Interview: Director Fede Alvarez fearlessly revisits the Evil Dead
When it was first announced that there was going to be a remake of the cult classic horror film The Evil Dead (1981), rabid fans of the original movie reacted as though someone had spit on their collective graves. But when Evil Dead creator and director Sam Raimi, as well as the franchise’s beloved star, Bruce Campbell, were revealed to be backing the remake/sequel, the fan’s fears were calmed – at least a little.
Raimi handpicked first-time feature director Fede Alvarez to revisit his hallowed film trilogy and after meeting the very personable Uruguayan filmmaker at a recent roundtable press event I have to say I completely understand Mr. Raimi’s seemingly odd choice.
Alvarez learned the craft of filmmaking the hard way, through trial and error and passionate perseverance, much like Sam Raimi did back when he and Campbell first created the original Evil Dead film back in the early eighties; and after talking with Mr. Alvarez it very easy to see that Raimi and Alvarez must surely be kindred spirits.
In this revealing interview you’ll learn that the new Evil Dead film is not a remake at all, but a respectful companion piece to the original trilogy and a loving nod to those cherished horror films. Alvarez is a huge Evil Dead fan himself and I don’t think the franchise could be in better hands.
Q: A lot of people might not be familiar with your work outside of the short you did, Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!), and this [Evil Dead movie] is such a shift from that. Are you a genre fan in general and is this a big change given you did CG effects in Uruguay and this is a practical effects film?
A: No, it wasn’t actually. Panic Attack! is an example of something I did because I love the craft of filmmaking in general. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid and I’ve always loved to learn about every aspect of it. I’ve composed music for my shorts in the past and I play piano and guitar and other things, and I love films and I’m a big genre fan; but I love even more the art of filmmaking. Because of that I love looking at how they do things and I’ve learned so many things about how to make films.
That’s how me and my friend and a very small crew with $300 were able to make an alien invasion movie – because I don’t charge myself [laughs]. We didn’t hire many people because I could do a lot of the things involved with making the film.
On YouTube there is a short called El Cojonudo (Mr. Big Balls), a kind of gory comedy horror thing, a twenty minute short on 16mm with no CGI, just very gory and practical [effects]. Nobody knows about it, but it’s there; and like that there are a hundred things I’ve done in the past, but the one everybody has seen is Panic Attack!
In a way, making this movie [Evil Dead] – on many levels – was easier than that. When you think about it, when you are making a movie in Hollywood and you are surrounded by great artists, great actors and a great crew, or you are making a $300 alien invasion movie – the alien invasion movie is way harder. When you are surrounded by a great crew and artists it makes it easier on some levels.
Q: Evil Dead is a landmark DIY (do it yourself) independent film, but in the last year films like Cabin in the Woods have made playful fun of that genre. Did you feel any pressure to buck conventions when you were writing your script?
A: When we were writing the script, Cabin in the Woods wasn’t out yet. I watched Cabin in the Woods when I was shooting the movie actually. In the beginning I was worried that it was going to have something to do with our movie, but it is such a different film. They are going for more comedy-horror and I don’t thinks it’s a scary movie – it’s just a very smart story.
We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, we were trying to be old-school and straight forward with the horror in our movie. It [Cabin in the Woods] was so different and it didn’t matter, whatever we did would still fit with whatever they say in that movie. They were just telling the audience the mythology behind every horror movie or one idea of what it could be. I don’t think those two guys are having coffee and watching what is going on in our movie.
When you write a movie you just care about the movie you’re writing and you shouldn’t care about what they did in the past. You just have to care about your story and what’s the best story you can tell. You have to know the audience but at the same time you have to make the movie for yourself.
This was a very personal movie in a way. Rodo [Rodo Sayagues Mendez] and I wrote the movie together and we’ve been best friends since we were twelve, and we had the chance to go and write the scariest movie ever. We love horror movies and we had the chance to do one working with Sam Raimi and it’s going to be part of the Evil Dead universe, it was so exciting there was nothing that could have turned us off.
Q: Were you worried about how the die-hard fans would accept you?
A: Not really, because first of all I was a fan myself. I know the Evil Dead universe and the Sam Raimi universe sometimes way more than some people who call themselves fans of the original Evil Dead. They tell me, “Oh, the second one was a remake,” and they don’t know it as much as we did when we were like fifteen [years old].
We ended up making an original and different thing because we weren’t scared. Fear destroys movies and fear destroys creativity. Most of the bad movies you see in Hollywood today are because everybody is scared of losing their jobs and they’re trying to please everybody with the safest bet possible and that’s when it’s just mediocre and doesn’t work. All my friends and I were like weird people who, when we were teenagers, would watch VHS movies all the time. We would watch four movies a day during the week, so we were pretty intense moviegoers; and that’s how we learned the craft of filming, by just watching and watching and watching and then doing it. That’s why Sam gave me the movie and felt that I was the right guy to do it, because the original films are such auteur films where the guy’s just doing everything he could with the resources he had and that was the spirit of the original.
I wasn’t scared at all because I wasn’t thinking about it. It was more about Sam saying, “Fede, I want you to make this Evil Dead film for me,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s awesome, we can do it!” The best advice that Sam gave me at the beginning was, “You have to do the movie YOU want to go see in theaters. That’s the only thing that should be in your mind. Don’t think about what I want to see in the theaters, don’t think about what the fans want to see in theaters, just think about what YOU want to see.”
At the end of the day all you have is your instinct and personal taste and sometimes it’s hard to know what you want, so it’s impossible to know what everybody wants and it’s impossible to please everybody. I think it’s a Woody Allen quote that the key to failure is trying to please everybody, so we weren’t really thinking about it.
It wasn’t until the thing was announced that people were saying, “No, [expletive] no!” The moment they offered it to me I called one of my friends who is a huge Evil Dead fan and I told him I’m going to remake Evil Dead and he said, “No, [expletive] no, don’t do this to me, please!” I told him don’t worry, we’re making a different movie, we’re not going to overwrite anything. We weren’t really worried because we were having fun and we were excited; if we were worried we would have made a [expletive] movie and I don’t think we made a [expletive] movie.
We ended up making an original and different thing because we weren’t scared. Fear destroys movies and fear destroys creativity. Most of the bad movies you see in Hollywood today are because everybody is scared of losing their jobs and they’re trying to please everybody with the safest bet possible and that’s when it’s just mediocre and doesn’t work. Thank God Sam encouraged us to not be scared of any of those things; and he created the film so that means a lot when the creator tells you to go and make another one.
A: You can always be gorier, but I didn’t want to be hilarious. There are a lot of gory films that I’ve watched that are the gorier, the funnier. When someone starts pulling their guts out, I just laugh. It’s funny and it stops being scary and starts being something different. The challenge is not how to make the goriest film ever, that’s easy, just have a dummy and cut him into pieces and stick stuff in its eyes or whatever, but that’s not the key.
The key is to know when is too much and when is enough and when are you standing right on the line where you are still scary, outrageous and funny sometimes – but then you hold back – and then you go back to it. It’s just always a balance right on the line; you go over the line and it’s just hilarious and nobody is scared anymore and everybody is laughing, and if you hold back too much people are not scared because you’re not showing too much.
We’re always trying to keep the right balance of gore and suspense. You punish the audience with a gory moment then you have them in suspense for a little while, because they know something else is going to happen, and then you punish them again and that radial gets tighter and tighter towards the end of the film.
Q: When the film was first submitted to the rating board it received an NC-17 rating and you had to go in and make some cuts, but even after the cuts and after getting the R-rating, there were still people walking out of the advance screening because it was too much for them…
A: Somebody fainted I heard … I was so happy [laughs].
Q: Are there any concerns that type of reaction will diminish the enjoyment of the film or is that a badge of honor, in that you affected somebody so strongly with the film?
A: The best horror movies always shock people, but regarding the NC-17 thing, the first cut we submitted they told us we had to address these five notes and they were very precise and very helpful with us. Sometimes the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] can tell you, “I don’t know just figure it out, this is NC-17 — it’s your problem,” and you can go crazy trying to figure out what the problem is. You cut some things and deliver it again and it’s STILL NC-17 and you go, “Oh my God!”
This time those guys were very helpful and there were just five things, probably the tongue, the arm, the knee, the vomit on the face and a lot of those things that they just asked us to trim down a little bit. So we lose five frames or ten frames of those shots, maybe with the tongue you see five frames less. But we still managed to put out everything that we wanted to put out there and it enabled us to make a better cut.
When you can do anything, you’re lazy, you put everything there; but when they tell you can’t and you can only show this amount, you really think about what you’re going to show and you are very selective of those ten to twenty frames that you have. So in a way it was a good challenge in that, ‘How are we going to make this an R-rated movie?’ It could have been a painful process, but it wasn’t.
Q: Regarding the tagline for the movie, “the most terrifying film you will ever experience,” did you feel you delivered on that promise?
A: The movie, for me, was scary when I wrote it. The only time that a movie is scary for a director is when you read the script for the first time or if you are writing it then when you write it. Then when you make it you are just so involved that it’s just impossible to see it with objective eyes. It’s such a shame that the one who creates the movie is the last one who will ever [enjoy] the movie. It’s like having a kid and you are the least objective person about who your kid is.
It’s hard to get scared when I watch it today. It’s just very funny for me and I laugh like a maniac because everyone is scared and I’m just [laughing], because I find the genre so entertaining and just playing with the audience and making them jump. It’s very entertaining for a director, like being a puppet master and moving everybody and that’s a great feeling.
For the tagline, that’s something that came from the producers. That came from the studio and Sam when he watched the cut. I would never name my own film “the scariest,” that’s almost like saying my film is the best movie and you don’t say that about your film. But I was proud that they decided to go with that tagline themselves. It came out of something I had said about my experience when I watched the original Evil Dead.
When I talked to Sam Raimi about it, I said for me, when I watched that movie when I was twelve, it was the most terrifying experience I had ever had … it definitely was. But there is a new generation of people who have seen it who say, “Oh, let’s watch this movie, it’s so funny,” but when it came out it wasn’t like that, it was a really brutal and scary movie, at least for me when I watched it in 1990.
So in that spirit when we decided to make the movie the mindset had to be we have to make the scariest movie ever. For a moment I was kind of upset with it [the tagline] and I was like, ‘Why did you put that there? You’ve put the bar so high all you’re going to get is disappointment.’ But last night I was showing the film and a lot of kids are coming to me going, “Man, that was the scariest movie ever! Thank you so much for that movie”
Those kids are twenty years old, but they’re twelve when they start watching these movies surrounded by strangers in a theater, where they are going to have the best horror film experience, not a DVD experience. So when you think about it, tell me another movie you’ve seen in the past ten years where you see something like this. So that’s when I realized that for a lot people and for these kids, they are going to say this was the scariest experience ever.
For our generation, are you going to top The Exorcist? [Expletive] no! But for the new generation and for these kids I think it’s definitely going to be something unique that they haven’t seen before and I think it’s kind of talking to them.
Q: Now that you are done with your first feature film, can you speak about what you feel is your biggest success with the film and your biggest failure?
A: The success was to accomplish what we wanted to do with scaring the hell out of people and it wasn’t until I sat down with an audience for the first time and saw their reaction that I was like, ‘Great!’ And when I found out that guy fainted, ‘Great! Mission accomplished!’
It was something where I wanted to shock people and scare the hell out of them and with an R-rated movie you have to be under certain controls and you can’t just do anything. This isn’t The Human Centipede; this is not just trying to be gross and outrageous for the sake of it. We’re trying to tell a good story and on that I think we succeeded.
We managed to do something we wanted to do when we started writing, which was let’s write a story first — the characters, the plot — and then we deal with the horror and the gore. We didn’t want to build a story based on the gore; we wanted to add that later. When I was studying scriptwriting I read an amazing quote from the Zucker Brothers, you know the guys who did Airplane, they said that when they wrote their movies they would write the story, the characters, all the arcs and it wasn’t until they had that they would start writing jokes. They would never write a single joke until they had the structure of the film.
That’s something that I’m proud of, that the movie hooks you in and it doesn’t let you go from beginning to end. That’s very hard to do these days and in a lot of movies these days you drift away and the plot goes nowhere and it’s boring; but I think we managed to tell a story where people get engaged in it and they care about the characters for the whole movie and they’re hooked.
As for a failure, when I finished my first cut I felt like, ‘Oh my God, there’s not enough film there.’ It’s such a subjective perspective for the director that you never see what you did until you sit down with an audience and watch it and have them experience it. It’s hard to talk about failures because sometimes when you start talking about precise things with the movie people involved can get offended and think they didn’t do a good job.
A: A lot of people were very happy that we were going to make a 100% CGI-free movie. My job is to make the best scary movie that we could and not using CGI was part of that decision. For me CGI is not scary – it’s entertaining – but not creepy.
I have to give credit to my producers for giving me the freedom to make an auteur film in the studio machine. Studio horror movies in the past are written by six writers, the director comes in at some point and directs, delivers a cut and goes away; producers take a cut, test it and do test screenings and get a score then re-cut, get a score and re-cut – and eventually the movie comes out. So it’s like so many voices and so many different intentions and so many people trying to make different movies at the same time.
A lot of people were very happy that we were going to make a 100% CGI-free movie. My job is to make the best scary movie that we could and not using CGI was part of that decision. For me CGI is not scary – it’s entertaining – but not creepy. This one is completely different; this one was Sam saying, “I want you to write it.” He even forced me to do the storyboards myself, and I’m a terrible drawer, I cannot draw to save my life and he forced me to do those drawings myself , because he wanted those shots to be my shots and not some storyboard artist’s shots. So he was really mentoring me to be the author for 100% of the film.
Then when I delivered my cut they wanted to test it right away, which was weird. We tested it with an audience and we got a very high score, which the studio had never got before with a horror movie. So the studio was like, “that’s it,” we didn’t test the movie anymore and my cut is what you see in the theater.
Everybody tells me, “that’s so bizarre, Man,” because we got no studio notes. The famous Hollywood thing is that you look at the cut and then you get studio notes explaining all the things you have to address. We didn’t get any of that. We met with the studio and they were like, “You know you’ve got this high score with the movie, so you don’t have to change anything.”
Q: There are a lot of nods to the original trilogy in the film, which was your favorite wink to the fans that you wrote into the film?
A: There are so many references to the originals just because I love those. I think also in my mind it was kind of a blessing for every set; I would bless every idea with something from the original movie just to have it kind of turn into holy ground. Like having the car outside the cabin would make everybody feel you are on sacred horror ground because you have the cabin and the car. The car is there and it’s rusty and old, but still there, and it was kind of a respect that everybody had for the original movies. Sam didn’t want me to have the car there and he was like, “No, no. Do your film. Forget about the original.” But I think those things are important and they were important to me.
My favorites? I think there are two that are my favorites. One that nobody notices, but in the living room there is a deck of cards and a lot of the cards are face up in a certain order just like if someone threw the deck on the table. They are in the same order that Cheryl, before she turns around in the original Evil Dead, names the cards and they are in the same order on the table. So stuff like that that nobody noticed, but I did and for me it was important and I drove the guy in the art department crazy with, ‘Are the cards in order?’ “Yes! It’s not even on camera.” For me I felt I was respecting something.
And when she grabs the necklace at the end and the chain of the necklace is shaped as a skull; that is from the original film too. When Ash is trying to get the necklace to grab the book and throw it in the fire and when he’s going for it you see the skull form in the necklace chain. Everybody is looking at the necklace and nobody looks at the chain.
Q: You can look at this movie as a sequel and not a remake. Are you comfortable with that or is that something you were hoping would be left open?
A: We weren’t really thinking about it on those terms. I think those are marching terms. You know, what is this a remake or a sequel? When you’re telling a story and you’re making a movie all you know is the movie. In the Evil Dead universe we made it in a way that it was definitely based on the original film and we had a lot of fun translating ideas from the original film into a 2013 film. So we knew that a bridge couldn’t just collapse out of nowhere – so we had to find a way to isolate them. We knew that if somebody gets upset and turns into a demon, you know everybody is going to know that something supernatural going on, but we needed a story that would make you understand why they don’t leave right away. Why they think that Mia’s behavior would make sense in this universe, and it does because people under that level of stress in [drug] withdrawal can be completely out of their minds.
We actually based the whole idea on interviews on the TV in Uruguay, where there is a big crack problem. We saw this mother talking about how scared she was at night because her son was a crack addict and would sneak into the house at night through the roof and steal stuff from the living room to sell for crack and how scared she was of him that she would hide under the bed when the guy was walking through the house; because she would never confront him and she would never dare to look at him in the eyes because he would turn into this monster and was completely out of his mind. So we thought that was such an intense description, in particular a mother taking about her son. It was so disturbing that we decided to create the whole drug subplot.
To go back to the question, we had a lot of fun taking those elements and updating them to a modern and more relevant story for 2013. So that’s why I think we never really cared about what it was, we knew we had to take ideas from the original and update them, but we knew we had to create new characters; I wanted to create characters and a new story and I didn’t want to remake characters, I didn’t want to remake Ash, because I thought that was going to be a fool’s errand. So, yeah, the car is there and in the other first movie the car is still there, so you can think of it as a sequel, definitely.
A: Sam wants to do Army of Darkness 2, he’s definitely in love with the saga and Bruce and Sam want to work together on one of these films and they love them; so it’s something that hopefully will happen. It depends on Sam’s schedule and you know Sam Raimi is taking care of his small independent movies like Oz [laughs]. He’s always going to be busy, so we’ll see, but it’s something that he definitely wants to do.
I gotta write the sequel now and hopefully, if I find a story that I want, I’ll direct it too. I want to keep going and want to tell the story of Jane [Levy, who plays Mia] and where her character goes and eventually, yes, it would be awesome to have the mythology of the original film connected with this one. Because, in a way, the Evil Dead movies have always been a mind [expletive] when you think about it, because the first one is one thing and the second one kind of starts again, but is Ash going to the same cabin, but now there’s no friends it’s just a girlfriend in the second one, it’s just a recap of something that actually never happened before. They are so complex to really follow-up.
I think the second one and the third one are one thing, and then the first one is just something that is kind stays on the side and this movie, in a way, could be something that happened thirty years after the first one ended; because everybody died, Bruce [Ash] turns around and you assume he dies and the car was left there and never went to medieval times like it did at the end of the second one. So I can go on for hours and you don’t want that.
Q: How did the choice of not using CGI impact the shooting process? Was it more difficult to set up those shots?
A: Yes, definitely, very difficult. It’s hard on many levels and of course it takes way more time. You see in the film where Natalie cuts her arm off; just that shot is one day of shooting, because I think we had one reset which means that after you do it once you have another shot. It didn’t work the first time so then you have like four hours just to reset the whole gag and to be able to go again and do it. And if doesn’t work you’re in trouble, because you have an extra day, you don’t have your shot and you’re in trouble. So it takes a lot of courage, as a director you have to be 100% convinced; if you hesitate you’re done because all the crew is just going to run over you.
Nobody wants to do it that way in general, they’re like, “Hmmm, that’s not the way, we should go CGI, it’s easier and faster. Why do we want to get into that trouble?” You have to convince them that, ‘Let’s do it this way, it’s going to be awesome.’
With the tongue cut, I thought it looked great in the camera and it was effective at the moment, but when we’re shooting it everyone was like, “We have to do a CG tongue.” And I said, “No, no, no … that’s the classic movie that was so cool until the CG tongue showed up.” So we didn’t want to do that. So we took a sample of her tongue and we did a latex tongue and she had to bite on it and we were puppeteering the tongue from outside. So the first day we set it up we go, ‘Action,’ and she started moving the tongue and it looked so bad and embarrassing, and everybody was like, “Ahmm, hmm, hmm…” And you have to say do it again, do it again, do it again until you nail it.
So you have to be brave and you have to be 100% sure that it is going to work. I remember that [the tongue cut] was one of those that never really worked until we cut it together. When we put it together in the editing room it was like, ‘That’s it! Magic!’ You know if we showed just one extra frame the tongue would have fell out of her mouth [laughs], so you really have to be convinced and go for it and it was really, really challenging. But in the end everybody was proud that was the decision we took and even the producer, Rob Tapert, was fighting against it but then he was so happy that we went that way. And of course it can translate into losing a lot of money if it doesn’t work.
Q: What’s your biggest piece of advice for young filmmakers?
A: You have to shoot stuff. At the end of the day you just have to shoot. You have to do shorts. You don’t have to think about the career, the career is a mind [expletive]. In everything in general just do it, if you like it just do it all the time. As soon as you finish a short, if it’s not too good, then just do another one and maybe the next one will be better.
You have to tell yourself, ‘I’m a director, I direct things,’ and you do things. You cannot wait for anyone to give you that job. You just have to do it and eventually it may happen, but it has to come from you.Sometimes I think young filmmakers just care too much about their career and where they are going and what they are going to get out of it, when are they going to get a job out of it and when is it going to translate into money; and that’s not good and you don’t need that in your mind. You just need to know what story you want to tell and what is the short you’re doing and to focus on that.
For my generation Robert Rodriguez was a big inspiration because prior to Rodriguez we were convinced making movies was a rich man’s business and you had to have millions of dollars to make them, so it was pointless. But then suddenly out of nowhere this guy from Austin comes and makes a movie for $5,000 and makes a big movie. For my generation it was like, ‘Yeah, Man, we can do it,’ and it was real inspiring to see there was a way to do it. He always said that, in reading his book, Rebel Without a Crew, he’d say if you want to be a director all you have to do is direct, you don’t wait for nobody to tell you you’re a director. You have to tell yourself, ‘I’m a director, I direct things,’ and you do things. You cannot wait for anyone to give you that job. You just have to do it and eventually it may happen, but it has to come from you.
Q: What’s up next?
A: I’m going to write Evil Dead 2, and then also go back to Panic Attack!, which was the first thing that I started developing with San Raimi, and he’s still producer on that. When we started developing that an American writer was writing that one and Sam offered me Evil Dead and so I wrote Evil Dead, but now that I have time I want to go back and write my story myself.
I want to do hard-R [rated] sci-fi. I’m a kid from the eighties and I grew up on Paul Verhoeven and Robocop and Total Recall and all that stuff really changed my life when I was a kid watching those things. Sci-fi was family friendly and suddenly those movies came out and I was like, ‘Oh my God they’re killing people and they’re slaughtering everybody!’ It wasn’t supposed to be that way and I love that about those films. So I really want to get writing stuff that’s sci-fi , but hardcore films. That’s the way I like to tell stories right now, being provocative and willing to shock people. I don’t want people to watch my movies and walk out going, “Yeah, whatever.” I want people to remember my films.
I think Fede Alvarez and his films are going to be remembered for a long time and I’m certainly looking forward to his next projects. Be sure to return to NERDVANA on April 5 for our full review of the new Evil Dead film. Until then, stay groovy!
Unless otherwise noted – all photos © 2013 TriStar Pictures, Inc.