Both Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarmiento have created an eerie little feature that feels very reminiscent of some coming of age films that I loved. Most notably, the classic feature starring Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover amongst others called THE RIVERS EDGE. With
DEADGIRL (READ MY REVIEW HERE), the two directors deliver a striking and personal take on this type of teenage awakening with a dark and disturbing entry into the horror genre.
When two teens discover a nude corpse in an abandoned mental institution, they find deep inside themselves an unnerving and frightening side to growing up. It is an original and quite well told tale that explored a new angle on the “zombie film”. But don’t call this a zombie film, it is something deeply different and sometimes, far more sinister and frightening.
I recently had the pleasure to talk with both Gadi and Marcel about DEADGIRL, and the art of making a creepy independent horror film, the likes of which I haven’t seen before. Coming of age can be pretty brutal.
In many ways, DEADGIRL feels nothing like a horror movie, especially in the beginning. It felt, to me, like there were shades of RIVERS EDGE, basically something completely different then it turned out to be. When you first read the script, what approach did you want to take?
Gadi Harel: It was exactly that. I mean, we said, here is this really horrific story, but how much more horrific would it be if it was in that world. If it were in the world of RIVER’S EDGE or the world of STAND BY ME or THE OUTSIDERS and all those kind of youth movies that we knew growing up. You put it some place like that and it felt like the really awful, horrific part of it would just resonate even more.
Now, in many ways, I think the horror is stronger in the more “human” story here, even more than the zombie aspect… speaking of that, I went in to watch it with no idea what I would be seeing, how do you feel about people knowing that it is a zombie film?
Marcel Sarmiento: Well, obviously, it is really powerful and really effective if you don’t know anything. That was our experience when we read it, and obviously the experience we would love for people to have watching it. It is really challenging to keep everything in the… but you know, that is how were going to have the most… it’s going to be most effective that way for sure. But we don’t want it necessarily to be considered a zombie movie because I think that comes with a lot of baggage. I mean, if you are going to see a zombie movie, you may even be disappointed in this film. We wanted to sort of, not handicap us… not that there aren’t great zombie movies, but it didn’t seem really appropriate.
Well again, the horror aspect really is how far humanity goes down hill in this. Some of it is quite shocking, what they do to this woman. Were you trying to push any boundaries?
MS: Yeah, I mean, the story is a challenging story. I think we acknowledged it when we read it and we were like, ‘Wow, can we really pull this off?’ I think that was one of the exciting things about trying to make this movie and trying to do it in a way, you know, with some care and dare I say, grace. But at the same time, it is sort of exciting to grab a story that sort of keeps you on the edge and you know, the boundaries are pushed but we didn’t set out to shock people or anything. We tried to pull things back just so you would stay engaged in the story about these kids and the choices they have to make, growing up and dealing with issues of power and sexuality and friendship. And what it means to be having them define themselves in the future.
How did you approach the casting, for the most part, these guys actually look close to their age? How did you find these actors to play this characters? What were you looking for?
MS: Well, we were looking for, definitely that you would buy that they were kids. And also, actors that had a sort of timeless feel about them. You know, we wanted this movie to play like it could be today or it could be twenty years ago, or it could be sort of located anywhere USA. We wanted to sort of relate to the characters. In the case of Rickie, the lead, Shiloh [Fernandez], I found he sort of had a haunting inner nature about him because he sort of has to carry a lot of the movie. You know, the moral question, is carried on his shoulders without talking about it too much. So it had to be someone who is sort of likable and watchable and you could see he was sort of torn up about it without having to jam that down your throat and talking about it.
What is interesting about his character, he seems to walk the line between good and bad, the morality of the situation. He is not the perfect hero which is a little more interesting.
GH: Yeah, we think that is what is really fascinating about it. And a lot of people, when they don’t react to the movie, it is because they don’t really… they can’t go with that and they think, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t do that.’ or that he would do something else. We were just intrigued by this character who sort of put his friends first almost, against his better judgment. It’s all he has and it is much more interesting to not have it be so easy for him. You know, he is just as guilty of objectifying someone as J.T. is, it is just that he is doing it in a different way with his woman, with JoAnn in a way, during the movie. But it’s not so cut and dry and that was something that was really interesting about the character. Hopefully it works.
I also thought it was interesting that you don’t really go into any explanation for the girl. Was there ever thought about giving her a backstory or something? Or did you prefer to keep it a mystery from the beginning?
GH: No, I mean, keeping the story focused on the boys was a much more interesting choice and their relationship. What happened would be counter productive to her and the mystery of what she is, you know, to make that the main storyline becomes a story about that, as opposed to what the story really is about. It is about this other relationship. And I’m sure the audience thinks is far more interesting… it’s one of those things that we could give you an answer, but how is that exciting. And why do you really want one.
Going back to casting, how difficult was it to find an actress willing to play the “Deadgirl”?
MS: No, it was pretty impossible. We definitely wanted someone who had a unique look but we didn’t want a Playboy Bunny type of person either, and that is sort of the type of people that were coming out for the part… they’d be fully nude, so you could imagine. When we sort of caught on to Jenny [Spain], it was a great blessing, especially since she is really unique looking and she also just really got it. And she wanted to play this part so bad and she was a real partner in, sort of, being able to make the movie. You make a low-budget movie like this, being pressed for time, and no money and everything else, you need everyone to be really on board because the nature of it is going to be tough, so she was great. And I think that, for her first movie, I think she adds a lot. I mean, she has great instincts and she takes great direction and… you know, it is just her and make-up for the whole movie, except for a particular effects shot, but all that stuff she does with her face and her body is a lot to do with her.
GH: Yeah, it’s incredible. You are very sympathetic towards her at the same time, but there is a little mystery there. You know, what is she really thinking or is she thinking anything, or is she thinking that you look delicious [Laughing]. There is a lot she has to do, but you also definitely have to care about her. You know, we definitely got lucky, she was a miracle.
After the film, I was thinking about other films that kind of play with this idea, you know, something like RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 3. But this film is very serious and not at all tongue in cheek. It is kind of surprising to see that nowadays within this sub-genre. Was that ever though upon doing it in a more campy tone?
GH: Yeah, a movie that usually has to do with this plotline, it seems like the more natural inclination is to go campy…. for a lot of reasons. One, it is probably more marketable and for whatever reason, it just seems like… a lot of people we had shown the script to, and companies that we tried to get it to, before we just decided to do it ourselves, they all just felt that that was what we would have to do to make it into something that people would want to watch. And we just kept saying, no, we are going to find a unique tone, and it won’t be painful to go through this experience. But people just… yeah, the campy route seemed to be the choice that everybody wanted to explore. I don’t know, we just felt like, what’s the point? That’s not the movie we want to make. It was a gamble, but enough people sort of went for the ride.
What was the most challenging part of putting this together?
GH: Well, I mean, besides the usual not a lot of time, not a lot of money, small production challenge… one thing that we got really lucky with, which it took a little time with, was finding the right team. It was a big leap, you know, Marcel and I had this movie that we wanted to make in our heads, we sort of got it. So finding enough people that sort of shared and wanted to go through this and trying to pull it off, I mean, once we got the script together, everything seemed to sort of move because it seemed really important. The limitations were obvious, you know, just finding that team and getting everyone together. Once it was there, it was actually a pretty quick, simple shoot in a weird way because there wasn’t a lot of time for anything to go wrong.
What is happening with the distribution for DEADGIRL?
MS: Actually our US distributor is doing a pretty cool sort of, sort of ‘midnight road show’ starting on July 24th and the 25th in about ten US cities in theatres. Buy yeah, they’re showing it and making a big… you know, luckily with a movie like ours they can kind of do a clever, small distribution of the movie and then, yeah definitely home video later. But like starting July, it’ll be out in a bunch of theatres and a bunch of cities like New York, LA, Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis, Austin, Dallas and Houston is getting some. So it will be cool. Hopefully people will come out and I know we’re all going to be coming around and it will be cool to see people see it on a big screen.
So if you live in one of the areas specified, keep a look out for DEADGIRL. We’ll keep you posted on when and where it might be feeding on in your neck of the woods.