Australian post-apocalyptic zombie action film Wyrmwood (review) is really gaining some traction now that it’s finally available in select theaters and on VOD. And it doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. It’s a high octane Mad Max style flick with a visual flair and an “everything but the kitchen sink” attitude that continually throws new and interesting ideas and twists at its audience. I recently got the chance to sit down with director/co-writer Kiah Roache-Turner and chat about his influences, comic books, deleted scenes, and even some thoughts on the sequel.
Wicked Horror: So the premiere is today.
Kiah Roache-Turner: Yeah, it’s out today! It’s releasing on 73 screens in our country, which for an independent film… it’s phenomenal. The reaction in this country has been great and it’s weird because we premiered in America and people loved it. We went to Spain and they loved it there and we went to Sweden and they loved it in a much more polite way, but I was really nervous about how Australia was going to react to this film because it’s a film made by Australians for Australians and…they love it! We had our premier and I was like “Ahhhh” I breathed this big sigh of relief. I’m like “Oh God, four years of nervousness and they actually like it.” So thank God for that, because if Australians don’t like something that Australians do they cut you down, because we got the tall poppy syndrome over here so I could have been in trouble.
WH: Now the big comparison that I keep hearing is that it’s “Mad Max meets Dawn of the Dead.” Were these both conscious influences?
Kiah: There’s a whole bunch of films that mean a lot to me obviously because I’m a massive film geek, but me and my brothers grew up particularly loving Mad Max and loving Dawn of the Dead. Those two films we watch regularly and because Mad Max is a home brew… well you guys call it The Road Warrior, right?
WH: The second one’s The Road Warrior.
Kiah: So the first one’s Mad Max in America!
WH: Yeah, the first one’s Mad Max here in America and the second one’s The Road Warrior.
Kiah: Oh fantastic! Oh ok, well Mad Max then, yeah! Because Mad Max is home grown I actually used to go to parties as a kid with my brother and meet stuntmen from the film and I remember when we were kids this big guy in a beard called Richard came up and he had a hundred stitches and he said, “See these stitches? I got these from Mad Max.” And so we grew up with this mythology, you know and it wasn’t just a mythology. People we knew were in the film, so for some reason we’ve always felt that that kind of filmmaking was very accessible to us. Originally we wanted to make a zombie movie because they’re easy and they’re cheap. All you need is a bunch of friends and a big bucket of blood and you can make a zombie film, but we really wanted to do another post-apocalyptic Mad Max style film because we’ve been waiting all our lives for somebody to do another film like this and nobody did. So we just thought, “Oh let’s do it ourselves.” That was the approach, yeah.WH: It’s weird too, because those two styles fit together so well and it seems like it’d be such an obvious combination that I’m shocked nobody’s done it before, at least not to this extent.
Kiah: It’s so funny that you should say that, because I’ve had so many emails through the years with people just going, “Why didn’t anybody think of this before?” It’s weird! It’s one of those things like pancakes and maple syrup that just goes perfectly! It’s always a zombie apocalypse…as if you wouldn’t go get a hockey mask and some leather armor and a shotgun. That’s what you’d look like, you’d look like Mad Max, of course! And you’d put spikes on your car and you’d drive around really fast and be really aggressive. That’s Mad Max, you know? So it makes a lot of sense and I think that’s the reason why it’s doing very well, because we just lucked out. We accidentally made the right film at the right time.
WH: And speaking of the right time you’re coming out right in that window between the Mad Max: Fury Road trailer and the actual release. Do you think that’s helped?
Kiah: Well can I just say that when I saw that Mad Max: Fury Road trailer I was just like going through the wall. I’ve been waiting for this film for so long. Thank God we came out before they came out because once that film comes out we’re over. Like this is redefining the whole Mad Max genre, of course. It just… it looks so good. I mean, one of the things I’m really hoping is that once Fury Road comes out people will go see that and go, “that’s what you can do with a hundred and sixty million dollars,” and then look at Wyrmwood and go, “that’s what you can do with absolutely nothing.” So I hope the films will complement each other in that respect.
WH: Oh absolutely, and also with the whole zombie thing it’s definitely a few steps away. Now…the armor. That’s the most iconic thing with Wyrmwood right now as far as all the advertising. I want to talk about that. Who designed it, where did it come from?
Kiah: Ebay. [laughs] Now look, I mean…I drew the pictures and I said, “We’re gonna need this and this and this,” and my brother just went out and sourced it on Ebay. I said, “Look, we need leather armor,” and he said, “Okay, well that’s just motorbike leather.” We need padding and he goes, “Okay, a friend of mine plays (what you guys call football and we call) American football,” and so he just lent us some old pads. We’re gonna have to have a hockey mask, because you just have to have a hockey mask. Once you put all those elements together and throw a bunch of mud and blood at it… you have yourselves a poster. I know it’s funny because the first things we did were the costume tests. We got the lead guy over to the house, we did a costume test, we shot one picture…and that is the picture that’s on all the posters. It’s so iconic, you know? As soon as I saw him standing in the back yard in the 40 degree heat (celsius, which is 104 degrees fahrenheit) wearing that stuff I was like, “We, my friends…have ourselves a film,” because it’s totally iconic, yeah!
WH: It’s definitely eye catching, and it’s definitely in that Mad Max style, but it doesn’t look like anything specifically from that movie.
Kiah: Yeah. It looks a little bit like that Master Blaster guy I guess, and it looks a little bit like the guy in the American football armor with the feathers and the kind of fit looking boy on the back of his bike, but it’s a combination of elements. It’s kind of like Mad Max meets Halloween, but because we’re mixing genres you kinda get away with it. It’s funny though, because people think it’s a video game. People are seeing the poster and going, “Oh, when does that video game come out?” because it looks like a real kind of video game aesthetic and I think um…yeah I love the armor. I really do.
WH: That is actually kind of a theme in zombie video games right now. Maybe not so much the makeshift armor, but definitely makeshift weapons. Do you play any of those or were any of those an influence?
Kiah: Me and Tristan, my brother, just loved video games growing up. Not so much any more because I’m more interested in filmmaking now. I can’t really sit still for periods of time without at least watching a film, but we certainly grew up playing video games. The biggest influence honestly was comic books. We were huge comic book nerds growing up and I used to have a standing order at Comic Kingdom. I’d go down and I’d pick up my comics order in my little brown paper package and I was so excited. I read X-Men and Hulk and all that stuff and I think because I loved comics so much as a kid I’ve got a bit of a costume fetish. You know? I just love costumes and helmets and masks and I love that stuff. It’s gonna be really hard for me to keep that stuff out of films because that’s the image that I love, the comic book hero.
WH: Absolutely. It definitely makes things feel a bit larger than life.
Kiah: Yeah! That’s comic books. It’s larger than life entertainment. It’s fantastic.
Kiah: Yes… I mean, obviously 28 Days Later was something we were thinking about. Shaun of the Dead was something we avoided. We were like, “We cannot make a zombie comedy,” because you can’t get funnier than Shaun of the Dead, so that’s something that we purposely went away from. Really the films that influenced us more than anything in terms of style and the way we made the film was Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, his earliest film, and more than anything…The Evil Dead. They’re more demons than zombies, but they’re crazy and the demons jump around and move in weird ways and Sam Raimi’s camerawork is just mental. It’s like somebody just poured methamphetamine into the camera and just treaded around the room. I still don’t know how he got some of those shots. That was really a huge influence there.
WH: Yeah, Sam Raimi was really good at taking a small budget and making it look bigger. You said earlier that the zombie genre was a good choice because it’s easy and cheap to make on a small budget, but a lot of the stuff in Wyrmwood looks bigger. It doesn’t feel low budget. Was any of that intimidating? Some of the stunts and big props?
Kiah: We really did start making a very very low budget kind of Evil Dead thing, but what happened was every time we filmed we wanted to lift our game. Because there was so much time between every scene and we shot chronologically, so every time we shot we got more and more time to plan and we got more people on board and people are coming out of the woodwork going, “Well I know a stunt guy,” and, “Oh I know the guy that did the stunts in Mad Max,” and “I know a guy who could do a head burn.” It just sort of builds and builds. At the end of the three and a half years it got to the point where we were doing these huge action set pieces. I think there was a point about two years in where I arrived on set and I’m used to six people on set…the DOP, the sound guy, a couple of mates, and some zombies, and I arrive on set and theres like fifty five people there! It’s like… I don’t know anybody here. Where did they come from? I don’t know how we got to this point, and it just builds and builds. It’s just one of those things where my brother and I are a little bit obsessive compulsive and everything had to be better than the last. I guess… I don’t know. To hear somebody say that it looks sort of expensive is fantastic, thank you for saying so!
WH: Oh, no problem! So you were just pooling all the resources you had and it built?
Kiah: Yeah! There’s a great book by Robert Rodriguez called Rebel Without a Crew. In that, in the opening thing he says, “Look, if you’re going to make a movie with no money you look around to what you’ve got and you use that.” What we had was a bunch of friends and the ability to buy a four wheel drive and put spikes on it and these great outdoor Blue Mountains locations in the bush. Let’s just use that! We just used what we had and out came Wyrmwood.
WH: With the movie there’s two stories going on. There’s all the Mad Max stuff, but there’s also the scientist and the girl. Where’d the idea for that come from with her being able to control zombies?
Kiah: Well my brother came up with the methane-breathing zombies and then you can run the trucks off of them. I loved that idea, I thought it was so cool, and when he came up with that I was like, “Well I’ve gotta come up with an idea now,” and I came up with the zombie telekinesis thing. Honestly I can’t remember where it came from. I’m sure I copied it from somewhere, but I don’t remember where that came up. It’s just like…you’ve gotta have cool new stuff. There was a scene early on in the film where she develops these powers and she makes them dance. She gets a group of zombies and she makes them do this weird zombie dance. I think that’s the first thing that popped into my head. That’s a crazy idea, if I put that in a film people will be talking about that for ten years. I mean, we eventually had to cut the scene because it was too ridiculous. I don’t know, you have the weird ideas and you know that you have to give the audience something different. That just jumped into my head. I guess with the doctor we knew that we didn’t have a lot of money and there’s a big tradition in low budget filmmaking to put somebody in one location and then have them escape. You know the one location thing like with Reservoir Dogs or you’ve got a great film like Cube where they’ve gotta think their way out of a situation. I just love the idea where she’s absolutely stuck. She’s tied to a wall in a room full of zombies and she’s gotta think her way out. I just liked that, I just thought it was a cool kind of low budget idea. So we just did it, it made sense.
WH: This movie definitely has a few things that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. The controlling zombies bit and then the zombies breathing methane.
Kiah: Well if I can be completely honest, I’m sure we stole those ideas. There’s nothing new under the sun and I could probably point you in the direction. You know, the zombies being fast at night and slow during the day is totally stolen from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The zombie methane gas was a concept that I think Tristan stole from a documentary called Food Inc where he saw the cows breathe methane. I probably stole the zombie telekinetic thing. I probably stole it from X-Men, I don’t know. You know, all the plot points and stuff were taken from George A Romero and taken from George Miller, but I think you just gotta have the right sources. You sort of mix it all up in a bucket and people call it originality, which is fantastic, but really these ideas are kinda floating around and you just pick the ones that suit your story.
WH: As long as they’re not all from the same place.
Kiah: Because then you get sued.
WH: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]
Kiah: We want to steal just enough to not get sued. [laughs]
Kiah: For sure. You’ve been set up for a sequel, and people are just like, “When is the sequel?” and I’m just like, “Just give me a holiday!” We’ve been making this for four years and so if I have to do another close up on a zombie I might have to kill myself, but the sequel is huge. We’ve got these great images of a soldier with a zombie whose legs and arms are cut off and he’s wearing it as a backpack, using it as a flamethrower. You know what I mean? We’ve got this imagery of this huge truck-train in the desert with hundreds of armless legless zombies strapped to the side of them powering these big vehicles, just hovering along the road. We’ve got Brooke telekinetically controlling hordes of zombies to fight the evil soldiers in the middle of the desert. It’s really cool, but we probably won’t get there for a couple of years because the next film’s gonna be a ghost film. It’s gonna be like an R-rated Ghostbusters. I’m halfway through the framework right now and I just can’t wait to start shooting that one. That’s very weird.
WH: Nice! It’s been really great talking to you and I’m very excited for both of those.
Kiah: Thank you, sir! And thank you for saying such nice things about our little film!
Wyrmwood is available Feb 13th, 2015 in select theaters and on VOD.