Arts/Literature

Even George Romero started somewhere: Teenage filmmaker creates his own zombie apocalypse

Nothing like a good old-fashioned zombie apocalypse to liven up high school, wouldn’t you say? That’s what Sam Toller thought, anyway. His ten-minute film, We Are What We Eat, gives kids one more reason to dread school.

The 16-year-old North London student wrote and directed the film (which you can see here). I spent some time over the weekend talking with Sam about what it was like to make a movie, what he’s learned about being a storyteller, and what it was like to bring the apocalypse to life.


S&R: So, zombies, huh? How’d that come about?

Sam Toller: I’ve loved zombies since I watched Shaun of the Dead at the age of around eight.

S&R: Great flick. What do you like about it so much?

Sam: I think the humour, the simple ness of it, the adventure of the everyman. And I liked seeing how shaun deals with the zombie apocalypse. At the time, I just loved the humour, but in hindsight, it’s grown on me. I’m a huge Simon Pegg fan. The Pegg/Nick Frost relationship in the movie—everyone has that friend, who’s just a loveable layabout, and just watching them, it’s heartwarming and hilarious at the same time.

S&R: What is it that makes you such a fan of Pegg’s work?

Sam: I’m a fan of Pegg’s work for so many reasons. I love the mix of smart humour with just stupidness. I love the way that, at least until a few years ago, his work was all directed by Edgar Wright, and it just worked. And also the way they insert references into everything. Every time I re-watch Spaced, I notice a new reference.

Actually, one of the other reasons I loved Shaun of the Dead so much was that it was filmed in my local area in North London. Do you remember the scenes where he goes to the corner shop to get the infamous “cornetto”?

S&R: Yeah, I remember that spot.

Sam: I used to go there to get milk and bread when we ran out at home. It was my local corner shop. The house where he lived, or at least the exterior, was about 100 metres down the road. Whenever I go back there—I have moved since, not very far, though—I always have a little look at the house. I’m a sucker like that.

S&R: I suppose, then, that you’re in danger of living Shaun of the Dead, eh?

Sam: Yep! I have, a few times, retraced his steps to the corner shop.

S&R: You have any other particular favorite zombie movies?

Sam: To be honest, I’m not as knowledgeable on the genre as I’d like to be—or at least, I have a fair knowledge of zombies, I just haven’t seen a great deal of zombie films. I’ve seen Dawn of the Dead—the remake—which was quite good. Also, Diary of the Dead, the one where zombies begin to think, which was interesting….

S&R: I suppose, though, that if you’ve not seen many movies in the genre, that let you approach things with a fresh perspective.

Sam: Yeah, I think it did. I’ve read Max Brooks’ books about zombies, which I love, so I have my own aspect and knowledge of zombies, but in terms of capturing them on film, I think having the freshness was a great thing for me.

S&R: Most people don’t associate the words “fresh” and “zombies!” What sort of freshness do you think you were able to bring to your film?

Sam: I think, the thing that keeps being said is the fact that it’s from a student’s perspective or the high school angle, which makes it quite unique. I’ve since been shown a manga series about students versus zombies, but when I wrote the movie, I had no idea it existed. It was just my idea.

I knew it would be set in a school, and I knew it would have a young protagonist, so when writing it, I asked myself “What would a teenager do?” Obviously, I didn’t want my protagonist to be running around screaming as many young people probably would—or maybe not with the zombie culture these days—but I did want some realism.

There is a deleted scene where the main character, Nicole, has dinner with her mother after arriving home, which we cut because it stopped the pace of the film, but it focused on the idea of her mother being quite protective, and so Nicole just sat there wincing because she’s been bitten and is trying to hide it. I remember thinking very carefully about how she would play it with her mother.

My thinking was that a lot of teenagers would probably just try and ignore it, get on with it, wrap it up with some antiseptic—as Nicole does—and sleep on it. Or at least would with a strict, protective parent about.

S&R: Probably not the best medical advice in a zombie apocalypse, eh?

Sam: No, probably not! Although anyone educated in zombies would know the best medical advice is not very…optimistic…and it’s definitely not gonna get your health up. Quite the opposite.

I can’t speak on behalf of a generation, but I know I’m the type of person that just gets on with stuff and am someone who, like a lot of teens, values his independence. And I think that independence justifies Nicole’s actions: she doesn’t want or need her mother’s help. She’s a young adult. She knows how to bandage up a wound and put some anti-infection spray on it.

Although at the same time, it reflects the naivety of teenagers in the sense that they don’t know the full dangers of the world, and what may seem like a normal response to a cut is actually incredibly stupid. But then again, she has been bitten by a zombie. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen. That was another realism point that struck me: in this day and age, most teens would recognise a zombie and know if they had been bitten by one. If I was being truly realistic, she would have known her fate and done something about it—but then that would have been a totally different movie!

S&R: How long did it take to write and then film your movie?

Sam: To write…. I think I wrote it over the space of around a week. That was the first draft anyway. And then when [Producer Darien Davis] came on board we re-wrote quite a bit, although all the lines were basically the same, just with a little tweaking, and the plot stayed the same. We just kept re-reading and discussing things, until we worked it to where it was when we filmed it. And then, obviously, it got changed again in post-production.

S&R: How did you and Darien connect?

Sam: I have a friend who I’ve known since I was little, and Darien is his-half brother. I knew Darien through him and knew was a director, so I sent him the script asking for any tips, and he liked it so much he offered to produce it.

S&R: Was this a chance for him to do a little mentoring?

Sam: I think in a sense…. Rather than being a teacher—he has obviously taught me a lot, but he never directly “taught” me—it tended to be more of a discussion of what we were doing. He enjoys helping me out, but I think for him it was more than “helping the youth.” He saw a lot of potential in it, and really wanted to help me make the most of the film.

S&R: What did you learn about filmmaking as you filmed? And I’ll ask the same thing about editing: What did you learn about filmmaking as you edited?

Sam: (Ha ha!) You just reminded me of a great thing my English teacher—also head of our media department, and ‘site manager’ on the credits, John Starkie—told me on the first day of shooting. He said, “You edit the film you shot, not the film you thought you shot”—which is very true! So I learned that. Whatever you have in your head, it will have to change, and you just have to get on with it, some things become better, some worse.

Filming? I’m not sure. On the day, I don’t think I learned a lot. It was the first time I’d directed anything, but I think the majority of what I learned was looking back on the film.

S&R: Such as?

Sam: That same teacher, John Starkie—after seeing the completed project, he put into words something that I had definitely noticed but not really comprehended myself, which was that I had storyboarded/shot individual shots rather than scenes. As a debut director, many of my shots came from me thinking “What is the coolest way I can capture what is happening” rather than looking at the bigger picture and thinking “How is this shot contributing to the scene and the film as a whole?”

S&R: So really, you learned a lot about the craft of storytelling.

Sam: Yes. Also, I think a key thing I learned, which doesn’t seem like a huge lesson, but for a debut director I think it is, is that writing and directing a film—it isn’t easy, but it’s not as difficult as you might think. As long as you’re committed, and you surround yourself with professionals you can trust, and you stay organised, it’s actually a lot of fun. Well, in hindsight anyway!

S&R: Do you think today’s technology makes it pretty easy?

Sam: Yeah, I think it does. (pause) In a sense I’m annoyed. I am a huge Robert Rodriguez fan. His book about his debut feature film [El Mariachi] inspired me and showed me how easy it can be to make a film.

S&R: Rodriguez does some great stuff. Did he say anything in particular in his book that inspired you?

Sam: Definitely. He said that if you want to be a filmmaker, go and make a film. Meaning, that is the first step—and after I knew that, I knew that however bad, or hopefully good, my film would turn out, I would be a filmmaker and I would be able to learn from that film and build on it. There’s tons more advice in that book, and more importantly, he gives it in a friendly tone, rather than a teacher’s tone full of media jargon.

Another thing he said was that he had made literally…I can’t remember, but a load of short films since he was a kid, and the first was crap. But he kept trying and he got better, which is something I have taken on board. I cannot promise my work will be amazing, but I can guarantee it will be better than the last piece, which I will have learned from.

When he made his film—it is very good, and it’s very fun to watch, but, like mine, it’s still rather rough around the edges in some places. I’m not saying mine’s as good as his, but they share the roughness. But that film managed to get him famous, and it was picked up by some big cinema company. And I think: back then, yes, it was a good movie, but just the fact he had made the movie was great in itself…. Nowadays, with the easy-to-use technology, nearly anyone can make a film, which makes it a lot harder for someone to make their film stand out.

Then again, the amount of interesting stuff you see, and the good it has done for the youth in this country, and probably a lot of other countries….

It’s a rising industry, and it’s good to see everyone jumping on the bandwagon. It’s encouraging as well as daunting. I think it definitely makes it tougher, but then if you have the commitment and the skill, and the creativity, it still makes you stand out from the crowd. You can buy a camera and an iMac and Final Cut, but you can’t buy creativity, or skill. That is something you have to learn, or if you’re lucky enough, you find within yourself.

S&R: Do you do a lot of writing?

Sam: I don’t do an awful lot of it. I have a huge imagination, and I do enjoy writing a lot, but I tend to mostly jot down my ideas once I have developed them in my head, then leave them be. I have a PowerPoint on my laptop called “Films I must write one day” with about 20 ideas so far, some of which would involve huge funding and would only ever happen if I became a huge director, and others which are just waiting for the right moment to be developed into actual scripts.

S&R: Is that a direction you want to take your career in after high school?

Sam: My first passion is actually acting. If I could choose my path, I think I would love to pull a Clint Eastwood: become an icon of a genre or just a legendary actor, and then become a director in my old age—and a great director at that.

S&R: There are far worse role models to follow than Clint.

Sam: Indeed. My love of westerns—and any other film that oozes cool—has a huge effect on me.

S&R: I suppose part of that is the Rodriguez effect: the Western that oozes cool.

Sam: Yeah, I think it’s a very impressionable thing, the coolness of certain films. That’s something that I would love to do: make films that ooze cool. I want to make films that I would enjoy watching.

We Are What We Eat doesn’t ooze cool, but like I say, it’s my first, and it really was meant to be a film that, even though I would take it as far as it would go, it would always be a platform to learn from and jump off of.

S&R: So for your first movie, why zombies?

Sam: Well, obviously, my love of zombies from a young age—maybe too young! And the inspiration…. I’m always getting inspiration from random places, and once I have that initial spark, it will stick in my head and I have no choice but to develop it and write it down. For this, it was seeing a bunch of children shambling into school on a Monday morning.

S&R: (Ha ha!) That’s a scene right out of real life, isn’t it—kids shambling into school to start the week?

Sam: Yep, it is. That experience was what inspired the scene at the end of the movie where Nicole is in the glass tunnel—that tunnel was where I saw the schoolchildren and got the inspiration.

I think, for me—and for everyone else—the thing I love about zombies is their reality. Werewolves, vampires…they’re never going to exist, but zombies…you never know! It’s unlikely, but the science behind it gives it an underlying horror of reality.

I also think that, connected to that sense of realism, zombies are people, or they look like people. That’s another horror of them: they’re your friends, your family—or at the very least, they were a person.

And also the fact that they’re relentless. To quote, probably badly, World War Z by Max Brooks: “You kill a zombie, it dies. A zombie kills a human, the human comes back as a zombie.” It’s endless.

S&R: Yeah, they increase their own numbers while detracting from yours.

Sam: And also, another point made in the book, from the point of view of a soldier: the way to crush an enemy is through their soul. Soldiers need food, rest, morale, etc. Zombies don’t eat—or they don’t consume food for energy, anyway. They don’t sleep, and you cannot break their morale and make them give up. It’s the very opposite of human, in a human body. I think that makes them quite scary.

S&R: Is there something about zombies that you think speaks specifically to being a teenager or a student?

Sam: Hmmm…. You mean apart from the physical appearance on a Monday morning?

S&R: Well, since everyone has commented on the fact that your angle is that it’s from a teen’s point of view, that suggests that the teen point of view is somehow different than everyone else’s.

Sam: I think one of the things that makes the teen angle effective is that the zombies are all children. It’s another opposite: the people that are meant to be slightly rebellious but ultimately a bit powerless are given terrifying power. It’s also something that is rarely seen: child zombies.

S&R: When I saw some of the production photos, I wondered if it was tough having to wrangle that many teenagers to keep them focused on what they were supposed to be up to.

Sam: It was quite tough—although they were all good friends of mine, and they knew how much I’d put into the film, so they were very helpful. The actor who played Karl also brought his guitar along, and for most of the day they all sat inside dressed as zombies singing songs! Very surreal, but it saved my ass as I was running around trying to get all the shots I needed.

S&R: One of the things I’m coming to believe as I’ve done all this zombie research is that we’re already living in the zombie apocalypse, at least of a sort. Technology, cubicle jobs, etc. have us all zoned out so that we’re almost on auto-pilot. I could see where a student forced to conform to the rules of school might feel like he/she is being zombified, too.

Sam: Yes, I think that is true to a certain extent. Although at the same time, many people don’t have the choice. If all those office workers decided to give it up and embrace life a bit more, there’s a good chance they’d end up on the street. But then again for some, even that would be more of a life than an “office zombie.”

S&R: That’s one of the things abut zombie-ism, though, isn’t it? Once you’re bit, you don’t get a choice.

Sam: Yeah, good point. Its an interesting analogy…but then in the office worker half of the analogy, when do they get bit? Are they bit when they give up on their dreams and follow the life of comfort and monotony?

S&R: I think they get bit when they make the choice to buy into the system or play it safe.

Sam: Yeah…

I think there’s a difficult decision between following your dreams and possibly failing, or playing it safe and living a comfortable life.

S&R: Sometimes, that’s an insidious thing because when you choose to play it safe, you feel like you’re making the right choice and don’t realize what that could lead to.

Sam: I feel another film coming on….

S&R: Another film! (Ha ha)

I’m glad you made that point about following your dreams. It seems like your movie is a great example of that. You could’ve jotted your idea down and left it at that, but you developed it into something you could pitch to a producer.

Sam: Another interesting point in that analogy that puts students in an interesting place: they’re bitten in the sense that they play the game of education, then they’re resurrected when they have to make the choice between safety or dreams. They come back from the undead only to be possibly bitten again….

S&R: Oooo…double-undead!

Sam: I love this analogy. I definitely feel an idea coming on that I will have to jot down in a couple of days.

S&R: I keep thinking of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” when I think of zombification in schools.

Sam: I haven’t heard it or seen the video, but interestingly, someone else mentioned the song in a review of the film. I shall have to check it out.

S&R: I realize it’s a bit before your time!

Sam: (Ha ha!) Yeah, although a lot of stuff is. The spaghetti Westerns are. I sometimes think about how many good films there are that I haven’t seen—and then how many bad ones there are that I should also see. You learn as much from the bad ones as you do from the good….

S&R: Most people associate zombies with “bad movies.”

Sam: Yeah, I think zombies are difficult. With all actions type films, you have to finely balance story and plot with action or it becomes a cliché action film, and it’s the same with zombies. I think, unfortunately, many of them become “just another zombie film,” especially now. I’m afraid to say I think zombies are dying out. They were born, what, in the sixties, I think? As you said, bit before my time. But they had a gradual rise in the seventies and eighties. Then in the millennium, BOOM, everyone went zombie mad. And now everyone is bored of them. I’m anticipating the new Grand Theft Auto game, and I was surprised, but then again not surprised, to see everyone hate the idea of a zombie DLC for GTA.

The reason everyone is sick of zombies is because we’re used to the formula: apocalypse, humans make a stand, some die, zombies get slaughtered, etc. But my film, although I was just writing from my own point of view, it’s different. It’s not, “Let’s kill loads of zombies!” It’s, “What would actually happen? How would it feel to be bitten? How would you react?” Or, how would Nicole react.

As much I would have loved to make a film involving zombies getting their heads blown off, realistically, that wasn’t going to happen, and if it did, it would have looked very bad. But then again, I think that’s why it’s had such a good reception, and why it has been called “fresh.”

S&R: What do you hope audiences will get from watching your movie?

Sam: I never really thought too much about that when writing it. I think the most important thing for me is that they enjoy it, and also that they understand it. The first online review of the film completely missed the intentional ambiguity of the ending, so they wrote that the film made no sense. It hurt, because I know that the ending is quite ambiguous, and to know that although I’d tried to make the ambiguity work, the execution wasn’t good enough to create that effect of confusion—that was a bit upsetting. Fortunately, though, every review since had recognized and commended the confusion at the end.

I also hope that, on another level, after learning about my age, maybe doing a bit of looking around and finding this interview or something else, maybe some people will be inspired by the fact this was done by a 15/16-year-old, and like Robert Rodriguez did for me, it will show people how, with a bit of commitment, they can make a film.

S&R: Where do you hope to take your movie from here?

Sam: We’ve already got into the Zombie Voodoo Festival, which is awesome. At the moment, we’re sending it out to as many festivals as possible, and the odd distributor to test the water. After the run of festivals this summer and fall, we’re going to approach some distributors and see if we can get the film out there even further. It was never meant to be a money-spinner, but if it earns a bit of cash that means I can get myself a camera and a new laptop and make the next film even better. Also, coming back to your comments about technology and standing out from the crowd: I think it’s one thing to be able to say “I made a film,” but to be able to say “I made a film, and it made a profit”—that’s pretty impressive.

———-

We Are What We Eat made its international premiere on April. 27 at Seattle’s National Film Festival for Talented Youth 2012 as part of their late-night horror show, and it was given a 10-day featured run at Dread Central. This summer, it’ll play in four U.S. cities as part of the 2012 Zombie Voodoo Festival.

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