We chat with writer/director Brandon Christensen about his latest film, “Z”, the frightening film about a boy and his dangerous imaginary friend.
The horror film Z terrified genre fans at film fests, has thrilled Shudder fans since May, and is now widely available through digital and DVD release. It’s a film I really loved, and you can catch my full review here. I had the honor of talking to Brandon Christensen, the director, and co-writer, about his inspiration for the film, his love of horror, and how the audience can decide for themselves whether the film is psychological or supernatural.
If you haven’t yet seen Z, I recommend you watch it first before diving into this review, as we discuss details of the film.
Vicki Woods: Z has been very well received, and I personally loved it. What inspired you and Colin Minihan to write it?
Brandon Christenson: Thank You! After my first film Stillborn, I was looking at this stage of my life where my son was going to kindergarten. For the first time, we were letting him go out into the world by himself, and he would learn these new things and come back home and present them to us. My wife and I were talking about this weird detachment we had as parents, and it started us talking about, what if he brought home something we didn’t approve of? And that kind of led to the conversation of, “What if, just for fun, he brought home a demonic entity?” (Laughs)
So that was sort of the impetus for the idea. More conversations led to my wife throwing out the idea about an imaginary friend, and it was just kind of a lightning bolt moment. We thought that was so interesting, a creepy kid film with an imaginary friend. I didn’t think that really existed. Then I find out Daniel Isn’t Real is shooting at the same time. A movie I really like, by the way.
So, we had a lot of conversations about what this could mean, and it just sort of led us down this rabbit hole. We wrote a first draft that was not particularly good. But then Colin Minihan jumped on board, and we kind of rewrote it and polished it. Then we spent some time figuring out what to do with the third act that was kind of lacking in my original draft.
VW: As I said, I loved the film and watched it twice, but I went around in circles trying to figure out what was going on. I know you don’t want to give too much away, for those that haven’t seen it yet, but is the imaginary friend a sort of manifestation of past abuse or mental illness, or is he actually real?
BC: I think it is totally subjective to the audience, which is intentional. I think that allowing the audience to put themselves into some of these characters will allow them to experience the film as they need to. Some people might want to watch this, and they will view it as, “Oh it’s a supernatural entity, it’s just a demon.” And that is great, maybe they can just enjoy it for that.
Then there are other people who have experienced past trauma that they tried to forget and get over, and this might have a deeper meaning for them. And if it is someone dealing with mental illness, the same thing. So, I think that there are a lot of windows that you can watch this through, and I don’t think that one of them is right or wrong. I know the film seems to end on some sort of ambiguity, but to me, as one of the writers and the director of the film, I have my own interpretation of what is going on. I hate to say it’s this or that because it kind of eliminates the possibilities for the audience. I want them to have their own experience.
VW: Yeah, I figured you would say that. LOL, I was just wondering because some of the more violent things that happen would be hard for a small child to do on his own. That made it very real for me, personally. So, was Beth abused as a child? Is that what we are seeing at the end? She seems to be retreating into being a very damaged and beaten down creature. She becomes so sad, timid, and childlike, watching cartoons, looking so insecure, and doing exactly what she is told. She obviously doesn’t think she has any other choice.
BC: Yes, I think one of the things that the film explores is the idea of losing your innocence, losing your childhood. There were a lot of things happening with her and her mother at the beginning. It is unsaid, but there is definitely not a great relationship there. She has bad feelings about her father when she sees him in photos, and there is something that happened in that office of his upstairs, that she doesn’t want to remember.
I think her mother’s passing was a catalyst for her to kind of confront her past because she is literally surrounded by it. She must go to this house and unpack it, and that is a metaphor for her basically unpacking her own childhood. She is finding things she has forgotten about her childhood because it was traumatic. And so, I think that the film takes a turn at that point and becomes more about her exploring why she has forgotten her innocence.
As a mother, she is not incredibly fun or playful, she really has to be forced into it. And I think that she lost that innocence about herself because of what happened when she was a kid. Z is making her confront her past. It is definitely intentional to have her acting very childlike at the end and watch her trying to get over something she was dealing with as a kid.
VW: Why do you think that children are such a good fit in horror films?
BC: I think it’s the same reason clowns are a good fit. It’s because they’re not supposed to be scary, and that makes them scarier. You know, there’s an innocence to a child, that you look at and you want to protect them. Then all of a sudden when you do some Children of the Corn sort of thing, and they aren’t acting the way they should, or like Gage from Pet Sematary; it’s even more horrifying because it just doesn’t make sense.
You look at this thing and your brain is going, “It’s a child! Let’s protect the thing!” But then your brain goes, “Wait, this thing has a scalpel and is trying to kill me!” Then it becomes a lot scarier. Clowns are the same way because they’re supposed to be innocent, fun, and entertaining. But when you put a psychotic twist on it, there’s a juxtaposition in your brain where it just feels off — and that feeling off can be scary.
VW: Absolutely! Where did the idea for the character of Z come from? He was terrifying!
BC: When my wife and I were talking about the character, and the name came from this too, we were wondering, what would he look like, what would do this? And it was so early in the talks that we decided to just call it Z for now. It was just like a variable, like XYZ, and we’ll just refer to it as Z. The more we kept saying it, Z,Z,Z, it became this weird hypnotic thing. So, then we started thinking about kids’ toys, like the alphabet toys that say letters out loud. Since we were dealing with kids and that playful aspect of it, we thought of the possibilities there.
Then for the character, just for the design of it… we were dealing with a low budget, and I’m not a designer or anything like that. We couldn’t afford to pay concept artists, to come up with a bunch of ideas of what Z looks like. I’m certainly not talented enough to come up with something like The Babadook, so you go into the horror tropes and horror staples that are scary. A tall and skinny man is always terrifying. But one main design element that went into it was a giant smile. Because the big question was like, “If this thing is really scary to look at, how is a kid supposed to play with it?”
So, if you just put very simple rules onto it like, it’s got a big smile, so a kid perceives that it’s friendly, they don’t really get the danger. But you take that same smile and show it to an adult, and they will be much warier. We see the cracks behind the eyes. Adults see that it’s not just a big friendly smile, it’s something much more sinister.
VW: Was Z an actor or was he CGI?
BC: We had an actor, a guy named Luke Moore, who played him. And we did some slight visual effects on his face just to make it look a little weirder. It was actually him, with a prosthetic smile on his face, and he was airbrushed and everything. But we used a little bit of CGI to exaggerate some of his features. Like the scene in the bathtub, his eyes and his forehead are made bigger — just subtle things to make him a little more kid-like, cause that’s what he is supposed to be, kind of a big child.
VW: Are you a horror fan yourself?
BC: Yes definitely. Growing up, the favorite thing my friends and I would do is go to the rental store and ask the clerk, “What is the scariest film you know?” You’re trying to find that next high because it’s interesting how being scared is just such a visceral feeling, that in a social setting can be a lot of fun. When you’re alone and sitting and watching a horror movie, it takes on a much darker turn. But if you’re with friends, you’re having fun, and you’re there to get scared. It can be tons of laughs. That’s what we did while we were growing up, find a horror movie that could make us laugh, or be scared of, and just have a good time.
And to this day, nothing has changed, I still love to watch horror.
VW: Was it intentional that your first film Stillborn and Z were released on Shudder on Mother’s Day?
BC: It’s funny because, when we did Stillborn, that was my hopeful thing. Like, “Wouldn’t it be so funny if it came out on Mother’s Day? It would be so perfect.” And then Vertical Entertainment first released it on VOD and Blu-ray in February. Shudder had the rights to streaming, which happened three months later. So it was just luck that it ended up being May, and Shudder was able to put it out on Mother’s Day.
I think with Z, they just intentionally did it, I had no say in the release. They pretty much held it for Mother’s Day, and I think it really worked out for them. Anytime that you can cross-promote, it’s great.
VW: So, what sort of projects do you have coming up next?
BC: I am shooting a film in October that I wrote. It’s my first solo script, which is very exciting. There are zero mothers, and if it releases on Mother’s Day it will be a bad decision. (laughs) It’s another horror film, still scary, but there are no monsters, except for the people in it. So, it’s going to be fun to explore something new for once.