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Arrow Video FrightFest October 2020 interview: Hayden J. Weal opens up about his excellent new film ‘Dead’

The director, writer and actor teases his hilarious supernatural comedy.

Dead - Hayden J. Weal
Credit: 1091 Pictures

New Zealand film-maker Hayden J. Weal is bringing his new film ‘Dead’ to Arrow Video FrightFest this week for its UK Premiere.

A supernatural comedy, ‘Dead’ is one of my highlights of the festival thanks to its witty script, gripping story and the fantastic chemistry between Weal and co-star/co-writer Thomas Sainsbury. Think along the lines of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost but wackier, and you’re in the right ballpark.

I caught up with Hayden to talk about the inspiration behind ‘Dead’, discuss how the humour will work well for a British audience, and to find out about the challenges of releasing a film in a pandemic…

‘Dead’ is one of my favourite films showing at Arrow Video FrightFest this week. I found it absolutely hilarious and I’ve been talking about it for days. What’s the inspiration behind the film?

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That’s so touching. Thank you so much. Tom, who plays Marbles in the film, and I wanted to work together. I’d seen him in a couple of YouTube videos that he had made and he had seen my first film Chronesthesia, which is about love and time travel. When I met him at the film awards in 2016, I got really excited because I find him hilarious and I wanted to go out for coffee and talk about something that we could work on together. I pestered him, we grabbed a bagel and decided why not try and make a feature film with very little money and, unfortunately, very little cultural content, which counts you out for any kind of government funding here. We don’t have any studios. We only have a Film Commission, which is taxpayer dollars so we decided we’ll just make something fun. Something that we would want to watch and that’s how it started.

This film really reminds me of the kind of films that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost make together, which I’m sure people have already said to you…

Yeah, which I couldn’t be happier about because I’m a gigantic fan,

One of the things I love about this film is the chemistry that you and Tom have. Even though your characters don’t like one another initially, the chemistry between you is obvious. Did that just come naturally?

Yeah, we just really like each other. We’re actually on set of Tom’s new film and he’s directing this next one. It’s called ‘Loop Track’ and it’s a horror. I just love being around him. He’s just one of the sweetest guys in the world. Every time I ask him how he is he responds with. ‘all the better for seeing you’ and he’s just an absolute joy to be around (laughs). We both find the same kind of things funny, our political views are very aligned so when we’re talking about any kind of issues, or any kind of ideas, or any kind of psychology with people, we seem to be really on the same page. We both want there to be more empathy in the world. We want people to be warmer to each other. We’re just two peas in a pod, which has just worked out really well.

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Credit: 1091 Pictures

You mentioned earlier about making this film with no money but the end product is very polished and it looks great…

Okay, that’s good. It cost $41,500 New Zealand dollars so that’s probably under £20,000. We just had an incredible team and an incredible crew. Tammy Williams, who shot it, this was her first feature film that she shot and she is just an absolute force of nature. Metro Film Limited wanted to hook us up with a great discount because they’re a big fan of hers so we got a $70,000 film camera package for about $6,500. Images and Sound came to the party with colour grade. Underground Sound came to the party with the sound design. Tom McLeod and his team came to the party with the score and people just dedicated so much time, out of passion and out of love instead of chasing a paycheck, which really worked out well for us because we couldn’t pay them a lot of the time (laughs). Everyone’s on deferred fees. If people buy tickets at the cinema here in New Zealand, or if they buy on demand in other territories, that money goes directly to the cast and crew. Everybody gets paid. The producers aren’t taking anything away from the cast. 100% of the profits goes to pay all the outstanding invoices.

In terms of casting, I can’t imagine anybody got the script and didn’t want to do it. It’s such a clever, witty and funny script. The supporting cast is fantastic in it particularly Jennifer Ward-Lealand, who plays Marbles’ mom. She’s a bit of a legend, isn’t she?

She’s actually New Zealander of the Year 2020. She can speak today te reo Maori fluently, which is the native language of our indigenous peoples here in New Zealand. She is a patron of the arts. She has just been an absolute hero throughout the years. I didn’t know her personally, I just cold called her and asked her if she would be keen to come along and play. We (told her we) couldn’t pay her anything, we’re going to be filming in the middle of winter and she’s gonna eat nothing but Subway for four weeks while we filmed, because they supported our shoot and donated a bunch of food, and and she said yes because she’s just a hero. She’s just a legend. She’s just awesome. Same with Michael Hurst, who’s her real life partner, and everyone really. We didn’t hold auditions for anybody. Everybody was hand-picked because we really wanted to work with these specific people.

You had so many hats on for this film. You’re in it, you co-wrote it, you directed it… What was it like for you to juggle all those things?

I just don’t know anything different. It’s the only way that we were going to get the film done. I can’t really expect everybody to work the kind of hours or the strenuous schedule that we did on the film. Sometimes it’s really great to have people to rely on and to help out, and then sometimes it’s going to take too long to communicate exactly what we need doing. I could just go in and do it myself. I had two other producers with me, they’ve been incredible throughout all of the release, the contracts and the legal stuff, and our unit production manager helped out a lot for the shoot. We didn’t even have a first AD, which was my biggest mistake. I was running the entire set, timings of the day, keeping everyone safe as well as directing, and then stepping in front of the camera and acting.

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I never felt like it was all on my shoulders. I never really felt like I was overstressed at all. I had Tammy shooting it and she was my right hand person. I always had Tom there, who’s a director himself so he could tell me if I was ever going too far off the mark. Whenever I’m in a scene you can always feel if you’re on the right track. If everyone’s reacting to each other and it feels real, it feels like you’ve got the energy. That was never a problem. The only things that were difficult were the fact that we were asking people to work really, really hard and not compensating them fairly. No one complained for the entire four week shoot or the entire two-and-a-half-years of making the film. Everybody has just been a joy. That does weigh on me and it’s something that I really, really, really hope we don’t have to do on the next thing, whatever that may be.

Dead - Hayden J. Weal
Credit: 1091 Pictures

This feels like a really good foundation for you and Tom to to build on. I want to see the two of your working together on more projects. There are certain moments I’m still laughing about now. This is the kind of humour we need in 2020, which let’s be honest has been a total shitshow…

That’s great! That’s awesome! I’m so pleased. We never know how it’s gonna play, especially to people outside of New Zealand, because a lot of it kind of it feels like it is a bit niche, I guess. That was a worry.

Your humour is very similar to British humour. We like our comedy to be edgier and more risque than say the Americans, who prefer it to be more PC and polished. As a gay man, I found the jokes around Tagg’s sexuality to be very, very funny…

Oh, that’s great. I’m going to keep that. I need it in writing (laughs).

I’ll send it in an email…

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We live in such a PC world. I’m sure that somebody will pick up on those and say it’s offensive, but it isn’t offensive at all. It’s really funny…

Okay, good. Tom’s gay in real life and we wrote it the other way around so he was meant to be the gay character and I was meant to be the straight character. Then we shot a test and it was just very clear that something wasn’t working as well as it should. One of the producers said, ‘I think you struggle to play low status to Tom, I think you naturally want to dominate him’. (laughs) We discussed swapping it around and then it worked well. That was a little bit of a political tightrope (where we were like), ‘are we doing something wrong here, having a straight actor playing a gay character?’ but then we had other gay actors playing straight characters. We made sure we balanced it and juggled it. Hopefully, we’ve done our due diligence with that.

The film is coming out in the midst of the pandemic, which I imagine isn’t ideal. What challenges has that presented?

Well, I really wanted to be at every festival, I wanted to be able to meet people and try get some wheeling and dealing going for the next things. Of course, cinema capacity hurt it in a huge way, or not even being in cinemas at all, being pulled from screens sucks. The really great thing was that in New Zealand we opened up because we eliminated community transmission. We were able to walk around freely and most big films have been pushed for months, if not a year or so, which meant that there was space in the cinemas. A bunch of cinemas were keen to play it so we had a much bigger release here in New Zealand than we thought we were going to, which was really lovely. Everyone’s stuck at home with nothing to do but watch stuff so I’m really hoping that maybe it’ll reach more eyeballs than we thought it would. It’s one thing making a film, that’s really fun and time consuming and a lot of energy (but) convincing people to watch it, is strangely harder than making the film. I thought you could just say like, ‘here’s something cool do you want to check it out?’ but it’s not that easy. You really got to fight to get through the noise and there’s a lot of noise.

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I feel like this film will find an audience. I think word of mouth will really benefit you…

Ah, thank you. I really hope that’s the case. I think there’s like a magical tipping point where enough people talk about it to each other, and then it becomes a thing. To be honest, I don’t know how you make that happen and engineer that kind of happenstance. We’re just leaving it up to chance and people like yourself to be singing its praises, which I’m so happy to hear that you’re on side. That’s all we dreamed of really.

You mentioned that you’re thinking about the next project. What do you have coming up?

At the moment we’re filming Tom’s film. It’s called ‘Loop Track’ and it’s a horror set in the New Zealand bush about a man suffering a nervous breakdown who thinks something or someone is following him. Tom plays the lead character and I play the second again, which is a lot of fun, except this time I don’t have to direct so I just turn up and muck around all day. I get to watch him get stressed out, which is really fun. I’ve got four or five scripts that I’ve been writing with other people that are in different stages of development. I don’t really know what the process is going to be in terms of getting financing for the next couple of years because I think it’s really hard to get insurance for certain budgets. With a bit of luck, we will get one of those up and running. I’ve been talking to our sales agent in the States about trying to get some introductions to some people in the UK because as you said, I think that sense of humor and the sensibilities align a lot stronger. The dry New Zealand comedy really fits that stiff upper lip British comedy and there’s a couple of people that I just really admire over in the UK that I would love to talk to. It would be a dream to be able to do something with a production company over in the UK and have a joint release in both countries. Plus, you guys have way more people and way more money, so we kind of want to play with our big brothers so that would be nice (laughs).

Who knows what the future holds? There’s lots of fun stuff out there. There’s lots of fun ideas that we’ve been pushing around. A female lead detective comedy, which is really fun. There’s a supernatural coming of age story about a mother and son, which is a really sweet one. We’ve got a music coming-of-age film about older ladies, a dramedy that’s really fun and a girlband body snatcher film set on an island. There’s lots of cool stuff. If we got the chance to make any of these films, I’d be in heaven.

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Without spoiling anything about ‘Dead’, do you think we’ll get to see Marbles and Tagg in the future? I feel there’s story there and I’d definitely be interested in seeing it…

I don’t know. I’m bowled over that you feel that way to be honest. We’ve never ever considered it. It’s such a one off. Two-and-a-half-years was such a long slog. I would absolutely love to if there was an appetite for it. Financially, we just have to wait and see how the film goes because at the moment, it’s just hard to get people to even hear about the movie. We don’t have a marketing budget so we’re we’re having to compete with other films here in New Zealand that are made by New Zealanders. Usually, a New Zealand film comes out, everyone just goes and sees it, because it’s made here. Whereas now we’re virtually spoilt for choice because there’s a veritable banquet of New Zealand cinema out right now. It’s a very exciting time.

‘Dead’ will have its UK Premiere at Arrow Video FrightFest on Friday 22nd October 2020 at 9.30pm. For more information and tickets, please visit Watch the trailer for ‘Dead’ below:

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