A family find themselves terrorised by their eight-year-old son's imaginary friend.
Hi Brandon thank you for talking to TNC, how are you holding up during the lockdown?
I’m doing well, thanks. It’s wreaked havoc on my daily routines, however. I was so used to walking my son to school, picking him up from school, coaching baseball - and now all I do is sit around. Still haven’t made a proper adjustment which is a total failing on my part.
Will this time offer you some creative inspiration?
For the first several weeks, I couldn’t have been less inspired creatively. Days blurred by as more and more bad news poured out and it was addicting to try and keep up with it all. Eventually, though, you have to just turn it off and spend time with the family and that led to me deciding to shoot a couple of short films with my kids. It was a lot of fun to mix the two biggest things in my life - filmmaking and parenting.
Z has already racked up a host of awards in 2019 during its film festival run, as a filmmaker what does it mean to you to get this type of recognition for your film?
It’s always surreal. There’s so many good films being made these days, that to even be mentioned with them is an honor. The awards tend to give you an out of body experience, but I especially appreciate the fact that everyone that worked so hard on the film can see that their work paid off.
Z has now been released on Shudder, did any nerves set in ahead of the release?
There’s always a lot of anxiety going into release. With COVID-19 right now, there were going to be a LOT of eyeballs on the film. People are home, and they want to be entertained. So you’re definitely kind of bracing for impact of reviews and word of mouth that has a tendency to spread across the internet.
And the reaction to Z has already been incredible, did you expect you would get this type of response?
I have seen a lot of good stuff, and some not so good stuff.
We worked really hard on making the film the best it could be, and I think we had such strong performances from the cast that can hide any of the problems I was causing throughout. When you’re so close to a project, it’s sometimes difficult to remove yourself and see it objectively. I’ve always been positive on it, but you never know how that will translate to audiences. I’ve been to the film festivals and seen the responses, so I had hopes for a nice reaction. Hopefully it continues to scare people all over.
How different was your approach to Z compared to your debut feature Still/Born?
On Z, I definitely had a better grasp on the importances of knowing where your characters were in their arcs better here. It helped to have brilliant actors to work with, but I was more focused on trying to track their narratives to help give guidance where I could. On Still/Born, I’d sometimes find myself lost in the weeds a bit about technical things that ultimately don’t matter too much. So a lot of this film was trying to manage that.
It’s always a process, I learned on Still/Born and carried a lot of that to Z, and I probably learned even more on Z that I’ll be able to take to my next project. It’s exciting to think about what you’ll be able to do with this new knowledge.
"You aren’t really allowing yourself to have the best possible project if you are dead set on a particular idea."
You co-wrote Z with Colin Minihan, who also co-wrote Still/Born with you, how did you both meet?
Colin and I met online on film forums years ago. Close to 15 now, I would guess. He was always ahead of me in our careers even though we’re about the same age. I made a couple of attempts to emulate his career and failed miserably doing so. But we kept in touch throughout and didn’t really get to the point of working together until I jumped aboard “It Stains The Sands Red”.
Being co-writers how important is it to be flexible and not be too dead set on a idea you have for a certain scene?
It’s incredibly important to be flexible about ideas. We had a good collaboration because we both felt safe throwing out bad ideas to each other. Often times those ideas would lead down a strange path that would end up being a good idea. It’s such an iterative process to write, where things are changing rapidly. You aren’t really allowing yourself to have the best possible project if you are dead set on a particular idea. Sometimes it’s an idea that leads to a better one, or sometimes a great idea can even be a road block that stifles better ones.
Where there any scenes you or Colin really fought to keep in the film?
Since we produced both Z and Still/Born independently, we had full control over what stayed and what went. We were aligned pretty closely with each other on what to keep. It’s important to have a good producer that cares because they can offer a ton of insight about what’s working and what’s not - which is crucial when you’re so close.
During the writing process how early did you and Colin decide that you rarely wanted to show Z?
Very early on. We know the ramifications of showing too much without even taking into considering the small budget. I personally think that your own imagination can fill in the gaps so well. It’s why the original Blair Witch Project was so terrifying. These characters are constantly asking “what is that?” And the camera never picks it up, so you fill in the gaps - and you’re coming up with horrifying images that scare you - even though those images don’t exist. I think there’s a ton of power in not showing.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Z came about, what was the inspiration behind your film?
After Still/Born, I looked at my own life to find inspiration for my next film. My oldest son Sawyer had just started Kindergarten which is quite traumatising as a parent. For the first time you’re letting your child out into the world and allowing them to grow without you. My wife and I talked about that a lot and some of the horrifying things you could find in the idea of not knowing who is responsible for your child, what happens when you lose that control. It was an ongoing discussion until my wife suggested an Imaginary Friend, and it just leaked out from there.
What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
The entire train sequence at the end was gruelling to film. Not only were we dealing with a limited window with the train of about two hours, but it was incredible hot out that day - and we weren’t prepared. Any time you’re in the head, and you’re making fast decisions and everyone is waiting on you, even the tiniest snags can take on a massive weight. Since it’s such a huge scene in the film, by far the largest scale thing I’ve ever worked on, there was a lot of pressure to get it right. Fortunately, my producers and I came up with a really solid plan for the day ahead of time. Knowing that every time we had the train pass, we needed cameras in specific places, because we didn’t know how many passes we could afford. Fortunately we got everything we needed and then some - but finishing that sequence was a huge sigh of relief.
Do you have a favourite scene you shot?
I really like the simplistic horror in the scene when Beth feels the eyes watching her from the closet. It’s so early on but it has such a creepy vibe to it. We all have that feeling where we think that maybe we’re not alone sometimes, that feeling of being watched, so seeing Beth stop and turn to reveal two eyes staring back was really fun to shoot.
Another scene I remember fondly is when Beth is sitting and eating breakfast opposite of Z in the third act. Keegan had to really trust me because the idea is completely insane. She is forced to act abused and beaten down from something that isn’t there, and we had to film it as if it was. So we filmed full coverage on both Keegan, and on Z so that we could match the frame. The crew would be quiet as we filmed Z’s performance, it was just really fun.
Have you always had a fascination with the horror genre?
Growing up, I always loved horror. After watching the IT Miniseries as it aired in 1990, I was forever haunted by Pennywise the Clown. And while it was a terrible pain in the ass to fear him so hard, it did carry a bit of excitement. That led to spending a lot of my youth watching films I shouldn’t have, and trying to be scared with friends, there’s a real visceral feeling when you get that rush of being scared that I enjoy even to this day.
What was the first scary movie you saw growing up?
Has to be the original IT miniseries. Looking at it now, it doesn’t carry the same weight - but when I was in kindergarten, I was just not prepared for Tim Curry’s performance at all.
How much has your approach to your films changed since your debut?
A lot of it is confidence. Going into Still/Born, there was a bit of ‘fake it ’til you make it’ that helps push you through. But having done it then, I was able to be a lot more confident that I could do it again with Z. And I did. And going forward, I know that I am capable of tackling the challenge, and while I’ll likely have a lot of meltdowns doing it - I know that I can overcome it. Because I have twice before.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve got a number of things I’m currently working on. I have a script I’m hoping to shoot as soon as quarantine allows, very small project that I’m really excited about. My brother and I also adapted a book he wrote called “REEDY CREEK” that we adapted into a 9-episode series. It’s something that I’m really passionate about, and if given the chance, would drop everything and work on that in a heart beat.
And finally, what do yo hope audiences will take away from Z?
I hope they’re able to feel for the Parson’s. They’re a family dealing with multiple crises - most unexpected. There’s the fear of not doing right by your child, and wanting to do anything to not only protect them, but to help mould them into a good person. Sometimes, when that doesn’t go as you want it to, there’s so much strength you can generate as a person to tackle any obstacle. Regardless of how real or unreal it is - just the sheer will of a parent is incredibly powerful.