Z is a frightening Mother’s Day surprise from Shudder. The movie is about a little boy who has an imaginary friend. Unsurprisingly, this “friend” has terrifying ulterior motives. AIPT spoke with the director Brandon Christensen about his latest movie.
AIPT: How would you describe Z?
Brandon Christensen: I would describe Z as a creepy kid movie that isn’t actually a creepy kid movie after all. It’s more of a creepy mom movie, because it takes the idea of it being about a creepy kid, and slowly making you realize that it’s actually not the kid that’s creepy. It’s the mom and her past, and all those things coming back to get her because she’s forgotten about everything in her apathy as a parent.
AIPT: What was your inspiration behind the story?
Christensen: When I was coming up with it, my wife and I were actually talking about some things that we were going through at the time. My oldest son at the time was just fresh into kindergarten. The first day of kindergarten is interesting because for the first time you’re sort of letting go of your kid to an entire Monday through Friday schedule, five hours a day. And they’re leaving you and basically everything that you’ve been teaching them goes with them. And as they come home they start bringing home new ideas and new drawings and new facts and stuff that they can’t wait to tell you. So we were kind of just dealing with the loneliness of the house as they’re gone for half the day. And then the kind of surprises that they bring home with them every day as well.
And my wife and I were talking about, “Well, what kind of ideas are there that could potentially be used?” And she threw out the idea of an imaginary friend. And so we started to really discuss how that might work, where if a kid can see something, if a kid can talk to something but the parents can’t, that disconnect between the parent and child, it’s not only frustrating as a parent, but it’s also kind of scary when the things that are happening around the house start to feel almost supernatural. So that was the beginning.
And you know, as stories do, they just sort of evolve.
AIPT: Z has a very neat and interesting look. What inspired the look of Z?
Christensen: Usually when you’re doing a monster movie, you’re trying to make something that’s scary. You want to do something that has gross skin, crazy eyes, things that right when you look at it, you identify it as scary.
But the interesting thing about Z is that it’s not only that. It needs to have this playful, almost childlike look to it, because, at the end of the day, it’s trying to attract and lure this eight year old boy so that it will be friends with him. And if it’s friends with him, then that might allow it to use the boy to get to his mother, which is its actual goal.
So when designing him, it was a lot of conversations about, “Well what kind of things make something scary, and what kind of things would make a kid want to play with it?” And the discussions always went to a giant smile, because to a kid, a giant smile goes, “Oh, that’s friendly.” But to an adult looking at it, you’d be like, “Oh my God, that’s terrifying.” When you think about a smile, it’s supposed to be a happy thing, but when you over-exaggerate it, it takes on a horrific quality to it. So it’s similar to clowns and Pennywise.
Like a kid can look at Pennywise and be like, “Oh, that’s cute. It’s a clown. It’s bright colors, it’s smiling, it’s got balloons, that’s fun.” But a parent, they’re applying their own lens to it and they’re going, “That’s terrifying.” Because it just feels wrong. And so that was kind of the main force of the construction of what Z would look like. And in the independent space, you’re very limited with your resources. So while we had discussions about trying to build him up and give him almost a theatrical quality, like the Babadook, where you can see a silhouette, that hat, the brim of the hat, and you know exactly what it is, and it’s so scary. We were kind of limited by just what we had.
We can’t be like, “Here, concept artists. Make me 30 designs of Z so I can choose from one.” Because inevitably, I’m the concept artist. So it’s a lot of looking and trying to find inspiration somewhere, and eventually you take what’s available to you. And we found this great actor, Luke Moore, who’s very tall, very slender, and has a lot of interesting abilities with his body because he does a lot of contortion-y type stuff. And so we started to talk to him and we built around his look, and utilizing what we had, which was a very tall and slender man that we could play with.
So we took the design that we had, and we had a prosthetic on his face and we just manipulated it in post-production, because we needed to make his eyes bigger and more innocent, and play up the features that he had that didn’t quite translate as childlike.
AIPT: There’s some horror movie tropes in there, but it also deals with some really heady themes like mental illness. What do you want viewers to take away from it?
Christensen: I kind of want them to use their own experiences to help elevate the horror. I think a good example is my cousins. When they saw the first early cuts of the film, certain things didn’t really land with them as much because they weren’t parents yet. But since that happened, they’ve had their first kid, and things like toys going off, it just seems like a creepy trope thing. But when you’re actually living and you’ve got kids toys in your house and they start going off randomly in the middle of the night, it takes on a new meaning because it’s able to… It has that basis in reality that makes it more affecting for you. So I think parents will be able to watch this and get a different experience than someone that’s a big horror fan and they want to see some of those tropier aspects, and the jump scares, and things like that.
But I like the idea of keeping certain plot elements, like the past with Beth and her father, keeping them more vague, because it allows the viewer to put their own spin on it. We give information, we know that something happened in Beth’s past that caused a rift in their family. She’s not close with their mother anymore. Her and her sister are distant, and it’s not until her mother dies that it brings the family back together, which leads to Beth discovering things that she’d forgotten about. But without being too explicit about what actually happened with her father, it allows the viewer to create a little bit of their own narrative so they can potentially take their own experiences, like maybe a bad relationship, maybe someone dealing with some sort of illness or something like that, and they can kind of apply it. And I feel like when you’re able to do that, it gives it a bit more of a deeper meaning. We don’t ever outright say anything about mental illness, and me personally, I wouldn’t say that it is about mental illness, but I totally understand why someone might think that.
AIPT: Was it difficult to balance the more visceral horror with the psychological horror?
Christensen: I think they work with each other well. Because if you’ve got the visceral stuff and you’re taking basically a very suburban family, where the problems for most suburban families are very similar, like taxes, family issues, school, all these things. They’re kind of banal on the surface. But then when you start adding these supernatural elements, everything from the outside seems so perfect. It’s almost like an American Beauty thing where, from the outside these families all seem perfect, but the moment that there’s this one little stressor, this one little straw that breaks the camel’s back, and everything kind of implodes in on itself. It’s almost a house of cards.
I feel like they go hand in hand really well together because as you start adding in the supernatural elements, it starts to make you as a character, and you as an audience, kind of question the reality of what you’re seeing, just like Beth is. She sees certain things happening, she’s feeling certain things happening and there is kind of like a tinge of familiarity with it because of what she experienced as a child. But you don’t want to fully just launch off and start believing what an eight year old kid is telling you, because on the surface that’s absurd. So it’s just, how much are you going to believe and how much do you need to be proven wrong about your beliefs, before you start to accept that something might actually be happening? So I think those visceral moments. It does make you question, as a character, the reality that you think you’re living. Because certainly my son couldn’t do something like that. It’s got to be something else.
AIPT: Z is very scary and at times it does get violent, but there’s very little gore in it. Was this a conscious decision, or was it just kind of a product of making the movie?
Christensen: It’s kind of a product of just making the film. I think that there’s kind of a less is more situation here where, similar to Stillborn. Stillborn had the baby’s crib, that was really the only blood in the film. It’s almost more shocking not to see certain things.
And that’s terrifying, but I like the idea of just watching the reaction to something because, to me, sometimes not seeing is scarier. And I take that from my own childhood. Like when I would watch horror films with my family, my mom would always grab me and hold me during a scary part of something like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where the old woman in the bathtub’s about to get out and it’s terrifying. But to my mom, she thinks it’s better if she covers my eyes because she thinks if I don’t see it, I’m going to be okay. But what happens ultimately is that I start filling in the blanks for myself, and I hear the score happening, I hear the reactions in the room and I’m like, “Holy crap, my parents are freaking out this much. It must be super scary.” And inevitably you create something in your mind that’s potentially even worse than what’s on screen, because the imagination is a pretty powerful thing.
AIPT: We live in an era where two hour movies are pretty much the norm. Z is a very tight and laser-focused story. Was this important to you?
Christensen: I think it’s just, when you’re editing the film, the script was very tight. It had a million scenes in it, like an absurd amount of scenes. I think it was 185, which, if you read scripts, usually a 90 page script ends up being in the 110 to 130 range. So it was tightly written to go from scene to scene to scene to scene, and in the final edit, it’s missing like 30 or 40 scenes that we shot and they just didn’t make the cut, because we’re strong proponents of making sure that you’re keeping everything moving. You’re not stopping for any reason, unless you need to do something super important.
But audiences are really smart and it’s amazing what actors are able to do for the story of the film. You might think you need to learn something through a scene, but ultimately, if the actor is able to be true to the script and to the character, they’re able to put in these glimpses of things that you might be outright explaining in a scene later in the film that you realize that everyone’s already learned it because of what the performance is doing, and you find that the more you cut that down, the more that things like, say, Beth’s father and what happened with him, you’re able to put those pieces together as an audience.
And it’s almost a little more rewarding if you feel like you’re instinctively picking up something that we’re putting down. It makes you almost feel smarter where you’re not being spoon fed everything. You’re just able to sort of pick it up on your own. Like, “Oh, that’s an interesting look that that person just gave them. There must be something between those two characters that’s being unsaid.” Because actions speak louder than words. It’s trying to capitalize on those.
Christensen: But I think especially in horror movies, they usually end up being around 85 to 90 minutes just because it’s tough. A lot of these films, they’re based around smaller events with horror and stuff like that. You don’t want to stretch it too thin and make it boring. So it’s definitely tricky. You’re cutting it and you just want to make sure that you’re taking the audience for a ride, and the ride doesn’t ever get boring. So it’s kind of balancing story and experience the whole way and hoping to find a good balance.
AIPT: What future projects are you working on?
Christensen: I’m working on a script right now for another horror film. It’s a little different than the last two I’ve done. It’s not about a mom being scared to death by her kid. So it’s definitely something different. But I do need to go back to that so I can finish my mama trauma trilogy. I was actually supposed to be in production around now, but then everything got pushed because of the whole COVID-19 thing. So right now everything’s on hold until we figure out when we can start shooting again.
But it’s something totally different from what I’ve done before. And I’m just excited to try something new, and then maybe return to the demons and the supernatural horror things soon after. Because it’s always fun to use your imagination and the creativity to just try something crazy compared to what I’m trying to do right now, which is a lot more human on human craziness I guess.