Brandon Christensen directs and is the co-writer of Z, a psychological/horror thriller about a couple (Keegan Connor Tracy, Sean Rogerson) whose son (Jett Klyne) has a dangerous imaginatry friend. During our conversation, Chistensen talked about the key to providing as much production and narrative value to an indie project.
Joshua Parsons (Jett Klyne) tells his parents Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Kevin (Sean Rogerson) about his imaginary friend Z. Although it’s all fine and dandy for a child to expand his imagination, what happens if that imaginary friend is actually real? Sara Canning co-stars as Jenna, the irresponsible sister of Elizabeth, with Stephen McHattie (Come to Daddy, Most Wanted) playing the doctor who tries to treat Joshua’s condition.
Christensen delivered tangible and insightful advice on how to bring value to a low budget production, and he also elaborated on what makes filmmaker David Fincher’s (The Social Network) work an inspiration for his own approach to cinema.
What is the first step for you in approaching an ambitious psychological thriller with an indie budget?
It definitely starts with the writing process because we know going in that we’re not going to have a huge budget (Christensen co-wrote the feature with Colin Minihan). It would be nice to let your imagination run on the page. But in our case the problems created and the problems solved are on a very small scale.
In Still/Born, we were trying to get to the climax at the big party in the film, we were talking about “Let’s go into the forest where there is all this fire light” and then we said “No let’s just keep it small and keep it in the living room of this house.”
That’s how the problem solving works. When you’re writing, anything is possible. But you have to consider the costs associated with those impossibilities. You have to reign it in and keep that scale small. It helps a lot when it just feels true to itself when you’re in this smaller world to solve your problems in a smaller way.
How important was Keegan Connor Tracy as far as your overall production? She gives a first rate performance in the film.
Anytime you’re acting a lead like this that has a ton of weight on their shoulders. There is a ton of growth and character change for her. It’s always scary to wonder what kind of performance you’re going to get.
So having someone like Keegan come on board and have a wealth of experience that she can draw from for her character was hugely influential in how the film was made and received. She just brings some depth to Beth that feels so real when you watch her.
You see this mother going through this horrible situation. It’s easy as an audience member to empathize with her because her performance is so true to her character and true to herself. It’s not always Beth the character on screen, it’s the audience themselves that are putting themselves through it.
She’s the cipher into this world for the audience.
Since you’re a family man, can you talk about infusing that personal element that is interwoven into your story?
When you’re writing these things, you want to be able to capture a wide audience but there is a lot of things in the film that I think will affect parents more. One thing in particular is when (Beth) is calling all the parents to try and set up a play date and everyone’s saying “No, they’re not interested” and they keep shutting her down.
She, for the first time, is feeling isolated. She can’t control her kid. He’s off to school and doing all these things she doesn’t even know about. All of a sudden he’s suspended, and he’s dealing with all this extra stress that she was totally oblivious to.
I don’t know if that’s a failing as a parent or that’s how this kid ended up. That is a nature versus nurture thing. As a parent watching that, and just putting yourself in her shoes and (seeing her) be ostracized by this whole community. It’s things like that which are more horrifying to me than maybe a jump scare.
Those are the moments that really feel true to me as a parent and those are the things I’ve learned and are scared of as a parent as well. It’s nice to be able to draw upon those fears.
This movie is also about taking care of the people you love. That’s another underlying theme that I loved about Z.
I don’t think anyone has brought this up. I talk about this a lot because I think that’s a huge part of the film. When a tragedy occurs in someone’s life – and it’s going to happen to everyone at one point or another; when you’re faced with this adversity it’s what you do afterwards that is so important. (It’s about) how much strength you can conjure up when faced with something like this.
I think Jenna (Sara Canning) in the film exemplifies that the most in sort of her journey from being distant from her whole family to literally being the most important piece that’s keeping it all together by the end. It’s definitely a huge theme in the film; how you deal with tragedy and the strength you can get that from that as well.
Do you get to geek out when you have someone like Stephen McHattie as part of your ensemble, or is filmmaking too busy of a job to really do that?
Yeah you can say I’m experienced but this is only my second film so I’m learning every day. When you hear that you have these characters that you’ve seen in a million different things there is always that hesitation of “Oh man, how is this going to work are they going to respect me as a filmmaker?”
You’re running through different scenarios. But ultimately there is not a lot of time to think because you’re so busy making the film and everything that matters is right in front of you. It’s hard to think of the next day when you’re filming. It’s hard to think of the next scene – you’re kind of stuck in this one moment of the film and you’re trying to make it as good as it can be in the time you have allotted so you can go to the next parta and feel good about it.
It’s really one of those things where it just sneaks up on you and you go “Oh wow, Michael Ironside is here” or “Oh wow, Stephen McHattie” is here.” And then you just hope they blend into the crew and the cast and just continue to operate as normal. The pick-ups, especially on an indie, they’re pretty challenging to get through. So you’re just hoping for the best.
What’s the key for you in creating an effective slow burn type of narrative such as Z? You don’t show the goods for a substantial part of the film and I thought that was a nice gamble.
Showing the goods is partially budget because we just don’t have the money to make sure that Z looks Hollywood ready.
I watch a film like It Chapter Two and that is never shying away from showing the monster. It’s always like “Here’s the giant CG creature” and to me it pull all the tension and scares away from it because you’re looking at something that looked like it was ripped out of Goosebumps.
I think Spielberg did such a great job in Jaws by accident where they fell into this thing where the less you see, the more cautious you are because it could be anywhere. I think that’s the case with Z. The way the camera works in the film, a lot of the time once Z is part of their lives, the camera is always filming in a way that if you had Z, an actor, or a creature on set, it would have fit right into that frame.
We’re framing up for him all the time so it makes the audience feel that there is something there. They just understand natively how the camera works. (For example) that space is open there because Z is or is not there.
A lot of it is using the camera to make the audience feel like something is there. Just like the characters in the film feel like something is there.
With your experience in visual effects, is there a through line with that craft and becoming an effective director?
I think it’s a great took to have when you’re a director. To know you will be able to fit certain things on the day that you are shooting. There is a lot of time where I will take five minutes by being “Don’t worry I’ll fix it in Post” and then spend 5 hours later fixing it in Post, kicking myself for not taking those five minutes on set.
Because I’m editing these films and I’m doing the VFX so my time doesn’t really cost anything. But on set time, you’re working with overtime so that does cost money.
So that’s definitely a big piece. But a bigger part for me is just using visual effects as a storytelling device not in a showy big special effects kind of way but just being able to manipulate things in post production to help your story.
If you’ve got two performances that are good but they’re not good in the same take, you can split the frame.
David Fincher does this a lot. You can use the best elements of both and it helps you’re story even it’s barely perceptible, I think it does show in the final draft.
It’s another tool to have in your belt and it’s an important one when you’re doing low budget films because you can add a little bit more of a bigger budget feel to certain things.
Are you excited that it’s out on Blu-ray and DVD? Are you still a proponent of physical media?
I used to be a disc hoarder during the DVD days. I would buy them all the time. The Blu-ray days, I would buy them all the time. I’ve switched more to Digital.
I didn’t buy a physical copy of Still/Born because I hated the cover art (laughs). I own the digital one on iTunes. With Z, RLJE did a great job on the cover art. They took the design that I made (and employed it) which is really exciting for me. So I’ll definitely be getting the Blu-ray of that. I think it’s awesome to be able to have that on your shelf.
I’m super proud of the film and I’m really glad it did really well on Shudder. I’ll definitely have Z on iTunes and on Blu-ray. I don’t know if I’ll open the Blu-ray but it will be nice. And the iTunes one will have a bunch of special features that I’ve put together for it too.
Can you name one of your favorite movies and what is it about this movie that speaks to you today as a cinephile and moviegoer?
The Social Network. It’s a film that you don’t think a horror director would love but I’m a huge David Fincher fan and just the way he used the camera. He’s got this technical precision where every camera movie, every framing, everything is perfect.
It gives a sense of this larger than life storytelling because of how perfect it is. There is never handheld stuff – there is in Se7en but it is very rare that he uses that. He’s just got a technical mastery that it makes his films have a feeling of importance and it’s something I strive to achieve and where I’m not able to do 90 takes of a single scene – just the way he moves the camera is influential in how I’m trying to move the camera. Just taking that precision and trying to apply that to the horror genre has been really fun.
Z is now available on VOD, Digital HD, DVD, and Blu-ray via RLJE Films.