EXCL: Holy Sheep! It’s Jonathan King!

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Director of the NZ horror-comedy Black Sheep

Thanks to movies like Shaun of the Dead and the popularity of midnight movies at film festivals, the line between horror and comedy is getting more blurred every day. Into this subgenre of funny horror movies comes Jonathan King’s Black Sheep, in which a city boy who’s deathly afraid of sheep winds up back on his family’s sheep farm, just as genetically-modified sheep have gotten loose, turning the friendly flock into people-eating killers. Is it any wonder that the trailer for the movie won the coveted “Trailer Trash” award at this year’s Golden Trailer Awards?

King was in town showing his movie at the Tribeca Film Festival (at midnight, of course) so ShockTillYouDrop.com sat down with him to talk about the movie and its sheepish* stars.

ShockTillYouDrop.com This is an interesting concept for a movie, so were you raised in a rural area of New Zealand?

Jonathan King: No, I wasn’t. I’m faking all of it really. My point-of-view and my way into the story was sort of a city boy’s idea of a farm and what goes on on farms, so I’ve visited farms. At the end of the day, most New Zealanders just live in the city, but you do get to visit a farm, and you’re expecting some freaky thing to happen cause that would be a cool setting, but yeah, most real farmers would be appalled when they see the film I think, because there are so many scientific inaccuracies.

Shock: So you haven’t gotten any feedback from farmers?

King: Um, not really, no. I think they’re enjoying it, too, actually. The farmers we’ve talked to all had a great response and thought it was hilarious.

Shock: Not that there are that many cinemas out in farm country, so it wouldn’t be hard to get away with it. How did you go about finding the location?

King: Well, it’s all made for the most part very close… I live in Wellington in New Zealand, and our main farm location is in fact only thirty or forty minutes out of town, so we’d drive out each morning. It’s kind of the coast down beside the city really, so at the beginning at the film, you look at these vistas that look like you can see for hundreds of miles, but you’re actually kind of looking down the coast and the city’s just over the hills really. But it’s a coast I love and I really wanted to get that on film, and it’s quite craggy and harsh-looking. It doesn’t look like “The Piano” and it doesn’t look like Hobbiton, you know, so it’s a different landscape of what we’ve seen on film.

Shock: Did you have to try to avoid getting the city in the shots?

King: No, cause for the most part, it’s quite easy. We just got far enough so you sort of come over these hills and whatever you can see just looks like wild farmland.

Shock: Did you do any actual research into the sheep industry or farming or did this all come from your imagination?

King: It was kind of make up the goofy stuff first and then a little bit of retrospective research to see if I could justify any of it. But at the end of the day, the science is pretty shaky really. The science is like the bit of stuff where the scientist says something like “This must be the spontaneous cellular transferal” and it kind of sounds like science talk.

Shock: Well, it’s not exactly like anyone’s been bitten by a sheep and then turned into one, so that sounds like a logical enough explanation.

King: Yeah, exactly. It’s the Star Trek principle to science, and it’s a slight bit of technobabble.

Shock: What about the fear of sheep? Is that something that actually happens down there, that there are people so deathly afraid of sheep?

King: Well, yeah. Again, most of that I made up, but I met someone afterwards who was terrified of anything with hooves, and she actually came along while we were prepping the film and at one point, she actually freaked out and had to get away from it, cause it was too scary. So yeah, there’s always people scared of something, I think.

Shock: When you came up with this idea, you must have realized that you can’t just show sheep and make them scary, because they aren’t, so did you work out from the beginning that it would require music to make it work?,/b>

King: I mean, sometimes I think that sheep… you have an idea of sheep when you see them from a distance as being these little balls of cotton wool on the hillside, but you see them up close—there’s some shots in the film where you see them looking at the people–and they have quite bony faces and these lizardy eyes and quite sharp hooves and stuff, and sheep are actually quite big animals. I didn’t want them to have big fangs or glowing red eyes and stuff. I wondered what happened if this regular, quite strange animal, what if it came for you instead of running away from you. It’s kind of like the zombie principle, sort of one’s bad but it’s not too bad, and then two or three is okay, but what if there were tens or hundreds coming for you? Or thousands?

Shock: Obviously, a lot of it’s done for laughs, but have you been a screening with people where you were surprised what people found funny which you might have meant to be scary?

King: I’ve seen it in Europe now and in Hong Kong we had a screening, and for the most part, people are laughing at the same stuff, which I’m really, really pleased about, but the film is kind of playing almost funnier than I hoped. Especially, these late night festival audiences, they really come to have a good time, which is great, so if you bring the right attitude, you can enjoy the ride very much.

Shock: I can see that. It’s pretty funny when the mere shot of a sheep standing there can get so many people to laugh.

King: Once you start finding sheep funny, yeah, you’ll chuckle at them a lot, so as a filmmaker, if you want it to be a funny film, you don’t question or begrudge the laughs you’re getting.

Shock: Maybe there’s a whole subgenre of horror involving farm animals that could be started, maybe adding goats to the mix?

King: Well, some animals are quite funny, but I think you’d only get so much mileage out of it. I wouldn’t want to go to that well too often.

Shock: And how are sheep as actors? I would think just by their nature, they’d be really easy to direct.

King: Well, we had amazing sheep trainers who got incredible stuff out of our sheep, and you can say train one sheep. You get one sheep, you show it where you want it to come, you give it a little treat, and then you take it back up the hill, blow a whistle when you want that sheep to come down and do the same thing again, and then if you’ve got another 500 sheep out there, they’ll all follow the one sheep that looks like it knows where it’s going. It was a simple way to get great numbers of sheep to do stuff.

Shock: So basically what they say about sheep being followers is true, but did it still require a lot of patience to get them to do what you want?

King: Yeah, it did. There’s a whole random thing when you’re dealing with animals. I’d talk to the animal trainers about what I wanted to happen, but then you turn the camera on and the film’s running through it, and the sheep will come and then they’ll go that way, and then they’ll stop and eat grass. They’d almost do it, but it’s not like a person where you can say, “Hey, that’s great, but why don’t you do a little bit of this as well?” So yeah, there’s a lot of kind of random stuff, and we have a lot of outtakes of sheep not doing quite what they’re supposed to do.

Shock: Which were easier, sheep or actors in that sense?

King: (laughs) Actors… just. I’ll choose people over animals any time, but the tactics are similar. You gotta feed them, you gotta be kind to them and explain to them very carefully what you want to do with no big words, make it easy for them.

Shock: Can you tell us about your influences? Obviously, New Zealand is best known for the work of Peter Jackson, who began his career with horror-comedies like “Bad Taste” and “Brain Dead.”

King: Well, things like “Evil Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” were both films I really loved, and I probably came to them before I saw Peter Jackson’s ones, I think, but I do love “Brain Dead” and “Bad Taste.” “American Werewolf in London” was another big one, especially the tone of that film I liked very much. That’s a tone we talked about going into this film, and then Hitchcock and Spielberg with “The Birds” and “Jaws.”

Shock: What about comedy influences? I would think something like Monty Python would have been influential.

King: Yeah, definitely that sense of the absurd and silliness was the formative comic experience for me as a kid.

Shock: What’s the film scene like in New Zealand? Are the bigger filmmakers like Peter Jackson supportive of the indies being made there? I know you worked with WETA on the creatures and FX.

King: Yeah, I mean I don’t really know Peter Jackson. I had a screening for him and his wife, Fran Walsh, they came and saw the film and I talked to him about what I’m doing next. But we shot in his studios and had WETA Workshop doing FX and we used his post-production facilities, so he had no direct involvement in the film, but certainly indirectly, we were really well supported by the Wellington film environment that he essentially controls, so yeah, look for filmmakers making films in New Zealand and making films in Wellington particularly. It’s a great place to make films, since his success and what he’s created with it.

Shock: Since this is slightly lower budget than “Lord of the Rings,” how did you get a company like WETA Workshop to do the creatures? Did they do it during their downtime or do they just like supporting local filmmakers?

King: Yeah, I think they’ve got a love for films and they loved the project. They ended up being very busy as we were going into our film, they thought they were going to be busy making “Halo” so they were very busy and they got more people in, but they commit to things that they like, but they haven’t really done many other New Zealand films in the intervening time actually.

Shock: You talked about how you wrangled the real sheep, but you also did some CGI and animatronic sheep as well. Can you talk about how you combined them?

King: There’s almost no CGI. There’s one distant shot, which is in the trailer with the sheep kind of rolling (down the hill), that was CGI. Other than that, there’s a bit of sprucing up, a bit of digital touch-ups, but we wanted as much as we could with practical puppets and prosthetics and animatronics. Almost all of that stuff that we see is real stuff happening in-camera, which I gives the film a slightly old-fashioned feel I think, and audiences it kind of draws them in. What they’re seeing, they know it’s not real, but you’re seeing something that’s in front of the camera that day, which I think makes for a better watching experience.

Shock: It’s gotta be better for the actors as well.

King: Absolutely, yeah, yeah, it gives something for them to act with.

Shock: How closely did you work with the WETA people on that stuff? Did they get very involved with the designs?

King: yeah, absolutely. We worked closely with them for a long time. The artists did a lot of concept art, and then looked at different looks for the sheep and the weresheep creature FX, and the FX design director used to go with one great picture of a weresheep, and I was like”Wow, that’s the one.” The guy who drew that sculpted a maquette of it and that got taken forward to the suit and then the guys who make the suits got involved. Then there are the practicalities as well like the legs can’t be as long as that or there’s gotta be a head inside the neck and how’s that going to work? As a movie geek, it was a huge amount of fun for me as well, just to be in the workshop and playing with those issues while learning about that stuff was great.

Shock: Now that you’ve figured all that out, is there a “Black Sheep 2” in there somewhere? It seems there almost has to be with all that work that went into making this.

King: (laughs) Um, now that I know all the reasons why you wouldn’t do it, maybe I’ll do it all CG next time, so I don’t have to spend weeks waiting for sheep to wait to do what they’re told.

Shock: Can’t you just take the sheep from the first movie, throw them into a computer and go from there if the producers are interested in a sequel?

King: Yeah, right, exactly. No, there hasn’t been any serious talk about it. I’ve joked about it and I’ve thought about it. If I did do it, I wouldn’t want to retread the same thing. I would probably go quite in an extreme different thing, even the difference between “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead.” I’d maybe go for a city post-apocalyptic thing, the sheep have already destroyed the world.

Shock: That would be pretty f*cking awesome actually. I’d pay to see that.

King: Cool.

Shock: So the movie already played down in New Zealand, right?

King: Yeah, it opened about a month ago, and it did well, it opened at #2 (to “Mr. Bean”) and held up well for a few weeks.

Shock: What’s “The Tattooist” about? That’s something you wrote for someone else to direct?

King: Yeah, exactly. I took that on as a job while I was in preproduction on “Black Sheep,” so I wrote that with a colleague. I said that I would do it if I could write it with my colleague Matt Grainger and we wrote it for another producer and director. That was an interesting experience, and it’s a supernatural thriller, kind of played straighter. It’s about an American tattooist who comes to New Zealand to learn about traditional Samoan tattooing, which is done with a hammer and chisel, and he’s unleashing this angry ghost, and everyone he tattoos gets tattooed to death, but we handed it over and another dude directed it.

Shock: How did you get involved with that?

King: They rang me up and said, “Would you be interested in writing a film?” The script for “Black Sheep” had already gotten a lot of notice at that stage, so they had a treatment somebody else had written, and we actually threw everything out except “Samoan tattooing horror movie” and kept that and started again from scratch.

Shock: Any idea what you’ll be doing next as a director?

King: Well, I’m working on a new project which is sort of a scary, creepy adventure for younger viewers, teenagers, a really scary “Goonies” meets “The Thing.”

Shock: Will you try to stay in New Zealand to do future films?

King: For now. I would love to make a film and work internationally–I mean, I have bigger ideas and bigger ambitions—but for now, I think this next film, I want follow this path I’m on, but I’m open to do anything.

Black Sheep opens in New York on June 22. Also, check out an exclusive clip.

(*apologies for the ba-a-a-a-ad pun.)


Source: Edward Douglas