A Zombie Film made in Korea – An Interview with Director Nick J. Calder

What would you do if you found out the Korean dream wasn’t for you? If you got that uneasy feeling that you weren’t achieving your goals and had absolutely no idea what you were going to do with the rest of your life? Complain to a friend over a beer? Shout about it on the Internet, perhaps? Well, not director Nick J. Calder, who decided to project these thoughts onto the big screen in his horror movie “Fear Eats the Seoul,” a “zombie film about demons.” Nick gave up some of his time to have a chat with Groove Korea about his film, his life and, strangely enough, alternative uses for rock climbing gear.

I met Nick on a Sunday afternoon on the second floor of the Tom n’ Toms on Itaewon high street. To my surprise, he had managed to secure the meeting room, which generally has to be reserved. Not really in keeping with his guerilla filmmaking style. But I realized after the interview that it hadn’t been reserved at all.

“Do it now, apologize later,” Nick says. Ah, now it all makes sense. This is the mantra Nick has lived his life by for the past 18 months, especially during the shoot. Along with producer Whitney Thompson, they decided that the film needed to be in keeping with guerilla filmmaking traditions. “We went into it and we didn’t apologize because we were fast and we did it and we ran away!” Nick said.

This piqued my interest immediately, considering that “Fear Eats the Seoul” is about zombie-demons running around the streets of Seoul. I was keen to know of any confrontations with the public.

“Oh yeah, the cops were called all the time,” he said with a smile, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

He recalled an incident during one of the film’s biggest moments in which two of the film’s leads are being chased by a horde of demons. The stress was mounting and Nick felt like he wanted to kill himself (his words, not mine).

Nick explained: “I wanted the shot to be kind of like a crane shot. We came up with the bright idea to use rock climbing gear and hooked it up to a bridge that was right next to the Han River. They raised me and I kept spinning, so I couldn’t shoot the scene.

“They finally had to tie my leg and hold my leg in one direction, and all these people started looking out of their windows, and we’re trying to shoo them out of their windows, but they’re all freaked out, and the police show up and were like ‘oh God,’ all the demons are waiting in the parking garage, the sirens are going nuts, and they look out and I just go, ‘Yeonghwa, yeonghwa, yeonghwa!’ I just point and I’m saying ‘movie’ to them, and they kind of stand there for a moment. And they just drive off.

“There was a moment when the rain stopped and it got so quiet and everybody started looking at each other like, did that just happen? And then we just rolled with it and it was awesome and it worked out.”

So how did Nick get to this point and what initially brought him to Korea? After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2008, it was his desire to see the homeland of his mother and a love for Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” that made him decide to come to the Land of the Morning Calm rather than head directly to Hollywood to pursue his ambitions in film. After spending a year here teaching and writing, he finally made the trip to Hollywood. But without any real body of work and a stable contact, Nick found himself in Korea once more.

“What I thought was going to be the rest of my life, ended up not being there,” he said. “I was really confused and lost, and it was the first time that I sat down and really accepted that one day I might be 45, living close to where I grew up with a temp agency job because I could never take a 9 to 5. That idea of not fulfilling my dream almost killed me, so I decided to go back to Korea and this time actually make a movie and prove that I am going to be a filmmaker.”

While subsidizing his ambitions with teaching, he started work on “Fear Eats the Seoul.” As he began writing however, it became clear that it was so much more than a screenplay and had become almost a form of catharsis.

“It was a metaphor for how I felt,” he said. “Kind of trapped and isolated and lost because of economic reasons, because I wasn’t really in the film industry and just I was discovering my own voice, and realizing I’m going to have to fight for what I want – and that’s what the main character has to do to survive the situation.”

So with a finished script in hand, he started looking for ways to get the film into production. It came about largely because of his participation with the Seoul City Improv group. They had a huge impact on everything that followed, from finding a large chunk of his cast to arranging a meeting with producer Whitney Thompson. She came up a lot during our conversation and I got the impression that she was extremely important to Nick during the whole process and that they made a great team.

This was confirmed when I asked her for her thoughts on working with Nick and the finished movie.

“I loved producing this film. I’ve said it so many times, but my favorite thing was trying to figure out what was in that kid’s head and really making it happen the way he saw it,” she said. “You know you have something special with someone when you can create whatever is in his or her brain fairly accurately.”

So, with a similar work ethic and a passion to get things made, the film went into production last August and wrapped at the end of December. With a crew of only around 5 or 6 people at any one time, the film was shot on a Canon 550D over 25 days for a meager 4.5 million won ($3,900). Some eyebrows might be raised at the thought of making a feature-length film on one of Canon’s EOS-range cameras, but Darren Aronofsky used the 7D to shoot several scenes of “Black Swan,” so if it’s good enough for him.

Despite being influenced by other zombie films, Nick said he tried to make an original film and give us something new.

“I wanted to move away from typical zombies and get across how it is when you are infected. I’m drawn more to darkness,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll feel like it’s this totally creepy, scary movie. It’s a horror film by label, but there are a few things in it that make it not just your typical horror film. I feel like there’s a huge emotional through-line. There’s more of this feeling of melancholy than there is this feeling of just dread in it, you know?”

While teaching is the full-time job of many expats in Korea, a proportion of them would probably prefer to consider themselves an artist, a photographer or a filmmaker. But few actually get the gumption to go out and make a short, let alone a feature film, and get it shown. I asked Nick what he thought it was that gave him that drive to get something made.

“Basically, the fact that people were not very supportive,” he said. “The fact that people were constantly saying, you can’t do it with that camera or it’s not gonna look that good or you need this kind of lens or this kind of budget or this kind of crew. Every time somebody said you can’t do this or you need to do this I was like, fuck that. I thrive on people telling me no.”

Strong words indeed. But he wasn’t finished there.

“I mean, I really honestly feel like if you really believe in something and you want it, you to have fight. You don’t just wait for it to happen,” he said. “I feel a lot of people wait for it to happen or they make excuses not to be uncomfortable, but I was uncomfortable for the last three years and it’s still uncomfortable. You know, I’m not in a situation where I can relax or anything, but if it wasn’t for this kind of situation I wouldn’t have been as hungry to get the film made or succeed.”

And succeed he has. The film had its premiere on Sept. 19, primarily for cast and crew, and a screening is scheduled for Halloween weekend at Platoon in Apgujeong.

Now that it’s all over and he can take a step back from it all, I asked how he was feeling. “Pride” was the first word that he said came to his mind, and he described the film as a declaration of his identity as a filmmaker. But he was quick to point out that this is one small step to him achieving his goals when he moves to Hollywood in November.

“The next step for me is get my first official film out,” he said. “I always compare it to music: this was my mix tape and my first LP is coming up.”

I asked if he had any advice for other budding filmmakers living in Korea, to which he replied, sporting a huge grin once more, “Listen to no one!”

Ironic to say the least, but I like it.

“Basically, grab a camera and make work!”

I got the sense that he sees his first feature as a rallying call to other filmmakers and creatives alike. The banner he works under is called “The New Industry,” for which he has high hopes.

“The New Industry is going to represent, eventually, a group of artists, filmmakers and technicians that I’m hopefully going to push in the right direction,” he said. “I just think there has to be this aggressive stance on the future of filmmaking and right now, if you want the big money and support, you have to make ‘Battleship’ [the 2012 movie based on the Milton Bradley board game]. The truth is, I don’t think we need Hollywood’s backing anymore with Kickstarter and all these online funding programs.”

With stories shared and advice given, we shook hands and parted ways. Nick was still smiling and full of joy, but behind the smile and inside that head, I was sure there were nothing but brooding thoughts of blood, mutations and zombies. As he said, “I’m dark. I think there is something dark inside all of us.”

With the film set to carry on with screenings in Korea, Nick and Whitney hope to enter the film into the 2012 festival circuit both here and abroad and hope that the film will one day become a must-see for those coming to teach in Korea. It might seem a little far fetched to think that a film about rabid demons with blood dripping from their mouths, moaning and chasing people around Seoul, will be a movie that people can relate to their time in Korea. But after stumbling through Itaewon the previous night, I can honestly tell you that sometimes the truth is stranger than the fiction.

 

(Photo courtesy of Groove Korea.  First published in Octobers issue of Grove Korea Magazine)

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