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Tabula Rasa

The Sharing of One Brain

A Conversation with the Spierig Brothers

by Dave Hoskin, 2003

Undead, by the Spierig Brothers: original poster imageI was trying to think of horror movies as I made my way into the city, and uncharacteristically I was having trouble. Peter and Michael Spierig had spent three years of their lives creating what they called "a Road Runner cartoon with zombies", and I honestly couldn't think of another Australian film to compare it with. While there are rare exceptions, making a horror movie, even one as droll as this, seemed almost entirely alien to Australian filmmaking culture.

Of course no one is more conscious of their trailblazer status than the Spierigs themselves. In his introduction to their debut feature Undead at the Melbourne Film Festival, Michael welcomed the audience to a "piece of truly independent Australian cinema," and I begin my conversation with them by asking what exactly he meant by that statement. "When I said 'truly independent Australian cinema,'" says Michael, "I mean our film was financed entirely without any sort of government assistance whatsoever..."

"Or studios, or anything like that." adds Peter. "Basically, we pulled the money directly out of our own pockets." I enquire whether they tried to get any film funding assistance, but they chorus "no" in almost perfect unison. Peter continues, "We have in the past tried to get government funding for short films, script development on another feature film we had written, and been rejected at the very first stage every time. And we just became incredibly frustrated. We had won numerous short film awards, the most recent one that we won was best picture, and we still couldn't get funding. We were just frustrated with that and said 'that's enough,' and we've been doing TV commercials for three and a half years. We had the money to go and do [Undead], so we decided to take that very big gamble, and invest our entire life savings, sell the car and do everything we needed to do to make the film."

I ask them if they think the lack of Australian horror movies might be linked, in part, to some sort of snobbery on the part of the funding bodies. "We personally have been told from government funding bodies that we shouldn't be making genre pictures," reveals Michael. "That they're best left to the Americans... which doesn't make sense to me, because the Japanese make some pretty damn good genre pictures."

"And the Europeans" laughs Peter.

"I don't know why we don't make genre pictures," Michael continues. "There's a huge market out there for it, and genre pictures are a lot easier to sell foreign than pretty much any other type of movie if you don't have major stars."

"People think genre pictures cost a lot of money," Peter observes. "And you look at films like Cube (Vincenzo Natali, 1997) or Dog Soldiers (Neil Marshall, 2002), you know, these are low budget movies."

I ask if there are any Australian horror movies they admire. "Horror films in a broad sense... I like Dead Calm (Philip Noyce, 1989), I think [that's] a good film," says Michael. "Mad Max (George Miller, 1979). It's a genre picture; I don't know whether it's a horror film. Razorback's (Russell Mulcahy, 1984) kind of interesting." He pauses for a moment, evidently to rack his brains. "I'm not going to say I'd admire it, but there was another Australian zombie, movie, Zombie Brigade... (Carmelo Musca, Barrie Pattison, 1986) there's very few..."

Peter comes to the rescue. "If you want to broaden it and go to New Zealand, obviously there's the Peter Jackson stuff, we're big fans of all of his films, Bad Taste (1987), Braindead... (1992)"

Changing the subject slightly, I mention that when I was growing up, films like Undead usually arrived in my hometown with a sticker saying "Banned in Queensland", which makes them laugh. I go on to ask how they got hold of these films that have fairly obviously affected their style. "There were only a few that I can think of that were banned," Peter remembers, "Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (Chuck Russell, 1987), Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972), Toxic Avenger (Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufmann, 1985) I think... We got a whole bunch of tapes from friends who got them from friends who got them from friends and we would watch them. We were pretty young, I guess we were somewhere between 12 to 15 when all those kind of films came out, and if they were banned and you weren't supposed to see them then we'd try to get them." He smiles. "Instead of swapping drugs we swapped horror video tapes."

I ask them, bearing in mind the violence that permeates Undead, if living in a censoriously conservative state such as Queensland has affected the way they make films. Michael isn't convinced. "Well, we've lived in Sydney, we've lived in the States for a little while... I don't think so. I think of Queensland more as an untapped resource. There's a lot of people interested in that type of cinema in Queensland." "Queensland is a fairly conservative state in a broad sense," Peter adds. "But you talk to a lot of film-makers, student film-makers, there's a lot of horror fans out there."

I mention that while watching the film, I was struck by what could be termed an American sensibility, and ask if they always had that market in mind during production. "We had the international market in mind." emphasises Peter. "Certainly the US, and we know Asians love genre pictures, and also Europe as well. We've been influenced by a lot of American cinema and you can't help but see that in the film. But there's some very, very Australian moments in there too, and it's definitely an Aussie picture. I think that the fact that there's a lot of CG and there's some fairly extreme cinematography... and that's not all that common in Australian features, so maybe that's part of the reason why there's that US feel to it."

Michael points out that the characters are certainly recognisably Australian, and continues, "There's a lot of Australianisms in the film in terms of the dialogue. We don't write it thinking that its going to be some ocker Australian film, we just write it with your Australian sensibilities in mind and it just turns out that way. I think that if you make a film with Australian film-makers, set in Australia, then it'll be an Australian film. And that's simply what it is."

Leaving the question of national identity aside, I ask them how they went about marketing the film. "We set up our website, for 300 bucks," replies Michael. "It's getting more and more common with films like Blair Witch (Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Myrick, 1999) that if you get in touch with some key internet geeks like Harry Knowles, Garth Franklin, Ain't it Cool News and a few other key horror film sites that we went to... You give them a little bit of information and eventually you give them a screener copy of your film. You pray that they like it, because if they hate it you're in big trouble! But thankfully they all seem to like it, and once you get them on your side it's the best form of publicity you can have. Particularly as it is a genre picture, and a lot of genre fans are on the internet trying to find out the latest gossip about horror films or sci-fi or whatever... You have free advertising essentially. It's so broad too. We get emails from all over the world every day from people asking to see the film, We've had over 120,000 downloads of the trailer, it's incredible."

"That's the kind of attitude out there." Peter agrees. "Which is great, because they realise this is independent film and it's made by fans of the genre, it's not made by a studio trying to make a quick buck. It's guys who love the genre and want to make a film that they feel is not being made at the moment."

I remark that certainly the last great zombie movie, Day of the Dead, (George Romero, 1985) feels like a long time ago now. "That type of horror film died in the mid to late 80s," nods Michael. "It kind of got saturated with all those Italian horror films that came out. Films tend to go through these cycles. It's like Hollywood releasing that string of disaster movies they had (that sort of were disasters!) in the 90s, and Wes Craven, he revived the teen slasher genre. What happens is a great one comes out, and then the half-arsed attempts are made to keep that genre alive and they destroy [it]. And it's strange now that the zombie genre seems to be going through this resurgence. It's great because we've got films like Cabin Fever (Eli Roth, 2002) and May (Lucky McKee, 2002) and all these great debut horror films that are coming out. The independent horror genre is really making a comeback." He can't resist adding, "Although I'm sure the studios will destroy it."

I ask them why they think that most of the real turning point horror movies (such as Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968), Texas Chainsaw Massacre, (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and The Blair Witch Project) tend to come from the underground. "I think they're the ones that have less interference," asserts Michael. "The film-makers basically have a lot more freedom to do what they want to do. Less restrictions perhaps because they're not too worried about their rating. They can try stuff that's really out there."

"I think it's also that an independent film can take so long to get made," observes Peter. "So much energy and effort has gone into it, and it's usually a film-makers' dream project. They spend a lot of time with it, really trying to get it right. As opposed to a studio picture which may get green-lit very quickly, which needs to get out there for summer or whatever."

Is there anything you would have changed if you'd had more money? "Oh hell yeah!" Peter laughs, wryly. "I wish we could have done a few more takes and tried a few more things. I'm really happy with the performances and what we got, but it's always nice to have had options, and we never really had any options. I think that's one of the things that I would really like to change, is to be able to sit there in the editing room and have choices. There was a lot more camera hysteria that I would have liked to have put in, a lot more camera moves, a lot more complex camera rigs, things like that that we just didn't have the budget for."

"I would have liked to have had an effects crew doing a bit more R and D work," interjects Michael. "The effects... particularly towards the end of the film, we managed to do just about everything we wanted, but there was a couple of other things visually that we would have liked a research and development department to really flesh out for us."

However, despite their limitations, the brothers repeatedly emphasise how pleased they were with their cast and crew. "The people that were working on it were really great," says Peter. "Everyone was so enthusiastic and really pushing themselves really, really hard to doing something more than the couple of bucks they had to work with. It's great when you have that kind of atmosphere."

So does the film really redefine the low-budget horror film, as its publicity claims? "I don't think there's ever been a low budget horror film that's done as much in terms of production values as we've tried to do," muses Peter. "The level of the CG, the level of the production design, the sheer scope of the story. I don't think that's ever been done before, and I think it will probably be a while before its done again. It's going to be a hard one to imitate because it takes so long to do. It's not like something they can just slap together in a couple of weekends. It's a three year process with a lot of people involved." He pauses for a moment and then he grins. "It's much easier to imitate a Kevin Smith movie."


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