Weresheep and WETA; An interview with Black Sheep director Jonathan King
12th Oct 07
Jonathan King’s fledgling flock fable was the perfect curtain raiser for this years’ FrightFest. An inventive comic horror that takes an inherently ridiculous and amusing concept – genetically mutated killer sheep rampaging the New Zealand Countryside – and plays it mostly straight, Black Sheep owes clear debts to the early work of John Landis, Sam Raimi and, inevitably, King’s fellow countryman Peter Jackson.
We caught up with King before the UK premier of Black Sheep, which opens this Friday.
Eatmybrains: How did the basic story of Black Sheep come to you?
Jonathon King: It just kind of popped into my head about four and a half years ago. I don’t know exactly what inspired it but I remember thinking that killer sheep seemed like a good idea for a movie! I bashed the first draft out in about a week or so and then spent the next three and a half years rewriting it. It’s funny though, I looked at the first draft again recently and the basic shape is all still there.
EMB: How easy was it to get funding for the film?
JK: It didn’t seem particularly easy at the time, but in retrospect it actually came together at a fairly steady pace. The New Zealand Film Commission (the country’s separate public funding body) were on board quite early on. It wasn’t a case of them saying ”yeah let’s make this” but after the first draft the project became part of their in-development slate.
When WETA workshop got involved, their endorsement of the project gave us all the confidence that things might happen. There’s a development arm and a sales arm of the Commission and, I probably shouldn’t say this but while the development people were saying ”we're bringing this along steadily, lets keep drafting”, the sales arm were going round the world selling the project and getting lots of interest! The more interest we developed worldwide meant that we were able to constantly play the two arms off against each other, until eventually we got them to a state where we actually had a budget for filming.
EMB: Did WETA ask you to change anything in terms of what you wanted to do with the sheep and the special effects?
JK: Not significantly. You rationalise stuff throughout the script process. Early on I realised I may have had too many creatures or too much stuff going on with the first draft, things that either weren’t physically possible or just wouldn’t have looked good.
As we got closer to filming we started thinking about how things would actually be achieved. For example, with the massacre scene when the sheep attack the investors you might notice that we go from very wide shots to very tight shots. There were almost no medium shots in there because we couldn’t have any moments where there were more than a few sheep in the shot, just because of the logistics of what we could actually get them (the sheep) to do.
It didn’t really matter though. You have these enormous budget films where people can do anything and sometimes you feel like they’re throwing too much at the screen. Part of the fun with Black Sheep was the restrictions we had. It forced us to be more creative and I think it makes the film the fun experience that it is.
EMB: How much of the effects are in-camera work and how much is CGI?
JK: There’s only one CG shot in the film and that’s where you see the hordes of sheep appearing on the horizon and they all come rolling down the hill. Everything else was physical effects, animatronics and puppet work.
EMB: Was that a budget decision or did you specifically want it that way?
JK: It was budget related and it was a very early decision. Basically we sat down and said if we have CG we want it to look really, really good – the most realistic fake sheep you have ever seen – can we afford to do that? They said no, so we were cool with that. We knew we had to go down the practical route. I also think it’s nice for the audience to see something that, while not realistic, actually happened while we were filming rather than being added in later.
EMB: What was it like having WETA on board?
JK: It was fantastic. We couldn’t have made the film without their blessing and support and I know they had a huge amount of fun creating the killer sheep. Also, a lot of the guys that were working on the film got their start in the industry working on the kinds of movies that influenced Black Sheep, like the early Peter Jackson stuff. For them to be out there on set with their buckets of blood and rubber guts, especially after working on stuff like King Kong and Lord of the Rings, was something I think they really enjoyed. To be on a smaller scale project where everything you do counts and everything is visible on screen was something they really relished.
We did the concept art with them, brought sheep in to their studio and photographed them and then talked about what we thought would work, what we liked about sheep (laughs) and what we thought was a bit sinister about them!
EMB: When did you realise that sheep had a sinister look about them?
JK: My stepfather comes from old farming stock and had a family farm. We used to stay there and I remember driving around at night one winter and seeing the headlights shining off their eyes and thinking they looked pretty weird. From afar sheep do look kind of cute, when you see them grazing on a hillside or whatever, but when you get up close they are a lot bigger than you expect and a lot stronger. They do look pretty strange close up too!
EMB: How was it working with the actual sheep?
JK: A nightmare! We had amazing sheep trainers though, and there’s quite a lot you can actually train a sheep to do; come when you call, look in the right place, stop when you want them to and jump up. Of course then there’s what you want them to do, but they stop and lose interest half way through and start chewing some grass or looking really dopey. Finally there's what they won’t do and that list is a lot longer! But at those points we would just hand over to the effects team. There were a few sleepless nights for me – I definitely wouldn’t do it again!
EMB: How about the actors. It must’ve been weird for them acting against a mix of real sheep and special effect sheep?
JK: They were all so patient, and great sports. Of course they all knew what they had signed up for and they knew they would have to nail their scenes every time because of the sheep situation and the fact that every shot we did could end up being the one used.
They also knew how to play it. I talked to them early on about wanting a realism that would play well against what was going on, rather than a wacky, jokey approach.
EMB: Was there ever any pressure to get bigger names for the film?
JK: No, not really. WETA was our star name. That’s the good thing about horror. You could never have a rom-com with no names, whereas horror is much less star-led.
EMB: In the UK the sheep jokes play very well, how about elsewhere?
JK: It seems to be going down well wherever we play. Obviously the physical stuff plays very well. There are some verbal things that people don’t always get but essentially wherever we’ve screened it people are laughing in the right places.
It’s a B movie but I wanted to make the A-version of a B movie, if you know what I mean? I wanted it shot nicely and to have high production values, to show that we were serious about making a silly movie. It’s not like a Troma film where they revel in crappiness. I wanted it to be more like An American Werewolf in London or Evil Dead in tone
EMB: Is the Peter Jackson comparison flattering?
JK: I was very inspired by how Peter Jackson made those early films and he was definitely an inspiration. It’s a little bit embarrassing in a way though, he is on another level completely.
EMB: How did you approach balancing the comedy and horror elements in the film?
JK: I just followed my instincts and wrote what I would find funny and scary. One thing that really helped while we were in development was Shaun of the Dead coming out. It helped us in terms of giving backers a reference point, something to peg the film on to (no pun intended!)
The difference is that Shaun is a very funny film that gets progressively more horrific whereas ours starts out pretty serious, quite straight and gets goofier. I was always anxious that people find the film funny more than anything as the humour was always there in the project, right from the start. I tried to make it scarier as I progressed through the drafts.
EMB: Are you planning to make more comic horror films in the future?
JK: Fantastic films definitely, probably not straight horror or comedy next time round though. My next project is a scary, dark fantasy adventure. I like films that transport you to strange, weird places.
EMB: How about the film industry in New Zealand – is it in good shape?
JK: It’s precarious, much like the UK. Obviously there’s Peter Jackson and Whale Rider was a big hit a few years ago but there’s only a handful of actual New Zealand productions every year. Lots of films are shot there of course but they aren’t New Zealand productions. In Hollywood they make 300 odd films a year, regardless, whereas in New Zealand films are made in a much more precarious way and come together much less easily. The support is good, but you always have to be thinking about competing internationally.
The fact that we’ve actually made a film and got it out there puts us in a great position to go on and make more.