As people struggle to find and hold onto a meaningful purpose in their work and relationships, they often find it difficult to simply define the overall objectives in their lives. So they often determinedly set out to describe and showcase their strengths, in a powerful attempt to validate their existence and merits. Writer-director Jason Krawczyk and actor Henry Rollins profoundly highlighted their persistence in telling an equally emotional and action-driven horror story in their new film, ‘He Never Died,’ which premiered during last week’s SXSW in Austin, Texas. The performer’s complex anti-hero also enthrallingly showcased his dedication to finding the significance in his own life, particularly when it comes to protecting the people he has surprisingly come to care about during his unique process of living.
‘He Never Died’ follows the reclusive Jack (Rollins), whose depression and severe anti-social behavior has led him to avoid human contact as much as possible. While he spends most of his time sleeping and watching television in his impersonal apartment, he does occasionally venture out to eat at a local diner, play Bingo at his church and buy blood from an immoral hospital intern. He doesn’t have any interest in bonding with anyone, as he’s struggling with his battle with cannibalism, which fuels his immortality.
But Jack is suddenly forced to take personal responsibility for his actions when his violent past comes back to haunt him. His life is unexpectedly changed when he receives an angry phone call from an old fling he hasn’t heard from in nearly two decades, who tells him the young woman who has arrived on his door is their teenage daughter, Andrea (Jordan Todosey). But the newly acquainted father and daughter are completely different from each other, as she’s more outgoing than her withdrawn and quiet father. His isolated attitude also begins changing as he begins to develop a bond with one of the waitresses at the diner, Cara (Kate Greenhouse).
But Jack’s unpredicted good fortune suddenly changes again when he’s targeted by two criminals who are desperately trying to kill him. While their vendetta and motivations aren’t immediately made known, he’s able to physically protect himself, as his body quickly heals from beatings and bullet and knife wounds. In an effort to protect not only himself, but also the women who have unexpectedly provided purpose in his life, Jack must now take full responsibility for his actions and emotions, and finally realize there is a meaningful purpose in his life.
Krawczyk and Rollins generously sat down to talk about ‘He Never Died’ during an exclusive interview while attending SXSW at the Hilton Austin Downtown Hotel, on the afternoon of the horror-comedy-drama’s World Premiere during the festival’s Midnighters Section. Among other things, the writer-director and actor discussed how they wanted to chronicle Jack’s story because they were drawn to the idea of existentialism, and whether life is worth living if it never truly ends; how Krawczyk was enthusiastic to the idea of working with Rollins and the rest of the cast and crew to develop Jack’s backstory, personality and relationships, both before and while they were filming; and how they’re humbly appreciative of the movie being accepted into SXSW, and having the chance to share it with audiences who truly embrace the genre.
ShockYa (SY): Jason, you wrote the script for the new horror film, ‘He Never Died.’ What was your inspiration in writing the story for the film, which focuses on the complexities of the main character, Jack, including his addiction to cannibalism and his severe anti-social behavior?
Jason Krawczyk (JK): There are a lot of incarnations and inspirations that went into the final version of the film. The completed project that audiences are seeing was probably the fourth incarnation, and it’s a completely different movie than what I originally created.
I was really interested in exploring antagonists at the time I originally wrote the script. The ‘Twilight’ series was being released in theaters at that time, so I was angry about that. I was just upset at the overall world at the time. So I wanted to create a character who was irredeemable, and have him fulfill all my fantasies. (laughs)
I also wanted to play with the idea of existentialism, and the question of whether life is worth living. I wanted to explore the idea that if life never ends, is there anything special about it? I also wanted to ask the question, will you remain who you truly are, or just become a product of your surroundings? So the character’s development was really hard for me, but I still wanted to create a nice arc for him.
SY: Besides writing the script for ‘He Never Died,’ you also directed the comedy-drama. Having served as the scribe and helmer on most of your movies, how does writing the screenplay influence the way you approach directing?
JK: Yes, it was always my intention to do that on this film. But I can’t say that I will always write and direct my films in the future.
Eric Billman was the Director of Photography on this film, and he’s a wizard-I love that guy to death. One of my favorite things to do was to sit down and visually write the movie with him. We would shot list everything way before we filmed anything. That way, when we arrived on the set, he knew exactly what he was doing.
If he then came up with a new or extra idea in the moment on the set, he could just go to the cameraman and grip and say, “This is what we’re doing now.” They’d ask if he needed time to work it out, and he’d tell them we had already figured everything out.
The last thing you want to do is just flatly record a movie. Much like how the characters evolve throughout the story, so should the visuals. Everything should change, so that it looks like a different movie at the end than it did in the beginning. I did that the best I could on this film. (laughs)
Henry Rollins (HR): Sometimes Billman would start off by saying, “This is why we’re going to shoot this scene this way.” He would then explain the logic of the shot, and I’d think, I’m so glad he’s here. (laughs) You’re in such good hands with him, because every shot is the product of a long thinking process. He’s really impressive.
SY: Henry, you play Jack in the movie. What was it about the character, as well as Jason’s script overall, that convinced you to take on the roles?
HR: Well, the script was sent to me at the end of 2013, and I read and loved it immediately. I conveniently met Jason the next day, as we both happened to be in New York. I found humor and sadness in his story, and was fascinated with what could be done with the script. He asked what I thought, and I said, “I’m in, if you’re hiring.” He said okay, and it was done very quickly.
I immediately liked Jason and his producer, Zach Hagen-they’re just good guys. You can immediately get a sense of people, and sometimes you think, I don’t want to be in a room with that guy again. But I walked away from these guys thinking, they’re going to get this film made with somebody, so it should be with me. They’re legitimate people who aren’t going to burn you later, which is what I immediately felt around them. So when I told them I was in, Zach started summoning the powers that be to get the money to get the film made. Then a little over a year later, here we are at SXSW.
SY: What was the process of shooting ‘He Never Died’ independently-did it create any challenges on the set, or did it help with the movie’s overall creativity?
JK: It was a total collaborative effort all around. I like to keep my ears open as much as possible, and ask as many questions as I can. I think it’s easy as a director, or any type of filmmaker, to just talk and talk. I feel like the best idea I can come with on my own is a six. (laughs)
But everyone around me is smarter and working harder than me. So I’d say, “Let’s come up with something together-that’s a great idea!” That collaborative process can then turn into a nine or a 10. There aren’t any enemies on the same movie-everyone’s trying to help you.
HR: I can’t speak for directors, as I’m not one, but if they trust their actors, that really helps the film. The actors will feel comfortable asking the director, “I have this idea for this-can I show you in rehearsals?” The director will say, “Yes, let’s go.” Then the actors will do their thing, and the director will tell them to run with it, and will go in if they need any help. The director can offer suggestions that they can also film if they have the time, but we didn’t always have the time.
This film was very collaborative, and in the days before shooting started, I was up early, so that I could work with the wardrobe department and do stunt run-throughs. I would throw people around, and there would be a lot of people who would start tumbling me around, but we worked to make everything safe.
Jason had this production office in the building where we were shooting. We would sit in this little room together, and he’d say, “Let’s invent Jack’s backstory.” I’d quiz him on the character, and ask what Jack would do in certain points. He’ also ask me, “What would Jack do there?” So we found the character together.
We then did some rehearsal with Kate (Greenhouse), the marvelous actress who played the waitress. So by the time we began filming, we worked very quickly and efficiently, and got a lot done in 20 days. It was pretty impressive.
JK: Yes, having the shorthand was great. Everyone was excited to be on the set.
HR: It’s great to have a guy like Billman, who has rehearsed everything in his head, and arrives on the set saying “We’ll do this, this and this.” He then quickly lights the shot and films it. It was a big help, because we had a lot of ground to cover.
We had a lot of night shoots, so our wrap time would often be 3 in the morning. There were also a lot of 4am visits to the 24-hour grocery story. We would be like, “Wow, I’m eating dinner, and the sun’s coming up.” (laughs)
So during those circumstances, whenever we were going to be up late, and many people on the set had kids, we had to work efficiently. Thankfully, we had a killer cast and crew-no one disappointed.
JK: Yes, everyone was insanely talented and enthusiastic, which helped everyone else. So I couldn’t have been more humble or gracious for the crew we had.
SY: ‘He Never Died’ (had) its World Premiere during SXSW’s Midnighters Section (on March 17). What does it mean to both of you that the film is debuting during the festival?
JK: Just making the movie itself was a miracle. The whole time we were in pre-pro(dution), I was waiting for someone to say, “What are you doing here? Get out of here.” I would have been like, “Okay, that makes total sense-see you!” (laughs) Then Henry showed up, and I thought, we have to do this now! Then the cameras came in, and that process became so surreal to me.
This part of being here at the festival is a bonus to me, as the dream already came true. It’s humbling for me, and it’s hard to put into words.
HR: I’m here partly because Jason and Zach are here, and to also support all of the actors and crew members who worked on the film, but couldn’t be here. I finished my part in the film once we finished shooting in Toronto. So I’m here at the festival for the victory lap, as I’m very proud of what we’ve done.
The funnest thing for me here is being able to speak with Jason and Zach, as I haven’t seen these guys since we were in Toronto. So it’s been over a year since I’ve seen either of them, and it’s nice to see them again.
SY: You mentioned rehearsals earlier-were you able to have any time with the rest of the cast, before, and while, you were filming the movie, to discuss the characters’ relationships and arcs?
HR: It’s a huge advantage, and I wish we had more rehearsal time.
JK: Yes, I would love to do several table reads on every film.
HR: All of that stuff is really effective. I’ve done shows where we had that time, like ‘Sons of Anarchy.’ Every Thursday, we had a big lunch and table read, with (the show’s creator,) Kurt Sutter sitting at the end of the table, asking if anyone had any notes. Everyone had the chance to talk about their opinions on the show, which was really effective.
Rehearsal time is really beneficial, especially if you’re going to be throwing people around. You really have to know what you’re doing in that respect, because even with rehearsals, on the day (of shooting), you can still end up with split kneecaps. Or someone will end up needing stitches in their eyebrows, and we can’t end up using them, as they have real blood on them.
We had some of that happen on the film, but we had to depend on everyone to bring their best game, because there wasn’t enough time to reshoot everything. Thankfully, all of our stunt people were great. They’d say, “Oh, I’ve got this,” and then end up getting bruised.
JK: We would have an initial idea, as well as a back-up ready to go that could be done more efficiently.
HR: I would ask the stuntmen, “So you’re going to bounce off that table and land on the floor?” They said it wasn’t a problem, and told me to throw them as hard as I could.
But then I actually did something wrong and smashed my knee and fell to the floor. Everyone yelled, “Henry!,” and I said, “I just need a minute, two aspirin and a chair. I feel fine-I’m just having a 50-something-year-old moment, and I’ll be up in a minute.” Then I got up and went back to work. (laughs) But the stuntmen were so cheerful and would say, “I just bounced off a building for you!”
JK: They would say, “I just got a concussion from that, but it was awesome!” I was like, “Oh, okay.” (laughs)
HR: One of the stunt guys had to go through the window. I asked him, “Are you ready for this?” He said, “Yeah, sure. It’s going to be fun-I can’t wait.” I was like, “You can’t wait? You’re a madman!”
JK: It was like, my knees are going to hit the ground, which was concrete, but it’s cool.
HR: It was also only one degree above freezing, but he hit it perfectly. Thank goodness he did, because we only had one take. There were five sequences in the film where we only had one chance to shoot. We were all like, “Don’t get it wrong, because we only have one take for this, and then we’re out of money.” But that’s how it goes in indie filmmaking.
JK: But we hit everything we needed to, and that all came from preparation.
Written by: Karen Benardello