Awaken the Dead is an independent feature film set to be released this November. The ZRC staff recently got the opportunity to watch the film before its release and chat with writer and director Jeff Brookshire. Read our review of Awaken the Dead.
ZRC: How did you get involved in filmmaking? Is the Awaken the Dead your first film?
Jeff Brookshire: I have been writing and watching movies for most of my life. On a grand scale, that’s how I started down the path that led me here. But, on a smaller scale, I moved to LA about six years ago to get into the movies as a writer. A few years back I wrote a screenplay for Taylor Made Productions called Looking for Prince Charming. It was a dark thriller/comedy about internet dating and murder. It was an independent film and I enjoyed working on it. Prior to that, I’d written spec scripts aimed at the big studios. After that, I decided to write one for myself. That was Awaken the Dead.
ZRC: Awaken the Dead has a very unique plot that seems to draw from everything from 50′s horror films to modern blockbuster action films to Japanese anime. Where do come up with your ideas? What was the writing process like?
JB: Writers draw on their experiences, the movies they like, the music they listen to and the books they read. While I don’t consciously draw on these when I write, everything you’ve ever seen lurks beneath the surface of your consciousness and applies some influence. I have always enjoyed spy stories. Robert Ludlum books were a huge influence on me. I always liked how he took the extraordinary world of espionage and boiled it down to how one person thought and felt and reacted. Any great book or movie pulls you out of your world and pulls you into another. So that’s where I started. I was playing the video game Hitman during the idea phase and that influenced me to make my main character an assassin. Then I needed a way to make him different and add a deeper layer of character. I needed something to drive him.
I decided on guilt. From there it was really free association. Where did the guilt comes from? Guilt = the Catholic Church = a priest. A priest who used to be an assassin. He becomes a priest because of the guilt. Guilt over innocent lives taken. Was I subconsciously channeling that powerful scene in Scarface where Tony won’t blow up the car for the Colombians because there are kids involved and thus trigger his own demise? Maybe, I don’t know. I start with ideas, characters and situations and then, at some point, they take over. The characters start to make their own decisions and speak their own words and the story takes a life of its own. That’s when I get surprised by what happens and see the scenes like movies in my own head.
Now, much of that was below the surface. On the surface, I did want the movie to have a spaghetti western feel to it. I also wanted to channel the dark alternative music world of The Crow. And, oddly enough, I wanted some of the majesty of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator to flavor the film. I write the way I cook. I throw enough ingredients that I like separately together and assume they will be enjoyable as a whole.
ZRC: There seems to be a lot of emphasis on faith and religion in Awaken the Dead. Obviously the main character is a priest, and there’s a Jehovah’s witness in it, and the ending at the church… Talk to me a little bit about that.
JB: My father is a minister. (Insert obvious observations here.) Aside from that, I wanted there to be a central theme running through the film. The theme was redemption. So you will find crosses everywhere, on Christopher’s back, on the wall, on the cabinets, the angel in the stained glass, the dove, etc. It’s subtle at times but serves to tie it together. But it’s not intended to be preachy. I think that the catholic church would be pretty upset at the thought of a priest sleeping with women, drinking heavily, cursing, shooting people and such. But it’s edgy. And it’s cool and it serves to highlight the dichotomy of the main character. Good and Evil in the same person. Yin and Yang. Chaos vs. Control.
The Jehovah’s Witness is there because it ties into the theme but also because it’s funny. This innocent guy is out trying to convert people but picks the wrong door to knock on in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. All of the characters have something to cling to but their lives are pretty empty until this virus strikes.
ZRC: Awaken the Dead is a very stylistic movie… What movies influenced your shooting style?
JB: The Crow, Fistful of Dollars, Gladiator, Desperado. I drew all of the story boards comic book style which is why many shots look anime influenced. I also was influenced by directors Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Sergio Leone, Francis Ford Coppolla, John Woo, Robert Rodriguez and Quintin Tarantino.
ZRC: How exactly does one get to film a gory zombie movie in an old church like that? It seems to me that typical church-goers might not go in for that sort of thing…
JB: No. It was a battle. We contacted over a hundred churches and were shot down again and again before we got one to say yes. I wanted to shot in one of the old missions but, once they read the screenplay and realized that it involved zombies, they said that the Catholic Church has a different view of life after death. You will notice that there is profanity throughout the film but
NONE during the scenes inside the church. That was part of the deal when we did get the church lined up. The church we found was pretty cool. They were fairly relaxed about it.
ZRC: Many of the shots in the interior scenes in the house are shot close up and made me feel as though the camera was another character in the film. Was this intentional? What else did you do to draw viewers into the movie?
JB: Sergio Leone was a conscious influence, so close ups were part of the plan. But, really, it is a story about the characters. I did whatever I could think of to get the viewer inside their head. I watched what worked in other films and studied techniques. I watch everything, including anime and foreign films and try to study them as much as I try to enjoy them. The music also helped. Music makes you feel as well as images.
ZRC: The end of the movie leaves things a little unresolved. Will we be seeing a sequel in the future?
JB: Definitely. I’m writing it now. What I can tell you is that it is bigger, badder and better. Mad Max was cool but Road Warrior took it to another level. That’s what I’m shooting for. But, no matter what, we won’t lose sight of what the movies are really about. They’re about people. Real people with real issues in extraordinary circumstances.