Tuesday, Dec 1 2020

Interview with Zoe Kavanagh

By Dr. Michelle Conty. 

  Zoe Kavanagh is the writer, director, and producer of the award-winning film The Demon Hunter

Discuss selecting/finding a filming
location.  What are the challenges involved?  Do you have outstanding
stories about location shooting?

Usually I like to wander and explore around. I did this for Demon
, I sometimes travel around Ireland sneaking into abandoned buildings
just to vibe and experience their atmosphere. For
Demon Hunter I also
visited active buildings and castles for locations. Usually if it's abandoned
you have to be weary of environmental dangers and not getting caught by
potential security. About ten years ago I directed a no-budget zombie short set
in a carpark where characters were running to escape a horde of undead. Blood
on walls, and lots of makeup - it was chaos, we had no permission to be there
and some security guy came down assuming I was from the film course in the
college and I lied saying I was. He said, "Just wait until the principal
hears about this tomorrow!" haha. He tried taking down the registration plate,
but it was just an image of a Transformers Decepticon symbol. We got our scenes
done and we left. Things are different now, I usually get permission for a film
and we would have insurance, but that was we were starting out.

What aspects of reality do you
generally weave into your writing, shooting, and film topics?  Have you
ever had any problems because of using real material or material based on real
It really depends on the project for Demon Hunter it was
about making a fun film with all the great elements I love in action and horror
movies form the 80's and with elements of moments I love in those film. In
however, I suppose you could say the underdog theme of the
character who defied all the odds to overcome and stand up to overwhelming
powers and doing something for what she believes in. I made a short film called
Wounded Ella which was inspired by a few news articles about different
tragic situations of transphobia of abuse, rape and mental torture. I took
elements and weaved them into like a
Cinderella inspired story in an
urban setting. The film struggled at festivals and I wonder was it because the
horror was realistic.

You are an award-winning horror
director; what helped you become a successful filmmaker?
A few
great film festivals in the US and a few festivals in Europe but Horrorhound
and Fright Night Film Fest were the best things that happened out of that! The
support was tremendous and will never forget it. I suppose another aspect was
the marketing for the film
Demon Hunter over in the UK & Ireland
really helped get the word out on the film, and myself as a filmmaker, so that
was great.

What are some of your goals and plans
to achieve those goals.
My goals are to achieve learning new
things to express my art. Right now, I'm also learning animation and game
design, I want to know everything! When I put my head down into something, I
really go after it.

What are your thoughts and
experiences being an INTERNATIONAL filmmaker?
Well I, myself, have mostly been
doing freelance work; mostly commercials, music videos, and short films over
the last eleven years. Doing so much, for that long, you learn about every
aspect of filmmaking - writing, producing, filming and post-production. Yet there's
always so much more to learn but it's good to evolve. I'm not as demanding as
other filmmakers and it would be great to get more hired work in Europe and the

Genre blending – From Freddy Kruger’s
one-liners and Andrew Palmer’s
Funhouse Massacre to Zombieland
– Horror and Comedy have long been connected in cinema.  Horror and Sci-Fi
are linked, and Drama works its way into every genre. What guides you in the
mixing of genres? What is involved in being true to each genre, how much is too
much, and how do you showcase the elements of different genres?
all about a balance really. When you look at
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3:
Dream Warriors
- that was the first entry in that franchise where Freddy
had a dark and sinister sense of humor with each kill in an ironic sort of way.
It worked in that film because the humor was black and never detracted from
Freddy’s sick and twisted way of contorting the nightmares on his victims. I
think the most important thing is for the writer to love and understand the
genre and its trappings.  So, if you have
a film like
Zombieland where Jesse Eisenberg has rules to fighting and
fending off the undead it's actually quite humorous because we all can connect
to it while having fun with the genre, yet still respecting the work. Both
horror and comedy are about timing. In action and horror your focus is really
on the action storyline but when the antagonists are causing peril, it raises
the stakes to suspense and terror. Like when the writer makes the hero feel
overwhelmed by an overpowered evil entity. It's all about a balance and that
serves the story.

Horror films are a good place to
practice emotional nonattachment, but emotion is undoubtedly vital to horror
cinema. How do you use emotion in your films?  What do you think makes
your work emotionally unique and what do you think is simply standard operating
I usually like to project myself into the story, and put myself in
the situation of the protagonist, and ask how I would react in such a
situation. There are also subjects that people emotionally respond to, but most
of the time I am responding in my script with authenticity of self. At the same
time when you're writing multiple characters engaging in a conversation you
have to project different elements of your personality to them, different
opinions and different feelings. An argument scene between two people is
usually going to address both sides of a topic and hence you’re going to spark
two different emotions on the a subject.

Women in horror – other than buxom
betties with butcher knives or frantically screaming coeds tripping on every
slight irregularity – are not yet common… what can we do to bring more women
into the fold?
Simple - support kick ass women in films! However, for years
horror has always had a female lead and that's usually the last person to
survive. Look at the
Nightmare on Elm Street film series for example. I
know they range in quality as films overall but, in
The Dream Master you
had a character who became stronger every time her friends died, and she became
a sort of superhero standing up and kicking Freddy's ass. Actually, one thing
you could say about that series is the final girl was empowering, sure in the
second film they even touched on gay anxiety in the 80's, unintentionally or
not, it's progressive. Films like
Raw, The Neon Demon, and Tragedy
that have strong female leads! I think we actually have already
arrived it's just not that big entrance people have imagined. There's a lot of
emerging female directors doing horror too, it's all in the indie horror scene
and I suppose not as mainstream cinema yet, but they are on the way.  Just support them when they get there. 

Considering the events on the media
regarding women and abuse in Hollywood -Weinstein among others, what are your
The film industry is slimy, nasty and is filled with creeps and
cowards. People who are more concerned with their jobs and protecting monsters
than doing the right thing. I say expose them all and bring them down. We need
a purging.  However, evil never dies, so
we will have to be vigilant about where it pops up next.

integrity in life, society, and film making… this connects to horror movies
often having a social theme… What are your thoughts on social betterment
through film?
It's the fears people have that they
want other people to experience and relate to. For example,
Citadel is a
horror film that deals with a young man protecting his child from delinquent
youth who live in a filthy, dilapidated flat block. There’s a fear of the area
and environment, and of being attacked and destroyed by fearless victims of
their own location. In
Under the Shadow you have a mother who enjoys Western
cultural things like 80's pop music and gym training videos, who also has a
fear of wearing a burka and conforming to a repressive society. She's on the
run from a supernatural entity tormenting her and her child which represents
the culture chasing and forcing her to conform. I think films like these are
not just horror films but social dramas that reflect on issues a lot of people
have in society and the fear it causes. As a director, you hope the messages in
film help us all get along. 
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, but it doesn't, even if horror
brings people together with universal themes and scares them too.

budgets are often the standard in Independent film.
are the pros and cons of a tight budget? Is it possible that a tight budget can
actually improve a film?
When making Demon Hunter most
of the cash was my own money. The budget went mostly on art department, camera,
lighting, insurance, catering etc. What you see on screen is the most important
thing and I knew that practical was the only way to go for the SFX as I didn't
want the film to look dated with cheap ass CGI on a small budget. There's a
charm to practical effects that I love. The only thing big budgets do is add
more CGI, name actors and bigger pockets. Blumhouse is making
Get Out, Happy
Death Day
, and Insidious movies on $5 million budgets. The company
are grossing between $50 mil $100mil in the US alone on those films. Whereas
big studios are spending $200-$300 million on superhero films hoping to gross
$1 billion worldwide with each one. Budget means nothing if the story is good.
If the cinematography, editing, script and special effects are good then it
doesn't matter how much your film costs. However, marketing is very important,
otherwise a film falls under the radar and into obscurity and it may as well
not exist. Tight budgets help the filmmaker think more creatively and work with
what they have.

often contains many familiar elements – psychopaths, zombies, creepy little
kids, restless spirits, a guy with a mask and some sort of edged weapon, etc.…
How do you take a familiar concept or element and make it your own?  
You play with the tropes of the genre and you subvert it. I love
all those types of antagonists and the best way to reinvent it is to not only
understand the structure and rules of these films but add in your spin.  Again, how would you respond to such villains
after seeing so many of those types of films. It's all about understanding the
unwritten rules of horror cinema.

Tell us
about working with small casts.  What are the benefits and challenges of
working with a small cast? Further, how do you choose and recruit talented cast
members, particularly while working with a tight budget?
easier to co-ordinate small casts and get more out of their performance as
opposed to large casts and bit parts where people don't really feel the need for
rehearsal time. With a character film, using a small cast, you can spend weeks
with the actors working on their motivations and responses to the desperate
situations your story is eventually going to put them in. Usually, I'll go onto
either a website like “
StarNow” and put a casting call or contact an actor’s
agency.  And I like working with people
I've worked with before; it’s a nice environment working with the same people
you know will deliver the goods.

In Never Sleep Again, 1428 Films’
Nightmare on Elm Street documentary, Heather Langencamp’s character
Nancy is described by Robert Englund as “a survivor girl, one of the key
elements of modern American horror.”  What are some character archetypes,
scene or story elements, or narrative devices that you consider to be key
elements of Horror? Or Modern Horror?
There's always the archetypal
victims that get killed and it's usually the type that do drugs, have sex of
some sort and usually the innocent quiet girl is the one to survive the terror.
Key elements are an evil entity, a slowly building body count, phone signal
gone, the old man/woman who warns people of an oncoming evil force coming to
kill. The quiet first act of character development with slow horror followed by
a kill or horrific scene. Things get worse in Act 2 and the protagonist either
goes to the library to find out the origins of the villain or Googles it. The
protagonist prepares to stand up to the evil and puts on a good fight before
the antagonist rises up again before the end credits.

Do YOU have key recurring elements in
your films?
I love “get ready” montages and they were overused in the 80's
Rocky, The Karate Kid, and even in A Nightmare on Elm
Street 4: The Dream Master.
I like that moment in Act 3 where the hero gets
ready to kick ass before journeying to the final battle. Another element that's
reused in my films, I guess is how I structure my fights, hero kicks ass,
villain gets upper hand and then hero overthrows and wins. It's a formula that
works. I think montages are my most used element I would say.

Do you use a multi-disciplinary
approach to your filmmaking? What skills from or aspects of your “normal life”
do you use in creating your films?
I educate myself on the technical
side of things so when we're on set, people know and understand exactly what
we're creating. My normal life is kind of boring, I do seem to edit everyday on
some form of software or write.

When starting out, how did you handle
the naysayers? Particularly those at the day-job or those in your family – when
you can’t just flip them the bird and walk away?
Oh, I
would give them the finger haha! There were some friends who said that the
script was impossible to make, and I wouldn't be able to pull it off. I proved
those people wrong. I have a really focused mind when I want something done.
Usually people saying I can't do something just motivates me to get it done.

Was there an epiphany moment or event
that set you on the path that brought you here?
Not really,
I really just wanted to find a way to bring my visual style and stories to
life; I figured film was the way to go. I grew up watching a lot of cult films
like the
Evil Dead films, Aliens, Terminator, Nightmare on Elm Street
and all of that inspired me to become a filmmaker.

Film as a medium has changed
radically in the last 15-20 years and is still in flux even now. Same with the
genre of horror; it is an evolving, adapting creature.  What do you see in
the future of either film/cinema in general or the horror genre?
in cinema goes through phases every few years. For example, in 2004
Hostel we're huge successes and that took horror into the “torture-porn”
sub-genre of so called gory thrillers, that lasted about 10 years. Then
was a huge hit, which resulted in a few years of supernatural
ghost house movies. Horror is evolving, and I actually think horror is finding
a good spot in videogames.
  For instances
there are great indie horror games and VR where the player is immersed in the
world and at risk in the story, making it a truly involving experience.

Special effects are another art that
is constantly changing and growing; what are your thoughts on physical effects
and CGI?
I like both practical and CGI. I think it needs to be a perfect
balance in a film. And it depends on what type of film you're doing. I would go
for practical for anything that's possible to do in practical - gore, monster
suits, car crash whilst CGI would be for unrealistic things like surreal
environments like a hellish nightmare world or super powers.

We are in a society surrounded by
fear ... Ebola, terrorists, nuclear power ... there is always something to be
afraid of ... the evening news is a constant onslaught of reasons to bar your
 doors and never leave the house ... bath salts, police killings, swine flu,
bird flu, monkey flu, etc.... yet, horror sales are as strong as ever.
 Does cinema parallel society? Or, is cinema a
vehicle for dealing with
the threats of reality?  
Horror has always been a black
mirror to society whether it’s intentional or not because it lies in the
subconscious of all of us. Go back
to the sixties with Night of the Living
and you look at the racial tensions in the US and that film has an
African-American as the heroic, male, lead which is just incredibly
considering the tensions at the time. You look at John Carpenter's
They Live
which raises the paranoia of capitalism and the reptilian undertones and shape
shifting with
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cinema has always been a
vehicle to deal with horror in the real world. A lot of times in horror cinema
it is subtext, when it's done more up front, like in
A Serbian Film its
even tougher for viewers to handle.

all heard that it’s who you know and who you meet, but with a “pay-the-fuckin’
bills” job, commuting, writing, grocery shopping, dog-walking, and all the
other minutiae of daily life, networking and keeping those contacts going can
be a challenge.  Can you share any tips for not getting sucked into the
daily-drudgery and 9-to-5?
I work freelance and spend most of
my time focusing on projects and getting them moving but when I worked a more
regular job, I would spend every hour on shift thinking and developing film or
music ideas. I would work the job just to save money to make the film.
Regarding networking I think so many people are glued to their phones, and I
try to only look at it when its necessary, as I feel Facebook can hold you back
sometimes and waste your day, but it is still necessary for communication and
projects you just need to balance.

To be in film one must be able to
take rejection, raise money, work for free, and balance beyond work/life into
work/film/life.  What are the psychological challenges to this life? How
do you work up the nerve, or guts, to get in the business, and stay in the
It's soul crushing, nerve wracking, and it can be self-defeating
if you look at it the wrong way. I think you just need to get a thick skin and
take every hit as a learning curve and motivation to achieve your goal. I'm not
particularly in the business, I'm outside of it, but I've learned not to care
anymore and just try things and if they happen they happen. When I was making
all I did, and all I cared about, was saving money to make the movie
and nothing was going to get in my way or stop me.
  I believed in myself.

How do you judge
a film – both your own and those that you watch?
When I go see a film I look at it in pieces. I ask
myself questions about it such as, is it entertaining, does the script make
sense, is the pace good, the acting good, the sound, and the music. If it gets
some of these elements right, well, then to me it's a good film. There's a
check list in my head that I go through when I leave the cinema.