Jacob Kiesling and Zach Schlapkohl co-directed, along with Ethan Cartwright, the film What Doesn’t Kill Us. The film is a mockumentary that depicts “rehabilitated zombies facing the adversities of living in a time when they aren’t yet considered socially equal.” Please enjoy our interview with Jacob and Zach about their directorial debut.
Kevin Jones: First off, thank you both for taking the time to answer some questions! This is both of your directorial debuts, so congratulations on making the film. As first-time directors, how did the process of actually putting the film together go? Any surprises or unexpected challenges along the way?
Jacob Kiesling: Every single day brought forth, and continues to bring, enough unexpected challenges for us to now know to expect them. And it’s great! With this being our first film, just about everything was an unexpected challenge at one point. As far as shooting goes, that brought on all kinds of surprises that we were, fortunately, able to dance around and even roll with thanks to our modestly sized crew and the malleable nature of a mockumentary. But for me, the biggest surprise of all is just how incredibly difficult making a movie is. It’s an uncommonly dense and a seemingly endless process. I mean, goodness gracious, it’s exhausting. And I’m only 25. I shouldn’t feel like this yet.
Zach Schlapkohl: We were at the mercy of our location pretty much every day. Most locations allowed us to film for free (not understanding how commanding a film set is), so after an hour at each place we were constantly being pushed out. We had to get shots quickly and find creative solutions for time-consuming problems.
Kevin: I see that Zach also served as editor, writer, and special effects supervisor, while Jacob served as cinematographer and camera operator. How did those additional responsibilities influence either of your directorial decisions or change the dynamic on set?
Jacob: A great thing that it did was immediately compartmentalize us on set. During production, there were three of us directing, and besides the actors, we were usually the only three crew members on set. Looking back on it now, that’s pretty weird. It never really felt weird, though, probably because, at that point, we had been through three years of working on each other’s short films. Now, we were just working on each other’s movie, and we knew what our strengths were and what had to be done.
Zach: Yeah we had a nice system going on set. Personally, I was constantly thinking about how scenes were gonna transition, or at least start and end. From a writer’s perspective, we were constantly improvising scenes based on our resources. Without spoiling anything, there’s an anatomical prop in the movie I wouldn’t have even known existed if I didn’t walk right past it on set and see it staring me in the face.
Zach: The day I finished the first draft of the script, I sent it to Jacob and Ethan, closed my Gmail, and immediately saw a “Recommended for you” video on my YouTube feed. It was the “What We Do in the Shadows” trailer. I was terrified that they beat us to the punch with the exact same concept I had been working on for months. I eventually saw the movie in theaters, and was relieved to see Waititi struck a different (albeit hilarious) tone. His is more sketch comedy; ours Trojan horses in some social commentary. So really there wasn’t any direct inspiration taken from it, but we take pride in using any comparisons made between the two as evidence we made a funny movie.
Jacob: I’m usually pretty clear in pronouncing that we took no inspiration from What We Do in the Shadows. As you pointed out, it’s an obvious and understandable comparison to make, but within the confines of a mockumentary about monsters, they’re two very different films.
Kevin: With regard to the cast, how did you go about casting and putting this group together? While many are first-timers, there are a few with prior credits in television or film, so did the process of casting differ when approaching more experienced actors?
Zach: The cast is pretty much half friends and family, half Stephen F. Austin theater majors and adults involved in local theater (with the exception of Rey Washam, the actor who played Coach Wise. We brought him in from Austin, TX after working with him on another feature). We had auditions for the main roles, but everyone else was cast based on our relationship with them during the prior three years of film school. Basically, if you lived in Nacogdoches in 2016 there was a good chance we asked you to be in this movie.
Jacob: Odds are, the actors you see with prior IMDb credits were people we used for pickups here in LA. Again, they were just friends who were down to help us out and be a part of our movie. Also, the two sports talk guys drove in from Dallas, but other than them and Rey, we knew we were constantly surrounded by all the talent we needed.
Kevin: Diving into the film, there are largely three “protagonists” whose lives and experiences are the focus of the film. How did you come to the decision to go with three lead characters as opposed to just one, or even more with a looser structure for the story?
Zach: There is an answer on a creative front and a practical front. Creatively, the movie tackles a central issue that presents itself in many forms. We wanted to lightly touch on several of these forms to give everyone in the audience something they could identify with. Practically, following three leads opposed to one gave us the flexibility to use actors that were essentially doing us a favor. We couldn’t pay them much, so it was easier to pitch a 7-10 day shoot to each instead of a 30 day one.
Jacob: It was also important that we didn’t put too much on one actor’s shoulders. Again, the large majority of our cast members weren’t acting professionally. It was also based on our desire to expand this universe the most we could at the time. We understood our limitations, but we weren’t going to let that stop us from being ambitious and more thoroughly excavating the lives of, what we found to be, interesting characters. Even if that meant restricting them to the confines of East Texas due to an underwhelming performance by the zombie apocalypse.
Kevin: Many real-life nationwide events or even television channels are paralleled in the film. The politics in East Texas are, of course, major focus as well. At what point in the creative process did you decide to make the film more political? Were any of the more politically active characters influenced by either yourselves or people you’ve met or seen in the region?
Jacob: Politics were inherently embedded in the story, and we were always extremely conscious that a politically themed movie can get real preachy and just… annoying. It was important for us to represent Texas and Texans accurately, and every single character in the movie can be found somewhere in East Texas. The characters started out more as two-dimensional representations of who we thought a low-budget documentary crew would like to follow around in pursuit of personal and unique stories in an, overall, conservative landscape. We’d then talk about who we could see playing each role, and once we cast them, we would then integrate the actor’s real-life personality into the characters they were playing.
Zach: None of the political characters were taken from real people (though I took inspiration for the Dan Basso commercial from a controversial Rick Perry ad from several years back). Bridgette is basically a representation of all the things the right hates about the left, and she encounters many people on the right that the left traditionally hates as well. The goal from the beginning was to present both sides but not necessarily take one. The only message we wanted to push was tolerance and accepting your neighbor, which is a theme both sides can get behind (hopefully).
Kevin: This question is a bit more for Zach: how did you go about conceptualizing and executing the makeup designs for the necrosapiens?
Zach: I watched dozens of zombie makeup tutorials on YouTube, but most relied on extreme gore and elaborate puncture wounds, which didn’t really make sense in the context of our movie. Our monsters are in the healing process, which is a look that pretty much relied on the fairly cheap concoction of liquid latex and oatmeal. We also used some pre-manufactured wound kits from Amazon to give some of the minor characters some flavor. That (combined with thousands of hours desaturating skin tones in DaVinci and After Effects) gave us the rehabilitated look we wanted.
Jacob: Thousands of hours is no exaggeration either. We always planned on spending time in post to further zombify the characters since we didn’t have the budget or expertise to pull off something convincing (enough) with strictly makeup. But now knowing what it actually took to properly execute that look, I think it’s safe to say we’d reanalyze our strategy a little bit. Although, I’m extremely proud of the style of zombie skin we ended up with.
Kevin: You are still searching for festival screenings of What Doesn’t Kill Us, but have you given any thought to what your next project could be? Do you envision working together again or taking your own separate creative paths?
Jacob: There’s a really startling reoccurrence I tend to see amongst indie directors. It takes them years (as it has us) to get that first movie funded, shot, and edited. Then they’ll show it to their friends, enter it into some festivals, and maybe even win a few. Maybe they even obtain some sort of distribution and are of the privileged few to make their money back. Which is a hell of a win. But after the ride of that first movie ends, you’re back where you started. Ground zero – where it’ll probably take another few years to get a script written, production funded, shot and edited.
It, honestly, doesn’t make any sense for us to fall into that same formula when we have endless stories, endless characters, and endless opportunity in the world of What Doesn’t Kill Us. Instead of putting this movie up on a mantle to collect dust and moving on to our own separate projects, we’re going to take what we’ve learned and apply it to an episodic series based on the same concept. This movie is just the beginning, and a fantastic beginning it’s already proving to be. Plus, Zach and I have just started to get along.
Zach: Yeah Jacob’s the only DP I know, so I’m gonna say yes out of necessity. I’m only partly kidding, of course. I believe we can make the same size jump in quality that our short film made in relation to the feature. There’s no doubt in my mind we can make a pretty kick-ass show out of our concept. Hopefully we can convince others the same.