Zebediah de Soto Explains His Vision for {Night of the Living Dead: Origins

The CGI wizard/director explains how he won't tarnish the image of the original George A. Romero film

For fans of classic filmdom, remakes can be a tough pill to swallow, and there likely can't be harder fans to please than fans of the 1968 George A. Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead. Director Zebediah de Soto knows full well the fears fans of the Romero zombie film may have towards his new origin story film, Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D, largely because he is a horror fanboy himself, even commenting on our story on Danielle Harris' casting of Barbara. He wants the fans to know that he is not trying to tarnish the legacy of this great horror film, but merely expand upon it with his new Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D that will give us a new 3-D/CGI look at parts of the original story that weren't fully fleshed out. I had the chance to speak with de Soto over the phone, and here's what he had to say about his upcoming film.

Related: COMIC-CON 2013: George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead Gets a 3D Conversion

Zebediah de Soto: Hi there. I believe I posted something on your site a few weeks ago.

Yes, yes. You posted a link to, I believe, some concept art from the film.

Zebediah de Soto: Oh no. That's not concept art. That's what the film is actually going to look like. The look is so unique. It's going to look like a living, breathing painting. They are going to be 3-D charcters, CG-animated characters, in 3-D environments and the film will be viewable with polarized glasses. You can actually sit there and watch it like that, so it's going to be pretty cool.

That sounds excellent. I'm really looking forward to it.

Zebediah de Soto: Absolutely. Nobody's ever seen anything like it. I guess everybody's been a little bit afraid about it, about what we're doing with the actual story. For me, I'm a total fanboy of Romero's, ever since I was little. It was the first horror film I was allowed to have. I had my own VHS copy that I used to watch all the time.

You came up with the story with Dave (R. Schwartz). Can you talk about how that whole process worked and when did you both really decide to take on something like this?

Zebediah de Soto: Well, I had originally had a script where I wanted to do a live-action zombie film. They paired me up with another writer, who eventually became a producer on this one, his name is Warren Davis. On this other zombie script, we had met and I guess the market took a crap and it was during the writers strike and all sorts of crazy things were happening. I've always been such a huge zombie fan and I was watching Night of the Living Dead and they have those Prelinger Archives, I was trying to find a nice high-res version that I could watch. I was watching it and, I hadn't seen it in awhile, but the acting was so brilliant and so f*&%ing fantastic, but the actors, they had a bit of dialogue where they started talking about his family, trying to get back to his family. Then he started talking about watching a truck being chased down by a horde of zombies, being overtaken, crashing and exploding. I was like, 'What?' It instantly took me back and zombie movies have always been the ultimate "what if" comment. 'What would it be like if it happened here?' I had nightmares of them as a kid and was scared sh*tless of them. And Cooper started talking about he was in an argument with Ben and he started talking about being on a highway with his family and being attacked and their car being overrun with these things and flipping over the car. I was like, 'F*&k man, that would be great to see.' Even Tom and Judy had little things where they were talking about going off in the lake and just little things like that, you start realizing there's this huge backstory and Romero, especially with Ben and Cooper, they started talking about some pretty huge events that are taking place. If you ever have the opportunity, I'd say to go out and rent Night of the Living Dead again and just watch that monologue that Ben has and it's so fantastic how he sucks you into it. I was like, 'F*&k, man. I want to do this.' I've seen all these remakes where they were just gang-raping Romero's vision to death, and if you're going to do a remake, I don't believe in remaking the wheel, but I do believe in doing something original and at least adding on to it. I thought this would be the perfect place to do it, because it was the part of the story we never got to see, so there was a little creative freedom in there to go in and expand.

Will this be the kind of thing where this movie will lead up to the events of the original film? Is that how you're approaching this?

Zebediah de Soto: In terms of the style, I've always been a big fan of Battlestar Galactica, not so much the older series but the newer series. I really got into them and I loved how the stories, in some of the episodes, would jump back and forth, especially towards the end of the series, they keep jumping back to Caprica, like when Laura Roslin lost her entire family in a car wreck, in one fell swoop. Then she goes, I guess on a sex spree and then she decides to be a part of that campaign, which ultimately lead to her being the President of the Colonies. I liked that flow, where it's constantly taking you back, and that was one of the other things that always constantly bothered me - it didn't bother me, but it bothered me that other people didn't pick up on it. Ben and Cooper, when Cooper is in the basement and you can hear him talking to his wife and you can see this tension going on there. I think he collapsed at one point and it was something cryptic that, at least when I was a kid, that left me with the impression that they were divorcing.

Oh, OK.

Zebediah de Soto: Yeah. It was something like their lives were ending and now he was going to be directly responsible for truly ending his daughter's life. I always thought that was a really heavy concept. Ben and Cooper were the yin and yang. They both had the same motivations, both were fighting for the same goal, and you never really got to see that play out. Cooper came across as an asshole, but most people have that instinct that you want to protect your children. He's fighting for his family and Ben is fighting for the same thing, to get back to his family and make sure they're O.K. Ben's motivation is to go out, whereas Cooper's motivation was to try and save something that was already given a death sentence. I always thought that was a really cool concept and just wanted to play with it and bring it out a little bit more. I just wanted to be able to see that, but in the context of this big zombie film. There were two major changes, telling the backstory and the second was the environment. The original, I'm not saying that George would've wanted to do it the way I want to do it, but they had a low budget back then. He could've set it in a city, which he eventually did with his other films, he tried to get a bigger scope on each film, you would see that he had a much bigger idea in mind, but he never got to do it because the budget was limited. I decided that I didn't want to set it in the woods, I want to see the zombie riots, so I decided to set it in New York City and I wanted to see the zombie riots take place in this city jam-packed with millions of people. Like I've said before, I'm calling this an American anime, so what happens when someone walks into a convenience store and collapses? How quickly could this plague spread? That was another thing that always bothered me, all the zombie movies that you ever see always lead to a huge story taking place outside but the story itself always ends up taking place around the characters, who always end up inside, waiting to die. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to see what happens? What happens if you're in a car with your friends and it gets flipped over and then you see these people screaming out of these smoke-filled streets, screaming, covered in blood. Is your initial reaction going to say, 'Oh, this is a zombie,' or are you going to react like someone's been hurt? Is it 9/11 all over again? I'm taking the story from a standpoint of somebody, in this universe, who had never seen the dead rise from the grave or even had the concept that a zombie could even exist. I thought that was kind of cool about Romero's first movie was that nobody knew what was going on. I always wanted to see this played out on a huge scale. If I had to equate this to anything, in terms of its scale, this is my Empire of the Sun version of a zombie movie.

You were talking about the mysteries of how zombies came to be. Will this explore how the first zombie came to be?

Zebediah de Soto: I think people will get a kick out of what the end design is. I don't want to reveal everything and I don't like when people explain everything, like designing what everything is, but there are going to be a lot of cool little easter eggs if you look for them.

It's been reported that Joe Pilato was playing Cooper and Mos Def was interested in Ben. Has Mos Def reached out to you for this yet?

Zebediah de Soto: Actually, it was interesting. Mos Def, I've always been a big fan of his work. I loved him in Monster's Ball and he's had a slew of other films, but I've always thought he was cool. I just thought he would be great for the role. They're like, 'Well, he's pretty picky about his projects,' but let's check it out. You never know. We sent it out and he responded to a zombie film. We didn't really spend a lot of time trying to make this script the best script it could be, but yeah. We're talking and who knows. I think... I don't know. I'm not going to say anything. We'll just see. I think it's pretty cool. Danielle Harris is playing Barbara though.

Yeah. We reported on that. It's really great. She's a horror legend, so it's great you got her on board.

Zebediah de Soto: Oh, absolutely. Most people don't remember her from that, but she was in The Last Boy Scout as Bruce Willis' daughter.

That's right. I forgot about that.

Zebediah de Soto: (Laughs) Yeah, I think she's a year older than me, but I remember watching that.

Besides those names, is there anyone that you're eyeing up for the cast?

Zebediah de Soto: Oh, definitely. But I don't want to mention them until it's definitely definite. I want to bring out a lot of people who were in the Romero series, as many as I can get. It's kind of cool because I want to bring this generation to my generation and the last generation into this.

This technology that you're using to film this, I believe you invented this, called The Beast. Can you talk about that and what this might mean for filmmaking?

Zebediah de Soto: Well, The Beast itself is a device that I actually designed along with a couple of other companies. Basically what it allows you to do is it allows you to motion-capture. You're familiar with Avatar, correct?

Yes.

Zebediah de Soto: The system that Jim (Cameron) is using on that project is essentially this huge system that is locked down into this, essentially the largest motion-capture stage. It's pretty cool, but unfortunately, his system is often dealing with issues of occlusion. I'll just put it like this. He's got a big system that costs a lot of money and takes a lot of manpower going in. So I designed my own system that fits in a two-by-two-foot pelican box, sets up in less than nine minutes, and I can capture all of my actors' performances in any environment and it's pretty f*&%ing amazing. I was pretty surprised that nobody else had thought farther down the road, as far as my approach to solving some of these issues, as I started familiarizing myself with motion-capture. It kind of blew me away, it really did. I took a different approach because I had never been taught to do it one way. Everybody is always trying to look for the back door. Everybody tries to solve the same problem the same way and they all end up with the same conclusion. I created that system that essentially enables us to captures actors performances in real-time. You've seen 300 right? When they shot 300, they had some issues because there were some issues with what the end result is going to look like. From what I understood, and what I was told, the production was almost halted a couple of times. You look at the raw footage, what, you have 80 guys in front of a green-screen (Laughs). It's not very encouraging, and you have to end up waiting 365 days in post to find out if it worked, and if the shots didn't work you would have to figure out how much would it cost to get back on that stage, get these people back up. I designed this system so, if I wanted to, I could see the environments merge with the actual characters while I'm filming. My DP can see it and I can see it on my monitor and the actors can see off-screen and see what they look like in these CG environments. It's a huge, huge step forward. That's what mine and Cameron's system meet eye-to-eye, but I'm the first person in history to actually be able to take my system outside. Let's say I want to go outside and shoot Transformers, right? I put little markers on you - oh, and another thing is my system is compatible with every single camera on the market, you name it. And it only takes nine minutes to set up for each camera. So, I'm going out to shoot Transformers, and I go, 'You're going to be Optimus Prime and I put little markers on you. Then I point the camera out into the street, I want Optimus Prime to be in the street. We turn on our system, and Optimus Prime is standing in the street. Now, I can go handheld and walk around Optimus Prime, where his feet are physically touching the ground, and whatever you do, you see Optimus Prime perform the actual action.

Is it like a portable motion-capture system?

Zebediah de Soto: Well, it differs because, we developed a little lens that can hook onto any lens and you can actually go and record any metadata that you would need, for the post costs and The Beast would be able to capture X, Y and Z and know where the camera is at all times. It's actually a really really cool little thing because now I can shoot a Transformers movie and I don't have to go to a company like Café Effects - and I love those companies, those guys are really amazing - but I don't have to outsource. I don't have to go to people and say, 'Do this to the shot' or have to compromise. You won't have, 'You can't do this with the camera or you can't shake it around.' Like in Cloverfield, they had guys in there that just had to find the camera. They weren't creating the monsters or the explosions, but literally, trying to figure out where the camera was on the set. They have to do all sorts of ridiculous things and my system sets up in nine minutes and I can run around with it and capture live-action peformances. I can actually direct CG performances and the cool thing is I'm not married to that performance, because the tape records the green-screen but the computer records all the metadata. You can actually see it as you do it. You don't have to hire 25 guys at anywhere from $60 an hour.

It sounds like it eliminates a lot of the legwork then.

Zebediah de Soto: Yeah, pretty much. It eliminates the stuff that ends up taking a lot of time and that scares people in post. A lot of producers may know what it costs, but may not know exactly what it's going to look like, and my company can actually provide that. You can literally see what you're going to shoot. You can see your CG environment, you can be in the environment, you can make changes on the fly and you can direct a CG performance. Whatever you decide to go with, you're not married to it with each shot. It's a huge tool. I see a future one day, the vision that we have is we want to see the $100 million film come down to television budgets. I see a future where every episode of Heroes was done like a Spider-Man movie. That's what I'm all about. I'm always looking for ways to trim the fat so we can focus on the more important stuff. Yeah, that's what The Beast is. I eventually want to release a consumer version of this, that's as easy to operate as a Mini-8 and as expensive as an X-Box. I want to see indie filmmakers doing the kinds of things I wanted to do when I was starting out, because it's so difficult to get people to get on board to help you do this. I see a day where, maybe a couple of years from now, where people will be able to actually go and do the same sh*t that the studios are doing.

Are you slated for a production start-date for Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D yet?

Zebediah de Soto: We are already in production. Damn IMDB, man (Laughs). They don't even put any of my credits up. It's very upsetting. I helped a friend out with some rotoscoping and that's the only credit I have on there. I've done a lot more sh*t than this.

You've got to stay on top of those guys. I've done tons of interviews where I'll ask, 'I've heard you're attached to this,' and they'll say, 'Um, no.' So yeah, you've got to stay on top of those guys.

Zebediah de Soto: I never knew how to. I was always busy working, so I was always, 'Ah, hell with it.' I'll fix it one of these days.

Are there any preliminary plans for release right now?

Zebediah de Soto: We're looking towards 2010 and, if everything goes right, we may be able to get a trailer out before Halloween. That's what we're trying to do.

Just to wrap up, I know there were some negative comments on our site about this film. What would you like to say to the naysayers out there about what they should expect from Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D?

Zebediah de Soto: (Laughs) Please send all hate mail directly to me. No, just kidding... well, if they want to they can. I am a fanboy, and I've been obsessed with Romero's movies for as long as I can remember. I had a Beta copy of it and it scared the sh*t out of me, but I was addicted to it and I couldn't get away from it. In terms of what I want to do with this, just to put everybody's mind at ease, I want to make this the ultimate zombie film. I want to make it so big that nobody has ever seen anything like this. Nobody has seen this type of story take place on this scope, on this scale, something so huge and big, it just blows their minds. This is the first time that anything like this has ever been done and I fully intend to deliver. Hopefully everyone will be excited about it.

Excellent. Well that's about all I have for you, Zebediah. Thank you so much for your time, and I'm really looking forward to that first trailer when you bring it out.

Zebediah de Soto: I'm telling you, it's going to blow your f*^%ing mind. I'm talking about the fans. I know the fans are going to love it. All I'm going to say is I hope other people don't get upset about it. We're not technically crossing any violence lines, but I don't know. I'll let everybody kind of mull on that (Laughs).

Awesome. Well thanks again and best of luck on completing the production.

Zebediah de Soto: Thank you so much.

Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D is currently slated for a 2010 release and we'll be sure to keep you posted on any further details on a concrete release date or the film's first trailer as soon as we have more information.

Cinemark Movie Club