01st Dec2017

Interview: Tony Jopia discusses ‘Dawning of the Dead’

by Philip Rogers

Dawning of the Dead is the latest horror film for writer and director Tony Jopia who’s previous films include Cute Little Buggers (2017), Crying Wolf (2015) and Deadtime (2012). I got a chance to talk with Tony about why he decided to make a zombie film, never giving up and bringing the gore to the screen.

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Hi Tony, thank you for joining me again today I appreciate you taking the time out to talk to me again. You are following up the critical success of Cute Little Buggers with your new film Dawning of the Dead. Why did you decide to make a zombie film?

We were working out way through the horror genres. We always said that we would make these films with the attitude that we would have fun making them. So, after doing a slasher with Dead Time, we then wanted to do a creature feature which we did with Crying Wolf which were werewolves after that a creature feature with aliens. We had an opportunity to have little bit more funding, so we thought how could we up the game and still keep it manageable within the production and budget. We had a bit more, but it was still microbudget. It did allow us to have a greater stage and zombies were something we knew we could get the support of with the zombie fan clubs out there. We wanted to have fun and zombies is something we all loved.

My brother Stuart Jopia is also a producer and he did Good Tidings (2016). We have been fanatics about horror films, so we naturally thought let’s make a zombie film. It was a natural step up doing something we haven’t done, and it seem obvious that we should do something like that.

Following the success of The Walking Dead there have been a horde of zombie’s films coming out, were you worried that Dawning of the Dead may be lost in the genre?

We wanted to make the most commercial film we could, and you have to go with that frame of mind. What happens out there in that big world of distribution, is something can’t control. You can always get advice on what films are doing well and what genres are potentially popular, and we felt that there was still enough interest to get the film out. The only issue we faced because we had a small budget, we couldn’t turn the film around as quickly as we would have liked, and we still had to rely on the post production time. At the time of when we made it The Walking Dead was still at its peak, so this was the right time to deliver something else to the market with zombies. We set out to make the best possible film for the zombie and horror fans out there. Hopefully all the ingredients are in place to make an entertaining film and not just “A Zombie” so hopefully it will be appealing to horror fans in general.

Judging by the way the film has been received, we have a number of reviews that have been absolutely mind blowing. A couple of them have called it the best zombie film of 2017 which says a lot. There are a lot of zombie films out there, so to be given that accolade is absolutely superb.

I thought it was one of the best zombie films I have seen in a long time. It has the action and the gore, I was surprised because it was a lot better than I was expecting.

A lot of the guys who worked on Crying Wolf and Cute Little Buggers also worked on this film as well, so everyone wants to up their game, make it better, more appealing, more commercial. Everyone was in that state of mind. A lot people had the feel for that once we did Crying Wolf and from that upped the game with Cute Little Buggers. Everybody puts so much into it to make it better on every film location when we get together. On this one we relied on a great stunt coordinator Mark Johnston who pushed the boat out, the stunt he put in there really made a big difference for us.

Also, one of the key things which helps the film along was the soundtrack. The soundtrack was created, as was all of the other films by one of Hollywood’s top action film composers John Roome. He originated from being in bands such as The Orb. On this particular film I thought it made a real big difference to the whole post production, it feels much more accomplished as a bigger movie. That’s all down to the brilliant work of John Roome and I just wanted to highlight that, because I think that is one of the ingredients that makes a big difference. From Mark Johnsons stunts, to John Roome’s music, to the makeup and the acting. With all due respect to the rest of the teams on the other films, across the whole board we were able to achieve a better result.

It felt like a bigger budget to your previous films, with some the stunts as you said, the whole street locations and the special effects the film looked a lot bigger…

That was my plan and what I meant by upping the game. It does come down to careful planning and the way as a director and a producer you put it together. There are a lot tricks in the trade you can use to make things look a lot bigger and greater. In this case we had a little bit more budget that just allowed us to make it a little bit bigger, we were able to talk to the council about closing streets. We had talks with the local council in Banbury, as we were unable to afford the film rates, but we were able to make a donation, so with there support we were able to make it all happen.

When it came to the zombies we had the potential interest of a least 600 zombies who got in touch with us. We realised that we did not have the number security to assist manage these 600 people, so we had to tone this right down. Not by choice, but for matters of health and safety you have to work professionally within your capabilities. We worked out how many extra helping hands we had, because everything has to be coordinated perfectly so everyone is absolutely safe. The last thing you want is 300 people dressed up as zombies scaring the hell out of the locals. That was amazing to all the people who came along. We kept the number down due to health and safety otherwise we would have had three times the number of people.

Talking about the size of the film itself you had three other director who directed several different segments in the film, were they involved in live broadcasts of the attacks from around the world?

One of the ways I wanted to create a scale was to feature one or two shots that were bespoke to the film. I reached out to a number up and coming director from around the world and I said, “Would you be able to shoot a couple of shots for us to give the impression we are there in those countries?” It’s really important that you pick backdrops which are easily recognisable as parts of the world”. We reached out to a number of countries from around the world. Even though we have used only one or two shots from those sequences, it allows us to create that bigger scale. You can stick a zombie in front of a green screen with San Francisco Bridge behind them, but there is nothing like shooting it there. LA, Greece, Israel or South America we got it and they are all authentic. We have not done one international green screen shot.

With George Romero’s work during the Living Dead series, there always seems to be a political undertone or message incorporated into his work. Did you make any statements with your film Dawning of the Dead?

From my point of view, it is about survival with my message being when you are against the odds you never give up. This is the absolute truth. When I worked with Andy Davie on the original script that we wrote, I set out with one mission statement and from our pointy of view. From everything I do in life, everything I have aimed for, I have never given up. I have made films when we have had practically no money, we have created scenes and images when we had no real technical support. But somehow, we never give up. We always believe that if we keep fighting and going we would get to where we are and that gave me the foundations of someone in a dilemma that looked completely against the odds. If you look at all the characters and all the key situations such as Katya, right from the very beginning she never gives up when she fights off the guy that’s about to attack her. Then when she’s trapped in the new room, she never gives up. Every one of those people is fighting to give themselves a chance. Even the guys who are out there such as Alex, he is trying to get back to Katya, he never gives up. You think about his brother, the role played by Fabien, he never gives up. They are all about constantly driving to survive and that is something very close to my heart in terms of how I look at life in general. I am not a pacifist, I’m not someone who gives up at the first hurdle, I will pick myself and move onto the next thing. Rather than being a global message of some kind, where we are heading with the global environment, for me this was about never giving up, which is something very close to my heart and my philosophy on life.

Talking of Katya, in your film you often have strong female characters. In Dawning of the Dead you have Ruth Galliers who does an amazing job as Katya with the fighting and dealing with the PTSD.

I have been very fortunate that I have had very strong women around me from a very early age and these are women to be honest I don’t even see as women. These are people who I just see as amazing. I have also had some amazing men who have also looked after me. I think there is a seed in me that says show respect for those around you. My brother who worked on the second script with my writing partner Stuart (Bedford), they were totally in sync with having a strong female lead. I don’t think it should be ignored, there are strong females out there creating and achieving amazing things, so why should it always be the bloke who gets to carry the main headline. It also brings out more drama with her being pregnant and she has the problem with anxiety. They are all the ingredients that people have to cope with, so it seemed like a great thing to support. We didn’t set out to put a woman in there, it just seemed natural that it should be a woman who’s going to face this.

Talking of the cast, you tend to re-use a lot of your cast members for each of your films…

That’s because there is a certain side to me that just wants to be loyal. A lot of people put a lot of time and effort into the things that we do, and I like to reciprocate that. As a film maker you always rely on not just those around you from the crew point of view, but also the actors. Its good to show them some respect and loyalty. There is always room in films within reason to include them and make them feel part of the project and say, “I would love you to be a part of this one also”. We were able to have additional actors come in with a bit more experience in some cases. But we do try and include as many of the previous cast we have worked with as well. I expect this is something which we will continue to do going forward in the future. A lot of directors become quite close to certain talent and they have an understanding relationship with they can rely on and build on. It is only natural that you work with people that you like and respect.

There is always going to be a debate about what type of zombie is better walkers or runners. Why did you decide to use runners?

(Laughs) I am only laughing because I have been asked this twice already. One of the things I wanted to do, as you will probably gather from the Cute Little Buggers approach, I like to give everybody the cake and eat it. If they are runners they offer a greater threat, if they are walkers you can kind of anticipate more what happens next. With runners you don’t quite know if they will get to you, so there is that element, that thrill. When discussing this with Stuart we had a great opportunity to enhance some of those moments. It seemed natural to break a few rules and it didn’t seem unnatural to have some of these with a still humanised seed in them to allowed them to have a bit more movement. We embraced that, and we made the most of it and on a couple of occasions it really does work. From my point of view I ticked a couple of boxes there. I didn’t want to fall flat into one or the other, I wanted to have both and use them in a cinematic way which enhanced the moment a little bit more.

The film is going to be remembered for some amazing special effects. Was it always your intention to have so much visual gore in the film?

Yeah! First and foremost, it’s about the story so we wanted to make a story that would be captivating to the audience. Once you realise that you have ticked that box and you know that’s where you are going to go you start to think, what is it that we like about horror films? One of the most significant scenes I remember from Dawn of The Dead (1978) is that moment when that helicopter stops to get refuelled and that guy is walking towards them and that rotor blade cuts his head off. Its absolute movie classic. So, from a zombie side you’ve got to have the gore, you’ve got to take it further, otherwise what is the point of having a zombie running after you? It’s about pushing the boundaries a little bit. You’ve got to be able to give people what they like about zombie films. I believe that alongside a great story is the gore, it’s the concept of people biting into another’s flesh, so you have to respect that. George Romero doesn’t hold back and that’s what I think people like about zombies.

There is a scene with the floor polisher with the nails that reminded me of Bad Taste (1987), was that intentional?

It was intentional. In every film I make I like to do little throws to the films which I enjoyed and that is a great Peter Jackson moment. It has its similarities and that was my homage to Peter Jackson to say thank you for the films you made and the entertainment you brought me, this is my way of showing my appreciation to you. Really the best compliment you can give anyone is copying them in some way.

I do wish we had more time and money to make that a little bit better. We did only have 25 days to shoot the whole film, but with a film of that scale we should have had maybe 12 weeks and I personally wold like to have done more with it. It was hilarious because my son was assistant director at times, so he was on his knees underneath the camera with offal and blood throwing it up. He was more covered than anyone else.

What was one of the favourite scenes you got to shoot?

There are loads. I loved the car scene because that was loads of fun.

I really liked where the two brothers have to make their way back into the news room and they have to fight off a couple of the zombies picking up the weapons on the way. I love the fact we were in the streets in Banbury and we had loads of zombies. Also, the brute who is more humanised, as he leads the horde of zombies towards them.

There is a lovely scene when they all walk out. Katya is getting them ready to let the horde of zombies in to create some space, so they can escape in the corridor.

*Spoilers* I really like when Fabien’s character Christian has got the doors, the zombies burst through and they all attack him. That to me is my favourite scene. I just love the whole concept of the zombies bursting through, as we shot it in slow motion. I hope that Christian is quite appealing and the fact he sacrifices himself to give his brother Alex a chance to escape, I love that.

The film has been left open for a sequel, if you could how would you follow this up?

The idea was to have Katya team up with a bunch of survivalists who put her on a pedestal of being this Lara Croft type of character. We have some ideas for a sequel, but because we have a bunch on creature features green lit we are concentrating on that. That is unless someone comes knocking on the door saying, “We demand a Dawning of the Dead Two!” But right now, we are not working on a sequel to it.

Can you tell us details about some of the projects which you are working on at the moment?

Before I do I would just like to say something on behalf of my co-producer and executive producer, because without them I probably would not have been able to get the film made. I have worked with Kristofer Dayne on all my previous films and Fabien Muller came on board to help with the executive producing for Cute Little Buggers. The three of us sat around one evening and were talking about what we were going to do next. I had already talked to my brother about doing a collaboration on a zombie movie, I pitched them the idea and they loved it. Kris and Fabien really got the support to make it a better movie, moving it onto a greater stage. Without their support not only producers but also executives have really made a massive difference to the project.

In terms of what we are doing next, we have been green lit for four creature feature films which we have two years to produce, make and deliver. We have been aided by various distributors who have come to us, which is a wonderful situation because it has allowed us to guarantee some pre-sales to the executives.

We are working to a specific type of film that has been requested, so we are going to be creating four creature feature films that are all going to be shot internationally. We are not only shooting in the UK, but possibly Australia and definitely shooting in Chile.

They range from being Cute Little Buggers Two: Quills of Death, which is basically Predator (1987) meets Phantasm (1979), meets Gremlins (1984) with Die Hard (1988) thrown in there. Its going to be bigger and greater than anything else we have made. The reason I said Phantasm, is you know the balls with the spikes? Well imagine them but with hedgehogs. We have some fantastic professionals coming on board to help make it, so we are going to be shooting that next year.

We have a western called Bullet for the Beast, which is kind of like Pale Rider (1985). It’s about a bounty hunter that turns up in a town that has been massacred by a beast of some kind, which that bounty hunter has to then confront.

We are also making an apocalyptic version of Jason and the Argonauts (1963) meets the Dirty Dozen (1967) in the middle of the desert, so it does have a Mad Max (1979) feel to it in the way it’s shot in a desert town in the north of Chile. This special unit has been sent in to combat a breeding ground where there are horrible creatures all feeding off the town.

We are going to be doing a film in the UK which is going to be ghost driven film rather than monsters, which is more like Thir13en Ghosts (2001). It is going to be a very busy two to three years, so we are very excited, and we start production in January. All the same team are coming on board to assist and I am going to be directing them.
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Dawning of the Dead is being released by Uncork’d Entertainment on digital VOD platforms on December 5th and on DVD March 6th 2018.

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