Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Interview: Alex Horwitz, Writer/Director Alice Jacobs is Dead

A few months back, our buddy Jeff Atencio (the main proprietor of awesome that is The Jaded Viewer), posted a trailer and synopsis for a short indie horror film called Alice Jacobs is Dead. After viewing and reading both, needless to say, I was incredibly intrigued.

I then reached out to the director and he graciously sent me a screener copy of the film. After watching it, I was impressed, as it was something wholly original and truly unique (see review here). Never having exposed myself to short films, I was amazed at just how much could be accomplished and conveyed in such an abbreviated running time. At its heart, Alice Jacobs is Dead is a zombie film, but there is so much more going on. Whereas most focus on the hsyteria behind an outbreak, this film instead looks at things on a more human level. Namely, that of the unflinching love between a man and his wife.

I recently interviewed Alex Horwitz, the writer and director of the film. Here's what he had to say about his idea for the film, how he managed to score the talents of both John La Zar and Adrienne Barbeau, and his reaction to the sub-genre being widely considered as on its last leg.

Cortez The Killer: Where did the idea for Alice Jacobs is Dead come from? Its incredibly original in that, for the most part, most zombie films don’t focus on actual relationships between people. At least not to the depths that you explored.

Alex Horwitz: I’m certainly not the first to wed zombies and character, and I’ve always found that the best genre films have real emotional resonance. There are so many horror films that are slick and scary while you watch them, but utterly forgettable five minutes later. My original concept was a bit more like that, a sort of mad-scientist-loves-his-zombie-wife schlockfest. But I decided that a quiet, somber relationship drama that just happens to be a zombie story would be a lot more memorable, and in turn scarier. After all, I think there’s only a fine line between romance and horror. Both make you queasy, and both have the potential to rip your heart out, one way or another. Casting had a lot to do with shaping the film’s tone. I lucked out beyond belief when both John La Zar and Adrienne Barbeau agreed to do the film.

CTK: How did you manage to score the talents of both La Zar AND Barbeau?

Alex: I was a huge fan of John from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Deathstalker II. A few years ago, I sought him out and struck up a friendship, with both of us saying that we'd love to work together one day. So the script started as a La Zar vehicle. I wrote with Barbeau in mind to play Alice, sent her agent the script, and completely lucked out when Adrienne said 'yes.' Peter Cambor, who plays George, is an old friend from college who's now on NCIS: Los Angeles. It's uncommon to get all your first choice actors for a production this size. I'm very fortunate.

CTK: Why did you choose a short film over its lengthier counterpart? Any plans to potentially make it a full feature?

Alex: I just finished a treatment for a full-length version of the movie, though I originally conceived it as a short. Before Alice, I spent a lot of time working small jobs on big movies, and while I learned a lot doing that, I wanted to make my own films, and I knew that I could make a stronger film by concentrating my resources on a short, rather than spreading them thin over a feature. The tricky part of making the feature will be staying true to the core of the short – an intimate story of one couple, not the chronicle of a zombie holocaust. If it gets made, I think it still will be set in the calm after the storm, but with some glimpses of 'The Scare.' We’ve all seen the zombie outbreak movie so many times, so I want this to be different.

CTK: I love the genre nods in the film and in particular, the scene in which Alice is watching White Zombie on the ol’ boob tube. What are your favorite zombie films and why?

Alex: I can’t imagine a better movie to be playing onscreen in that moment. That’s always been my favorite scene in the film, and it happened to be a constructive, story-driven way for me to wear my geekiness on my sleeve. I prefer it when film references within films enhance the scene, rather than just feel thrown in. The character names, certainly, are nods to some of my favorite zombie films. For me, it still doesn’t get any better than Romero’s first Night of the Living Dead. It’s all writing, very little spectacle. All he had was some poor man’s lighting tricks and a killer script. But I also love Resident Evil and Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, which are pretty slick stylistically, but also well-written. It’s so easy to throw a horde of zombies in the direction of some frightened people and call it a movie. It’s much harder to make us care about the people, and in my favorite zombie flicks, the humans are more memorable than the monsters. I have to throw Shaun of the Dead in here. Just like my film tries to be equal parts horror and love story, Shaun is as effective a comedy as it is a zombie film. I hate it when people only expect one thing from a film. Genre categorization is for wimps.

CTK: Our friends over at All Things Horror brought up an interesting thought that had not occurred to me while watching the film. They likened Alice’s ‘condition’ and her frustration with it to that of an allegory of someone who’s afflicted with some sort of terminal illness. Was that feeling a conscious effort on your part?

Alex: It wasn’t entirely premeditated, but yeah, it was on my mind. Ben and Alice are characters of a certain age, so scenes of degenerative illness, even if that illness is zombism, will inevitably relate to real-life scenarios. One friend told me that the scene of Alice throwing up was very difficult for him, because it brought back memories of watching his mother deteriorate from cancer. I don’t want to upset people, but I’m glad if I can make something as absurd as a zombie hit home with people in a very believable way.

CTK: I said this in my review and I’ve seen it repeated in a few others online, your film did more in its short running time than those with twice the amount. How do you ensure that you get the most out of your actors for that brief amount of time? Is the film making process any different?

Alex: Thanks, I’m glad you think so. I don’t know that the process is much different, it’s just more concentrated. With a short, you want to tell as much story as efficiently as you can. I’d have liked to have spent a little more time exploring the post-disaster world of the story, but then I’d be in the weird limbo length between short and feature. It was just an exercise in editing, at all stages. I trimmed a lot of fat from the first script, then in rehearsal and on set we’d cut a line here or there. The final film is very close to the shooting script, but we did lose some touches. Regrettably, I cut a monologue by Ben in which he explains to George exactly how Alice got infected. It was nice backstory, but it made the film drag. You have to kill your darlings, as they say. But hey, it gives you something to look for in the feature.

CTK: Some believe that the zombie film is on its last leg or that the well of ideas has run dry. Do you think there is more that can be explored within this sub-genre?

Alex: Well, even when a zombie’s last leg snaps off, he’ll keep coming (ed. note: 'wakka wakka wakka'). The old cliché is that it’s always getting harder to be original, but exceptions always come around now and then, and those are the movies we remember twenty or fifty years later. Look, the golden age of the great Hollywood musical died at least fifty years ago, but every once in a while, a Cabaret, or All That Jazz, or Pennies From Heaven, or even Rocky Horror or Little Shop of Horrors comes along. I think it’s safe to assume that we’re going to see a few dozen craptacular, forgettable zombie films for each memorable one, but that’s true of every genre. It’s worth waiting for the good ones. There will be peaks and valleys for every genre, but I Love Sarah Jane and even Zombieland are proof that zombie movies still have some tricks up their sleeves. I haven’t seen Dead Girl or Zombie Honeymoon, but I hear that they’re new takes on the undead as well. There’s always something new, you just have to wait long enough for it.

CTK: You had mentioned to me that the film is still making the festival rounds. Any upcoming screenings that you’d like to mention to our faithful readers?

Alex: We’re waiting to hear from nearly thirty festivals right now, and that number will likely grow. That doesn’t mean we’re in them yet. We premiered at Comic Con’s film festival, and won Best Horror/Suspense Film, but since then, the festival submission calendar saw a lull, so we hope for a big surge in 2010. I hope to be able to announce some screenings soon, which we’ll do on our website. We’re also looking into some online distribution, so hopefully everyone will be able to see it within the next few months.

CTK: What horror film are you most looking forward to in 2010?

Alex: Wow, let me think. I’m such a sucker for the classic Universal horror cycle, so I have to admit that I’m a little excited about The Wolfman. Also, although it won’t be in 2010, I am as excited to see Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel as I am nervous about it. The first three Alien films are sacred to me, as is Blade Runner, so Scott’s return to sci-fi horror is a big deal in my book. Then again, it’s been a long time since Scott hit anything out of the park for me, so I’m on pins and needles. It doesn’t get any better than that series though. I will fight anyone to the death in defense of Alien 3. I wrote an epic blog entry about it, if you’re looking to kill the time before the new one comes out.

CTK: We love supporting indie horror. Anything that we should look out for or be aware of that’s up and coming?

Alex: You know better than I do. I need sites like Planet of Terror to sift the good stuff out for me. I’m really impressed with what Larry Fessenden does. Larry did a cameo role in a feature I co-produced called House of Satisfaction, but he’s best known as a writer, director, and producer of really cool independent horror. The Last Winter was a really memorable, elegant horror film, and I know he’s always scheming and working on new stuff. Also, you’d think with the amount of vampire stuff coming out these days, there’d be more good stuff, but most of it’s so blah. Let the Right One In was such a beautiful film, but nothing else is even coming close. I guess we just have to be patient. Something brilliant will come along.

CTK: Speaking of Fessenden and vampires, have you seen Habit (see our review waaaaay back when here)? A great romance/trip out vamp flick.

Alex: I have, yeah. Actually, Jesse Hartman, the writer/director/star of House of Satisfaction, also has a role in Habit. New York film is a small world. I love Larry's approach in Habit, which is basically 'What if John Cassavetes made a vampire movie?' Let the Right One In is sort of the same exercise, but with Bergman. These are movies that don't rely on balls-out scares, but they get under your skin somehow, and they stick with you. If I did my job well, Alice Jacobs is Dead does the same.

CTK: Well I think it certainly does. Thank you Alex, I really appreciate your time.

Alex: Thanks for your questions and for doing a piece on me. As always, I'm truly thankful for the attention bloggers like you have given Alice.

For more information regarding Alice Jacobs is Dead, check out the film's site.

Cortez The Killer

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


Chris Hallock said...

Great interview! Alex Horwitz is very well-spoken and I totally agree with his take on horror films and the importance of emotional resonance.

Thanks for mentioning Mike's review from our site, but that was all him. I can't take credit. I think movies like this and Maidenhead resonate with him and I because we've both had to deal with losing someone close to us from a terminal disease. I don't know if that's appropriate to mention on a public forum, but it's the truth.

the jaded viewer said...

Thanks CTK for the acknowledgement.

After surfing through horrible, crappy horror trailers I found this diamond in the rough.I'm glad I did or I wouldn't have seen Alice Jacobs.

Alex Horowitz was very nice when I expressed interest in seeing the short than people were raving about.

It's our job to be the PR for indie horror. If we don't, we'll be stuck with Saw movie after Saw movie.

I hope he's able to make this full length.

Chris Hallock said...

gave you a little plug here, CtK

ATHO plugs PoT Alex Horwitz interview

(I hope the tags work)

Cortez The Killer said...

@Chris, thank you for the support. Much appreciated.

@Jaded, your welcome. And totally agreed. I'm making it my mission on the blog to support even more indie horror this year. Its just like anything else thats non-mainstream which deserves our attention and exposure. I hope he's able to make it too.