Alejandro Brugués talks Juan of the Dead, on DVD August 14
Two friends hatch a plan to launch a zombie extermination service after their picturesque island is overrun by the living dead in Juan of the Dead, a satirical horror film from director Alejandro Brugués. Fast, fun and hilarious, Juan of the Dead gives a decidedly Latin touch to the zombie genre, along with a winking nod to the zom-com hit, Shaun of the Dead.
To celebrate the film's arrival on DVD this week, we caught up with Alejandro to find out how this crazy, blood-splattered epic came together. Here is our conversation.
We have Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and now Juan of the Dead, all of which manage to be their own movie. How were you inspired by these first two zombie classics in making this, while never ripping off either of them? Cause really, Juan of the Dead proves to stand as it's own thing...
Alejandro Brugués: Those are two movies that I really love. Without Shaun of the Dead, we would have no title. Well...Actually...Juan is also inspired by my brother Juan. But these are two movies that I really love. Like you said, Juan stands on its own. I didn't want to be borrowing from other films. But I wanted to pay homage and stay respectful to those other films.
The thing that I find most interesting is that these three movies tie together in a way that, if you watched them as a triple feature, you could imagine that they are all taking place in the same Universe. That we're getting a geographical look at the same events as they would play out in different parts of the world. Do you feel that Juan exists within the same zombie apocalypse that we've seen throughout the years in various zombie movies? Is that how you came to this story?
Alejandro Brugués: No, I actually came to the story-watching people in the street. It had nothing to do with Shaun. I was in Havana, and I saw someone in the street, and I told my producer that we could make a zombie film with people like this, and we wouldn't even need make-up. I looked at him, and said, "This has got to be the next one!" I though of my brother, Juan, so I told him that I already had a title. I had this character, so it became one of those useful tools. But the story sprang from its own well. It's obviously talking about society in this one country...
Why do you think zombies are the perfect symbol to hang social commentary on, no matter what country you happen to be in?
Alejandro Brugués: Its obvious. Zombies are us. They are ourselves. It's not a monster that came from another planet. Its not some vampire person that has been around for a thousand years. It's just us. So you can pretty much say whatever you want through the zombies.
What were some of the challenges of shooting this on location in Cuba? Does Havana have a pretty strong film community? I don't ever see too many films coming out of the country...
Alejandro Brugués: We got all the permits without a problem. I have a theory that when they read the script, they didn't think we'd be able to make it. So they just said, "Give them the permits. They'll never make this." Because when you read the script, it was so crazy. It looked like it would be almost impossible...I don't know...They gave us the permits! We figured everything out, and we made it...I still look at this as a small miracle, you know?
Its an amazing movie, especially considering the low budget and the limited resources. In terms of how crazy that first script was, did you have to cut back or leave anything out?
Alejandro Brugués: Actually, it was the opposite. I kept adding crazy stuff. Like, for example, the beheading scene wasn't in the square. I had it during the revolution. Things like that, I just kept making them bigger and more complicated.
Going back to this person you saw on the street, who you thought could play a zombie without any make-up...How did that inspiration actually play into creating the zombies we see on screen? Did you actually pull people off the street?
Alejandro Brugués: It was mostly locals, because I wanted to show Cuba realistically. In real life, in Cuba, there are a lot of real zombies in the street. I can look out my window, and start counting them. In terms of the look of the zombies in the movie? They were really influenced by the real zombies. Most of Cuba's zombies are old people. So, I needed to get old people as extras, to play a lot of the zombie parts. It was mostly about the way they moved. I would have to show these people playing the zombies how they were supposed to movie. To do that, we would stand on the street corner and wait for the real ones. I would point at them and say, "Zombies? That's they way I want you to move." It was also about the way they were dressed. So, yeah, basically, we did have a lot of the real people of Cuba playing these zombies in the film. Though, I would have to say, it is pretty difficult to teach a bunch of old people how to move like zombies.
In terms of the film taking place in Havana, and Cuba, did you ever look at the local people, those who aren't real zombies, and think that maybe they'd be a little better at handling a crisis like we see in the film, more so than people in other parts of the world?
Alejandro Brugués: Totally. I tried to borrow...I really wanted to show how Cubans react to problems. I took information from some of the real life reactions we've had to some of the problems in the past. And I placed that in the context of zombies. Most of the characters reactions are inspired by real life. I believe that getting a Visa and leaving is one of the ways that Cubans deal with their problems.
Alexis Diaz de Villegas is awesome as Juan. What was your relationship like with him before this movie? Were you guys' friends? Acquaintances? Or is this an instance were an actor came in, auditioned, and proved to be right for the part?
Alejandro Brugués: I knew him before. He is a very well known theater actor here. I had seen his work, and I admired him as an actor. He came really close to being in my first film. But I wrote the script with him in mind. The same goes for Jorge Molina, who plays Juan's sidekick. I wrote the script with both of them in mind. And I got them! As I told you earlier, I based Juan on my brother. He now lives in Miami. Pretty much in the 80s and 90s, he was just like the Juan we see in the film. There are many scenes taken directly from my brother's life. He is the one seen picking up the rocks at the beginning of the film. He is the one that jumped from the neighbor's balcony. He is the one that did all of these things that I found embarrassing. (Laughs) I wanted to have a character that was like a real life Cuban. Juan is that. Other than that, I let Alexis take a hold of this character. I let him grab the rest of it.
As a Cuban filmmaker, do you feel you have to make a genre movie, or rather, a horror movie, to get any notice outside of the country?
Alejandro Brugués: Well...That's not the way things are filmed, obviously. You can't do a film thinking like that. I did this because I love zombie films. I really liked the idea, and I couldn't get it out of my head. I was hoping the film would be seen, and all that...I don't know...I don't think there are that many Cuban filmmakers doing genre films. I don't think anyone here has seen it as a means to get their film seen outside of Cuba. But it's true that my other films haven't gotten the same type of attention. But I am going to continue doing those other types of films, because I love it. I do hear you, though. Growing up in Cuba as a genre fan, it was the same thing for me...It was hard to find some of the genre films here...When I would hear about a particular genre movie, I would always try to find it, no matter where it was from. I'm the same audience for my film. I understand the idea of it.
Juan has gotten a lot of attention in the states. Does that mean you'll come here next, and direct a big budget Hollywood movie? Or do you stay in Cuba?
Alejandro Brugués: Can't I do both? Do I have to pick one?
Sure. I know a lot of directors that have done that. I guess it depends on where you personally want to go in your career...
Alejandro Brugués: The next one is probably going to be in Cuba. Or maybe in both places. Actually, one of the scripts I have takes place in many different locations...But...I don't know... I don't think its one of those things were I'm going to have to pick sides. I think I can do both, and I can stay over here...
Juan of the Dead strikes me as a very personal film. That is it your vision as a filmmaker. If you come to the states, are you worried that there will be too many hands in the pot? I just met this guy making the Evil Dead remake...
Alejandro Brugués: Fede! Oh. I envy him so much. The original Evil Dead is probably my favorite horror film. That movie changed my life when I was a kid. So there is a lot of envy there...Its good envy, though...(Laughs)
Looking at him, and how he is approaching that remake, he has a number of folks looking over is shoulder, making sure he turns in their idea of an Evil Dead movie. I don't think it's his own movie, by any means...Do you worry that you might lose some of your own vision if you do take on a Hollywood horror remake?
Alejandro Brugués: I don't believe in one's vision. A director, of course, needs to have his vision, but better things come from collaborating in this medium. I think you should always surround yourself with people who have more experience. They can help you make things better. You are busy the entire time you are making a film, so it hurts to make it wrong.
Well, its true that Fede has surrounded himself with some of the top talent in the horror genre. You don't get better than Sam Raimi or Rob Tapert. But then you look at some of these guys who've had an international hit, and then they come to work for Screen Gems, and their personality is sucked right out of the project. They are making these weird, unwatchable movies...Do you have a horror remake that you're dying to dive into?
Alejandro Brugués: MMmmmmMMMmmmm????? Uh....Weeeeellllllllll...I might have one for the future, but let's see what happens. I do have some of these types of projects in the works. I also have some original scripts...I prefer not to talk about anything, because I don't want to jinx it. At the same time...I don't know...There are certain horror films that I would never touch...But there are other one's that might work!
What about a Juan of the Dead sequel? We aren't ever getting sequels to Shaun or Dawn. Are you going to follow suite?
Alejandro Brugués: Ah, the sequel question. A lot of people ask about the sequel. I have no plans to do a sequel right now. There is room for a sequel. All of the actors ask about it, so I came up with an idea that is sort of a joke. Underwater zombies are arriving to the Unites States. Since they are Cuban, they have to be let it. So then they have to bring Juan and Company to the states to run their business.
That sounds like the perfect sequel. I want to see that movie!
Alejandro Brugués: (Laughs) Yeah but its not going to happen next. Because I don't want to do a zombie film next. I actually want to do something that is not zombies, or comedy. But I do want to go back to this at some point, because I love the characters, I love the actors, and I had a lot of fun being in that world. But trust me, it is not going to be the next one.
Juan of the Dead is available on DVD today!