Some of the best horror films aren’t, in fact, horror films. Those that veer into the dramatic and focus on the personalities of the characters and their daily struggles tend to resonate the most. The terror that unfolds, therefore, is unleashed from a natural state of fear and discontent –emotions we can easily tap into. This purpose is what permeates from the works of the talented Richard Powell, a Canadian filmmaker who demonstrates in his new short film “Familiar” that he is fascinated, and possibly disturbed, by a human’s body and mind.
More specifically, the mind and body of John Dodd (Robert Nolan), a homespun middle-aged man who starts to hear voices in his head–almost gremlin-like voices. His days are pretty by-the-numbers: he emotionlessly tends to his wife and daughter, holding the occasional mirthless smile. Underneath, however, that fatherly facade is broken by evil demons that kick and scream at his conscience. The movie sticks close to Kafka formula: a man, a bug, his family, and the twisted wit that turns the protagonist into both a victim of tragedy and comedy. But Powell is also his own filmmaker, who incorporates gut-punching thrills in a kitchen-sink drama, layered with a voiceover that locks us inside Dodd’s head.
“Familiar,” the Best Film at San Francisco’s Nightmare to Remember International Horror Short Film Festival and Chicago Fear Fest, is the third short film directed by Powell and under the Canadian independent production company Fatal Pictures. Launched in 2007, the company has been committed to creating quality horror films that are invested largely in exploring the dark side of human nature and what causes some to, in sometimes the most extreme of ways, tip over the edge. “Familiar,” in terms of horror, definitely pushes the envelope but at the same time is committed to a story, one that allows the film to live on past the basic jump scares.
Recently, Film Slate Magazine contributor Parker Mott talked with Zach Green, the producer of “Familiar” and co-founder of Fatal Pictures. It was an interesting discussion on the art of horror, financing independent projects, the importance of smart casting, and the fundamental challenges of producing films in the ever-so competitive film industry. Green breaks down on how to brave the waters of festivals and the industry. And he knows: he put “Familiar” on a double bill with Kinji Fukasaku’s classic “Battle Royale” at Fangoria Fright Night and was not overshadowed.
Film Slate Magazine: A title like ‘Familiar’interests me, because this film you produced is anything but. What do you think the ‘Familiar’ represents?
Zach Green: ‘Familiar’ can mean the usual everyday meaning. It can also mean a supernatural or demonic entity sent to aid you. Familiarity breeds contempt.
FSM: Your first short film was ‘Consumption.’ What was the debut like?
ZG: Richard and I graduated from film school in 2002-2003. We went on to produce, edit, write, and direct movies up until 2006. It was a learning experience. We shot a few short films and attempted a feature in 2006. Eventually we decided to start a production company and make our first official film and really market it. So we sat down with an entertainment lawyer and really incorporated the company. In 2007, we went out and shot ‘Consumption’; it was loosely based on a true story of a cannibal in Germany – a gentleman who put an ad in the paper asking someone to donate their body and be butchered and eaten! So we were interested in the question of what pushes people to do these things?
So we shot our first movie on that topic. Richard wrote and directed it. I produced. I also edited it; I went to film school for post-production. But I slowly made the transition to producer. Actually, our second film ‘Worm,’ Richard and I edited it together. But with ‘Familiar’ we hired an editor because I realized I didn’t have the time – being a producer – to edit the film as well. We hired our fabulous cinematographer Michael Jari Davidson; he actually referred me to the incredible editors Navin Ramaswaran and Tom Mountain, Jr. who Richard and I couldn’t be happier with.
FSM: It sounds like you have a stellar crew. But what about the cast? You have your go-to lead, Robert Nolan. He reminded me of Rutger Hauer, the rough-looking and grinning hobo from the Canadian flick ‘Hobo with a Shotgun.’
ZG: Interesting. I got wind of Robert Nolan from an actress I had worked with. When Richard and I set out to do ‘Worm,’ she gave me his contact information and so I called Robert and told him what I was looking for and that I’d love for him to read for the role. And we did it; Robert delivered such a powerful performance and when Richard saw him on the audition tape he felt the same way I did. From there, it was history. He got familiar with the character and practiced the mannerisms and body language. Yes, this character Geoffrey Oswald Dodd, which can be short-form for GOD.
FSM: Biblical undertones! [laughs]
ZG: [laughs] Yeah! It’s like Richard writes these films for Robert, that’s how good he is at portraying characters. With ‘Familiar,’ he wanted to read for this role and he did and hit it out of the ballpark. I mean, there’s over 200 reviews of ‘Familiar’ out there, you don’t have to believe me you can believe the critics and viewers on how Robert portrayed Geoffrey Dodd.
FSM: It just shows you that 90 percent of the movie is casting…
ZG: Yeah! If you’ve seen ‘Worm’ and ‘Familiar’ you’d know that Robert Nolan’s character, for the most part, is the character who runs the movie. There are some supporting characters, but – like you were saying – it is really important to find that strong lead who will really deliver exactly what you need. I get lost in his world.
FSM: What impressed me about ‘Familiar’ was not necessarily how gory it was, but the social commentary that slithered out underneath. It has a lot to say about family and marriage.
ZG: Yeah, that’s the beauty of these movies. The characters in these three short films are plucked out of everyday reality. Richard is showing what these characters actually think. The scary part is these characters do live in this world and you won’t know who they are unless they do something tragic. I mean, they’re really hitting on the truth.
Actually, at Fangoria Fright Night at the Projection Booth in Toronto [on March 2, 2012] we premiered ‘Familiar’ next to ‘Battle Royale’ thanks to the fabulous Kelly Stewart. We had a Q&A after and there was a woman who was very turned off by some things in the movie. Not to sound mean or anything, but we’re making these movies so people do have this reaction. We want you to think: oh shit, is that really happening? What are horror movies? Are they not meant to push the envelope?
FSM: What were the immediate challenges producing ‘Familiar’?
ZG: One of the main and most important challenges is finding the proper cast who can portray and deliver your vision and what you need. Also, finance definitely is a huge issue, like to get money. We really want our films to live and have a long life. We want critics like yourself and the audience to really enjoy these movies and remember them. But really, it all comes down to finance: if you have money anything can be got. Money opens any door other than finding that very good cast and crew. Money can hire almost anyone you need, but are they skillful and do they want to make this production as good as you want it? You need those people who really believe in the story and you have a good rapport with.
FSM: You were saying Fatal Pictures launched in 2007. What’s the experience been like in Toronto since?
ZG: If you have the right contacts and budget to make your movie, I don’t think it matters where you make your movies in the world. I mean, film festivals are international. But it does suck being in Canada I’m not gonna lie. You’re just not gonna get into the right hands as fast as you’d like to, compared to if I lived in Los Angeles. I lived there for a short period of time and it was the best time of my life. Basically, everyone in that town is trying to be a filmmaker or are in the industry to some degree. Not only is the weather great, you’re among the same mentality.
FSM: The name ‘Fatal Pictures’ has a horror element in itself. For the future, is your team exclusively devoted to the horror genre?
ZG: No, we definitely are aiming to break into the film industry, hopefully, with genre films. Richard is also a huge fan of true crime. With Fatal Pictures, we want a name that stands out and makes a statement. But the plan is to dabble in drama and comedy, but yes we love horror films. We sorta gravitate towards it. But we are working on scripts now that are more on the dramatic side. Actually, our first feature film is ‘Worm’–the short film was a feature treatment, sort of our calling card that we shot on 16mm and it’s critically acclaimed and won 5 awards. It got distribution worldwide based in Los Angeles.
FSM: And how’s the feature coming along so far?
ZG: Well, the short film ‘Worm’ gives you a little taste, like 20 minutes in the day in the mind of the character Geoffrey Oswald Dodd, a high school teacher. In the feature, you’re gonna get 90 minutes of him. It’s on a greater scale but it’s not the same story. There’s more characters and classrooms and he will do things that we didn’t have the time or money to do before in the short.
FSM: That’s a very smart move. You have the creativity already and so it’s all about expanding.
ZG: Yeah, one hundred percent. We’re not making it because we have a short version already, we’re not forcing it. In “Worm”, Geoffrey Dodd was originally in Richard’s feature version of ‘Worm.’ So when we shot our next short film, we were kicking around ideas and Richard had the idea of taking 20 minutes of Geoffrey Dodd, this bitter teacher who never made it as a writer, and you get to hear his inner thoughts. We, as the audience, get to listen to this real thoughts sort of like Fred Savage in ‘The Wonder Years’…but we’re narrating in real time.
To watch the teaser for “Familiar” visit http://fatalpictures.com/, the official site of Fatal Pictures that offers all the latest and greatest news, film festivals, and screenings regarding their releases. You can view their up-to-the-minute information by following them on Twitter @FatalPictures and read more reviews at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2095640/
“Familiar” is now accepted at the 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, QC. Other upcoming film festivals “Familiar” is set to play include MonsterCon, Chicon 7, Tri-Cities International Fantastic Film Festival, RoundCon, and more!
Parker Mott is a Canadian filmmaker and freelance film critic from Toronto, ON. He finds inspiration in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Werner Herzog. His favorite films are “Goodfellas,” “Fargo,” and “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
More of his reviews, essays and interviews can be found at: http://www.thefinaltake.com.
Follow him on Twitter @parkermott