After recently viewing Bong Of The Dead (reviewed here) I was lucky enough to be able to pass some questions along to writer-editor-producer-director-cupasoup maker Thomas Newman and for him to take the time and effort in sending back some highly informative replies. And here is that Q&A.
Flickfeast: Bong Of The Dead – from the title through to the many moments of hazy wastage, the movie would seem to be aimed at a very specific audience but did you have that aim in mind from the beginning or did you just follow the plot through where the jokes seemed to be? It certainly has the makings of a cult hit but some people nowadays oppose that type of cult-by-design success that enabled the positivity for, as a bigger-budgeted example, Snakes On A Plane. Your views on the choices of cult by chance vs cult by design?
Thomas Newman: This is by far my favorite question to date because I can finally break the film down to science. When I set out to write BOTD, I was really concentrating mainly on plot and how to do what’s been done before but do it differently so it’s acceptable by a wide audience. Once I had my basic story line I immediately began to look at who I was making the film for. I had my scopes set on zombie fans first then pot smokers second then movie lovers in general third. The zombie fans are the hardest critics to please because they all want great zombie make-up and great zombie deaths every time. If you fail to provide those two key elements then you’ve unfortunately missed the point therefore losing those fans right away. I was lucky enough to be really close friends with Mike Fields whose work has been showcased in blockbuster movies such as Narnia 1 and 2. Mikes speed and incredible detail in all his work really made the film achieve the first two elements in the perfect formula for a cult film.
The second audience I was writing for was the Cheech and Chong crowd or the Harold and Kumar crowd. Basically people who love smoking pot and love dope humor in films. All they want out of a movie is a few good laughs, some trippy scenes and characters that they can relate to and laugh at on screen. I did not want to make a film where it was all about being stoned and stupid. I myself am a pot smoker but I consider myself a high functioning smoker. I believe that there are 3 types of pot smokers out there. Ones who get high and fall asleep so for them you need nudity to keep them interested. There are pot smokers who smoke and veg out with eyes open but they’re in la la land. For them you need action to keep them on the edge of their seats. Then last you have your high functioning energetic pot smokers who basically get high and sit through a whole movie then rush home and build bongs in their basements. Ok maybe the last type is just me.
Successful producers understand that movies are a formulated plot and it is that formula that makes success by attracting a wide audience. The truth about the film business is that you have to make films that generate money so you can make more films. That is the simplest formula on earth! I wanted to hit a home run with my first movie and had my mind set on creating something cool that would become cult right away. I looked at movies like “The Evil Dead” and “Shaun of The Dead” as well as the classics like “Dawn of the dead” and “Return of the living dead”. Pretty much every dead film I could get my hands on. I’ve seen them all before a hundred times but I wanted to see if I could spot the “Formula” which made them success stories. By doing that extensive research I was able to come up with a plot that was something all audiences would enjoy and not just people who smoke pot or like zombies. I believe that cult by chance or by design is still cult. If audiences accept it as a cult film then someone did something right and it does not mater if it was deliberate for by chance. The most important thing for the filmmaker is that their film has found an audience!
FF: There are clearly numerous influences in the movie and I’m sure that many people will always mention the likes of Raimi and Peter Jackson (when it comes to zombie-lawnmower moments how can any horror fan not think of Braindead AKA Dead Alive?) but the biggest influence for me appeared to be The Spierig Brothers. Are you a fan of their work or is this just an inevitable point of comparison when independent film-makers put effort into making a stylish, fun horror utilising GOOD CGI here and there?
TN: Funny you should mention the Spierig Brothers because Undead was a movie I saw 2 years after I had already shot Bong Of The dead and was in post production. I needed a break and a friend recommended had reccomended Undead. My jaw hit the floor when I saw the quality in the film and the whole comets from outer space etc! First thing I thought of was OH SHIT! Now its gonna look like I stole their ideas. For the record I had already shot my film and was in post. LOL I love their work though and either way Im glad that they were able to pull it off as well. Of course they had a whole lot more money then I did but it was still indie to the core and I love that about it. As for the lawn mowers on the truck. Yes I definitely wanted to pay Homage to Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead. I came from a similar make-up industry background so to see his work and his evolution in the film world was really inspiring to me. I wanted to again do what’s been done but take it up a notch and be different so it’s my creative idea at the end of the day. There’s nothing wrong with paying homage to those we admire. Hence the 3 mowers welded to the front of a pick up truck!
FF: Did you ever worry about a pre-credits sequence that was almost 10 minutes long with, virtually, no dialogue?
TN: I’m a pretty old school thinker in my methods for filmmaking and why I do certain things the way I do them. In my opinion the greatest tools a filmmaker has if used right are silence or imagery to music. Look at films like 2001 by Kubrick. All the space scenes are silent but yet you stare at the screen with such focus and anticipation. When you have a theatre filled with people whose eyes are glued to the screen and you have their undivided attention; why not take advantage of that and have imagery that gets them hooked instead of dialogue for the sake of fearing too much silence? If you fill the screen with actions that are interesting and leading towards something climactic, then those actions truly can speak louder than words. I knew there was a risk of boring my audience if I did not do it right which is why that title sequence took me nearly 2 months to complete.
FF: The actors – where did you find your cast members and was it tough to stop anyone from just turning into Cheech, Chong, Bill, Ted, etc? Also, considering the amount of smoking in the movie, did anyone have any queasiness? There’s also the fact that the “lead zombie” is a little bit different from other, more standardized, zombie figures in the genre – was that ever a point of concern (especially considering the outcry when Romero moved in that direction) or just something to add to the fun?
TN: Before I threw my arms into the air and decided I’ve had enough of working on other people’s film sets, I used to be an EPK Producer. I was the guy shooting and interviewing key cast and crewmembers on local film sets. Being that I was the guy in charge of all the B-Roll and interviews meant that I would be close to actors and key crewmembers all day. My job was pretty laid back and I got to make my own schedules with the productions I worked on. I always had time to hang out with others who were in between scenes sitting around set. I was able to show people my little YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYVr55xC3oU) with the 3 zombies coming out of a tunnel and the rest kind of fell into place. The best way to get people to give you their all is to be honest up front and allow them full creativity. Let them show you their best, then chip away at the parts you don’t like or want to modify. My actors were great at presenting their ideas to me at all times and I encouraged it. This way we were able to flesh out the characters together into believable beings on set as we filmed. As for the amount of substance used on camera I’m pleased to say that no queasiness was experienced! Besides it was all movie pot….cough…ahem.
I knew that it was a risk having a lead zombie with the ability to speak. However I was a big fan of that when I saw it in “Return Of The Living dead” with the tar barrel zombie. I thought it was so cool to have a zombie actually talk back. In the case of Alex I wanted to expand his vocabulary beyond the word “Brains” allowing him to be more expressive. I think the reason Alex was accepted as a villain who could talk was because his character had purpose and allowed the film to move forward. I’m glad it worked because I needed that to be acceptable in order to be able to move forward with my second film.
FF: Was it freeing and dreamy to be a one-man-band (Thomas produced, edited, wrote and directed the movie) or was every single day a nightmare of stress, paranoia, financial worries and craving for anything to ease the pain?
TN: I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. The past most 4 years have been the most stressful, scary, monotonous, tedious, challenging and life changing experience of my entire life! I have learnt so much about myself as a person and believe it’s a journey I was meant to take alone. I had so many days that I just wanted to close my eyes and never open them again due to stress caused by glitches, finances etc. I had days that I wanted to just give up and say to hell with all this work and not being financially stable all in pursuit of a dream! I remember going through my shots and counting how many of them would require CGI. Once I arrived at the number 365 as my first count I was ready to jump off a bridge! How can I possibly enhance that many shots when I have never composited a single frame in my life? I had to make a decision whether to give up and fail as a lot of people expected me to, or to analyze the situation methodically and devise a plan of action. I decided to pull up emails from people who told me that my film would never be seen or that I was wasting my time as well as the time of others with my overly ambitious way of thinking. Once I read a few emails and saw those faces and heard those words from those who told me I would fail all over again, I was able to make a decision. I decided to buy the necessary software needed by maxing out yet another credit card. Once I had the necessary tools I went online and spent the next almost year solid gaining the knowledge. I started doing tutorials and applying the tricks I was learning to my film one frame at a time as I was learning them! The more shots I enhanced the better my skills became and the more I was able to accomplish. Being a one-man band has always been my strongest skill but I look forward to having the ability to allow others to help so that I can have a somewhat normal existence instead of spending every waking second at my MAC.
FF: The film did take some time to become a fully finished product. Were there ever any moments when you thought it wouldn’t happen?
TN: I don’t honestly think anyone has ever gone through what I’ve gone through and has done it with full confidence! We ALL have demons inside us that show their ugly faces when we are at our lowest and at our darkest hours. Self-doubt is an ugly human condition that can easily turn a dreamer into a failure if you succumb to it. I can’t tell you how many times I doubted my own self and my confidence would go up and down daily as a result! During those days that blended into nights that became early mornings I would sometimes go into my shop and stare at my old steel toe boots from my past jobs at Lumber mills and pulp mills and other such jobs where I would be killing myself just to make ends meet. I wasted so much of my life sacrificing all my talents for the sake of paying bills and staying in line. I promised myself to NEVER do that again! I’m a hard worker and have always maintained physical labor jobs my whole life. Doing anything other than what I love to do most makes no sense to me anymore. In my mind it had to happen!
FF: The movie ends with the prospect of sequel opportunities. Do you have ideas to pursue in that direction? I already offer the titles “From Dusk Till Bong”, “Bong Of The Dead II: Dead By Bong” and “The Toking Dead” so just give me a credit if any of those spark off any ideas (pun very much intended).
TN: Haha I admit I would love to pay homage to Tarantino and Rodriguez and go with “From Dusk Till Bong”, however I do have a title in place. I definitely set up the first film with a second film in mind with a budget. I’m currently writing the sequel titled “BOTD – Rise of the Necroteks”. The word “necrotek” is of course made up but makes sense if you think about it. Necro is defined as indicating death, a dead body, or dead tissue. Tek is a variation of the word “Tech” which is short for technology. I want to push the zombie genre even further by introducing something that’s never been done before. I hope I can keep making cool films that will finally allow me clear some space inside my head!
I really wish Thomas all the best with his future projects, especially “Rise Of The Nekroteks”, and hope to check out more of his work in the future. A big thank you extended his way for giving me his time to provide some great answers here.