THE RED SHIRT CHRONICLES: Part 4 – Working With Romero, Phase 2

Part four of the Red Shirt Chronicles continues the George Romero theme of Part 3, getting deeper into Michael Felsher’s collaboration with the legendary horror director on his recent work.  He made a cameo in Land Of The Dead and made the transition from retrospective documentarian to on-the-set documentarian by covering the production of both Diary Of The Dead and Survival of The Dead so Felsher’s got a lot to say about these films.  There’s plenty of interesting material to glean here, from a fun anecdote about Asia Argento to Felsher’s thoughts on Romero’s most recent zombie films…

You made a cameo in LAND OF THE DEAD .  Can you tell us how this came about?  Any fond memories of shooting that scene that you’d like to share?

Well I live in Detroit Michigan, just a few hours from Toronto where LAND was shot.  At the time I knew George Romero thanks to my time at Anchor Bay where we did so many of his films, and I am also close friends with his manager, Chris Roe.  Chris managed to get me on the set for a couple of nights, and while I had dreams of being a zombie in a George Romero movie (who reading this doesn’t?) I didn’t really count on it, since they weren’t really planning to shoot much zombie stuff for the nights I was gonna be on set.

However, while visiting Greg Nicotero on the first night, he said he would try to get me in as a zombie on the second night as there were going to be a few needed for a second unit shoot that he was supervising.  He didn’t promise me it would happen, only that he would try.  And sure enough when I got to the set the following night, Greg told me it looked like he had all the zombies he needed but to keep close by and if something came up he’d enlist me for zombie duty.

Well around 1 A.M., there was a change in plan as the main unit needed some zombies for a sequence they decided to move up to that night’s shooting.  Before I knew what was going on, Greg grabbed two make-up guys and I was off being made up for about an hour, and after a while, myself and about six other zombies were sent off to the main set for a sequence where we attack a soldier who makes a mistake bailing out of a guard tower at the wrong moment.  We did two takes of that, and I was the first zombie to reach him and wrestle him to the ground.  We also did some close-ups of the group growling and snarling behind a fence.  That was just about the best night of my life, and I remember going over to the monitors where George was reviewing our final take of the solider attack, and having him put his hand on my shoulder and tell me how happy he was with it.  If someone had put a bullet in my head right then, I would have died the happiest muthaf*cka on the planet.

Amazingly I can be seen pretty clearly in the film.  Just look for the moment where that guard makes his departure from the guard tower and the big balding zombie that first reaches him is me.  There’s also another shot of the group of us feasting on him, and I’m the one struggling with his arm.

Truth be told, whenever I think about those two nights, I am reminded of that moment with George at the monitors which is one of my personal highlights and a particular moment from the previous night which is one of my more embarrassing memories of all time.  My first night on set, they were shooting in an unfinished housing development for a sequence where Riley and the others find Cholo and the stolen Dead Reckoning.  It was very cold that night, as it had been for most of the shoot apparently.  They had commandeered one of the garages in the neighborhood as a cast waiting area and had set up a huge space heater to warm the place.  This thing looked like a jet engine turbine.  You could see the fire roaring in this thing, and all around the face of the heater were little black blobs of melted plastic and nylon where people’s jacket buttons and scarves had come a little too close to the heater and had not survived the experience.

Anyway, I didn’t want to intrude while the cast was up there, so I waited until they were all on set rehearsing for a scene and I went up and stood at the mouth of the garage about six feet from the heater and got myself defrosted.  Now I had my eyes closed for a minute or so while I did this, and suddenly I became aware of someone standing to my right.  I opened my eyes and saw that it was Asia Argento.

Now I was surprised, to be sure, but not like stunned into stupidity or anything.  I had hoped to meet her during my time on the set, and at that time I was still with Anchor Bay and we were in the early stages of putting together a special edition of Dario Argento’s TRAUMA in which Asia was the lead actress.  So I see her standing there, and I think “Hey I should introduce myself, tell her I am a fan of her work  and I work with Anchor Bay and we would love to have her interviewed for the TRAUMA DVD”

Ok, well somewhere between thinking that and opening my mouth to relay this information to her, my brain decided to either switch off or have a major reboot of some kind, because what I ended up saying to her was…


So I say this to her, and to her credit, she was very sweet and thanked me.  Meanwhile my mind is on emergency alert and I can hear myself saying “You Pretty!?!?!? Is that the best you could come up with?!!?!  Abort! Abort!”  So I try and recover, and I spew out a follow-up sentence that, to my memory, went something like this…

“You know TRAUMA?…we’re doing that….you’d be great for doing interview….hehe”

Well after a few tortured minutes of exchanges similar to that, Asia was mercifully called back out for a take.  She smiled and walked away.  So as I am beginning to recover from my disastrous moments with her, I watch as she, in one unbroken stride, removed a cigarette from her pocket, stuck it out in front of the space heater where in burst into flames, and put it to her mouth and began puffing away on her way down to the set.

It was at that moment I became aware that one of the Production Assistants was now standing to my left and had observed this little moment with me.  He looked at me and said…”That was the coolest mother#$king thing I have ever seen”

At that moment it was hard to disagree.  He would have had some completely different words to describe the scene just a couple of minutes earlier had he been there,  but thankfully I was spared that at least.

So anytime I start feeling a little cocky about my LAND OF THE DEAD zombie experience, I can always hear two words off in the distance in my mind bringing me back down to earth…”Youuuuu Prettttty”

Still I got to redeem myself on SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD a few years later.   Lightning struck twice, and I suited up as a zombie again, but this time I got to help devour a guy and tear him in half.  And it was so funny, they actually still had the zombie costume I wore in LAND!!  It was like seeing an old friend you thought had died.  It was a warm reunion, and now that costume is much much more filthy than it was when I left it on LAND.  Plus it was so cold that night we shot it, after we were done, me and other zombies couldn’t feel our hands and the blood had literally frozen to our face.  It was grand I tells ya!  Check out my documentary on SURVIVAL for the complete unedited take of us tearing that poor sucker apart…it’s amazing stuff.

It’s impressive to see you’ve gone from documenting a film’s history after the fact to capturing the filmmaking process as it occurs on George Romero’s last two films, DIARY OF THE DEAD, and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.

Well this is a very different process than doing a retrospective featurette or documentary.  With DIARY OF THE DEAD and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD there is no distance, no looking back years later at the experience.  There’s no track record yet, and no history with the fan community, etc.  So you have to reconfigure your approach to simply documenting things as they happen rather than by trying to force a structure to your work from the outset.  On DIARY I learned an awful lot about when to do the interviews during the shoot and how to adjust my questions to be more “of the moment” than “reflective”.  By the time I was on SURVIVAL a couple years later, I had it down a little more smoothly, but since both films were so different in approach and shooting locales, there was still one hell of a learning curve.

Still DIARY was a game-changer for me undoubtedly.  My being on the film was something that I pitched and worked on for some time ever since I found out George was doing this.   DIARY came together very quickly; we’re talking a matter of weeks during which everything began to fall into place.  A great new production outfit, Artfire Films, was backing the whole enterprise and George was in complete creative control of the film.

I had been in communication with the film’s producers (including John Harrison, who I now owe about 10,432,831 favors to) for several weeks before the film began production and they hired me to come up to Toronto for the entire 4 week shoot plus a few days of pre-production time.  So I pretty much hit the ground running once I arrived in Toronto back in mid-October.  My goal was to document as many different aspects to the production as possible and try and interview everyone I could from George right down to the grips.  I had the fortune of being set up with a great cameraman up there, and we ended up with nearly 30 hours of footage from the whole shoot.   We ended up even covering a couple days of additional shooting and the premiere of the film at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.  It was funny to be able to do the exact same thing for SURVIVAL in 2009 almost two years later to-the-day.

The most rewarding aspect of my role in both films was simply becoming a member of George’s crew.  My cameraman, Graeme Potts, and I became essentially embedded journalists of a sort.  Very quickly the crew began to accept us and trust us, and Graeme was able to get footage that most on-set documentarians don’t get access to.  It was a terrific group of people and they all just stepped it up a notch because of George.   And with SURVIVAL, it was even easier to win the crew’s trust since there were so many carryovers from DIARY.  And let me tell you, it was interesting to observe George on set on both films.  On both DIARY and SURVIVAL he was so active and engaging on the set, he’d be up and excitedly blocking scenes with the actors, laughing it up, and just having a great time.   George has the spirit of a young filmmaker who is constantly excited by the challenges of the medium.  This is a very unique film in that a lot of the standard rules and traditions of filmmaking aren’t being utilized.  In many ways, George is learning new things along with everyone else.  With DIARY the challenge was the unique narrative of the film and the extended takes and first-person perspective that energized that experience.  With SURVIVAL it was the grand epic/comic-book style of the film coupled with the adversarial nature of the shoot, which was cursed with the shittiest fucking weather EVER.  Even with that, the crew rallied around George and made it happen.

The resulting documentary for SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, titled WALKING AFTER MIDNIGHT is one of my personal favorites of the work I’ve done.  It was shot so beautifully by Graeme, and I took a very different approach in the editing process.  Rather than divide it up into the usual chapters of a multi-part featurette, I wanted to make this a very unique documentary with more of a on-the-ground approach that would take us from the first day of shooting through the premiere of the film at the Toronto Film Festival.  This was an approach I had wanted to do with the footage on DIARY, but the hectic post-production chaos on that project (coupled with NOTLD’s issues) forced me to adopt a much more conventional approach to the final product on that one.  With WALKING AFTER MIDNIGHT, I took the risk of putting myself on camera as sort of a host throughout the various days of production, and it was something I was not 100% comfortable with at first, but in the end I felt it added a more personal touch to the proceedings.  The reaction so far has been thrilling for the most part…though a few critics have singled my presence in the doc out for criticism.  Which is fine…if you’re going to put yourself out there, you have be prepared that not everyone is gonna respond in the way you’d like.

Magnolia/Magnet Films was a wonderfully supportive company to work for and they really threw their support behind SURVIVAL and let me do whatever I wanted as far as the special features and the documentary.   Time was a constant issue as always, but I avoided the nightmare of DIARY/NOTLD 2008 by giving the documentary’s first assembly cut to an editor friend of mine, Andrew Kasch who sorted through the 30 plus hours of SURVIVAL footage and found the cream of the crop.  That was one lesson I learned…I was so in love with everything we shot on SURVIVAL that I couldn’t really be objective enough and choose the essential footage that was needed.  It required an unbiased pair of eyes to see what I couldn’t.  Once I had Andrew’s assembly, I was able to go in and shape the thing in just a few weeks, and the results were beyond my expectations.

I’m seriously considering going back and constructing a new documentary for DIARY that would follow WALKING AFTER MIDNIGHT’s style.  There’s so much footage on DIARY that never saw the light of day due to the rushed post-production, and it would be nice to really document that one properly.

So in the end, I’ve gotten to spend several months up in Toronto working on George Romero movies over the past few years, as well as being able to edit and release my documents of the time I spent there.  I really have nothing to complain about!  After those experiences, I have really come to the realization that my second home is a movie set.  I need to spend more of time there rather than at home in front of my computer.

One more question about DIARY OF THE DEAD –  any fun stories about your cameo as “the corpse behind the couch?”

Basically I was on the set that day and they needed a pair of legs to be sticking out from behind the couch in a scene where Debra (Michelle Morgan) and the gang discover her mother zombified emerging from behind said couch while munching on the hidden remains of daddy.   The producer, Peter Grunwald, just came up to me and said “Felsher, we need some legs…get in there”..and so I just lay there behind the couch for several takes.  Now you would think that would be about as painless a job as possible, but due to the complicated nature of the shot, they had to do it almost a dozen times to get it all timed out right.  One of the elements was the mother character emerging from behind the couch at just the right moment while gnawing on a bloody severed hand that she has to drop once she sees the kids run into the room.  Well in the first few takes, she would just gently drop the hand to the floor in front of where I was lying…but as the takes went on, they asked her to drop it from higher and higher up each time out.  The last five takes all resulted in this gooey gelatin hand landing on my face hard and slowly sliding down leaving a trail of thick fake blood in its wake.  And I couldn’t adjust my position, because my legs were exactly where they wanted them to be and I wasn’t supposed to move.  When it was all done, I had blood all over me.  Which just goes to show you, there’s no safe job on a George Romero movie.

I’ll close with a question about SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD: Critics and fans have responded to this film and DIARY in a very different way than they responded to the original DEAD trilogy, sometimes harshly and sometimes with great praise.  What are your feelings on these films?

Oh boy, I could go on forever here, but let me say this.  Alot of the negative reactions to George’s recent work, including LAND OF THE DEAD as well, have a lot to do with fan expectations not being met.  For some, if it’s not NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or DAWN OF THE DEAD, it’s not worthy.  Now on the other hand, there are many who simply don’t think George’s recent work has the same flavor and richness that his earlier work have and they dislike LAND, DIARY, and SURVIVAL for reasons that can’t just be dismissed as primitive fanboy bitching.  Some people truly disliked LAND’s more mainstream approach to the DEAD saga, and others couldn’t stand the characters and shooting perspective of DIARY at all.  And with SURVIVAL, there are those who don’t enjoy the film’s cartoonish effects and humor and found other aspects of the film lacking.  Then of course there’s a widespread rejection of George’s embrace of CGI in his latest DEAD films, as well as a general feeling that this series has had enough entries for now.  I can understand that.  Personally I find lots to love in LAND, DIARY, and SURVIVAL and they are very very different films just as NIGHT is different from DAWN and DAY, and vice versa.  Are they flawed?  Sure of course they are, but I really admire George’s desire to use the DEAD films as an avenue to explore political and social themes and his willingness to try new approaches to his art.  DIARY in particular was a huge gamble for him.  Would people find the documentary-style approach interesting or off-putting, and it did manage to split the opinion down the middle.  And yet, SURVIVAL would seem to be much more of a film that DAWN fans would enjoy, and yet it still split the difference with many fans and critics.  Of course it’s hard for me to be completely objective about these films since I’ve been involved in the productions to various degrees, but I really feel time will be kind to these films and that George has made some very enjoyable and challenging cinema in the past several years.

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