Just as a virus needs a host, there is a broad collection of films placed both within and outside of the horror genre that employ viral infection. These films tap into our innate fears of one another, and the obsessive compulsive disorders of the fear of human contact.
Sequel and franchise are two words intertwined with the identity of the horror film, and with the release of Cabin Fever: Patient Zero (2014), we witness an evolution from standalone film, to sequel, to trilogy/franchise that is the modus operandi of the genre – the virus a metaphor for its cinematic outbreak.
In an age of superhero blockbusters that has witnessed a collaboration between two artistic mediums – film and comic books – off the back of contributing the “V” segment to The ABC’s of Death (2012) horror anthology, award winning MARVEL artist Kaare Andrews continues his flirtation with the genre. But Cabin Fever: Patient Zero sees him depart from the supernatural leanings of his debut feature Altitude (2010) for an alternative dose of viral horror.
In conversation with Film International’s Paul Risker, Andrews looked back to yesteryear to recall the sources of his creative inspiration, and revealed that horror, like apple juice (in his words), has been a lifelong companion. As the conversation spiraled outward from his formative years he reflected on the transition of Cabin Fever (2002) fan, to sitting in the director’s chair on the set of the third installment, and how it compared to his supernatural debut.
Why a creative career? Was there that one inspirational moment?
I’ve always been drawn to the arts, and ever since I can remember I drew, wrote, sculpted, and I made movies…I did everything. You know what’s funny is that every kid draws, and I don’t mean most kids have tried it, like trying a sport or such. I mean we are biologically designed to create art from birth. Drawing pictures as a communication tool is said to predate speech, although most of us along the way are shamed out of it. I just never was, and in fact I was encouraged at every step along the way, and while I always had very good grades, I found myself struggling at high school to even attend class by the end. I just knew I was ready to make art; not grades.
But I do remember one weird moment. It was in fifth grade and we were putting on a haunted house for school. Our teacher asked us all for ideas and I really wanted to do a suit of armour that came to life and surprised people. My teacher gave me this funny look as if to say, are you high? He actually said he would be into it, but I’d have to build it myself. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I ended up building it myself out of just cardboard, glue and paint. It was a lot of work, and my teacher was so impressed that I had actually done it that he wrote me this special award.
It’s stuck with me how that to do the things you want to do, you have to work harder at it than anyone else. It’s the currency of follow-through that pays the price of passion, and I keep that memory with me for everything I am struggling with, whether it is storyboards, shot lists, effects, editing or any insurmountable task. Life is about grit, and you have to bear down and put the work in.
Can you remember the moment you first discovered the horror genre or more broadly the moment you first became aware of storytelling? Was it through comics, film, literature or theatre?
I have memories of reading comics before I could read words. I would read novels before I had the capacity for that level of understanding. I was always surrounded by TV and cartoons and movies, and I didn’t grow up with that sort of stuff being off limits. So stories and storytelling have always been a part of my personal and artistic life, and I was always writing, drawing or animating stories.
My earliest memories of horror go so far back that it’s like asking what my first memories of drinking apple juice are. There are none. It was always around, and whilst it wasn’t a focus per say, it wasn’t off-limits either.
Now I do have very specific memories of watching The Terminator (1984). I saw that in my next door neighbour’s kitchen on a TV back when TVs in kitchens would have been unique. I was eating a giant bowl of soup that his Mom had made me. They were kind of a big family and I was a scrawny kid, so it was a little shocking when his Mom poured out an entire can of soup just for me. Anyway the movie just caught me off guard – I was maybe eleven or twelve, and I had no idea what I was about to watch. The robots, the blood, the drama, the nudity; it was all just a perfect storm. The first Terminator is a straight up horror movie; kind of like a robot version of Halloween (1978), and it changed my life.
I also have very awkward memories of watching The Return of the Living Dead (1985), and the nude punk rocker dancing in the graveyard. I was just hitting puberty and the nudity made me feel rather embarrassed. But you know I grew up giving book reports on special effects, make-up and matte paintings. So I always had a love of the artistry of horror before I had a love of the scares of horror, and maybe it was because I didn’t scare easy. I’ve never had a movie freak me out so completely that I had nightmares as a child. Working with Vincent Guastini was a dream come true, and I had the opportunity to really get my hands dirty shooting practical make-up special effects. When I was a kid, these make-up artists were rock stars, and I miss that. Cabin Fever: Patient Zero was a chance for me to tap into those passions of mine, and Vincent did a stellar job on a very small budget and timetable.
It is often said that short films are an effective means of training for a filmmaker. How valuable was the experience of those six short films as preparation for you making taking the step to direct feature films?
For me it was everything. I grew up reading books on filmmaking, but I never went to film school. You see, while I did all these different things as a kid – sculpting, animation, drawing, writing, model making, VFX, the world told me I had to choose only one of these for a career. So I decided to go for comic books. It was a small industry and impossible to break into. It was a real challenge, but once I broke in, I decided I could do more than just the one thing. I was already working and living on my own, and even though it was too late for film school I bought some film gear and just started shooting shorts. I taught myself sound, lighting, VFX, editing – whatever I needed. Shorts were a great training ground for me, and I never had a budget of more than $1000 for any of them – for most of them much less. So I never had a really slick calling card, but I learned what I could do on my own, and I’ve always been drawn to a sort of DIY approach, and it fitted that attitude.
With your creative role at Marvel, how do the various creative activities of writing, drawing and directing inform one another?
I’ve stopped trying to analyse how all the separate tasks inform one another. I know they do and that’s enough, although when you’re a kid all these different tasks are the same thing. Again, it’s the outside world that tries to compartmentalize them; to tell you they are different, which is understandable. We conquered the earth by separating and naming things, and it’s how we control nature and the elements. But while control demands compartmentalization of which the periodic table of elements is an example, creation works differently. In fact, I propose that creation flies in the face of it. That logic is the enemy of art, and you need to free yourself from the bonds of control, to lose control a little in order to give creative birth to your ideas and your passions. You need to get dirty, to get messy and forget the labels and the boxes. Make art, not cages.
How did you become involved in Cabin Fever: Patient Zero?
At the time I had the same agent as the film’s writer Jake [Wade Wall], and I was introduced to producer Evan [Astrowsky]. After just talking for a little while I was offered the job – it was pretty straight forward. The hard part came after the offer. The first Cabin Fever was a big cult film, the making of which I had followed on the internet. It broke Eli Roth and gave him his career. But as successful as the first was, the second was as equally disappointing for the audience to film makers alike.
How do you follow that up? A cult hit and a poorly received sequel? As a director, how do you do the next one? It seemed like a risky situation for me career wise. But at the end of the day I reminded myself not to make decisions out of fear, and that life is an adventure that needs to be lived fully, and not sheltered against. So I just went for it; ready for whatever was to happen next.
From a seat amongst the audience to the director’s chair, how did this move impact your view of the series?
Well, I was not only an audience member of the first movie; I was a fan. So, while the script to Cabin Fever: Patient Zero had already been written by Jake and developed along with Evan; there were things I wanted to bring to it. The most important thing was to make sure that there was some of that original Cabin Fever flavour in the movie – to emphasize the comedy, the sexiness, the goriness of the original.
Before I started shooting I received a very nice email from Eli, telling me that with this kind of series you just have to go for it. I really took that to heart. There are some crazy elements to that first movie, like Pancakes Kid and Party Guy. So, while I wanted this film to have its own flavour, I also wanted it to retain some sort of relationship to that first film.
Cabin Fever: Patient Zero is your second feature film. How do you compare and contrast the experiences of Altitude and Cabin Fever?
They were different experiences on every level, but equally both were as challenging. Altitude was a movie where our entire set was about the size of a mini-van – a mini-van filled with five people. How do you keep a movie like that interesting for two hours?
Cabin Fever was shot on location in a tropical country, but we had to deal with language barriers, an untrained crew, guns, tarantulas, student riots, location constraints, food poisoning, and sea sickness. It was a beautiful country with beautiful people, but it had its own set of problems.
By necessity, Altitude was a movie of close-ups and medium shots, and I wanted to open up Cabin Fever in a way I couldn’t with Altitude. I also chose to shoot Cabin Fever almost one hundred per cent handheld to deal with shooting on boats, beaches and in caves. Each film demands its own needs, and it is your job as director to try to identify these.
Comedy and horror are two genres that function on the intention to provoke a visceral reaction. What have you found to be the fundamental challenges of creating a horror film?
Well, I think you just identified it. Expanding upon that there are extremely different types of horror movies; for example The Exorcist (1973) has no relation to Cabin Fever, yet The Evil Dead (1981) does. I tried to use some of the tools of horror to build suspense, and I decided to go all out in the depiction of the make-up effects. You try to make these characters relatable; you try to build relationships even in these extreme conditions, and you still try to bring out some humour. You try to have moments of your own that haven’t been seen before, though these are the same goals as on any movie.
What challenges come with working on an established series as opposed to a standalone film?
What made this situation so interesting were the reputations of the first and second instalments. There was just such a disparity between both films, and I knew in many ways I was set up for failure. So it wasn’t just, “How do I survive this?” it was, “How do I ultimately succeed?”
Altitude unlike Cabin Fever: Patient Zero has a supernatural element. There is a belief within the genre community that for a horror film to be considered a ‘horror’ film, then it must feature supernatural elements. It is a belief that side-lines the horrific and the suspenseful. What are your thoughts on the essential requirement of the supernatural to classify a horror film as such?
I don’t believe in that sentiment at all. If you look at a film like Maniac (2012) or High Tension (2003), these are clearly horror movies. Psycho (1960), American Psycho (2000) and Seven (1995) – I could go on. But I do love the supernatural, and my two favourite horror films are The Shining (1980) and The Exorcist, both of which feature a supernatural element.
I believe that horror films have to involve the taboo, and they have to involve death. It’s our cultural way of investigating those elements, the dark things that we are not allowed to talk about in our daily lives. The creativity that erupts from exploring taboo subjects is always exciting.
Virus horror such as Cabin Fever: Patient Zero allows you tap into that fundamental human fear of one another, which can extend to conspiracy and distrust. Are these cynical tales that exploit our primal fear and suspicion of one another, and what is it that makes them so enduring?
By its nature a virus is transmitted from one host to another, and so there is a real metaphor there for fear and mistrust of those around us. I don’t think this is a cynical statement at all. A virus hijacks cells and turns them into virus factories to go out and do the same. Actually, once you start to investigate the science of viruses, it gets pretty fascinating.
Did you know that a virus defies being categorized as dead or alive? They survive thousands of years and simply “activate” under the right circumstances. We live in a copasetic relationship with viruses every day – each animal with its own special viruses. It’s only when those viruses cross species that they become dangerous. Yet even in extreme outbreaks, it’s not a virus’s intention to wipe everything out because they need hosts to survive. So whilst doing a movie such as Altitude which made me less frightened of flying; Patient Zero has made me less frightened of something like swine flu.
The horror genre is synonymous with sequels and franchises. Do you think this is always a product of creative motivation or is it often financial/business motivations that are the guiding force behind this trend? Is this to the advantage of the genre?
We all know this is mostly a financial decision; a way for studios and execs to mitigate risks. Even if a sequel bombs it’s easy for someone to say, “It’s not my fault… after all the first one worked!” But from someone who makes movies and who has done a sequel or another installment, the success of that effort has nothing to do with the success of the first installment. It’s still, “How is the script? How is the support I’m given from the producers? How are the shooting conditions? How do I find a way to connect with the material?”
For someone such as myself, doing a franchise film is a way to do a film. I try not to bring anything else to it. I would say the exceptions to that would be doing a movie such as Star Wars (1977) or Terminator where the DNA of those films fundamentally shaped my views of movie making.
With experience of writing, how does that influence the dynamic of directing films you have not written? Are you a director in the Billy Wilder mode who sets the script in stone or do you embrace the process of evolving the script during the shoot and edit through collaboration with the cast and the creative team?
I think I’m a good collaborator. I enjoy the process and I try to find a “way in” regardless of how that project came into being. Having said that, I know with my comic book work when I do more and more of the different jobs at the same time, my own results are simply better. I could never achieve the level of artistry I’m working at with Iron Fist (2014) by being simply a component of someone else’s machine, and I can only conclude that would be the same with film.
I’m writing a script right now that is very close to my soul. I pitch it as “What if Blade Runner (1982) was a ninja movie set in present day, but with no ninjas?” Even though it’s a crazy movie about contract killers, it is a metaphor for being a child of divorce and finding my way towards manhood. It is a very personal journey featuring next level action, and the visuals of a noir. I’ve been waiting to take hold of a film the way I can with comics, and this is what I’m very interested in doing next.
Looking ahead, what’s next for you?
I’m half way through my run as writer-artist on Iron Fist: The Living Weapon (to be a Netflix series in 2016), and I also have a few film and TV projects boiling on the stove. Whatever happens next, I’m just looking forward to creating at higher levels. Every project is a real step up this ladder of mine, and I just feel such a momentum right now – it’s a great feeling.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.