Prior to 2005, Breck Eisner was probably best known as the son of Michael Eisner, a high-ranking Hollywood executive who worked at Paramount and Walt Disney among other studios. Since then, he's been the guy who helmed Sahara, a high-powered adventure film starring Matthew McConaghey which grossed $120 million worldwide. After Friday, he's hoping to be known as the director of The Crazies, a high-energy remake of George Romero's movie of the same name which the young director claims is the kind of work that he'd really like to be doing.
Suffice it to say that it's sometimes hard to imagine that filmmakers want to do films that are smaller rather than bigger. But Cinematical recently caught up with Eisner via telephone to discuss his current film and the future of his career; in addition to talking about tackling the remake, he revealed his own appetite for sci-fi and horror films, and observed how directing a character-based thriller like this one will help him take on Flash Gordon, which may be his next movie.
Cinematical: Remakes are common practice these days. What was it about this material that particularly appealed to you?
Breck Eisner: The business has definitely taken a turn [to] mining catalogs and libraries in order to maximize profits or to get built-in publicity. But if I'm going to remake something, there needs to be a reason to do it, either if there's a flaw in the original, or there's a great concept that for some reason couldn't be executed fully when it was originally done. Or, the world is completely different now and the movie can be interpreted in a different way for modern audiences – all of which I found were true of The Crazies. When Romero made the original, he had something like 200 grand to make the movie, and it's a movie that kind of deals with big scale ideas, of the military invading and containing a town and the horror and chaos and action that ensues, and it was really hard for him to achieve that on the microbudget that he had. He had guys in white painter's smocks running around as if they were the military. I really enjoy the original, but that limitation for me was kind of the major lynchpin that [caused] a cascade of images across the movie.
Additionally, I love the idea of the movie. I love the concept that your friends, your neighbors, the people you know best and trust most become your enemies, and that's a pure, primal concept that digs deep into the soul and human psyche and human fear. I thought, what a great subject to explore?
Cinematical: What were some of the things you wanted to ensure were brought over from the original film, and what things did you know you couldn't or wouldn't fit into a remake?
Eisner: I'll talk about the things that are in it, first of all. I mean, I think that concept, the idea of people going crazy – the people most trusted like your father or your husband going crazy and becoming a threat – I definitely wanted that to be the core of the movie, the real threat and the true terror of the movie. I also think it was important for me that part of the movie was a message movie, although I want it to be a little less overt than in the original. [But] I wanted to make sure [it conveyed] 'don't blindly trust the military as a mechanism of the politicians'. I thought it was important to this movie and important to Romero in his early work so I wanted to make sure that was honored in this movie. That being said, it's important for modern audiences first and foremost that it's exciting and it's terrifying and you're on the journey through the thrills and chills and dynamics of the movie. If you don't get an audience in the movie and watching the movie, then the message will never come out.
There were certainly things that I wanted to cut, but the biggest thing was the bifurcated point of view. The original tells the story both from the military's and the civilians' point of view, and it felt to me that in the original, whenever you went to the military's point of view, it took the horror out of the movie and gave too much of a voice to the villain. I wanted to make sure that the movie was told primarily and exclusively through the point of view of our heroes. There are [also] individual scenes which we debated forever about leaving in or taking out. The woman sweeping the grass is a memorable one, but it seemed a little campy these days, and of course, the daughter having sex with the father is one we debated forever.
Cinematical: What are the challenges you face as a filmmaker to create convincing scares that aren't cheating or selling the audience short by front-loading them with loud noises or random angles, as opposed to cultivating a palpable atmosphere of tension?
Eisner: It's a really great question and kind of gets at the heart of good horror, I think, and one that I thought about endlessly. When I think about the horror movies that love, whether it be The Shining or Carpenter's The Thing or Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, the thing that these movies do that I love in horror is they build the world, the build the characters, and they slow-burn the threat so that you're not opening the movie necessarily with just carnage and scares. There can be an element of that and a brief glimpse of it, but you're vested in the world that the movie exists in, you're vested in the place, the characters and the relationships, so that you're vested in their survival in a real way because they're real characters. That's for me what makes great horror, and what makes something truly scary, because every single kind of death and dismemberment and decapitation, every creative way of killing somebody has been done, and there are people who can certainly do it better than me and who have been doing it more. But if you can hook the audience into the world of the movie and then turn that world on its side and start to destroy it and take apart everything, I think that's how you build great horror.
Cinematical: Timothy Olyphant is an actor who has an eclectic body of work. What role or movie of his did you see that made him right to you in the main role?
Eisner: I had not seen this movie before I was looking at him in the role, but I watched everything he was in afterward, [including] The Girl Next Door. It's not really my kind of movie, but he is genius in that movie. And not that I was going for that kind of character in this movie, but that guy is really funny, and I know that any actor who can be funny and loose can do all of the other stuff I need. That's impossible to fake, and Tim often plays low-key, very serious characters, as in Deadwood. But in watching his body of work, I knew that this guy was talented, and he was by far the first choice; he was the only one we went to, the only one we approached, and he for me was a guy who is a movie star but one who is sympathetic. You sympathize with his plight and you like him, just as a human being. Yet he's still a movie-star type of guy which people want to watch on screen.
Cinematical: One of the standout moments in the trailer is a shot of Olyphant scrambling away from a saw that's sort of chasing him by itself. Is something like that an idea you delight in constructing and then figure out a way to work it into the story, or is everything like that always completed plotted out beforehand?
Eisner: Developing and creating the set pieces was one of the great joys of making this movie, and those set pieces, I was making changes up until and through the shooting. There is a scene where Tim has a knife that goes through his hand and he ends up killing someone with that knife, and the machinations of that scene changed five minutes before we shot it because I blocked it out, didn't like it and went back to the trailer and rediscovered it. Those are kind of the great joy, pure joy, in making a movie like this, and so there were times when we first started talking to [screenwriter] Ray Wright, where I said 'we've got to have a scene, I don't know how it fits in, with a wheat thresher, one of those giant combine machines, where you think someone's going to get eaten by the front of it.' It just felt like something we needed to do. And there's a still of it so we're not giving something away that people don't know, but we worked that into the movie. But sometimes the ideas are a slave to the story, and sometimes it's a concept that drives a tangent that the whole movie goes off on.
Cinematical: After Sahara it seems like you could have gone the big-budget tentpole route, but this seems smaller and more intimate. What drove you in this direction or personally brought you to this?
Eisner: First of all, the movie is remarkably smaller than Sahara. It's a low-budget movie by Hollywood standards, for sure. But for me, my true love, the movies I really love are dark genre movies. Sci-fi and horror, that's what I love; that's what I like to watch and that's what I want to make. And with Sahara, that was a movie I'd designed early on that I never thought I'd have the opportunity to make because it was way bigger than the level I was as a director at the time. Through circumstances I got the opportunity to direct it, which was fantastic, but it wasn't necessarily the tone and type of movie that I most love. I mean, I like all movies, except maybe romantic comedies-
Cinematical: That's what you'll be doing next (laughs).
Eisner: That's definitely not what I will be doing next (laughs). But the greatest moviegoing experience of all time is Raiders of the Lost Ark, maybe just after Star Wars. So there was an element in me who as a kid just loved those kinds of movies and was excited to make one. When it came to The Crazies, getting an opportunity to do a darker, more intimate, character-based, more personal movie was something I really jumped at and wanted to do. It's much looser, much more intimate – it's a completely different type of movie, for sure. It's not about scope; I really got to dive into character and relationships and really spend time in those worlds.
But still, shooting horror is like shooting action. They're very closely-related cousins. You've got an action sequence, it's built up, you've got a number of shots to build up to the big climax, and then you quickly resolve it and hopefully do a couple of spins on the way. With horror it's the same way – it's all about the suspense, it's all about the pieces and shots and angles and how you build up to the big climax and the resolution, so it's a similar muscle that's flexed.
Cinematical: Next potentially on your slate is Flash Gordon. Even if as you said you were flexing some of the same muscles, did something that took you back to something more intimate and character-driven prepare or rejuvenate you for something which could be a massive production?
Eisner: Yeah. The one nice thing about having the big money is being able to spend more time shooting, and in theory being able to reach a broader audience. I did commercials for ten years at the per-frame cost of a tentpole movie, so I do like being able to design every frame of a movie and really spend the time and prep and shooting in post, and that's what those big movies allow you. This movie was run and gun and we were moving at a hundred miles an hour from the first minute. So I do look forward to, if Flash Gordon goes, because that's always a big if with a gigantic movie, having that amount of time to really design the movie. But with that movie comes sacrifice, which is you lose a little bit of freedom and a little bit of independence, and you have to make a movie that has a four-quadrant appeal as opposed to a movie that's primarily directed toward younger men and younger women.