In the new, forthrightly titled, across-the-pond horror comedy import “Cockneys vs. Zombies,” director Matthias Hoene puts a wild, commingled spin on East-Enders cinema, mixing it up with the oeuvres of Edgar Wright, Guy Ritchie, Sam Raimi and more. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak to Hoene one-on-one, about his work as a commercial director, moustaches, his film’s violent content and his next project, “Capsule,” which is set up at 20th Century Fox and likely to start shooting next year. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Tell me about your background in commercials, and do you think that’s been a plus for you, experience-wise?
Matthias Hoene: Directing is such a difficult thing to put your finger on that people — whether editors or writers or DOPS or commercial directors — learn there’s no one rule to what works or doesn’t work in terms of who gets to cross over. I think with commercial directing, the reason I got into it is that when I left college in London I literally could not have been further away from the industry. I grew up in a family of scientists and knew no one in the film industry — not a single person. I didn’t even know that it was a career you could actually make a living out of, so it was a really far-away thing. But at the same time I really wanted to get into it, and the one thing that a few people leaving my college were doing was music videos and commercials. It was a few years before Garth Jennings directed “The Hitchhiker’s Guide (to the Galaxy)” but he was doing music videos. So I thought that was the only way to get into the industry at the time, and that’s what I did. I did a couple short films in college and was lucky enough to get an opportunity to do some music videos, and with that got signed to a production company. They got me a really, really low-budget ad, but it went on to win a Golden Lion in Cannes, and it was my first commercial. So suddenly I was a commercial director and people were asking to see my reel, and I was like, “What reel? I’ve only done one commercial and three music videos and a silly short film about a mobile phone robot or something!” But that established me in that world and the interesting thing is that it was like a second film school. The challenge on movies isn’t like writing, where all you need is a room and a laptop, or a piece of paper and pen. With filmmaking, you need money to make what’s in front of the camera be there. What commercials gave me was a film school were you get to work with some of the best crews in the world, and get to learn your way around set, really.
ShockYa: What’s the process of pitching stories like in the commercial realm?
MH: In terms of the pitching process, there are different levels of it. When I started it was a little bit looser than it is now. Sometimes they’d come to me with a poster that they loved and say we need to do a commercial as well, and then I’d write something around their basic idea. They might have a script, but you could interpret it very differently and make that. Often, those turn out to be the best ones, to be honest. Sometimes you get very tightly prescribed things where people have worked on this concept for a year and it’s been through five rounds of research and peer groups and animatics and storyboards and it’s very locked down. That happens because it’s such an important thing for the client. But if you go online and type in “DontBeScared.co.uk,” there’s a commercial I did recently that’s three minutes long, and is very “me.” I wrote a lot of script scenes for it, and it’s very loose. I worked together with the client, who kept saying, “It’s not gory enough! We want more complaints about it!” That was kind of a unique opportunity, where I was saying, “I can’t believe they’re actually saying that to me!” It was very successful, and had a lot of hits on YouTube, and I think that’s the better way of [working] — to (use) the director’s sensibility to match the product.
ShockYa: “Cockneys vs. Zombies” covers a lot of ground — interwoven into the film’s DNA there’s lots of comedy, some social commentary, but also some pretty violent content. And to me, that’s a great line of demarcation between British and American culture — that you don’t often have, even within the context of a genre film, a whole lot of gore. Was that controversial at all, or something that you knew you wanted to really explore and have fun with?
MH: I was thinking of 1980s films like Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive” or Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” which are very violent but funny at the same time. To me, horror comedies and zombie films are a crowded field, I guess… and I wanted to walk a line where tonally I felt like I was doing something that no one had done, specifically. So to me, it was important that it was really a cockney film — cockneys are all about swagger, and not showing any fear, having protagonists that are not afraid of scary things. So they’re tooled up, have weapons and since they’re up against zombies, who aren’t really real, I felt that it was OK if they go on a rampage and shoot them and blow them up — you still like them, because it’s only zombies they’re hurting at the end of the day. I wanted it to be British in its sweetness and charm and character base — with small locations in the beginning, and the idea of saving a pension home — and I specifically thought that it wasn’t a horror film. I wanted to film it like adventure movie, but with zombies. I call it my “zom-venture.” I wanted the end to be heroic, and unlike British movies… so I made the conscious decision to start it like a British movie and almost end it like an American movie.
ShockYa: Have you ever rolled around with just a pasted-on moustache for a disguise, as happens in the movie?
MH: (laughs) Nowadays in East London, it’s sort of hipsters who all have moustaches. There’s also a thing called “Mo-Vember” in November, where everyone grows a moustache for the month for cancer charities. But the real truth behind the moustaches bit in the movie is that it’s always a big issue when you do a bank robbery and everyone wears a stocking over their head, it’s really bad for drama because you can’t tell the actors apart and everybody kind of looks the same. So [that sequence] came about from thinking how to avoid putting a sock on everyone’s head, basically. And it worked sort of well with the character who’s supposed to be clueless, so we made it a character-based, silly concept, and had fun with some little details.
ShockYa: “Capsule” sounds intriguing — a movie about someone who is receiving messages from their future self. What can you say about it, and what sort of messages would you love and hate to receive from your own future self?
MH: (laughs) Well, we started developing it last year, and then we sold and set up the project recently at Fox, and have started working on it with a bunch of people who are great to work with — the people who made “Chronicle” and “Wolverine” — so it’s like a dream come true to work with those guys. It’s going very well. The idea came to me from a number of different sources. I remember an article from the “Guardian” newspaper in England where celebrities were asked to write letters to their younger selves and one of the celebrities was Alice Cooper, who was like, “OK, look: trashy girls become boring within five minutes, so what you should do is find the prettiest girl in the church choir, and then you have the best of both worlds.” I loved that idea of people helping their younger selves find the right (mate) and become wealthy enough to get by or whatever, and that to me was the two messages I’d like to get from my future self. I wouldn’t like to get all the lottery numbers or the (sports) almanac (a la “Back to the Future”). I wouldn’t want to know everything, because if you win the lottery and the world is your oyster it spoils your character and you probably become… I don’t know, it probably wouldn’t turn out well. I wouldn’t want to be rich beyond wildest dreams, because then life wouldn’t be fun anymore if you don’t have to struggle a bit.
Written by: Brent Simon