Western Australian writer-director Zak Hilditch debuted his feature THESE FINAL HOURS in 2013. It was an end-of-the-world, sci-fi drama made on a low budget and it put Hilditch on the map. Actually, Hilditch shot numerous shorts and three independent features in the previous decade, but for new filmmakers, those early films usually go unseen by the general public. THESE FINAL HOURS was probably the first time you came across his work, fellow AccessReelers, and now you have a shot at seeing his newest feature, a Netflix Original called 1922, based on a Stephen King novella. The feature debuts today on the streaming service. Phil Jeng Kane spoke to Hilditch about the process of directing his latest movie.
ZH: It was kind of a quick, crazy journey in many ways. It goes back to me stumbling across the story. I was always a Stephen King fan. I hadn’t read everything he had written. I was obsessed with “IT” as a kid, so it’s very fortuitous that it’s coming out the same year as my movie (1922). I was trying to get financing for my last film, THESE FINAL HOURS, and I remember when me and the producer were just waiting on people’s decisions, and as a way of escape, I stumbled across this Stephen King book that had come out, called Full Dark, No Stars. I’d read a review of it and thought, this sounds pretty cool, four novellas in the one book. So I picked it up read the first story, 1922, it just completely blew me away and it took my mind off trying to get this film funded.
I wrote King a letter expressing my love for him and 1922 and I was then allowed to proceed with an adaptation. I’d never adapted anything before in my life, so this was like a baptism of fire. Talk about a great “cheat sheet” to do your first adaptation. He wrote this thing like a piece of cinema, it was so visual and so compelling and from one character’s point-of-view which is the kind of movie that I love. He gave my adaptation his blessing and then the real fun started trying to get the thing financed over there in the States, which was not easy. A lot of people said no.
I then teamed up with a producer called Ross Dinerstein. When the adaptation landed in his lap, he loved it and he said, “I’ve got a golden run with Netflix right now. I want to do this at Netflix. Let’s go.” I was like (laughs), “Are you kidding, sure, where do I sign up?” So, it was really those planets aligning; the script getting to Ross; Ross falling in love with it and then we took it to Netflix and they said yes. And off we went.
AR: Does it make a difference to you that millions upon millions have access to this in a way that they don’t if it had been a piece off traditional cinema?
ZH: Yeah, there’s so much content out there these days, that’s giving the film a fighting shot. It’s a King property, definitely helps, but just the fact that it will be on Netflix forever as a Netflix Original, the amount of eyes that will see this, (is) more so than if it were released traditionally. This isn’t a blockbuster, it’s a tiny film in many ways that happens to be a Stephen King property. This is just the right kind of way to release this kind of film. It’s many things, it’s not a straight horror, it’s not a straight drama, it’s not a straight thriller. It’s a mixture of genres. And to me the thing that really appealed to me was that it was like a Stephen King “All-Star Game” of a story. Everything we associate King with; cornfields, rats, ghosts, murder, mayhem, revenge; all of these ideas, are all in this one amazing novella.
AR: If you find rats spooky in any way, then this is the film for you because you apparently worked with a ton of rats.
ZH: We did. We worked with a shit-ton of rats (laughs). God bless the animal wranglers in Vancouver where we shot the film, because they worked miracles. I’d never been around more than one rat in my life (laughs)and then all-of-a-sudden to be around 200 rats and you’re rolling. It’s like. OK, I’ll be alright, I think (laughs).
AR: Are they beautifully-clean lab rats? What’s the deal?
ZH: These were kind of beautiful rats. In many ways. We had every colour under the rainbow. The more time you spend around them, the more cute they seem, which is kind of a problem. We needed to do everything we could to make them creepy. It’s the tails mostly, that get people. The tails and their “tiny little hands”.Those are the creepy elements (laughs).
I’m guessing at least one of your actors might have been rat-phobic how did they find working with 200 rats?
ZH: Thomas (Jane) didn’t give two shits. He was in the character so much, one rat or fifty rats. It didn’t bother him, he was amazing. He had many photos with them on his head (laughs). He was having a grand old time with the rats. Molly (Parker) maybe didn’t handle the rats as well, because again, it’s “Hey welcome to the set!” and then having 100 rats hanging around you and by your feet and those sorts of things. But she was a trouper. When you see the movie, you’ll see the amount of rats she had to deal with.
How is it to direct rats? What do you do?
ZH: It’s the rat wranglers. You have to figure out exactly what angles and exactly what shot you’re trying to get. And then it’s all over to the wranglers. This was a family of rat wranglers. It was a sight to behold. They were a tight unit. Who had these two hundred rats in tubs. We would explain the shot. What needs to happen And Wow! Everything we thought was maybe impossible for rats to do they were like: “No. we can train that rat to do that. It will be fine.”
The film is set in the 1920s. And you shot in Vancouver. How much of that was actually there?
ZH: It was a challenge doing anything period, Nebraska, 1920s, in modern-day Vancouver. Even rural Vancouver. Basically, a lot of this movie is set in a house, on a cornfield with a giant barn. These were the three things we needed. We found the perfect house from the 1920s. This place called Bleiberger House which is one of the most filmed-in locations in Vancouver and therefore I think, the Earth. There’s a lot of things shot in Vancouver. And once you see this house, you’ll start seeing it in other things. (laughs).
It’s a period house, it’s still intact and it was perfect. So we worked backwards from there. That’s the non-negotiable. There’s no corn anywhere near this house. Vancouver has corn but nowhere near that house. Nor was there a big red barn. So we had to build the façade of a barn. And figure out the corn from there. Which sounded easy at the time. (laughs) Let’s just say in post-production, there was a lot of work. We put our VFX teams through hell, but the end results are amazing. We had an amazing production designer Page Buckner. He worked miracles, every day, trying to create this look for us as did our DOP, Ben Richardson, who’s a crazy genius. Between the two of them, I knew I was in safe hands in trying to make this crazy idea of trying to create that world, in Vancouver, without the things that we needed We tried to figure it out as we went.
I believe you even had to have the right type of corn, because not all corn is the same.
That’s right. We had to have maize corn. Which is that classic Stephen King corn. There’s many different types of corn as I now know. Luckily, when we shot, people were just finishing up their harvest, so we could do some scenes in real corn and that was great. This is a mixture of “plates’, real corn, real “fake” corn (laughs), fake corn we imported in from China. It was a mish-mash of trying get as much corn on screen as we needed.
So you’re now the “rat-and-corn” guy?
I want to never work with the two again (laughs).
Let’s talk about what you liked about the story of 1922 originally?
ZH: The thing that King does is he puts you in that head space of a character. Whether or not it’s an “everyman” who’s your hero or a villain. He puts you in the head-space. And Wilfred James is a guy who just makes the worst possible decision, when his livelihood is threatened by his wife. Everything he associates with being a man and his place in the world is at threat. And it’s all because of his wife. The way he deals with that is a terrible decision and then it’s about dealing with the repercussions of that.
Thomas Jane is your Wilfred and he does a fantastic job in the role. What was the process of finding him?
ZH: I was over in LA. Thomas had read the script and wanted to meet and have lunch and in that meeting, I walked away from it saying, “We’ve found our Wilfred James. Thomas had done two Stephen King films by that point, so this is his third. He had never played anything like this before and he just “got” the material and that’s all you want out of your leading man. You want someone who connects with the material. Who is going to do all the work. Who puts their own spin on it and loves the story and wants to put it on the screen. It’s like he went into a time machine, it’s like he’s living and breathing the ‘twenties. These Dorothy Lange photos they were a big inspiration for us when we were trying to figure his look out. There’s just some photos in the archive where you think “Yep that’s Wilfred James right there, with his son.”
How was Molly Parker to work with?
ZH: She was my first choice. It was great to use a Canadian local. She grew in Langley which is kind of the rural area of Vancouver where we shot, so it was kind of “all meant to be”. Her and Thomas together was just great. There’s not a lot of scenes we got to do with them together, but when we did do those ones and with their “son” Henry, those were the favourite scenes of mine doing the family dynamic stuff. Molly was just great.
What you found as an adaptor is that you were given a lot of gifts.
ZH: Seeing the movie now, I am proud that the world I saw in my head is just so close to the finished product, that I feel we’ve done the story a service.
NOTE: The accompanying audio interview covers more detail than the above transcript. There is a slight technical difficulty with the sound quality of the questions, but please bear with it. The interview runs for almost 26 minutes.
You can also check out our review here.