Exclusive Interview: Director Breck Eisner on ‘The Crazies’, ‘Flash Gordon’, ‘Escape From New York’ and More

In anticipation of the DVD release of The Crazies , I got to speak with director Breck Eisner about that movie and some upcoming projects he has planned. While I was doing my research on Eisner, I saw that he directed an episode of Fear Itself, an anthology that played on NBC in the summer of 2008.  As luck would have it, I just happened to have seen the episode Eisner directed (“The Sacrifice”) , so we began by talking about it.

THE FLICKCAST:  I was looking at your IMDB, and I saw that you did an episode of Fear Itself, and it just happened to be one I saw.

BRECK EISNER: Oh really, you’re one of the few. Fear Itself, I think it was miscast putting it on NBC in the summer.

FC: I know, I really pull for anything horror related on TV, and none of it makes it.

BE: No, it just doesn’t, unfortunately.

FC: Well, there are definitely horror fans out there, but I think that they just don’t bother with television.

BE: Certainly not network television.

FC: You previously directed Sahara. How do you get from Sahara to this movie? They are so radically different. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got drawn to The Crazies?

BE: Sahara was my first movie, and it is a very long story about how I came to be directing it. The short version of the story is that I initially was involved with optioning the material with a producer many years before with no intention of making it, it was a much bigger movie than I could make.

In the process of doing that, I had a lot of interaction with Clive Cussler, and the deal that the studio made with Cussler gave him a ridiculous level of control. Every subsequent director they hired fell out because they wouldn’t work under Clive Cussler and his rules.

Then they came to me and said that Clive thinks you can do it, and I think Clive felt that he had some control. Being my first movie, you take opportunity when you can. It was an amazing experience, and it was a difficult experience.

The script was not ready, but we had to shoot anyways, so it was a challenging experience, but a good one. It isn’t necessarily the type of movie I would have picked to start off with, I’m more of a genre fan. The darker, edgy genres are the kind of movies I like to make, and like to go see in the theater.

Although, I think shooting action and shooting horror-they are very close cousins, if  not distant brother to one another. It’s similar techniques that go into designing an action and a horror set piece moment…character journeys, shot design, the intensity builds, it’s all very similar.  Both horror and action movies are real director’s genres.

It’s such interesting work and so complex, and I really thrive on the challenges of it.

FC: How exactly did you end up with The Crazies? Were you approached, or did you find the original source material and approach someone else?

BE: I was approached on that one. There was a production team from Paramount that had optioned the rights directly from Romero for the movie, and they did a draft. They sent me Scott Kosar’s draft.

I remembered loving the original. I liked the draft, but I had some significant conceptual ways to do it differently. So I talked to the producers about re-conceiving the script, and they supported that idea. We hired a different writer, a guy named Ray Wright,and he wrote a new script and it was that script that we made the movie from.

FC: George Romero is listed as the executive producer. I don’t know how closely you worked with him, but I was curious if it was intimidating.  Not only is he a horror legend, but he is responsible for the source material.

BE: It was certainly intimidating remaking one of his movies. I didn’t work with him at all, during the production.  His interaction was really with the producers before I was brought on. The nice thing was that Romero owned the rights, he was the one benefiting financially, he was the one who could say “yes” or “no” to the movie being made, and he said yes.

That gave me confidence that he was supporting [conceptually] the idea of remaking the movie. A few months before the movie came out, I set up a screening in Toronto [where Romero lives] and we screened it for him, and I had a very nerve-racking call the next morning to see what he thought, and he was quite positive, and has been publicly positive about the movie ever since.

FC: That’s got to make you feel really good.

BE: It was terrifying making the call, and then I felt great after having made the call.

FC: You have some really great visuals in this movie.  There were three scenes in particular that I really liked.  The combine,  the pitchfork, and of course the car wash. How did you and your team come up with the car wash scene?  It was a great way to put a fresh spin on a character being backed in a corner.

BE: I think we started with the idea of water. What would be the scariest places where water is present? Then we came to the idea of the car wash, because car washes use recycled water, not fresh water, it could still be running after the town turned off the water.  We thought, wow, that could be an amazing location.

But then we thought, how the hell are we going to get a car wash out in the middle of nowhere? We thought f**k it, we can make it happen. That car wash is kind of in an odd spot, you would never find an industrial car wash in the middle of a field, but I think we kind of made it work.

We knew that we could do a great set piece. We scoured other horror movies and action movies thinking there must have been somebody who has staged a horror scene in a car wash, and we couldn’t find any.

I grew up in LA, and for some reason in LA, you weren’t allowed to ride in the car at a car wash. When you went to wash your car, you had to get out of it, it was some regulation here. But, all my friends in NY, they got to ride in the car wash. I thought that was so cool, and I had never seen it before. Somehow that just stuck in my mind.

FC: In the production notes, Timothy [Olyphant] had talked about how Romero’s films touch on something other than what you see on screen.  For instance, during the original Crazies, you had the Vietnam war going on, so it fed into those fears.  Timothy indicated that the same can be said for this version, we have a few wars going on now as well.

When I watched it, I very much got more of a “fear of government” vibe we have going on now. That’s kind of more what I read into the movie.  Was that your intention?

BE: This enhanced fear of government kind of has evolved over the course of developing the movie.  I think when we first went to make it, Bush was still in office, and we where kind of in this quagmire of Iraq, and I think there was more of a focus on that, and the impact that this was going to have on our country.

As a result of that, and as a result of continually being lied to by politicians, and manipulated by politicians, it has fostered a distrust of government. I think those clearly go hand in hand. People are clearly unhappy with the direction the country is going right now, I think very much based on what has happened over the last eight years. Just the way they distrusted the government after Vietnam.

FC: I don’t know if it is coincidence, but your movie sure is timely.

BE: That’s why I wanted to make the movie. The issues that Romero was investigating when he originally made the movie were just as true in the early days of developing this movie. Good genre has social commentary, especially Romero’s early movies, they had real strong social commentary.

FC: Great casting.  That is really cool that you got Timothy just before he took off in Justified.

BE: Yeah, that was cool.  I am a huge fan of that guy. He is a great human being. He is a real pleasure to work with, and to be a friend of. I couldn’t be more thrilled with his work in the movie.

FC: What was it when you were thinking about your casting that made Timothy your go-to guy?

BE: Well, he was the go-to guy, that’s correct. He was at the top of the list by far. I like the fact that he is a real actor. I didn’t want to have personalities, I wanted to have actors in the movie. First and foremost, the guy can act.  He’s intelligent, and he is also funny.  I liked that he has a sense of humor. I thought it would help bring levity to a very serious role, and that levity would help bring humanity to it.

He’s a guy who is clearly a movie star, but he has this certain everyman quality about him, and the movie needed everyman qualities. You believe that he could be living in this town.  You believe he could be the sheriff, fighting for the town. If you don’t believe the guy, if you don’t believe he is real, then you won’t connect with the movie.  I thought that was crucial.

FC: From what I read, it sounds like you were a real stickler for medical realism.  How much control did you have over the look of the “infected” people?

BE: Well, a lot of control, obviously.  Rob Hall was the one responsible for actually designing the looks and applying the looks, but it was a very interactive process.  Even before the script was done, even before we had the go to make the movie, I had been researching online, and pulling images of different diseases and syndromes. I brought those to Rob Hall at our first meeting, he then pulled more images, he started doing different designs and I think we went through five or six different designs before we locked in on something. It took a while, it was a long term process to get the right look.

It definitely did not happen overnight.  Often times we tried things and they ended up looking like undead zombies, and it was very important to me that they didn’t have this decayed look.  It looks like they are more alive-their veins are pulsing with blood and red; they are flush with life like they are burning hot before they burn out.

FC: You have several things mentioned as being in development on your IMDB. What can we expect from you next?

BE: The movies that I am currently developing are Escape From New York, which will probably be the next movie I do assuming all goes well with the next draft that we are doing now.  We have to get the right actor to play Snake, and get the budget in.

I’m well into development on Flash Gordon, I’ve been on that for a year. We have a draft on that, we re-upped the option, we’re doing another draft on that next, and that’s a long project. A  year of prep, another couple months of writing, it’s a very expensive movie, so you never know with that. Those are the two most active projects at the studios right now.

I also have a pitch I think got leaked recently called Blood of the Innocent, which is a pitch I just really love, based on a Mark Wheatley comic from the eighties, that I’m aggressively pushing now as well.  I’m kind of putting it in the pipeline to see which happens first. It’s an uncertain business, you never know what’s going to happen or what’s going to get stuck in development hell.

FC: Well, good luck to you, I look forward to your seeing your future work.

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