Sweetback (SB): Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION, J.T. This is the sort of film that I think that young filmmakers seem to be constantly aiming for – a gory, funny zombie film – but so often miss due to a lack or resources or vision. Let’s start with digging into your background. You obviously have a deep love for horror films. Where did this love originate, and what films heavily influenced you as you were growing up?
J.T. Seaton (JT): I’ve always been a huge horror fan, even as a child. I used to make mini-epic horror films, starring the neighborhood kids, with my dad’s super8 movie camera. My bedroom looked like a haunted house year ‘round. I was a big gorehound growing up. I loved the low budget gore films of the 80’s. Italian gore films. The films of the 70’s and 80’s were the films that most influenced me – HALLOWEEN, DAWN OF THE DEAD, PHANTASM (to name a few). I’m also very inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.
SB: So, you’re a young horror fan who is interested in film-making. I think that could describe a huge number of visitors to this site. How did you make the jump from being a horror fan to actually being involved in the production of films? Did you go to film school?
JT: Yes, I did go to film school, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Way back when I attended CalArts, it wasn’t that easy to make a movie. The school of thought was that movies had to be shot on film. You had to rent a camera. Buy film stock. Process the film stock. Edit on a moviola. Make an answer print. Cut the negative. Etc, etc. etc. It was crazy expensive. Nowadays it’s so much easier to make films. The digital media available today is amazing. My advice would be to skip film school, take the money you would have spent on tuition and make a movie. I learned more about filmmaking during the production of GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION than I did in 3 years of film school.
SB: While your later work is of a decidedly horror bent, your first credited short film FRIEND’S FIRST is actually a dramatic piece. Can you talk about the development of the short, and how important it was to gain experience making short films before jumping into a feature?
JT: The short FRIEND’S FIRST came from a personal place. A lot of artists will work through their issue using their art – painting, photography, writing, singing, etc. It’s better than bringing an AK-47 to work… usually. I think that the reason the film connected with the people who did get to see it was because it came from a personal place and the audience could identify. Cutting your teeth on a short – or several shorts – is a great way to learn craft and technique without wasting a lot of time and money. If the short film turns out crappy, then you’re only out a couple hundred bucks and a weekend or two.
SB: Now, one of the most fascinating things about your short NIGHTSHADOWS – and this applies to GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION as well – is that they include gay characters at the forefront. Horror and genre filmmaking has been notoriously unkind to gay characters in the past; usually presenting them as weak or comically flamboyant. How important is it to you to try and break down some of the more enduring stereotypes in your works?
JT: Oddly enough, Ben didn’t start out as a gay character. When Brad Hodson and I were writing GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION, we were setting up audience anticipation for the characters of Ben and Sarah to hook up in the end. We always knew that we wanted to pull the rug out from under the Ben/Sarah romance, and revealing that Ben was gay seemed the perfect rug puller. It actually turned out well because it made Ben an unexpected and non-stereotypical gay character. For NIGHTSHADOWS, I wanted to make a genuinely scary horror film with gay main characters. At the time, the only “gay horror” was either over the top campy (LA CAGE AUX ZOMBIES) or simply homoerotic (the films of David DeCoteau). So NIGHTSHADOWS was an attempt to present something that we hadn’t seen much of – serious horror with gay characters. Interestingly enough, HELLBENT (a gay slasher flick) played the film festival circuit that season, along side of my film. I appreciate any film that can take a stereotypical character type and turn it on its ear.
SB: Similarly, the horror audience can be resistant to change. Have you encountered much negative reaction from horror fans towards your work?
JT: In 2004/2005, when NIGHTSHADOWS was playing the film festival circuit, it was not accepted into any of the horror film festival that it was submitted to. It screened at dozens of gay/lesbian film festivals, but horror festivals rejected it. But that was then. Times have changed somewhat and we are seeing more mainstream gay horror. I haven’t received those negative reactions to my more recent work. Maybe not enough people have seen it.
SB: Jumping into GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION. Zombie comedies have a massively popular and enduring history. Some of the very best works in the horror genre are Zom-Coms. Was there a concern when you were writing the film that the genre might have been played out? What wasthe writing collaboration between yourself and (co-writer) Brad Hodson like?
JT: Sometimes it feels like ALL horror genres have been played out. Then you stumble upon something that puts a new spin or twist on the genre and you go, “Oh, that’s cool.” That’s what we were hoping to do with GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION. There has been a glut of low budget zombie movies in the past several years. Anyone with a camcorder and a dozen friends willing to paint blue make-up on their faces can make a zombie movie. So going into the film, Brad and I knew we wanted to put a different slant on the zombie genre. As for the collaboration, we divvied out some scenes (he wrote some and I wrote some) and we wrote larger group scenes together. We also divvied characters. It was a great collaboration.
SB: Your film openly tributes George Romero in a number of different ways – NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD plays briefly on a television, your characters are named after those from Romero’s films, and you even got the wonderful Lynn Lowry (THE CRAZIES) to appear in a key role. What impact has George Romero and his films had on you?
JT: I’ve always been a huge Romero fan. Everyone talks about the “social commentary” that Romero weaves into his films. But for me, the best thing is that he knows how to write solid, interesting and complex characters. If you don’t care about the characters, then you don’t care about the movie (or the social commentary). I also appreciate that Romero was a game changer. He re-defined a genre (the zombie genre) for a whole generation. Interestingly enough, the few negative reviews that I have seen for GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION have been from “Romero Purists”. They hate that we “crap all over Romero” by defying HIS zombie rules. But what they fail to realize (or simply choose to ignore) is that George A. Romero didn’t invent the zombie movie. The first zombie movie was WHITE ZOMBIE in 1932. Where are the “Halperin Purists” shaking their fists at George A. Romero?
SB: I don’t want to give the readers the impression that this is a message film, but I thought it was interesting that just as George Romero’s Ben (Duane Jones) in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was a minority character presented in a fresh and believable way, your own Ben character (played by Peter Stickles) is gay, but plays the roles as subdued and heroic – quite at odds with some of the common negative portrayals of homosexuality in horror. Was this an intentional juxtaposition?
JT: I wish I could take credit for an “intentional juxtaposition”. It was more like a “happy accident”. Plus, we didn’t reveal Ben’s homosexuality until the final reel of the film. Ethnic background is very different. You can’t really hide that fact that Duane Jones is African American (until the end of the film). If there’s a message in GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION, it’s more about addictions than anything. We poke fun that George is “addicted to eating people”. But all of the other characters have their own addictions that they just ignore while they try to help George battle his. To that extent, it’s more about “removing the plank from your own eye before trying to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
SB: Let’s talk about the casting process for the film. You have a very talented ensemble, many of whom have had previous experience in films with limited resources. Was it difficult finding the right actors for the roles? Carlos Larkin, in particular, has such a great, almost Klaus Kinski-esque face. How did you end up casting him?
JT: We cast the film primarily with actors that both Brad and I already knew (and knew were good). We held auditions before we actually wrote the script. Then we wrote with our actors in mind. In addition, during the writing process, we held improv rehearsals with the cast. And actually some of the more memorable lines of dialogue came from those actor’s improv rehearsals. Brad was friends with Carlos and knew that he wanted Carlos to play the role of George. I saw Carlos for the first time at the auditions and was sold immediately. One of the best things you can do for yourself as a low budget filmmaker is to cast great actors. One of the worst things you can do for yourself as a low budget filmmaker is to cast your friends. There are good actors everywhere, even in small towns in middle America. Hold auditions. And cast great actors.
SB: How long was the shoot and – if you’re comfortable revealing it – what sort of budget were you working with?
JT: We shot every weekend in October 2008, one weekend in November 2008 and a pick-up/re-shoot weekend in January 2009. The budget was always in flux (since we were paying as we went along). I think the final budget ended up being around $60K.
SB: The film opens with a terrific children’s slideshow which serves to introduce the viewer to the “rules” of the zombies in this universe. Was opening the film this way always your intention? It really sets the tone right away.
JT: We actually wanted a 50’s style animated cartoon, but that would have been too costly, not to mention time consuming for the animator. But yes, starting the film and setting the tone for the comedy was always the intention with the opening slideshow. Plus, we were altering the “zombie rules” and we needed a concise way of presenting them.
SB: Similarly, the film ends with an intentionally shoddy commercial. How much fun was it for the actors to pretend to be terrible? And it features some notable cameos from Lloyd Kaufman and Brinke Stevens. How did you get them on-board?
JT: Shooting Sarah’s commercial was a complete blast. Everyone had a great time. Getting Brinke Stevens into the commercial was pretty easy. I know Brinke personally, so I just called her up and asked, “Hey, what are you doing Saturday? Wanna be in my movie?” She said, “Sure.” It was that simple. Getting Lloyd Kaufman was kind of a happy accident. We had just completed principle photography on GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION and Brad and I were attending the American Film Market. We had contacted Troma to see if they might be interested in distributing the film. Lloyd got back to us and said, “Your film looks fun. Is there a part in it for me?” And we were like, “Um, sure!” So we took our camera to the Troma office at the AFM and shot about 30 minutes of footage with Lloyd (all of which exists on the DVD extras).
SB: I think horror fans will appreciate that you certainly didn’t skimp on the gore in the film. How difficult was it working with all these physical effects on set?
JT: Working with practical make-up and gore is always time consuming. But we had a great make-up artist, Tom Devlin, who was on the first season of the SyFy competition show FACE OFF. I have known Tom for years. And it was great having him do the effects. The only real difficulty came on the night Tom used real pig intestines for an effect. The set stank for hours. I think we went through three bottles of Febreze.
SB: Knowing that a lot of young directors read these articles, talk about raising funds for GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION. Did you always have distribution in place, or did that develop after it was completed?
JT: We did not have distribution in place. Making a low budget film is like writing a spec script. You have to pay for it yourself until someone buys it. Brad and I wanted to start a production company (Cat Scare Films). We had all of these great scripts. But we soon realized that no one was going to give us money to turn these scripts into films because we did not have a track record. So, we decided to make a movie. We paid for GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION ourselves, covering costs as we went along. It wasn’t until after we had a successful festival run that Circus Road Films came knocking. Circus Road is a sales company who ultimately found our distributor, Breaking Glass Pictures.
SB: Your next work, DIVINATION, is a return to short horror film-making. What prompted you to return to making a short after tackling a feature? And can you tell us what it’s about?
JT: DIVINATION was very unexpected. In October of 2010, I had a trip planned to visit my friend Ryan Blake George in Alabama, and to take a trip to New Orleans. After I booked my flight, Blake (who co-produced DIVINATION) said, “Hey, since you’re coming, why don’t we make a movie?” To which I responded, “Um… Sure.” Hence DIVINATION was born. I wrote a script about a fake psychic who gets her comeuppance. We flew Lynn (Lowry) out for the weekend, and shot the film in two long days. Since its completion, DIVINATION has been accepted into almost two dozen festivals and won eight awards.
SB: If readers want to check out DIVINATION, GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION or your other works, what would be the best way for them to do so?
JT: DIVINATION is still making the festival rounds. There are a lot of festivals we are submitting to in 2012. After the film festivals, and if it doesn’t wind up on a compilation DVD, we’ll probably post DIVINATION on Indieflix.com. GEORGE: A ZOMBIE INTERVENTION is available on the Breaking Glass website, Amazon.com and iTunes (for both purchase and rental).
SB: What’s coming up next for you? Do you plan to continue working in the horror genre?
JT: Yes, I absolutely plan on continuing in the horror genre. It doesn’t seem like there are consistent horror filmmakers anymore. It feels like directors nowadays make one or two horror movies and then move onto other genres. Where are the modern day Romeros, Carpenters, Cravens, Cronenbergs? I thought Neil Marshall was going down that path, but he deviated. Maybe Alexandre Aja. Or James Wan. Both look to continue in the horror genre. As for what’s next for me… I just finished a feature script for Lynn Lowry. We’re hoping to get that into production this year. I wrote a segment that I submitted for THEATRE BIZARRE 2 (if that happens). And I have a few other projects I’m working on. I’m keeping busy.
SB: If folks want to keep up with your upcoming and future projects, what’s the best way to follow you? Any social network presence?
JT: Hmmm… Well, my Facebook is more personal than professional. And I don’t Tweet. Yikes. I should probably establish a social network presence for my filmmaking. Add that to my “What’s Coming Up Next For You?” List.
SB: Before we finish up. Anything else to plug?
JT: Yes! I co-founded and co-run a horror film festival. THE NEW ORLEANS HORROR FILM FESTIVAL. Last year was our first year. And it was a huge success. This year we are expanding and adding an extra day of programming. The festival runs October 25th – 28th, 2011 right in the heart of the French Quarter. Check us out at http://neworleanshorrorfilmfestival.com/
SB: And, finally, what advice do you have for young and aspiring film-makers who aspire to make their own genre films?
JT: My advice is to just make movies. With the advanced technology available at our fingertips (cameras, editing software, visual effects, etc.), pretty much anyone can make a movie these days. If you want to start small and make shorts, that’s a great way to cut your teeth for little to no money. If you want to jump into the deep end and make a feature, that’s great too. I know many filmmakers who have made $5,000 (or less) feature films. And don’t forget… Once you’ve made your opus, submit it to the NEW ORLEANS HORROR FILM FESTIVAL!
- [NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES] PODCAST #80: PLAGA ZOMBIE (1997) - July 25, 2016