Zombies — you cannot always beat them, and you sure as hell do not want to join them. Over the past few years, these walking, grunting, human flesh-eating cadavers have become quite a hit with TV as well as feature film audiences.
On Friday, December 16, Chiller will air its first made-for-TV movie, Steve Niles’ Remains at 9:00 p.m. EST/PST. Based on the successful IDW Publishing novel written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Keiron Dwyer, the film is set in post-apocalyptic Reno, Nevada and follows the survivors of an horrific accident that transformed most of humanity into zombies. Unlike their predecessors, these zombies can adapt to their surroundings and pose a serious threat to our heroes, who are holed up in a vacant casino and fighting for their lives.
Written by John Doolan and directed by Colin Theys, Remains stars Grant Bowler (True Blood, Ugly Betty), Lance Reddick (Lost, Fringe), Miko Hughes (Pet Sematary), Tawny Cypress (Rescue Me, Heroes), and Evalena Marie (Are We There Yet?), while Andrew Gernhard and Zach O’Brien serve as producers for Synthetic Cinema International.
Last week, noted novelist, graphic novelist, and screenwriter Steve Niles, whose credits include 30 Days of Night and its sequel Dark Days (both of which have been adapted for the big screen) along with Criminal Macabre and Simon Dark, Mystery Society, spoke on the phone with me and other journalists about his career and various projects, including Remains. The following is an edited version of our Q & A. Enjoy!
Were you involved in this production of Remains beyond creating the source material?
The best way to describe my role was that I supervised a lot. They [the producers] ran the script by me and I did set visits, too. I was in constant contact with the folks at Chiller as well as Synthetic and they kept me involved at every stage, from approving make-up to the script. A big part of it is that these guys really knew what they were doing and I felt perfectly comfortable being on the coast while they we working on it. Again, though, they kept me involved quite a bit and I really appreciate that.
As an author, what do you look for when you’re approached by someone who wants to turn one of your graphic novels into a movie or TV series?
Honestly, enthusiasm. Enthusiasm for the material means more to me than a big option. A good example of that is what happened with [the feature film] 30 Days of Night. When we were selling 30 Days of Night it turned into a bidding war. There were three studios bidding and they all had a lot of money, but I went with the one that had [producer] Sam Raimi attached to it.
Sam knows horror, and that was very similar with the guys who did Remains. Andrew Gernhard reached out to me from Synthetic Cinema and was very upfront about it. He was like, “We’re a small company and we’ve just done these things, but we really love this material.” Andrew understood Remains, too, which was really important to me.
A lot of times what happens in Hollywood is that people will come to you and say, “Oh, my God, I love your book. Let me tell you our take on it.” It’s like, “But the book is the take.” That didn’t happen with Chiller or Synthetic Cinema. They wanted to do the comic book. They wanted to capture the spirit of it and that’s shockingly rare. So their enthusiasm is what really got my attention.
Why do you think zombies are so popular with TV and movies audiences, especially right now?
I think that horror always reflects society’s general fears and anxieties, and right now, without getting too serious, we’re actually afraid of other people. We’re afraid of disease, we’re afraid of being invaded by people who look kind of like us, etc. What better way to express those fears than with this mindless zombie horde that wants to eat us. I mean, they’re our friends and neighbors and they want to kill and eat us.
So I think zombies are a very basic way for us to confront those fears. The real world stuff is so horrifying, and zombies are a great way for us to sort of work through those fears. That’s just something I feel about horror in general. It’s a relief and, like I said, we use it to illustrate what we’re afraid of, and then shoot it in the head if you will.
Where are you guys at right now with [the graphic novel] Paradise Lost?
I’m writing a script and I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to go into protective custody when the artist reads it, because if you’ve ever read Paradise Lost (the epic poem by 17th century English poet John Milton), you know that once the war starts, everything is in the millions. So for the first time in my life I’m writing a comic book and I’m literally thinking, “I’m so sorry, but a million angels come swirling down.”
I’m working from Alex Proyas’ script, not the poem. If I was working from the poem I wouldn’t sound nearly as chipper. Alex Proyas wrote this incredible script and that’s what I’m adapting. He really figured out a way to strip it down to where you’re dealing with basically the story of Lucifer and his relationship to the Archangels and how the whole division started. So I’m really having fun, and Michael Kaluta is doing the art, so if he doesn’t kill me it’s going to be a beautiful book.
How does it feel to have the first original movie on Chiller?
This is really exciting for me because I really like TV movies. I don’t even know if this name will mean anything to anybody on this call, but Dan Curtis is a hero of mine. He did The Night Stalker shows and Dark Shadows. Dan was behind so much of these great things and he used to do all these terrific TV movies. Richard Matheson used to write tons of ABC Movies of the Week during the '70s, too. They were his short stories turned into these great TV movies, so I have a really special affection for those as well.
I remember when I got together with these guys to do Remains I started talking to them about these TV movies and sort of got them in the spirit of it. So I’m thrilled, and then Chiller has wound up being like my family. They’ve been so great in keeping me informed and everybody has just welcomed me into the Chiller family. It’s just been wonderful, and I can’t say enough about the promotion of this movie. It’s hard for me to even watch Chiller right now because I get sick of seeing my name all over the place [he jokes]. I’m really excited about the movie and I think it will be fun for audiences.
What are you more partial to, vampires or zombies?
That’s a tough one. I have to go with vampires and let me qualify that - my kind of vampires - mean, nasty vampires that don’t want to seduce you, but want to take your blood. I’ve been writing them for a long time now and I’ve developed an affection for them. As a writer, there’s slightly more you can do with that particular monster. Zombie stories are great for telling stories about humans, oddly enough, while vampires are great for telling stories about vampires because they’re technically still human and have brains, lives, emotions, and things like that that you can play with.
For those who haven’t read the Remains graphic novels, what separates the Remains zombies from anything else that we’ve seen?
Well, really, that’s a big thing I wanted to talk about, too. I know that right now [the AMC TV series] The Walking Dead is so popular and it’s sort of the current version of what people think zombies are. When I sat down to write Remains it was around the time that The Walking Dead was just starting to get strong as a comic; Land of the Dead was out and there was a zombie surge building.
I wanted to do something different and a little bigger with Remains and the zombies other than do they run or do they shamble? In order to do that, it seemed like I had to come up with something that could put the audience and the characters on edge. I mean, everybody knows how to deal with zombies now, right? You board yourself up in your house and wait it out, and you shoot them as they come to you.
That doesn’t necessarily work in Remains because of the types of zombies. One of them is slightly more advanced, and they’re eating the others and evolving. So in Remains you can’t just sit in your boarded up house and be comfortable, because sooner or later the zombies will figure out how to either climb in or pull the boards off.
So I had a lot of fun with that and other zombie conventions, because there aren’t just The Walking Dead zombies, there are the George Romero zombies, the Return of the Living Dead zombies, the remake of The Dawn of the Dead zombies, etc. So I really tried to kind of have fun with all of them. I just figured in a world where zombies are created because of a human accident, and especially in Remains, that there would be variations of the disease (and subsequent creation of zombies) based on the proximity to what happened.
What were some of the biggest production challenges with bringing the Remains comic book in front of the camera and then to the small screen?
Well, the biggest thing, and I run into this a lot with making comic books into movies, is that in a comic book I have no budget. I can do anything I want. If I want 10,000 bikers coming out of the horizon, I can do that. The artist will be mad at me, but you know it’s not a budget issue.
So the first thing we had to do with Remains was go through the comic, and there were a few set pieces that would have just been impossible to do. For people who read the comics, there is a biker scene in there and it would have cost too much money to do that [for TV] because it literally is hundreds and hundreds of bikers approaching through the desert not realizing that they’re about to hit an entire system of wires and they all get sliced like deli sandwiches as they ride into the city. The budget to shoot that was just way over the top, so we had to come up with other ways to do it.
Because the budget was a TV movie budget, I am absolutely shocked at how much of the comic that Synthetic Cinema actually got on film. They did such a good job of figuring out a way around things. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a scene involving a circus prop for a sort of Cirque du Soleil-type casino. I assumed that would just be cut because it’s so over the top and so silly, but they found a way to do it that is really effective.
I’ve always been a fan of low budget horror. As a matter of fact, in the history of horror, I think most of our best films started with kids who didn’t have much money trying to figure out a way to make the best movie possible. I’ll point to the greatest zombie movie of all time, which is Night of the Living Dead. It was shot for what, $70,000 on the weekends. I think Andrew and all the guys at Synthetic did a fantastic job with Remains, because like I said, except for the biker horde, we got everything in there.
Steve, you mentioned you did some set visits during the production. Is there a particular visit or scene shot while you were there that really sticks out in your mind?
I visited the set with Ted Adams, who is the publisher at IDW. We’ve been on Hollywood sets, and one of the things we noticed when you’re on a Hollywood set is that they spend nine or so hours shooting about 15 seconds of material. It can get really tedious. On Remains, however, these guys moved in like a strike team. They had the scenes set up in the various rooms and we watched them go boom, boom, boom, from room to room. I mean, it wasn’t Ed Wood, you know, “reckless.” They knew what they wanted. They had everything set up and spread out in such a way that they didn’t have to break it all down and set it up again. It was incredible.
Without giving the plot away, there’s a scene with an electronic door. They shot that scene probably eight or nine times while I was there, and each time everyone got better because all the actors and the director came together and would be like, “Okay, this is what we’re doing and this is great.” It was a real group effort. No one was standing around looking bored. Everybody was involved and I hope that spirit of fun comes through in the movie.
Steve, you have a wonderful knack for anticipating what the next wave of the genre is going to be. You managed to do that with vampires and 30 Days, with zombies and Remains, and even now the Frankenstein book that you and Bernie Wrightson are doing seems to be coming out before this next big wave of Frankenstein projects. What do use as your guideline as far as what sorts of things you want to write, or do you just do whatever you feel is cool and hopefully the rest of the world will catch up?
I was just going to say I’m just a fan of this stuff. For example, 30 Days came out of something I just wanted to do. I mean I didn’t get paid, you know? When we did that comic it was for free. [Illustrator] Ben Templesmith and I had an opportunity to do a different kind of vampire, so I did that.
I’m a huge, huge horror fan, and especially when it comes to the classics, I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t seen ten times, and I have that thing in me where I want to do my version. I have a complete aversion to just doing what somebody else did before, so I always want to try to come up with some sort of fresh new take, but that really is coming out of the spirit of fun.
I know that for a horror writer I use the word fun a lot, but that’s really what it comes from. I carried Bernie’s first Frankenstein book around with me when I was a kid, and now I’m grown up and working with him on a sequel. I’m the luckiest monster kid on Earth. I genuinely love this stuff and would be doing it whether they were being made into movies or comics. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. I have this reputation of being very prolific, when in fact I’ve just been writing my whole life and just have a lot material piled up.
So I’ve never felt like I’m predicting anything or that I’m ahead of any curve. That’s a dangerous road to go down, trying to predict trends. I just do what I like and what I love and I just happen to love Frankenstein, vampires, and zombies.
Please note, all Remains photos above (in descending order: Grant Bowler, Lance Reddick, "Zombie," Tawny Cypress and Evalena Marie) by Paul Melluzzo and copyright of Chiller.