Exclusive Interview – Ryan Denmark – Romeo & Juliet vs The Living Dead
Posted by LiveFor on January 14, 2009
January is the month of interviews it seems (weirdly Jason X gets mentioned in the two January interviews). Today I have an interview with director/produce/editor Ryan Denmark who’s latest film is Romeo & Juliet vs The Living Dead (R&JvTLD). With a title like that you know it is going to be good fun.
When not making low-budget independent horror films Ryan is also Associate Editor for Spike Lee and an actor in films such as Klown Kamp Massacre and Last Looks. He also has dodgy taste in popcorn, but I can look past that.
I’ve previously posted the trailer for R&JvTLD here.
- Why was the vehicle of a classic, such as Romeo & Juliet, chosen to expand the zombie genre? Can you tell us a little more about the film and the making of it?
My fellow writer/producer Jason Witter had some success in New Mexico staging Shakespearian pop culture parodies in local theaters. Specifically, Hamlet the Vampire Slayer and Macbeth in Space, which was basically Aliens with a little Jason X thrown in. I was home (home being Albuquerque) visiting when I learned that I had three months of free time before leaving for Italy to work on Spike Lee’s film Miracle at St. Anna. Jason wanted to do a Night of the Living Dead parody on stage. At first, the idea was just a straight parody and then I suggested mixing it with another Shakespearian piece. Parody requires a certain amount of audience familiarity with the subject to be successful and Romeo & Juliet is Shakespeare’s most recognizable play. Jason and I have a long work history and obviously Shakespeare had already done all the heavy lifting, so the script went quickly. We had a brief pre-production period and then shot in about 28 days. Of course, the basic idea for the film is Juliet, of noble Capulet birth, falls in love with Romeo, a zombie and hilarity ensues…that only goes so far. We needed more or it was going to be a one gag show. For me R&J is a parable about how hatred consumes everything around it, but there is this popular notion that the play is the world’s greatest love story. It’s a worship of hysterical juvenile love. For that reason, the play (or at least the popular reading of the play) has a lot in common with 80′s teen romance films. So when we approached the script we were influenced by films like Valley Girl and Pretty in Pink. We expanded the character of Mercuitio to create a love triangle and away we went. Everything flowed from there, including our answer to the problematic question everyone asks, “If Romeo is already dead, how does he kill himself?”
- What was the toughest thing about making it?
We’re a low-budget independent film. I mean in the the literal sense, not the Hollywood sense. What polish we have is due to the talented cast and small crew of the film. It was a team of people who love filmmaking and weren’t afraid to bleed for it, or at very least work long days with no pay for it. Jason and I worked 18 hour days, 6 days a week. Still we couldn’t have done it without our co-producer Jess Jones. She also served as our production & costume designer. She’s like a superhero with better fashion sense. As a director, the biggest challenge was striking a balance between the inherent drama of Shakespeare’s plot and the obvious absurdity of the zombies. I found the comedy worked best the less we reached for it.
- How did you get into the film business?
I started college as a computer science major, but after a few weeks of reflecting on the optimal code for search algorithms, I found myself praying for spontaneous human combustion. On a whim I took an elective in film production at the University of New Mexico and found that filmmaking (particularly editing) was just something I could do. You know, like Mozart at the piano or Carrot Top at prop-comedy. For years after, I made short films in Albuquerque, but my real break in “the business” was when I met Barry Alexander Brown at a local film festival. Barry is Spike Lee’s editor. Shortly after we met, he called me and asked if I wanted to be his assistant editor on the film She Hate Me. That was in 2003. I had two weeks to drop out of college, drop out of my life and move to New York. I did it and now I’m the associate editor for Spike’s feature films and most of his TV work.
- Regular LFF Reviewer, Alan S, had this to say ” Can we take other Shakespearean classics and given them a rom-com-zom twist? For example: The Merchant of Venice Beach – Shylock is a body-building Jewish zombie, who instead of giving a pound of flesh needs to eat a pound of flesh in order to keep his zombie traits in check so he can still work out his rotting carcass and woo the passing Barbie-doll look-a-likes in rollerboots?”
If you happen to use that scenario I’ll put you in touch with Alan to discuss the rights!
Wasn’t that the plot to Doctor Zhivago?
- A few people have mentioned the similarity to your film and the films by Troma (The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Red Neck Zombies, etc). Do you think this comparison is justified? If so was it an intentional choice? What is your favourite Troma movie?
My favorite Troma movie is Kung-Fu Kitties (2004 Tromadance short.) That’s a shameless plug for my friend David Valdez who just directed Klown Kamp Massacre (featuring an appearance by Lloyd Kaufman). The truth of it is that I think I’ve only seen two Troma movies: Toxic Avenger and Surf Nazis Must Die. I saw them both when I was but a wee lad and don’t remember them much. Oh, I take that back (and am unwilling to use my backspace key) I’m very fond of Cannibal: The Musical. Shpadoinkle. It’s certainly a comparison I’ve heard before and I’m sure this won’t be the last time. I don’t think it will hold up after people see our film. Troma films are much more violent than R&J. Anyone hoping to see Romeo peel back Tybalt’s skull and eat his brains while a bikini clad starlet screams in petrified terror is going to be sorely disappointed (and better off going to see Klown Kamp Massacre!) There is a prerequisite amount of violence in R&J, but we’re really emulating 80′s teen films, not b-movie horror. We have much more in common with Pretty in Pink than say Dawn of the Dead.
- We seem to be getting more and more zombie films, why do you think they are so popular? Which is your favourite film from the zombie genre?
This is true, you can’t swing a dead cat around the Albuquerque indie-film scene without hitting a zombie movie. It’s a right of passage and this is my contribution. We wanted to do something that stood out from the crowd and I assure you that R&J does. Love it or hate it, you’ve never seen anything like it. The closest is probably Shaun of the Dead or Night of the Comet, but even those films are more conventional than R&J. As for my favorite (forgive the American spelling), I’d have to say Dead Alive. I like genre films that aren’t afraid to break formula and even conventional wisdom for the sake of trying something new. I think filmmakers gravitate toward the genre because horror is the easiest market to find low-budget distribution and zombie horror is probably the easiest to pull off in terms of production value.
- What law would you abolish?
Murphy’s. That’s my witty answer. There are in fact dozens of them I could mention off the top of my head, but my current events answer is California Prop 8. It’s an attack on civil liberties and a line in the sand for those who would like to consider themselves socially progressive. It’s time for people to choose a side. I’m unwilling to think of this issue as something we can all ‘agree to disagree’ on anymore. I don’t regard it any differently than if someone advocated making interracial marriage illegal. Discrimination is discrimination. Okay, now back to the zombie movie….
- If you were going to be killed by any movie villain or monster who or what would it be? What would your last words be?
Ingrid Pitt in Vampire Lovers….or Countess Dracula for that matter. I imagine my last words would be something like “a little to the left…”
- What advice can you give to any new film makers reading this?
Don’t put too much stock in the opinion of someone who has only directed two feature films. Beyond that, I’d say decide why you’re making a movie and then who you are making it for. If you’re just looking to get on the map as a director then go to your local video store and pick-up five or six of the most generic looking horror films you can find. Study their structure, elements (violence, sex, production values) and design your film to fit your resources. If your technical skills are strong, you’ll end up with a financially viable property. Or, you can experiment and take your chances. Both are equally valid ways to approach a film, just be honest with yourself about what you’re doing. However, if you believe nothing else I say believe this…the lower budget your film, the greater your love must be. R&J was like dropping a bomb on my financial and personal life. It’s not worth doing if you don’t love it like a child.
- What advice would you give to any potential victim in a horror film?
It could have been worse, you could have made a low-budget film.
- Have you made any New Year resolutions and if so what are they?
I’m going to be better to the people in my life. I’d like to go the year without hurting anyone. Something happened after I turned thirty and I became so self-centered I’m thinking of breaking-up with myself. When I look back on 2009, I’d like to see the person I’d like to be…..that or I’ll learn to play the banjo.
- Zombie Shakespeare v zombie Charles Dickens?
Depends on the characters. I’m pretty sure Zombie Romeo could take Zombie Oliver Twist. Zombie Othello would work Zombie Nicholas Nickleby (although a film on the subject would run six hours.) But, I think Zombie Scrooge would devastate Zombie Puck. Christmas Carol is halfway to a zombie flick anyway.
- What film do you first remember watching?
How have I never though of that question before? Remember clearly? Probably Star Wars. Aren’t I unique. But, I have flashes of a film earlier than that. I don’t know what it was called. It was an animation of some sort, I think maybe stop-motion. All I remember is that there was a sort of evil character who carried a sack and if boys or girls were bad, he would turn them into mice and stuff them in said sack. That’s all I remember and I don’t swear to the facts or even the existence of this movie. Maybe it was just a nightmare that I now think was a film. If anyone out there knows what I’m talking about I’d appreciate some assistance.
- You favourite film of 2008?
Between post on Spike’s films, R&J and about ten other projects I worked in the last quarter of 2008, I haven’t had a chance to see a lot of what was out there. I’m playing catch-up right now and I’d have to say so far it’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Although I must point out that Kate Winslet kills in The Reader.
- Salted or sweet popcorn?
Parmesan cheese. Blame my mother, I’ve been conditioned since birth.
- You will next be appearing in Klown Kamp Massacre as Liberal Larry. Can you tell us some more about that? What do you find tricker – being in front of the camera or behind it?
I think there’s no question that I’m far better behind the camera. I haven’t done a lot of film acting, but I do enjoy it. My part in Klown Kamp is small. I play the liberal side of two clown pundits arguing on TV. Dave Valdez (the director) sat myself and a saucy gentlemen by the name of Lucien Sims down in front of the camera and just let us go. Lucien and I tend to argue and yell at each other naturally so it didn’t take long to shoot. I have a larger supporting actor role in Barry Alexander Brown’s new film Last Looks. It’s a mockumentary about a horror film crew shooting in Turkey. Things go wrong and some unseen force starts killing the cast and crew for real. That was a lot of fun. Four weeks on location in Turkey. If you google my name, you can still find articles about how I was killed on a boat while shooting a film a few years back. It was part of a marketing stunt at Cannes. A press release was sent out and the AP picked up on it. I think the LA Times even ran it. It didn’t take long to be debunked. Some people thought it was funny and some people seemed personally outraged by it. It never ceases to amaze me what people will get mad about on the internet. Not just opinionated…I mean MAD. PARMESAN CHEESE!!! WHAT A F*#@!% IDIOT!!!
- If you ever won an Oscar who would you thank in the acceptance speech?
My parents of course, whoever was saintly enough to give me money, you for being the first reporter to ever let me ramble on in an interview this long and Ginnifer Goodwin, whom I will undoubtably have meet by then and fostered a meaningful relationship based on mutual love and respect. What? Like this question is clearly concerned with reality. Sorry, I just caught up on Big Love. New season starts next week!
- What is your next film as a director going to be?
I would pay good money to know the answer to that question. I have a number of scripts that are 90% ready to go, but like all things, it depends on financing. It could be anything from a horror/comedy called Plush to a tense sci-fi drama called The Children of Earth. There was a feature film that I shot before R&J but will complete post sometime this year called Chase the Slut. It’s a dramedy (I hate that word, but it applies for brevity) about a young woman who must seduce a church going boy to satisfy a bet with her best friend. It’s sort of a modern version of Dangerous Liaisons, but instead of her being considered a great lover, she’s labeled a slut. Hurray, gender politics! Its writer/star is Vannesa Claire Smith who is enjoying some success in the LA theatre scene right now with Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara. You can see a trailer on YouTube or my website, thirdstarfilms.com. It should start hitting festivals late this year.
- When and where will we be able to see Romeo & Juliet vs The Living Dead?
We just started submitting to festivals, so we won’t know about that for a little while. At the very least, it should be available on Netflix before 2010 (good lord that year sounds like it should be more than just one year away.) People can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to a mailing list. We’ll send out updates for screenings as well as distribution news.
- Thanks for your time Ryan. Good luck with the film.
There you have it. If you are interested in seeing R&JvTLD sign up for the mailing list. I’ll keep posting info about it as well. Can anyone out there help Ryan with that weird film he vaguely remembers?