Friday, February 10, 2012

An interview with Kerry Prior, director of 'The Revenant'

[THE REVENANT screens Saturday February 11 th at 11:59 pm at the Cedar Lee Theatre. Writer/director/producer Kerry Prior will be at the screening to introduce the film.]

Interview by Bob Ignizio

Independent filmmakers have long been the lifeblood of the horror genre, innovating, pushing boundaries, and just plain keeping it alive during dry spells when Hollywood didn't want anything to do with such disreputable films. Unfortunately, the market for seeing independent horror films theatrically has largely dried up. That's why it's always a cause for celebration to a horror fan like myself when one does get the chance to play on a big screen.

I particularly have to admire Kerry Prior for getting his debut film as a director, THE REVENANT, into theaters. As of this interview, his film doesn't have a U.S. distributor so he's doing it old-school, taking prints of the film across the country and booking theaters on his own. Just such a booking brings Kerry to Cleveland Heights this coming Saturday February 11 th when THE REVENANT has a special midnight showing at the Cedar Lee Theater. I had a chance to talk with Kerry ahead of the screening about the making of the film and his past as a Hollywood special effects technician on numerous films you've probably seen, including the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series and James Cameron's THE ABYSS. Here's what he had to say.

CLEVELAND MOVIE BLOG: Although THE REVENANT has different themes, a different story, and is more of a comedy, I'm wondering if Bob Clark's DEATHDREAM, where a soldier killed in action in Vietnam comes back to life as a similar kind of undead ghoul, was an influence on your film?

KERRY PRIOR: No. I’m embarrassed to say I have never seen that movie. I guess I’m a little film-illiterate there, because everybody compares The Revenant to it. It’s not on Blu-ray, but I guess I should put the DVD in my cue.

CMB: Speaking of those thematic differences, you largely sidestep the idea in DEATHDREAM about the war coming home. That's not to say you don't have issues of your own that your exploring in the film. They're perhaps more in the background, but you definitely have some social commentary about religion and race relations in your film. What drew you to those subjects, and what are you trying to say about them? Also, why not focus more on the war coming home aspect? (Not a criticism, just curious why you played that down).

KP: It seems like, by just making the movie about a KIA undead soldier, there is enough of a socio-political statement. I read a synopsis from one of the festivals that described THE REVENANT as a “…critique of Bush era foreign policy.” Hilarious. It’s not. And yet, since they got that out of it, I guess it is.

Writing the screenplay, and directing, I always worked from a position of character first, so any themes were only a result of, or in support of the characters. I wanted the themes to service the character, not the other way around. Once the decision was made to have Bart killed in the war, (in earlier drafts he was killed in a motorcycle accident) then the war themes were fleshed out—or sprang to life, maybe—in support of his character. The end of the film was, and is, only a political critique second to being about Bart’s character arc: it really is about him being sent (back) to “Hell” to atone for his sins—the weaknesses of his character that lead to his downfall.

But when you have a movie with an undead soldier tottering about in his mouldy dress uniform, the political commentary naturally, and rightfully, manifests around that imagery. Horror movies especially seem to be rife with metaphor, which I love, but I didn’t want to be didactic either. In this case it is, consciously, metaphor that works backwards from the central theme of vampirism—everyone drinking everyone else’s literal and symbolic blood, and Bart is the central character, a careless fuck-nob draining the life from everybody around him. But everyone in the movie is a succubus, bleeding someone else, in some way. And that’s about character, for me.

Regarding the portrayal of racism, etc., part of the joke is that you take this ancient, inexplicable—perhaps magical—affliction, and transpose that into modern-day Los Angeles. So, purely for comedy, what are the situations that Bart and Joey would run into in Los Angeles? And that’s where the social digs comes from. A lot of those characters are taken from real people that I have come across in Los Angeles—some of the dialogue was lifted from actual situations.

So it’s, for me, more fun, but they also become more dangerous than standard off-the-shelf characters. I got some pressure to sterilize those characters in the name of political correctness--but I think the worst offence you can make as a story-teller is to worry about offending your audience. Tell the story, fuck the audience. I tried not to do anything that wasn’t true to the story.

The religious stuff came from attending the funerals of friends of mine. I tried to just relate those experiences as accurately as I could. But, when you view them through the lens of an undead-comedy—when you force those situations through the “zombie-filter”, the satire kind of rises to the surface.

Don Dunn, the Line Producer, at one point during the shoot said, “You just made this movie so you can make fun of all the shit you hate.” And I was like, “I did not.” But, in retrospect, yeah, that’s an aspect to this movie.

CMB: Obviously there are downsides to working on a lower budget independently produced film like this, but one of the upsides is you have a little more freedom to cast people based on whether they're right for the part as opposed to having to get a big star. How did you put your cast together, and did you have any of them in mind for their roles from the outset?

KP: Casting was a long process. I figured the movie was only going to work based on the chemistry of the four leads, so it seemed like you had to base some of the casting on the other casting. We couldn’t find the right “Joey” until we cast the right “Bart;” we couldn’t find the right “Matty” until we found the right “Joey.”, etc. We put out a shitload of offers, and got a shitload of passes. Finally my casting director called me and said, “Happy Anniversary.” We’d been casting for a year.

I’d love to brag about what great actors Chris and David are, but the truth is, as soon as they laid eyes on each other they fell in love. The friendship you see on screen is genuine—they adore each other. Still friends. On top of that, I think they are both great actors.

CMB: You've worked on special effects for some of my favorite horror films, including most of Don Coscarelli's stuff (the PHANTASM sequels, BUBBA HO-TEP) and some of the most effects-heavy NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies. Given that background, it's kind of a surprise that special effects aren't a huge factor in THE REVENANT, and in fact it's more of a character driven “buddy” picture. What made you decide to go that route?

KP: Well, I’m bummed that you would say effects weren’t a big factor—visual effects of some sort account for more than a third of the running time of the picture, although admittedly not all of them are evident. In addition to the planned effects, we spent a lot of time fixing stuff. The contact lenses we used on set didn’t look severe enough once I saw them in the cut, and a lot of the humor is derived from how disgusting Bart is supposed to appear, so we spent a tremendous amount of time “enhancing” the look of the zombie eyes in post. That meant tracking, rotoscoping, and animating all the eyes on the zombies. Every shot of Bart and Joey with the exception of two were “zombified” in post. And then we had actor availability issues during reshoots (pickups, really) and so we completely shot-out all of the actors’ coverage for those scenes in front of green screen. We also lost some locations when we were running behind during production and either shot entire scenes in front of green screen or supplemented the coverage with stage shoots—all that had to be comped in post. Without question, visual effects work was the most time consuming and laborious job on the film. And I think my compositors and effects crew did a really great job—I’m proud of the work they did.

But, more to your point, I think that effects should help tell the story, as opposed to the story being a vehicle for effects. They eyes are a good example: they only reason we spent all that time on enhancing the eyes, was really to enhance the comedy. The first scene we did was the scene where Bart is in the ER. It took about two weeks to complete all the shots for that scene, and at the end, there was no question, the scene was a lot funnier.

CMB: You serve as writer, producer, director and editor on THE REVENANT. Is that more to save on the budget, or do you just like having that degree of control?

KP: In this case both. We didn’t have a big budget. There are jobs I like doing, and jobs that I don’t; I did a lot of the jobs that I don’t like doing on THE REVENANT because I had to—like all this post production and delivery bullshit. But, I wanted to direct what I wrote, and I produced it because, yeah, I wanted the control. If we had hired a separate VFX Supervisor, I’m certain the budget of the film would have doubled. Bottom line was I couldn’t have made this movie if I didn’t supervise the FX. (But give credit where credit is due: Walter Montague Urch cut the picture!)

CMB: THE REVENANT has been making the festival rounds since 2009, and I've heard that the movie has gone through some changes during that time. How different is the final version of the film from that initial cut, and why were the changes made?

KP: The main change is the opening scene. In the original cut it was excised. Due to a variety of reasons, I thought the scene sucked. It did suck. We didn’t get what we needed during the shoot to make it work; the makeup effects (for the baby) were so bad they were un-shootable. Anders ran the truck into a tree—not his fault, it was dark and there were lights mounted on the hood aiming into his face. So for the festival cut I just launched that scene.

We started in the funeral—which I really liked, because the pacing was more measured, we spent more time with Janet, and the tone was established earlier. But when WME signed on as a producer’s rep, they wanted the opening to move faster (read: “less boring”). Someone suggested, “What if we started in Iraq, and see Bart get killed?” And so I pitched them the scene we already shot. “Yeah! That’d be great!” So I went back and opened with that scene. That meant shooting more pickups and a green-screen shoot with a live baby, more visual effects, new music, etc. There are things I miss about the old cut, but the new cut really does make for a better movie, and it’s closer to my original vision.

CMB: The market for independently produced horror films to play theatrically isn't what it used to be, even for a film like yours which looks polished and professional and has a solid cast. How hard was it to get distribution for your film in the USA, and did you have to fight to get even the limited midnight screenings the film is getting?

KP: Well, we still do not have a North American distributor, and I had to four-wall this engagement. Does that answer your question? I’ve seen films, a few films that I just really loved, like DOGTOOTH, (which won best film at the Stockholm International Film Festival, and then went on to win an Oscar for best foreign film here in the states) and TRIANGLE, an amazing movie which I saw at the Night of Horror Film Fest in Sydney, and those films got fuck-all for distro here in the US. No theatrical, no support for DVD and Blu-ray. It’s a bitch.

CMB: Gotta get in a question or two about your earlier work. Of all the films you've done special effects work on, which was your favorite and why?

KP: Well, THE ABYSS is a masterpiece; Cameron at his best. And I loved STARSHIP TROOPERS—I’m a huge Paul Verhoeven fan. And those were fascinating to work on because they were these huge productions—hundreds and hundreds of people working on them.

CMB: You've worked on everything from Coscarelli's fairly low budget PHANTASM flicks all the way up to James Cameron's multi million dollar sci-fi epic THE ABYSS. Having seen both extremes of filmmaking, which do you prefer?

KP: Well, there’s a continuum between not having enough money to make the film you want, and having too big a budget to make the film you want. Don’s movies are great because there’s a small intimate crew, it’s more relaxed, it’s often better for the actors. It’s a great way to make a movie. My favorite shoot days, as a director, are the second unit shoots where I’m DPing. No pressure, tiny crew, shoot what you want, have fun, compose stuff off the cuff. It’s the big shoot days that are a drag. It’s like an ocean of stress with little fun-boats bobbing on the surface trying not to capsize. I just watched some behind-the-scenes stuff from THE REVENANT that I didn’t remember at all: We had just gotten done closing off Hollywood Blvd., a big shoot-out scene with cops and cars and guns and helicopters and extras and shit-tons of crew, and I was on camera talking to Liam, the producer, saying, “In spite of this awful, terrible day, I’m surprised to say I actually had fun today.” So, I guess it all depends. Helicopters make things better.

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