It might surprise you to learn that the goriest movie at the virtual Nightstream Film Festival was a movie comprised entirely of puppets, but Frank & Zed is just that. Heck, the movie literally promises you an “Orgy of Blood” in the opening few minutes and oh boy is the finale a goofy, gore-filled bloodbath! More than just it’s chopped-off heads, and bashed-in brains, Frank & Zed is a heartwarming story of a Frankenstein Monster named Frank and a decaying zombie named Zed looking out for each other through thick and thin like the oddest couple this side of Sesame Street.
We sat down with writer/director/puppeteer Jesse Blanchard just after the world premiere of Frank & Zed to discuss just what goes into making a puppet’s head explode with a fountain of blood, the difficult task of balancing tone in such a silly (but serious) fairy tale, and how to warmest, nicest people in the world are all members of the horror community.
“…we will either succeed, or we will fail in such an incredibly embarrassing fashion that it will be mortifying, but whatever…”
Jonathan Dehaan for Nightmare on Film Street: Congrats on the world premiere of Frank & Zed! How’d that go at Nightstream?
Jesse Blanchard: It went really well! I mean, you know, it’s a weird experience but it’s also exciting to just get the film out there. I only decided to do Nightstream, like, three weeks ago. The team there was really cool, they were very supportive of the film, they really liked it. That all means a lot to me I and I was like, ‘let’s just do it, whatever, I’m ready, get it out’. And then things happen so fast and the response so far has been really strong. It’s cool. I mean- it’s a weird movie. It’s me, and dolls and I’m like, ‘Hey, these dolls have a lot of emotion. There’s a lot going on. You better take my dolls seriously,” [laughs]. At least, that’s what I’m trying for and, which I always knew was a bigger risk but I’m not winking at the camera.
I was like, If we’re doing this, we’re doing it for real and we will either succeed, or we will fail in such an incredibly embarrassing fashion that it will be mortifying, but whatever, and that seems to be connecting with some people. And the reason we’re doing that is because that’s more interesting, and it’s more challenging but also, I think that’s what people want. [At least,] that’s what I want. I want it to be real. I don’t want to wink at the camera. Give me the full thing. Give it all to me if you can. So that’s what we really tried to do and, at least for some people, it seems to be working. I was talking to somebody and she was saying that she was crying at the end which is so cool.
NOFS: That’s the ethos of your whole production company too, right? Treat these puppets like they’re real and use practical effects whenever possible.
JB: Yeah, I want everything to be real. That’s what I’m here for. The characters are going to be real, the world is going to be real, all the jokes, everything has to come from reality to the best of our ability. There are places where we kind of fudge the scenes but I think it’s the most interesting [approach]. I think it’s really hard, but I think the most interesting and the most rewarding. And honestly, I don’t think I could do it another way.
NOFS: It feels phony if it’s not 100% real and you really nail it in this movie too, especially with the relationship between Frank and Zed. I really dug it.
JB: Oh, you did? What did you like about it?
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“…getting it in a place where it was that kind of melancholy-ness but still allowed the viewer to just think their own thoughts about it was really hard.”
NOFS: I think the biggest scene for me was when Frank is pulling out his own stitching to help piece his decaying buddy back together again.
JB: I’m glad you liked that. The sewing scene was one of the scenes that was a reason to make the whole movie. I wrote it very early on, it was exactly the same and I was so excited for this thing to be really ugly- Like, a guy getting his hand sewn back on- and to do it as this really sweet tender thing, I was so excited to do that. And one of the things in talking about the project and talking to the crew, people were like ‘What is he talking about?’ and I’m like, ‘It’s gonna be amazing!’ A similar thing happened with Shine, this barbershop horror short that I did. It’s like a barbershop horror short film with puppets and when I was first telling people about it, they were like, ‘What is he talking about?’ and I’m like ‘It’s gonna be great!’ And to me, it’s not a question. It’s just obviously great and then other people don’t necessarily arrive at that conclusion when you first say barbershop horror film. But yeah, that sewing scene was something that I was just so excited [about].
The thing that was hard about that scene was the music. I have this incredible composer, Michael Richard Plowman, and he did at least eight different, really incredible songs for that scene because just getting the thing where it was supported, but not telling you exactly how to feel. That’s what was really hard about that scene, is the music could very much say this is happy/this is sad/this is pathetic/this is funny, you know, and getting it in a place where it was that kind of melancholy-ness but still allowed the viewer to just think their own thoughts about it was really hard. But then I was really thrilled with how it turned out.
NOFS: For a movie so filled with guts and heart, that tonal balance had to be a struggle the whole time.
JB: The hard part about the tone, which was really, really important to me, was more about protecting it and that’s what I had to be really vigilant of. What I never wanted was a joke or a thing that would alienate someone, so that was really, really important to me to try and make it so that as many people could enjoy the film as possible. There’s a lot of jokes that are tempting to make for many different reasons, because they play on somebody’s appearance or other things and that’s that’s what I always try to do. You know, like, let’s just keep all that stuff out of it.
One of my favorite examples is when the young woman goes off into the woods. It was tempting to have her like, ‘Oh, I’m so in love with this baker,’ and I’m like that would never happen in real life, she would never actually be attracted to his guy. Now, she might go out into the woods for a chocolate muffin. That kind of idiocy, I can actually imagine and that all of a sudden makes her character more real. I think that’s part of the realism, trying to make them even for these tiny itty bitty moments seem real so that so that as many people get to enjoy the film’s possible.
“With a puppet, you can do anything you want but you have to do everything. That the trade-off.”
NOFS: Let’s talk practical effects. I gotta assume blood fountains, and gooey brains are a lot harder when you’re working with puppets.
JB: Here’s the thing with puppets; With a puppet, you can do anything you want but you have to do everything. That the trade-off. So, Zed- I can rig him up to chop off his arm, but to raise that arm up is a whole thing. To rig it so the arm doesn’t immediately fall off before it’s chopped off, is the whole thing. To get the puppet in the frame, to get it positioned so it doesn’t look silly- There’s all these great opportunities with the puppets and there’s certain ways that we that we learned to move more quickly but the big things you can do, like having the blood squirt out of the head and all that other kind of stuff, you pay for it with a million of these other tiny itty bitty things that are, like, impossible.
Getting Frank to hold a head and actually kind of grip it in a real way is very, very hard. [A puppet hand doesn’t naturally grip and] it looks so silly. Or, if I’m looking at you, well, puppets look [all over the place] because they don’t make eye contact, because it’s somebody’s hand. You have to get those eye-lines perfect. So, that’s the place where it’s like, yeah, all of this becomes easier, but the entire rest of the body is impossible. [With puppets] it’s the reverse. The hard stuff is easy, and the easy stuff is impossible. But it’s also fun.
NOFS: It’s easy to tell this was a passion project for you. I was reading that this took 7 years to put together?
JB: It had phases. Making Frank and Zed was a pretty intense six months of work just doing the sculpt, and then you have to cast it and mold it. When we made Frank, to make the capillaries in his eye, you take yard and unwind it, and then you lay it in one little strand at a time to make the capillaries. And it’s super fun but laying in capillaries to an eyeball one at a time, takes some time. But then we also did the Kickstarter, and you have to really kind of stop everything to do the Kickstarter campaign and I didn’t know the Kickstarter platform, so you’re learning everything about that software.
And then also, I had to do paid work when it came along and everyone on my cast and crew is also doing paid work, so there was also just a lot of times where things had to be stopped because some person would get a really good gig. and they had. We were always trying to find other ways to keep the project moving forward but that certainly complicated it. So, while it did take seven years- [it really took] I don’t know, maybe half that? It’s hard to say exactly. But, you know, to get it right just takes time.
“[…] all the horror people I know are loving, warm, fuzzy, very nice people, and, of course, a lot of the people that made the film are that way.”
NOFS: It’s such a great movie man. Obviously, I’m nuts about all the practical effects, it’s all very 80’s, but I was so shocked at how much heart you injected into this gory story, especially with Frank and Zed.
JB: I love those guys. That’s one of the things that’s weird is that, you know, I was there every step of the way, obviously, but when I watch the movie, I feel like I’m seeing these characters that I know. You feel like you know them, or at least I do, in a way that’s meaningful and I’m glad that there’s some psychotic part of my brain that can believe that thing that it knows is totally not true, and I just love that we as a species have the ability to kind of do that; To have the tooth fairy and leprechauns, werewolves and vampires, and you’re like “Yeah, no they’re not real, but…”.
I just think that’s really magical and I love the idea that Frank and Zed might contribute to that incredible tradition of storytelling, and be characters that people can see in their own way, is so cool. And it’s really fascinating talking to people, and some people really like Frank, and some people really like Zed, and I love that the movie would have enough richness that different people from their own perspective can have different things that they like about it. It’s really, really cool. It’s really unexpected because it’s a very personal film, obviously. It’s something I made for myself and the crew, and so to see other people respond to it is really cool.
[…Frank & Zed has] a loving, heart-warming tone that was important to me. That something that’s less common, especially in the horror genre, you don’t see that as often, but all the horror people I know are loving, warm, fuzzy, very nice people, and, of course, a lot of the people that made the film are that way. My lead puppeteer, Jason Robb was just the nicest human being I’ve ever met, and is a horror freak. All of his walls are covered with horror stuff, and I think that’s one of the things I’ve always felt is a big part of the horror community. So it was exciting to say, ‘Hey, this is something I want to see, this is something that’s important to me, it’s my film and guess what, I get to choose, and I’m gonna put it in here and see what people think’.
That’s one of the ways that, ironically, I feel like I’m talking to a real horror fan when they’re like, “Oh, they’re so charming and sweet,” I’m like, “that’s a real horror fan!” That they can recognize that that is part of the human experience. It’s always funny because I imagine what other people think- You know, that they think it’s all hardcore and blah, blah, blah. I mean, I want to do that. In the Orgy Of Blood I really hope that- You know, I had a checklist making that. I was like, these are the minimum things that it has to do, so I really hope the film delivers but I’m just overjoyed that [people] liked that aspect of it as well.
Jessee Blanchard’s Frank & Zed celebrated it’s World Premiere at the Nighstream Film Festival. Click HERE to see all our coverage of the fest, and get in touch with the Nightmare on Film Street fam over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the horror movie fiend club on Facebook! For more horror straight to your inbox, be sure to join the Neighbourhood Watch!