“STALLED”: Toilet humor meets toilet horror
From the creators of the British slasher spoof FREAK OUT comes another genre terror tease, the zombies-in-the-bathroom mini-epic STALLED. Director Christian James and writer/star Dan Palmer have crafted a riotous zombie film that hits a few theatrical markets from Uncork’d Entertainment in the weeks ahead, and debuts on VOD next month. Dallas moviegoers can check out the film for free at the Alamo Drafthouse on October 3 (see here for details). In the meantime, James offers his thoughts (along with exclusive pics) on STALLED below.
FANGORIA: What was the inspiration for STALLED?
CHRISTIAN JAMES: [Star/writer] Dan [Palmer] had a fever dream about a zombie infestation. It’s a result of that dream. I don’t count the number of seats or emergency exits when traveling, but always try and work out where I would retreat to if a pandemic erupted, where better than a toilet cubicle?
Seeing AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON as a kid, the Nazi nightmare triggered something. I’d often try and work out my best escape plan if those naughty Nazis burst into my house. Whilst they sliced up my family, where would I go? How would I escape or effectively hide? So for me, STALLED is an extension of that way of thinking. If I had to point to tonal inspiration, it would be Sam Raimi and Joe Dante. We wanted to create horror that had real heart and a sense of fun. Visually, we can’t hold a candle to those legends, but fans will see where we’re going and how we’ve been influenced in certain parts.
FANG: It has been years since your last film, FREAK OUT. Was a zombie film easier to get off the ground?
JAMES: Hmmm, short answer: Yes. Since FREAK OUT we’ve developed many, MANY projects. Two came very close. One of those was weeks away from start of photography when the deal we’d struck with the financiers went belly up. Both projects were ambitious and budgetarily (is that a word?) greater than our first feature. I had a production company, and I was the “in house” director, I’d let all that go to pursue our second movie, then in 2009 it all disappeared. So it was back to the drawing board and another two years of Bruce Banner-ing around the freelance directing world. In August 2011, [producers] Richard Kerrigan and Dan Pickering approached us about making a micro-budget movie. They were tired of being in endless development on mid-budget movies and just wanted to get something out there. STALLED was, budgetarily (I WILL make it an official word), a perfect fit. Added to all this, it was a zombie movie, an easy pitch with THE WALKING DEAD hitting home screens-now even my mum and dad were familiar with zombie lore.
I’d wanted to try my hand at a zombie movie for years (they do crop up in FREAK OUT, back in 2004), but always felt we were at saturation point. Then I read the first draft of STALLED and could instantly see a way to do it and make it work. Zombies just aren’t going away, and they’re now a genre rather than just a concept.
With those persistent flesh eaters, you can tell a story and zombies affect the narrative. Whereas with werewolves, vampires etc., they are the story and you’ve always got to shackle your film with that mythology. One producer did ask us to rewrite the movie without zombies. That’s kinda f**ked up once you’ve seen STALLED. I don’t know how you’d have werewolves, vampires or some generic alien do the same.
FANG: What was it like shooting in such a confined space?
JAMES: Well equal parts amazing and horrific. There are no location changes so you don’t waste any time moving units around. Weather isn’t an issue and crews don’t get lost coming to set after day one. Shooting chronologically is fun…but challenging when you have to drift mildly out of sequence. After a short while, you have to be very, very careful not to get fatigued with the set and how you can shoot it. Your mind starts playing tricks on you after a while, you swear you’ve covered an angle/shot a certain scene…but you haven’t. You can see it in your head and even start to create memories of doing so, but you haven’t shot it. Scary stuff. Even now, that shoot is a blur. I could tell you what we shot on the first and last day, but I’ve no idea on the rest of it.
FANG: What did you try to do differently with your zombies?
JAMES: Nothing! We spoke to a few producers who were interested in the project—prior to Richard and Dan—and ALL of them wanted to reinvent. Just didn’t work for me, when you’re playing with such a high concept and subverting conventions, you really want to keep everything else grounded…so to speak. I had a rule in my head that the zombie outbreak was a virus. If bitten, you become one, but if you’re chewed up too much, you’ll just bleed to death. So I suppose that’s a melding of old and new, but that’s an off screen technicality. But on screen, classic all the way. I’m open to all kinds of zombie incarnations, but a lot of the fun and tension from this movie comes from the slow build. I’ve always said that one zombie isn’t scary. Creepy? Maybe… but, not scary. A hoard of slow moving zombies scares the shit out of me. Something about that mass of gnashing teeth and grabbing hands. Zombies aren’t scary, the situation is. So no need to fix anything that isn’t broke as far as I was concerned.
FANG: Did the budget limitations restrict you?
JAMES: Yeaaaah. Despite my contractual demands, I didn’t get to eat lobster for lunch, not once! Well, there just wasn’t money to do much. There’s little more tedious than hearing a filmmaker moan about a lack of money. In truth, the way things were financially around the world at that time, we were blessed to be in that position. Yes, there were issues. All the key crew members/heads of department met the night before shooting began. There weren’t any problem-solving discussions, we just worked fast to solve them as and when they cropped up. A little prep money could have solved a lot of issues before we started.
The film you see is the movie we shot. There are no deleted scenes or alternate takes. We really shot for the edit (shooting our first feature on 16mm film disciplined me to shoot only what was essential), so it would have been great to have tried stuff out, play with the character a little. We had some ideas and little character beats we’d have loved to include, but we barely shot the movie you see by the skin of our teeth, little luxuries weren’t an option.
On the plus side, the budget was so tight there wasn’t any room to meddle. Not that the producers were that way inclined. We had a vision and nobody questioned it. I look at STALLED now, yes I would’ve loved another take or more light in a few shots, but it’s very much the film I wanted to make. I’m in the lucky position of being able to say it’s a movie I’m extremely proud of.
FANG: Discuss the collaborative process between you and Dan.
JAMES: Hmmm, that’s a toughie. We’ve done a fair bit of growing up together, so I’m probably too close to judge. In some ways, we’re like nagging brothers. We certainly piss each other off from time to time, but we’ve got a very good short hand and trust each other creatively. We can also be brutally honest with one another. We can have a blazing argument, get things off our chest, but we’ll always bounce back. Dan and I both come from “shouty” families, so we’re used to raised voices.
From inception, the process would usually start with Dan throwing an idea or two my way. One might spark my imagination, we’ll discuss it a bit, maybe even flesh out the narrative arc, then Dan comes back with a first draft. We discuss and repeat until there’s a draft that ticks all the boxes. On set we’re very fast. With Dan it doesn’t take long for me to communicate an idea. I can refer to a mutual friend/enemy/lover/hater and he can channel that person quickly, works very well. I’m quite lucky in that Dan isn’t one for bells and whistles. He’s a pretty pragmatic guy, so there’s no need to dress anything up.
FANG: What does STALLED offer zombie fans that hasn’t been done before?
JAMES: Wow, well now I’d be stomping into spoiler territory. As I said, we didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel, we just had this story in our heads and figured that we’d want to see it, so why not everyone else? I think if you approach everything from the “has it been done before?” angle, you won’t get much done. Everything has been done, it’s all down to how you execute it. We’re all products of our individual experiences, the movie diets we’ve consumed etc., etc. So there are plenty of contained zombie movies out there, it’s a popular subgenre, but this is our take on that and that’s what makes it different. Plus, it’s got a scene where someone shits in a pint glass then sticks it back up their ass.
FANG: Congrats on the rave reviews out of London Frightfest, where many critics compared STALLED very favorably to SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Was it your intention to try to top SHAUN?
JAMES: Thanks, could I start by saying our movie doesn’t have someone shitting in a pint glass and shoving it up their ass? Er, well SHAUN is the benchmark by which all other zombie movies, especially British ones, seem to be getting measured…and I totally get that, it’s one hell of a movie. Trouble is, so many zombie films now declare themselves to be the next SHAUN OF THE DEAD that no one believes that statement anymore; 95 percent of them get nowhere near. A producer who was circling STALLED did want to make the film’s main character more “Simon Pegg-like.” He said our lead was too unlikeable. We argued that was exactly the point. SHAUN nailed that likability, so why chase it? So we tried/thought we were heading in the opposite direction. It’s a very different movie, very different. It just seems to be working on a similar level and, for that reason along with the British sensibility, I think we’re becoming bedfellows. But, hey, what great company to be in…as long as SHAUN doesn’t bend us over and show us how the big boys like to play rough.
FANG: What’s next for you guys?
JAMES: A downward spiral of class A drugs and decreasing quality of work [laughs]. What we’re really aspiring for is to get bigger budgets and, in direct correlation, let our audience down. Failing reaching those giddy heights, make another movie the way we make ’em. Thanks to our wilderness years, we’ve got plenty of scripts we’re keen to get going with. Keep it low-ish budget, keep doing what we love doing. If I start directing GI JOE 3, feel free to kick my ass.