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Q&A: “UNNATURAL” Director Hank Braxtan on His All-Practical Animal Attack (With Exclusive Photos)

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Polar bears are threatening creatures at the best of times. They’re known to be the only animals that actively hunt humans, so a film about a genetically modified specimen with a penchant for our flesh definitely piques the interest. UNNATURAL, coming later this year, is just such a movie.

Directed by Hank Braxtan, UNNATURAL was written by Ron Carlson, who also stars as a photographer who flies with his bevy of models to an Alaskan fishing lodge for a fur-endorsing photo shoot. Unbeknownst to them, global climate change has motivated Clobirch Industries, a somewhat dubious scientific corporation, to genetically tweak the white bears. Unfortunately, Clobirch’s prime guinea pig has escaped, and is on the hunt to satisfy its unrelenting hunger for people. Shot on location in the northern state, with a solid cast also including DEXTER’s James Remar, TWIN PEAKS’ Sherilyn Fenn and Ray Wise and THE GREEN MILE’s Graham Greene, the film is notable for featuring an ursine star created entirely via practical FX. FANGORIA spoke to Braxtan about wrangling the furry critter, freezing bikini models and electric socks.

FANGORIA: UNNATURAL was filmed in Fairbanks, Alaska in the middle of winter. Can you talk a bit about shooting in such extreme conditions?

HANK BRAXTAN: We shot 98 percent of the film on location. You get a look on film in that part of the world that you can’t get in many places. People said, “Why don’t you shoot in Big Bear or Tahoe?” but when you get out there, it’s like, “Oh, OK, this is a little bit different.”

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Most of us ended up spending between $300-$800 on cold-weather gear. Eventually, I ended up buying some battery-powered electric socks, which really helped. On Sherilyn’s first day on set, the first thing I had her do was wade through waist-deep snow, which she did without hesitation. Everybody was a trouper.

FANG: Was it a conscious decision to reunite TWIN PEAKS alumni Fenn and Ray Wise on screen?

BRAXTAN: Yes. We cast Sherilyn first, but you never know for sure who you’re going to get with the whole casting process. We pretty much had Ray in mind from the get-go. He’s somebody we already had a relationship with, so we knew the chances were good of him playing the part.

James [Remar] is awesome. He’s one of those actors I really hope I can do more movies with. He was originally cast as Corporal Hicks in ALIENS, which for certain reasons he ended up not doing. He says he was hurt for a while, but admits that Michael Biehn was great in that role—though I’m not going to deny I would love to have seen James in that film.

FANG: Was there any TWIN PEAKS reminiscing between Fenn and Wise?

BRAXTAN: It was pretty touching, to be honest with you. Without getting into specifics, Sherilyn was definitely emotional about it. It was really nice to see.

FANG: The film centers on a shallow photographer and his glamour shoot in icy conditions. What was it like for the models in bikinis shooting scenes in below-zero conditions?

BRAXTAN: I was really nervous about that from the start, in terms of how cold it was out there. We had a pretty good plan, with heaters on the location and warming tents that they could sit in. Once we had rehearsed everything and it was all set up and lit, they would come out and take their positions, and we’d roll camera and get a minute and a half out of them, maybe two. Then they’d have to go back and sit in the tent for 10 or so minutes to warm up again. A couple of crewmembers almost got frostbite. It was quite extreme.

FANG: Ron Carlson, the scriptwriter, plays a large role in the film and is somewhat the source of the comic relief. How did this come about?

BRAXTAN: I really pushed for him to play that part. It was difficult to get him to do it. He didn’t really want people to know he was in it, because from a political standpoint, he probably feels that as a producer and writer, [it would look like] he just put himself in the film because he wants to be in movies, which I can definitely tell you is not true.

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FANG: The polar bear looks spectacular. How much of the creation of this menacing mammal involved the use of physical effects?

BRAXTAN: The bear is 100 percent practical. There was no CGI used on it in the whole movie. I’m an old-school type of guy. I always approach a movie like we have to pretend it’s the ’80s and concentrate on getting it right [on set], and not think about how we’re going to fix it in post. I’m not totally against CGI, and I think if you use the right mix, it can be effective. But that being said, if I can do everything practically, I will.

The bear was created by Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. (ALIEN 3, STARSHIP TROOPERS), who are fantastic at what they do. Getting to work with these guys, who have done the effects for some of my favorite movies, was just amazing. David Penikas and Tim Leach were the bear’s mechanical technicians, combined with the bear performer, Jamie Hall, who is actually the nephew of Kevin Peter Hall, who played the Predator—which was great!

FANG: Your previous movie, CHEMICAL PEEL, had a lower budget than UNNATURAL. Did this affect your approach to directing that film?

BRAXTAN: CHEMICAL PEEL had a minuscule budget. We made that in a house I was renting in Glendale with our friends. I still wanted to pay the actors and the sound guy, even though they’re pals and probably would’ve done it for free. Going from that to suddenly directing people who have been nominated for Academy Awards and won Emmys, and adding to that a rigid schedule and crazy environmental conditions, as well as different producers’ and executive producers’ expectations of the movie, was pretty intimidating. Mostly, I felt the responsibility on my shoulders and really didn’t want to let these people down. As a director, my perception of time was completely different. You can see the clock ticking down, and feel every minute slipping through your fingers.

FANG: Arch Stanton and Carlson came up with the story, which contains a strong theme of climate change and humanity’s destructive effect on the environment. How much did you want to highlight this message?

BRAXTAN: That was a strong story idea behind the monster. It’s interesting how often horror films are more political than other genres. Most people in the genre world are very smart and politically active. We all talk about this stuff. It’s important to us—maybe not as important as making a monster movie, but important nonetheless.

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About the author
Camilla Jackson

Camilla is an actress, writer, film-maker, musician, and horror junkie. She is new to FANGORIA and has a healthy knowledge of all things horror, particularly 70’s – 90’s films where she interviews writers, directors and actors for Australian cinephile group CINEMANIACS. In her spare time, Camilla writes screenplays, walks dogs, and scours the internet for bargains. She also had a small part in the remake of Australian telekinetic chiller, PATRICK. Currently she is training at The Groundlings and moonlights playing ethereal guitar in a cape.

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