5 Lessons Learned from Making a Zombie Movie

by Joel G. Robertson

How would one be able to view the film work you’ve done? I’m very interested in seeing it.” — Hammond

She's REALLY unhappy with her healthcare.

She's REALLY unhappy with her healthcare.

Whether he knows it or not, Hammond, long-time listener, contributor (he generously provided us with our current Movie Picks music, sans toilet flushing), and friend (for cripes sake, the dude gave me this!), gave me the little push I needed to finally expose one of my movies to the world! Plus, it’s Friday the 13th today, so it’s a good day for a little horror flick.

You see, my childhood dream was to be a movie maker, and during my teens and twenties I made a few shorts, wrote half-a-dozen screenplays, and even co-wrote and directed a feature film.

However, I also made a LOT of mistakes along the way.

So, after watching a short film I made, which was an homage to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead called Shadows of the Dead, I’d like to share the 5 lessons I learned from making a zombie movie. But first…

Our Feature Presentation…

A few years after making Shadows of the Dead, I dusted off what was then called Terminal White (don’t ask), gave it a re-edit and a new title, and submitted it to the first Fangoria Blood Drive (2004), a national short film competition put on by Fangoria Magazine and Koch Vision.

And to my amazement, I actually won! Having grown up with Fangoria, the idea of getting a mention in their pages was enough to send my horror-lovin’ heart a flutter.

But it was even cooler when a legendary horror host, Count Gore De Vol (played by the generous and talented Dick Dyszel) offered to show it on his weekly web program, Creature Feature.

As the longest running horror host in history (even besting my childhood favorite host, Dr. Paul Bearer), having Count Gore host my little movie was humbling, to say the least. I’d like to say a special thanks to Mr. Dyszel for kindly allowing me to include his original Creature Feature presentation of Shadows of the Dead.

The following short film presentation is dedicated to Hammond for asking to see it.

And now you know who to blame. :)

 

Shadows of the Dead (Short Film, 2004)

Shadows of the Dead from Joel G. Robertson on Vimeo.

1. Prepare for your own ineptitude

There's no way that's sanitary.

There's no way that's sanitary.

I’d spent a few weeks writing this short. And another few weeks creating a detailed shooting script. I wrote out each and every shot I intended to get, and saved everything to a 3.5 inch floppy disk (they still make and sell these!?!).

Then, after arriving at the location where we were going to shoot the bulk of the movie, I realized I’d left that sacred little disk back at home… an hour-and-a-half drive away. I had no hard copy of anything I’d prepared, so I did the only thing I could do: I made it all up as I went along.

Of course, I had a foo-foo, artsy-fartsy excuse explanation for any gaps that resulted from my negligence. I’d simply tell any would be critic that I was going through my Argento phase and using “dream logic”.

And yes, some people actually bought that crap.

2. Use whatever you have available

She's a star, see? A star!

She's a star, see? A star!

We shot the majority of the short in a large warehouse and rundown, unused office building owned by a seabird sanctuary. One of the guys who ran the place was a bit odd, but he was nice enough to provide us with everything we needed to make our movie.

But one scene wasn’t working. It was the climactic scene and it needed a certain something. I was beside myself when the guy who’d been helping us had an idea. You see, he had this vulture with a dead eye, an evil eye if you will. And damn, was he proud of that bird!

He told us she (I’m guessing it was a lady bird) should be in pictures, see? She’s got tons of talent, see? You just GOTTA put her in your movie, see? What could I say, no? Sure the casting of his vulture reeked of Hollywood-like “special favors” and nepotism, but in the end it worked out.

And while I’m not sure the vulture added that missing ingredient (perhaps better writing and a budget would have helped), it sure was a creepy-ass bird… and one helluva actress!

3. Put yourself in your actor’s shoes restraints

Wait! What did he just say?

Wait! What did he just say?

You know what actors really hate?

They hate when their hands are pulled high above their head, wrists bound together with thick rope, duct tape stretched over their mouths, and then staying like that for 20 – 30 minutes straight. And while our lead actor never said so, I’m sure he hated it. But he never complained. The pros never do.

But you want to know what they hate even more than that?

They really (and I mean really, REALLY) hate it when, while they’re dangling there like a human pinata, waiting on the director (that’s me) to say “action,” they come to the unpleasant realization that said director (yep, still me) is chatting with a random crew member about… and this is not a joke… Dawn Wells.

Yep, Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island.

I’m not saying an actor wouldn’t be pissed if you left them hanging while you talked about Ginger… but Mary Ann?

Please.

4. Beg Ask for forgiveness

Hurry up! The owner's coming!

Hurry up! The owner's coming!

We needed a cool, exterior location, so we improvised. All the backroad/driving scenes were done in the final hours of our shoot. But we had a problem. Several actually. Our lead actor was heading back to L.A. and we were running out of daylight. So, we drove around central Florida with that golden clock ticking away in the sky until we came across the dirt road featured in the movie.

Since the road ran alongside a major interstate, we assumed it was an access road. It wasn’t.

We’d already shot the majority of the footage on the road and the daylight was almost completely gone when a large, four-door F-350 came rolling up. It was the owner of the orange grove we were apparently trespassing in. If I’d had a lump of coal on me, I’m pretty sure I could have created a rectal diamond, a la Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Instead, I just stuttered and stammered my way through an explanation of why were on this man’s property.

Fortunately for us, he bought it.

However, this had less to do with any great negotiating skills on my part, but was more likely because the guy felt bad (or just embarrassed) for me as I stood there weeping and begging, clutching my camcorder like a teddy bear as I wet myself.

5. Don’t be an uptight “Auteur”

Peek-a-baby!

Peek-a-baby!

This was my biggest mistake.

On most of the movies I worked on, rather than simply enjoying myself, I spent most of my time worrying about little “triffles” that didn’t matter. I seldom relaxed and enjoyed the process. I was too caught up in what other people “might think” or how it was all going to “turn out” when it was done.

Well, as it turns out none of that crap mattered. It didn’t matter then and it certainly doesn’t matter now. All that really mattered was the experience of working with generous, kind people in an atmosphere of creativity and collaboration.

At that time, I made it all about me. I was, after all, the “auteur” and according to that over-used little theory my “vision” was all that mattered.

Man, was I ever wrong.

Truth is, if I ever had a vision to begin with (and it’s doubtful that I did), it could never come to life without the help, hard work and dedication of all the people who made the movie with me.

So, if you’re an aspiring film maker, writer, musician, or artist of any stripe, please know that no matter how bad you think you want to “make it,” in the end it’s only the relationships you’ve developed and the way you treat others that matters.

Loosen up, have fun, and just remember you ain’t curing cancer. And, hell, even if you are, I’m sure you could have fun with that too.

Leave a comment below and tell me about lessons you learned while pursuing your dreams or passions!

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About Joel Robertson

I'm the father of three boys and married to my high school sweetheart. I'm a former public school teacher (and still recovering from PTSD), reformed filmmaker, podcaster, writer, and fan of all things movie related.

7 comments to 5 Lessons Learned from Making a Zombie Movie

  • Mags

    Great advice, Joel. I once had to chastise a director on set for chatting idly to his fiancee on his phone when we only had 25 minutes left in our location. And on the same shoot had to talk someone out of calling the police on us because we were filming on his property – it wasn’t so much the threat of the police that scared me, more his huge alsation… Happy times!

    To your list above I would add, along the themes of building relationships, Don’t assume you know better than every single other person working with you. When your producer is telling you that you can’t do X, Y and Z, don’t throw a strop about it, take it on board and work out alternatives with your team – and listen to their advice before they get bored of being ignored and take themselves off home!

    Can’t wait to watch the film! :)

    • Hi Mags! Thanks for commenting and for that great advice! It’s very easy for people (especially directors) to disregard what the producer is saying because they figure for the producer it’s all about the money, which of course, it is!

      But it’s important to remember that on even the lowest of low budget pictures that it’s as much a business endeavor as an artistic one. Unless of course you never intend to sell the picture or really get out seen by an audience larger than your family and friends.

  • Hammond

    I have written stories, plays,poems and done music in various forms for MANY years. The main thing I have taken from it is that YOU need to enjoy and like what you have created. If someone else does that’s a bonus, but end the end it is an expression of you and your place at that time in your life. I have used it to express anger, sadness, love, and my quest for self definition. You need to the be true to you. I read and listen to things I did in college and see why I made those choices.

    • Spot on Hammond! Unfortunately, too many of us (and I’m talking about me specifically) spent far too many years not realizing that you can’t create for others. You can hope to entertain, inspire, or inform others, but you really only have control over how you feel and what you get out of the process.

      And I love your point about the art you created being an expression of where you were when you created it.

      Maybe you should get that memo to certain 60-something filmmakers who want to “revisiting” their earlier work and change it, rather than create something new and fresh that’s indicative of where they are today.

  • First off, killer movie!! (No pun intended ;) Who doesn’t love zombies? You did a great job, and I love the lessons learned.

    I once choreographed a solo blindfolded Modern dance piece. Rehearsal consisted of creating the piece with my eyes closed in my bedroom. Lesson learned: sometimes the other 4 senses don’t automatically supercharge when one is hindered… lol

    P.S. I love the new site look! Awesome!

  • Gail

    These lessons go beyond movie making. I need to follow them in my everyday life. Others need to be reminded of them. I might have to define “ineptitude” & “auteur” to a few people but it would make for a fun(funny)conversation. And discussing Zombie movies at the office would certainly rattle my officemates who are already confused by my Inigo Montoya t-shirt.

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