What happens if you’re on the outside, looking in? What if you wished to possess the kind of talent that eludes you? What would you do? The Song the Zombie Sang is currently crowdfunding on Seed & Spark. A film based on the classic sci-fi short story by Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg. It is the story of Nils Bekh, once the world’s greatest living musician and composer who is revived nightly for his adoring public; and Rhoda, a gifted young musician who thinks Bekh is a fraud. When they meet it is a night that will change everything for both parties.
I spoke to writer/director A.T. Sayre about the film, the backstory and the film-making process.
There’s a tendency to see the word ‘Zombie’ and think The Walking Dead and horror-related films. Can you tell us about what Ellison and Silverberg meant when they wrote The Song the Zombie Sang?
This story was written in 1970, which to put into context was only two years after the release of Night of the Living Dead. The genesis of the cultural connotations zombies have today. I don't know this for certain, but I would suspect that neither Mr. Ellison or Mr. Silverberg had even heard of the movie when they were writing this story. So it can be a little bit of disconnect with people today, thinking the film must be something that it is in all truth, not. This isn't a horror movie- not an ounce of blood gets spilled in it.
Why specifically they picked 'zombie' for the title to describe one of the characters...I could guess as I wouldn't speak for them. But I would think they were using the word to illustrate the more traditional idea of what a zombie is: a man without purpose, without life in him anymore, dead on his feet. Not menacing, not a monster, more a victim.
You wrote and directed Whatever Makes You Happy which won Best Feature Film at the Treasure Coast International Film Festival in 2011. What did you learn from making Whatever Makes You Happy that you will be carrying through to the making of The Song the Zombie Sang?
The biggest thing I learned was how to work more collaboratively with people. It was a dramatically small film crew, but it was still the largest one I had managed, and it was more collaborative than I was accustomed to. And because of that heads butted probably more than they should have. I quickly learned to try to be more receptive to what other people were saying, and even if I did in my mind completely reject their idea, I would at least be more diplomatic about it.
And of course there are little things too the kind of things you learn making a feature that you can't find in a book, or even anecdotally. Like, if you need to provide food for vegans in your cast and crew, try to find something more than hummus. It doesn't go well with small, poorly ventilated sets.
What was it about Ellison and Silverberg’s story that made it an attractive prospect for turning into a feature film?
The expression of the creative process, as ilustrated by these two characters at opposite ends of the path is what holds my attention in this story. It's what I identify with; like I assume it would with most people who work in a creative field of some kind. Actually, not just creatives- anyone who strives for any kind of goal I think would identify with this struggle. Sometimes with all the headaches and tough slogging required to do these things, it can be hard to see the reason. Yet we do it anyway.
It's an idea I really wanted to explore; how obsession and dedication can drive a person, even if its ultimately to ruin.
How did you come about acquiring the rights for this feature film?
Honestly, it was kind of a fluke! July before last I was bored one night and surfing Google, and somehow happened upon the contact information for Ellison's agent. Almost on a whim I wrote him an email briefly introducing myself, asking about the status of the story, and whether the option rights to it would be available. And that I thought would be that. You send out emails and letters like that all the time when you do the film thing- to producers, film companies, agents/ managers, and nothing ever comes of almost any of them.
But a week later his agent got back to me, said the rights were available, and wanted more information on what my project plan was. So I had to scramble fast because, honestly, up until he asked I didn't actually have a project plan. I put together a basic proposal of what I would want to make, how much, etc., all just ballpark ideas (though based in my knowledge and experience of what I would need), and sent it off to him. Again, I was expecting that would be where it stopped. But he got back to me a couple of days later with a proposal to acquire the option rights to the story.
The offer was fair and was actually better than I would have expected. But unfortunately still too expensive for me. If I had had the money or could even reasonably get my hands on it I would have accepted that offer on the spot. I wrote and back and told him this, though probably more to just thank him for his time and let him know that if my situation improved I would be back in touch. At the last minute, I figured it couldn't hurt to make a counter proposal, something that I could manage. I had no expectation it would be accepted.
A few days later he emailed me back that Ellison and Silverberg had agreed to my offer, and that as soon as I signed the memo agreement and handed over a check the story was mine for 18 months. Which it became about this time last year. I stopped by his office, signed the papers, handed him the check, and went over to Lincoln Center to watch a movie.
And that is how you go from nothing going on to a veritable f--kton going on in just under sixty days.
What are your creative influences as a film-maker?
You try and use and grab things from so many places in your life, and try to let everything influence what you do and what you strive for. Other films, books I've read, the painting or sculptures I've enjoyed, music, even random bits of good conversation with friends and strangers can effect what you make. Influences are everywhere, and you can't avoid them even if you wanted to.
But I suppose you mean which filmmakers, which of course is what I would lean on the most in this. There is Stanley Kubrick, first and foremost. He was the first director that I ever got heavily into. I can and do rewatch his movies all the time, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I first saw when I was five and is probably my favorite movie of all time. I still remember in my last year in college, all my film dept. friends were excited about Star Wars:The Phantom Menace coming out that summer. It was all they ever talked about. But it meant nothing to me, because I was all excited about Eyes Wide Shut coming out a couple of months later. To me that was Star Wars. I had seen every other movie he had made, but only on VHS or DVD because I was never old enough to see them in the theater before. I was only twelve when his previous one, Full Metal Jacket, came out. So when he died before its release I knew this was going to be the only Kubrick film I was ever going to get to see in its first theatrical run. And that was a very big deal for me.
Beyond him, I love Ridley Scott, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Michelangelo Antonioni, Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, Hal Ashby, Akira Kurosawa, among others. I've loved Shane Carruth's first two and want to see more. Michael Haneke is another guy I'd go out of my way to watch. And I absolutely cannot forget to mention Krzysztof Kieslowski, who might be just a step below Kubrick to me. Such beautiful, thoughtful filmmaking. His first in the three colors trilogy, Blue, is something I plan to lean on a lot stylistically for The Song the Zombie Sang.
You will be directing The Song the Zombie Sang but you also wrote the screenplay. How difficult was it to adapt a short story into a screenplay for a feature film?
You have to play a tricky balance between staying faithful to the original work, and adding your own self into the story. There has to be something there beyond what the original authors has that you feel a need to be expanded on, or explored more fully. Especially with a short story, where the original story itself is unlikely to have enough content to warrant a full length film. If you're not adding to the idea, or at least expanding on some of its components, then there is little point to adapting it.
And you have to find different ways to get certain ideas across too. It can't be exactly the same word for word as what's on the written page, because writing uses different tools to get at the idea that aren't available to a film, and vice versa. If a book has a long passage of inner monologue, where a character details their motives or their past, you can't just film a person standing there looking at the clouds for three minutes. You have to find a way to incorporate what's important in those passages to the visual or verbal narrative. Its not always easy, or even possible. There are many books or stories out there that I love that I would never in a million years even consider trying to adapt, because its just plain impossible.
Want to see The Song The Zombie Sang on the big screen? Contribute to the Seed & Spark campaign HERE.