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Q&A: Director Marko Mäkilaakso on his “WAR OF THE DEAD”

War-of-the-Dead-2011-Movie-Image

From green light to release, the average film takes two to three years, but the zombie action feature WAR OF THE DEAD’s production started in way back in 2005. The remarkable adventure that followed would take director Marko Mäkilaakso around the world, through countless stops and stars, three title changes and eventually end as biggest film ever shot in Lithuania. FANGORIA spoke to Makilassko a few months later on the heels of the North American release to talk about the long journey that became a zombie epic.

FANGORIA: Take us back to the beginning of WAR OF THE DEAD,
when and how did the film first come about?

MARKO MÄKILAAKSO: WAR OF THE DEAD came to me in 2005 after a
friend of mine in Los Angeles asked me to come up with some low budget horror
movie ideas. Back then, I had a production company with my partners in
Helsinki, Finland and we were producing stuff for TV series, commercials and
music videos, but of course my main focus was trying to get a feature project
off the ground. So during one of those brainstorm sessions, I came up with a
simple storyline following a troop of Finnish and American soldiers in their
secret mission to destroy an enemy bunker. The backdrop was the winter war
between Finland and Russia in 1939. I liked the simple premise, but wanted a
twist to it. After seeing Zack Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, I was sold on
the idea that zombies would be a great mix to the WWII backdrop. I then came up
with the idea of Adolf Hitler’s science team trying to create a perfect soldier,
which would never die; kind of like a Frankenstein tale.

I felt that the concept had something, and I started playing
with some historical facts, like where to set my fictional story. For example,
in December 1939 a boat left from New York with volunteers to fight with Finns
against the Soviets. So that’s how I got the American’s logically into the
story, but of course I knew that I was not making a historical drama here, but a
“popcorn” movie. So I based the story in the context of real events
but made it fictional to serve my horror storyline.

FANG: Talk of this film coming out circulated for years
under the name STONE’S WAR, with James van der Beek in the lead role?

MÄKILAAKSO: Originally the film was entitled ARMY OF THE
DEAD, but then it changed to WAR OF THE DEAD. Back in early 2007 when James Van
Der Beek, of DAWSON’S CREEK fame, was casted to play the lead, Captain StonE, one
of our producers suggested to change the title to please James’ agents and get
rid of the “..of the Dead” concept to open up the movie to larger
audience. We all supported the idea because for us it was more than “just
a zombie movie,” so the name was changed to STONE’S WAR based on the character
James was supposed to play. But when our summer production start date started
moving forward, James got a TV-pilot offer from director Bryan Singer at the
same time, so James had to drop out. James really loved the concept and had
great suggestions regarding his character and the script, so I wanted to thank
him, thus giving him “special thanks” in the end credits of the film.

FANG: Did losing a name make it more difficult for a while
to get distribution in North America?

MÄKILAAKSO: No it did not. Before James, we were talking
with lots of different actors for the Captain Stone role like Donnie Walhlberg
and Nick Lachey. I originally wanted Christian Slater for the lead, but
unfortunately that never came to be. It was suggested by the casting director
to cast actor C. Thomas Howell and he was attached at one point when Corin
Nemec was attached to play Captain Stone after Van Der Beek dropped out, but
due to creative differences with Mr. Nemec, he was replaced by Andrew Tiernan
in the nick of time. At that point, the producers didn’t want to fly in any
other American actor to Lithuania, so Mark Wingett from the UK replaced C.
Thomas Howell. This was all during the first week of shooting the film! But
let’s see how the American audience takes WAR OF THE DEAD, I’m very excited
that Entertainment One is our U.S. distributor.

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FANG: Tiernan calls
to mind old school tough guys like Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin. Did you
discuss that approach with him or was that just the way he saw the part?

MÄKILAAKSO: I always saw the character as an old school
all-American hero, a bit like John Wayne. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Man
with no name from Sergio Leone’s westerns were inspiration for the character,
as well. When Andrew came on board I changed my approach just a bit to match
with his physical look and tone. Captain Stone is a normal guy who is drifting
through life after the death of his wife. Stone is a simple, blue-collar guy
and to the outside world he seems to be cooler than he really is, but when
things get dirty he is not afraid of taking charge and fighting. In a way, Stone
is looking for death as a getaway from his inner pain. That is why he changes
from army grunt to action hero type character in a blink of an eye. Andy did a
great job.

FANG: How did you end
up filming the movie in Lithuania?

MÄKILAAKSO: Lithuania came because I originally shot
“the winter war version“ back in early 2006 with different producers and
some different cast members. Olivier Gruner played Captain Stone back then.
What happened was that after one week of filming in winter in Lithuania, the
producers ran out of money and the production was shut down. That was the most
horrible moment in my career. Nothing can be worse than being there and making
your movie, your dream and then in one morning the producers came and calmly
said to me “we are pulling the plug”. Can you imagine?

FANG: It must have been a nightmare.

MÄKILAAKSO: Absolutely horrible, and I was in a middle of
massive army scene with all the actors and extras. So we all left Lithuania and
returned to Finland. I was in a war of my own with the Finnish producers, but
the owners of Lithuanian Film Studios saw the dailies and loved what they saw,
and then a funny thing happened, they called me and said that they would like
to make the film with me!

After a long, long lawyer battle I got the rights to my
script back and Lithuanian Film Studios owner and producer Ramunas Skikas was
behind me to make the film happen. So all of a sudden, I had this international
power team behind me ready to make my WWII zombie actioner. That was really an amazing
moment. So, naturally we shot the movie in Lithuania.    

FANG: This is the most expensive film ever to be shot in
Lithuania. Is that a comment on the scale of your film or simply that there
isn’t many big action films shot in Lithuania?

MÄKILAAKSO: I think there has never been this kind of a film
in Lithuania before, and the one million we spent making this film is lot of
money in Lithuania, so I guess it comes from that. Also, I think it came
because the early magazine and news stories, especially in Finland, was mentioning
our budget to be around four-five million, which we didn’t even have. 

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FANG: WAR OF THE DEAD seems to have the feel of World War II
film that happens to have zombies in it.

MÄKILAAKSO: From the very beginning, I wanted to take this
subject matter very seriously, even though lots of “unreal” things
occur, which fight against the real tone and that is also why I chose the
“zombies” in this film to not be like typical zombies. I guess this
movie is, in a way, an anti-zombie film, since these guys don’t just lurk and
eat you, they fight back and have superhuman abilities because they were designed
to be the perfect weapon. But, when you mess with dark side things attend to go
usually wrong. I also wanted to give the film an epic look, inspired by the BAND
OF BROTHERS series (which I used in my mood reel before filming) and even
Sergio Leone’s westerns. This is the reason why the heroes are wearing long
jackets, for example. I love westerns and this film was in a way like a western
to me.

The tone of the movie was a very tricky thing. I didn’t want
to make it campy, but I also didn’t want to make it way too serious. I also
wanted to have this roller-coaster adventure feel of the INDIANA JONES films
and non-stop action films of the 80s with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme,
Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff. That’s why I made this kind of cliché
one-liner dialogue, inspired by those types of movies. So, basically I kept the
dialogue minimal and maximized the action. Not only was I mixing the war and
zombie genres, but I was also playing with dangerous territory in the B-action
films tone.

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FANG: The audience doesn’t really see many close-ups of the
zombies, themselves. There is a lot of shadow play going on, even in the action
sequences. Obviously your cinematographer Hannu-Pekka Vitikainen played a major
role in this. How did you develop that look with him?

MÄKILAAKSO: From the very beginning, I had a very clear
image how the film and zombies should look. The lighting, sets, costumes,
camera angles and movements I wanted were written right in the script. My
approach always is very visual. So I need the right people to work with to make
that world come to life. Hannu-Pekka, the DOP and Art Director Kari Kankaanpää
were the perfect match.

Hannu-Pekka and I had done lots of music videos together
before we made WAR OF THE DEAD and we knew each other very well. I presented my
vision to Hannu-Pekka about how I didn’t want to see the zombies and left him
to do his magic with the lighting. He knows what I want and I trust him 100% to
get it. Art Director Kari Kankaanpää gave so much to the sets, and my vision
matched perfectly with his. I didn’t want to rely on the makeup FX, since we
didn’t really have the money or people to do them elaborately. I wanted very
simple, more close to vampire-type of look, and I felt it’s creepier if they
just come at you like raged animals.

FANG: You just finished filming a TV film called DEADLY
DESCENT. When should we expect to see it and what else do you have coming up?

MÄKILAAKSO: DEADLY DESCENT, starring Adrian Paul and Chuck
Campbell, will come out from Syfy later this year. I’m also not really involved
with post-production or anything, so it’s not as personal as WAR OF THE DEAD
and I was mainly a hired gun. DD gave me an opportunity to travel to Bulgaria
to shoot in the beautiful mountains and I loved it. It was perfect to do after
such a long and painful work, which WAR OF THE DEAD was. I needed that kind of
guerrilla, fast and furious filmmaking. So I’m happy that I made DEADLY
DESCENT. I haven’t seen the finished film though.

At the moment, I’m working on a new movie which is based on
an original story, and I believe it will be something really good; something I
hope to be proud of. I’m very excited about it. I’m ready for my next long
battle!

For more on WAR OF THE DEAD, see Fango’s review.

by: Kelly Michael Stewart on: 2013-01-09 18:57:45

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About the author
Kelly Michael Stewart
Along with being a contributing writer to Fangoria, Kelly has also written for Planet Fury and KISS Monster magazine. As a film presenter and speaker, he has been a guest speaker at the Toronto Silent Film Festival and hosted many film events in Toronto including his Fright Nights monthly series. He is the creator and Festival Director for the Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival and a judge for the Toronto International Film and Video Awards.
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