Reviewing Sundance shorts this year with colleague Phil Hall, we split the number of films down the middle and I was given “I Love Sarah Jane.” Imagine my surprise when I sat to watch this and discovered that what awaited me was a fantastic zombie film that was parts of “Dawn of the Dead,” “Stand By Me,” and “Lord of the Flies” with some of the better zombie make-up I’ve seen in a while.
“I Love Sarah Jane” as a standalone has the sheer ability to be a cult classic, telling the story of a young boy who aligns himself with juvenile delinquents just to be near his crush Sarah Jane, and likewise probably survived the zombie apocalypse just to be with her. Naturally, being a lover of all things horror, zombies and post-apocalyptic cinema, I instantly wanted to talk to director Spencer Susser and ask where the Hell this came from. Susser, luckily, was more than happy to oblige me for an interview.
So I have to ask, where did this entire concept come from?
In many of the zombie films I’ve seen, zombies kind of happen and people have to deal with them right that second or their brain gets eaten and they die… Well, I’ve always thought, what if this zombie thing happened and it stayed, there was no getting rid of it, it just became part of everyday life, like a pest, like snakes, part of the everyday texture of life – people have to learn to function with them – always carry a weapon, stay in open spaces… life goes on, they can’t just hide… I also love the idea that you are basically immune to this disease until you get through puberty… so there’s not a lot of adults left, the kids make the rules and have to learn how to function and survive in this place. With that said, I wanted to tell an adolescent love story set in this upside down world, to show how one can be blinded by love.
Would you describe yourself a horror geek?
No, just a horrifying geek.
How long did you work on this?
It took a lot longer than I thought it would… My writing partner David and I spent about a week sending it back and forth writing and rewriting it in between other things, It took a few weeks to cast and get together a crew, locations, etc with basically no budget (begging takes a lot longer than paying) – 4 days to shoot and a few weeks to edit. The post was spread out over a long period of time with many people working on it (while on other projects)… so in the end from when I started writing to when the film was complete and ready to be projected was close to 8 months.
And what was the estimated budget?
When you’re making a short film you do a lot of begging and you have to get almost everyone and everything for free. So it’s difficult to answer that question, because it’s a budget made up of favors and freebies… I’m sure I’ll still be repaying the favors for another two years.
Why did you film it in Australia? What’s the appeal of filming and working in Australia?
I worked on “Star Wars: Episode Two” there in 2000 and fell in love with the place and made some great friends. Since then I couldn’t stop going back… I started bringing back American ads to shooting there and developed so many great working relationships… It just made sense to shoot there because I like working there, the crews are really good and people are willing to help when there is an interesting idea. It’s really not all about money there, and sometimes I feel like it is in Hollywood.
It seems like you had a pre-established concept for your zombies. I notice that it’s almost instantaneous transformation once people are bitten.
Yes, the zombie juice is very potent!
Do you think pretty much any story can be told in the midst of a post-apocalyptic landscape?
Definitely, yeah. Part of the idea is that kids are going to be kids no matter what the circumstance. After a while they still want to play outside, hang out with friends, and fall in love. I also really like the idea of telling a story about kids and throwing away the fact that there’s been a zombie apocalypse.
Some of the young actors seemed very disturbed by the monster in the movie, was this part of the performance or were they actually disturbed?
Unfortunately, no they were not disturbed in the slightest. When I went into it I had this great idea to not let the kids see the zombie until we were rolling the camera. The problem is young boys are not afraid of anybody in zombie make up. In fact, they thought it was the coolest thing ever. They wanted to hang out with the zombie, touch him, talk to him, etc. I had to come up with different ways to trick them to get the performances I wanted out of them. I had this kind of arsenal of disgusting images on my computer that I gave to the special effects team in preproduction as reference for what the zombie should look like, it was basically disgusting medical photos of infections and whatnot… I need to get the boys to react to something that didn’t actually exist on set and was meant to be very disgusting so I began rolling the camera and I had the boys look away, giving them an eye line before. Then, at action they looked at my computer at the visuals and gave me the reaction I was looking for.
Did you plan to add more zombies to the fold, originally?
No, because I was always on such a limited budget that I knew I had to be really conservative with what I was able to show.
Would you have a specific character pegged in this movie as the hero? I thought Sarah Jane seemed to have an amazing grasp on survival.
It depends on how you define hero. For me it’s Jimbo’s story and he is in love with the girl – so he is the hero. Although, her ability to rise to the occasion and handle the situation quite maturely makes her a hero in her own right, too.
Where did you find Mia Wasikowska (who plays Sarah Jane)?
I saw Mia in Australian film called Suburban Mayhem. She had a small part, but she was so good and so honest in the role. I knew I wanted to work with her… Kristy McGregor, who cast I Love Sarah Jane, sent her the script and she liked it. So it worked out really well.
Are you planning a larger length story for this?
Yes. Part of the idea of making the short in the first place was to create a sample of what the full-length film would be.
Your Sundance bio says that you’re working on two feature length films. Can you talk about them?
“Hesher” is the one that I have been working on for the last three years and we’re hoping to shoot it this year. Scot Armstrong, who co-wrote “Old Skool” and recently wrote “Semi Pro” with Will Ferrell, is one of the producers. The second is the feature version of “Sarah Jane,” it’s very different from the short, but it’s set in the same world.
What’s the experience like making music videos, and what artists have you worked with in the past?
I have worked on a lot of different kinds of music videos, from Elton John to Britney Spears; making music videos is good practice for making low budget movies because you usually end up with a really ambitious idea but not enough time or money. So its good training in that way, and when they used to make more music videos it was really a great opportunity to experiment with new ideas and techniques. Basically, a good way to sharpen your film making tools.
How did “I Love Sarah Jane” fare in other film festivals?
Sundance was actually the first festival. People seemed to like it, although I did get an email from a lady who claimed it was the worst film she had ever seen, and that based on the number of times we had used the work “f**k” it was clear that we didn’t have much of a vocabulary… I hope she comes to see the feature.
Were you confident this would grab a slot on Sundance?
Not at all, but was a pleasant surprise.
So what’s the next stop for “I Love Sarah Jane”?
It’s playing at the Clermont-Ferrand International Film Festival, and various other film festivals. Also, it is available on Itunes, Netflix, and Xbox live.
“I Love Sarah Jane” Trailer