Ryan M. Andrews, writer and director of award-winning zombie flick Sick chats with The Horror Hothouse’s Emma Knock about the science behind zombies, winning big at the Macabre Faire Film Festival and the growing Canadian indie horror scene.
Sick is an independent zombie film set two years after the ‘infection’ spread. Billions of people have died and governments have collapsed leaving the human race on the brink of extinction. Dr Leigh Rozetta (Christina Anne Aceto) is a scientist who has been living underground in a secret government facility since the outbreak and, after consistently failing to find a cure, she sneaks away to return to her parent’s house. On the journey back home she meets two militant survivalists who have just escaped from a group of zombies. With the sun setting and darkness fast approaching, the trio seeks sanctuary in Leigh’s parental home, but with the infected surrounding the house, they will be lucky to make it through until morning.
Hi Ryan, thanks for chatting with us. Firstly, congratulations on winning Best Feature (Audience Choice) and Best Director for Sick at the Macabre Faire Film Festival in New York. How does it feel?
Thank you. It feels amazing. The fact that we took the Audience Choice for Best Feature is so amazing because these films are made for fans. Just looking at what we do, this is a business and we are in the business to entertain, so for the audience to decide that we had the best feature is huge honour.
As far as Best Director goes, simply wow! We as artists are put in a position of vulnerability. Where our work is put on display to be viewed and evaluated by the masses and art is not as cut and dry or as black & white as 2 + 2 = 4. Art is subjective and it is viewed by many people on many different levels with different tastes. Knowing that and also knowing that throughout pre-production, production and post you second and third guess every little thing you do. You have got to stick to your guns, do what you believe and in the end, to be awarded with Best Director, against many other talented artists, it reminds me that I know what I’m doing. That I need to trust in myself and my vision and stick to it.
The Macabre Faire Film Festival is such an amazing festival because LC and Adam (The festival directors) are passionate about horror and it shows. They put on an amazing and fun event for fans of horror. It really is just a celebration of the independent spirit and of all things creepy. It was such an amazing experience.
How did the idea for Sick come about?
Between all my features I like to shoot as many shorts as I can. Keep learning, keep practicing. Sports teams just don’t go out and play the major games. They practice and workout and shooting shorts is my workout. I try new things, establish new relationships and at the end of the day, I hope that I have a short or two that can also get some legs in the festival circuit. So between shooting my 80s slasher Black Eve and Sick, my Black Eve editor Chris Cull and I were working on a new short called The Devil Walks Among You.
The Devil Walks Among You is a sexy noir story about a woman telling a story about the Devil. I thought this could be a continuing theme; a series of shorts (or webseries) where this same character (played by Toronto actress Sandra DaCosta) keeps telling these different macabre stories. So Chris pitched an idea for the next story and we started working on it. However, half way through, I knew this wasn’t going to be some short film [and instead] we were working on a full out feature. I fell in love with the idea right away and we hammered home a feature script in no time.
How did you take your idea and turn it into a reality?
We connected with the right team players. Through a mutual friend, we met Cengiz H. Fehmi (executive producer of Sick) and we pitched him what we had. He liked what we were doing and we immediately began our collaboration. Then one of the biggest blessings to the production came from cinematographer Michael Jari Davidson. He sent me a cold email, introducing himself. He had heard about me and my previous features and wanted to reach out. We had coffee and it was clear that he was a very experienced and intelligent DP, but what really clicked with me is his love and passion for horror. He brought a lot to the table. Everyone did.
I have been doing this for well over a decade and with Sick I wanted to up my game and take things to the next level. I didn’t want to just keep repeating the same thing, I wanted to grow, bigger and better and Cengiz was the man that gave me that opportunity to do so.
What can horror fans expect from this movie?
They can expect something different. As a die-hard, lifelong horror fan, I know that this is what horror fans want. Even if it is a similar style story, that’s cool, as long as it is done in a different way. Just something to make it its own. The reason Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead had such an impact when it came out was because the way he portrayed the zombies in the film were different from the majority of zombie stories prior to that. These weren’t voodoo zombies like in White Zombie, these were cannibalistic animated corpses. So he had some different flavours in there with a familiar story. That is what we have. We have our own style of zombies that have familiarity to them, but they are different from the zombies out there.
The Horrorverse is saturated with zombie films, even more so since The Walking Dead came out, but not many of them focus on the hows and whys of zombies like Sick does. Has it been difficult to make the film stand out from the crowd?
I think that is exactly why we are able to stand out. We never went into this wanting to make a blood soaked gorefest. That’s been done a million times. In the spirit of zombie Master Romero, we wanted the zombies to be more than just set decorations or just a faceless killer. The story is definitely about the survivors, but that didn’t mean that we just treat the zombies as a second thought. We wanted a story there and we wanted to really create our own zombies and the best way to do that, was to really dive into the hows and whys of the science behind the outbreak.
Personally we felt that the zombies are the perfect balance between Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. How did you decide on the look, speed etc?
Well, all of our science is grounded in reality. We didn’t make this stuff up. Our EP Cengiz Fehmi worked with Chris and me to really add a strong scientific element. I felt [that] if we wanted our zombies to stand on their own, we really needed people to understand who they are and what they do. The speed of our zombies didn’t come from wanting to copy any other film out there; it came from the science we researched. The Sick would linger is a state of rest and digest, but like any predator, if they sensed their prey they would suddenly come alive and go in for the kill.
Regarding the look I sat down with our special FX makeup artist, Melis Stevens. We chatted about everything from Tokyo Gore Police to Rob Zombie’s music. Though we both completely love and respect Savini’s make up in Dawn and Day we didn’t want to reference zombie films because we didn’t want to borrow from them.
Two things were for sure for the look from that first meeting:
1. It was going to be done entirely with makeup and not prosthetics
2. They had to be blind. They go off sense of smell
From there they evolved into what we have on the screen.
Robert Nolan is making somewhat of a name for himself in indie horror. How did he become attached to this project and what was he like to work with?
Robert’s awesome. I had worked with him previously to Sick, in The Devil Walks Among You. He is a very dedicated and serious actor. I think his resume speaks for itself. He came in to audition for Sick, though while writing it we could all see Robert playing Mckay. The role wasn’t written for him, we just knew that he would be great as this character. Still he came in to read just like everyone else, and he nailed it.
I have actually worked with him twice since then on two new shorts. One called Klymene where he acts alongside Jessica Cameron (Camel Spiders, Silent Night) and Ry Barrett (NeverLost, If A Tree Falls) The other is My Old Man which you won’t even recognize Robert in. It’s a simple five-minute character driven piece with him and Toronto actress Adrian Cowan. It is actually one of the darkest things I’ve directed. It’s from a script by local writer/producer Max Giacomelli.
Needless to say, having worked with Robert on all of these films, we have great chemistry together. Directors should never treat their actors like puppets. The reality is, though while the writer and director create the characters, the actors are the ones that breathe life into them and I respect Robert’s ability and craft enough to take a step back and allow him to do his thing. He knows I’m there to catch him if needed and guide him when necessary.
What is he like to work with? Well when he is in character he is in character doing his thing and it is a joy to watch. When he’s out of character, all bets are off. You never know what you’re going to get with him and I mean that in fun way. He’s a great guy and he keeps you thinking and he keeps you going. He’s definitely an inspiration…and a fun guy to party with in New York.
Similarly, what was it like to work with Debbie Rochon?
Working with Debbie was a wonderful experience. In the late 90s I watched her in films like Tromeo & Juliet, Santa Claws and Hellblock 13. They were fun horror films, nothing too serious, but I watched her in these films and I knew that even though these were all lighter or campier horrors, she had lots of talent and on-screen charisma. I felt like she was never used to her full ability and I have always said that I would love to direct her in a film, but I would want her to play a more serious character.
It was a dream to be able to work with an iconic horror legend like Debbie. I compare her to a legend like Vincent Price. Vincent Price is known for some of his campier films like Theatre Of Blood or BloodBath At The House Of Death. But even in a lighter film like that, he is still a damn fine actor. Same goes for Debbie.
Shooting Sick was Debbie’s first time in Toronto. She is so professional and kind and she’s got a great sense of humour. When it was time to shoot, she was ready to go and, when we weren’t shooting, she was a great person to just hang out with.
As both the writer and the director, which aspect did you enjoy more and why?
I don’t separate the two. I just see myself simply as a storyteller and my medium for telling stories is film. I love every single aspect of the process. Sometimes I’m writer and director, sometimes co-writer and director, sometimes I’ve directed scripts written by other people and I’ve even written scripts that others have directed. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be able to create.Film is all about the collaboration. It’s just great to work with a team creating your art and all aspects from that first spark of an idea to colouring the final project are exciting.
What challenges did you face during the filming process?
Well, it’s an independent film and they all have their fair share of challenges. Everything really relates to time and money. You can only do so much when you only have one day in a specific location and you can’t go back another day because it’s not in the budget. So going in you always need a “plan B” and a plan “C”, “D” and “E”. Sometimes things just happen too. Like one day we were shooting a scene outside the house in Sick and the clouds came in strong because it was going to start raining on us any second and it would keep getting darker and darker out so we started losing our light early. We had 5 more shots to get and only time for 1.
A quick rewrite to the scene and we had a really beautiful atmospheric scene inside, which to this day I think is the greatest thing I have ever directed. The lighting and cinematography were perfect. The actors were spot on. The great thing about an independent film is it forces you to be more creative and aware. On a big budget film, they’ll just add another day of shooting or do this or do that and throw money at the problem. For us, that is not an option.
What are your inspirations for Sick going forward?
Whenever I think about a project moving forward and where it is going I always think of the Bill Cosby quote “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
With art being so subjective, it’ll drive you insane, but you just got to keep moving forward. Do it, get it done and get it out there. There is an audience out there waiting to see it. So find them.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Actress Jessica Cameron and I have a couple of projects coming up soon. They are both on opposite ends of horror spectrum; while one is a haunting dramatic horror, the other is an in your face, slick and fast paced bloodbath. I also have my Haunted House opus, Growing Paranoia, which is a script that I have had for seven years. Most recently it placed in the top ten in a script writing competition in Canada at the Canadian Film Festival and a month later it received 2nd place in a script competition at a film festival in the USA. Growing Paranoia is definitely my passion project. All three of these films are currently in various stages of development and pre-production.
There is also a wicked anthology I am honoured to be a part of called Tales From Hell. Producer Kelly Michael Stewart [Edit: Read our interview with Stewart here] brought me and three other local horror directors together: Chad Archibald (NeverLost), Gabriel Carrer (In The House Of Flies) and Navin Ramaswaran (Nara).
Tales From Hell is in the style of classic Vincent Price films like Tales Of Terror or Twice Told Tales [Edit: Read our preview of Tales From Hell here]. Vincent Price is in each of those stories but as a different character in each segment. Our execution is slightly different but we each use Robert Nolan in the same way. The thing I like best about this project is working with fellow directors I respect so much.
[Plus] while in NY at the Macabre Faire Film Festival, Chris Cull (co-writer and co-producer on Sick) and I developed a new script. We were hanging out in a couple local bars and then in the morning eating breakfast in this classic looking New York hole in the wall, and we were just so inspired by everything around us, we created a new scary story. It definitely has a very New York feel to it. (But no CHUDS.)
Finally…what’s your favourite scary movie?
The Shining. It’s a classic, haunting, intelligent work of art. It combines scary images and a terrifying story. It is the perfect horror film.
It was also a film that was not really well received when it first came out. Lots of negativity, but it is now regarded as one of the greatest. That makes me think of Rob Zombie’s latest art house horror Lords of Salem. I think it is absolutely brilliant, but I know it hasn’t been too well received overall. But I can honestly see the same thing happening with it. Over time, all the people who trash Lords Of Salem are going to turn around and start recognizing how brilliant the film is.
And some final words…
If you haven’t checked out what Canada has to offer in terms of horror, you are missing out. There is a huge wave of indie Canadian horror filmmakers and we just keep growing and growing, so we’re not going anywhere. The lovely, but terrifyingly foulmouthed Soska Twins have Dead Hooker in a Trunk and more recently they have hit huge with American Mary. Astron 6 has the fun and trashy grindhouse Father’s Day and Manborg. Black Fawn Films just keep pumping out amazing film after amazing film, most recently with Anti-Social. The list goes on and on with filmmakers Jesse Cook, John Geddes and Justin McConnell. I’m in good company here.
Follow director Ryan M. Andrews on Twitter at @RyanMAndrews1 and like Sick on Facebook.