Interview with Gary Schultz: Director of Dead Reign
I learned that the upcoming zombie film Dead Reign was being filmed in my hometown of Chicago, and although I missed my chance to be a zombie extra for the teaser, I did get to interview the director of the film, Gary Schultz, after the teaser was done. Some of my questions may seem to come out of the blue, because of my lack of skills as an interviewer, but it sounds like a great project, and here's what he had to say:
Me: How'd the shoot go?
Gary: It went pretty good actually, you know, it was a war, but it was good.
Me: A war?
Gary: (laughing) Yeah, it was a war, but it was good. I think they always are.
Me: So the usual kind of problems?
Gary, No, I mean we were really prepared. We came out there and had a really good game plan. We spent about six weeks preparing just for one night of shooting because we were going to get a lot of stuff, and we knew it would be really complicated with all the makeup and the rain effects and such, so we were really prepared, and the actors were really well rehearsed, and we had a really good night, we wrapped on time and everything. It was good stuff.
Me: So I did some research online and saw that this was your first zombie film. Is that right?
Gary: It's my first feature length film, and my first zombie film. I did some zombie films when I was in film school, like some student film stuff. One of my first films, live action films, as I was graduating back in 2000, was called Zombie Hero, and that was a zombie film, and we had a ton of fun with that. It was a pretty crappy movie, to be honest, but it's been on a ton of cable access shows, and we got a big write-up in the Sunday film column of The Times, which was a big deal for us at the time. And we had about 40 or 50 extras. It was really cool, because we shot part of it in the south suburb of Lansing, IL, and we did part of it in Munster, IN, and it was really cool because they were really small towns, and they really hadn't seen anything like that. So everyone came out and they were really excited, and eventually I kind of got started really enjoying making movies on my own, outside of film school and outside of just with my friends and stuff. So, definitely it was pretty flawed, but it led me to some good places. And it was more of a traditional zombie film (laughing). It's not as well put together, by any means. It was what it was. We had no money. We shot it on 16 mm, which was actually pretty cool.
Me: So what's the difference between feature films and short films other than the length?
Gary: (laughing) Well, the budget is one thing that's for sure. I've been learning that. The other thing...Think like making 10 shorts all at once. It takes a lot to make a really good short film. Some of the more recent short films I've made over the last couple of years I thought were a little more succesful in terms of execution, those were still pretty heavy work and were still pretty hard to do, because when you're working in the independent world, you're basically working with a lot less, but what you gain is control over your product and over your story and over your universe. So you give a little, you get something else. Dead Reign is a truly independent film, but we're trying to run it in the same way that we run a low-budget independent film. You know, we're really well prepared, and we take our time with the casting. We've been working on the script now for a year and a half, because everything's changing and growing. We've done 11 drafts on the script so far, me and my writing partner.
Me: So, speaking of casting, I saw you had Mancow (Muller)? [My note: Mancow is a local radio DJ in Chicago.]
Gary: It's a small role, he's actually playing a radio announcer, so you probably won't even see him.
Me: So he's playing himself?
Gary: Basically, one of my characters is dying in a room. He's been severely injured and blinded, so he can't see, he can only hear, and he's transforming slowly into a zombie. And inside he discovers this radio that he finds some batteries for, and it's the one link to the outside world that all the different groups of characters have. And for this guy, it kind of gives him hope that he might just be severely crazy. So this guy [Mancow's character] is just broadcasting a pirated signal. It's a pretty small role, but it's a cool thing to have, because it's the one thing that takes you out of the immediate world of the characters. You know, it's evidence that there are others out there who are alive.
Me: So where'd you get the idea for Dead Reign?
Gary: I don't even remember how it started. I'm a huge horror movie fan. Huge. And I love 70's horror especially, but I love it all. I love cool stuff, I love really gross stuff, I love Asian films that are just crazy. I love a lot of different kinds of horror. And I love zombie films. And I always wanted to make a zombie movie. Problem was, there was a bunch of them coming out over the last several years, and, you know, a lot of them weren't very good. A few of them were pretty good. A few of them I thought were really good. I thought 28 Days Later was really good, I thought Shaun of the Dead was really good. So a few of them I thought were really good. But for the writing part, we were actually researching another feature I'm working on, called Human Red, which has been in the writing stage for a long time, but it's a great story. But we're researching viruses, and we read about this water virus. And we thought, wow, that would be really cool if this could really, really mess someone up, and it was transferred in all the rain storms, so we kind of thought this out, and started looking at different diseases like smallpox, and things like that, the plague, and we thought, wouldn't it be cool if there was a plague in all the water sources, since water is everywhere, and everything needs it. And it affects people differently.
So we started to come up with the "unique zombie" idea. So, I always thought, if you're going to do a zombie film, (a) you do have to pay some homage, dammit, but (b) you also have to bring something new to the table. Make another film, bring something new. So we tried to find a semi-unique way that the virus would transfer. There's definitely some secrets. I don't want to reveal them all, but there's definitely one big secret with our main character that I don't think you've ever seen in a zombie film. And we also tried to break down the rift between fast-moving and slow-moving zombies. We have both. The way that basically works is that our virus is like a giant drug addict. It's a plague, but it always wants to feed and consume. So when someone's infected via rain or via fluid transfer, it affects different people differently, I'll say that. But overall it transforms you fairly quickly into a vicious zombie. But in scenes in the rain, our zombies are not violent, unless they're provoked, like an animal that you would antagonize. Then if you take them out of the rain, they get really, really fucking violent. They're called "stragglers" in our story, and those are the ones that you have to look out for, [especially the ones] that are faster moving and the ones that have more body parts (laughs). So the virus basically breaks down the body, making it slower, so you see some zombies that are very slow that are almost ready to die off. But theoretically if everybody in the planet were consumed, in our world of Dead Reign, then eventually they would all die out, and we'd have nothing. Theoretically, I guess, if you really want to go that far.
But what's cool in our story is, the whole zombie setup, it's cool, but it's not really what it's about, it's just the environment. We made this really crazy, fucked-up environment. And our story centers around this group of civilians that is trapped between these two feuding factions. There's a faction of survivalists that were put together by the government, that were sent into the cities to help people that aren't infected, pull out people that might be good for the cause, and kill zombies. Problem is, these guys have gone fucking crazy, they do whatever the hell they want. And you have this other group, this vigilante group, who are civilians turned army men. They think that they're this righteous cause, and they're doing God's work, and they're constantly battling the survivalists. The survivalists have this thing they do where they use noninfected people as bait to lure out the zombies. They attack this group of civilians who are a small family and try to use them as bait, and fun times ensue, chaos ensues. So what it's really about is these people trying to survive that are stuck in this war, between these two groups. We thought that was kind of cool. I like the idea of playing with militias in zombie films. I think it's been touched upon, but no one's really explored it to the fullest extent. And to have feuding factions of militias was even cooler, and to take that and combine it with our secret that I won't reveal in this interview, then it makes for an interesting storyline. And ultimately that's what it's all about. You know, the movie can look cool and all that, and it will, but if the story's not interesting, and the characters aren't interesting, then no one's going to give a shit.
Me: So have you seen anything in other zombie films that you want to avoid in this one?
Gary: I don't know. I like a lot of zombie films. I like the cheesy ones too. I love Dead Alive, even though it's cheesy. The ending kind of comes apart, but he attacks a room full of zombies with a lawnmower. That's fantastic. And of course I love the Romero films, like Night of the Living Dead, Dawn, and I actually really liked Day of the Dead, and that's the one that's kind of overlooked a lot. I think that's actually a pretty cool film, even though it's not made entirely in Romero's vision, you know. I actually wasn't very happy with Land of the Dead, I hate to say. You know what it was, I waited 20 years, and I wanted something epic. I wanted this giant, epic George Romero movie, and instead we got a movie that takes place in a timespan of three or four hours, and there's really not an epic in that. You know the screen time is three or four hours, and it's like hmm... one evening in the night of.. you know? And I hated the fact that at the end he beat us over the head with the idea that the zombies are just like us, and at the end he let them go. He should have shot the fucking zombies. You know, it was like "Noooo, shoot the zombies!" (laughs) So it was one of those things where I really wanted them to have a cheesy bad-ass moment at the end, and not do the right thing, but actually shoot the zombies.
Me: Yeah. It's kind of what you go to see, right?
Gary: You know, but I'm sure he had a lot of challenges on that film, and it just sucks that they'll remake Dawn of the Dead and give it a $29 million budget, but it takes Romero, the guy that created the original, 20 years to raise $12 million to make his movie. And it's just like, that's not right. He should get a little more credit than that.
Me: So you said you like horror. Is horror your preferred genre?
Gary: It's definitely what I prefer, but it's not the only genre I'm in. To illustrate that, I've got three other projects at various stages. One of them is a film noir. That one's Human Red. Another film I'm working on actually isn't titled, but it's kind of a cross-genre piece, a throwback to the 70's Jack Hill films. It's kind of a women-in-prison movie, but also a road movie. Like a road trip movie. So, you know, hot chicks in the desert, gangs, there's a serial killer loose amongst them that's taking them out, that's the cross-genre piece. And the other movie I have is about teenagers growing up in 1994 called Every Other Day. I actually made a short film about it a couple of years ago that I've been working on a feature script for. It's kind of touchy subject matter, kind of in the vein about teenagers growing up in the 90's. It's really controversial, I'd say, from the story, but I really enjoyed doing it and I'd really like to turn it into a feature. So those are the other projects I'm working on, but right now I'm just trying to get Dead Reign up and going.
Me: So do you think that big-budget horror has lost it's edge?
Gary: I haven't really thought about it, but it would seem that at least in the last couple years, all the really successful horror movies are the ones that were made for under $10 million, like the Saw movies. Huge, huge, huge money there. Those each made over $50 million in the box office, and they made another $50 million on DVD, and the first one cost a little over a million to make, the sequel cost four and a half. Cabin Fever was about a million and a half, that movie made like 30. I don't know what that did on DVD. Even Hostel made pretty good money and sold a bunch on DVD, and that was a couple and a half million dollar picture. Huge, huge Rob Zombie fan. I loved Devil's Rejects. You know, that did pretty well too, especially on DVD.
Me: What about House of 1000 Corpses?
Gary: I love House of 1000 Corpses, even though a lot of people hate it. I understand why they don't like it, but I'm really biased because I'm such a big Rob Zombie fan. He could do anything and I'd watch it. (laughs) So I'm not a good person to ask about that. But I find the things in House that I like are the psychedelic nature; it was definitely influenced by Chainsaw on that. I mean, obviously. But Rob Zombie said it himself, this movie is a modern version of Chainsaw Massacre. But I thought in Devil's Rejects he really expanded as a filmmaker. I mean, here's him getting into, well, I'm into a lot of stuff that he is, just by coincidence, like the 70's and Jack Hill films, just that style, and I felt like in Devil's Rejects he really expanded. He grew as a filmmaker, like in the look and the acting, and just the way he presented it, and there weren't a lot of things in it that were just there to be there. Everything had a purpose. And you know, it's not easy making a movie about bad guys. Obviously, you don't know who to vote for. I'm usually voting for the bad guys because they're usually more interesting. (laughs) Which is sad. Me and my friends have arguments about that. How can you vote for these people?
Me: But it's true.
Gary: Yeah, the good guys, no one likes them.
Me: He's just the average guy, yeah. So do you think that horror fans have become jaded?
Gary: Well, I hope not. I mean, they still see horror movies. I mean, I see a lot of things that I don't like, and I see a lot of things I like, but I still try to watch everything. You know, horror fans are, honestly, I think they're the best fans. I mean, horror is the only genre that has conventions for itself. And it includes sci-fi, and it kind of ties into the comic book community too, but it's just like, horror fans are hard-core. For example, a couple of years ago they had Bruce Campbell's book signing for his first book, at Borders here in Chicago, and there were thousands of people lined up. Jackie Chan signed a book the next day, and there was half the amount. There were more people to see Bruce Campbell than Jackie Chan, who's an international box office draw. Now granted, Bruce Campbell is probably a much better writer.
Me: Probably, yeah.
Gary: But still it's like, wow, horror fans are dedicated. Bubba Ho-Tep was successful because Bruce went and pitched the film at theaters, showed up. That was actually the first interview I ever did, was with him, for that movie. That was really cool. And you know, he went and did it and people came out because they wanted to see him. Figures like him are really good for this business, you know, it's so hard-core. At this year's Flashback Weekend, which I didn't get to attend, which I'm regretting, one of the big stars who showed up was the kid from Children of the Corn who's all grown up. Who wants to see him? And people do! What other genre would that happen? And people came out to see Kane Hodder, who basically is a stunt guy now, but he's awesome! People want to come see him and meet him, and shake his hand. And guys like Sid Haig, and Michael Hooker, and people like that, you know?
Me: So what films do you remember from growing up that influenced you?
Gary: Well, my tastes kind of varied. I guess there were different things that influenced me at different times. If it was horror, when I was about 7, I was at a babysitter's house, and a bunch of people were over there watching Night of the Living Dead, and I saw most of it. I vaguely remember seeing the flesh-eating sequence, and it scared the hell out of me. I was like 7, and that was way too much to handle. That's the single greatest American horror film, maybe not in execution, but because of what it did. It's a great, great film. And what it did for the genre, it changed everything. There was never a flesh-eating zombie before that. Horror films were about aliens attacking in giant rubber monster suits, which is awesome, but nonetheless it changed all that, and to me, that's what led up to [one of the best] horror movies ever, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And even though Jessica Biel is superhot (laughs) I wish they hadn't remade it. So, Chainsaw Massacre is probably my favorite horror film, and then definitely Night of the Living Dead. I love Evil Dead II. I love the first one too, but the second is a better film. I love Devil's Rejects, I love Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. I think overall those are my pinnacle films. I loved Nightmare on Elm Street. I love a lot of the 70's stuff, you know The Exorcist, even though I've seen it so many times. It's a great movie. I don't care if people think it's slow in the beginning, it's fucking great. The Shining looked great, even though it was Kubrick. I can't criticize him. But yeah, I love all that shit, I mean, Halloween, I love it. Really bad 70's movies too. I loved Last House on the Left, and there was stuff that was recently released, like Werewolves on Wheels, and I'm like, you've gotta watch this. How could I not? A werewolf biker gang. I've watched some shit. I love Troma films...
Me: So you go for the cheese a little bit, the camp?
Gary: Yeah, a little bit. It's not my favorite, but there's just something weird about Troma films. They're just so no-limit, you know? But they're good stuff, it's fun. And Lloyd Kaufmann's got what, the longest running independent studio? Period?
Me: Yeah, probably.
Gary: A little over 30 years. I mean, people may not like what he does, but you gotta respect the fact that he does it all by himself. That's not easy. He's been competing for this long.
Me: Yeah. And his philosophy seems to be that he's in it to make movies, not necessarily to win any awards, so...
Gary: Yeah, exactly. And he probably won't win many awards, but he'll definitely flash a lot of skin and gross us out.
Gary: And that's alright.
Me: So why do you like zombie films better than other horror films, or is it that much of a difference?
Gary: You know, there's just something about zombie films. When you're creating a zombie film, you're really creating the whole world. It's not like you're making a slasher film, and you're trying to set the film somewhere that everyone can relate to, where it's like a suburban neighborhood, like Halloween. Everyone can relate to that if they live in the suburbs, or can walk to the suburbs. A zombie film creates a whole entire world, so everything is just unique, and you get to really create the rules in it. It's more involved. And there's something really more creepy. People are really interested in what happens to them after they die. And there's something just really curious about that. About, you know, what if this happened when you died? I tell you, I used to have a lot of dreams about dying. (laughs) I don't know why.
Me: Like nightmares?
Gary: Yeah, nightmares, definitely, but I don't dislike nightmares. I think nightmares are cool. I expect it's because they scare the hell out of you, and it's so exhilarating. I don't get them a whole lot, lately, but I like nightmares. For a while I was having dreams about dead people, and it was really haunting me, and I was like, wow, I guess I really need to make a zombie movie.
Me: To kind of get it out of your system?
Gary: No, no, it's just something I've always been interested in. I've watched like a hundred thousand of them, everything from Return of the Living Dead to, I've got Cemetery Man in the VCR now. All different kinds of zombie films, you know? The best ones are the first Romero films, because they say something more in the scope of them. They're always interesting.
Me: You ever watch any of the older zombie films?
Gary: Like White Zombie, Carnival of Souls, stuff like that?
Gary: Well, yeah, I've got all those. You know, I'll watch almost anything if you show it to me.
Me: So if you could take any classic film and insert zombies into it, which one would it be?
Gary: Hmm, I don't know. Let me think here, what would be a cool film to turn into zombies? Maybe Easy Rider. Two dead guys traveling across the countryside. That might be kind of cool. Animal House could be funny. (laughing) I don't know if I could ever pull that off.
Me: It might be interesting, though.
Me: So when do you plan to wrap on Dead Reign?
Gary: Well, we shot the teaser, so we're going to have that out in the next couple of weeks, and that essentially, in my words, is probably a test for the investors. They want to really see what we can do, so we went out for a night and showed them, and it was a complete success, so now we're [dealing with] the questions of can we get everything situated with the contract, with the rights, and all the locations locked down before winter. If it doesn't happen, if the weather's not our friend, we can't make Dead Reign in the snow. Then what'll happen is we're going to start production at the beginning of March , and we'll see that the snow melts before the shooting [starts]. So that's where we're kind of at right now, is if time is going to be our friend or not, because I've been working on this for a while, and I've been associating with other people, and I've got what I think are some pretty good people around me. I'm just not willing to not do it right. It has to be done right. And if it takes a little extra time, that's OK, because you only get one shot to show people this movie. If Dead Reign doesn't come out the way it's supposed to be... you know, I always kind of thought that it might be this little cult film that starts off a bigger franchise, this little film that's just a little speck, a beginning of what we have in store for this world. And we're in talks right now with a major comic book artist who worked with Marvel who came out and did the storyboards for the teaser and we hired for the feature. And we're working on possibly doing a comic book adaptation, and kind of venturing off into other areas with this, which is the shit you can do when you're a little indie film. I mean, there's no studio backing us. This is a group of independent investors and a group of filmmakers, predominantly ones from Chicago, that are trying to do this, and that's kind of one of the coolest things about it.
Me: So what's the film scene like in Chicago now, is it getting better?
Gary: I think it's probably pretty much the same. I think it needs to get better. You know, Chicago just can't compete with L.A., because we don't really have a major studio here. You know, there's some studio spaces that have been built, but we don't really have a major studio, much less seven major studios, like L.A. And I don't really work that much in the corporate part of the Chicago film scene. I know that that's pretty steady. I mostly just work in independent film. And you know, once in a while you get a couple of big films that come through, and you try to get a job out of it. But those haven't been as much this year as they have been in the last few years. And Chicago has offered some additional tax breaks, which is smart, because before the hurricane hit New Orleans, they were booming, I mean booming. Our effects supervisor knew Tom Savini, and I called Tom up, and I was like, "Hey, I have this low-budget horror film and this is what I've got to work with," and he had relocated from Philadelphia to New Orleans because it was booming so big. He had to relocate to Atlanta after the hurricane hit. We flew him up to do the effects on the teaser. I have a really good crew for an independent film, Armando Ballerteros is my DP, and he's an AFI graduate, and I've known him since film school here in Chicago. He went to AFI and finished up there. He's been working for the last couple of years in the industry and is doing really good. And, you know, just having a lot of good people around you, that makes you better. (laughs) It's kind of like being the president. I mean, you know Bush doesn't know what's going on. Hopefully I'm more qualified than he is.
Me: I hope so. So is there a Web site we can go to to find out about the movie or the production?
Gary: Definitely. I was just getting ready to set up the official movie Web site, but that is not running yet. But we have a My Space page up like everybody in the world, and we have email. Let me think here. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and our My Space page is myspace.com/deadreignmovie, as well.
Me: Anything else you want to say about the movie?
Gary: Just some thanks to all the people that came out this past weekend to help us, because they were awesome. We had a seven-person crew, and they worked their asses off, and they worked really fast. And we had a few hundred onlookers that came by throughout the night, Lollapalooza spillovers, and that was really cool, they were very polite. We had an ongoing joke, we actually told them that Steven Seagal was in the movie, and that I was going to do for his career what Tarantino did for Travolta, so there was a lot people looking for Seagal. Ee just told them we had him hidden in the trailer, so...
Me: You think anyone can bring Seagal back?
Gary: (laughs) You know man, if anyone can, I'm going to try.
Me: All right.
Gary: Yeah, so they came out to support independent film, and it was cool.
Me: All right. Well, thanks for talking.
Gary: Thanks, I appreciate it man.
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