Indie Filmmakers to Watch: Howard Ford Talks The Dead - Part One
In the forty-two years of cinematic zombies, we’ve seen slow zombies and we’ve seen fast zombies. We’ve seen zombies here in the US and we’ve even seen zombies across the pond. But in The Dead genre fans should prepare for something truly unique: zombies running amok on the continent of Africa.
Recently Dread Central had the opportunity to speak with Howard Ford, one half of the writing/directing duo behind the project, and because there were so many remarkable stories associated with making The Dead, we had to make the interview a two-parter.
In this first installment Ford discusses why The Dead is unlike anything horror audiences have experienced before, the trials of filming the movie in Africa, and how much influence his filming conditions lent to the shape of the story.
Shot on locations in Burkina Faso and Ghana, West Africa, The Dead is centered around an American mercenary, the sole survivor of a plane crash, who has to run the gauntlet across Africa, battling against the living dead. Along his journey the mercenary finds an ally in a local military man who is desperately searching for his son amongst the chaos. They must band together to make their way through this brand new horrific world of zombies.
For Ford getting to make The Dead was a 20-year-long process. “When we started out in the industry, our first intention was to make a horror film, but we never had the opportunity. Even over the last twenty years, we’ve made all these short films, two features, and loads of commercials; but my brother, Jon, and I never got to satisfy our urge to make horror movie,” said Ford.
“We even wanted to make a zombie film back when we first played with the idea of becoming filmmakers,” Ford added. “One of the first horror films we ever watched on video was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It really got to us, got to our very core in a way that I really can’t explain. I remember walking home from seeing it, and every single doorway we passed, we were completely unnerved. Every person on that street was going to try to grab us because we truly thought that there could be zombies anywhere.”
Ford credits his commercial work travels as part of the inspiration for choosing Africa as the location for The Dead. While shooting several commercials on the lush continent, he began to realize the appeal of the little-used landscape in order to offer something fresh to the zombie sub-genre of horror.
“Jon and I set out for The Dead to look and be completely different than other zombie movies over the last decade or so, and while doing that, The Dead developed into a zombie road film set in Africa,” explained Ford. “We wanted The Dead to be about a journey for viewers, and rural Africa was perfect for that. We wanted to make a beautiful horror movie, if that makes any sense. It’s a horrific situation for the world; yet, there are still beautiful things to be seen because the scenery doesn’t change.”
It’s not just the scenery that makes The Dead a remarkable film, either. Ford spoke about how developing a compelling lead character was a key part of the equation in creating a truly inventive horror film.
“At the core of the story is the idea of our main character to be a fish out of water, one ordinary guy stuck in extraordinary circumstances,” explained Ford. “Jon and I worked hard to avoid every cliché that had been done before. We didn’t want our lead to be a heroic character, either. He’s flawed and he’s definitely not the hero that is often seen in these kinds of movies. He makes mistakes and his being surrounded by hordes of zombies makes him feel useless. The Dead as much of an emotional journey as it is a physical journey for our lead. It sounds odd trying to say this about a film in the zombie genre, but the reaction Jon and I strived for is a deep emotional impact for audiences,” Ford added.
Once Ford and his crew arrived in Africa to start production on The Dead, he soon realized that the decision to aim for location authenticity came with a hefty price tag attached. Ford explained why The Dead would be the last time he’d ever make a feature film in Africa and how he is surprised he ever made it off the continent alive.
Ford said, “Filming in Africa was probably the worst experience of my life. I can’t even explain how tough it was out there. It wasn’t just the fact that it was hot temperatures and dusty, which are both terrible things to deal with for the equipment we were using. It’s also incredibly corrupt where we were filming, and we looked like walking money to a lot of people there.”
“There were even articles in the paper out there saying in fact that Hollywood had arrived, which didn’t help our situation because we were literally ripped off on every corner. Sometimes we wouldn’t even make it to the location because the police would stop us for some reason or another. Either something was wrong with our vehicle or our paperwork, even though we had done all the paperwork on a daily basis. They would end up impounding our cars and equipment until we handed over various sums of cash, and there were times where we couldn’t get cash into the country fast enough. What’s sad is that this wasn’t money towards production, it was more so that we could stay out of jail,” Ford added.
The writer/director said the police wasn’t even the biggest problem they faced there - malaria and other illnesses almost put the kibosh on the entire production of The Dead.
“Rob Freeman, our lead actor, got malaria twice,” explained Ford. “He nearly died even. One day he collapsed on set and started convulsing. The doctor said if he wasn’t treated as soon as he had been, he would have been dead within three days. Rob was on a drip for two weeks, and he’s in almost every scene, so you can only imagine what that does to a filming schedule.”
“The whole crew was getting sick every day, and there were times where Jon and I would be discussing shots in between vomiting. I am actually someone who prides myself on sticking to a schedule and budget, but we had to throw away those ideals on this film. Every day we had to figure out who would we have available every morning and figuring out from there what we could do since someone has a fever, someone has typhoid, someone’s being treated for malaria. Being the writer/producer/director, everything sort of feel on me, and it was a very difficult time for me because I knew I had to deliver the film, but I think to be honest, we all just kept moving forward because everyone wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as we could,” Ford added.
Even though Ford describes his filming experience in Africa as ‘Hell on Earth,’ the writer/director said that despite all the obstacles, he wasn’t leaving the continent without completing filming there.
“For me, when I commit to something, I commit to it until the death so leaving was never an option,” explained Ford. “I was just focused on getting The Dead finished, and I had to be reminded often that people’s lives were at stake there, including my own. But we didn’t have the money to just go and finish the movie on a sound stage. We wanted The Dead to be realistic and not another CGI movie with chroma key and green screen backdrops.”
“Part of what makes The Dead so special is that it feels real with real locations, shot with real people, with real backdrops. There is something to be said for that kind of filmmaking. Keeping the movie grounded in the reality of its location the entire time hopefully makes audiences feel like this thing could actually happen. If we went to a sound stage, it would have defeated the purpose of setting the story in Africa, and I don’t think we would have made a quality movie,” Ford added.
For more on Ford’s experiences on making The Dead, make sure to check back later this week as Dread Central talks with the writer/director about filming in Africa, his career-spanning ongoing collaboration with his brother and why slow zombies are the only true kind of zombies. (Click here for Part Two of our interview.)
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