With the recent resurgence in the zombie genre, from AMC’s hit series, ‘The Walking Dead,’ to last year’s hit ‘Evil Dead’ remake, it’s only natural Hollywood wants to amp up the genre once again. The genre has switched its distinct trademark of bringing recently deceased people back to life as flesh-eating killers, to instead on a totally new predator-zombie beavers. First-time feature film writer Jordan Rubin, who also co-wrote the new independent horror film, ‘Zombeavers,’ with Al and Jon Kaplan, amusingly showcases what would happen to humanity if the semi-aquatic animal came back to life. The horror movie, which had its world premiere on April 19 at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, features laughs that rise organically from the story, in the vein of such campy movies from the 1980s as ‘Child’s Play.’
‘Zombeavers’ starts off with a couple truck drivers driving down a rural Indiana highway, carrying hazardous medical waste. When they hit a deer, one barrel of the toxic waste tumbles down into the damn of beavers in an embankment. The story then cuts to a trio of sorority sisters, including brunette Zoe (Cortney Palm), blonde Jenn (Lexi Atkins) and redhead Mary (Rachel Melvin), as they’re headed down the highway to Mary’s lakeside cabin for a girls’ weekend. The trip was originally meant to be a couples’ retreat, until Jenn discovered that her boyfriend, Sam (Hutch Dano), was cheating on her. To offer Zoe moral support, her friends also ditched their own boyfriends, including Buck (Peter Gilroy) and Tommy (Jake Weary). The boys end up traveling to the cabin anyway, and sweet-talking their way in.
Jenn decides to get away from Sam by going to take a shower. When she pulls back the curtain, she discovers a zombeaver in the tub. The guys begin to beat the animal until they believe it’s dead. However, the next morning, they discover the beaver’s body is missing from the garbage bag they put it in, and the group argues over what to do next. The girls eventually decide to take a swim in the lake, but when they’re attacked by more zombeavers, they have to find a way to make it back to town to save their lives.
Rubin, as well as Palm, Atkins, Melvin, Gilroy, Weary and actor Rex Linn, who played Smyth in ‘Zombeavers,’ generously took the time to talk about the horror film recently during the Tribeca Film Festival at the Hilton New York Fashion District hotel. Among other things, the writer-director and actors discussed how Rubin knew he wanted to make his feature film directorial debut with the movie as he was writing the script, because it offered him an intimate knowledge of the material and character even before shooting began; how shooting independently offered the cast the opportunity to truly bond on the set, and infused the story with a creativity that wouldn’t be accessible if they had a major studio backing; and how they appreciate the Tribeca Film Festival recognized their horror movie about zombie beavers.
Rubin initially revealed how he co-wrote the script for the horror comedy with the Kaplan brothers after working with them on other projects. “I asked them, what about ‘Zombeavers?’, and they fell down laughing,” the director divulged.
While writing the script with the Kaplans, Rubin realized ‘Zombeavers’ was the first movie he wanted to direct. “I knew I could make this as my first film as a director, because I had a handle on it, and it has the right sensibility,” he mentioned. Co-writing the script helped his helming duties, because he became close to the material while penning it. “You have such an intimate relationship while writing the script, it helps you explain your vision while you’re trying to greenlight the story,” he added.
Even though Rubin enjoyed both writing and directing the horror comedy, at times the film’s low budget forced people to perform multiple job duties. He would also work as a grip, while the actresses would help each other with their hair and makeup. One of the downsides of filming independently, and having people perform multiple jobs, is that they can’t work hard on their main task, the helmer explained.
But Gilroy didn’t feel as though the budget was too small to make this film. “We had our own trailers, and there were animatronic beavers running around,” he said. The movie also featured practical effects, which the actors were constantly around on the set. Gilroy felt that having those practical effects didn’t make the film seem like it was being shot independently.
Linn added the special effects that were created for ‘Zombeavers’ were creative and effective for their film, as they were made by some of the crew members who had previously worked on larger budget movies. “We had some of the best special effects crews you can have. They took their jobs very seriously, so it was fun,” he explained.
Weary thinks that shooting independent movies that don’t have a lot of money allow for more room for creativity. There’s also a passion amongst everyone making indies, which isn’t always present when there’s a lot of money involved on a project. “If this movie had too much money behind it, and the beavers were computer-generated and fake, it would change the movie completely. It wouldn’t be the movie it is because of that,” the actor also said. “When there’s less, there’s more, because you have to be creative.”
Palm agreed, and added smaller films foster true camaraderie. “We’re doing these films because we love them. It’s not about the paycheck; it’s about loving the experience. That’s why I love indie films, because we all bond together,” she added. “The crew was also great! The stand-ins, the grips and the gaffers were all so great!
One of the other benefits of shooting on a smaller budget was that the film’s producers allowed the filmmaker to carry out his own vision. “You have to compromise a little more when you have a studio involved, which I noticed on other films I didn’t direct,” Rubin clarified. Studios on bigger budget movies can dictate which camera the director uses to shoot, or which products are feature in shots, based on their marketing deals.
Rubin also said that he pictured the story to be in the vein of such films as ‘Cabin in the Woods,’ but also liked that the movie would have its own built-in marketing with the title alone. The filmmaker also compared the overall style of the film to popular horror movies from the 1980s, which take their stories too seriously, like ‘Child’s Play.’
While Gilroy wasn’t born until 1989, he understood the influence the horror movies from that decade had on ‘Zombeavers.’ “Jordan had me watch ‘The Thing,’ as there’s a big homage to that film in our movie. I enjoyed the quirkiness and fun you can have with the horror,” the actor revealed.
The director also appreciated how the actors fully committed to the serious, yet hilarious, nature of ‘Zombeavers.’ Atkins jokingly followed up Rubin’s sentiment by saying she was drawn to the role of Jenn, and the script overall, because “I didn’t know there were jokes in it.” She laughed at the director’s question that the title didn’t instantly give away the premise. “I didn’t get the beaver jokes until the first day on set,” the actress explained. Atkins also said she related to Jenn’s problems, such as having boyfriend issues.
Gilroy also joked about his experience of being cast in ‘Zombeavers.’ “I had two auditions the day I tried out for this film, and I was more focused on getting the other role. I just blew this audition, and I ended up getting the role,” the actor added.
Linn was asked to read the movie’s script before meeting with Rubin. The actor found humor in the material the director wrote, and added “he’s the main reason I became involved in the film.”
Melvin also laughed while recalling the film’s premise, adding “When I read it, I immediately got the humor. I remember thinking, this is a silly movie-it’s called ‘Zombeavers!’” She picked up on the jokes the director and his co-writers infused into the script, but “I wasn’t sure if they were supposed to be jokes.”
While Melvin didn’t initially know she accurately guessed the originally intended tone of the film when she first read the script, Rubin acknowledged it did change as they began shooting. Melvin added that she told Rubin he was funny the first time they met, as she read his Twitter feed. His jokes helped push the actress to want to work on the horror comedy with the filmmaker. Once she was cast as Mary, she said “I tried to have as much fun with the role as I could.”
With the filmmaker’s joking, Atkins tried to have as much fun auditioning for, and playing, the role of Jenn as she could. “The whole experience was new to me, but it was cool to work with such an amazing cast,” Atkins added of her acting in ‘Zombeavers,’ her second feature film after last year’s ‘White Dwarf.’
Palm immediately connected with her role of Zoe when she first read the script, and felt the role was written specifically for her. “Zoe is so free-spirited and is the wild-child, and says things like it is, which is how I am,” she said. She also was drawn to the film because she enjoys the horror genre and practical effects.
Weary promised himself he would never wear a Letterman Jacket in a film again, but he ended up having to wear one for this project. “But the character was fun, because Tommy isn’t like your typical jock. He has feelings, and I feel he’s the most innocent character, in a way, which is different from a lot of the Letterman Jacket characters I’ve played,” he said.
The cast’s chemistry came naturally, after having only one day of rehearsal before they began shooting. While Rubin called the day a rehearsal, Melvin quickly jumped in and further showed off their never-ending teasing tendencies by saying, “That wasn’t a rehearsal, that was a table read!” The director clarified by saying, “The budget was too small to have proper rehearsals, but we did do some quick blocking before we would shoot scenes.”
Gilroy also mentioned how the table read really helped build the cast’s relationships. “Cortney, who played Zoe, my girlfriend in the film, walked into the table read on our rehearsal day. She said, ‘Let’s just get this out of the way,’ and took off her shirt,” the actor recalled, adding how her ease with her role helped comfort everyone else.
Linn joked that he was upset he missed the table read, as the only thinks he saw naked were the beavers. But “The crew Jordan put together was great, so the atmosphere on the set was fun. That translated to the cast, so we had fun,” the actor added.
Weary appreciated the read-through, because the actors were able to work together on the script for a decent amount of time. “We had dinner together, and just talked about the movie as a group, on a real level. I think that was enough going into this shoot,” he said.
Palm felt that like with Zoe, when actors know their characters, they know what to do. “Peter instantly felt like Zoe’s boyfriend right when we got on the set. We played off each other very well, like we had known each other for years,” she said. She feels that rehearsals are needed for some movies. But with a film like ‘Zombeavers,’ where the characters do and don’t take themselves seriously, too many rehearsals could have made the actors overthink their scenes.
Melvin again showed her admiration for her co-stars and director by saying, “What’s unique about this film is that to this day, I still don’t feel like we wrapped.” She compared their time since they finished filming to a hiatus on a television series, since “we’re all still so close, which is really great.” Their close bonds came in part because “I think we were cast really appropriately. We were all enough like our parts to be believable. The natural relationships between the characters came from the natural bond between the actors.”
Linn added that he had fun with his co-stars while making ‘Zombeavers.’ “I’ve been fortunate to work on some great projects, but this one was really fun to work on,” he said. He hopes to work with his co-stars, as well as Rubin, again on another project in the future.
Gilroy humorously added that the cast “kissed Jordan’s a** so hard during this film, so we better work with him again. We made friendship bracelets, and live as blood brothers together forever. If (Martin) Scorsese, James Cameron and (Steven) Spielberg all got together and made a test tube baby, it would be Jordan Rubin.”
Palm also felt the director was great to work with on the set. “We were pressed for time many days, but he always knew what he wanted, and could get that out of us,” she said. “What I loved about Jordan, and not all directors do this, but he was so hands on. He’d said, ‘I want to shoot this part,’ or ‘I want to hold the beaver during this part.’” The actress appreciated how happy Rubin was to be on the set.
Rubin was also open to collaborating with the actors and everyone involved, Weary added. “I think he was so ready to direct this film, so nothing could have stopped him from doing this. He knew what he wanted, and was driven. His vision was so in his head and well executed,” the actor said. Weary also praised the director for not letting the limited amount of time they had get to him, and always stuck to shooting what he wanted. “He’s definitely a director an actor wants to work with,” he explained.
Gilroy also said the cast also had fun together, in part because all the actors always being on the same set together at the same time on the same days. Rubin feels the cast’s natural bond came in part because of the improvisation on the set. “The roles slightly changed because of what they brought, which I was excited about,” he explained. He also laughed about how the actors would bring in accents to certain scenes, and they would fade in the next sequence. But “When I saw the movie, I was relieved, because (the accents) were consistent,” Melvin added.
Palm and Weary also echoed the sentiment that the cast worked well together, and they would want to stay in touch in the future. The actress stays in touch with Gilroy all the time, because he continuously posts videos on YouTube. “I’m like, Peter, hook me up; let’s do a scene together,” she said, laughing. I also tell Jake, ‘Put me in one of your videos!’ Rachel and I also want to make another movie together,” she exclaimed.
Weary feels the cast bonded in part because of Rubin, who “found a solid group of people. He tried to find a group during the audition process that could work together, and I think he did it perfectly. We’re all still friends, and have a similar sense of humor,” the actor said.
Also speaking about the improv, Melvin quickly jumped in to mention her admiration for Gilroy, and called him one of the funniest actors she’s ever seen. Rubin added that the actor “comes from a real improv background. His role was scripted to be more of a jock, but he was so funny during the audition, I said, ‘He’d be good for comic relief.’”
While the film’s budget limited the amount of improv the cast could incorporate into their scenes, the director said he would shoot a couple takes of each scene as scripted. Then he would let the actors bring in their own humor.
“At one point with Lexi, someone asked where the bathroom was. She had to motion to where it was, and she would instead snap and point,” Rubin said. While he acknowledged the gesture wasn’t natural, he did think it looked funny. Atkins laughed when she mentioned how the whole time she played the gesture real.
Melvin said one of her biggest improv moments lead to Dave Halls, the first assistant director of ‘Zombeavers,’ got upset over her joke with popcorn on the set. The actress laughed when she mentioned how Halls told her, “Enough with the f**king popcorn.” When action was then called on the scene, she said, “You guys want some f**king popcorn?!?” Rubin acknowledged how as a director, he would encourage the cast to improv, but Halls’ job was difficult at times, because he had to move the shoot along.
But Gilroy readily championed the script Rubin wrote with the Kaplans. “With a film like ‘Zombeavers,’you really want to stick to the script. I think the writers took about six years to finish the script, so we wanted to stick to it. You can try to improvise, but you’re not going to come up with anything better than the ‘Zombeavers’ script,” he said.
Palm added the cast would regularly go with the flow of each day’s shoot, and Rubin would stress the importance of improv. “Jordan would say, ‘Change it up a little bit. Improv this.’ He would also throw in some things that threw us off guard, which made the shoot fun,” she said. Improv can help build the cast’s chemistry, because “sometimes you can be doing something really fresh, and you’d be making it up while you improv. But sometimes the other actors aren’t getting what you’re doing, so it’s like you’re almost in two different films. But on ‘Zombeavers,’ the improv helped open everything up,” she added.
Weary feels that when things are confined and constricted while filming, things can become tedious and repetitive. He added that each time they improvised a scene, it would be unique and fresh. Improv “gives the editor and director something to play with. I’ve edited movies before, and I’ve found myself in a hole sometimes. Either the actors, or whatever’s written, are exactly the same in every scene, which is really hard to edit,” he said. The actor feels you get “great performances from people when they’re different in every take. The freedom to know your character can really work.”
The combined efforts of the cast and crew led the film to be accepted into the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Some of Palm’s previous movies were accepted into other festivals, but this was the first time one of her projects was selected to be a part of the New York City festival. Her manager also told her the opportunity was huge, and so did her mother. “My mom was like, ‘I have to buy you an outfit,’” the actress laughed.
Weary also mentioned how his mother wanted to attend the film’s Tribeca premiere, “but I told her we would have to wait until the Oscars,” he joked. He added that he’s from New Jersey, so it was great to have the film play near his home, and see it with the people he cares so much about.
Upon hearing of the horror movie’s entry into the festival, Linn was also elated and happy. “To be invited to the Tribeca Film (Festival) with a movie you’re in, which is about killer beavers, is so ironic,” he said. Gilroy added that he “never thought I’d be going to a film festival for this movie. This is my first big movie.”
“No one, not even Jordan, knows where ‘Zombeavers’ is going to end up. Only a few people may see it, or it may be a phenomenon in theaters,” Linn alsosaid. He feels “it’s amazing that while, and even after, filming the movie, we didn’t know if it would go nowhere, or skyrocket; but there won’t be any middle ground.”
Written by: Karen Benardello