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A Conversation With Breck Eisner

Crazies with Breck Eisner
A trio of Crazies. Breck Eisner is the one in the center.

Breck Eisner directed the recent remake of George Romero’s The Crazies, which is hitting DVD and Blu-Ray next week from Anchor Bay. I was pleasantly surprised at how solid it was and found it a worthy remake to the original. We had a few minutes to chat with Mr. Eisner and sadly, we didn’t get a chance to talk too much about future projects–I didn’t have a chance to ask about the inevitable direct to video Crazies 2 that you know somewhere somebody’s planning–but I did manage to get in one brief reference to a project towards the end. I think you would have done the same. Anyway, here we go..

Widge: One of the first things I wanted to ask you about was…we seem to be in Remake Alley when it comes to horror movies.

Breck Eisner: (chuckles)

W: They’re coming at us from all directions, and although you were aware of the fact that you were stepping into George Romero‘s…not shoes, but director’s chair, so to speak…

BE: Right. Yeah…

[ad#rightpost]W: You acknowledge that was a consideration. You also weren’t really doing the new Nightmare on Elm Street, you weren’t redoing Halloween…in fact, probably a lot of the audience didn’t even know it was a remake unless somebody told them.

BE: For sure.

W: Did that make things easier for you when it came to your approach to the film, knowing that?

BE: Yeah, I think it definitely makes it a bit easier, certainly for this movie, for me–my first horror film. I did an episode, the premiere episode of Fear Itself for NBC, but this is the first horror film I’ve made. And it would have been really scary for me, and I probably wouldn’t have done it if it were one of Romero’s well-known works and one of his really popular movies. The cool thing about The Crazies is that a lot of people, most of the movie-going audience, didn’t know it existed. So this movie, the existence of this movie kind of brings Romero’s movie into the public eye, and in fact, they re-released it on Blu-ray right before our film came out in the theatres…

W: That’s right.

Crazies original poster

BE: So not only are they experiencing the film that we made, but they’re getting to go back and discover Romero’s Crazies as well.

W: The other thing I’ve noticed about horror films recently is that…I have this thing where a lot of horror movies aren’t really horror movies; they’re more thrillers…and the reason I think that is that they don’t take the time to really horrify you. They’re more interested in the “boo” effect, you know, scaring you and stuff like that.

BE: Sure, of course.

W: And I saw in part of the behind-the-scenes stuff, you were talking about how the original script had been perhaps a bit more action-oriented and you wanted to lead it down the horror path. Even before I saw you talking about that, I got that impression because you gave us this great moment early in the film, a pause before Bill tosses the match…

BE: Yeah, yeah…

W: Where all the sound drops out and we can really hear the screams and really understand what’s about to happen… That let me know “I’m in a horror movie.” So could you comment on your decision to make it horrifying as opposed to just “Oh, Boo! There’s people with scary makeup…running.”

BE: Sure. It’s interesting that you picked that moment, because that was a real seminal moment in the discussions of the movie and what to do. The idea (and it is an idea from the original) of someone burning down his own house with his wife and son in the house is a horrific thing.

W: Yeah.

Brett Rickaby from The Crazies
You remind me a lot of a guy I used to know...answered to Bub...

BE: Conceptually, it’s just an awful, horrific thing. And I wasn’t prepared to show the gruesome nature of it, you know? I wanted to feel it and experience it, to know what was happening, but I wasn’t going to go back in that closet when the fire hit. So the idea was: how do we keep the humanity, the terror of the event, and keep the audience realizing that this is a no-holds-barred moment, but at the same time not make it feel gratuitous and exploitative? And so that, in the decisions like that it was…let’s play it mostly from the point of view of the dad, and the kind of disconnected nature of it, and how terrifying that is. That a guy can have lost control so much that he’s disconnected…why he can do such a horrendous and heinous act. And I was hoping that that moment would then tell the audience that this is going to be an honest yet terrifying journey that we go on. And so it’s a careful balance for me, you know? I want there to be fun in the movie, I want there to be set pieces–like in the car wash and the bone saw–that are kind of ride-like for the audience, and know that they kind of get some fun with it, but I also want them to know that the stakes are real and the character journeys are real, that they’re going to be locking in on it, following.

W: Right. And it’s funny you bring up the bone saw sequence, because that was going to be leading into my next question. The other thing is, and again, talking about not going back into the closet…because that was the other thing that really impressed me about the film, and when I picked up on it was during the bone saw sequence… You know, a lot of directors, a lot of films will go into that closet, they will be right there with every little shred of the saw and whatever else…

BE: Right…

W: And there was this great shot from down the hall where you could see the carnage happening, the fight happening, through a doorway.

BE: Yeah–I like that shot.

W: It was a great shot, because what I feel a lot of films have forgotten is that we have great imaginations as an audience, and our imagination is your greatest weapon. So you don’t have to show us everything–you just have to kind of hint at it, and we’ll go with it. The same thing with the pitchfork dragging across the floor… once you’ve established what that is and the sound, you kept giving us that sound, and that was all we needed to just go “oh, shit,” as Mrs. Dutton kept saying. So I was wondering if you could talk about that–you were saying to keep the humanity of it, but the decision to let us do the heavy lifting when it came to these horrific moments. Because I’m so happy to see that in films, when, you know, you can see worse things than that in trailers these days.

The military from The Crazies
Hefty Trash Bags' answer to the Fantanas was ill-conceived at best.

BE: Yeah, sure. You know, that goes not just for the actual execution of the movie but the script as well. When I originally got the script, it was written from two points of view–the military’s point of view and the heroes’ point of view. And there was a tendency in the movie to have the military describe everything that was happening and spoon-feed it to the audience, and then the heroes would go through the event that was just described was going to happen. And the decision, my decision, in redeveloping the movie was to put the movie only in the point of view of our townsfolk–of our heroes, and let the audience continually be forced to play catch-up, and force the audience into the same mindset as our heroes to not know what’s really going on–to have to put the pieces together themselves. I think when a filmmaker lets an audience put the pieces together and add up two and two is four, they’ll love you for doing that. Because they are smart, and they do have intelligence. You don’t need to talk down to them. And the same thing holds true with the execution of the horror beats. If you keep showing gory, horrific image after gory, violent image, in a row, in a row, in a row, it just flatlines, you know?

W: Yeah.

BE: The audience loses sight of it. The key is to kind of modulate it and to control it, to control the ebb and flow of the audience’s journey in the movie, and you do that with a level of restraint. And then when you have a big climax, it will have a greater level of significance, like a symphony, you know? You’ve got to go a bit low so you can go high.

W: Right. And the best example of that that I can think of is the shower scene in Psycho…

BE: Sure, absolutely.

W: …where people saw so many things that didn’t actually happen in that scene, but they just filled it in. Our imaginations are horrible things that can do horrible things to us, and it’s nice to have a madman in the director’s seat like yourself who will let our imaginations run wild with us.

BE: (chuckling) To a point–you have to set the tone.

W: Of course.

BE: You have to set the world, you have to set the tone of it, and then, like let the audience go crazy with it. It takes time, though, you can’t—to do that, you can’t rush it. Psycho took a lot of time in that shower scene.

W: Oh, yeah.

BE: And you need to give the audience time to feel uncomfortable, to try and fill in the pieces themselves. If you rush-cut it and jump-cut it and up-cut everything, there’s no time for the audience to think about anything. They’re just barraged with images and thoughts and ideas. Kind of the idea like with action–sometimes, there’s a tendency with some action these days, it’s just shot with fast cuts and there’s no sense of geography, there’s no sense of timing, it’s all just fast-fast-fast-fast-fast-fast-fast, and so you lose the context of it.

W: The former script you said about the military–I noticed that you had the scene in there about the individual soldier–you got to give us a glimpse of a cog in the machine.

BE: Yeah.

W: Was that a hold-over from the original script, or was that your addition?

BE: No. That was our version–that was not in the original script. The character of Billy Babcock was a new creation for this script.

W: Okay.

BE: You know, my thought: it was not a condemnation of the foot soldiers.

W: Right.

BE: You know, I’ve been watching all this stuff in Iraq, and everybody talking about Iraq and how awful it is, but it’s not the soldiers. It’s the politicians. It’s the people in charge that have been making the mistakes. So the soldiers, the men in uniform, the guys are carrying out orders that they don’t understand and that they don’t have a choice on.

W: Right.

BE: It’s the machine. It’s the politicians that are the ones kind of to blame for what happened in this movie.

W: Okay. And one last thing–I would be remiss–because I understand that you are still attached to the Flash Gordon film, is that correct?

Brian Blessed

BE: That I am. Yes, I set it up with Sony about a year ago, and we’ve just turned in a draft, we’ve extended the options, so it’s pushing forward, we’re going to do another draft, and continue the development of that.

W: Fantastic. I have just three words to say, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say them, and those are “Brian…Blessed…Cameo.”

BE: (chuckles)

W: Do with that whatever you like…

BE: You got it.

W: You don’t even have to comment, but I just–

BE: I hear you.

W: I appreciate being heard, sir.

BE: I hear you loud and clear.

W: Okay, excellent. Thank you, sir.

I said my three words and I can sleep tonight. Well, I could, if I did that sort of thing. Special thanks to Anchor Bay for letting us borrow Mr. Eisner for a few minutes.