The new British zombie movie Colin is an ultra-low-budget film that follows the eponymous character around the streets of post-apocalyptic London during an outbreak of the living dead. The twist in this film is that the lead character is a zombie himself for most of the running time… Between screenings of the film at this summer’s FrightFest at the Empire cinema in London, Alex Fitch spoke to director Mark Price about genre audiences, the differences between high- and low-budget film and the benefits of cheap technology.
Alex Fitch: Was the screening at Frightfest the world premiere?
Mark Price: No, it has screened in a couple of other festivals. We fell in with our sales agent when we screened at the Abertoir festival, which is the only Welsh horror festival – it’s in Aberystwyth, and spelt Abertoir like Aberystwyth but pronounced Abattoir – it’s funny…
AF: I guess the low budget of the film is a double-edged sword, because a lot of the pre-publicity has been about how little it cost, rather than about the fact that it’s a very good zombie film.
MP: The good thing about that press is that it’s a platform for us to talk about what we wanted to do with the characters – that’s the heart of the story – and how we went about making the film. But I think that once the film is released the interest in the low budget will go away fairly quickly, even though it’ll be all over the DVD covers and what not. We always hoped that the quality of the story would be the selling point.
AF: At this year’s FrightFest there are a lot of zombie films, and out of the ones I’ve seen so far, the two that have impressed me the most are your film and Pontypool. I think that maybe it’s because when you have a very low budget and want your film to attract attention, you really have to work on the script and the actors…
MP: I was raised on blockbuster movies in Swansea and I still feel a lot of fondness for them, but I think the script and the acting should always be the most important thing, regardless of all the amazing advances in digital technology – they’re just tools to tell your story. Although we weren’t in a position to embrace much technology, we did embrace the ability to make a movie in your own home, in your bedroom on an old wrecked PC. I’m a zombie fan, I wanted to do a zombie movie, but I also wanted to do something that I could be confident hadn’t really be done before, obviously missing the fact that there was a movie called I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain. I honestly think that if I’d known about I, Zombie beforehand I probably wouldn’t have made Colin!
AF: I think I, Zombie is probably obscure enough that you don’t have to worry about people having seen it…
MP: …and it’s a very different movie as well, apparently. I haven’t seen it myself, but Andrew Parkinson, the director, sent me a copy of it; he’s a really nice guy. His film is more of a slow transformation from a man into a zombie, so by the end of the movie, he becomes this zombie – it’s more akin to The Fly, I guess. We just kind of skim over that in the first 10 or 15 minutes of our movie and crack on with the zombie part!
AF: I thought the structure of the film was really interesting – you leave the origin of Colin’s transformation into a zombie right until the end. What motivated that decision?
MP: I think it was the idea of rewarding the audience with interesting information. I know giving the back-story isn’t always necessarily the best way to develop a character, but for us, it felt more like a payoff. We always knew how the movie was going to end, but how do we draw attention to certain objects and items? That was the challenge. If you look at a movie that’s shot on 35mm with a budget like Chinatown or Hot Fuzz, when the twist comes at the end, you realise everything you’ve been watching means nothing. But that’s OK because you have a character trying to find something out, so the audience is with him, trying to find that something out. When you have a character who isn’t motivated in any clear direction and because of the low-budget format we shot the movie on, there’s a very real danger that we look like we don’t know how to tell a story, or how to edit a scene. So, we could lose a lot of our audience along the way, it’s scary for us that it all relies on that last 10 to 15 minutes, but we certainly wanted that to be a rewarding experience for the audience.
AF: What kind of camera did you shoot it on? It does have a very sharp, clear image, but it’s obviously not HD.
MP: We shot it on two camcorders, one was a three-chip camcorder – both Panasonics – and the other was a single-chip camera, because the three-chip died about half of the way through. This is the little trick to it: you can’t get these cameras to look like 35mm, and if we were to try and make it look like 35mm and light it very cleanly, it would just look cheap. So we really went the other way and embraced the flaws in the technology – we had lots of ‘hot spots’ and dark shadows, and I think that lends something to the visual quality of the film. If I knew as much about cameras as the cameramen I’ve been meeting recently, I would have gone: ‘I’d never have made a movie like this, let’s not bother’, and we wouldn’t have made it! So, sometimes a little ignorance can be a good thing! This idea that you have to spend a lot of money on technology, on HD cameras, it’s really not the case. A low-budget filmmaker only needs to worry about the story and the characters.
AF: I wouldn’t say that you don’t deserve to get a decent budget for your next project whatever that may be, but when low-budget filmmakers get a big budget for their next film, quite often it completely falls apart. What would your ideal next project be?
MP: Well, the idea for our next project is to keep the budget very low, so low that we retain a level of control, but we want the film to look like it cost three million, so we’re trying to find ways of doing that, which is a challenge. But at the same time, I think movie-making is problem-solving, whether your movie costs Â£70 million or Â£70. The best thing we can do is to hang on to the team of problem solvers we had on Colin, making sure we’re all working together on the next film. There are elements of the next film that seem easy and there are elements that seem beyond our reach, but that’s the excitement. That’s what it was like with Colin – when we started this, I knew nothing about make-up design and now I can make a zombie! Our make-up guys showed us how to make zombies, so that they wouldn’t necessarily be around all the time.
AF: In the publicity materials for the film, it says you found the actors for the film on Facebook – was it the same for the crew as well?
MP: That’s something that got a bit out of hand, actually. We used Facebook to communicate with everyone, but we didn’t really find many people on Facebook. Alistair, who plays Colin, I knew already, and other actors I met through Alistair. We had two auditions. We were really looking for people who we got along with and there’d be a degree of banter. We didn’t want any egos on the film because it’s low-budget, there’s no place for them. It was such a harmonious experience that if luck comes in quotas, then I’m in serious trouble; I’m fucked, because we used it all up on this film, so the next one’s going to be a disaster!
AF: I hope not! In terms of locations for the film, it doesn’t actually look that British, it has more of an international feel to it. For example, the scene with the hoodies, for want of a better word…
MP: …yeah, the stacked terraces…
AF: … I saw a similar scene in an Italian gangster movie recently, so it feels much more European than British. Was it just that you looked for interesting locations and didn’t have a particular aesthetic in mind?
MP: We were definitely looking for places that had a sense of isolation. For Rowley Way, one of my students – I was teaching low-budget techniques at Kilburn Park – said: ‘You’ve got to see this place, Rowley Way, it’s just off Abbey Road, it’s fantastic above ground and underground.’ What it allowed us to do visually was to really breathe and have that sense of depth. Actually, I still look at the film and every time I see those scenes, I’m waiting for someone to walk out of a door and just blow a take, which I missed this entire time!
AF: You didn’t leaflet everyone who lived there to say: ‘Could you please stay in your homes between the following hours…’?
MP: No, the students were telling us that Rowley Way was quite dangerous and we shouldn’t go down there without them! It was like one o’clock in the afternoon and I guess everyone was still in bed! Everything else there – the tower blocks were just around the corner – was visually so striking. I’ve got a lot of fondness for those places and definitely the ones that were incorporated in the film.
AF: What has been your students’ reaction to the film? Have they seen a complete cut yet?
MP: They’ve seen it and they were amazingly responsive and positive. That’s such a relief, and the response had been great from all of them. And that scene with the hoodie guys – they’re not actors, they’re just giving it a go! One of them was auditioning to get into RADA, the other one was just giving it his best shot. The next day, he just cracked me up, saying: ‘Man, I think I’m the best zombie in your film!’ And I said: ‘You weren’t a zombie, you were a human!’ ‘Was I?’ he says, ‘ah, whatever!’ And they were up against two LAMDA students – Daisy and Alistair – and a very experienced television actor. It was really amazing to see these two guys thriving among all these actors, holding their own. The guy with the samurai sword, he had just come round, giving it a go – he’s the guy who found the location – and he said: ‘I can get a samurai sword if you want…’ I said: ‘It is it sharp?’ and he said no, so I thought, ‘Go get it then!’
AF: Nobody lost their limbs in the making of this movie…
MP: No, we were OK, but it was quite scary, his running around, waving a sword at people going: ‘Arrgghh, I’m gonna cut your head off!’
AF: I suppose in a low-budget film, one of the most important applications of budget and training must be the fight scenes, where people are being beaten up, so that no one gets hurt.
MP: Yeah. That actually explains some of our frenetic camera work, because if you had the camera smoothly gliding along, you’d see that apart from the two actors we had placed to throw proper hits that registered properly on camera, everyone else is awkwardly grappling. We had some fun with that in the documentary on the DVD, you really get to see some of these guys being quite lame, because it’s really funny! Of course, in the film, because of the camera work we wanted to generate a level of intensity. The camera becomes a character and the idea was to have two camera styles. There’s a dominant human perspective in a scene, which is quite panicky and frantic and handheld, then there’s the zombie’s perspective, which is relatively calm and quiet.
AF: I probably shouldn’t ask this as a film should stand on its own, but the way that I read the final scenes was that when Colin comes home, it almost starts awakening memories in him. Was that your intent or do zombies not have human thoughts?
MP: One of the things we wanted with the film was for the audience to ask themselves questions. There are certain elements I don’t want to address, I want to leave people to come up with their own decisions. The basement scene is a really interesting one, some of the stuff I’ve heard back about that, what people think is going on there is like: ‘You’re a sick, sick man Price!’ And I’m like: ‘Woah! We don’t clearly state that! You’re the one who came up with that…’ I don’t think it’s my place to tell anyone what it was. The film should speak for itself and I wouldn’t want to acknowledge that you’re absolutely correct or rob you of thoughtful analysis. It’s not the place of the filmmaker to do that. That’s the one downside to DVD. You think certain filmmakers are geniuses, and then you hear them talk about their stuff and you go: ‘Ohhh, man, Brett Ratner isn’t a genius!’
Interview by Alex Fitch