CATEGORIES Comedy, Horror, IFC, The Weinstein Co., Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival, CinematicalA few days ago I shared the news that IFC and WeinsteinCo had paired up to bring Jonathan King's Black Sheep to cinemas / video stores -- which is pretty good news for people who enjoy movies about mutated killer sheep. (People like me.) To celebrate the good news, I decided to finally get off my ass and transcribe an interview I did with Mr. King at this year's Toronto Film Festival. So here it is!
Cinematical: At the premiere last night we talked about this: In New Zealand, the sheep outnumber the humans by about a 10:1 ratio. But beyond the idea that "Hey, we could make a horror/comedy about sheep!" -- beyond that, what was it that made you think "Hey, we can do this."?
Jonathan King: Well, the idea came, and I thought it worked. You can imagine me pitching this idea, just using the sheep. But what was cool about it was all the stuff we came up with later: The settings around the farm, the shed, the offal pit, where across the landscape the sheep would come from....
Cine: I made a special mention of that in my review. Practical or FX-wise, I've never seen anything that looks like the New Zealand countryside. Watching the film, the backgrounds are almost too beautiful. I found myself wondering if it was a practical shot, CG, a matte...
JK: Yeah, one of the things we're pleased about is that I think it's a view of New Zealand you haven't seen before. It's not like The Piano. It's not the snowy mountains of Lord of the Rings. It's kind of a rugged-but-beautiful look.
Cine: The ranch in the film is almost like a character in and of itself. Was that a existing location, or did your team build that spot up a bit?
JK: It's a few different properties, but all of it was shot within about ten miles of the same coastal area.
Cine: And how did the ranch owners react to you guys doing a Killer Sheep movie there? Did you use the local animals?
JK: Some of them were sheep that lived at the locations, but the key "trained" sheep were brought in by sheep wranglers who have their own flock.
Cine: So when did your mindset go from "Hey, sheep, this will be fun!" to "Ugh, sheep, they'll be a pain in the ass!"?
JK: Yeah, when you're writing the script you come up with the coolest ideas you can -- and then later comes the "How the #!@&# are we gonna do this shot?!?" And then there's budget concerns, of course...
Cine: I know you pride yourself on the fact that almost all of the FX are done practically...
JK: Yeah, there's one flock shot that we had to do with CGI, and a few removals, but most of our tricks were done with practical effects, camera stuff, editing...
Cine: Which is one of the things I think the genre fans will most appreciate: The in-camera stuff often looks a lot better.
JK: Yeah, I agree! You look at, say, American Werewolf in London and then look at Cursed, which comes 20 years later... Really, there's no comparison.
Cine: So Black Sheep was bankrolled by the New Zealand Film Commission. What was their reaction when they saw it wasn't a drama or a traditional comedy, that they were dealing with a goofy, gory, irreverent sort of flick?
JK: Essentially the staff of the commission was on board early on. They were interested in the project based on my first draft of the screenplay. But I'm sure there was debate about the type of film it is. But we got lucky in that there was "outside" interest almost from the get-go, so that helps to get a project rolling.
Cine: Yeah, I saw an "in production" advertisment for Black Sheep at the 2005 Toronto Fest. I remember thinking "Oooh, I hope that plays here next year. Killer Sheep!"
JK: We did a little of that, but we were also concerned about not "over-hyping" it too early. Get the word out, but don't let people get sick of it before they can even see it. We even chose to turn down a few local interviews during production, just so we'd be able to surprise folks a little.
Cine: So did you find yourself trimming a bunch of stuff once you had your first cut?
JK: Not a whole lot. Mainly stuff from the very beginning as the characters travel to the ranch. We wanted to give a good set-up, but maybe get there a little quicker.
Cine: I the first act works very well, almost like a practical joke. As if the movie is a drama about two estranged brothers and it's high drama, and then....
JK: Right! Well, really, it's such a silly idea that in order for you to believe it, the setting and the characters have to do their job. I was afraid that maybe people wouldn't want to sit still for the set-up...
Cine: Horror fans don't mind a semi-slow set-up, provided the characters and the story are actually worth it.
JK: Yeah true. Plus hopefully you can sense the insanity coming...
Cine: So given that you're making a fairly FX-heavy genre film in New Zealand, obviously you're going to knock on the door of Weta Workshop. How did those guys respond to the project?
JK: It was over two years ago when we gave Weta the script, and when they said they'd do it -- I felt so lucky. But they'd obviously been doing some massive films, so I think this smaller project came along at a good time for them.
Cine: So how many full-size sheep did they create for you?
JK: Well, most of the big sheep came in parts: Here's the snappy-jaw piece and the eyeball one and the lip one. And they'd put this head on the three-quarter body, kinda mix and match all of them. And then we had the full size "were-sheep" suits as well.
Cine: So when you went in and the mad geniuses said "Yeah, we got your sheep ready. Have a look!"
JK: The first time I saw the aninmatronic head... I walked in and it was up on a clamp and they'd hit a few buttons. The face did all these crazy things and I thought "Aw, yeah!"
Cine: That's the point when you thought "Heck, I thought it could work and now I know it can!"
JK: Absolutely. It was so exciting. And our lead designer was a guy called Dave Elsey, who'd just done Revenge of the Sith and got a nomination for that ... amazing guy. The whole FX team that worked on this had obviously worked on films that were much bigger, but they embraced this project because they love the "down & dirty" movies too. We worked mainly with one small team within Weta, and these folks were just buzzing with excitement. You'd find us giggling with glee at the stuff we came up with.
Cine: Have the FX artists seen the final cut yet?
JK: Not yet. Richard Taylor has, but not the rest of the team. We got our first print literally a week ago.
Cine: One of the best gags in the movie deals with a rather sensitive part of the male anatomy. What would you say to a U.S. distributor who loved the movie, but insisted you snip this sequence out?
JK: Well (chuckles), I guess we'd cross that bridge when we came to it. That bit is 17 frames long, and we knew going in that it might raise a few eyebrows...
Cine: Still, it's a great sight gag.
Cine: Let's move over to the human side of the equation for a second: I'll plainly admit that I'm not very familiar with your leads, but there's not a weak performance in the whole bunch. Danielle Mason, the girl who plays Experience, is very light, very charming. And she has this one unbelievable little monologue!
(At this point Mr. King launches into one hilariously lengthy line of dialogue, filled with phrases like "paternalistic agrarian hierarchy." It's almost as funny as when Ms. Mason does it in the film.)
JK: I love it when the veins in her neck start to bulge.
Cine: Ha! OK, what about Peter Feeney, who plays the evil bastard ranch-owner -- and does it really well.
JK: He's fantastic. For the beginning of the film I wanted him uptight and in control, but then by the end the guy's a raving mess with no pants on. He does both so well.
Cine: In between takes, did any of the actors just look at you and go "John, what the HELL are we making here?!?"
JK: Haha, yeah. People just sort of cuddling up with the sheep after a take.
Cine: Regarding budget, your original plan was to raise the funds yourself and make the movie with friends. But when the Film Commission came on board and you got an actual budget...
JK: Yeah, when we saw how much we had to use I thought "great!," but of course you always need more. This department needs this; another department says we can't do this without that. But we were fine. At the end of the day I never felt we were lacking anything. Time, on the other hand, we could always use more time. Also, just before we began I went through the script one more time, to make sure we were shooting only what we needed and there was no "fat" on it. We shot for seven weeks in some tough environments, the weather was shite... The FX were probably the toughest part, but we got it done!
Cine: OK, regarding distribution. What are your fondest, most realistic hopes? Obviously you just want people to see and enjoy the movie...
JK: Oh, I'd like the fans to see it on the big screen, obviously. We shot it to look like a big screen movie. But beyond that, I'd love for the movie to have a long life on DVD. And I didn't want a movie that would "date" right away, like I didn't want a bunch of current rock music on the soundtrack. I'm hoping it could take place in any decade you like -- and movies that take that approach are often fun to watch again and again.
Cine: OK, I wasn't going to bother with this question at all, since it's such an obvious one to ask. But since we have a little more time, I'll just throw it out there: You're a New Zealand filmmaker who just made a splattery horror/comedy -- regarding Peter Jackson, how much of an influence / inspiration has he been to you?
JK: Quite a big influence, obviously. I love his stuff. I think I was at the second-ever screening of Braindead. New Zealanders have a great, strange sense of humor, where they can look on the dark side and still find something light. And another big inspiration was the fact that, hey, a guy from my home town made those movies. So all by itself, that's very inspiring, let alone the fact that he's gone on to such amazing success.
Jonathan King's Black Sheep will be be hitting theaters (via IFC) and DVD (by way of The Weinsteins) some time next year. We'll keep you posted.
[Photos courtesy of the Weta Workshop website.]