One of the great things about Frightfest is that you never know who you might be sharing your row of seats with. On the first evening I discovered that my row-mates were from the cast and crew of my new favourite zombie rom-com, Deadheads. Over the course of the weekend we chatted about all kinds of stuff, and it got to the point where there was too much good material going to waste. So I sat down between films with half the directing team, in the shape of Brett Pierce and the gorgeous actress Natalie Victoria (Ellie Masterson in the movie). Here's how we filled the time:
Daniel Benson: Brett, you and your brother Drew grew up on and around the set of Evil Dead as your Dad worked on the special effects, how old were you at the time and what was it like for two young kids?
Brett Pierce: I was around six or seven, Drew would've been about five. It was amazing for us because it instilled in us that the idea of trying to make a movie wasn't weird, and it wasn't a job, it was just a normal thing to do. In the summer they'd finished shooting at the cabin, but they didn't really have any effects work done so they took over my Mom's house and all these guys like Sam [Raimi] and Scotty [Spiegel] just set up shop for the whole summer and destroyed the house. They brought in cockroaches that they needed for some of the sequences and they infested the house!
For us it was inspirational because we took the attitude "They did it, there's no reason we can't". I loved it, it was definitely a unique experience.
DB: Did you find that the experience grounded you and made you more aware that movies were all make-believe, or did it freak you out?
BP: [Laughing] To tell you the truth I was terrified of horror movies until I was about 15 because of that. My dad used to keep us away from going down into the basement, because they were all working down there. There was one incident where they were running some test reels of the meltdown sequence at the end of the movie, and all really enjoying how it looked. When they turned the lights on I was standing there looking absolutely terrified, having snuck in to see what was going on. I didn't feel comfortable going back down into that basement until I was about 15 years old.
DB: Following on from that experience, did you get into making movies as a young teen or was it something that you became interested in later in life?
BP: It was in High School. Drew and I would take any subject that involved aspects of film-making. We would shoot really terrible shorts where we'd make dummies and drop them off the side of the school, we'd make horrible knock-offs of films we really loved and we did it for years. Hopefully we got all of the bad stuff out of our systems in our teens!
DB: Natalie, when did you first start getting into movies?
Natalie Victoria: I've been pursuing acting for the last six years now, but just recently it seems to be working out more and I've done Deadheads and some stage plays too.
DB: Brett, how did the idea for Deadheads come about?
BP: The idea really came from Drew being dead set on making a zombie movie where the zombies were pals. It was something he just had in his head and when we started talking about it I said, "We should make it a road-trip movie and we should have them chasing a girl". We wrote the script, then went back and did dozens of drafts to get it right, preferring to get the writing perfect rather than turn up to set and realise what we've written will be awful.
DB: And as both brothers and co-directors is there a lot of rivalry or do you tend to get on well when you're shooting?
BP: Weirdly enough, we totally agree on almost everything. It weirds people out and they find it strange that we can finish each other's sentences. The actors even pointed that out to us on set, and they'd say that regardless of which one of us they spoke to we'd be in agreement, even without consulting each other. We both have the same sensibilities about making movies, so even if one of us was having an off day the other would be happy to step back and say, "You know what? You really got this, go for it"
DB: Natalie, how did you meet up with Drew and Brett and how did you find working with them on the film?
NV: They found me at a theatre production in LA. After the show they came to see me and handed me the script and told me that they'd like me to read for the part [Ellie Masterson]. It was a really long process after that, almost a year I think, I had three auditions for the part maybe more. I've lost count [laughs].
BP: We had a really rigourous audition process and I'm pretty sure some of the actors started to hate us. We were pretty sure we were going to use Natalie all the time, some others too, but we made them audition over and over to get the parts.
NV: Yeah, the audition process gave us no feedback whatsoever, there were no smiles, no making eye contact, no "Welcome to the cast" for any of us. [Laughs] You were so mean! It was frustrating too, as I'd keep getting callbacks but no feedback. It was really fun to eventually come to the set because these guys all know each other and I was from Chicago, not Michigan, but within five minutes of stepping on set they were really friendly and welcoming.
BP: We ran an unconventional set, because we'd let the actors come and stand behind the video wall when we were shooting. I don't think it'd be the sort of thing I'd get away with again, but it was kinda like a family thing where everyone did a bit of everything. There are some scenes where you see the guys in radiation suits and Natalie's in there!
NV: Yeah, I'm lead actress and rad-suit guy number nine!
DB: Natalie's character doesn't appear until later in the film. Was it shot in script order, or was Natalie involved from the start to develop the relationships with the other actors?
BP: It wasn't shot in chronological order, but Natalie was there for the whole shoot.
NV: Yeah, I was there from the beginning. Actually I shot more scenes, but they were cut. [Laughs]
BP: Not because you were terrible or anything!
NV: This is testament to the professionalism of the cast, that you can be involved from the start, but accept that what gets cut is for the good of the movie and to improve the flow. I'm extremely happy with it, even though it's only three or four scenes towards the end of the film.
BP: It became a standing joke, because we'd turn up to shoot and do two or three takes and then get kicked out of the location before we'd really nailed the shot. We spent about four weeks going through this, promising Natalie we'd shoot her, but never getting the take. It started to feel like she wasn't even in the movie!
NV: I started to think they got me out on location early just to screw with me. [Laughs]
DB: The scene in the film where you talk to Mike [Kellerman] and he's wearing the seal costume looked like a scene that was fun to shoot. Did you find it hard to keep a straight face while talking to a giant seal?
NV: It was a really fun scene to do. The whiskers on the seal's head really stuck out and had sharp wire inside them, so every time I tried to do the dance with Mike they'd get stuck in my hair. Drew would be standing and shouting, "You need to go that way!" to avoid getting them tangled.
BP: It was one of those scenes I came out of thinking, "This isn't going to work at all", but yeah, it works just fine.
DB: One of the movie's strengths is the relationship between the two central characters, Mike Kellerman and Brent Guthrie, was it difficult to find the actors to create such a convincing pair?
BP: Mike we'd known for years, he's an old friend of ours and we had him pegged for the role which is kinda obvious seeing as he's named Mike too. But we still gave him a hard time, we made him come in and read against other actors and we even let other actors read for the part. The hardest part was that we couldn't find Brent. Our assistant director suggested a friend of his so I met up with him and I knew straight away. I rang Drew, who was working in Michigan at the time, and said, "I think I found our guy".
Ross [Kidder] came in and did an audition and it was terrible! I was totally depressed because I'd told Drew I'd found the guy. We decided to give him one more chance, because he's such a nice guy and I knew he could do it. He came over to Mike's apartment and I brought my camera. We shot three scenes from the script and I just knew he was right at that point. I called Drew and said "We've got our Mike and Brent!" We were so happy because at that point we were too close to shooting and hadn't found our guy.
DB: Natalie, did you bond well with the two lead actors?
NV: Yeah totally. I didn't get that much time to interact with them both, because most of my scenes were with Mike, so I got to know Ross better after the shoot. But I got on with them really well, right from the start. It was funny in the scenes we have together, we were all cracking ridiculously inappropriate jokes between takes which was completely different from the characters who were supposed to be in love [laughs]. We had such fun.
BP: Really, our actors had potty-mouths and it was hard to get them not to say something inappropriate at the wrong time [laughs].
DB: You've taken the film round various festivals so far, how has the response been?
BP: It's been great, honestly better than we could have hoped for. Frightfest is our first genre festival so I think we're more excited here because it's the right crowd. The other ones were traditional [mixed genre] festivals, but the crowds seemed to love the movie. We sold out a midnight show at the Traverse City Film Festival in a beautiful 600-seater theatre, we had a huge crowd and all these people showed up dressed as zombies so it was awesome. People come in and expect a zombie movie, which it is, but it has a broader appeal. Lots of women, who aren't necessarily horror fans or wouldn't normally like a zombie movie, say, "I loved it!".
DB: Once the festival circuit is over do you have plans for another movie or are you resting on your laurels for a while?
BP: Natalie's got a couple of films she's shooting...
DB: Horror films?
NV: I'm hoping to find my next horror film here, that would be ideal! No, I'm shooting a crime drama next and Ross [Kidder] is also in it. We'll be shooting that in the next two months in LA, and I'm also attached to a comedy project that's scheduled to start shooting in spring next year. I really want to do a horrible horror film, you know, like I'm running through a cornfield being chased by some guy with a chainsaw.
DB: How's your blood-curdling scream, do you practise?
NV: [Laughs] I have a pretty big mouth.
BP: Drew and I are working on a Halloween script, a film that's set at Halloween. Kind of an Evil Dead 2-ish movie that plays on all the legends of the holiday like Samhain. Our goal is to make the ultimate Evil Dead 2 style movie that people will watch every year at Halloween.
DB: Guys, thanks so much for your time, it was a pleasure talking to you.
BP/NV: You're welcome!