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Chords In Conversation: Tristan & Kiah Roache-Turner Talk Wyrmwood

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The Roache-Turner brothers look like they may just have concocted a winning recipe.

Tristan and Kiah came up with a somewhat newfangled concept for a zombie movie which, armed with what little budget they could put together, resulted in Wyrmwood. With Kiah on directing duties, the film follows a dying breed of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world up against zombies with a biting case of halitosis.

It might sound nuts, and it is, but in all the right ways. Think Mad Max meets Dawn of the Dead with a dash of The Battery and a slice or three of Shaun of the Dead and you kind of get the jist of what we have on our hands. With the film having wooed audiences at this year’s Fantastic Fest we caught up with both Tristan and Kiah in Austin to find out how it went down and where they’ll be taking things from here.

Great to hear the film went down so well at Fantastic Fest the other day.

Tristan: Yeah, it kicked arse mate. We filled out two theatres on the premiere night and had a little Q&A and got really positive feedback from everyone in the crowd and got some cool reviews. We’re really stoked and Fantastic Fest is such a whole lot of fun.

Kiah: Mate, Austin is a massive party town too by the way.

So how did you end up shooting Wyrmwood when you had little to no budget and you were all working nine-to-five day jobs?

Tristan: Well we’d made a few short films and we always knew that we wanted to make a feature length film and we just felt like we were ready to do it. We just jumped in there. We didn’t have like a script or anything but we had what we thought was a really cool concept. We thought about guys in battle armour with cool cars that catch zombies and then run their cars off methane that the zombies breathe out. So we just prepped up and started shooting and four years later we have a pretty cool film that’s getting wicked little reviews.

Kiah: The other thing is Howard, we’ve sort of been making films together since we were about 13. Tristan and me have always been massively interested in cinema and over the years we made a bunch of short films and music videos and stuff. Without making this interview an ad about Canon, I think basically when the 5D camera came out and I saw that you could duplicate 35mm film pretty easily on a really cheap budget we were like “That’s it!” So we bought that camera and just smashed it. We started filming in 2010 with the intention of shooting it for twenty grand in a year. We planned to do something with things like Peter Jackson‘s Bad Taste in mind and also Evil Dead which was another massive influence. Basically I think Sam Raimi was a film student back then and he just went out into the bushes with his mates and just made a film. Again, Mad Max was a huge influence. Tristan and I grew up watching that film and that was sort of the biggest thing in Australia in terms of genre film. The same was the case with that film as the director, George Miller wasn’t in the industry at all. He basically went out with Kennedy Miller, they raised the cash and made it for a very, very cheap sum. So we had a lot of zombie films and then we had this classic genre look with Mad Max and I think Australia is very well known for being the country that almost spawned the post-apocalyptic genre. We really wanted to see it done again and no one had really done that since kind of the ’80s so we thought “Right, fuck it. Let’s just get together and do it ourselves.” So we kind of mushed all these ideas together and out came Wyrmwood 4 years later.

I have read that your original idea was much darker than the final product. What made you decide to lighten things up a bit?

Kiah: I had just finished reading ‘I Am Legend’ by Richard Matheson which was a huge influence for me and the first idea we had was to go out and do a sort of God’s lonely man amidst the apocalypse where the protagonist, Barry is this lone survivor of this bleak zombie plague. He went around killing the zombies pretty much by himself and it was actually like the Taxi Driver of zombie films. Pretty quickly realised that it was a very bleak story so we studied Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’ and we thought “It’s time to shoot a different film as we should go back and tell the origin of where this guy came from.” There is actually a seven minute teaser on YouTube and that was the original film that we started shooting. That was very much more like Mad Max 2

Tristan: Can I just jump in there and say that we shot a couple of scenes and they kicked arse and were really, really bleak and we showed them to a cinema full of people. They loved it but we came away sort of shocked by their reactions and we knew we needed to put a bit more comedy in there to just lighten it up a little bit. During that screening I was watching people’s faces and they couldn’t take their eyes off the screen but they looked a bit shocked and we realised we needed to change some things to give people something to get REALLY excited about.

Despite a shoestring budget you’ve recreated a perfect post-apocalyptic world. How do you accomplish something like that whilst having to watch your wallet?

Tristan: As soon as we came up with the concept I jumped straight on eBay and just started buying up as much cool material as I could to make the costumes. I bought a 1987 Toyota Hilux for like fifteen hundred bucks, parked it right out in front of my house and just started attacking it with two of my really good mates. We just sat out in the front street with grinders and drills and just made it look really bad arse and yeah, we got some pretty weird looks from the neighbours. Then the final touch we did was to mount a harpoon on the bonnet and then we we ready to go, ready to make a movie…

The zombie genre has been done so many times and despite that you manage to add a whole bunch of fresh concepts. Where did these ideas come from and were you ever worried about making a film in such a long-standing genre?

Wyrmwood_brooke_on here ownTristan: I think we both kind of came up with the cool stuff together. We came up with the look and the feel of it so we knew we wanted guys looking bad arse in battle armour in a kick arse truck. I actually came up with the idea that the zombies should breathe out methane and it should be a renewable energy source. That way the guys in battle armour could just capture a zombie and stick him in the back to run their machinery off him. It was Kiah who came up with the idea of having our leading lady, Brooke (Bianca Bradey – pictured right) as a sort of zombie queen who has these psychic powers.

It was never daunting making a zombie film. It didn’t even really cross our mind the fact there are a million zombie films out there. We just thought we had a really cool concept and we were like “Yep. We are doing this. Let’s go.”

Kiah: We knew that we had to have a hook. One day Tristan sort of took me aside after having a couple of beers and said “How about having zombies that breathe methane that can be used as batteries to power these post-apocalyptic wagons?” When he said that I knew that was the hook and I thought “Man, if I was going out on a Friday night that is the film that I would want to watch.” So that was pretty much it.

Whenever a new zombie film is announced everyone starts wondering whether the zombies will be runners or walkers. Wyrmwood has a bit of both worlds.

Kiah: We hedged our bets. We looked at Dawn of the Dead and also 28 Days Later as I think they are your tentpole zombie creatures and we thought “Fuck it. Let’s have a bit of both.” It’s funny but in such an over-saturated market there were two things we knew we couldn’t do. We couldn’t do Dawn of the Dead again because that’s as good as a zombie film gets and we couldn’t do Shaun of the Dead because that’s as funny as a zombie film gets. We also knew we had to have a few hooks because the market is so over-saturated so it had to have a really interesting take, but I guess we took a little bit of everything. We thought “We’ll make it serious, we’ll make it funny, we’ll make them run, we’ll make them slow during the day.” So in the end we used every single zombie cliché that we could think of and then we put a few new ones on top to basically try and smash as much into this film as possible. We basically tried to make the ultimate Australian zombie film.

It may just have been my wishful thinking but did you purposely include zombie easter eggs in there? One that springs to mind was a teeth brushing scene that made me thing of The Battery.

Kiah: You know what? I hadn’t thought of that but I’m going to use that Battery one now yeah! I actually only watched that recently as my head of makeup sent it to us. We had just spent four years just making this truly massive, epic film where we wanted to put as much in as possible and then I saw The Battery and they made that for just six thousand dollars and it took them like five minutes. It’s an amazingly good film. That’s a testament to what you can seriously do with nothing and I guess we went for the other end of the spectrum and we threw as much into the pot as we could. But yeah, I was so impressed with The Battery and it’s one of the best zombie films in the last ten years for sure.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for low budget films tends to be the special effects. I know you tried out your own homegrown experiments that didn’t work as well as you’d hoped. How did you manage to pull the effects off in the end, particularly as you use plenty of extreme close up camerawork?

Jay and Kiah on set
Jay and Kiah on set

Kiah: Yeah we did some tests earlier on and we thought for a minute there that we could be like Peter Jackson who baked his alien heads in his mum’s oven. So we got some basic stuff together and made some zombies and they looked like angry papier-mâché ….. It just looked fucking terrible so we just got together pretty quickly  and went “Look, if we’re going to do this low budget then we have to approach makeup school and do this properly and get some talented people on board.” We were lucky enough to get Gavin Kyle and Lisa Cotterill. Lisa was our head of makeup and she was a real find as she is disgustingly talented. Once we’d set that up we knew that we had a decent story, we knew we could make a decent film, we had makeup artist who knew what they were talking about so the only thing left after that was really the acting and that was a huge part.

We knew Jay Gallagher who we’d worked with previously for a few things and he was kind of plugged into an acting school called The National Institute of Dramatic Art and he basically helped cast the film. One of the things that often lets down low budget movies is the acting so we really wanted to get the performances as real as possible. We were really lucky with the cast.

The camerawork was particularly novel for a zombie film. It was all very frantic and in your face. Where did this choice of direction come from?

Kiah: I had worked together with the DOP, Tim Nagle for years in advertising and we had shot a whole lot of fashion commercials and stuff so we were really used to shooting for beauty. We thought it would be interesting to take the fashion aesthetic focused photography and the lenses and nice lighting and all that kind of stuff to a film about monsters. Tim is a huge fan of handheld and he is a very small, nimble individual so a lot of the hardcore close ups and those things are very much Tim’s style. As he is so small you can fit him in places where you wouldn’t be able to fit another DOP. As we had no money and we had no car rigs there would be scenes which would be say a close up of Jay Gallagher as he’s driving and we’d have Tim in the glove box getting that close up. Basically he’s the ultimate tool for any DIY filmmaker.

How on earth did you manage to shoot and edit a feature film whilst you all had day jobs?

Kiah: It was difficult. When we were halfway through the production I started going part time so I would be working three days a week and spending the rest of my time on Wyrmwood. Tristan did it hard! He was working full time and producing a film and doing the production design and working out all the schedules with me so it was pretty much a juggling nightmare. But with something like this you’ve just got to get in there and smash it. Then towards the end of the process I edited it for nine months while working part time and as soon as we finished the film and approached Screen Australia for finishing funds and we started to realise that this was actually going to happen finally, I just thought that there’s a point where a filmmaker has to just put all his chips on the table and take the risks so I quit my job to do this full time. So Wyrmwood and filmmaking is now my job so we’ll see where that goes. What do you think Tristan?

Tristan: Yeah for sure mate! We just want to keep making films a hundred percent. We set up our production company before we started filming and we’ve got a pretty cool little website and we have some offers for a few films which are projects we definitely want to work on. Now it’s just about finding our funding and pushing on through.

Kiah: What we’d really love to be able to do is just bang out a bunch of really low budget genre Aussie films. I guess genre mashups would be our style if we had any so I guess we’ll be looking to do that. One of the things I love for example is when I was watching Wyrmwood the other day at our final Austin premiere I was thinking how it is a cool little kick arse action film and it didn’t cost much. I mean the big budgets now are like 20 million and 30 million and you don’t really need all that. All you need is a little bit of passion, a little bit of cinema know-how and you can bang out a film for a couple of million dollars that stands up there next to some of these larger films. I guess one of the things we want to do is show people how much you can do with so little.

Talking of future projects, I think you have various ideas already for films. A particular one I read about was that you have a fresh spin on a ghost story.

Kiah: Yeah, I guess we were about two years into Wyrmwood and I decided to take a bit of a break. I went to this tiny little spooky town in New South Wales called Hill End and we were staying at this creepy little house. While we were there I picked up this ghost book that was just in the house and started reading it and I was reminded of how obsessed I was of ghosts when I was a kid. Every time I went to a library I would go straight to the ghost section. I think with these types of films if you can find something that you are willing to give your life to for two or three years that means you have got a project you are passionate about and you should make it. With Wyrmwood it was such a great idea and a concept that I never got sick of and I realised that the next film HAS to be a ghost film because every single person I know has a ghost story so everybody can plug into that. Basically we’ve started writing a treatment for a film that is probably like an R-rated Ghostbusters with like huge splashings of Clive Barker and pretty heavily influenced by Stephen King.

So just to wrap up, having finished your first feature film now what have you learned from the experience? When you start work on your next film are there any things you would repeat of definitely avoid doing next time?

Kiah: Mate, that is a tough one! This is not so much a mistake we made or anything but we definitely need a budget next time. It was a lot of fun making the film the way we did – guerrilla style with no money – but I would not want to do that again. Basically we just want to be able to pay our cast and crew upfront as I think that would take a lot of pressure off. A happy crew is a paid crew at the end of the day and we are working with these amazingly talented people and it’s just so much better if people know that this is something where you can earn a crust on a weekly basis and not have to do it just for passion. The people we work with are too good for that and we never really want to have to ask people to work for free and if that is the result of Wyrmwood then it’s all worth it…

We’d like to thank Tristan and Kiah for speaking to us and wish them the best of success with Wyrmwood and beyond.

We’ll leave you with the latest trailer of the film and urge you to catch it as soon as it reaches a city or town near you….

Tags : Wyrmwood
Howard Gorman

The author Howard Gorman

[FOUNDER & EDITOR-IN-CHIEF] Graduating in Psychology longer ago than he would care to recall, as well as Editor for CinemaChords, Howard is also the Web Editor for Tom Holland's Terror Time and his words can also be found at various popular film publications including Blumhouse, Dread Central, Shock Till You Drop, Rue Morgue, SCREAM: The Horror Magazine and TheHorrorShow.TV.