Director Jordan Rubin talks Tribeca horror “ZOMBEAVERS,” John Landis’ advice and…“ZOMBEYONCE”??!
So, director/co-writer Jordan Rubin, whose new variation on the animals-attack subgenre (from which we’ve also got a few exclusive photos to share) world-premieres at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival this Saturday, April 19 at 10:30 p.m.: Why ZOMBEAVERS?
“Because I’m a huge fan of ’80s horror that had absurd conceits that were played completely straight,” Rubin, who lengthy TV writing résumé includes LAST CALL WITH CARSON DALY, THE MTV MOVIE AWARDS and two Larry Wilmore specials, tells Fango. “I had just done two comedy scripts with my writing partners Jon and Al Kaplan, and I suggested we write a horror film next. And Al said, ‘What about ZOMBEAVERS?’ That made me laugh, because from the title, I could see the whole movie in front of me. But we decided that while obviously the premise is completely absurd, we should treat the material completely seriously, like a lot of the films I grew up on in the ‘80’s—things like CHILD’S PLAY, where there’s a certain level of absurdity that’s just not addressed. There’s a lot of horror today that goes toward camp, which I was trying to get away from. That said, I do come from a comedy background, so there are a lot of laughs, but the actors played true to the premise, and we all tried to make a serious movie about something that’s fun and absurd.”
That’s what he believes sets ZOMBEAVERS (see its complete Tribeca schedule here) apart from the current run of nature-gone-mad movies, specifically a high-profile title combining carnivorous fish and bad weather. “You know, it was just a coincidence that the SHARKNADO thing happened while we were in the middle of making our movie,” Rubin says. “It helped that a lot of articles picked up on that, and they were trying to lump the films together in the press, but this is a very different thing from a Syfy movie. Obviously, Syfy movies are made for TV, but this one is going straight to the Oscars [laughs]! I’m kidding, but it did have an actual sizable budget compared to a Syfy feature; it was traditionally shot with a big crew, and we did about 80 or 90 percent of the effects practical, which again is referencing back to films from the old days. Syfy stuff is very CG, and they tend to get meta and self-referential and a little campy, and we weren’t going for that at all, we definitely weren’t going for, ‘Hey, wink wink, we’re in on the joke here.’ ”
Those practical killer beavers were created by the Creature Effects company, which has worked on big-ticket features like I AM LEGEND, THE LONE RANGER and TED—though Rubin disputes a recent on-line statement suggesting the company repurposed a beaver they had fabricated for THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. “These beavers were definitely built from the ground up,” he says, “and I was heavily involved in collaborating with them. The guys from Creature Effects were so good. They have a great shop in Burbank, and we started with sketches and I approved the size and the look, and then they did the clay mold, which we’d tweak until I was happy with it, and then they moved forward on the animatronics and putting in servos, and they had a seamstress there who sewed the fur and put the whole thing together.
“It was very old-school—almost an AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON type of thing,” adds Rubin, who actually had dinner with that classic’s creator, John Landis, prior to shooting ZOMBEAVERS. AMERICAN WEREWOLF set a standard for combining horror and comedy, and Rubin notes, “I believe he was the first person to use a straight score on a comedy film, with ANIMAL HOUSE. That’s something we take for granted now, where it’s like, ‘Play it straight, that makes it funnier,’ which went all the way from AIRPLANE! to comedies today. He definitely had some good advice about a lot of other things, like having a shot list every day. Some directors will show up on set and be like, ‘I’m gonna wing this,’ but he said, ‘No, go in with a mini-bible for the day, and have that shot list,’ which I would do every morning on the way to set. He was just generally supportive; at the end of our dinner, he was like, ‘You know what you’re doing, you just needed my blessing.’ That remains to be seen, but it was comforting to hear.”
Rubin also took care to cast just the right actors (led by Cortney Palm, Rachel Melvin, Lexi Atkins, Jake Weary, Peter Gilroy, Hutch Dano) who could enact the required response to the rampaging rodents. “In the auditions,” he says, “I would have them read their scenes and also improvise with them a bit, and see how that went. It was interesting to see the range of people who were amazing when they were on book, and then when they went off the grid, they were all over the place. I remember one actress who didn’t get the part—I don’t want to say who, but she had a decent-sized part on a pretty big cable show—who was amazing and just so good and I was laughing in the right way, because she was playing it straight. But then when we tried to get her to act afraid of a monster that was attacking her, it just came off as campy and not authentic. So a big part of the process was just interacting with them in the auditions and trying to get it to the right place.”
He even took care to properly “cast” his title critters. “We were getting to the point where we had to design the monster ‘voices,’ and instead of trying to create something with sound effects, I was like, ‘Why don’t we get one of those voice actors?’ I had been a fan of the video game LEFT 4 DEAD, and there’s this guy who did ‘infected’ sounds for that named Fred Tatasciore, who’s also done a ton of other games. He’s amazingly talented, and I reached out to him and he was just fun and funny and willing to come in and do the beavers’ ‘voices’ and just goof around.”
With ZOMBEAVERS attracting all kinds of advance attention (the trailer, which you can watch below, is up to 2.2 million views on YouTube), the inevitable question of a follow-up feature arises. Is there, say, a ZOMBEAVERS VS. KILLER BADGERS in our future? “Well, I will say that there is a teaser after the end credits for a possible sequel, AVENGERS-style,” Rubin says. “I think it has franchise potential if the initial film does well, and my writing partners and I have batted around a lot of different ideas. One that popped into my head the other day—this is completely not a real pitch, it’s a joke, but Syfy might steal it from me now that I’m saying it to you—is ZOMBEYONCE. In these name puns on ‘zombie’ in titles, we find that they’re most effective if you keep that last ‘ee’ sound. You know, ZOMBEA ARTHUR works better than ZOMBABOONS. And Beyonce, I think, is due for a zombie movie.”