By DAKOTA DAHL
In the before times, when we were able to go to movies in theatres, I had the pleasure of seeing Z at the Blood in the Snow Film Festival. It tells the story of a little boy with an invisible friend who may not be imaginary and is definitely a colossal douche. Along for the ride is a beleaguered mother and predictably clueless father. Overall, I enjoyed it, and Z was one of the standout films in an already fun filled festival. You should check it out on Shudder in the US, and there will be a Blu-Ray release from RLJE Films on September 1st.
The mastermind behind the whole nightmare is Writer/Director Brandon Christensen, who I managed to track down and demand some answers from, which he was happy to answer. I’m also proud of myself for not pronouncing it “Zed” once.
What inspired you to write Z?
After Still/Born, I was trying to look at my own experiences as a parent to see if I could draw any inspiration. My oldest son had just started kindergarten and he so he was going to school for the first time and sort of just being away from the house. Then, at three o’clock every day, he would come home and he would telling us about all these new things he had learned. My wife and I were talking about it one night, and were basically like “Well, what if he brought home something bad or evil or malevolent?” So we started to discuss different ideas, and my wife threw out the idea of an imaginary friend, and that just started a snowball of ideas going back and forth. We’d be like “How can this be scary, how can we do this, what does that mean to the family?” and things like that. It was just a very organic process there.
Which was more difficult, writing or directing?
Probably writing. I mean, when you’re directing a film, you’re sort of stuck in this vortex of production, where the only thing that matters at any given moment is just what you’re filming. You don’t have time to think of the past, you don’t have time to think of the future, you’re just kind of laser focused on what you are doing. Directing, when you come out of it, you’re just like “Holy crap, what just happened?” Whereas writing, you have infinite possibilities where you’re just like “I can do THIS or I can it can be THAT!” and when you’re dealing with something imaginary, it almost impossible to really hone in on what it means, and what’s the meaning you’re trying to get out of this story. So writing it was really challenging, just to try to figure out what Z was and what Z wanted and how could that make sense in the larger scope of the story for what this family was trying to go through.
I always get nervous when kids are in horror movies. I never know in some of the actors or special effects will end up traumatizing them. What’s it like having children on set when filming a horror movie?
In the case of Z, Jett Kline was a seasoned veteran. I mean, he’s been acting since he was literally a Gerber ® Baby, so I think he’s got a lot more set experience than even I do. When he came on, there was definitely the fear of “Oh, the kids on set, everyone has to be on their best behaviour, everybody has to work a certain way” but it was apparent immediately that he was a veteran actor. He wasn’t a kid, he was just another actor on set. I can’t imagine doing this movie with anybody else because it would’ve been a nightmare having to train a kid how to act. Whereas with Jett you could give him notes, you could be like “Hey, I think you should be more upset on this take because of this” and he would just kind of dial it in. You were just like wow, here’s an eight or nine-year-old kid and he’s able to take notes like any actor. That was incredible for me to be able to work with that.
Did you have an invisible friend growing up?
I didn’t. The imaginary friend idea itself came from my wife, who has a friend with a kid with an imaginary friend that they live with, so that was definitely where her thought came from. My oldest son did have a time where he came into our bedroom and said “Mom, Dad, I’m scared of the girl with the green eyes in our closet.” and that was kind of a wake up call for us where we were like “What the hell? Does that mean?” What do you do with that? So, we were able to bring that in a little bit into the film. It ended up being something from a video game that he had seen and was scared of and sort of applied it into the real world. Fortunately for me, I had my own demons but not any that were imaginary.
As a parent, do you find it difficult writing/directing scenes where children are in danger?
No, I think it’s fun. I think, as a parent you have this instinctual need to protect your child, so being able to flip that on its head and be like “How can I do the opposite of what I would normally want to do?” it very liberating to write a scene like that because there are no rules when you’re writing, and I think as long as the story can handle what you’re doing then it’s totally fair game to put a kid in danger. I think it’s interesting to play on my own fears, as a parent, to go “What’s something safe that I want to do?” then “What’s the opposite of that? How can I exploit that for as much scare, as much terror as I can possibly get?” I definitely enjoy it a lot.
What age will you let your kids watch Z?
My oldest is almost nine, and he’s still nowhere near the age that he could watch this. I don’t think Z ever got an official rating. Still/born was rated R. I’ll probably wait until he’s got friends that are old enough to want to see it, maybe in the low teens or something like that. As a kid, I always loved watching films I wasn’t supposed to, that desire to get scared because it’s so much fun in a social setting. It would be great if he started to do that. I don’t know, I’ll just sort of let him decide when, if he thinks he’s ready for it, I’ll totally let him.
Before Z, you wrote and directed Still/Born. Is there something about adding horror to the mother and child dynamic that you are attracted to?
I think it’s just something that I see every day, I’m married to a woman who is incredibly anxious about things, so when you’re doing everyday, normal, parenthood things, she’s not shy to tell you what horrible things could happen in the moment. I think there’s a lot of inspiration just coming from what I’m seeing, I’m able to watch my wife go through certain things in life and I sort of start to get the sense of how strong they are. When bad things do occur, they’re always the first ones to step up and take care of it. There’s a sort of strength that a mother has that you don’t get from a father just because they’ve got that relationship, the mom with the baby, because of that nine months of pregnancy where they built that bond. There’s just something different about being a mom that’s just powerful to watch.
What’s the main thing you want audiences to come away with after watching Z?
I think, just that in the face of tragedy you’re able to come up with strength that you didn’t have. In the movie, Jenna, the sister, is kind of absent from her family, she’s kind of a hot mess, but when she’s called to action, when her family needs her most, she steps up and takes over this role. If you had even told her beforehand “Hey, you’re going to have to do this.” she never would have done it but because she was in it and she was dealing with it and she was the only one left, it’s just amazing the kind of strength you can come up with out of nowhere.
You’re also something of a special effects whiz. You did the visual effects for Still/Born and the more recent Bliss. What special effect are you most proud of in Z?
The biggest sequence is definitely the fire scene, and that was something I wasn’t supposed to do originally. I was supposed to do the exterior shots, when she first pulls up, but what we were first seeing wasn’t working for me. There was a three- or four-day period before we had to lock everything and get the DCP out for Overlook Film Festival, where we had our premier. So, I was basically doing twenty hours a day just trying to figure out how fire would work and it’s not 100%, it’s one of those “good enough” things, where it tells the story and it doesn’t get in the way that much. It was just kind of a gratifying thing because I had such a small window to do it and to learn how to do it, and when you come out of it, it’s one of those things where you go “wow, I was able to do that, I found something inside of me that was able to push me through.” There’s a tonne of VFX in the film, but those were so gruelling to get through that I’m just proud that I did it.
What’s your favorite scene in the film?
I mean, the bannister moment is something that I’ve come to love a lot. When we filmed it, and when we edited it and everything, I didn’t think that it would have the reaction that it would. I knew that it was a big deal, but I didn’t think that it was going to be that big of a deal. When I have these screenings and we go to festivals and stuff like that, and we hear the audience shriek at that moment, it’s incredibly gratifying. It’s not something I ever expected to happen. Just being able to illicit something like that from a group is pretty amazing.
As always, what future projects of yours can we look forward to?
I’m going to camera on a film in October called Superhost. Another horror film, there’s zero moms involved, no children involved, it’s something completely different that I’m excited to play with.