Breck Eisner interview: The Crazies, George A Romero, Flash Gordon and more…

The director behind the remake of The Crazies, Mr Breck Eisner, talks to us about the film, about George A Romero, and his upcoming Flash Gordon 3D...

For his second film, director Breck Eisner has dug back into George A Romero’s back catalogue for a remake of The Crazies. Here, he spared us a bit of time to tell us why he’s jumped aboard the remake bandwagon, and why he picked The Crazies in the first place…

The Crazies is an interesting choice of project. You’re flying in the front of lots of scepticism towards remakes, yet you’ve picked what’s fair to say one of George A Romero’s lesser known films to tackle. What was the appeal?

Multiple things, one of which being that it was one of his lesser-known movies! My feeling on doing a remake was that if I was going to do one, I’d rather do a lesser-known movie, rather than something like Psycho.

That was an odd one to remake…!

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It was an odd one, I have to admit. And there have been a few odd ones. I think that really successful remakes, usually they’re more successful when they’re a reimagining.

Why remake this one? It was definitely a movie that I’d seen as a kid, but only had vague memories of. Watching it, it was a really solid idea that really resonated… I’m sure it resonated when it was made, but for me it resonated in the world that we’re in today. Under the shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan. A world under the control of the military machine.

The other significant thing for me was that there were real limitations that Romero had when making the movie. Although we were a low budget movie, we had more than the 200 grand he had. It’s worthy of the story that’s there’s enough to show the scale of the military.

Conversely with that, you had more money, but you focussed the perspective of the story more. It’s a singular perspective this time?

Absolutely, that was one of the things for me that I wanted to do with this movie. I was brought on board by Michael Aguilar and Dean Goergaris, who were the first producers who got the material, and the first draft – although it was a good draft – it had the same split POV that the original had: the military and the townsfolk. My idea for the movie was to make it a more purely horror film and focus more on character was to make it from the point of view of the sheriff, and his wife, and their journey.

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When you come to doing a remake, there are obvious pitfalls, but the one that always intrigues me is how reverential you have to be to the original. Because you’ve got George A Romero listed as executive producer – I’m not sure how involved he is, whether that’s a nominal title – and it’s how much of your own path do you follow?

Obviously, you have to be responsible to the original – you’re doing it for a reason. The movie is not that you’re holding a golden chalice and you can’t tarnish it. The reality is that you picked it for a reason. You paid for it, you’re doing it for a reason, and something about the original work appealed to you.

You should be thinking about what is it that worked, and what is the core idea that made this movie last for so many years over movies that were made later and completely forgotten? Although The Crazies may have been one of those!

But for me the idea was to keep an eye on the original, but – and it’s a big but – to do what you need to do with the movie, to develop the movie the way you’re going to do it. Once you’ve started it, then you have to go on your own path and make the movie you think is right. We definitely did that with this one.

Was George Romero involved at any point?

He was definitely involved in the beginning of the movie, getting the rights, and obviously agreeing the deal, and requesting to be on as an executive producer. But that, until we were done, was the extent of his involvement – he was shooting another movie at the time.

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I have subsequently shown him the movie and talked to him about it afterwards. He’s seen the final cut and was quite happy with it.

That must have been insanely nerve-wracking?

[Laughs] Yes, it was!

Were you sat next to him?

I couldn’t, because he was in Toronto, and I’m in Los Angeles. So we did the screening for him, although we had someone from the studio there. They sat with him. He was very tight lipped, but I talked to him the next day, and we had a great talk!

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Were you doing the thing where you look at your watch and know that he’s watching it at that exact minute?

[Laughs] I was definitely nervous! I was more nervous calling him than I was about him watching the movie. When I called him I said, “I’m quite nervous calling you. George. I don’t know why!”

How do you get your cast to approach a project such as this? Do you get them to steer clear of what’s gone before?

Definitely, yes. I do.

The cast, they’re all new characters. The actual characters in the movie, none of them appeared in the original. It’s not like they could watch the original and say I’m this guy, I’m that guy. Every design of character was different, even though the archetypes were similar.

So, it wasn’t a problem of them emulating the original. And truth be told, the performances in the original were not its strongest point. Some were stronger than others, but a lot of them were not really actors. So, I think in terms of the actors, it was not a problem in saying don’t watch the movie.

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You’ve talked before about contextualising the film in the current climate of control, and you’ve noted how the project came into being under the Bush administration. The other thing that struck me, though, is that you’re positioning a film like this in a world that fairly recently was gripped by fear of a pandemic. It sounds terrible to call it a happy accident?

Yes, a happy accident, but not truly. It’s happy now that it’s in control, and things have been kept at a level that was not nearly as severe as we thought it would be. But we were shooting in Iowa at the time, and there’s a farming community now, and swine flu hit. The parallels were uncanny.

Tim Olyphant, the lead in the movie, his family were visiting at the time, when they got on the plane to go back home, his daughter and son had a cold and they wouldn’t let them on the plane. They held the plane up and wouldn’t let them leave. It was a really first hand scary reality that we were unintentionally emulating.

Taking a fairly traditional horror film, and bringing it up to date, how much as a director do you favour the material that your camera can capture over what you can do with a computer later on?

Oh, I absolutely love shooting the real deal. There’s not a lot of visual effects in this movie.

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Because the thing that got me is that I’ve read how you’ve shot some of your commercials, where there was no money: there were just ideas, a camera and a timeframe and you had to make do. Do you strive for that sort of ethos on your film set?

I always strive for that, it’s a fantastic world when I went to film school that we lived in. That’s not the reality of the movie world. There’s something really wonderful and special about having that freedom. The reality of movies in the end is that it’s a business. It’s all about money, the limited funds you have to make it work. Planning, knowing exactly what you’re going to shoot.

For me, the real joy in all of that is that you have a plan, you have a real iron clad plan shot list, and you get a completely different idea. You’re able, in the spur of the moment, to turn the camera round and do a completely different point of view on a scene that you never expected.

Having that flexibility, having your mind’s eye open all the time is one of the most wonderful things about filmmaking and directing.

One thing that struck me was the contrast with your previous project, Sahara, which seemed to have so many moving parts that weren’t in front of the camera on a day’s shoot that it seems you could only get a proper feel when you get into the edit suite. Presumably, horror is great for this. You really do see it there and then?

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Yeah, you do. We made a conscious decision, as we had limited funds, to spend most of our money on production, and not try to do it in post. There’s only one significant CG sequence, and that’s at the end of the movie. It was impossible to do without the assistance of a computer. Everything else we did for real.

It’s often more complicated, and more frustrating, but you know that you have it in a moment. It’s certainly helpful for the actors, that it’s really tangible and immediate. All that said, I think that computers are a wonderful tool for filmmaking. It’s just use it right.

You’re not in 3D either.

No, we’re not a 3D movie.

Can I be the first to say thank goodness for that? We’ve seen recently that Warner Bros is buying itself an extra couple of weeks to add 3D to Clash Of The Titans. And horror is at the front of the 3D push. Were you resisting it deliberately, or was it just a discussion that didn’t come up when the film was greenlit?

It was a conscious decision. We shot 35mm film, using a level of grit in the movie itself. It’s really dark and gritty and natural. The movie itself is about a small town and a sheriff, just fighting against the odds to survive to keep a family together. It’s not about a gimmick, about blood flying towards the camera. It’s more sophisticated than that. It’s not a movie we wanted to do in 3D.

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Finally, I’m intrigued by your proposed film of Flash Gordon. Obviously, to many of us in Britain, Flash Gordon is all about the likes of Brian Blessed. Are you still pressing ahead with your take on it, and what state is the project at?

Very much so, as soon as I’ve finished this interview I’m back with the writers, and we’re deep into the script. By the way, it will be 3D, and it will have a ton of CG in it, and it will be an action adventure movie. It’s not camp in any way. And it’ll be fun and cool.

Is that your next project?

Hopefully. It’s a big one, so there’s a lot of work to get the machinery working!

Breck Eisner, thank you very much.

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The Crazies is out on Friday 26th February.