Monday, February 13, 2012

Q&A with DEAD INSIDE Producer and Star

We'd like to thank NEW FILMMAKERS LA for setting up this excellent Q&A on the making/casting process for the standout horror film DEAD INSIDE.



ATTEND THE SCREENING -- FRIDAY FEBRUARY 24TH

Jennifer Zhang – Writer/Producer

Why do you think that indie horror films have gained so much popularity over the past few years?
First, the unromantic answer: from a producing standpoint – if you have a painfully small budget and can’t afford an A-list star or visual effects at the Michael Bay echelon, it makes a lot of sense for filmmakers to make horror films where – if done well – you can generally achieve maximum impact with practical effects, and where you stand the greatest chance of having a final product with commercial value, since it’ll appeal to the widest audience. Which gets me into the second, more romantic part of my answer, which is that I think the audience for horror films has ballooned in the past few years because of the genre’s primal qualities. Horror films tickle that prey response in so many of us that our biology and evolution have nurtured. Our responses to the things that happen in horror films are visceral: anxiety, fear, sympathy, relief, and since people generally go to movies to feel something, a horror film is the surest way to make that happen. I think that this being truer in recent years is a sign of our times: we’re so inundated with media that a lot of people – especially young audiences who have all the goodies of the internet at their fingertips – are experiencing sensory overload. So it just takes more to get audiences to feel. And they’re more actively seeking out new horror films to satisfy that, so independent horror films get a fighting chance at being discovered. In short, I think independent horror is blowing up because rising supply and demand are in perfect synchronicity.

As a [producer] what drew you to this genre?

In all honesty, when it comes to horror films, I have the lowest tolerance out of anyone. I’m the annoying girl in the theater who’s screaming at every slight movement in the shadows. If I were a character in an actual teen horror movie scenario, I would immediately turn tail in panic and run straight into a wall, concussing myself for the killer to claim without struggle. But in the case of producing Dead Inside, I had motivation in knowing a director with phenomenal horror sensibilities who wanted to work on the movie. And then, what fueled me through the writing process was the project of thinking about how teenagers -- whose identities are still being formed and whose emotional responses are more impulse than anything else … how they’d respond in a survivalist situation where the danger was unseen and possibly paranormal. So that aspect of the genre REALLY appeals to me: the exploration of the darkest parts of human nature and the strength of our programming. Films in the horror genre do this better than films in any other: they directly address the power and failings of our humanity in the face of great inhumanity.

How important do you think casting is to a film such as this?
In a film like this, casting is vital. There are definitely a lot of horror films that benefit most from casting pretty girls with giant funbags to run screaming through a splatterfest. But the director and I really wanted audiences to care about the characters in this movie, so that their deaths would be meaningful. In the case of our protagonist “Sarah,” it was vital that we cast someone who was capable of projecting “broken.” She needed to appear vulnerable enough so that audiences would empathize with her, and yet just “off” enough so that people could understand why her peers would bully her. We were extremely lucky to have found Hannah Ward (credited as Lala Hensley in the film), who pulls off this balance, and is mesmerizing doing it.

Is there anything you specifically look for in casting actors for your films?
Well, in an independent film where the budget is tight and the shoots happen in close quarters, bad blood between cast or crew members can really poison a set. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way in the past – and I suspect it’s an early lesson for most filmmakers. I suspect that it’s the reason Judd Apatow and Chris Nolan keep casting from the same pool of people. So part of the casting process for me was finding people who had the right look and the talent – absolutely – but who also had the right attitude. Again, we were lucky. I had the pleasure of knowing some of our cast members from my other projects (and in fact, several of the roles were written with them in mind), so I knew they had the collaborative spirit to make the working experience positive and supportive. I’m a jerk – they still had to prove themselves in several rounds of auditions, and not all the friends I had high hopes for made the cut. But in short, when it comes to casting for an independent film: I look for talent first and foremost, but the right attitude is a very close second.




(credited as Lala Hensely in the film)

What did you do to prepare to play a mentally-disturbed teen?
First and foremost, I did not let myself approach the character with the idea that she was “mentally disturbed”. To this day I do not and will not see Sarah as such. When we meet her in the film, she has been pushed to an emotional limit. Her way of processing and reacting to people is the way it is because she has had to have her guard up for most of her life. She was always an easy target for other kids to pick on, and when you are consistently told you are crazy and even treated like it by your own parents, it’s eventually going to wear on you and turn you into an introvert. With any character there is always the process of creating a background so as to answer the questions about why this person is the way they are when the audience first meets them. While my fellow cast members partook in rehearsals, I isolated myself, just as Sarah would, and studied the script, looking for anything that helped me get to know her. Once a back-story was created, there was a wonderful month of pre-production that allowed for the right pieces of the puzzle to sink in and the ill-fitting ones to be discarded. As this happened, mannerisms developed on their own from posture, twitches, ways of speaking, etc. When shooting began I continued to separate myself from the rest of the cast (which was quite hard as they are all so lovely), making each encounter with them in front of the camera freshly awkward.

Why are independent films so important for actors today, both A-list celebrities and actors who are just starting out?
I’m making a huge generalization here, but independent films have a different kind of appreciation for subtleties. The typically lower budget allows for a story to be told in a simple way, without effects that can sometimes take away the relatable aspects of a film.

What was the process of being cast in "Dead Inside?"
I walked out of the first audition near tears because I thought I had completely failed. When I got the email saying otherwise I was ecstatic at my second chance. I did not see the full script at all before being cast so my concept of Sarah as a “loner” was definitely nothing compared to how I see her now, but I followed a feeling of emptiness and with the wonderful direction of our director, was able to take it to the next level.

What was your favorite part of playing Sarah in the film?
This was the most challenging part I have ever taken on but by far the most fun. As the film goes on she starts to find her strength, though still staying very awkward in comparison to the other teens. Finding this medium was definitely my favorite part as her power in silence intensified. This role was such an incredible experience that I am certainly grateful for.

Do you have any advice for those actors who are just starting out?
This is a strange question for me to answer because I too, am still in the beginning stages of my career. The first piece of advice I would have to give is to not let the process of working your way up weigh on you. Go to every audition you get and do whatever you have to do to get a solid reel together as casting directors are more likely to look at you with one. Some won’t even give you a chance if you don’t have one. Get good headshots that not only actually look like you but that also represent who you are and what you have to give to the world of entertainment. Give everything you have to every project you are involved in. People will remember you, either in a good or bad light, and not only does feedback get around quickly, but being able to work with someone again is always a good incentive. Stay humble, and remember that if you get to the point where you are on set, you are getting an opportunity to do what you love.

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