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Black Sheep - Jonathan King interview

Black Sheep

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JONATHAN King about zombie sheep comedy-horror film Black Sheep, securing the involvement of the Weta Workshop and getting the right balance between gore and humour.

He also discusses recent comparisons to the early work of Peter Jackson, why he likes making fantasy films and why he intends to keep working in New Zealand for the near future…

Q. Killer sheep, where did the idea come from?
Jonathan King: It literally popped into my head about four and a half years ago and I thought it would be a good idea for a movie. So, I bashed the first draft out in about a week and it took three years to re-write. But the shape was there from the beginning…

Q. But what made you look at sheep as scary creatures?
Jonathan King: I remember by step father comes from an old farming family and we’d go and stay on the farm. I remember one night driving up the hill and the headlights were reflecting in their eyes and they looked like a different animal. Then when you do see them up close… from the distance they look like little balls of cotton wool on the hillside, but up close they’re always bigger than you think they’re going to be, they’re stronger and they’re actually weird looking creatures.

Q. How easy was it to get funded?
Jonathan King: It didn’t feel very easy at the time but in retrospect it moved at a good pace. The New Zealand Film Commission got involved quite early on and helped with the script development. Then Weta Workshop got involved with the special effects and it was their endorsement gave people confidence that the film was going to happen.

Q. What was it like working with Weta?
Jonathan King: It was fantastic. We couldn’t have made the film without their support. Their support gave people confidence and said to people around the world that we could do this film. A lot of the guys that work there got into the industry because of the kind of films that influenced this film [Braindead, Bad Taste, etc]. Being out there with their buckets of blood and rubber guts was a lot of fun. They’ve been doing these films like King Kong and Lord of the Rings recently that have featured some amazing work but they have hundreds of people making chain mail and sword heads that you don’t necessarily notice, whereas on Black Sheep everything they did counted and ended up on-screen.

Q. Did you use any special effects?
Jonathan King: Strictly none of it is CG except one shot where the sheep roll over the hill and down it. But everything else was essentially physical effects with animatronics or puppets and prosthetics and make-up. But I think it works better for the movie. It was fun doing it and the audience is really seeing something that happened that day in front of the camera – even though they know what’s happening isn’t real, it was actually photographed that day.

Q. How easy was it to work with the real sheep?
Jonathan King: It was a mighty effort but we got there! We had amazing sheep trainers and there’s quite a lot they can be trained to do – more than I thought! They’ve got to come when they’re called, stop in the right spot and look when you want them to. But sometimes they lose interest, or they stop to chew some grass, or they look really dozy when they’re doing it. There’s a fair amount of creative filmmaking involved! We got there but I’ll never do it again!

Q. How about the actors. Were they game for anything you threw at them?
Jonathan King: They were really great sports actually. They had to be very patient and I’m sure they got fed up at times but they knew the film they were making and I guess they knew what they’d signed on for really.

Q. How did you get the right balance between the comedy and the horror?
Jonathan King: Often, I just followed my instincts about when I wanted the laughs and what I thought was funny, and then the horror stuff and gore. When I saw it with audiences I was really pleased at how ready they were to laugh and how much they were laughing. There was a point where we’d been developing the film for a while and then Shaun Of The Dead came out and that helped people to get a handle on the idea of comedy and horror working together – it gave them something to peg it on to, so to speak [laughs].

But the downside of that was that Shaun is a very funny film to start with and then the horror stuff comes in, whereas with Black Sheep the humour comes from the goofiness but it actually starts quite straight. It then gets goofier and goofier as things go mad. But people have been ready to jump on board and start laughing and that’s great. But I learned a lot about how to make the scares work. I found that frights are easy and gore and gross is kind of straightforward but real scares are a lot harder than I thought. It’s not easy to have people laughing but then also feeling dread as well.

Q. Black Sheep has also been compared to the early work of Peter Jackson. How flattering is that, especially since you’re being hailed as a director to watch as a result?
Jonathan King: It’s nice to hear, for sure, but I was shuffling more towards films like Evil Dead, An American Werewolf in London and Dawn of The Dead when making it. That being said, I was very inspired by how Peter Jackson made his early films and the fact that he made them in New Zealand. It gives you some inspiration that filmmakers can come from New Zealand and can make that kind of movie and go on from there. So, it’s very flattering.

Q. Do you have your eyes on any trilogies?
Jonathan King: [Laughs] I think my trilogy days are a little in the future!

Q. And what about the notion that you could be “the next Peter Jackson”…
Jonathan King: I think that’s a bit embarrassing and I don’t think it holds a lot of water really. Peter Jackson is pretty unique. There are some coincidences – he’s a New Zealand filmmaker, I’m a New Zealand filmmaker, but there’s a whole raft of other factors that went into Peter ending up where he is now. He made a series of really terrific films and then he was offered Heavenly Creatures, which took him to another level. I think the leap from Bad Taste to Heavenly Creatures had a lot to do with it. But then he followed that up with The Frighteners and everybody went mad for that. He started working on his early version of King Kong and then got Lord of the Rings and stuff, so the comparison is not a simple equation in my opinion.

Q. Are you going to stay in the horror genre for a little while?
Jonathan King: I don’t know if I’ll necessarily do another straight horror film but I think I want to keep making fantastic films. But certainly horror influences what I’m doing. I like movies that kind of transport you to somewhere else and give you a fantastic experience that’s different from real life and from television. I like using my imagination and doing stuff that you haven’t seen before.

Q. And will you stay in New Zealand?
Jonathan King: For the near future I think, yes. But I also want to make films that are perhaps bigger than can raise the money for in New Zealand, with international casts and international money. It’s one of the challenges for me. How do you appeal to international audiences and therefore attract international investors? But also make films that retain some element of New Zealand-ness. I think that’s a dilemma that Britain and everyone other than Hollywood faces as well.

b>Read our review of Black Sheep