DEADSIGHT is a low-budget zombie film that sets itself apart in an overcrowded genre by featuring a blind man and a pregnant woman as leads. Thrusting the audience right into a twenty-four-hour zombie apocalypse, it makes clever use of its limited set pieces and cast. Daily Grindhouse got the chance to talk to Jesse Thomas Cook about working with your wife, directing a blind character, and creating a zombie film influenced by Romero that still makes it own distinct mark. DEADSIGHT became available in theaters, VOD, and Digital HD as of July 2nd.
Daily Grindhouse: What did you think of the script when you first read it?
Jesse Thomas Cook: The first draft of the script was actually a comedy. It was very funny, and the lead character, the man who wakes up in the back of an ambulance, was almost written for a Michael Cera-like character. He sort of goes through this zombie apocalypse as though he were like Mr. Bean or something, he was very amusing. But it was sort of one-note, and for the second draft we thought maybe we should change the tone, but a lot of the plot elements are still the same. Starting out in an ambulance in front of a graveyard and getting to a farmhouse and meeting a police officer, those were all in the first draft in its comedic form, but then we definitely changed the tone to a much darker, much more gritty and realistic feel.
Daily Grindhouse: There were long stretches in the movie with no dialogue. How did you handle those?
Jesse Thomas Cook: It was designed that way, I think. We just wanted to immerse these characters right into this undead uprising without giving the audience very much exposition, without much backstory, because they’re alone for a lot of it. We’re sort of just observing them and how they deal with this survival situation. Then in particular, when the camera is on Ben, we focus a lot on close-ups, so the audience is with him in his blindness, and you’ll notice in my edit I’m very hesitant to cut to a wide shot, even, because it removes that veneer right away. You realize he’s in a wide-open room, and he’s fine, that’s why I sort of hover over his shoulder for a lot of the time in the first twenty minutes with Ben. But I think just without the dialogue it adds to a stark, bleak reality we wanted to create, and we just wanted everything that was going to be said to be important.
Daily Grindhouse: There’s so many zombie movies out there. Which ones may have inspired you?
Jesse Thomas Cook: Definitely the Romero films, growing up for me, were the pinnacle. They were my introduction not just to zombie films but to horror movies, so I always had a love for the zombie subgenre within horror. I always wanted to make one. I produced a zombie movie before, but I never got the chance to make one, so with DEADSIGHT we sort of wanted to throw back and pay homage to Romero, especially to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and that’s why the character is in front of a graveyard right away, even though the graveyard’s sort of inconsequential. It was a throwback, a sort of a nod or a wink to Romero, and then following this guy to a farmhouse, and also he’s Ben and the main character in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is Ben. So there were definitely some nods to Romero there, and also going into the basement of the farmhouse, which was a big issue in the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. So NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD for sure, and also, oddly enough, the RESIDENT EVIL video games, especially the first two, with the abandoned house, and the ending in the factory with the police officer, so RESIDENT EVIL, we often joked, this was like a fan-made RESIDENT EVIL film because we’re constantly getting new weapons and discarding them, and there’s a limit to the ammunition we have in the film. And again, ending it with this sort of countdown inside a factory. I would say NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and RESIDENT EVIL were the two biggest influences for DEADSIGHT.
Daily Grindhouse: How do you feel like you set this film apart, since there’s so many zombie movies out there?
Jesse Thomas Cook: I think by A) Just immersing people into the crisis right away without any explanation or backstory, without showing what went wrong or why they’re zombies, we’re just thrust right into it, we don’t get to know the characters, we’re just with them for this limited time, twenty-four hours with them, let’s just put them right in it, and then also, the blindness. The blindness of Ben, the pregnancy of Mara, following these two very vulnerable characters who not only can they not get bitten, but they’re not very mobile, and if they ever encountered the horror of zombies, they’d be dead right away, so I just wanted to watch these two very vulnerable characters who really need each other and especially Ben in the first half of the film really needs Mara, and then the tables turn toward the end as Mara starts really getting the contractions with her pregnancy. So I think that’s what sets us apart. I’ve seen pregnancy in zombie films before, I don’t know if I’ve seen blindness, but I think just containing those two characters, and a male and a female, and having it just be this platonic, asexual thing, there’s no tension there, and it’s just two human beings who need to help each other.
Daily Grindhouse: This film was developed so much around Adam Seybold and Liv Collins’ lead performances, how did you work with them and develop their story?
Jesse Thomas Cook: Adam and Liv had previously worked together six months earlier on a film my colleague made called CREEP NATION, which was a thriller, and I had produced a number of films with Adam, four films with Adam, in the past, but I had never directed him. And then Liv I had directed in a haunted-house film a couple years ago, and then Liv’s actually my wife, so we work together and we live together and we have three kids together. Liv having helped write the script too, and us living together, and she wasn’t actually going to take the role, and the role didn’t call for a pregnant police officer until the second draft. It was a police officer, it was going to be a female character, and then we thought maybe Liv could try to do it. And then it sort of gives it a FARGO-esque character with this police officer who’s in her third trimester. And I think just because we all have worked on many films together in the past and we’re all good friends the chemistry is always there.
Daily Grindhouse: This movie has a limited set. There’s the ambulance, the farmhouse… what is it like to work in this limited atmosphere?
Jesse Thomas Cook: It was certainly with a small budget, obviously, and a very small crew, I think there were only five of us. And we knew we were going to base it on the locations we were going to get, so we knew it had to be small in scope. We knew the first act would really be the ambulance and the farmhouse, and then it would be in the woods and when they come across that RV in the woods, and of course in the third act there would be the factory. So we had to stick to set pieces in each act, and it was really about the traveling transition, getting them to the set pieces. It was very limited at times, almost like one of those 48-hour film challenges where you’re given here’s two locations and a couple of props and figure it out, and then that’s really what it was, except we filmed it in about eleven days, but it combined the same actors and some of the same props from the film we had previously done, which was CREEP NATION, which I just mentioned earlier.
Daily Grindhouse: You had this sort of tense synthesizer score, what was it like working with that?
Jesse Thomas Cook: So for the score the composer was Adrian Ellis, and I had worked with him on my last film. He’s very versatile and he can do all sorts of different styles. For DEADSIGHT I watched it with him, and we spoke about it for twenty minutes and I told him roughly what I’d like, and then he would start sending tracks to me and frankly it just blew my mind every time, I thought the score didn’t get enough credit, I thought it was remarkable in terms of just setting the feeling and the tone and just helping to do that world-building. I’m glad you brought that up, the score had sort of a synth-y throwback vibe at times and was also somber and lonely at times and then could be intense, the scares had that classic horror vibe at times.
Daily Grindhouse: How did you direct a blind character?
Jesse Thomas Cook: I’d hide off screen, but in the actual take he’d start peeking, and I’d say left, left, right, and he wanted to make it look real so we had to do a lot of editing just to cut my voice out of the takes. Certainly challenging at times, other times it did lend itself to looking real. Yeah, it was definitely a challenge with the handcuffs and the bandages on his eyes and keeping all that real and really making him restricted and uncomfortable and vulnerable and he initially had bare feet for most of the film but that’s one thing we negotiated on, and we got him a pair of boots in one of the earlier scenes. So definitely challenging and we were trying to make it so his sight was getting a little better as the plot progressed. That he wasn’t born blind, this was due to some unseen accident that we allude to in the story, and so with his eyedrops throughout the day he’s slowly gaining his eyesight to the point where by the end of the film he can hold a shotgun.
Daily Grindhouse: How did you do the effects in the movie?
Jesse Thomas Cook: Most of the effects were on set, and then we just added, I think maybe there was just fifteen visual effects shot. For that again, going back to the video game reference, we used a RESIDENT EVIL idea. I wasn’t worried about making it too overly real because I wanted people to think this film had a weird video game aspect to it of like different levels and each set piece was a level so Nick Flook has done a bunch of effects for me in the past and most of it was adding a little bit of blood or having to blow a head off here or there. I think two heads got blown up. For the most part as much as we could, we tried to do the practical special effects on set.
Daily Grindhouse: All zombie movies seem to have a way the zombies move and behave. How did you direct your zombies?
Jesse Thomas Cook: I liked to defer a lot of that direction to the special effects supervisor Shawn Hunter. I’d certainly seen a lot of zombie films growing up, and was immersed in the culture of zombies. But just because I had so much on my plate with producing the film in addition to directing and doing a hundred other things, Shawn was instrumental in terms of how the zombies behave and act, and their mannerisms, how they move. Sometimes we have a slow-moving guy up the road, and then sometimes we have a very vicious zombie moving within close quarters, so I think it was moreso in general they’re pretty slow and limber, but if they’re on the hunt they’re a bit more aggressive. It certainly shows you they can be a little more aggressive. A lot of that was just collaboration with Shawn Hunter. He helped me do that, because I just didn’t have the time to direct 20 or 30 extras on any given day, most of them being non-actors, so Shawn was great for that.