Q & A with Director Breck Eisner

Director Breck Eisner on set of “The Crazies”

Director Breck Eisner on set of “The Crazies”

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Breck Eisner about his horror thriller “The Crazies”, opening Feb. 26 from Overture Films and Participant Media, a re-imagining of the 1973 George A. Romero horror classic.

Directed by Breck Eisner (“Sahara”) and written by Scott Kosar (“The Amityville Horror”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and Ray Wright (“Pulse”, “Case 39”), it was produced by Michael Aguilar and Rob Cowan and executive produced by George A. Romero.

Starring are Timothy Olyphant (“Live Free or Die Hard”), Radha Mitchell (“Melinda and Melinda”), Joe Anderson (“Across the Universe”) and Danielle Panabaker (“Friday the 13th”).

Breck Eisner made his feature film directorial debut with “Sahara” in 2005, starring Matthew McConaughey, Penélope Cruz, William H. Macy, and Steve Zahn. He directed the 2006 television pilot “Beyond”, starring Adrian Lester, Seth Gabel, and Rachael Stirling.

Eisner directed and executive produced the two-hour drama “Thoughtcrimes”, and also directed an episode of the Sci-Fi Channel drama “Taken”, which won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries, a Saturn Award for Best Single Television Presentation and received a Golden Globe nomination.

In 2000, Eisner directed the pilot for the Sci-Fi Channel’s Saturn-nominated comedy thriller “The Invisible Man”. Over the past 10 years, he’s directed over 100 national television commercials for such companies as Budweiser, Coke, Coors, Heineken, Kodak, McDonald’s, Pepsi and Sony.

Eisner received an MFA from the USC School of Cinema-Television and a BA from Georgetown University.

The Story: A husband and wife in a small Midwestern town find themselves battling for survival as their friends and family descend into madness.

A mysterious toxin in the water supply turns everyone exposed to it into mindless killers and the authorities leave the uninfected to their certain doom in this terrifying reinvention of the 1973 George A. Romero horror classic.

The American Dream goes horribly wrong when the residents of this picture-perfect town begin to succumb to an uncontrollable urge for violence and the horrific bloodshed escalates into anarchy. In an attempt to contain the epidemic, the military uses deadly force to close off access in or out of town, abandoning the few healthy citizens to the growing mayhem as depraved killers lurk in the shadows.

Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant); his pregnant wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell); Becca (Danielle Panabaker), an assistant at the medical center; and Russell (Joe Anderson), Dutton’s deputy and right-hand man, find themselves trapped in a once idyllic town they can no longer recognize. Unable to trust former neighbors and friends, deserted by the authorities and terrified of contracting the illness themselves, they’re forced to band together in a nightmare struggle for survival.

Q: How did you decide to direct “The Crazies?”
A: I was originally approached (in 2006) by Michael Aguilar and Dean Georgaris. They had a production company called Penn Station at Paramount at the time. They had acquired the rights to the movie from Romero, himself, and had written a draft with Scott Kosar. They approached me and I read the draft. Although I had ideas for changing the draft somewhat significantly, I did like the draft a lot. I loved the concept of the movie and it was one that I remembered seeing on an old VHS tape as a teenager and liking back then. So it seemed like a really good movie for me to take on. I also was happy that it was a movie that they had bought the rights to directly from Romero. It felt to me that that meant he would have a hand in it and more importantly was signing off on the concept of the movie being made.
“The Crazies” star Timothy Olyphant

“The Crazies” star Timothy Olyphant

Q: Most people would probably think of Romero for making zombie films, which this is not. This involves a virus that infects people and turns them into killers. It sounds like the swine flu virus scare although that didn’t spawn killers.
A: Yeah. We were in Iowa shooting when the swine flu broke out and one of our actors had his family there visiting. They got on a plane to go back to L.A. a day after the swine flu hit. One of the kids had a cough and (the airline) took him off the plane and wouldn’t let him fly for fear of the swine flu. It just (showed) how real the world we were fictionalizing was.
Q: When was that?
A: That probably was in April of ’09, maybe early May. I first got involved in ’06 when I read the script. It went from Paramount — Paramount decided the movie was too small for them — to Rogue. And then Rogue changed ownership. And then it went to Overture and Participant, where it was finally made.
Q: I understand that you worked closely on reshaping the script.
A: There were several things that benefited us. One is we had a great writer, Ray Wright. When I came on we hired Ray and Ray spent two or three years on and off working on the script. When you have a really strong talented writer with a voice and a sense of character and story it makes my life (as a director) a lot easier. I don’t want to be doing the writing when we have a writer. It’s nice to be able to meet with a writer and discuss ideas and let him or her bring their abilities and talents to the page. And that was exactly the case with Ray. It allowed me to have a real aggressive and active hand in the development, but also it allowed Ray to put his voice into the movie, which I think is to the benefit of the movie.

That being said, the process of writing a movie doesn’t end until you’re done cutting it. Things change in the edit room, as they did, and certainly on set when we had a very aggressive schedule and a big movie to shoot and not a lot of time. There were just days when we couldn’t get everything. We had to reconceptualize a set piece on the moment in order to get in and out of it in the allotted time on the shoot day.
Q: It’s been said that movies are written three times — once by the writer, once by the director and once by the film editor.
A: I think that’s probably true although you might add the director to each of those steps with the other people depending on who the director is.
Q: In re-imagining the Romero film, it must have been difficult since you were dealing with a cult film but you didn’t want to make exactly the same movie. How do you walk the line between re-imagining and still keeping what it was that made the original a success?
A: It’s a really complicated added element to moviemaking that doesn’t exist if you’re making an original movie. You have to ultimately make the movie for the modern audience — a movie they want to see that they’re going to relate to (and) connect with. But at the same time you have to be somewhat true — or in my case, I think, very much true — to the original because you’re obviously making it for a reason. There’s something in it that inspired the producers, the director, the actors to make the movie and you need to figure out what that was and make sure that that’s true to what’s happening in the movie.

For this movie, the concept of the craziness that the people you know and love best — your neighbors, your family, your friends, your most trusted acquaintances — suddenly and without warning and without reason turn violently against you is a real primal and terrifying concept. It was a concept of the original and the reason I made the movie is that it’s a primary concept of this movie that exists now.
“The Crazies” premieres in theaters February 26

“The Crazies” premieres in theaters February 26

Q: Tell us a little about casting the film.
A: Tim was the first cast. He is the key character in the movie. As all movies go through, we sat down and made a list of who we wanted and who we could get and who our pie-in-the-sky ideas were. The one name that kept coming to the top of everybody’s list and always was at the top of my list was Timothy. He is the perfect guy for this role. He has the charisma, the talent, the goodwill in the world and the believability to be this guy. It was very exciting for me that he got the script when he was shooting “A Perfect Getaway” and was with Steve Zahn (who was in Eisner’s 2005 action adventure “Sahara”) and was able to say, “Hey, I got this script from a director you worked with, what do you think?” And Zahn said good things. Tim really enjoyed the script so we were able to get Tim on the movie, which was great for us and great for the movie.

Then we cast Radha. We needed to figure out the wife and who would compliment Tim well and would stand on her own. Radha, again, was a no-brainer choice — a woman who has been in genre movies (“Phone Booth”, “Pitch Black”), but also in more performance based movies (“High Art”, “Finding Neverland”). She’s a real talent and yet, at the same time, she didn’t look down on genre. There are actors who will look down on doing a genre movie and say, “I’m doing it for the pay.” Well, (a) we didn’t have the pay and (b) I don’t believe it’s a movie to be looked down upon. And Radha didn’t. Both she and Tim embraced the movie, loved the script and worked their asses off and were really great to have on set and were great for the movie.
Q: This is your second feature film. A lot of young directors do whatever they can get to do in order to make their first film, but for their second they look around for something that’s going to elevate their profile or be a film that in some way is very personal for them. Clearly, you felt that doing a genre film as your second feature wasn’t a bad thing to do.
A: Yeah. I mean, I love movies. I’m just a huge fan of movies. But the movies I love best are genre movies. When I get excited about seeing a movie that comes out, it’s a genre movie always. I appreciate all movies. I do — maybe other than romantic comedies. I can appreciate them, but it’s not really my thing. But I really wanted to make a genre movie and I wanted to make (one) that was intimate and human and yet intense and active and scary and dynamic. In this movie, which is truly a horror thriller, I was able to do that.
Q: You shot “The Crazies” in Iowa and Georgia and those small towns are almost characters in the movie.
A: Like casting the cast for the movie, we really had to cast the place for the movie. Rob Cowan, one of the producers, and I scouted, I think, 12 states and up in Canada to find the right place to do it. We obviously had to have a place that had a tax incentive for budget reasons and we needed a place that worked for the weather. We were shooting in March and April and early May. I wanted the desolate pre-planting season look. What we ended up going with is we did our interiors primarily in rural Georgia. We were able to find a few places there that worked for us exterior-wise. But then we did a company move and went to Iowa just as the thaw came. The snow literally melted the day before we got there. We shot all our exterior town and most of our (other) exteriors in rural Iowa.

It was nice because the two towns we shot in — Perry, Georgia and Lenox, Iowa — were both towns that had never been shot before. I shot (“Sahara”) in rural Morocco in the middle of nowhere and these Burbar villages had been shot 10 times before — (laughing) by Ridley Scott (“Black Hawk Down”) and Steve Sommers (“The Mummy” franchise). We’d be in these Burbar villages and they’d know about 10K lights and 10 ton grip trucks. But in these small rural towns they’d never had a film come in before. They were very welcoming and they were participants in the movie. We cast all the town folk as extras and we used their stores and their supplies and it was a great experience and we lived in the town.
Q: How long did you shoot?
A: It was a 45 day shoot — mostly nights.
Q: It sounds like it was probably just enough time to do what you had to do.
A: Barely. I could have used some more time. It was a brutal shoot because we really had to stick to our hours. It was definitely 10 hour days. We couldn’t do overtime. It was a lot of material to shoot in a short amount of time. It was like a road movie. There are very few locations that are repeated and those few locations that are repeated are usually repeated in action or horror action set pieces, which take a long time to shoot.
Q: The no overtime situation was because of your budget?
A: Yeah. We were on the edge with budget for sure.
Q: What kind of budget did you have?
A: I think just under $20 million. I never really got the number, but my understanding is we’re just under 20.
Q: That’s not a lot of money any more.
A: No. We had rights payments to Romero and executive producer payments to him and (we also had) costs associated with development at a studio that didn’t end up happening and the movement from the studio. So there were some above-the-line costs that went into it before production began.
Q: Looking back at production, were there any challenges that drove you crazy?
A: No pun intended? The sequence in the movie that takes place in a car wash. If this movie were a bigger budget movie we would have built the car wash and built the pieces and done all of it that way and had it all controllable. But without that budget we had to find a real car wash, which we did in Macon, Georgia. It was a fantastic ’70s car wash, but a ’70s car wash is not in the best shape and it was often breaking down and it was a really treacherous place to be shooting with these spinning wheels of death, as we called them, and water and soap on the slippery concrete, four actors in a car with broken windows and glass and three or four stuntmen made up to look like Crazies in the water with makeup and explosions and gunfire. It was a loud, wet, exhausting set piece to shoot.
Q: Any other horror stories — no pun intended again?
A: One of the locations was this town Lenox that we shot in — this beautiful main street town. There was no McDonalds. No WalMart. It wasn’t on a highway. It really was a town as it would have looked at the turn of the century. There’s a point in the movie where the town is almost completely afire and destroyed. Overnight, Andrew Menzies, the production designer, was able to turn the town (from) this pristine place, albeit a bit aged and weathered, into this post-Apocalyptic look with flames shooting out of the windows and debris strewn across and cars flipped and on fire upside down. It was unbelievable to leave that morning after shooting and see it pristine and get there that evening and see us shooting a complete flaming shambles and then to come back two days later and it was completely restored. In fact, they repainted some of the buildings. It was an impressive testament to what can be done without building a façade.
Q: How did you work with your actors? I understand, for instance, that you and Timothy spent a lot of time together going over the script before shooting.
A: Working with Timothy is great, but it’s also somewhat of a challenge because he’s incredibly smart and you have to be prepared because he’s prepared. He’s very prepared. Our preparation was primarily that he wanted to work on and talk about script and character, which we did a bunch of in L.A., mostly in person. He came to set early for rehearsals.

We would sit down at night and go over every single line and if there was anything to be changed or helped or evolved we would meet with Radha and we’d talk about the relationship and then we would block and rehearse even before we got to set. There were times we would drive out to the set the day before we’d shoot and we’d just block it and talk it so we weren’t having to do that work speedily in front of the whole crew. But it was great.

He was like a partner in the filmmaking, not just a lead actor. I can’t overemphasize how important the participation is of the number one on the call sheet to the overall tone of the set. Tim was there to work. He was happy to be there. He was excited about the movie and he was aggressively available to do anything that needed to be done. It set the tone for the whole movie and it really helped me to get the movie made and to get it finished on our tight schedule.