – if the world was faced with this dilemma, how would governments react? Is it conceivable that they would want to vastly reduce the number of people in the world? In my opinion, yes, they would.
ME: What did you feel you could bring to it that no one else has?
MH: I wanted to do something new with the genre, but at the same time you have to recognize what has gone before and pay it due respect. The film would have all the necessary elements that people expect (i.e., blood and guts), but certain influences were taken from other genres. Making the zombies ape-like came after watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which my co-producer worked on as a runner) and Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood in respect of its visual style and how he filmed the wilderness. That’s why we say it’s like 28 Days Later meets The Omega Man directed by the bastard son of Kubrick and Kurosawa!
With the music I wanted the first half to have only Japanese/Chinese instruments and the second half to have only Middle Eastern/Indian instruments, and my composer Mark Delany delivered. The zombie make-up (or Biosyns as we call them) was influenced by Japanese Noh theatre, especially how they used it in Throne of Blood. Because the Biosyns are infected with a drug, I wanted the make-up to be very stylized and unreal.
My co-producer Steve Dann and I are also thinking about doing a comic prequel sort of like what they’ve done with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. We’re even speaking to a couple of video game companies about doing a game of The Vanguard, which would be a novel way of doing things considering how many films have come from games – and also it’s another way of continuing the story.
ME: How did the idea for The Vanguard come about?
MH: I was struck by a question I had floating around in my head: Could a young man from an industrialized society survive alone in the wilderness as a hunter-gatherer? That would be hard enough, and then on top of that he is plagued by zombies for neighbors. I remember flicking through Max Brooks’ book The Zombie Survival Guide and seeing the safest place to escape to would be the wilderness. But what happens when all your resources run out? That’s what started it. At the same time my friends Kev Gates and Mike Bartlett (of The Zombie Diaries) told me about their plans to shoot a zombie film, and that kind of cemented the idea for me.
ME: What are you hoping people take away from it?
MH: I have no idea what people will take away from the film. I just hope they’re entertained for 90 minutes.
ME: Horror is hugely lucrative right now. What do you think has caused the gore boom?
MH: I think it’s quite simple. Audiences love the horror genre, and it’s a testament to the genre that it still endures today.
ME: One of the things you’ve said about The Vanguard is that the key elements of indie filmmaking are good story and good characters. What was your indie filmmaking experience? How did you ensure the story was top-notch and your actors gave strong performances?
MH: A good story is key. The only down side of that is you don’t know whether it’s a good story. I guess that’s up to the audience to decide. And good acting is the second most important part of making an independent film. If either of those two sucks, you’re dead. The actors in The Vanguard I had already worked with or knew socially, so I knew what they would bring. Ray Bullock, Jr., who plays the lead character Max, was a great collaborator, especially when I was writing the script. And that beard you see in the trailer is real; he kept it for over a year! Jack Bailey, who plays the lead Biosyn, designed their movements and had studied ape movement at drama school with Peter Elliott, who designed the apes for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
I think that the actors have to believe in the world you’ve created, and the performances should come out of that. The actual experience of making the film was great. We used a lot of available light and were able to shoot fast. We planned meticulously, especially as we were shooting on 35mm and you cannot afford to waste film. The fight scenes were choreographed and shot on video first; then we just went back and shot them on 35mm.
Time and money are always against you, and sometimes when the light is going and it’s the actors last day, you just have to find a way to keep shooting. I had a great cast and crew who all believed in the film, and I think that shows in the end result. One of the toughest parts of making the film was the Biosyn voices; I wanted them to sound like there were two people fighting over one body. Lee Grainge, the sound designer, spent many months perfecting the voices using animals and humans and pitching them down. After that the Re-recording Mixer Jules Macdonald put on the finishing touches in the final mix.
ME: Yours is the second independent zombie film from the UK (the other being Zombie Diaries) I’ve learned about lately that had crew members who’d worked on some major projects in the past. Tell us a little about your treasures and how you UK boys manage to find these talents and get them to work for you.
MH: From the start of the production we’ve been lucky in getting people on board, even if they’ve just sometimes only been in an advisory role. Paul Hyett, who did the effects for The Descent, I knew from a film he did for a director friend of mine, and he built some prosthetics and gave us a tank of blood he had from The Descent.
My co-producer has been in the industry for years and worked on the visual effects and titles for Superman 1 and 2. He now runs his own post house called Berwick Street Post. I asked him to come on board to help me finish the film when I ran into a little difficulty.
One of my editors, Simon Adams, introduced me to a friend of his who works at Smoke and Mirrors, where I met our visual effects producer Sarah Cloutier, who worked on Hero and Bride of Chucky. She got Tony Lawrence to supervise the CGI work. Tony was the effects supervisor on 28 Days Later. Our post-production Supervisor Kevin Phelan has worked on films as diverse as Legend and The English Patient. I’ve found that people in the industry are willing to cut you deals and help beyond what they have to. They all know how hard it is to make a film and want to see the next generations of filmmakers come through.
ME: Who are your favorite genre directors, and how did they influence you while making The Vanguard?
MH: My two favorite directors are Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa; not specifically genre directors, but they had the greatest influence on the style of The Vanguard. My DP and I decided to shoot the film in a kind of classical way, sort of rigid like a lot of Japanese films and some sort of 70’s style, mixing locked off and hand held shots. We have a few crash zooms in the film that were inspired by The Shining.
In the first half of the film we used a lot of wide angle lenses to give a sense of scope, and then in the second half of the film we used a lot of long lenses, which gives you a shorter depth of field, creating a more claustrophobic feel.
ME: It seems very clear from the trailer that The Vanguard has a message behind it. Was that your intention?
MH: Yes. I wasn’t trying to make a direct reference to Iraq or Afghanistan, but I was interested in the War on Terror. I was particularly interested in the treatment of Asian people, especially in the UK. I just created an extreme version of that, not too dissimilar to what happened to the Jews in WW2. The Trackers, who are these genetically enhanced soldiers, were sort of based on child soldiers from places like Uganda who are forced to kill their parents so they have nothing to return to if they escape. In The Vanguard the Trackers have been brainwashed, drugged and experimented on.
ME: A lot of our members are aspiring filmmakers. Do you have any tips or advice for them?
MH: I think the first I would say is don’t let anybody tell you can’t do it. If you want to make films bad enough, you will find a way. People always say it’s a very competitive business, but I think the only person you should compete with is yourself. Making a short is also a very good way of training yourself, especially if you didn’t go to film school or haven’t worked on any film sets. Read Robert Rodriguez’s book Rebel Without a Crew – use what you can get. Planning is essential. When I was making The Vanguard, I tried to plan for every eventuality. Something always goes wrong every day you’re filming, but as long as you’ve planned well, then you can get through it. Like I said before, a good story and good acting are essential. Create your own luck. Don’t sit there and wait for it to happen.
ME: What is the next step for The Vanguard? Festivals? Distribution?
MH: Both festivals and distribution. We’re currently talking with distributors to find the right one.
ME: Do you have any plans for further dabbling in our genre?
MH: Absolutely. I have a horror story set in Japan I wrote years ago that I’d like to do at some point.
ME: What do you want written on your tombstone?
MH: He survived until now – see date above.
ME: And finally, any last words?
MH: Yes, I would like to take a moment to invite any horror fans to take part in the final shot of The Vanguard playing Biosyns. It will be a one-day shoot in a green screen studio in London. If anyone is interested, they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for the details. It should be a lot of fun, and I would love to hear from people.
Well, I wish I were in London! If you’re in the area, why not drop Matt a line and do your best undead impression? If you need some pointers on attack behavior, you could always ask Johnny Butane… he’s already proven he’s got the skills! In the meantime, visit The Vanguard‘s official site here, and keep your eyes and ears peeled for more info on the film as we get it.