Interview: Australian filmmakers the Spierig Brothers on the 20th anniversary of their cult horror hit Undead; “There’s something to be said about leaving directors alone to go and make their movie”

Before making waves in the horror genre with such box office successes and critical winners as Daybreakers, Predestination, and Jigsaw, German-born, Australian-raised brothers Michael and Peter Spierig pooled their talent, connections and coins together for Undead.  Originally released in 2003, the low-budget Australian zombie thriller was an homage to the B-grade horror entries of the decades prior, earning the brothers both cult status among genre fans and notice from risk-ready creatives.

As Undead releases on Blu-ray for the first time in a lush remastered form overseen by the duo, our own Peter Gray spoke with Michael and Peter about bringing their vision to fruition some twenty years ago, graduating to working with A-list talent, tackling the Saw franchise, and how their films have often been ahead of their time.

I remember seeing Undead in 2003 and I made it a specific point to seek it out.  Going back to that time, was there any hesitation or trouble in bringing a horror film to the Australian screen?

Michael Spierig: When we made that film, it was a different time.  It was early 2000’s, we shot in 2001, so it’s actually the 20th anniversary this year of when we started production.  Back then Peter and I wanted to make it because nobody else was really doing zombie films.  And then the next wave happened and suddenly everyone was making them, but it was a period in Australia where the genre directors had moved on.  It was that post-Richard Franklin/George Miller era… it was an era that felt like it had faded away.  Peter and I applied for funding over and over again and we were never accepted.

We were fresh out of University and had directed a few commercials, and we just pooled all of our resources.  We knew no one was going to fund this or trust us to do it, so we did it ourselves.  We gathered production designers from the commercials, and we knew gaffers and grips, and they weren’t necessarily going to work on the movie but we knew they could provide gear.  When we made the film there was no one on set who had made a feature film before, so we were all pretty green.  It was a wild experience.

I feel like the early 2000’s we were seeing the petering out of the slasher resurgence that came about in the mid-90’s, and as you said after making Undead we saw that rise of similar genre films like Dawn of the Dead and 30 Days of Night.  It feels like Undead didn’t get the credit it deserved.  It must feel nice that it’s still a film being spoken of and receiving this physical release.

Peter Spierig: It’s a weird one because we really didn’t have a lot of expectations other than it was going to find a small cult audience.  We knew we were making a B-movie and something that was kind of silly, but we love those movies.  We knew it was going to be for a specific audience.  We were such fans of filmmakers that made those types of movies, especially early in their careers, and with the resources we had we knew that was the type of movie we could make.  You make this thing in your parents’ backyard and you edit on Windows 98, and you just don’t think anyone is going to see it, and then it’s released in 55 countries around the world… it’s very strange.

It was right at the time when you could get a theatrical release too.  It was limited but it was still theatrical around the world, and I think now that would be almost impossible.  It was also a time when major studios were buying those types of films too – Lionsgate bought (this) – and it was really interesting to see that movie get out there in the world.

Michael Spierig: It was also that period where it was the last of analogue.  We shot on super 16mm, which I don’t think anyone does anymore, and we shot on that cause it was the most cinematic we could shoot that we could afford.  It was the format that so many of our heroes used too.  George Romero, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson… so we figured that was the format to shoot on and it was incredibly difficult.  It’s expensive to shoot on it, so we didn’t do more than two takes.  Going through this blu-ray it’s been funny to see some of the takes.  We managed to just scrape in to get it released on VHS too, which I think is an honour.

It’s clear that you have a love of the genre.  Where did that appreciation originate from?

Michael Spierig: I think my love definitely started in the 1980’s.  The 80’s was such an amazing period for cinema in general, but it was such a great moment for horror.  Growing up in Queensland meant there was that conservative, Joh Bjelke-Petersen period where films were banned.  David Cronenberg was banned, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 was banned, and Hellraiser 2 was banned… all these movies were banned.  And Peter and I loved watching such strange films that we knew we had to watch these films to find out what the big deal was.  And you watch them and think “Okay, it’s intense but I don’t know why it was banned.”

I’ve always just loved the creativity of horror and all the people I’ve met in horror are wildly intelligent, sweet people.  There is that assumption that horror people are complete lunatics, and I’ve found it to be quite the opposite.  We just fell in love with the creativity of it.  The make-up effects, the visual effects, putting sequences together… it all came from our love of horror.

Peter Spierig: I think the great thing about when you’re doing an independent film is that the genre becomes the star.  If you’re doing a zombie film or a werewolf movie, that is the star of your movie.  And that’s something that can cross over into different countries and languages.  Just because you don’t have the name on the box, doesn’t mean you can’t sell it.

I’ve been fortunate enough to speak to a series of directors this past year, predominantly in the horror genre, and, as you said, they have been just the sweetest people, and it drives home that the people that love this genre are the ones that should be making these films.

Michael Spierig: We’ve crossed over into this weird period with horror.  It used to be that dirty, drive-in-type cinema in the 70’s and 80’s, and then it became quite profitable.  The people that came in and took over were the ones that saw money in it, rather than being those that understood and loved it.  Generally, movies are super expensive, but horror can still be a cheap genre.  You can do a slasher film for a few million bucks and people will go see it.  It might be one of the last genres left where you can make it so low budget and people will still go.  I think a lot of people see that as opportunity rather than passion.  They make these shitty horror movies because they sense a cheap way to make money.

As you said with Undead that you didn’t have star names attached to it.  How was it transitioning from that to something like Daybreakers where you are working with actors like Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe?

Peter Spierig: It’s definitely overwhelming at first.  Undead cost $75,000 to make.  Daybreakers was $22 million.  It was an extreme leap.  And now we have Oscar-nominated actors around us, so it is overwhelming but, at the same time, Michael and I approached it in the same way.  We went in completely prepared, knowing what we want from our actors, knowing what we want thematically.  It’s the same process.  I think the actors all responded to the fact that Michael and I were clearly passionate.  We didn’t have an easy way in.  We didn’t have an uncle at a studio or a connection with Disney, and I think they all respected that.  We’ve been very lucky that all the big name people we’ve worked with over the years have all been great.  I’m not just saying that to feed you a bullshit line.  They really have been great.

Michael Spierig: I think also, when we made Daybreakers… because it was Lionsgate again, and they funded Undead, (we) sat down with the executives at Lionsgate and they asked us what we had in mind, and on a napkin I basically wrote down this idea for a vampire world where they are the dominant species and they’ve learned to adapt.  We pitched it to them and they loved it, and it was kind of that simple.  I mean, of course it’s never that simple, but it was that basic idea that they loved and we went away and wrote it.  That rarely happens.  I think now everything has to be so pre-planned.  Writers have to write their script on spec, and they have to go out and get an actor and have it packaged before a studio will buy it.  Whilst streaming has made things a little easier in the indie world, it’s so much harder for people to buy an original idea.  It’s so hard to sell an original idea.

Going off original ideas, I can’t praise Predestination enough.  Was there difficulty in selling that idea? 

Michael Spierig: Peter reminded me of a short story he read, and it was one he really believed in.  We made a fatal error in that we started adapting Robert A. Heinlein’s short story (“-All You Zombies-“) before we had the rights to it.  Don’t ever do that.  But we managed to get the rights from the Heinlein Estate and they were very supportive of us.  We knew that it was going to be hard to sell because it’s an intersex time travel movie.  Maybe now it would be an easier sell, but back then it was difficult.  We sent Ethan Hawke the script, and he said yes pretty much straight away.  We weren’t sure which part he was going to play, but by him saying yes and us keeping the budget low, we could get it made.  We managed to pre-sell it, again off the back of Ethan.  We weren’t really sure how we were going to cast the role.  Do we hire a woman, someone who’s intersex, a transgender performer? We auditioned so many people, and then Sarah Snook came in and she was so good in both (male and female) parts.  We just had to sell it to Ethan, and he saw her and thought it was perfect.  Once we had that together, we were able to make it pretty much free from interference, which was surprising.

Peter Spierig: It really is the only project we’ve ever done where we were completely left alone.  We’ve had extreme experiences in both, but we were really left alone to make our movie.  Sarah was an unknown at that point and we talked at length about “Do we get an actress that people know?”, but we all thought, Ethan included, that the most interesting thing would be an actress no one knows, because then you don’t have preconceived ideas about who it is.  It becomes tricky once it’s all said and done though, because it’s hard enough to get a movie made, it’s even harder to get it released.  Unfortunately, Predestination didn’t get the release we wanted in the US.  I think they just couldn’t quite understand it, and the problem with a movie like (this), and we knew from the get-go, that it’ll test (with audiences) somewhere in the middle.  We’d have focus groups come in and we’d sit behind them, and that’s generally a miserable experience, and we’d hear the positives and the negatives.  Someone would say “It’s completely original”, and then another would say “It’s completely unoriginal”, so what do you do with that?

The thing that I am super proud of with that movie is that, I think, it has stood the test of time and people have discovered it along the way.  It’s a project that is continually screening and people talk to us about it all the time.  We weren’t sure if it was going to find an audience, but we just loved the material.

Michael Spierig: Ethan still tells us that people want to talk to him about that movie all the time.  It seems to keep building.  The irony is that time has been kind to it, and will continue to be kind to it as it goes along.  It’s definitely the best film we’ve made so far.  There’s something to be said about leaving directors alone to go and make their movie.

I think that elevated style of horror is something we see more of now, with directors taking a lot more risk, so Predestination was very much ahead of its time in that regard.  I’m very happy to hear the film is still being discovered, and now that people are more aware of Sarah Snook too I think it helps give it that extra clout.  And speaking of studio interference, was it difficult going from films that you very much created to something like Jigsaw in the Saw franchise which had already been established?

Peter Spierig: It’s an interesting one because we are big fans of James Wan and Leigh Whannell.  They’re friends of ours and we have known them for a long time.  We loved the first film and though it was something really extraordinary.  Lionsgate asked us if we were interested in revamping a franchise, and we had an inkling that it was Saw.  We read it and Michael and I both weren’t sure if we wanted to be a part of it.  We liked the script and thought we could really do something, but the tricky thing is that you are playing in someone else’s sandpit, in a way.  You want to push it into your direction, but at the same time you have to be respectful to the fans and the producers, and the studio had certain things in mind.  Michael and I wanted to see if we could work on a movie that was already established and try to fit in, because we’d never done that before.  I’m really proud of (Jigsaw).

Michael Spierig: The strange thing too about Jigsaw is that it’s kind of a blur to me.  This new project we’re working on has been in development for 4 years.  Predestination was 3 years of prep.  Daybreakers was almost 5 years… Jigsaw was “get in, get out”, and I’d never experienced that before.  It was such a quick experience…

Peter Spierig: And if you remember we split up for portions of it.  Michael would be at one end of the soundstage, I’d be at the other.  I’d tell him to shut up because I’d be shooting, and vice versa.  We’d briefly see the split of what we were doing and then we’d keep going.  It was an unusual way to make a film.

Were you ever worried that what you were individually shooting wouldn’t marry up?

Michael Spierig: We would storyboard everything.  We didn’t pre-vis as much as we would’ve liked (though).  This project we are working on at the moment we’ve been in pre-vis for about a year.  We do animatics (too) and Peter’s now got a motion-capture suit, so he sits in his office in his leotard and animates himself (laughs)…

Peter Spierig: I’ve got my female walk down perfectly now.

Michael Spierig: The lack of prep time on (Jigsaw) was certainly a brand new experience for us.  But there are some experiences that are pure joy and working with Tobin Bell was incredible.  Who knows if he’ll ever play Jigsaw again, but watching him as a true fan of his work and seeing how much ownership he has over that role was fun to do.

Peter Spierig: And we did actually shoot a lot of stuff with Tobin that didn’t make it into the movie, so there’s always a chance to go back.

I’ll bring it back to Undead, and I just want to extend my gratitude that you’ve taken the time in collating this Blu-ray edition of the film.  I’m such a stickler for cinema and physical media, the way I believe people should be consuming their media, because with streaming nothing stays forever, so it’s so great to see such care with this release.

Michael Spierig: Thank you.  We’re really fortunate with Umbrella (Entertainment) releasing the disc.  What we did was go back to the original master and remastered it, so it’s a better looking version than what we’ve ever had.  We’ve thrown in our short film (as an extra) that Undead was based on, which has also been remastered.  It’s got some scenes that are almost identical to what we did in Undead, so it’s a good comparison to watch, to see the rough shoot of Undead before we actually made it.  Some terrible acting on our part (laughs) but it’s a lot of fun.

Peter Spierig: We also got to clean the film up.  We finished it in 4K resolution and master it that way.  We re-colour graded it (too).  It’s fun to see that in the best possible quality it can be.

Undead is available to purchase on Blu-ray now through Umbrella Entertainment.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.