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A Conversation With Howard J. Ford, Co-Writer/Co-Director of “The Dead”

Howard J. Ford

The film in question is The Dead, co-written and co-directed by The Ford Brothers, Howard J. and Jon. We’ve mentioned it before. It’s one of the most intense zombie films I’ve seen in a while because it’s not set in some American or Britain or anywhere-else-an urban or even suburban setting. Nope, it’s set in Africa. An Africa of open country, very little in the way of shelter or resources, and desert. It’s hard enough to make it there normally. Throw zombies in the mix and holy shit, you’re having a bad day. But the Ford Brothers shot this thing on location in Burkina Faso and Ghana. So they had some bad days as well.

The film is pretty intense and has some of the scariest zombies I’ve seen in a long time. I highly recommend it for zed-fiends who want a new angle on the subgenre. The film is still rolling out across the country even now. Howard J. Ford was kind enough to chat with us on October 13th before a screening of the film in New York City. Please note: there’s very little in the way of spoilers here, because I hate that, but we do make mention of some things in the film. So if you’re a purist you might want to steer clear. But otherwise, enjoy.

Widgett Walls: First: I have seen the film and I wanted to say congratulations, because it is a film about being paranoid about the dead. I think you achieved some great paranoia there, so may I say: well done.

Howard J. Ford: Well, thank you.

WW: The other thing I wanted to make sure I told you is: you guys are absolutely mental.

HJF: (laughs) Yes…you’ve figured that out now, yes?

WW: Yeah, I figure that’s not news to you, but I just thought it would be important to say it’s acknowledged that you guys are insane. So, the first thing I wanted to ask you about is: I think it’s been well-documented elsewhere about how, you know, the continent of Africa in many ways tried to kill and/or impede you guys in your progress in making the film…

HJF: Oh yeah.

Direct link for the feedreaders.

WW: …and I know you guys have said that you were big fans of the original Dawn of the Dead, so did it boil down to the fact that you guys were working in Africa and you were zombie fans and you kind of put two and two together and went, “Look at this great set we’re working in….why don’t we just put something here”?

HJF: It’s kind of a little bit like that, although right at the very beginning when we first, you know, saw the movies that inspired us–they were not just zombie movies, really–we wanted to do like a journey movie with a sort of “fish out of water” story–a guy–one man in a strange land. We just didn’t know what that land was, and my brother Jon had been making notes–little notes here and there, every now and then he’d pop down over the years–and we wanted to make this zombie movie, but we didn’t have Africa specifically as that “strange land” until much, much later. We did mention, you know, the desert and things like that, so we kind of knew that at some point this character would cross the desert, but that’s kind of the only thing we had that ended up in the film (so to speak) in terms of the landscape. But then, we ended up doing commercials later on, yes, so we suddenly saw Africa and thought, “Wow, those village huts look amazing”…just the atmosphere of the place. And I’ll tell you what else: when we’d sort of discussed that a zombie movie in Africa, [how] that would be awesome…we were having a drink out one night in this pseudo-bar–it’s basically just a tree with a couple of chairs underneath–and we saw a mentally ill woman, I guess a homeless woman–she was shabbily dressed in ragged clothing, who was standing there sort of murmuring in the semi-darkness and a car–I think it was a cab–went by with one light on it and this light highlighted her eyes, and they shone back at us bright white, and we were like, “Fuck, that is scary…imagine that as a zombie.” And we were like, “This shit is gonna work.”

Zombie with white eyes from The Dead

WW: Well, it’s funny you mention that, because I was wondering when you were putting it together–once you’d decided that you were going to use Africa as your setting–I mean, when you’re doing a “normal” zombie film (whatever that means), you’re in a setting where there’s like, you know, in Night of the Living Dead where there’s a house, or in Walking Dead where there’s all these buildings or an RV and everything, but once you realize your character was in Africa and there’s basically…nothing, I mean you’re lucky if there’s a tree for the guy to climb up into, was that a challenge from a writing standpoint to go, “Well, how do we do this?”, or did that work specifically into that journey story you were looking at?

HJF: Yeah, well we had things like the tree and things like that were in really, really early on…it was more of a challenge…physically. We wanted a place where this guy couldn’t hide; in a way, the whole point was that we wanted it to take place in a land that was very, very open, to the point where it was the opposite of every other zombie movie we saw, because even the zombie movies we loved and the ones that inspired us still ended up slightly disappointing us…they were awesome movies, but we didn’t want people to be holed up in any place for too long; we wanted them to be on the move. So we thought if this character had absolutely nowhere to go, you know: even the little buildings he comes across are not going to be safe at all…I mean, the very nature of these huts are completely open and they literally have a piece of wood as a door. So we wanted that, so it was great for the script in a way, because kind of everywhere we went was a bit like that.

But it was a real challenge for us to make the thing because we were right out in the middle of nowhere in the searing heat and that kind of stuff was a nightmare and the camera would get so hot you could literally fry an egg off it (not that we ever did that, but I’m pretty sure we could have done.) So those sort of problems became apparent for us: you know, everyone’s getting heat stroke (because the crew couldn’t hide from it either), so it became a really really big practical problem. But we always liked the idea of it–we talked ages ago, even before Africa was on it that he was going to have a fire at night. We didn’t know it was Africa at this point…we had these little bits out there, these little ideas….and Jon was chipping away at it all the time and adding stuff. So it kind of worked in that way–just a nightmare for the crew.

African landscape from The Dead

WW: And it was just intense to watch, because I remember the two things that struck me about it were first of all, that some of the most intense moments for me watching it was when there weren’t any zombies on screen, like when he stops to get the truck and he’s looking over his shoulder, you don’t see anything, but you know they’re there (so that was really intense)…

HJF: Yes, thanks…

WW: and the fact that “Oh, we’ve got to hop in the truck and drive away” and then it’s drive, drive, drive…then you cut back to a long shot…and there’s the damn zombie because it’s so flat, you can still see them even though it’s a mile back; they’re still coming…I was like, “This is ridiculous!” So I think it’s got to be murder on zombie fans like me who the entire time are going, “No no, don’t sit down! You’ll fall asleep…what are you doing??” So I really applaud you turning it on its head like that…it’s just sort of relentless.

HJF: Well, thank you so much. I’m so pleased you felt that…that’s exactly what we wanted you to feel. I remember exactly doing those shots you talked about. I can still remember holding the camera on my shoulder, and doing those shots–and what I was doing at that time (the shots around the car where the zombies are not in it but he’s peering around) and I remember trying to do them as if I myself was scared, trying to move the camera in a way as if I was fearful and getting some of those little movements, so I’m really glad things like that came across and helped.

WW: The other thing that came across was your adherence to kind of the “Romero setup,” down to the fact that when they’re in the village talking to the guy who’s basically protecting that place, it was literally… at that point I was remembering all the other Romero films in which someone is coming up with some theory that’s as good as any other as to what’s going on. I went, “Oh, yeah, this is great–this is just Romero if it was set in Africa.” So it was really good.

HJF: Oh, thanks.

WW: The other thing I wanted to ask you about, speaking about the zombies themselves is that I understand you used locals for your zombies…

HJF: We did.

Zombie extras were all locally cast in The Dead

WW: Now, what I was trying to figure out was (because they were some scary damn zombies), and I know I’d read that you were directing them through a translator…what did you tap into or what did you tell them to get them to be…that? I mean, was there some local folklore thing that you could tap into, or…what did you do? Because they were scary as hell.

HJF: Yeah, a bit of both, really. We first went to the villagers and discovered…and I remember it was a great moment when we said to the translator, “Look, can you ask them what they understand about zombies?” And they completely understood the zombie legend, and that was quite early on, so we were very relieved about that. And then, we literally demonstrated (because Jon and I had kind of practiced this in advance ourselves, because we knew we were going to have to get there and physically demonstrate), and a lot of it on set came down to me just walking like a zombie to show them how to walk like a zombie and then Jon would kind of monitor that. And if I was doing it wrong, he would correct me, and so on and so forth. So it was literally a case that these people had never seen cameras before and all that stuff, they didn’t have electricity in their villages…but they understood zombies.

And I’ll tell you one thing else that was a really weird moment (and it is related)…we were driving past some village shack, one of the very few places that had electricity, and it said “Friday Night Showing The Evil Dead.” And I was like, “What the fuck? The Evil Dead? This is just brilliant!” And Jon and I said, look, these guys are totally going to get it if on a Friday night they want to gather in this hut around this little bastard TV and watch The Evil Dead, this is going to work.

WW: That’s brilliant.

HJF: And really, it was a case where they completely understood it and they were totally up for it, and they did the mimicking thing fairly well; they didn’t have any acting skills as such (although I guess you meet the odd person with a natural talent), but it literally was the case of they watched and they did it. And if sometimes they couldn’t get it, so we’d show them again, and you know, sometimes we’d have to do a few takes, but yeah, they just did it and they copied really well.

And something else that happened that was really odd, with the dead bodies (the bit where they’re driving into the village and there’s all sorts of horrible images of bodies on the ground lying around before they burned these bodies), these people could not believe…they just said, “What do you want us to do for money? Lie on the ground and do nothing?” It was like heaven for them. It was like:

“Sorry, this is actually a job?”
“Yeah…lie on the ground and don’t move.”
“We don’t have to lift anything?”
“Nothing. Just…don’t move.”
“This is brilliant!”

Prince David Osei and extras from The Dead
In the foreground, Prince David Osei as Daniel. In the background, some of the happiest extras in movie history.

And they’re getting paid like ten times what they would get, because a good job locally is carrying forty kilos (which is about sixty-five pounds) bags of rice or cocoa on and off lorries that go to the port, and they get, for a twelve-hour shift, feeding and watering themselves, they get one dollar. And people queue up for these jobs, and there are not enough of these jobs to go around, so the economy is very very tough. So when we come along and say for $10 (or for $5 if it was a very short period of time, like an hour or something), they could literally lie on the ground and do nothing, it was just awesome for them; they absolutely loved it.

WW: Wow. The other thing I was going to ask is that one of the reasons why they were so scary is because, like you said, they just nailed it with the zombie thing, but also, they were so very quiet…I mean, it was like in Walking Dead they groan and in Dawn of the Dead they make noise, but in your film they were quiet. Now was that something you guys envisioned, or once you saw them doing it did you say, “Holy crap…that’s scary”?

HJF: Yeah, that’s actually one of the things we did envision earlier, and we discussed whether they were going to have a noise or not, and we thought–and I think it may have been Jon that came up with this, actually. We both thought yes, they’d be kind of silent…we found some of the groaning noises of zombies a bit obvious and it’s been done so many times that it almost became a cliché even if it hadn’t started that way. You know, however original it was at the beginning, once you’ve seen enough zombie films: here’s a zombie, here’s the groaning….you know, it becomes slightly tired. So we thought: have them silent. And I think it was Jon that came up with the idea of what about having–just the sound of a whispering in the wind, almost a supernatural thing. I thought, yeah, that’s a great idea. So we kind of went down that road in post-production and stuff. We were originally we were going to go completely silent, but now when there’s a zombie around, there’s a something in the wind, and we thought, “Let’s never explain what that it is, whether it’s spiritual or what…whether it’s something to do with death”…we’ll never ever tell people, but…we think we’ll get away with it.

WW: Well, again, in true Romero tradition, the reason behind what’s going on isn’t the important part…

HJF: Yeah.

WW: …it’s what’s happening and how the characters react to it.

HJF: Yeah, we just wanted to get on with the A to B to C of it, we thought…because if you try to explain why zombies are there, it’s ridiculous. You can’t, so it’s best not to even go there, and we were definitely conscious of that.

WW: Right. The other thing I wanted to ask you about–your Zombie #1 (your…Bill Hinzman, as it were), who makes the first appearance there in the desert at the beginning with the screwed up leg…now I read somewhere that you guys said…that was his leg, right?

HJF: That was a man with a screwed up leg.

(Widge’s Note: I insert the trailer here because said man with leg appears in it. You’ll know which gentleman we’re discussing when you see him.)

Direct link for the feedreaders.

WW: Wow. Because initially my reaction was, “oh, well, they CG’d that.” Then I went, “What am I thinking? They probably didn’t CG anything.” And then I thought, “Oh, well it’s a guy with one leg and they gave him a fake leg,” and then I read, “Oh no…that’s his leg.”

HJF: I can tell you exactly what it is. Basically, that is a guy whose leg…[he] had polio as a child, and as a result his leg bends completely backwards at this horrific angle, and we saw this guy…we were outside some shack in Bobo-Dioulasso, an area of Burkina Faso, and this guy walked past…I think Jon saw him first and said, “oh that is the guy for the beginning.” Because we always wanted this guy with a horrific leg. And we of course applied the–in fact, Max Van De Banks, our effects guy, made the bone elements and then Dan ended up attaching them–Dan Rickard [special effects], who’s a genius. Yes, so we added the bone and things like that. But I’ll tell you, that was a guy who, as he walked past–and would you believe his job…was like a porter? I mean, of all the unsuitable jobs. In this sort of shack-type–I don’t even want to call it a hotel–but a place where you can stay–he carries people’s bags…the man with the leg that bends backwards carries people’s bags in and out of the rooms for a very very small amount of money (you know, he gets a few coins a day type thing.)

So we negotiated with him: would he mind coming into the desert–cause we were not near the desert at that point, the desert was a long, long drive away–so we negotiated, would he come with us into the desert, spend quite a few days (because we had to stay somewhere on the way), and he got paid the equivalent of three months’ money. And he was so pleased that all he had to do was walk from point A to Point B that we could not get the smile off his face. We had to take the shot several times, and the problem was that he kept smiling.

And I would say, “Why is he smiling?” And they said “Oh, he’s so happy…he’s so happy to be doing it; that’s why he’s smiling,” and I said, “That’s great…but can he be happy after the shot?” He was a lovely guy, though; we ended up through the translator telling jokes over a little meal one night…he was just a lovely guy and really sweet.

WW: And you’d mentioned the white eyes that you saw on that homeless woman…so you did that practically with contact lenses for everyone?

HJF: Yes, we did use contact lenses and we had to import a lot (I think we spent fair amount of money on these contact lenses by the time we added them all up). And there were a couple of shots–and this still bothers me a bit–where there are parts where you can see the contact lens element, and we did try and touch it up in post a little bit, but there’s only a couple of shots like that where we just felt like we could see it, because some people had quite red eyes, we noticed, and that’s when the contact lenses stand out. Like one of the early zombies that’s on the floor in the village, every time I watch the film (and I’m in New York now, and I’m going to watch the film tonight), and if I see that beginning bit, all I’ll think is, “Oh, I can see the contact lens.”

WW: Well, if I can speak for the audience that doesn’t know better, they’re going to be too busy watching the film to notice, because if anything, I was going, “Did they do that in post, or are those contact lenses?”

HJF: Well that’s good news.

WW: And I’m sitting there thinking also: that must be fun… “I know we’re in the middle of the desert, but can you put in these contact lenses? That’d be great–here’s a little saline.”

HJF: That’s exactly what we did: Dan Rickard, who was a man of many talents, it was his job—there’s some online footage, actually, in The Making of The Dead: Part 3 or whatever that’s online where you can see him applying the actual contact lenses, and that’s what he did, and it was so so difficult to keep his hands clean, because we didn’t want to go around making people blind.

Direct link for the feedreaders.

WW: Now, the other writing question I had for you was I thought it was interesting that really the majority of the film is told in flashback, and on one hand you sort of know that the character in question is going to make it to at least where you saw them to begin with, but for some reason it doesn’t make the film any less terrifying, so was that something again that you had in mind from the beginning that you wanted to set up, or…?

HJF: Great question, actually…God, that’s something…you picked up something that Jon and I had discussed one way, the other way, then the other way…and we were still shooting the film and still discussing whether we were going to [start] in the desert, and we thought we were going to have the desert first and in the end–there was one point where we decided no, we can’t do it, and then in editing I’d edited it like that: two versions, and Jon would come in while I was editing the film–and Jon was great, he would come in every sort of, whatever, every couple of days and see what I was doing, and if I was doing something wrong, he’d criticize it, and if he liked it, great….and we really wanted the film to be A-to-B-to-C, so we were torn about this idea of having the desert in the beginning. But what we hoped would happen was that people would see it and then once the plane crash was so disorienting, your mind would go off it…you’d sort of almost forget that yes, you’d seen it, but hopefully because of the visceral A-to-B nature of it, you would forget that you actually saw it, and then we hoped that you’d suddenly remember you’d seen that later when he gets to that point and he sees the guy in the black garb. And he learns that he can use the zombies to help him get through.

WW: Yeah, what was fascinating was the fact that it worked exactly like you hoped it would (at least in my head) in that it didn’t make my terror for the character any less profound because the situation was so crazed that I just went, “Don’t fall asleep! I don’t care if I know you’re going to be fine…for God’s sake, don’t fall asleep!” So that was really interesting. Now, I was curious–would you classify what you did going around, using locals and doing it lean-and-mean, would you consider what you guys did to make this guerrilla filmmaking?

HJF: Yes, I would consider it guerrilla filmmaking. We sort of shipped everything in, we were just going on our own, but when I think “guerrilla,” we still…Jon and I had made a list of all the essential things. We had shot 130 to 140 TV adverts over the last decade with myself directing and Jon as P.O.P. and we kind of knew what we needed for most types of setups, and we knew the bare minimum of what we needed, in other words: what’s the minimum amount of kit we can have to still make it look good. And we wanted to shoot on 35 mil, we wanted to shoot on film. Because we just really felt that’s the way to make it look as good as it could be. So we just sort of made a list of all the stuff we would need and we went on a massive buying spree in pre-production and shipped everything out there. So we kept it to a minimum, it was kind of guerrilla style. We didn’t have many lights (Jon had to really work miracles with a handful of lights, actually), so it’s on the edge, and I’d say it’s guerrilla style absolutely, but we still had honed a list of things we needed to actually get it done, like fire flicker devices and certain things that were not too heavy to carry but we felt would really make a big difference in the look of the film.

The Ford Brothers at work on The Dead
The Ford Brothers at work.

WW: Well, the reason I ask is that I was struck by the fact that I find this a very intriguing zombie film that you guys went to Africa and shot, and I don’t know if you’ve seen the sci-fi film Monsters that Gareth Edwards did…

HJF: You know, I’ve met Gareth Edwards twice; and both our films were at Fright Fest, etc., but I still haven’t seen the film and in fact I keep meaning to get the DVD, and something happened…I’ve been so busy lately, but that’s the DVD that I’ve been meaning to get.

WW: Well, you have been a little busy. But it just struck me that you guys went to Africa to shoot a zombie movie lean-and-mean, he went to South America to shoot a sci-fi movie lean-and-mean, and they’re both very intriguing films, and I just think somebody’s film school thesis is in there somewhere, I’m sure.

HJF: It could well be. Yeah, thanks, I’d love to see Monsters and I’ve heard a lot of great things about it, so I can’t wait to see it. Yeah, it’s odd, isn’t it? Maybe there’s just something at the moment that times are changing and, I don’t know, these thoughts just float around in the ethos. But you know, we actually shot The Dead in 2008…a lot of people don’t know that; they think it was shot in, whatever, 2010 or something…we were out there this time three years ago shooting the movie, and it’s taken this long to get it out because we really insisted upon a theatrical release; we would rather have shelved the film than seen it go straight to DVD. We didn’t want to do it that way; we just thought, “No, we’ve got to insist on that one…we spent all this time lugging heavy film cameras across the desert! We’ve got to get this film on the big screen.”

WW: I know I’d heard you guys talking about potentially doing a sequel, and I guess my last question is, are you guys upset that you didn’t succeed in getting yourselves killed or maimed or something and you just wanted to go back for another try, or what?

HJF: (Laughs) Basically yeah. No. If we go back, one thing we’ll have is armed guards…we’re going to have guys with guns. Because I don’t want to be mugged again at knifepoint, we don’t want to be held at gunpoint again–we want bigger guns than they’ve got. So that’s the first thing on our buying list this time, and an armored vehicle as well so we don’t get bloody screwed over every five seconds. I’m serious about that.

WW: I believe you–I’ve read the interviews. I know you’re serious.

The Dead poster

HJF: So that’s what we’re going to do as long as we have the budget for that, then that’s going to be the first thing on the list. Yes, we are serious about it, because I’ll tell you, there were some scenes that we would so haved loved to have done…there was one scene in particular that was one of my favorite scenes and it had to do with the baby, when he got the baby, there’s a whole lot there…there were some scenes we just had to tear out of the script because we didn’t have time to do it. So basically, if people come and support The Dead (and thanks to guys like you who are writing about it; we’re so grateful for that and so grateful for the interest in it)…if people come out and buy tickets to the movie in this theatrical run in the states, seeing the movie on anything other than a pirated download or whatever, then we’ll be able to do Part Two. If people support the film, that will tell us, yes, we want to do it again…there’s a reason to do it again. And we will do it again, with more money, but we will re-visit where the film ends and we’ll pick up there but also take it in a couple of other different directions. We really do want to do it; we’re just waiting and I think in the next two or three months we’ll find out if it’s going to be financially viable to do it.

WW: Excellent. Alright, I know you have to run, and I really appreciate you taking time in between all this craziness to talk to us about it.

HJF: It’s been a real pleasure. Thanks very much….cheers.

The Dead continues to roll out across the U.S. You can find a list of cinemas here. Also look for them on Twitter and Facebook. And their official site for the U.S. rollout is here.

Thanks again to Mr. Ford for taking the time to chat with me.