The director of my favorite film of the year so far gives us the goods on this unique movie
I'll be honest. A few weeks ago, I had never heard of filmmaker Grace Lee, or her work such as the 2005 documentary The Grace Lee Project. Then I was set up with this interview with Lee, who co-wrote and directed American Zombie and I was sent a screener DVD to prepare... and I was simply blown away (CLICK HERE for my full review). So I basically went from going into an interview with someone I'd never heard of, to going into an interview with a filmmaker I was blown away by, in 90 short minutes. How time flies. Anyway, I had the privelege of speaking with Grace Lee over the phone about this marvelous film, and here's what she had to say.
I read in the production notes that you don't like the term "mockumentary." Would "shockumentary" work for this? It seems like it almost needs its own genre.
Grace Lee: Oh, that's interesting. Yeah, possibly. I never thought of it that way. Were you shocked?
I was, actually. I watched this last night, and I absolutely loved it. I thought this was amazing.
Grace Lee: Well, good.
This was originally intended to be a documentary about your co-writer, Rebecca (Sonnenshine) and her insomnia. Was it an easy transition, since you've primarily done documentaries, to go over to a fictional feature?
Grace Lee: I've actually made short fiction films. I went to the UCLA Film School and I made a bunch of shorts there. Yeah. I think having a documentary background is definitely something I drew upon. Having worked on documentaries in the past, there's a lot of fodder there.
With you and John (Solomon) kind of playing a version of yourself, it kind of seemed like a Charlie Kaufman kind of thing with Adaptation. Was that any sort of influence and what other movies influenced you when you were writing this?
Grace Lee: Well, I made a documentary called The Grace Lee Project, which John refers to in the movie (Laughs), which is basically a personal documentary about many different women named Grace Lee. That was pretty much the inspiration in terms of... there are a lot of self-referential films, but I actually made one, so the one I ripped off the most is myself (Laughs).
Were you influenced by any other horror movies or anything like that when you were writing this?
Grace Lee: I'm a fan of the classic George Romero zombie movie, you know, but I don't actually watch a lot of horror movies. I get scared by them, but I like to call American Zombie my personal horror film. It drives from personal documentary and there's some horror in there also. It's basically what my worst nightmare as a filmmaker would be.
I saw that Suzy Nakamura was in (her short film) Barrier Device, but how did you go about casting the rest? I really loved Austin Basis as Ivan.
Grace Lee: Oh yeah. He's great.
He seems like he could be the new Jonah Hill.
Grace Lee: He could be, actually. He's very talented. We had a casting director who was really excellent, John Jackson. The nice thing about casting this movie for me was - I mean, for some people it would be a liability - but you can't actually cast anyone recognizable, because it's a "documentary." So that gave us a lot of freedom to choose the right person for the character. What was really cool was to work with actors who had a lot of improv background. The movie is basically scripted, but there are a lot of opportunities to riff off of what was actually there. We would talk a lot about the characters and then I could stay in character as Grace, the documentary filmmaker, and those guys knew their characters so well they could just riff off other things. There is so much great stuff, but we had to keep it within a feature-length movie. There are a lot of funny, maybe DVD extras.
I noticed that with Al Vicente's character Joel, he had sort of a mystery behind him, you never find out how he dies. He doesn't seem as much of a zombie like the rest.
Grace Lee: That's an interesting point. I mean, who is Joel? Who are the zombies, really? Do we really know? Is Grace right? Is John right? Do we ever really get to know them? That's one of the questions that we keep in there.
I couldn't find any budgeting details on this. What kind of budget were you under and how long did you shoot this for?
Grace Lee: Our budget was pretty low. It was way under $1 million, I'll put it that way (Laughs). We shot it for 18 days straight - 18 shooting days, then we had a couple of days to pick up. It was very lean and mean like a documentary, but it was definitely made more complicated because it was not a documentary. We could not just shoot all that stuff on the fly. All these sets were created.
How long was the writing process for you?
Grace Lee: The writing process went fairly quickly. It probably took, let's see, to get a first draft it took us maybe two or three months. It was financed pretty quickly. This Korean company (IHQ/I Love Cinema) took a risk and was interested in financing a very American indie project that had nothing to do with Korea. So yeah, it happened quite quickly. We had a first draft in October, and we were shooting the following April, so we filmed it very fast. For an independent film, it was very fast.
Can you tell us exactly what the blue liquid is? Is it zombie booze or something?
Grace Lee: (Laughs) It's sort of a... do you want what the ingredients are?
(Laughs) I don't need a detailed breakdown or anything.
Grace Lee: (Laughs) It's sort of a zombie's need. I think for Ivan, it sort of keeps him hopped up. Everything about Ivan is about preserving himself. It's one way to keep him going.
The film is opening in L.A. on March 28th. Are you hoping or planning on expanding wider after that?
Grace Lee: Yeah. Hopefully the L.A. screening box office will do well and that basically will determine further screenings in other cities. It's played in quite a few festivals, Slamdance, South by Southwest and I think there are definitely people out there that want to see this movie, so I'm hoping they're out in L.A. and they get out there.
Do you have anything you're developing now? It seems you can go easily into horror or comedy.
Grace Lee: Well, I just had a baby, so I'm sort of growing a baby, but Rebecca and I are working on a couple of TV pilots. I definitely feel like American Zombie is not quite something you'd expect from me, a documentary filmmaker. It's still a very personal film. The personal sort of character-driven comedy is what I like to watch and what I like to make. That's what I usually do. If there's another horror subject that I get involved in, then maybe so. We used to joke that maybe we should do an American Zombie 2, or Canadian Zombie, or something like that, which could be fun, but maybe Canadian's should make Canadian Zombie.
Can you tell us anything about those pilots you're developing?
Grace Lee: One is definitely related to zombies. It's not American Zombie, but it's definitely a zombie-related one. That's all I can say (Laughs). It's very much in the development stages.
Finally, when you originally wanted to make this about Rebecca, she refused to be interviewed. How glad are you, now that the film is done, that she refused to be interviewed, and basically spawned this movie?
Grace Lee: Oh, very glad (Laughs). I think a documentary about Rebecca would've been very short. She's actually in the film. You know that Healthful Bounty scene, where Judy (Suzy Nakamura) works, she's in the background explaining some of the ingredients.
Grace Lee: Yeah, that's Rebecca. You can see, she doesn't look like someone who'd have violent, zombie-filled dreams.
Well, that's about all I have for you Grace. I absolutely loved the movie, and I'll probably check out the screening in L.A.
Grace Lee: Oh great. Thank you very much, and tell your friends too.
Oh, I am.
Grace Lee: Awesome.
Thank you very much for your time, Grace.
Grace Lee: Cool. Sure.
American Zombie will premiere at the Laemmle Sunset 5 theater - 8000 Sunset Blvd. West Hollywood. The screening starts at 7:30 PM, with a Q&A with Grace Lee to follow. I'll be there, so if you're in L.A., I highly suggest you be there as well (for the movie, not for me).