Interview: David Gelb, director of The Lazarus Effect
Matthew Turner | On 08, Oct 2015
The Lazarus Effect arrives on VOD this week, ahead of its DVD release on Monday 19th October. The horror movie marks a big shift in subject for director David Gelb, who previously helmed Netflix’s first ever documentary series, Chef’s Table. (Read our review of Chef’s Table here.)
We sit down with David to discuss horror, VOD and jumping from chefs to shocks.
Where did the idea come from, first of all?
This was a script that was written by Luke Dawson and then I worked on revisions with it with Jeremy Slater. I was looking at different horror films. I wanted to make a low budget horror film as my first narrative feature film. I’ve loved horror movies ever since I was a kid and I kind of wanted to make something of an homage to a lot of my favourite films. In the script for The Lazarus Effect, I found that I was able to work on a movie that asked that question, that ever-vexing question: What happens when you die? And is there an afterlife or what happens if you were to come back to life? And so we kind of tried to ask that question, which is a common theme in horror films since Frankenstein through Flatliners and Re-animator. And we thought that would be a lot of fun to make a movie about. And then also I saw elements of other films I loved growing up, particularly the Japanese animated film Akira, which is about a person who, through experimentation, unlocks the powers in his own mind. And so he completely loses control and starts murdering his young friends and other members of his biker gang, so we tried to put a lot of those ideas together and put it in the modern, medical setting and we were fortunate to be able to cast these incredible actors to be able to play it.
We were going to ask you if you were a particular fan of Flatliners…
Oh, yeah! I mean, I was born in 1983, when did Flatliners come out? I was pretty young and I think I saw it on home video and I just thought it was so much fun – I mean, there are elements of comedy to it, but I just thought it was really freaky and scary and just this idea of what happens if you come back to life. My cousin showed me The Shining when I was way too young to see it and so I would have nightmares and because of this question of what do you experience when you die and being haunted by the mistakes you made in your life when you come back to life, which is sort of what happened to Flatliners. I think it’s something that really resonated with me.
You mentioned a few of your favourite films already. Did you watch any particular films in preparation for shooting this?
Oh sure, I mean, I think that movies like the ones that I mentioned before and The Shining especially, I really like the visual compositions of The Shining, which we’ve tried to incorporate, and then Black Swan I thought was a really good reference for Olivia Wilde’s character, because she kind of goes through this transformation where her id, after she comes back to life, her kind of id and her basic instincts of survival start to kick in and she becomes someone completely different, she kind of becomes the dark side of herself and so I really appreciate that sort of duality, the way they portrayed it in Black Swan. And so we tried to incorporate some of that in here. And there’s something else about Flatliners that I always appreciated, which was how it was sort of this young cast of all the up and coming actors and I think that we were very lucky to be able to put together a group who I think are going to be [very big] – their largest work is still ahead of them, their most important works are still ahead of them, and I think it was very cool to be able to get all these actors who I think will all be absolute movie stars in their own right to be in a movie together, especially kind of a low-budget movie – you know, it’s certainly not The Avengers!
That was going to be our next question ‚Äì how did you get Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass and Donald Glover to come on board? What did they respond to in the script?
Well, it really started with Mark Duplass, who thought the script was cool and had a good relationship with [producer] Jason Blum and had made other films with him and once he joined, it made a lot of other actors perk up and consider it. Evan Peters actually has a background in horror, but we thought he was such a cool, great actor. Olivia Wilde had always wanted to work with Mark. She also happens to love horror films and also has a passion for sort of neuroscience. Just out of nowhere, she just happens to really enjoy those types of things, and so it really resonated with her. She also liked the challenge of being able to play that sort of white swan, black swan duality that we use in the film. And Sarah Bolger and Donald Glover, I think that we all kind of like these movies, like other references, not just in pure horror, but also in science fiction like The Abyss and Aliens, where you kind of have this group and they’re all sort of trapped in this really dangerous environment and not only is the tension coming from the danger that the phenomenon of whatever the movie is that’s happening – The Thing is definitely a part of this type of movie as well ‚Äì you know, they’re dealing with internal [issues] and they’re starting to fight amongst themselves and the tension builds up within the group.
One of the great things about having such experienced and talented actors is that when you’re shooting a low-budget film, you have 23 days or so to shoot the whole movie and so you really need them to be able to nail it on the first or second take. And they would always, always nail it almost immediately and then we were able to kind of experiment once they had gotten what was supposed to be in the script, then we could try other things and so they made it a lot easier for me as a filmmaker.
What was the hardest thing to get right overall on such a tight shooting schedule?
I think that because of the shooting schedule, you have to make a lot of decisions very, very quickly. In a documentary film, it’s very easy to reshoot things, we’ll look at things in the edit, you can change the order of scenes, there’s a sort of a limitless way that you can approach the structure of your story in a documentary, and then, yeah, if you don’t have what you need, it’s very easy to just go back to the location and just shoot that person, because it’s not a set, it’s not an actor, it’s a real person, he or she is there and they’re living their lives, so you can kind of pop in and get what you need and then leave and go back to the editing room and work on it in this sort of progressive, iterative fashion. And there’s an exact opposite when you’re doing a film like this, where you have your script, you have only this much time to shoot it and you can’t really count on being able to do anything over, if it doesn’t work, and so there’s an incredible amount of decisions that have to be made in a very short amount of time and because you’re not just fashioning – in documentary, we’re deciding how we’re going to cover something that already exists. In this case, we’re creating a reality in front of the camera as well, in addition to deciding how we’re going to cover it. So those were some of the biggest challenges that I really kind of appreciated because you also have the freedom to choose what happens in front of the camera, whereas in documentary, you’re not really supposed to be directing the blocking of the characters and telling them what to say. I think that’s the hardest, the biggest challenge is making all those decisions and once you make a choice, you’re going down that path and you have to stick with it and you have to be consistent with it.
You made the Chef’s Table series for Netflix. How did the two experiences compare?
Well, there are two elements. First, I was a creator and executive producer of the show, so I directed one of the six films. So I got to have a great experience working with other directors and helping them kind of fulfil their visions of how they saw their films fitting into the mould of what that show is. Chef’s Table is very much a kind of a spiritual sequel to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, only with different characters and different parts of the world and so we’re kind of making new versions of Jiro Dreams of Sushi but with a similar kind of aesthetic quality and musical quality. I mean it’s very different.
It seems like such a bizarre switch, to go from documentary and non-fiction to fictional horror. What was behind that switch?
Well, I just like a lot of different stuff, I guess! I love to eat and I love the kind of films like – I mean, the film The Fog of War was a large influence on me, and so we kind of made the food version of The Fog of War in certain ways, the way that we used Philip Glass music, the way that we used slow motion, but ultimately those are sort of portraits of artists. So yeah, it couldn’t be more different, but there are lot of different types of things that I like. And so I enjoy horror films just as much as I enjoy high cuisine. And so I guess I kind of want to make things that are things that I would want to watch. And also things that I would enjoy the act of doing. So it’s so much fun to be able to go to some of the best restaurants in the world with your film crew and just kind of hang out there and eat and kind of live their romantic chef lives, vicariously. And then, at the same time, it’s also a lot of fun to try to make a scary film, to try to scare your younger brother, to also work with an incredible cast of actors. And so they’re different experiences but I really enjoy it. And that was the question that people kept asking me when I was pitching the movie – I would have a a long pitch with scenes storyboarded and all of our visual image references and I would cut trailers together out of footage from other films to kind of show what the movie would feel like and I’d get through all that and then they’d ask me: “Okay, so you’re the Sushi guy‚Ä¶'” So we would just have a laugh about that and then I would go back to the storyboards again, until they got it.
Are you a Netflix / VOD user yourself? What have you been watching that you’ve enjoyed recently?
You know what I really love? I love that they have the Planet Earth series and they have the Human Planet series, which were big influences on me when I was making Chef’s Table and Jiro Dreams of Sushi. And they have all those and they also have the Making Of Human Planet as its own series, because the act of making that documentary series is so exciting, they had to make another documentary series about the making of it. So I thought that was great. And of course I love some of the other Netflix originals, I love House of Cards. I thought Aziz Ansari’s Madison Square Garden stand-up was really funny. What else? Bloodline I think is a great show. And also some of the other documentaries they have there – there’s this great documentary called The Source Family, about this sort of hippie rock and roll cult that gets completely out of control in Los Angeles. So I think that’s like one of my favourite things, has always been to watch documentaries on Netflix and I’m glad that I’ve been able to contribute documentaries to them that people are able to watch, because I think that that’s the place where somebody who’s never seen a documentary before will fall in love with them, on Netflix.
How important is VOD to the future of independent filmmaking and distribution?
I think it’s very important. I think that every movie has different needs. A film like It Follows, for example – we actually worked on the trailer for It Follows at my trailer company, City Room Creative – and when we were first working on the trailer this was a film that was supposed to be on Video On Demand and then just being out in a few theatres. But that was a movie actually that the trailer people responded to so well and the interest was so high that they decided to go with a traditional theatrical and then put it on demand.
I think that some movies, though, that don’t necessarily get that kind of boost before they come out, really can benefit because it’s a place where you can find your audience. I love this subscription service on Netflix because it actually doesn’t cost you anything to click on a movie that you might not normally watch and just see what it’s like. In the same way, getting out to the movie theatre is expensive and it’s a big choice and so I think that for some people, it’s nice that they’re able to watch a new movie that it isn’t necessarily The Avengers from home, it’s a good way for someone who might not have even seen that movie at all. So I don’t really find the two audiences cannibalize each other – I think that people will still go to the movie that and other people will watch it from home. People enjoy the movie-going experience, so I’m not scared of it, I’m excited about it.
My Mustang documentary A Faster Horse comes out in (US) theatres and on VOD on October 9 and I think that’s a good way to do it, because there are a lot of Mustang fans in the centre of the country that don’t necessarily have an arthouse theatre that’s going to be playing documentaries, so this is an opportunity for them to see it. So I think that the accessibility of films is important, because it’s a way to build an audience that might not know about your movie or might not want to take the risk of schlepping out to the theatre, but they might hit on it at home and you’ll have a whole new person or a whole new family or whole new group of people.
What’s your next project?
Well, A Faster Horse comes out in the United States on October 9 and then I think it comes out on Netflix internationally after that, but I’m not really sure. And then I have a narrative film that I’m developing right now that is something completely different once again – it’s actually set in the music world, in the classical music world of the ’80s and that’s something that I’m very excited about that we’re still kind of outlining the story for and hope to shoot within the next couple of years.
The Lazarus Effect is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.