AMC Networks’ premium horror streaming service Shudder invites you to spend Mother’s Day with Z, the terrifying new film from writer/director Brandon Christensen. Christensen’s first feature film, Still/Born, premiered on Shudder on Mother’s Day in 2018 and blurred the lines between demonic possession and postpartum psychosis. Directed by Christensen, who co-wrote both Still/Born and Z with fellow filmmaker Colin Minihan, known for Grave Encounters and It Stains the Sands Red, Z explores the complex relationship between a mother with a tragic family history and her son, who has recently started exhibiting aggressive behavior.
Keegan Connor Tracy (Bates Motel) stars as Elizabeth Parsons, whose eight-year-old son Joshua, played by Jett Klyne (The Boy), suddenly begins getting in trouble at school and acting out at home. When Elizabeth and her husband Kevin, played by Sean Rogerson (Grave Encounters), confront Joshua, he blames an imaginary friend named Z for his increasingly disturbing behavior. Keegan Connor Tracy is phenomenal as the tortured Elizabeth, who is forced to confront a traumatic incident from her past as she struggles with the horrifying reality of who or what Z might be, while clinging to her relationship with her son.
Dread Central was excited to have the opportunity to talk with Brandon Christensen about the creative process for Z and how being a parent influenced the story, the film’s creature effects, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about!
Z premieres on Shudder May 7th just in time for Mother’s Day.
Dread Central: I spoke with you in 2018 about your first feature film, Still/Born, which you co-wrote with filmmaker Colin Minihan, who you teamed up with again to write Z. How did you and Colin come up with the twisted story for Z and why did you want to make another film about the relationship between a mother and child?
Brandon Christensen: Speaking for myself, because I’m married and I have kids, I sort of see it every day. I married someone who is particularly easy to be scared and she’s scared of everything and she’s anxious about everything [laughs]. So, I definitely get the twist on a sort of normal situation in life where it’s like, “Oh, we’re out for a family walk, but for my wife it’s, any second one of the kids is going to run in front of a car and it’s going to devastate us.” So, I definitely always have that sort of thing in my ear, just what sort of horrible things can happen in this fairly benign situation.
Actually, my wife and I wrote the first draft of Z together. The whole imaginary friend idea was her idea. After Still/Born I was kind of thinking of what to do next and my older son was six at the time and he was in kindergarten. So, he was kind of leaving the house every day for the first time and it was this weird feeling of a disconnect where we had this five to six-hour period every day where he wasn’t around. And then when he would come home, he would have new things for us; whether it was an idea or a drawing or it was something else. There was just this period of time where we weren’t able to control the intake of information anymore and so he had all these new things that he was learning from someone else. So, we were trying to tap into that idea of just sort of losing control over your kid and what that could mean for you as a family unit if all of the sudden you’re not able to reason with the kid, they won’t listen, and they’ve got this new thing that they take orders from, and it’s just like, “God, that’s kind of terrifying to think about. What would you do as a parent?” That was kind of the original conceit for the film and then my wife came up with the imaginary friend idea.
It’s just such a hard thing to wrap your head around because its imaginary. So, everything when you’re writing, it turns into this situation where in any situation it’s like, “What do you see here?” And most of the time it’s nothing, so you have to figure out other ways of communicating and other ways of showing the idea that something is there, like perhaps a toy that keeps repeating the letter Z. So, you’re just trying to create a presence that’s not technically there, except for the few moments where it needs to be, and it being there and the audience being able to feel it. It’s kind of like the music in Jaws. You know that when that music hits that shit is about to go down.
So, just from the mother perspective, it’s just something that I see. I’m not a police officer. I can’t write believable dialogue for a cop investigating some crime, maybe if I had to, I’d try. Since I work from home, and I have three kids now, I just see so much of this sort of day to day stuff and it’s interesting to sort of take these very kind of boring moment to moment things and putting kind of a horror twist on all of them.
DC: In Z, Elizabeth, played by Keegan Connor Tracy, and her son Joshua are trying to cope with an imaginary friend and a family history of trauma. Much like you did with Still/Born, what inspired you to explore the darker corners of mental illness with Z?
BC: I don’t know if this one in particular is using mental illness as much as Still/Born did, because Still/Born had a diagnosis, whereas this one, to me anyway, is more of a past that has been forgotten coming back and making you remember it and paying tribute to it again. When you’re a parent, a lot of the things from your childhood, and just that playfulness, goes away. Parenthood has these timelines that you have to adhere to, you’ve got these schedules you have to deal with, and some people are great at it and some are not. It’s a struggle to maintain that levity and that balance of just being, not only the authority figure for your kid, but being the friend to the kid that they want to play with. When you’re working and you’re always busy, it’s challenging. So, in Beth’s case, I think that she’s just sort of fallen into the repeated pattern of wake up, make breakfast, make lunch, he goes to school and I’ve got some time alone.
She doesn’t have a ton of friends, it doesn’t seem like she has a very good relationship with her family, and apparently there was an incident in the past that caused an issue with her dad. These are all things she’s tried to forget about, and when a certain event happens in the film that brings her and her sister together, the past comes back, and it comes back with a vengeance. So, I don’t know if it’s mental illness, per say, it can certainly be seen that way and a lot of people have brought that up, but to me it’s just more the idea of losing that part of yourself and it’s almost like overdosing on it when it comes back. It overwhelms you because you didn’t let it die, you kind of forced it into a closet.
DC: I thought the entity known as Z was terrifying and I really enjoyed the subtle use of CGI to create frightfully effective special effects. I love how the CGI wasn’t in your face and a lot of it was left up to the viewer’s imagination. That made it scarier for me. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of the creation of the creature and effects?
BC: The hardest part when you’re dealing with such a small budget is that you don’t really have money to pay someone to come up with ideas for what this thing might look like. If you’re in Hollywood, there are concept artists and you go, “Here, I need twenty-five versions of Z by tomorrow,” and these geniuses go to work and they come up with these great sketches of what this beast can look like. Whereas in our situation, everyone looks at you and they go, “Brandon, what does this thing look like?” And you’re just like, “Uhhh, I don’t know. Make it look scary.” There’s nothing to really go off of, so you start sort of looking into other films that have done sort of scary things. The difference with Z is that it’s not just supposed to be this scary thing, so the biggest approach that we took creatively is that this is something that a little kid needs to be able to look at and not be scared of it, because it’s trying to lure him in, kind of similar to a clown. It wants to be kind of inoffensive and it wants to have a playful, childlike appearance to it where a kid might be suckered into actually wanting to play with it.
If you’ve got this thing with giant red eyes and all these horrible deformations, I don’t necessarily think a kid is going to see it and go, “Hey, I want to be friends with that!” It’s still terrifying to look at, but kind of the big idea was how do we make it look like, in the right light, Josh would want to play with it. So, that was the original idea going into it and it also had this skin that’s old, because it’s not a new friend; it’s from the past. And the whole thing with the mouth is that it’s got this giant smile that it’s straining to keep shut because it’s got these giant teeth, so it’s smiling, but it’s not happy; it’s trying so hard not to reveal its true intentions, so to Josh it just appears like it’s smiling and friendly. But from an adult’s perspective, you go, “Jesus! That’s not good.” Eventually, you get a tall, skinny guy and make him naked and you’ve got your demon [laughs].
DC: I’m looking forward to your next film. Can you tell me what you’re working on next?
BC: I’ve got a script that I’ve written, it’s something that I wrote solo for the first time. I don’t want to talk too much about it in case everything falls apart, which it can often do. It’s a non-demon, non-family horror film that’s something that I’m excited about because it’s still a small scale film and it’s still scary, but it’s more akin to something like Creep, where it’s more about characters and something is off about someone and you don’t know why until you do, and by the time you learn, it’s too late. So, it’s different. Hopefully, it works out. We were actually gearing up to start shooting this month before the pandemic happened, so this has sort of let everyone step back and figure out some stuff. It’s interesting because we’ve got the location booked and everything ready, we’ll just need to cast it and we’ll be ready to go. When you’re sitting and waiting and you’re in quarantine, everything just kind of stops creatively. It’s weird [laughs]. There’s a lot of Animal Crossing now [laughs].