“Build it and they will come” or, how two film-obsessed brothers went from nothing to create a full length feature film.
“Australia makes such great genre films” says Kiah Roache-Turner “films like Mad Max and Undead did it so well, and after seeing them you’re left waiting, thinking ‘when is someone gonna do another film like that?’ But nobody did, so my brother and I decided to do it ourselves.”
Brothers Kiah and Tristan are co-founders of Guerrilla Films, a company they formed in order to create the sort of film they’d like to see. Inspired by fast shoot low-budget films like Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, they set about developing a project that would make good use of the Australian landscape while creating a world distinct to itself. The result is Wyrmwood, a post-apocalyptic survivalist gore-fest that’s been described as “Mad Max meets Dawn of the Dead”.
“It was always going to be a genre film” Kiah says of the early stages. “We were banging around different ideas – going up to Queensland or out to Broken Hill maybe – but there were three films that really inspired us: Dawn of the Dead, The Evil Dead and Bad Taste.” While all three are genre films, it was as much their approach to production that inspired the brothers. “Bad Taste took five years, just Peter Jackson and his friends going out on weekends and shooting” says Kiah. “He had the same sort of idea we had – all you need is some friends who can build stuff, a camera, a will to do it, and a bunch of friends who don’t mind getting covered in blood. That’s what Robert Rodriguez says in his book Rebel without a crew: ‘Look at what you’ve got and work with that.’”
The Roache-Turners’ approach to making Wyrmwood has very much followed that path. Financed completely independently, they’ve had no studio involvement or government funding.
“What we do have is a bunch of mates, a great location up in the mountains and a group of friends who didn’t mind getting dirty.”
‘Getting dirty’ may be putting it mildly. As well as piles of blood and guts (“we’ve set a new record for the most prosthetics used in an Australian-made film”), the film features multiple brawls in the dirt for the zombie hunting heroes, a blood-smeared ‘medical’ lab full of sharp things wielded by a mad scientist, and a major battle in a freezing pine forest. “We also set a stuntman’s head on fire” says Kiah “which we don’t think has been done in Australian film before either. We set his head on fire three times.”
The commitment the Roache-Turner brothers, their crew and friends have made to the film is nothing short of amazing. Shot over three and a half years, everyone involved has worked in between their day jobs, shooting mostly on weekends and for deferred fees. As the final stages came to a close though it got more intense.
“I quit my day job about a month ago to finish it” says Kiah. “The production now is basically one guy working in a small room next to his kitchen. Thirty scenes spread across twenty hard drives, now I’m trying to assemble it all. We’ve done multiple versions, cut it from two hours down to ninety minutes, back to one hundred minutes. It’s a lot of work.”
The results so far look awesome: distinctive, brutal and highly stylish, with an appropriate degree of acknowledgement to those films whose example helped set the tone. For such an accomplishment, it’s particularly striking to hear that this is the Roache-Turners’ first film. “Pretty much everyone working on it hadn’t worked on a feature film before” says Kiah.
So why take the plunge now? “I’m an absolute film nut” he says. “Me and my brother have been making short films since we were thirteen years old. I’ve been working in advertising for six years, but that’s really just been working towards making my first feature.”
Kiah credits his commercial experience with teaching him how to work fast on a tight budget, and how to think on his feet. But even with that knowledge, the scale and demands of making a full length film were something of an unknown. “It’s hard to get enough people to make a feature – it’s about ten times as hard as I expected. We thought we could smash one out in one year. And here we are, three and a half years later.” Over that time they’ve gone from the two brothers with a camera and a few actors to a large and very dedicated team.
“About three years ago we did some makeup tests and realised we were shit at it” says Kiah. “So we started hitting up makeup schools around Sydney and collected a small group of people interested in doing it. We’ve been really lucky to have some great people from early on – Lisa Cotterill and Gavin Kyle have been with us since 2010 and are hugely talented and just really driven. We started off with just those two and a couple of friends of theirs. We got to a point about a year after we started filming we had a team of maybe twenty makeup artists, people who’d worked on The Hobbit and all sorts of stuff. I got to the set one day and looked at this crowd and realised I didn’t know any of these people. Once people could see we were doing something they just wanted to be part of it.”
Given the evolving nature of the production, how did the scriptwriting come about? Was it written knowing it would actually get shot? “Here’s the funny part. We wrote it as we were making it. That’s very bad. Don’t do that if you’re thinking of making a film; finish the script first” says Kiah. “We actually wrote a much darker script and started shooting that – the teaser trailer is much more in the vein of what we envisaged. But we realised pretty quickly that direction was not a very good way to do an origin story.”
Kiah is adamant that if a film is creating a new world, it should show the audience how the characters arrived there. “If you’re gonna do Star Wars you need to show where Luke comes from.” As the early filming progressed, they knew there wasn’t much of that origin story present yet. “About a year and half into production we locked a script we were happy with. Then we had to go back and reshoot stuff, drop a whole lot of scenes… Someone came in as a character’s brother, got written out, eventually came back as a villain” he laughs “it wasn’t the best way to work. I think if you can write a good script but leave it open to change that’s the best way to go. Maybe if you’re Tarantino or something you can just go ‘bang’ and you have it, but for me it takes awhile to find the narrative.”
The narrative for Wyrmwood seems quite distinct, much like the aesthetic style. As Kiah explains, while it’s firmly rooted in the zombie genre, Wyrmwood has some particular peculiarities to it.
“I think there’s a bunch of things that make it different: the Australianness, the landscape and the humour. It has that dry slant on things. And then, being a post-apocalypse survival story, the spikes and leather armour are an aesthetic necessity. But that Mad Max aesthetic has never been mixed with the Dawn of the Dead before, and they’re two huge genres. If you mash those two together you’ve got something people have never seen before.”
In terms of narrative, the other big twist is the Wyrmwood take on peak oil. At the start of the story a star falls to earth, causing an infectious outbreak of zombieism. That same comet also destroys conventional fuel supplies, but the film’s heroes eventually discover a way to convert the gases from decomposing zombies into fuel.
“That’s an idea my brother came up with” says Kiah, “he has this great gift for coming up with bizarre ideas. ‘What if you could strap a zombie to your car and run the car on the methane they emit?’ We’re all emitting gases as we die. We went with that, so basically you’re using zombies as an alternative fuel source. I’ve never seen that before. I think if you’re trying to enter a very saturated market you have to enter into it with an original concept.”
Innovation and attention to detail are recurring characteristics of how Wyrmwood has come to be. Roache-Turner repeatedly emphasises the hands-on involvement he and Tristan have had at every stage.
“The thing I love about this film more than anything is that it’s all handmade” Kiah says. “No studio input, no government funding, it’s just what a group of people could come up with when they got together. Most of the people working on this film had never worked on a film before. The costumes for example were just me and my brother seeing what we could do. We literally built the zombie truck out the front of our house in Rozelle (and got some good looks from the neighbours).” That drive to get hands-on and be immersed in the creation clearly inspires Kiah. “I’m really interested in creating a world and I didn’t want my film to look like any other film” he says. “One film I really like is Star Wars – no other film looks like Star Wars. You look at every scene and it’s there, every scene is just so hand-made. Or even a film like Apocalypse Now, even though it’s set in a war it really looks like nothing else. If you stick with your own vision, it’s amazing what you can do with a bit of gaffa tape and some lighting.”
Particularly for first-time filmmakers, Roache-Turner sees this DIY approach as invaluable for turning out something unique. One of the greatest coups resulting from their ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy is the addition of Michael Lira (of Darth Vegas and Vicious Hairy Mary fame) to write the original score.
“We had quite a few people send us stuff wanting to do the score. I hadn’t realised who he was and we just sent him a scene as a test. He sent back this score which was well above – it was genius. I immediately rang him saying ‘who are you?’” Kiah laughs “He was like ‘I don’t know if you might have heard of my old band, Vicious Hairy Mary?’ As soon as he said that I said ‘you’re hired!’ They were one of our favourite bands to rock out to back in the nineties, but I didn’t know he was also this amazing film score writer. As it turned out, I already loved the score for The Hunter without knowing it was his, and years ago I’d seen Darth Vegas do a brilliant live score for the silent film Nosferatu. He’s just amazing. He literally plays every instrument in this little room he’s got, like a weird crazy genius.”
So where to next for Guerrilla films? Do you have another project planned? “I’ve been wanting to do this all my life, so all I want from Wyrmwood is the right to do the next one, and from that one the right to do the next one. I’ve got a backlog of ten films in my brain. Hopefully the next one will be this wild ghost film. I think it’s been awhile since someone took a paranormal film and gave it a good shakeup.”
Wyrmwood is expected to be released later in the year. Stay up to date on their Official Facebook Page for release updates and more from the film!