Interview with Howard J. Ford
By Daniel Collacott
“I would really rather have come home in a body bag than without a film.”
Writer-director Howard J. Ford and his brother Jonathan Ford are the fast rising sibling partnership behind revered apocalyptic zombie road move ‘The Dead.’ Set in West Africa the film garnered great critical acclaim for its unique cultural take on the un-dead sub genre.
The duo first cut their teeth working on commercials, before progressing to writing and directing films. Howard followed his and his brother’s debut film Mainline Run in 94 by solo directing Distant Shadow in 2000, before the two brothers reignited their creative partnership with ‘The Dead’ in 2010.
“In reality, our commercials gave us more assistance in getting The Dead made and also the sheer amount of commercials we had shot gave us the ability to think quickly in any given circumstance and come out of even a turbulent situation with a usable shot. It’s possible that some of our cast and crew may not have been as quick to jump on board had we not made films that had been released in the past so I suppose it all helps.”
Such was the war of attrition the sibling directorial pairing fought to bring their movie ‘The Dead’ to the big screen that the story behind the making of the film is just as compelling as the film itself. This lead Howard to write a book detailing the suffering and sacrifice he, his brother and the cast went through during the movies filming in West Africa.
“I never thought I would write a book but when I finally got back from Africa after the shoot it was kind of a ‘what the hell just happened’ moment. I think it was the shock waves from all the real death we encountered and all of the horrible situations like the knifepoint muggings and being held at gunpoint! We witnessed so many horrible situations like our leading actor Rob Freeman nearly dying from Malaria and also how close to the edge my own brother became as he watched his almost lifelong dream project apparently fall apart around him! Standing in a hospital being told your lead actor is being treated on a drip but he still may die within 2-3 days was a sobering moment.”
The book entitled ‘Surviving The Dead’ is an emotive, detailed and cathartic account of how the film was made. Illustrated with never before seen stills from the shoot, it shows and describes in vivid detail what the cast and crew had to endure to bring The Dead to our screens. Be Warned, the material recounted - is not for the faint hearted!
“We all witnessed a lot of grim things and I simply had to get it all down on paper onto a physical form. I even thought I might burn the document once I had done so – it was either that or an exorcism of some kind! But then during the process of writing something strange happened. I started to realise that some of the ridiculous situations we had ended up in were actually ironically quite amusing - some of the fights between crew members that seemed so stressful at the time made interesting reading in hindsight.”
The whole cast and crew found the poverty and suffering they encountered extremely hard to swallow. Despite this they were able to give something back to the people and communities they worked with. In fact some of Howard’s fondest recollections were from his encounters with the villagers who became part of the film’s cast and story.
“The upbeat moments were nice to recall, like how happy the guy with the disability was who plays the very first Zombie in the desert. He had a leg that bent right back due to polio (we just added the prosthetic bone effect for the shoot) and in real life he worked really hard for coins each day carrying bags for a little guest house in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. We come along and he gets paid enough to live for three months for just walking from point A to point B as a Zombie. He simply could not believe his ‘luck’. So Ironic I know but he came with us for three days in the desert to reach the location and to him it was like the best holiday he’d ever been on. He was on a ‘jolly’ and my translator told me he was so happy that he could dance. That was an image I didn’t want to see but I was so happy to see him smile the way he did.”
One thing that stands ‘The Dead’ out from other zombie survival movies is the sheer scale and bleakness of the film. Bringing the un-dead to a new cultural setting within West Africa gave the brothers the chance to tell the story from a unique angle and context. The cinematography alone is stunning, the use of vast barren desert landscapes and long shots of the shambling un-dead locals is as unnerving as it is awe inspiring.
‘The Dead’ moves the traditional city based survival movie to a less confined setting, although the constant presence of zombies in almost every camera shot means that the size of the journey doesn’t in any way detract from the feeling of impending doom.
“Jon and I had wanted to do a zombie film since teenagers and even the classic ones that we loved - we got a little frustrated with as they all eventually seemed to have people hauled up in one location. We loved the bits before this inevitable containment, where characters were on the road and trying to get supplies etc. So we swore our zombie film would ALL be on the road. That’s kind of where it came from. Jon had made a lot of notes even more than 20 years ago about a stranger in a strange land of zombies but it was later we discovered Africa due to some commercials we shot there. That was the first moment I got palpitations of excitement at the thought of all the additional meanings our zombie film could have.”
The film unites a US serviceman with an African soldier in the fight to reach the safety of a military base across hundreds of miles of barren landscape. This partnership is central to the core of the movie and one that switches the focus away from the usual fall of law and morality that apocalyptic films usually opt for.
“We just felt that too many zombie movies concentrate on the characters themselves becoming the problem or the danger to each other and we wanted to say that mankind does inherently have good qualities and would want to help where possible. We also wanted to show the African people as very much working together to help each other. It’s all about two different cultures coming together to fight a common enemy. I hope that is positive. It’s probably why it’s so frustrating when someone sees the trailer online and just says ‘it’s a white guy shooting black people in the head’! It’s not at all about that.“
The popularity of The Walking Dead TV series and the swathe of high budget but profitable horror remakes has prompted a lot of film companies to look at the zombie genre in a whole new light.
“For a decade or so before this if Jon and I mentioned the desire to make a zombie movie, we were literally laughed at. Jon always found this particularly frustrating as making a zombie movie was all he really wanted to do.”
Despite the newfound acceptance of the apocalyptic zombie film, the brothers didn’t have backing from a large studio, ‘The Dead’ was independently made and the budget meagre despite the high production values ($150 thousand dollars of which a reported $30 thousand of which went on corruption & bribery). Although Howard notes that there was something positive to come from horror films becoming more mainstream.
“The fact 28 Days Later, which is not really a Zombie movie but is perceived as one, and also Shaun Of The Dead were financial successes, may have been a factor in people having confidence to be attached to such a project (as The Dead). “
Such was the extreme events encountered it is a wonder the entire crew were able to survive the film’s creation, the book describes one such horrific accident that nearly ended proceedings and lives.
“There were some pretty scary moments like the near death from a head on collision with a bus which we then read in a paper the next day killed 66 people in the ‘worst road collision in Burkina Faso.”
It is also a miracle that the two brothers didn’t quit the entire project, especially when their entire crew where at odds with each other and with them.
“There was one moment during all the things that were going wrong and I was desperately trying to make it work with a lot of what I felt like personal sacrifice, when a kind of ‘committee’ formed and I kind of ‘stood accused’ by some of the crew for the pain they were going through."
“For those that read the book, they will see just how far Jon’s emotions went out of control during the production and it was purely because of how personal this was.”
In many ways the book serves as a warning to other would be filmmakers about the pitfalls and problems of filming in foreign locations, but Howard was keen to draw out the positives of the whole experience.
“We have all learnt so much sadly from what went wrong. I certainly would not do it again with so little money and I would take into account that getting anything done in Africa takes you four times as long as you could ever imagine.”
The book also serves as not only an account of what happened during the filming, but also places a spotlight on the lives of those that live in the region.
“I had promised some of the local crew members in Burkina Faso that I would ‘tell the truth’ about the corrupt local police and other goings-on, it suddenly became a book.”
Both Howard and his brother have a passion for travelling and even though their time in Africa pushed them both dangerously close to the edge, it hasn’t quenched their wander lust and love for the continent itself.
“Even after all that happened, I would like to film in Africa again – of course with more money, more armed guards and more assistance on all fronts. Africa is such a beautiful place full of lovely people and just because some people in uniform are somehow forced to be corrupt to put food on their families table doesn’t mean people should refrain from going there. I urge people not to let their lives go by without experiencing a journey in Africa. Although you could just watch The Dead instead and stay relatively safe in your seat!”
Howard is currently working on a supernatural thriller called ‘Indelible’ which has been optioned for a shoot in the US later this year. His brother Jon is writing a revenge movie, which as Howard points out ‘is a subject he is very passionate about!’. But despite what it took to make it, the brothers may not yet be finished with ‘The Dead.’
“There is still talk of a follow-up and if so we would definitely re visit the same key characters. There are some aspects of the story we couldn’t cover first time round so if enough people buy the first one, we will have to go back!”
You can check out the book Surviving the Dead which is available from most good book stockists.