Chapter 1: Optimism
What the hell was I thinking! A survival horror road-movie set in French speaking West Africa by British filmmakers, with an American lead played by a Vegan Canadian.
Yes, it sounds a little problematic on paper I’ll admit, but it wouldn’t be that bad would it? Surely, with a bit of luck on our side we’d have ourselves an adventure to tell our kids about, if we ever had kids that is, and a unique film to boot.
I was sitting with my Brother Jon in a hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, late November 1997 where we’d just finished a soul destroying commercial shoot for a well known brand of nappies (Diapers to my American friends). It had suddenly dawned on us that we’d ‘sold out’. We swore we never would but there we were, eating and drinking on expense account, getting paid good money to shoot scripts that we didn’t have any real love or passion for.
Jon had been DOP (Director of Photography) and I had directed commercial after commercial for the last few years. We’d done spots for almost every kind of product you could think of; banks, beer, soaps, condoms, mobile phones and finally were making a good living from what we loved: Film-making. But were we happy? Of course not.
Commercials were meant to be a ‘quick fix’ to keep us going between films and however lucky we were to be doing it, in that moment it became particularly apparent that it wasn’t hitting the spot anymore. We felt like cheap whores. That’s when it happened.
Jon said ‘What about that Zombie movie we never did?’
When I was 12 and Jon was 14, we’d watched George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and Sam Raimi’s ‘The Evil Dead’ in quick succession and they’d had incredible impact on us. We’d watched ‘Dawn’ on a VHS tape in a little room above our local fish and chip shop and I will never forget that feeling on the way home afterwards, every corner, every back alley, every possible place held the potential for a ‘Zombie’ to loom out and grab us. It was incredibly unnerving but somehow exciting.
Within days we had got hold of a copy of ‘The Evil Dead’ and I was absolutely blown away by this film. Even at 12, I was so impressed with this film’s ability to inflict the emotion of fear on me, even though deep down I knew it was only a film and technically shouldn’t be able to physically harm me in any way. I can still remember that feeling of sheer terror as I left my friend’s house in the dark. My heart nearly gave out.
By the time I got home, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.  I didn’t know anything about filmmaking but whatever it involved, anything that can make someone feel an emotion like that, even though they are safe in their seat, had to be worth doing.
I immersed myself in it from that moment onwards and with Jon’s part time job after school, we soon had ourselves a Super 8mm camera and our friends had unwittingly become mini movie stars. All we had to do was get good at filmmaking and then we would embark upon our own epic Zombie movie and hopefully even a movie career…
Twenty years later we had never made ‘that film’.  Somehow in the process of our short films, coupled with growing up and becoming responsible filmmakers with ‘something to say about the world’ and all that stuff, our Zombies had been left shuffling in the nether world of a distant memory.  It certainly wasn’t the first time Jon had mentioned the Zombie itch we never scratched, he would do so every couple of months or so, as it was still his ‘dream project’, but for me, the timing had never been right.
That was until the might of what was in our opinion a (excuse the obvious but far too tempting pun) ‘crap’ Nappies commercial. Enough was enough.
Suddenly it was obvious we had lost our way and been unwittingly lured into a world where our artistic talents had been bought out by corporations wanting to sell stuff and we were going to get old and die miserably, having never made that film that had sparked our youthful passion in the first place.
So how about this we proposed: F**k the next soap commercial or whatever it would be, instead we were going to shut the production company doors and resurrect our Zombies.

 Shooting a commercial
Not only that, but we would shoot it in Africa. We’d shot a lot of commercials in Africa and were therefore ‘experienced in the field’. Surely everyone else’s Zombie movies would be set in LA, New York, London etc with their protagonists ultimately hauled up in some familiar setting with the dead trying to claw their way in.
We wanted to give audiences something different. Maybe even something that would take the living dead legend back to its roots, and we would even try and do it in an artistic and tasteful manner, taking our audience on a beautiful, even a spiritual journey across African landscapes with a good few scares on the way.
I thought about all the social & political messages such a film might be able to contain, yet it could still work for audiences who just fancied a bit of Zombie action. We talked about the potentially positive attributes – two different cultures coming together to fight a common enemy.
My heart was suddenly beating faster at the mere thought of it; Zombies in Africa, so wrong, but so right. Such a rebellion from the corporate suits that we were shooting commercials for.
No longer would we be on set using our film making skills to frame, light and capture a product for someone to sell to the masses; where a client might interject on my shot-flow from behind a monitor, coffee-in-hand while I’m busting my ass off to try and make their advert beautiful only to hear ‘I would rather my product was held in a different way’ or, ‘I’m not feeling that this shot is emotionally right for the brand’. NO!
Instead I would be on location directing Zombies to tear the flesh off the living in dusty African terrains.  It was such a departure it almost felt naughty and I wondered if my fluttering heart rate and erratic breathing was how it might have felt to be stuck in a loveless relationship having just received the offer of a sordid affair!
Crazy as it all sounds you have to understand that in this moment, Jon and I were tapping into something magic from our childhood. I wasn’t particularly into Zombie movies anymore. Since the ‘classics’ we had loved, most had been a bit disappointing.
In truth, my current DVD collection would be an embarrassment for most hard core genre fans, they would probably kick me and my collection out of the house and I’d be left in the rain clutching my copy of ‘Amores Perros’. But as 11 and 12 year-olds, my brother and I would walk several miles from our home in Brighton just to stare at the poster for Lucio Fulci’s ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (‘Zombie 2’ US title).
We were too young to get in but every day, while it was on release, we would walk through rain or fog back to that cinema and just stare at this image of a lifeless hand bursting out of the ground with the dead descending on New York. It was an apocalyptic image that impacted me to my very core and the feeling I got when looking at it was now about to form part of the inspiration for the insane project that had just been proposed. We had eventually been able to see the film and it is also one of our ‘classics’ that had an incredible atmosphere we also wanted to incorporate.
So in minutes the plan was hatched and at this point it was a simple one: I would invest my life savings into the movie and we would ship a big truck out to Africa full film equipment, plus a generator and anything else we needed.
We would then gather a small crew, including one non African actor (our lead role), then all fly out together, meet the equipment at the port and all have a merry time travelling around Africa shooting this movie.
I felt there was no way we could make this movie in the traditional manner.  No one would have financed it and in any case we didn’t want to trawl around production companies with our script. In fact we agreed there and then that we wouldn’t even show the script to anyone. I had saved some money from directing commercials and this seemed the perfect thing to invest it in.
You will hear people tell you this as ‘rule number one’ in the film industry. ‘Never invest your own money’, they say, normally with a wry smile that tells you they are perfectly happy to extract other people’s money because they care less about it. I think this is right and wrong at the same time. Right because you might not get your money back. Wrong because if you don’t bite the bullet and invest your own money, you might never make a film and thus die an unsatisfied individual with shattered dreams!
Film investment is notoriously risky. Films generally cost a lot of money to make and there is no guarantee you will make your money back let alone any profit. Partly because it’s quite rare that a film is actually successful, but also because the film industry contains many people that have no moral issue with finding a way of keeping your money even if it is successful. 
However, if you know the risks and happen to have some money and are sitting there frustrated because you want to make a film but no one else is throwing money at your dream project, then I don’t believe the above is good advice. In this instance, my advice would be: ‘Get off your ass and make the film with what you do have’!
I honestly believe that the best way to get your first film made (like any other project for that matter) is to just go ahead and do it. That may sound like nonsense but there is something strange that happens when other people can see that your film is actually happening, rather than you going about just telling people you want to make it. 
I think, psychologically, people don’t want to be left out of what might be a good thing - quite often people whom you might approach for financial help that might have declined your proposal, if it appears that your project is going ahead and you don’t really need their help, they will often approach you. I have had offers of investment this way and people offering their services on productions free of charge.
Sometimes, the trick is not to ask for help, just to make sure they find out about the fact that your film is going ahead and wait for them to offer. It’s by no means guaranteed but you may be surprised and I have seen this phenomenon work many times before.
Something else I have seen in my numerous trips to film festivals or markets such as Cannes is countless ‘filmmakers’ looking for tens of millions of dollars for their first feature film. They generally have what is called a ‘wish-list’ of cast that is laughably unrealistic and normally involves a list of the most famous actors in existence at that moment in time.
They often claim to have ‘serious interest’ from some major players in the industry and have scheduled meetings with so many important people that they can’t possibly stop and talk to you for more than a few seconds before rushing off.
You tend to see these people return to the festival for a year or two more. By this time they might even have a ‘slate’ of movies (the unofficial translation of a ‘slate’ is that they actually want to make several films but still haven’t got the first one off the ground) and then the next time you see them they are working at the check out in the local groceries.  It’s probably not the right moment to lean across and tell them that with all the money they spent on attending festivals and investing in the appearance of success, they probably could have got their film shot and kick started their career, but it’s bloody tempting!
There was the briefest moment of hesitation where the rational side of my brain must have considered the potential dangers of such an undertaking. I knew hitting the ‘go’ button on our African Zombie Road Movie was technically an irresponsible thing to do, possibly even life-threatening. I said to Jon ‘You know if we do this, it’s probably going to be hell and we’re probably going to hate every minute of it but if we come out of it, we might just have something interesting and different on our hands’. ‘Are you sure you REALLY want to do this?’ I looked him in the eye in a way that intended to communicate that this was a serious decision. ‘Definitely’ he said. And that was it.
At this point, I didn’t know it, but even my cautious words had drastically underestimated the pain and suffering we were soon to endure…
From that moment on, we turned down all commercial shoots and started simultaneously writing the script, elaborating quickly on Jon’s hand written notes from more than 20 years back and gathering everything we might need for the shoot. We made detailed lists of every little item that might be required for the production from walkie-talkies, loud hailers, adapter plugs, mosquito repellent, props, costumes etc.
I made a policy of writing down every little thing, the moment I thought of it. I would carry a pen and paper, no matter what I was doing, I would stop and write down something like ‘plenty of sunscreen’, ‘spare bulbs’, ‘AK47’s’, ‘Fake severed limbs’ or ‘Soft Toilet paper’.

One thing I have learnt about ideas of any kind is to write it down the moment you think of it. In my case, it has been anything from an entire plot to a line of dialogue or even a camera angle or even a prop that might enhance a scene. I did this all the time whilst working on commercials and it’s amazing the ideas that came at odd moments and actually made it onto screen.
Sometimes these random things that appear to be insignificant details can become the best thing about a scene but would have been lost had it not been for the act of writing it down. So, whatever your plan is, write it down, make your list and act upon that list before the inspirations that might have shaped your life become an unfulfilled opportunity lost in the back of your mind..

So, our purchase list now amounted to 5 full A4 pages and included several vehicles, a sizable generator, lighting units, grip equipment (camera tracking equipment) and hundreds of other little items we thought we might need.
We then went on a spending spree like no other I had ever experienced. Jon and I would literally spend all day every day just buying things from this list. Each of us, with a separate phone and computer, ticking off our epic list as we went - sometimes buying something on the phone and at the same time bidding for something on the net. To our credit card companies it looked like severe fraud and we had to keep calling our banks to unblock our cards and assure them we had not lost our minds.
At this point everything was upbeat but then there came the matter of informing my accountant of many years, Amir Moallemi. I needed to tell him of my decision to cease trading our successful commercials production company for at least a year, turn down all paid work, liquidise all assets in order to go to Africa and shoot Zombies.
Clearly, your average accountant would advise against such a ridiculous decision and a scene was about to unfold where he would say, ‘Howard, don’t do this’ & I would boldly say ‘I’m sorry Amir, I have to do this, and there is nothing you can do to stop me’, then I would turn and walk out of his office to either feel a large lever arch file slam against the back of my head or the grasp of his secretary’s hands clutching at my ankles in a futile attempt to dissuade me exiting the office.
However, as I would gradually discover, Amir was not your average accountant. In fact, he was so excited about the idea he immediately declared he would match my finance pound for pound and pull in some of his clients as investors. Right there and then we had our Executive Producer!
I have to admit, at first I was a bit sceptical based on years of experience meeting people who make financial promises of various kinds that amount to very little but Amir was amongst the first to be true to his word and very soon we both had our cheques quite literally on the table.
I was very open with Amir about the fact that, even though we felt we had chosen a genre of movie that had a good chance of selling, there was always a chance of losing money but this didn’t put him off. He later confessed that one of his clients invested saying it would be worth loosing several thousand pounds just so that he could ‘take the piss out of him for years to come if the project failed’. Whatever works I say.
Even my father, David, who had just gone through a major operation for colorectal cancer invested in the film. It was clear to both Jon & me that a Zombie movie called ‘The Dead’ would not appeal to his sensibilities at that point in time, but he spotted our enthusiasm and supported his boys anyway.  He just had one condition; that there would be no swearing in the film. ‘There’s too much foul language on television these days and I’m sick of it’ he said. ‘Well, one guy does say f**k’ I said ‘but he is in the military and his plane is about to crash into a land of Zombies’. ‘I don’t want any swearing’ he said. ‘But can someone say s**t under their breath during a moment of high stress?’ we had a deal.
I could see that our mother, Rita, was very worried about our imminent trip across rural Africa into the unknown but she too supported us as always. Then again our mum has never discouraged anything we’d done however outlandish and I’d like to think that even if I’d chosen to become a serial killer she’d have given me a hand out with the bodies!
For Amir, perhaps it was the lure of the film industry that promised more glamour and excitement than accountancy. This has always been a useful tool in recruiting investors for film.
The perceived glamour of the movie business is, without doubt, one of the best ways of attracting investors. It works the world over. There are a vast number of wealthy individuals out there whose careers or investments do not hold the same level of glamour that the film industry does and they might like the opportunity to tell others at a dinner party or perhaps announce, slightly louder than necessary, at a wine bar that they ‘have just invested in a movie’.
Dentists are a classic example. I’m starting to believe that films are not allowed to go ahead unless at least one of the investors is a dentist.

Amir and Yasmin Moallemi
Perhaps it’s the dynamic that lots of people visit dentists, engage in conversations and dentists are relatively high earners. I’ve personally not heard of a privately financed film that does not have a dentist as one of its investors!
A great way of appealing to investors, if you are trying to raise private finance, is to offer some sort of participation in the ‘glamour’ of your proposed film. An invitation to the eventual premiere of the film and the opportunity to visit the set and participate as an extra or ‘walk on’ part and receive a credit is often enough to attract investors.
Of course there is the profit-share but this might not be enough if offered alone, as any savvy investor knows, there are more secure places they can put their money than films, one of them being under their mattress.
Most Executive producers are not very hands-on - when you see the credit ‘Executive Producer pop up’, it could mean that they just wrote a cheque or even that they had the phone number of someone else who wrote a cheque.  Or it could even be that their sister-in-law walks the dog for the person who’s sleeping with the person who persuaded their aunt to write the cheque and that’s enough to get the ‘EP’ credit but I was constantly surprised by Amir’s enthusiasm and ‘hands-on’ approach, so much so that at times you would have a hard time getting his hands off!
He certainly ended up making waves and for once, as a writer, I am able to mean that in the most ludicrously literal manner – when you watch the sequence where Murphy, Rob Freeman’s character, first emerges from the water at night after the ill fated flight, the waves that lap around him were created by Amir in a wooden boat, far from his office but still in his sharp accountants suit, rocking back and fourth like a lunatic throughout every shot that night. He also ended up appearing in the film with his wife and son in the pre-plane crash sequence and later as a floating corpse. A change is as good as a rest they say…
So, armed with as much support and finance as we could gather, I then had the task of heavily abusing my contacts from our previous films and commercials, starting with film stock and the lab. Whatever happened we wanted this film to look good. It had to be cinematic, otherwise it would never scratch that itch. It had to be done properly and have a classic-look and, in my opinion, the only way to do that is to shoot on film. We had to do this on celluloid.
I don’t know how many times in the last decade or so I’ve heard of some sort of new digital format that ‘looks as good as film’ or someone tells me that with this particular new digital camera ‘you can’t tell the difference’ or this new camera is ‘better than 35mm’. As far as I’m concerned, whilst digital technology has come a long way and will sadly probably replace film completely some day soon, much like cheap modern products have replaced well crafted products that were once created to stand the test of time, I still believe, from an emotional perspective, shooting digitally cannot achieve the same results as film. There is something in the texture of film that I don’t believe can ever be replicated completely by a digital chip.
I have always felt that, unless you are just starting out as a filmmaker, where it makes complete sense to practice shot-flow, composition etc on digital, or if you are intentionally looking for a ‘stark reality’ effect, the only other reason you would shoot digital on a movie is if you cannot afford to shoot film, you are fearful of shooting film, or you cannot be bothered to go through the ‘inconveniences’ of what shooting film requires (I.E. the loading and unloading of film reels and taking them to a laboratory). And if the latter is your reason, then filmmaking is not for you because the bad news is that the very nature of filmmaking is total inconvenience and therefore, I would recommend an alternative career. 
Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good digital cameras out there and also some films that I have really enjoyed that were shot digitally with great skill and talent. However, I think these films were very good because they had great stories and great cast and were well directed and I still feel that many of them would have been even better if they had originated on film.
I won’t try and hit you with all the technical spec regarding resolution and what not, partly because I’ll openly admit to not knowing it, but what I do know, is what I see with my own eyes and, although I have been to many demonstrations that compare formats, I have never seen a digital format that captured scenes with the same magic as film.

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