Jake Kennedy is one of those film makers that has a natural talent for the craft. His latest film, Days of Darkness, is an absolutely brilliant zombie film, which was brilliantly produced and brings a lot of new elements to the genre. I recently had a chance to ask him about is experiences with the creation of this film, as well as the distribution deal he got for it with Lionsgate. As always, Jake had lots of great stuff to say…
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I always start off by having people tell everyone a little about themselves. So let’s start there.
My name is Jake Kennedy. I was born and raised in London. After University (I graduated with a BSc in Psychology and the very useful Cartography!), I worked in advertising in London for 8 years – for a major radio station (Capital Radio) and major newspaper (Mail on Sunday). In 1999 I moved to Australia where I decided to make a break from the world of advertising and go into the world of film, as it’s is something I’ve always loved and been fascinated by. I didn’t really know what aspect of film, so ended up in the art department on Mission Impossible II. It was a fantastic experience, but I knew I didn’t want to do that forever. I didn’t have any other skills in other filmic areas, but I had a creative mind and great vision. I then made a short film with friends as the writer/director. It turned out pretty well and I was hooked. It was like a light went on in my head. That’s what I wanted to do – write and direct. From that moment on. So I quit my job the next week and went to film school, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The last time I interviewed you it was mostly about your short film We All Fall Down that appeared on the Fangoria Blood Drive II DVD. This time, you’ve done an amazing new zombie feature called Days of Darkness, which was in at least the early stages of development the last time I talked to you. Tell everyone about this new film and what they can expect from it.
The film is a slight departure from the really scary, shit-your-pants movies I set out to make when I branched into the horror arena from comedy. An opportunity came to me and I basically couldn’t turn it down. I met these two producers – Kurt Anderson and Tom Eplin, who were looking to self-finance a low budget horror film. I had written a couple of horror scripts and had just completed We All Fall Down. They liked what they saw and so I started a relationship with Kurt, who was the LA based producer. We started throwing ideas around. I had also just finished a stint at the horror production companies Raw Nerve (under Eli Roth) and the micro-budget horror production company, The Asylum. I learnt a lot about film making from these places – especially The Asylum, where I learnt all about how not to make a low budget movie (they used to shoot horror films in 9 days on 35mm, with 2 weeks pre-production and very little money!!). One of the lessons I learnt was that if the budget was small, keep the film small and manageable. One of the key ways to do that is to use one location for the whole film. I had shot part of We All Fall Down at an old abandoned military bunker in the hills of Topanga in LA. Kurt’s wife’s friend had just bought it off the government and he said I could shoot the movie there for free. So I asked Kurt if his wife’s friend still owned the bunker. And he did. So hey presto – we now had our location for our movie. Now we just had to find our idea. We decided on an end of the world scenario. Then Zombies and a group of survivors finding their way to this bunker and fighting off the zombies – very ‘Night of the Living Dead-esque’. Before Kurt sent me on my way to write the script, he told me he wanted everyone at the end of the movie drunk and killing zombies. He wanted it a little like that Jackie Chan Movie ‘Drunken Master’, where he can only fight the bad guys when he’s drunk. So for me, this immediately set the tone of the movie. Then I decided I didn’t want to make a run of the mill survivor/zombie/apocalypse movie. There was also a lot in the papers about comets around this time and how they are made of ice and one theory was that the first life came to earth frozen inside a comet. I then did some research on parasites, decided to use extreme characters for the film, mixed everything together in my head and started writing the script with the intention of shaking up the genre a little. And judging from the response, awards and reviews we have had from the movie so far, I think I succeeded.
Days of Darkness has an absolutely brilliant cast of highly professional actors. Did you have difficulty assembling a cast that worked off of each other so well and fit their characters so perfectly? Where exactly did you find all these great people?
The cast came from all over. But it does help when one of the producers (Tom Eplin) is an actor and invites his friends in to audition. Tom acted in the film as Chad, the burnt out B-movie and ex-soap actor. I specifically wrote the part for him. He then brought in Bryan Rasmussen as Slasher, the used car salesman and Eric Stuart as his side-kick; Marion Tomas Griffin as the porn star and Will Cannon as Herbert. Will Clevinger, my line producer ( and producer of the 2008 Dimesion Extreme zombie film release ‘Automaton Transfusion’ ), brought in Ashley as the hot 18 year old school girl. I was recommended an actor, Travis, by a friend who turned out to be room-mates with my lead from We All Fall Down. We cast Travis in the lead role. The movie started out very low budget, but the producers, thankfully, wanted to do the best job possible with the film. So they upped the budget and we went SAG Ultra Low Budget, which of course allowed us to cast a much higher caliber of actor for the film. All the other parts we auditioned exhaustively for. Again, thankfully the producers wanted to find the best cast possible, so we gave ourselves a 3 month pre-production period; which then of course allowed us to prep extensively for all other aspects of the film.
There are some new elements added to the typical "zombie" scenerios in this film, taking the whole zombie genre to new places. While there were some aspects of this film that are typical of most zombie films, these new elements really made it stand out amongst its peers. The most notable of which is the way they reproduce. What was going through your mind during the development process when you were dealing with how to make the zombies in your film different from your typical, run of the mill zombies? Did you have any ideas that you liked but threw out in favor of what you actually used?
So yes, it’s a typical zombie film in that a group of survivors of – insert disaster here, in this case a comet strike – must do battle against a hoard of hungry flesh eating zombies to save themselves and ultimately mankind. I decided to throw in a sci-fi element to the whole mix and introduced alien parasites frozen into the ice of the comet that are spread across the globe in the ash of the fall out. Every living creature then breathes in the parasite-laden dust. In the men, the parasite takes root in the brain and eats it away to grow and survive, whereby rendering the person a vegetable/zombie. In the woman the parasite takes root in her womb and grows into a giant maggot with a huge penis like proboscis. A tendril then extends up into her brain; and through a chemical it slowly releases, it takes over her mind and begins to control her actions – which are now to ‘mate’ with the male zombie by stabbing it with its proboscis and injecting into it a concoction of human and alien DNA. After this, the male zombie’s cock and balls drop off, and in its place grows a small sack with a new hybrid alien/human that, once hatched, will be able to survive in the earth’s atmosphere. The male then needs to feed (on human flesh) in order to provide nutrition to the new life growing inside it. And yes we do show all this, including an operation on a zombie scrotum, which Fangoria said: ‘takes up considerable screen time and had most of the male audience looking at the floor…Let’s just say that if you value your vital member, it is genuinely difficult to watch certain scenes that Kennedy’s twisted mind has come up with’. I didn’t make all this up. This stuff really happens out there in the animal kingdom. In my research, I discovered a certain parasite that takes over a certain crab in much the same way by controlling its brain, making the crab shed its private parts and replacing it with the parasites’ growing offspring, while making the crab eat, eat, and eat to feed these new lives it’s now supporting. Then once the new parasites hatch, the crab dies. It’s a crazy world out there!!! In the film, the main characters are called Steve and Mimi (short for Badami). They are the only two who survive at the end of the film. With this whole alien parasite scenario in the film, it effectively turns the men into women and women into men with their roles they now play in the reproduction cycle. And I reflected this in our characters where Steve really represents: stEVE and Badami: bADAMi – who are the only two survivors left in the world and have to go off at the end of the movie to start its re-population. This is just one of the many biblical references I throw in there.
Let’s talk about the effects in this film, starting with the CGI, since that’s really the first thing we see. Spencer Hecox did the CGI work in the opening segment. Tell us about the segment, about working with Spencer and about how you feel the segment looked and worked once it was completed.
Once Kurt and I decided on the whole comet thing, I knew who to turn to immediately (Spencer), as I had recently seen a great short sci-fi film he had done the space effects for. After seeing his body of work at his studio, I knew he was the man for the job. He had done very little feature work before, so as this was something he wanted to get more into, we managed to hire him for a great price. I started working with him immediately on the concept and he put together some animatics that were very close to what ends up in the final film. Even though, of course, he thinks it could look better, the final segment looks great in the finished film.
On to the special effects, make-up and creature fx now. Tell us about the companies and people you worked with for these elements of the film and how it was working with them.
My DP (Brandon Trost) knew the owner of Almost Human – Robert Hall, so we went to him and told him about the film and how we didn’t have too much money to achieve a lot. He was very receptive and gave us two guys, Jason and Elvis, to work with us. Our approach was: this is what we need to do; what do you have already made that we can use so you don’t have to spend time and money making for scratch for us? So we went down our list – alien creature. They said they had an old creature they used for a ‘Buffy the Vampire’ episode. They designed us a new head for the creature and we had our monster with very little effort and money spent. Next was a cock and balls we needed to show that had dropped off a zombie plus their genital area where no cock or balls existed any more. Luckily for us, they said that had designed and built just the thing we needed last week for a TV show where someone got castrated. So we just used all those parts and made it work in the film. Then we needed to cut a zombie’s head open and show an alien maggot jump out of its brain. I had an actor in mind for the part of that zombie. That was, until they told me they had a head and shoulders they had already molded from one of their interns. They made the whole piece look just like him, and it came with a detachable head plate for a cool brain reveal. So, in order to utilize this piece, we just cast the intern as the zombie and then we had a fantastic looking head and shoulders which doubled for our dead intern/zombie. Again, this we effectively got for free. Then they assigned us some interns and juniors to work with us in development and on set. They were all very talented and did a wonderful job. And it really shows on screen.
As a director, you have to make everyone involved in any visual way with the production understand exactly what you want thinks to look like and how you want them to be. Do you find it difficult sometimes to make other people understand certain concepts or things you’re seeing in your head so that they can help you get across exactly what you originally conceived? How do you overcome those moments where you can see it so clearly in your own mind but can’t really make someone else understand…or do you ever actually have that problem at all?
We had a large pre-production period with this film, so I had time to explain to the effects team, my DP, my production designer and my producers, exactly what I wanted. I drew maps, charts, diagrams, plans, shot lists and camera placement sketches. I spent weeks with Brandon my DP going through each and every scene working out exactly how we were going to shoot the thing in the best way possible under the rigid circumstances of little shooting time. I guess what I’m saying is that I am a good communicator and can get across my concepts and ideas relatively easily, which ultimately makes my job, and everyone else’s on the day, that little bit easier.
The location of this movie was rather interesting. Where was the movie actually shot, and are the interior scenes actually the building we see in the film or were those shot somewhere else?
Kurt, one of the producers on the film had a friend who bought a dis-used military bunker in the hills of Topanga (in Los Angeles) and wasn’t planning on doing anything with the property. I was in pre-production with ‘We All Fall Down’ and asked if I could shoot the film there. He agreed and the end result was what you see in the film – a great location with fantastic production design value already built in to the location. So when it came write the script for Days, we approached the same guy about setting and shooting the film there. He agreed, so I wrote the script based on that location – which is a wonderful and liberating thing to do, as you don’t overwrite or over stage on the page, and can see the film play out in your head in the location as you are writing. The bunker itself is one huge room, set behind 4 huge concrete walls. There are two small rooms inside, but that’s it. I wrote the place to have 2 levels – the main open area you see when you walk in, and a basement full of rooms and dark corridors. My idea was to build the basement sets in the main room and shoot those out first. Then pull out all the walls and furniture and shoot the remaining stuff in the empty space. And that’s how we did it. We shot all the stuff outside the bunker for the first few days. Then all the stuff in the basement for the next few days. Then we had a day off where the production crew re-dressed the inside of the bunker and then shot the rest of the film there for the next 6 days. When it came time to shooting, I didn’t want people to think we just used the outside of this cool structure and then shot all the inside of the bunker at a studio. I wanted people to really get the feeling that this place existed, tha
it was real and that our characters lived in this real space. To ensure this happened, I designed one of my shots to take us from outside the building to its inside in one take. The shot works really well in putting our actors in this real space.
What were some of the more interesting (or messed up) experiences you had while putting this film together?
Telling people we wanted to hire what we wanted and how much money we were going to pay them was always interesting. But luckily people bought into the script, the genre and the action and came on board as they wanted to be a part of this. A 3 month pre-production period ironed out most issues or potential problems before they even happened. The producers were very invested in the project at every level as they were financing this thing from their wallets. So naturally I had a few creative issues with them, but nothing that wasn’t resolved. Luckily we were all on the same page about making this film the best it can possibly be.
You just recently mentioned to me that you’ve got a distribution deal for the film. Tell us about that and when we can expect to see it hitting the store shelves.
The film has been doing the festival circuit and has won 5 awards and accolades so far. Lionsgate caught the film, and according to the producers, ‘loved it’. So they have picked it up through Mainline/Lightening Ent and it will be coming out on DVD in Blockbusters/Netflix etc on January 8th. The artwork they have made for the film is brilliant. It can be found on the Fangoria.com website. Just do a search for ‘Days of Darkness’.
As part of the deal, did they ask you to change anything about the film, or are they releasing it exactly as you made it?
As far as I know, they are putting it out exactly as we made it. There’s some pretty gory and nasty stuff in there, so I am guessing it will come out as an ‘unrated’ DVD, which is pretty cool.
As a film maker, what do you think of the practice of distribution companies occasionally changing the names of films or editing them for content in various ways before release? I personally see it as an unnecessary corruption of the film maker’s vision and hard work. How do you feel about it?
You spend all this time, money and effort committing your film to celluloid in the way that you want to it to look, then someone goes and changes your vision to suit their needs. That doesn’t feel so good. But saying that, this film has a lot of sexual gore in it, so this won’t be going anywhere near a TV channel as it stands right now. But we shot a lot of extra footage and coverage of those scenes so that we could make a TV safe version for the Sci-Fi Channel or whoever, if we wanted. We didn’t do that edit, but we did hand over all the footage to Mainline/Lionsgate. So I would rather see them edit the film down to a slightly tamer version of what it is now so that it can get a wider audience, than either it not getting seen by many people or a TV station just hacking the thing to pieces until it doesn’t make sense any more.
What’s going on with you now and in the near future as far as films, convention & festival appearances, etc…? Anything special or exciting you’d like to mention?
I’ve traveled the country with the film at all the various festivals it’s got into, which was great fun. Hopefully Lionsgate will be doing some publicity and promotion for the film and hopefully I’ll be involved in that. I’m attached to direct a couple of very cool films right now (‘The Pick Up’ and ‘Madness’). The producers are out there trying to raise the cash to get those off the ground. In the meantime, I am in the process of raising private financing to get a slate of 3 slightly bigger horror films off the ground that I have written (bar 1) and will direct. The first film will be the feature to my multi-award winning short film: We All Fall Down (it has won 13 awards so far. Check the film out at: www.weallfalldownthemovie.com). The film has already been optioned by 2 producers including Milkwood Films (Catherine Zeta Jones’ production company) and is now out of option. I have just finished a re-write on it that has scaled the film right down to a level that will allow me to shoot it in one location – much like Days of Darkness. Which means that it can be shot on a much smaller budget than previous scripts would have allowed and will hopefully make it easier for me to try and raise the money myself. I’m doing a pretty good job so far as I have almost raised half the film’s budget. But I’ve tapped out all the people and family I know and am looking for an angel to come and help me with the finishing funds I need to get the movie made. Hopefully we’ll go into production in Feb ’08 and shoot in April, as I loose my location in May. So the pressure’s on!!!