The graphically horrific murders of soulless, menacing zombies, whose only goal is to devour human flesh, has largely revived interest in the horror sub-genre in recent years. But the post-apocalyptic genre has taken a gripping turn with the new independent horror thriller, ‘Maggie,’ which will be released in select theaters and on VOD on Friday. The drama features an emotionally-driven and unique story in the fact that it humanizes people’s slow transformation into zombies. The movie, which marks the feature film directorial debut of graphic designer and commercial helmer, Henry Hobson, also offers a heartbreaking examination into the prolonged stages of grief that families experience as they watch their loved ones agonizingly transform.
‘Maggie’ follows a necrotic viral pandemic that has spread across the country to small town America and infected the 16-year-old titular character (Abigail Breslin). Authorities have established a protocol for patients infected with the deadly virus: they are removed from society and taken to special isolation wards to complete the agonizing and dangerous transformation into one of the walking dead. The authorities do not speak about what happens after that.
Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is not ready to give up his daughter. After weeks of searching for Maggie when she runs away after receiving her diagnosis, Wade brings his daughter back to her home and family, including her stepmother, Caroline (Joely Richardson), and her two younger siblings-for whatever time may be left as the teenager begins an excruciatingly painful metamorphosis. Having lost Maggie’s mother years earlier, Wade is determined to hold on to his precious daughter as long as he can, refusing to surrender her to the local police who show up with orders to take her. As the disease progresses, Caroline decides to take their two younger children and move out, leaving Wade alone with Maggie to watch helplessly as she suffers.
Schwarzenegger, Richardson and Hobson generously took the time recently to attend a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, the morning after ‘Maggie’s world premiere during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, to talk about making the horror thriller. Among other things, the actors and filmmaker discussed how the horror thriller is unique in the zombie sub-genre, as it infuses a relatable human element into its story of a seemingly strong father, who’s viewed as a respected hero in his community, but has become vulnerable because he can’t save or protect his terminally ill daughter; how the film stayed close to screenwriter John Scott 3’s original script, as they respected the human elements he infused into the characters, especially Maggie as she was contending with her transformation from her illness; and how they embraced the fact that even though they made the movie independently, they were still afforded the artistic freedom to incorporate unique visuals into an emotional, character-driven story.
Question (Q): What do you all think is the appeal of these post-apocalyptic movies that are currently being released, including this one and ‘Terminator: Genisys?’
Arnold Schwarzenegger (AS): Well, you can’t really compare movies like ‘Maggie’ and ‘Terminator: Genisys,’ as they’re two different projects all together. There are only some visual effects in this movie, and of course the ‘Terminator’ films have a lot of visual effects.
But this film was unique, as it allowed me to do something different, in terms of the acting. It’s a dramatic piece, and it’s the most human story I’ve ever done. I also think it’s the most human zombie film that’s ever been made. The story focuses so much on people, and the dilemma that Wade, who’s this strong father, who thinks he can handle anything, is in. I’ve always played the action hero, but all of a sudden, I can’t overcome this challenge, and I become a vulnerable character. So that’s what initially really appealed to me about this film.
People have asked me, “How do you trust Henry? He’s never done a movie. He’s done a lot of commercials and graphic design.” But to me, it’s not so much about how many movies people have done, as much as it is if they have a vision. Henry had a really clear vision. He had this album with all these photographs of different looks he wanted in the movie, and the way he interpreted the characters. It was very clear that I would be in good hands. There was never even a question there.
I just wanted to make sure that Henry was protected as a director, and that I could be a producer and let that be my responsibility. I also wanted to make sure someone didn’t come in and say something like, “I want you to shoot this differently,” or “We want to have a different ending.” First-time directors need to be protected, so that they can do their work. James Cameron doesn’t need to be protected, you know? (laughs) I wanted to make sure that Henry was able to put his exact vision on the screen. That’s why he was hired for this project, so we had to let him do it.
Q: With the film dealing with many issues, was it important for you to show that it’s difficult to find the right solution for all of the problems that we are facing today?
AS: Well, the solution about how to deal with those who are ill in the film is to quarantine, and get rid of, them, so that they could reduce the problem of spreading the virus. But the character I play couldn’t find a solution to the problem, because he couldn’t find a way to stop the virus and having his daughter die.
His love for her was so big, he couldn’t do the things that were suggested, like give her the shot to end her life, since it would be painful. It was suggested that he use his gun, since it was much quicker, but he couldn’t do it. His daughter was obviously stronger, because she realized what stage she was in.
Q: Henry, did the script go through any changes after Arnold was cast in the role of Wade?
Henry Hobson (HH): No, we tried to stay close to the original story, because the script was on the Black List, and we wanted to maintain the aspects that the film community loved. People loved that it was small-scale and slow-paced, so we really wanted to stay as true to that as possible. There were a few things that we wanted to show a bit of a reflection of what Maggie may go through with her boyfriend, Trent. So that was a scene we wanted to build upon.
Q: Can each of you talk about how you remained grounded in this very human story that features extraordinary circumstances?
Joely Richardson (JR): I stayed grounded, thanks to Henry. Henry was the total auteur, and really had a vision. Some people have visions, but then they do not know how to follow through with them. He has a technical background, but he was able to give us all very specific notes about exactly how he wanted to film everything. If he didn’t like what Arnold, Abigail or I were doing, he would say how he wanted it, and that takes courage and vision.
HH: We’ve seen a lot of other zombie projects, but what we felt was so different about this film is that it’s so grounded. What was nice about the art direction, the costumes and the makeup was that everything was very real and raw. That allowed for the setting and space to feel as real as possible, which made it easier as a transition point to really live and breathe in that grounded world.
AS: Spending time, and walking around, in that hospital with those bodies lying around, which I did quite a lot of times, helps you understand the characters’ feelings, because you can’t really relate to people dying left and right other. But the people who were lying there were made up, and acting, so well that you really wondered, can you imagine if this was happening in reality? But they made it really feel like it was reality, so it was easy to get into character and feel helpless, and just wonder, What do I do now?
What’s worse is that my character finds his daughter there. So it’s already a sad situation to be in a hospital like this when you’re just looking around, and seeing people dying like that, but it’s worse when it’s your daughter.
I dreaded visualizing what would it be like if it was my own daughter. I didn’t even have to do that that many times, to be honest, because Abigail was so good and made it feel so real. I never felt like she was acting-I always felt like she was dying. That’s how skilled she is in her profession.
So I think the performers and the actors Henry hired for this movie were really good. I think there is something to be said for small movies, because the way we worked together and the way we really got into it was different than on a big action movie. It was quite unique. So I felt like with whatever performance that I delivered, I have to credit everyone around me. They acted so well that it brought out the best of me.
Q: Arnold, what takes more of a toll on you-performing the physical action roles you take on, or the emotionally draining characters?
AS: This type of emotional role is very draining. The brain takes much more energy than the body does. It’s very difficult to do something mentally draining, such as doing a lot of thinking and negotiating. I remember when I was in the Governor’s office, I was totally wiped out in the evening, with the kinds of responsibilities I had to take care of during the day.
The same thing was true when we were making ‘Maggie.’ It’s tough but at the same time, it’s not tough because you’re having such a great time doing it. You feel so passionate about the character that you’re playing, but you do get wiped out. By the time evening comes, you do feel kind of like wiped out.
Q: Arnold, since ‘Maggie’ is the first independent film you starred in and produced, did you take a different approach to making it as your bigger studio blockbusters?
AS: Well, the first ‘Terminator’ was made on a smaller budget for about $6 million, so everyone had to do things that were beyond what they would do on a bigger studio movie. Like I said earlier, there’s a certain camaraderie that comes in. The people behind the camera are as enthusiastic and passionate about the project as everyone who’s in front of the camera.
We were shooting a scene in front of the house and all of a sudden Henry saw the lighting going a certain way. He thought, Oh, this would be a great shot out in the field; let’s burn the field! It was like that from one minute to the next.
What I thought was so fascinating was not how quickly we responded and ran with him out into the field, but how quickly the camera crew did. There was no one screaming “I have to change batteries!” or “I have to get a cable!” or “This is impossible!” or “I need someone to carry the camera so I can roll again.” There was none of that that you normally hear on sets because of union rules. Everyone got their stuff together within seconds, and we all ran out in the field and shot that scene. It was very quick the way it was done, because Henry’s such a visual person. That’s what you need to do in these kinds of movies, but it’s that kind of spirit that you don’t see in big movies.
Q: Arnold and Joely, what were some of the biggest challenges of playing your respective roles?
JR: For me, playing different characters is all about taking a leap of faith. This is a weird comparison, but when you’re acting in a film like ‘101 Dalmatians,’ you’re playing with little puppies, but it’s still a life or death situation. Then you’re doing a zombie film, and your character’s stepdaughter comes in covered with blood. They’re not everyday emotions in either film, but I’m just going with the premise.
There weren’t any specific challenges on this film, as Henry made the process very easy. The producers gave us the freedom to do what we thought was best, like run into the field, like Arnold said. That freedom and fluidity worked wonders.
AS: For me, it was always important to keep the father-daughter relationship filled with love. Under normal circumstances, Maggie would have been under quarantine, but as a father, he couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t allow her to receive this painful shot, and then die slowly. He protected her as much as possible, which was always a challenge. Like when the police come to their house to take her, he’s determined not to let her go.
I wouldn’t have been able to play this type of role 25 years ago. Having been a father in real life for the past 25 years, I now understand what it would be like to be in that situation.
Q: Arnold, since this is more of a dramatic role, is this the path you see your career taking now?
AS: When I read the script for this film, I felt like I could play the character, because I could understand what it’s like to be a father. But 25 or 30 years ago, I would not have been able to play this type of role. First of all, I wouldn’t have had the time, because there were so many big projects then. I was chasing the big money, and working my way up to being the highest paid actor. Today that doesn’t mean anything to me because I’ve made a lot of money and I’m in a different place in my life.
But when I get an offer to do ‘Terminator 5,’ I’m still very excited about that. When Universal calls me and says “We’re almost finished with writing the script for a new Conan movie,” I’m also excited about that. But I’m also very excited when I read a script like ‘Maggie.’ I believe that I can play that character, and also work with the director and the other actors together. So yes, I will be looking for more dramatic roles.
Written by: Karen Benardello