Wednesday, January 2, 2013

SCREAM, ZOMBIE, SCREAM – Death and destruction, one zombie at a time

Editor's note: Doug Gibson, Plan9Crunch co-blogger speaking, today we have another fascinating essay from Sherman Hirsh, screenwriter of Surgikill and Lords of Magick as well as director of Love Slaves of the She Mummy (also here) and the new Scream, Zombie, Scream. As the previous, well-read blog entries show, Sherman describes, with affection and detail, the world of low- and micro-budget filmmaking. His love for film and writing is evident in his essays, and we're proud to offer this inside-look at the making of "Scream, Zombie, Scream." I've watched the film and it's a lean, witty tale that provides a new twist on the zombie genre. When it's ready for sale via amazon, etc., we'll provide a link. Thanks, Sherman.

By Sherman Hirsh

Where do movies come from?  For some filmmakers, it’s a desire to make a pot full of money, achieve fame and meet girls.  For others, it’s an act of homage to the classic movies of the past.  For the rest, like me, it’s just the love of making movies.  Writing a script is putting a daydream on paper.   Shooting is the process of drawing that daydream into the realm of reality.  Seeing that dream play out for a flesh and blood audience is, well, when it happens to you, you’ll understand.

So, where did SCREAM, ZOMBIE, SCREAM come from?  I had just put out LOVE SLAVES OF THE  SHE-MUMMY, was itching to make another movie.  While I didn’t really want to make another living dead movie, I had to face the fact that I was going to make a movie without recognizable Stars.  However, in the world of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction, the plot is the star.  If I wanted to make a movie a lot of people wanted to see, I had to go with the flow.  Sci-Fi and Fantasy require special props and costumes, and price themselves out of the micro-budget class.  That leaves Horror, but I had no interest in the current trend of torture and psychotic puppets. That left the monster genre.   I couldn’t bring myself to get involved with sexy teenage vampires and angst ridden werewolf kids. 

We live in the Age of Recycling. We recycle, repurpose and reuse anything we can, including ideas.  We claim to love originality and creativity, but actually, we ultimately always return to the tried and true.  As a Mass Communications major, I was taught that nothing can ever be more than 15% new.  So, if one is careful and analytical, one can detect several element of SCREAM, ZOMBIE, SCREAM as having established origins, but what’s the fun in that?  So what if I took a pinch of Jekyll and Hyde, a touch of Frankenstein, a little Orwell and some Romero?  It’s a Zombie movie, not a serious statement on the Human condition.  Or is it?

Anyway, bowing to convention and hoping to ride the current wave of interest in zombies, I would concoct a tale of ravaging undead. But I had a problem.  Most zombie movies involve an army of zombies terrorizing and devouring an entire community.  That wasn’t going to happen on my budget.  So, how do I tell a worthwhile story using only one zombie a time?  Well, I would have to build a new kind of Zombie.

However, I was also conscious of just how many zombie movies there are, and I was reluctant to commit to what I feared was an exhausted genre.  As it turns out, it was and is not, but I still had to put my own spin on it.  There are two kinds of zombies.  In my classification system, the real Voodoo zombies, who are victims of ritual drugging and brainwashing, constitute Type 1.  They are living people who think they are dead.  There hasn’t been a voodoo zombie movie in ages.  Type 2 zombies are the typical walking corpses, who escape from their graves to attack the Living.  I needed a new species of zombie, one created by science for the selfish purposes of the scientist.  Which purposes?  Why, to rule the world.  What other reason is there?

A successful movie needs a memorable title.  I went through several until I settled on SCREAM, ZOMBIE SCREAM.  I wanted “zombie” in the title, but I also knew that I needed to imply action, so I needed a good action verb in the title, too.  However, I refused to do another “ATTACK OF THE …” anything.  Screaming is associated with madness, and I had the line about how you had to have a soul to scream, so SCREAM, ZOMBIE, SCREAM seemed like a good original choice.  Then I remembered SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM, and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.  Too late.

A brilliant bi-polar renegade has the power to turn living people into vicious zombies.  OK, nothing new there, but what if he could turn you back afterward?  Consider the possibilities.  We pick up the story with our loony, who has the temerity to call himself “Orpheus”, reveling in the sight of the President of the United States gutting a scientist on live TV.  The response to this by the Nation is to have a ruthless federal agent break his former partner, who had gone crazy fighting zombies,  out of a high security psychiatric facility and set him and a very cute but dangerous female assistant, on a variety of zombies.  We got our zombie Holocaust, just one zombie at a time.

To accomplish this film, I decided to shoot the whole movie using Green Screen chroma key, a system most people have come to know as enabling the filmmaker to put his subject into any image as a background.  All I needed was the actors and a few pieces of furniture and I could turn any room into anyplace imaginable.  Except that it paralyzes the camera.  If you move the camera, the subject moves but the background remains stationary, giving the whole scene a sloppy, amateurish appearance.  So, all my shots had to be made, locked down, from the same place.  Never again!

I rented a vacant one-room apartment in the North Hollywood building where I lived and set up my studio there.  The large living room became my sound stage.  The kitchen became the makeup room, and the bath room became very hard to get into at times.   We shot over ten weekends, April through June of 2010, and got very good shots, some of which were unusable due to street noise and the fact that we were shooting under the final approach to Burbank airport.

You need two elements to make a film, Time and Money.  The Micro-budget realm seeks to transcend this by shooting for pocket change whenever the cast and crew can get it together.  So, how much did SCREAM, ZOMBIE, SCREAM cost?  To tell you the truth, I didn’t keep track.  I worked without a budget, just spending whatever I needed to. The actors got $50 a day, the studio cost $700 a month, the makeup artist got $200 a day, I spent several hundred dollars on props and costumes and thousands on equipment I intended to use again. The finances on this project are a convoluted mess, but I didn’t do it for money.  I can’t tell you how much the film cost. I never expected it to make any money, so I never expected to have to account for any.  If I had to give an estimate, I’d probably guess something in the $10 – $15,000 range. I had been saving up for it for a couple years and I knew I had enough to finish.  I even have some cash left over for the next one.

Having little in the way of production values, the actors had to work hard to sell what I always recognized as a truly preposterous concept.  I deliberately wrote the script to be short, since I knew it would get stupid if I let it run too long.  I was constantly coaching the actors to put a lot of energy and personality into the portrayals. Sometimes they listened and sometimes they just puttered along.  Usually, the inconsistencies in the acting were due to the lack of rehearsal time we could use.  Also, I cheated and had several of the actors play more than one role.  This dilutes their concentration.

A few of the actors were exceptional.  Devai Pearce, who originally auditioned for the part of “Jo Ann”, Orpheus’ pregnant zombie girlfriend, ended up playing 4 parts, as well as functioning as assistant director, talent coordinator, mic boom operator, cue card writer, and anything else I had to throw at her. 

There could not have been a better choice than William Reinbold, who played Orpheus. He had to undergo violent mood swings and did so skillfully.

Andy Mullins as the Shock Jock did a fabulous job.  This was a particularly important part to me, since I had at one time been a radio talk show host and had modeled the character,” Gary Z”, after a real talk show host, the late Gary Dee, with whom I had worked in Cleveland.  He was incredible.  He makes Howard Stern look like an amateur.   Andy’s zombie ate Wayne Hellstrom as the TV interviewer. Andy also hosts a celebrity show as” Red Karpett”.

The venal televangelist, “Rev. JE$$ Ble$$”, was ably played by Gregg Stickeler, a full-time business professional who finds time to be semi-professional actor.  He is a filmmaker in his own right and was the star of my previous feature LOVE SLAVES OF THE SHE-MUMMY.  His character is a TV preacher who is so phony, he wrote his own bible. He is a parody of all those “God-wants-your-money” hucksters who pollute the airwaves.  This was a touchy part to write, since I had to avoid all reference to any real religious values and symbols.  Gregg had to read the absurd gibberish I wrote as if it really were the Gospel

Supporting players Marco Tazioli and Galen Sato played two roles each as did Andy Mullins.  The exquisitely beautiful and talented Branca Ferrazo was cast sight unseen over the phone when the actress who had originally committed to the role de-committed. She played a starlet named “Brittany Normandie” opposite Bouvier’s ”Dawn Rivers” and a news anchor who gets zombie-beat while reading the news with Michael Swinehart.  Sometimes you just get lucky.

I also got lucky with Maria Olsen, a tremendously talented and enthusiastic performer.  She is well known in the independent film community as someone who will act for anyone if she likes the project.  She is a professional character actress who also generously helps promote the work of others.  If you saw PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTING THEIF, you will recognize her as the teacher/fury.

The real stars of the movie were Tony Gracia and Raeshia Oli as the two dedicated zombie stompers. Our villain was not Orpheus, who is really the Problem. The real heavy is “Agent Schmeterling”, the nasty G man who makes more trouble for the heroes than the nut job.  Albert Marrero Jr. bullied his way magnificently through the part.  Even Bouvier, the star of Andy Milligan’s SURGIKILL, for which I wrote the original script, makes a guest star appearance as the secret ruler of the world.  She appears as “Dawn Rivers”, her stage name in Andy’s last personal film, MONSTROSITY.

A pregnant Zombie needs a lullaby.  I wrote one.  You can hear The Zombie Lullaby in a video I made on YouTube.  I was able to get it recorded at a professional recording studio owned by a friend of Devai, Theo Mordey. He recorded Devai singing her own tune, and processed it so she would harmonize with herself. It was not a part of the original script but it came out so creepy that I used it as background music for a couple of Devai’s scenes.

I wanted to see if I could find rhymes for ZOMBIE.  I remember a cartoon series in the ‘60’s called Milton the Monster.  It had a character named Abecrombie the Zombie. That was the only known rhyme for zombie, for a long time.   I was only able to find two more. Taking the part “–ombie”, I went down the alphabet shopping for rhymes.  A-ombie, no.  B-ombie, OK,  BOMB BE.  Hence the lyric, “Though every gun and bomb be aimed to shatter your sweet head…” c,d,e,f,g, all the way to M.  M-ombie  “ ..will I your loving Mom be..” etc.   After M, nothing. 

We plowed through the shooting and I embarked on the task of editing the final film.  So, why is it just coming out now?  How many excuses can you stand?  3 times my computer crashed and took my edits with it.  I got sick, I moved, I finished the film 4 times and discovered I didn’t like the way it came out.  I finally got it to look halfway decent and kicked it out of the nest to fly or die on its own.  You can sample SCREAM ZOMBIE SCREAM on YouTube.  Besides the ZOMBIE LULLABY, there is a scene between Orpheus and JoAnn, and a trailer I made.   We’re still working on how it will be sold.  Stay tuned.  Anyway, that’s where this movie came from.

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