Indie Filmmakers to Watch: Howard Ford Talks The Dead - Part Two
In the first part of Dread Central’s interview with writer/director Howard Ford for his latest project, The Dead, we heard about some of the challenges he and his crew faced while filming in Africa. In this second installment we talk to Ford about his thoughts on why slow zombies are the only true zombies, collaborating for 20 years with his brother, Jon, and some of the interesting experiences he had with African natives along the way.
Before he was struggling to get his film made in Africa, Ford was struggling alongside his sibling to find their creative vision. It was while working on a commercial shoot for napkins that both Ford brothers felt the urge to make the switch back to filmmaking.
“We were on a commercial shoot, and it just hit us that what we’ve been doing was totally not us, and at that point we were doing it for the money,” said Ford. “In our minds we felt that we had kind of sold out, which of course we said that we would never do. Jon then reminded me on that shoot about making the zombie movie we never got to make, and the rest is history from there.”
For both Ford brothers filmmaking has been a family affair since they were pre-teens. Ford said Jon was one major reason The Dead was able to get completed while in Africa.
Ford explained, “Jon is very technically minded, which is something that I am not at all. We were out in Africa, and for a long time half of our equipment was held at Customs so we were missing essential things like batteries for the camera. All of the sudden, my brother would make his own batteries for the camera. I still have no idea how he did it, but he made it all work. I think our teamwork is the reason we’ve had such a long career. We’ve never been to film school so we’ve literally been learning from our mistakes together for the most part over the last 20 years. As professionals, we work well together because we don’t have to waste too much time in explaining things to each other. We get each other,” Ford added.
The writer/director said that Dawn of the Dead was part of their inspiration not only to get into making features but also to go with slow zombies for The Dead as opposed to the new wave of super-fast zombies fans have grown accustomed to in films like 28 Days Later, Zombieland or even the Dawn of the Dead remake.
“Slow zombies are the original zombies, the way George Romero did it, and Jon and I agreed from the very beginning we would be very loyal to the original zombie rules for The Dead,” explained Ford. “Also, with slow moving zombies you can create suspense, and I think there is more horror in suspense. Horror films can’t just have the quick gore sort of things going on - you have to have some sort of build-up to it. When you have zombies running to and from, you miss out on that suspense.”
Even though Ford had more obstacles than he ever could have imagined shooting The Dead in Africa, he explained that some of the bizarre and horrendous things the cast and crew witnessed helped shape the ambiance of the project and gave some truly unknown faces a chance to be part of a feature film, making the experience worth it in the end.
“We were filming in villages that had real suffering of various kinds, and a lot of these people didn’t have anything like electricity, or much of anything at all,” explained Ford. “We used a lot of these villagers in the film as extras and things like that. Someone said after our cast and crew screening that they had never seen a genre film that had those kinds of realities mixed in, the suffering of villagers and the surrealism of zombies. There is one scene in the film that is very disturbing, where villagers are very casually tossing bodies onto a fire and you can see limbs on the ground and burning corpses and things like that. That really happened, and we shot that footage in a sort of gritty documentary style so it would remind people somehow of the newsreel footage they have seen from Africa. I even remember filming in one of the huts where cockroaches were crawling up my legs continuously and there were pots around the sides of the huts, and I was told that no matter what, I could not touch the pots because they contained the remains of their dead relatives. It was death around us all the time. I think The Dead is the most aptly title film in the business,” Ford said.
Africa is a continent well known for its rituals and traditions, and Ford discussed how one ghastly and disturbing African custom in particular left him horrified while working on The Dead.
Ford said, “When we arrived, people in the villages were extremely happy to see us because it meant that money would be brought in, and we paid people in local terms incredibly well. But before we stopped filming each day, they would have to sacrifice an animal. Half of the time they would sacrifice a goat, and we had to pay for this animal strangely. I already can’t stand cruelty to any animals so having them slit a goat’s throat for me is a really unpleasant thing. That kind of thing stays with you.”
While in Africa Ford also experienced a case of life imitating art when, at one point, he was introduced to a local cannibal. “Some local guy stopped past the set one day, and my local translator called me over and said, ‘You know, you must meet this guy because he’s a real cannibal. He eats people but only when they’re dead.’ I couldn’t believe it so I went over to talk with him.”
“I found out that when someone dies in his village, they cook them, and he was being completely serious with me, too. He’d seen our flesh-eating zombie and kind of laughed at the idea. He was telling us how nice flesh is and I sort of made a joke saying, ‘Have you tried any white meat?’ The guy looks me up and down and made some remark about my thigh or something, and once the natives started laughing amongst themselves, I realized it was time to leave,” Ford added.
Corrupt police officers. Malaria. Animal slayings. Cannibals. Any one of those things on their own would be enough to make a filmmaker run for the hills; yet, while facing all of these things, Ford never wavered. I asked him if there was ever a point while deep in the throes of shooting that he felt like throwing in the towel and heading for safer ground.
“Maybe I should have stopped and packed it up while in Africa, but I was too invested to get this film made,” explained Ford. “One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t control filmmaking at all, whether you are in Africa or the US or your own backyard. I think we did incredibly well under the circumstances, and my God, the circumstances were awful.”
“I don’t really think we could’ve done much else differently, but the one thing is, had I known what we were walking into, I think I would’ve been much more flexible with the shooting schedule. I remember at some point halfway through the shoot I caught a look at the original schedule, and it was one of those few moments that I laughed during the entire production. Everything about making The Dead was crazy and surreal, but I don’t think I would change a thing, even now,” Ford added.
Our thanks to Howard for taking the time to speak with us (click here for Part One of our interview).
The Dead will be making its debut at the Film4 FrightFest and will then be having its North American premiere on September 24th at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. Visit the official The Dead website here.
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