Exclusive Interview: Director Rob Savage Talks Dawn of the Deaf

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Dawn of the Deaf

Director Rob Savage discusses his innovative new apocalyptic short horror film Dawn of the Deaf

Fresh off a triumphant, head-turning premiere at Fantastic Fest, the spectacularly inventive, gorgeously executed Dawn of the Deaf—logline: “When a strange sound wipes out the hearing population, a small group of Deaf people must band together to survive”—threatens to go ultra-viral via upcoming screenings at BFI London Film Festival, Fright Fest, Sitges, Encounters, Uppsala, Fantasia and several others.

“Our aim was to create a genre film that would connect Deaf and hearing audiences in an engaging, thrilling way,” director Rob Savage tells ComingSoon.net of his apocalyptic horror short made with a cast drawn from the London Deaf community. “Rather than retread the same narratives usually seen when dealing with disability, we wanted to create a tense story in which the characters’ ‘disability’ becomes their ultimate advantage over the hearing population.”

Savage was gracious enough to speak with ComingSoon.net at length about the joys and challenges of leading that charge…

ComingSoon.net: So… first of all, I’m curious what previous connection you had to the deaf community before Dawn of the Deaf.

Rob Savage: Very little. I was already Facebook friends with a great Deaf filmmaker Samuel Dore, and I’d seen some of his work and had been keeping tabs on what he had been posting regarding Deaf culture and Deaf cinema in particular. However, mostly we just chatted about horror flicks, bonding over a mutual love of John Carpenter and George Romero. And so when we started work on Dawn of the Deaf, I knew Samuel had to be a part of it.

CS: Can you tell me more about the origin story of the tale itself?

Savage: The idea for Dawn of the Deaf was actually one that was brought to me, rather than developing out of my friendship with Samuel or any other connection to the Deaf community. I was getting drinks with horror-buff, writer, record producer and all-round-busiest-man-I-know Jed Shepherd, and he pitched me the idea of a Deaf-led zombie movie where the infection is spread through sound, and I knew right away that it was the idea I’d been waiting for.

CS: In your initial note to me you said you wanted to avoid “re-treading the same narratives usually seen when dealing with disability.” I imagine when it came to casting your deaf actors and actresses you probably had to overcome some skepticism about your motivations, right? No one wants to see their disability used as a gimmick.

Savage: I was definitely expecting some skepticism, but found that whenever we pitched the idea to Deaf collaborators, they all saw the narrative as being empowering, the fact that their Deafness becomes their ultimate tool of survival. We also made sure to keep Samuel involved at every stage of the process, and so the script was not sent out to any Deaf talent without Samuel having given his thoughts and ideas — hopefully this brought a level of reality to the characters that would not have been there otherwise.

CS: During production was it difficult to strike that balance of finding a way to use deaf characters and incorporate deafness into the film without making it a novelty?

Savage: Absolutely. The sound mix of the film took a lot of consideration and is one of the elements I am most proud of — and is entirely down to our fantastic sound designer/mixer Callum Sample. We spent many months experimenting with just how far we wanted to push the sound design, making sure not to over-stylize and risk disrupting the flow of the film. Obviously, we knew that at some point the sound would have to drop out — though never to complete silence — and we’d enter the headspace of one the Deaf characters, a moment we wanted to have huge impact. However, if we relied too heavily on stylizing the sound design, we would risk alienating a Deaf audience and so we decided that the first half of the film was about normalizing the Deaf characters in the eyes of the hearing audience, where we adopted a more conventional approach to the sound design, and that towards the end of the film we would allow the sound to become more stylized, bringing in a lot of bass so that the impact is still felt by Deaf viewers in a cinema environment.

CS: How did the deafness of the cast change the way this set ran as opposed to others.

Savage: We had an incredible team of translators working with us throughout the shoot, which ran just as smoothly as any other shoot I’ve had. I’m generally quite a demonstrative director and we blocked through the lines and movement at the start of the day, allowing us to shoot and reset very quickly once we were up and running. Stephen Collins, who plays Kevin, is an incredible lip reader and so on our one re-shoot day we did not even need to hire a translator.

CS: Were there any deaf folks in off-screen roles?

Savage: Not as much as we would have liked, and definitely if the idea expands to a feature we would make sure to hire Deaf talent behind the camera as well as in front. Samuel was at my side throughout almost the whole shoot, advising on BSL, taking unit photos and also just being a great creative mind to run ideas past.

CS: What about the title? Was it just a thing where the super obvious was the most fitting?

Savage: The title actually came later in development, and while it has an element of dark comedy to it, we found that it allowed people to grasp the concept immediately and stuck with them.

CS: Have you screened the film for deaf audiences? What was their reaction?

Savage: We were recently selected to screen at the Encounters film festival, in a program of films curated by awesome Deaf filmmaker David Ellington — the program consisted entirely of films by Deaf filmmakers, with Dawn of the Deaf being the one exception. Of all the screenings we’ve had, this was the most nerve-racking, but the film was very well received and in the Q&A that followed it was widely discussed as an example of positive representation. We also made one audience member jump and spit their drink during a scare scene, which was a nice bonus.

CS: Does it seem to you hearing audiences — who seem to love the film — experienced this perhaps somewhat differently than a typical film?

Savage: A decision we made very early on was that we were making the film to reach a wide, commercial audience, which by default meant that we would mainly be considering how to appeal to a hearing audience. Which isn’t to say that we wanted the film to be un-accessible to a Deaf audience — quite the opposite, we kept Deaf viewers in mind throughout the whole process, including the sound design and music — extra bass so that you feel the sound as well as hear it.

There were early conversations about whether we would shoot the film to be “sign safe,” which means that when a person is signing, the camera is always on them and framed so that hands and face are visible at all times. However, we felt that in order to impact most strongly on our mainstream, hearing audience we needed to follow a more conventional approach to the visuals. This is a debate that is still ongoing amongst the Deaf community, and there are many Deaf filmmakers and viewers who believe that making all Deaf content “sign safe” is limiting the broader appeal of their work. It’s been amazing to be a part of that conversation and I understand the positions of both sides.

CS: You’re hoping to expand this into a full-length feature. Post-Fantastic Fest how’s that looking? Where do you hope to take the story?

Savage: The end goal has been to make Dawn of the Deaf as a feature film. While the short is pretty self contained, we made it as a means of convincing investors and audiences alike that the concept had potential as a mainstream horror film that would engage with both hearing and Deaf audiences.

The main aim is to make a compelling, unique and pant-wetting-ly scary horror film. But we also firmly believe that the film could be a powerful means of bringing Deaf talent to the fore. Horror isn’t driven by star power, but can still draw a large mainstream audience if it delivers the goods, so we are hoping that the feature film — which will be made with an entirely Deaf cast — will be a step towards greater diversity on screen.