Brandon Christensen’s Still/Born was named Scariest Feature at the 2017 Overlook Film Festival. His second feature Z celebrated its world premiere at the 2019 Overlook Film Festival debuting a new terrifying monster masquerading as the imaginary friend of a young child. Nightmare on Film Street’s Kimberley Elizabeth said in her review of the film that “t]he scares are intense, expertly paced, and keep audiences on their toes – never sure just what to expect, or from where“. You can read her full (spoiler free) review HERE.
Z is written and directed by Brandon Christen, with an additional writing credit for Colin Minihan (What Keeps You Alive). The film stars Keegan Connor Tracy (Final Destination 2), Sean Rogerson (Grave Encounters), Stephen McHattie (Come To Daddy), and Jett Klyne. We sat down with Brandon Christensen to discuss how to build an impactful scare, how every film is a personal film, and how the idea of Toy Story is actually kinda terrifying.
“I think to craft a good scare, it’s really just to just make the audience think something’s going to happen, or make them expect something and change the timing […] keep the tension going longer.”
Jonathan Dehaan from Nightmare on Film Street: I wanted to talk to you about a specific scare in Z. There is a bathtub sequence that is really effective and I was curious how you craft a good scare? Do you think there is a science to it?
Brandon Christensen: I think there is. I think it’s definitely about the contrast of a scene and stretching it out as long as you can, until it’s kind of reaching that point where you’re just like, Okay, we got to snap back. When that scene starts, the music builds you in and then it slowly and slowly gets quieter and quieter till it’s really just a little bit of the water and her whispering over it. So it’s very quiet, which makes the viewer kind of lean in a little bit. The hardest part really is just making sure that whatever the scare is, the accompanying sound if you’re going to have one, like the jump scare noise, the crescendo, whatever crashes when it happens, it just has to be frame accurate.
So that one, that was challenging to figure out. We had a few different iterations of it, when we wrote it, where Z was going to explode out of the tub but the simple idea of just like a little friendly splash on her face, and just this holy shit [reveal]- what it’s doing is it’s showing what she sees constantly. And so you know, as a viewer, we’re training you like ‘something’s going to be there soon’. So you can show her and then you show [the candles] again, it’s like, ‘keep watching here, guys’.
I think to craft a good scare, it’s really just to just make the audience think something’s going to happen, or make them expect something and change the timing and maybe play with it because the easier way of doing it would have been [to] show her point of view. So it’s just coming up with a creative way to get you to the scare and to keep the tension going longer. That’s the hard thing, and Still/Born fell to that where it was always just like throw the scare out. There’s so many scares and, you know, 70-60% of them work because it’s just too much. You need to let the audience get comfortable and then bring it up. It’s kind of similar to a comedy like that. If you’re laughing all the time, you can’t pay attention, the story gets muddled, so you kind of have to pick and choose your battles.
NOFS: I don’t know. You won Scariest Movie [at the 2017 Overlook Film Festival] so you were doing something right.
BC: Yeah, but I think that was 95% the monitor scare. That was what won us that because that had such a huge reaction. The rest of the film, it has some good stuff, but that’s 12 minutes in and it kind of plateaus there. Whereas this one keeps going and changing and evolving. Which was a big difference and why I like this movie more because it’s a similar concept, mother/child, but it’s much more than that because it explores her family history, it explores some mental side of things that may be going on.
Kimberley from Nightmare on Film Street: A little more ambiguity.
BC: Yeah, and this one’s a lot more personal as well with just some of the stuff that goes on.
NOFS: Are you worried about your kid having an imaginary friend?
BC: Yes. To go personal for a second we did Still/Born and then last year, a week after release because Mother’s Day it came out on Shudder. It came out February 10 and then Shudder re-released but that was kind of where everybody began to see it. A week after release on May 20 my wife was super pregnant, 34 weeks, and she had a concealed placental abruption and basically bled out inside and she didn’t know it. So she went to the hospital and she was seconds from death and we lost the baby. So we had, literally a stillborn a week after it came out on Shudder.
And so as we were making this film, my kid [told us he was seeing a] green-eyed girl, and when he starts talking we’re just like ‘is this a thing?’ like, [our life is] going to be following the movies. Do I need to make a comedy next? Like oh ‘this family wins the lottery,’ you know? It’s just kind of like playing with karma because the reaction to Still/Born, unfortunately, was pretty mixed online. A lot of people just see the title and it’s very triggering for people that have gone through it, like my wife. It’s called SB in my house now, and it’s just it’s very hard for her to talk about it because she nearly died. Like, I had to go to the hospital and we held the baby, and we spent the day with it. But that movie with a different title probably would have done better because it doesn’t make fun of- it’s very careful with the way it handles that thing. It’s just- I didn’t know any better so it’s just like ‘Hey, it’s a cool title, I know that word, you know whatever’. So I regret that because it was just a very dark sense of irony with the whole situation where my movie had just come out and I’m dealing with this at the exact same time.
“…it was personally the hardest thing to do that film and then to keep working on it cause I edited it, I did the effects. It was just awful. When I finished, I was so happy.”
NOFS: So let’s shift gears hard for a minute. You had an actor playing the creature in the movie, Luke Moore, where did you find him?
BC: He was a Calgary actor. We were looking for a tall and skinny guy because that’s a safe bet in horror, and we talked to a bunch of guys but the makeup artist [Tracy Falukozi] is the same one that did Still/Born she’s like, “Oh, I’ve got this friend. He does a lot of like cosplay stuff. He’d be great,’ and so I met him and he’s got very striking features like high cheekbones, big eyes and stuff like that, and so we built a mask around him with two different mouths. There’s one that’s like a really unnaturally high smile and then there’s like the big teeth one and the idea was, basically, he’s holding back his teeth like he’s trying so hard to just be friendly, but then he’s gonna spring it on.
That was kind of the concept but in post I did a lot of work like I shrunk his chin and made his eyes bigger and made his nose like Michael Jackson small just to make him kind of unnatural and kid-like. So yeah, it was fun. It sucked [for him] because he was basically naked on set and with the shooting schedule we had, he would always be called to set way too early. We’d always be putting [his] scene at the end of the night because it’s always dark and stuff, and so he’d be in makeup just walking around the house almost naked and his scenes would come up and it was like, “Okay Luke, get in we’ve got like five minutes, let’s shoot it- de de de de,’ and then it’s like, ‘Alright, I guess we got it. Sorry. You can go home now”. It was tough for him for sure.
Going back to the bath scene, this is just an interesting anecdote, but my grandfather was sick during the shooting of this film. I have an Apple Watch, you get text messages on it, and so we were shooting the bathtub scene and I got a text message. I looked and it was [a photo of] my grandpa, and he was dead. My dad sent it to all the kids, and it was like three in the morning and I just melted down. It was kind of just everything because we shot two months after everything happened last year. I used that photo though when the mom [in Z] died. I was like, ‘This is what you’re going to do,’ so I was able to put the way she’s laying and stuff- It was exactly the same.
So yeah, it was personally the hardest thing to do that film and then to keep working on it cause I edited it, I did the effects. It was just awful. When I finished, I was so happy. it’s just it’ll be nice to move on to something that’s not so intrinsically tied with all these personal horror stories.
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NOFS: Do you have anything planned next? Anything coming up?
BC: I’ve got a series that I’ve been writing with my brother. It’s a very Stranger Things/IT type thing with four boys in the 80s. It sounds like Stranger Things but Stranger Things sounds like IT. IT sounds like Stand By Me. Stand By Me sounds like whatever. I think it’s funny it’s such an appealing time because so many of the people that are creating now and making stuff, that’s when they grew up, so they’re drawing on personal experiences. Story-wise, it’s completely different than any of those things. But it’s about four boys that discover something in their town. Slowly it unravels throughout the whole town and it’s like a snowball effect where it just keeps growing and growing, creating chaos throughout the whole town. It’s really cool. We wrote nine episodes based on a book that he wrote, and it’s like, terrific book. It didn’t ever get an audience or anything like that so we adapted it over the last couple years and I would love to do it because I think it’s such a wonderful story. I’ve got another film that I’m writing, just dabbling in right now. I’ve been so busy with Z. We just finished last week.
NOFS: I’ve actually been talking with a lot of people at the festival about horror being scary. I don’t really know what the shift has been, but movies now are really just dark and chilling, like we’re getting more genre stories that harder to watch, I guess. But we’re not getting straight, scary movies, which I definitely think Z is. Do you have any idea why that is, or whether you think horror needs to be scary?
BC: I mean, one of the appeals of doing horror is the commercial value to it and unfortunately, I couldn’t make a comedy with actors that nobody really knows and be able to make a career out of it. You see Ari Aster, he did Hereditary and that movie is very personal. I don’t know exactly what extent that it’s personal to him but it’s a story about a family and grief, and it’s going down this horrible thing. It’s similar to Z in that aspect, where you’ve got this problem and you’ve got this woman dealing with a worse and worse situation. I know, as a viewer- and I mean, the biggest thing is going to a festival like this, where you can sit with the audience, and you can see it. So you want to have those punctuating moments where it has “Oh, my God,” and you jump and it’s fun, and all sudden you’re having fun, and you’re able to bury the story, which is really personal, into something that you’re also able to enjoy. I mean, nobody walked out of Hereditary feeling good. And it’s a terrific film, you know, the script was amazing but it punches you and punches you and never stops punching you, whereas [Z] has some lightness to it.
I think the genre doesn’t need it but […] you just want to get the audience to have fun, so they can talk about it and stuff like that. I don’t know, it’s tough. I like to be jumpy. When you watch a film, like a Blumhouse film, I like that payoff where you have that release, and then you can rebuild it, and that’s kind of the whole ebbs and flow of horror movies for me, where like Hereditary, I keep talking about it just because it’s so good, but it doesn’t have really ebbs and flows, because you never have the release. It’s just constant dread, and building and building and building. He’s a terrific writer, obviously. I don’t think I can do that. It’s almost like the Marvel movies when something really serious happens, you always have Iron Man make a joke after and it kind of cuts off the emotional stakes. I think it’s just a safety move where it’s just like, ‘if this doesn’t land, I’ll make them laugh instead,’ you know? But it’s ballsy to do what he did with Hereditary where you just keep pushing on that thing and you don’t give them that release.
“There’s just something really creepy about innocent things that when dark and when alone and untouched, it’s terrifying. Toy Story an idea is terrifying, but because it’s got fun colors, it’s not.”
Kim: Yeah, I don’t think there was any humor in [Hereditary].
BC: There’s not. It’s dark as fuck,
NOFS: So, you also have a Speak ‘N Spell in the movie, which is crazy creepy and- I guess I have two questions: 1) I want to know if anyone used that for a prank on set and 2) Are kids toys just always creepy when they don’t work properly?
BC: I think so. I mean, that’s why nurseries in films are always so scary. You go to a haunted hospital, there’s always going to be the rocking horse or something like that. There’s just something really creepy about innocent things that when dark and when alone and untouched, it’s terrifying. Toy Story an idea is terrifying, but because it’s got fun colors and all that stuff, it’s not. The Speak ‘N Spell thing- it was like, ‘how do we have z communicate?’ and that was kind of a blend of toys and a ouija board, so it was always referred to as the ouija board scene because she’s able to sort of communicate [and] receive a message from it.
The Speak ‘N Spell just seemed like such a funny, fun way to do. I like that moment in a film where a person is trying to piece together [a message] and your audience is trying to spell it out. They’re trying to follow along with the character and then you get the answer. I just feel like it’s fun and rewarding. But yeah, kids stuff is great and that’s why clowns are creepy. There’s just something off-putting. It’s the juxtaposition of something that’s supposed to be happy and fun but it’s just off and off-putting and it’s very unsettling.
NOFS: It’s really true because you’re talking about making Z more childlike, and he’s pretty goddamn creepy to look at but also some of the more unsettling stuff is watching mom become more childlike.
BC: Yeah, that’s the whole thing is like as you- When you get older you got bills, you got a mortgage, you got all these things and when you have kids, you know, it’s very easy to lose that young side of yourself and you can become kind of apathetic towards fun and things like that. I think that’s why iPad culture so big, because it’s like, ‘Here, just do this, I’m gonna go rest over here and do my own thing’. When you’re a parent, it’s not easy to always have fun and when the dad [in Z] comes home from work, he’s not there all day dealing with this stuff so he comes home and he’s able to be the fun dad. And that can be a hard thing for the mother as well because she’s doing so much work. It’s kind of like she’s slowly letting in this childlike self of herself and unfortunately, just the way it happened she kind of OD’d on childhood and went a little too far. So just, you know, let a little bit of it out. Always try and have some fun, play with your kids and try and maintain that level of youth because you never know when you lose it.
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NOFS: So Z celebrated the world premiere here [at Overlook 2019]. Can we expect to see it anywhere else soon?
BC: There’s no deal signed yet. We should know sooner than later. I would imagine that it would come out this year though. It’s just a paperwork thing that we’re waiting on.
NOFS: Any other festival appearances between now and then?
BC: Yeah, we’ve submitted to a few, we’ll submit to more. We got in [Overlook] and for the last month, it’s just been like, ‘get it done,’ because I had to do all the VFX and stuff like that. So now, you know, I had two or three days of sitting and doing nothing and waiting for this. It was weird because my wife would go to bed and I would usually stay up to like five or six doing rotoscoping or whatever, and so she’s like, ‘you’re coming to bed already?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what to do’. Just sitting in bed, like, ‘I feel so empty’. But it was good. I’m looking forward to going home and just having a week, and separating myself. I’m sure it’ll have a healthy festival run. It’s a good festival movie because it has those jumps and all that stuff that’s built for that.
Brandon Christensen’s Z celebrated its world premiere at the 2019 Overlook Film Festival. Stay tuned to Nightmare on Film Street for more coverage and highlights from the festival, and let us know which films you’re excited to check out over on Twitter, Reddit, and the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!