Leo Francis' Exclusive Interview with Zach Donohue (The Den)
A few weeks ago I reviewed Zach Donohue's feature length directorial debut, THE DEN. You can read my review here. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I was really blown-away by Zach's bold take on the found footage style of film making. So when Zach invited me to a screening downtown, I jumped at the opportunity to see it again on the big screen, and liked it even more the second time around. I got to speak with Zach, Melanie, Lauren and David after the film and Zach was kind enough to agree to answer a few of my questions here in an exclusive interview. Thanks to Zach for taking the time. Cheers. THE DEN is currently available on iTunes and VOD, and select theaters across the country.
Leo Francis: First let me thank you for taking the time to do this. I sincerely appreciate it. I was very impressed with your feature film directorial debut, The Den, so I was psyched to get the opportunity to ask you a few questions.
Zach Donohue: Thanks so much for the kind praise.
LF: You've managed to make the found footage style of film making, which has been getting a bit overused since the first Paranormal Activity movie was released, interesting again. What other found footage style films were influential on you and the way you approached this film?
ZD: The PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies for sure were a big influence. Going into this, I wanted to take some of the things I truly loved about that franchise, but add an extra layer of violence, gore, and even sexuality that isn't usually typical in those movies.
A lot of people tend to compare THE DEN to the webcam segment from V/H/S as well as PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, but both of those films came out while we were shooting the movie (a year after we wrote the script). The whole thing was a three year process, so there's bound to be some over-lapping ideas in the zeitgeist. Even as this movie was released earlier this month, OPEN WINDOWS (which has a similar visual conceit) hit SXSW at the same time. I like all of these movies, and thankfully, I think they're all very different from each other, and each have something fresh to offer audiences.
LF: Do you agree that the style is becoming over used, or do you think people just need to find more inventive ways of approaching it?
ZD: The latter. I will never turn down watching a movie because it's found footage. I might turn it down if the story doesn't interest me -- but if it's a horror movie, I'll probably check it out eventually. I think if you have a concept that would work perfectly as a found footage movie, then you should not shy away from using the device.
My only warning is that with found footage comes the blurry notion that the movie can be made "on the cheap" -- while that's true for the most part, I don't think it's wise to ever skimp on the monster. You should never cheat the audience out of "seeing the monster" clearly. If anything, "found footage" should just be a filter that provides an added layer of terror -- something that serves to amplify the monster.
You can argue that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT got away with showing nothing, but my counter is that it was the first of its kind -- and nowadays people expect more substance in the frame.
LF: I tend to prefer indie-horror films to the big budget studio releases, mostly because the indie film makers are able to take risks they normally wouldn't be allowed to take. I also think that the true test of a great director is what they can achieve on a limited budget, and you seem to have achieved that. Do you feel budget restrictions forced you to be more creative, and do you think that yielded better results?
ZD: Certainly, but I will say that I am very fortunate to have had the budget that I was given, regardless of how big/small it was. And I don't take that granted.
I think I managed to get almost 75 % of the tricky shots the way I had originally conceived them (with stunts or special fx make-up) -- the other 25 % was us having to be creative on set and work out solutions to do it on the cheap -- and yet still have it took cool. I actually realized that in a found footage movie (especially this one) there are sometimes more options at our disposal to hide cuts i.e., through digital disturbance, internet lag, glitching, etc.
But that being said, because this movie was shot from one angle, we didn't have the option of traditional cutaways or cutting to reverse angles. This limitation put an extreme emphasis on our gore and stunts looking particularly good on camera. This was stressful, and we had to do a lot of long single takes over and over until we were blue in the face. The scene where the cop gets his head smashed with a sledgehammer was a nightmare to pull off because we essentially had to swap out the actor with an entire fake head and torso without making it look like we had an edit. I think the final result is pretty seamless, but it was a headache to execute.
LF: The effects in the films were spectacular when it came to the gore. I always prefer practical effects to CGI, and I get the sense that your decision to use practical effects was an aesthetic choice as opposed to a budgetary one. Is that correct?
ZD: Yes, I don't trust CGI -- especially on a micro-budget. I also have never thought that CGI blood looks good. I've noticed there are a lot of great horror TV shows that have solid practical effects, but then someone gets stabbed with a knife and awful CGI blood splatter flies through the air. It looks terrible to me and as long as I make horror movies, I will always rely on a guy with a blood pump---even if the pump explodes on set and ruins one of our costumes (which happened on this movie haha).
LF: You also co-wrote the script with Lauren Thompson. Has your time as a script reader at CAA helped you to understand the screenwriting process? Do you think that gave you an advantage writing this script?
ZD: I picked up a lot of cool tricks (re: tone, style, dialogue, action writing, etc) from the better scripts. But to understand structure, I generally rely on screenwriting books like SAVE THE CAT. I think if you read scripts it gets your mind in script-mode and it's a lot easier to dive into the page.
LF: What other screenwriters would you consider to be an influence on you?
ZD: I honestly haven't read a lot of recent horror screenplays out of my own interest. But I do read a lot of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS is an amazing story, and I'm still bummed that del Toro didn't get a chance to make it.
LF: You worked for RAW Entertainment, Thomas Jane's production company. Did you have a chance to work on his short film Dirty Laundry?
ZD: I loved that short! But unfortunately, that wasn't made while I was there.
LF: What was your experience like working there? Were you able to learn anything that helped you out when making your film?
ZD: It was cool. I interned there for six months reading a lot of great submissions for the company and giving notes on current projects in development. The only downside was I never actually got to meet Mr. Jane because he was in another state filming HUNG. But I love his movies, and THE MIST is great.
Yes, the ability to make a fast decision and stick with my guns. I'm sure half of the decisions I made on set were the wrong call...but they were a call, nonetheless. As in most fields, flip-flopping and being wishy-washy doesn't make a strong director. And I learned to be decisive pretty quickly.
LF You're clearly a huge fan of the genre. What was the film that got you hooked? What other genre film makers do you look up to, or whose films have been the biggest influence on you?
ZD: CARNIVAL OF SOULS is such a hauntingly beautiful film. My dad was really into the "Sinister Cinema" VHS collections and showed that movie to me when I was about five... and it really freaked me out, but in a great way. I was the kind of kid who loved the feeling of being scared by a movie.
Ti West, Adam Wingard, James Wan -- these guys have really brought horror to a new and exciting level. I feel like audiences more than ever are into horror these days, and it's because of directors like them who push the genre forward.
LF: You've also worked for a non-profit organization where you oversaw cases for people with cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities. That had to be both challenging and rewarding for you as a person. Can you tell me how you got involved in that and what it has taught you that has helped you grow as a person?
ZD: My parents both work in the field. After film school, I needed a job and I had done similar work in my summers home from college. I love the work and have met some really amazing people there. Among many things, it's taught me to appreciate the gifts and abilities I have.
LF What scares you? We're all scared of war and disease and things like that. But when it comes to horror films, what genuinely scares you?
ZD: There's a lot of scary things in this world. Hard to boil down into one. But I definitely think the certainty of death and the uncertainty of what comes after is pretty terrifying. Anything can be scary -- I think it's all about the context. But when I was a kid I thought I saw someone standing outside my window one night (and we lived in the middle of the woods). So THE STRANGERS definitely gave me the willies as it certainly played on my fears from childhood.
LF: Name a film you walked out of at the theater.
ZD: I haven't walked out on a film yet, but I fell asleep during WE'RE BACK! A DINOSAUR'S STORY as a kid. I came close to walking out on GRAVITY, but I paid so much for the Imax tix that I felt compelled to finish it. And yes, I thought GRAVITY was beautiful and a true cinematic marvel -- but I hated everything else about it. The story, the characters, "Ghost Clooney"... it just bored me after the first 30 minutes.
LF: If you could punch one person in the face, who would it be?
ZD: I was trying to think of a funny reply, but honestly I have a fear of punching someone in the face. There's just too many weird angles in the face and I feel like the sensation would be weird and unnerving.
LF: Has anyone ever made you feel 'star-struck'?
ZD: When I first started PAing on film sets out here, I got star struck by even the smallest B or C actor. I'm definitely more numb to it, but if I met someone like Tom Cruise, I'd probably be pretty nervous.
LF: What's your favorite horror film of all time?
ZD: THE SHINING is my all time favorite. But I also really love Bob Clark's early work. DEATHDREAM and BLACK CHRISTMAS are so well-executed and creepy. In fact, the scene that is the cover art for BLACK CHRISTMAS subconsciously motivated one of the deaths in THE DEN. I also really loved the idea that you never learn who the killer is at the end of BLACK CHRISTMAS... he's just some creepy stranger who's been in the attic this whole time. That's terrifying to me.
Thanks again to Zach, and go see THE DEN or rent it on iTunes of VOD.
- Leo Francis