INTERVIEW: Nj Calder, director of Fear Eats The Seoul

11 11 2010

There comes a time in everyone’s life in which they can take a chance to live their dream, or abandon it due to fear of failure.

Nj Calder took the chance.

Sugar -n- Thunder is thrilled to share this exclusive interview with the man himself: NYC-born, Korea-based filmmaker Nj Calder (of Kinetic Film), the blood -n- guts behind up-and-coming horror flick Fear Eats The Seoul.

Just to play catch-up, here’s the premise: When a raging demon epidemic sweeps across South Korea, four surviving English teachers must choose between waiting for help or fighting for their very lives. The ‘net ate up the teaser trailer released back in September.  Today, on 11/11/10, the FULL TRAILER is out and the next phase of this young filmmaker’s journey has officially begun.

We spoke with Nj about what led him from Queens, New York to South Korea, the experiences that spawned Fear Eats The Seoul, his favorite flicks of past and present, his personal history with filmmaking, his lifelong attraction to a darker aesthetic, and the all-important question: what is a horror director’s greatest fear?

THE INTERVIEW:

What drew you to making movies in the first place?

I just love stories. My earliest memories were of movies like Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien and Predator or Land Before Time. I always associated good times with renting VHS tapes when I was a kid. I was like a “Be Kind Rewind” professional with my 1950’s car shaped tape rewinder. I enjoyed the spectacle of blockbuster movies because it transported me to another world. So naturally, Jurassic Park changed my life. As I’ve gotten older I find that the purpose of making films for me is to express myself and my perspective, which will no doubt change as I keep on growing both mentally and spiritually. I want to tell good stories that are fantastical and unavailable to experience in our everyday lives. Sorry! There’re too many reasons I was drawn to movies!! Moving on! Next question damn it! [Laughs]

What made you take the leap and move to Korea? How long have you been there and what have you been doing?

Fear made me come initially. I was afraid after graduating college that I was going to fail and so instead of doing what I deep down knew I was supposed to, I fled the states to find myself in Korea. I thought I’d take a break from my life and live a little. I became an ESL teacher in Korea to pay off loans and grow up.

But as I’ve learned, thinking about not having money is a poisoning of the mind because it dictates that you can’t work on your dreams, but should instead find steady work and sacrifice your happiness. When, in fact, money is so far from the motivating factor that will open you up to pursuing your dreams. Of course it’s important to be financially aware but most people are also not very frugal and end up chaining themselves to debts.

Next July I’ll have been here for three years roughly. I have been teaching this whole time to subsidize the film. It’s not easy. At all. It’s like having two full time jobs and kids who like to eat other children and small animals and you constantly have to keep an eye on them with chains and whips on top of all your other crap.

What kind of space/time in your life did Fear Eats The Seoul come out of? Why are you making this movie right NOW?

It came from hating my last job as a preschool ESL teacher and feeling like I had become complacent. There are situations in Korea that I can’t help but culturally clash with, including teaching English to 18 month old babies. I was very unhappy because I had no clue what I was doing in the classroom anymore. It dawned on me that I was venturing so far from the path I once set out to take. And ultimately making decent money and having a free place was not enough. My dream kept bubbling to the surface while I was trying to push it down for the sake of a comfortable lifestyle.

So I finally quit that job and found a part-time one and my own place, which opened up my mind and my time to follow my own path. It became clear then that money was not as important if I was able to do what I was passionate about. So I finally accepted I AM a filmmaker and if that is so, I should start making some films.

Can you fill us in on the plot/concept of the movie?

The plot came from me, I’m going to be arrested [laughs], it came from me being so miserable at work that I just imagined I was stuck in this post apocalyptic Korea. And I was secretly looking for a way to kill off the mental presence of some choice co-workers or employers who will remain nameless. It became a catharsis.

But the plot is about these English teachers like myself, or the hundreds of thousands of others, who have been teachers abroad. And how we all know the big elephant in the room is that complacency is all too common. So on top of complacency, these characters are stuck in a real Hell when a demon infection spreads across the country preventing them from progressing with their lives. We meet them almost a month into the infection and they’re faced with the choice to own their fear and attempt escape or wait for someone to come save them.

I know it’s sometimes easy to write horror movies off as mindless chop-’em-up fiestas, but what is different about Fear Eats The Seoul? Is there a metaphor/meaning behind it?

[Laughs] Well it’s definitely a fiesta! I can’t relate to a lot of the horror films that are made these days. I can enjoy them as a spectacle or a superficial level of cool or whatever. But I can’t do it myself, not if the larger justification is to shock or disgust the audience for its own sake. I want to make something that is relatable and emotionally drawn. The film is really about the fear of taking flight in the face of the unknown. The characters represent those parts of us that are weak and afraid until that fear manifests as its own demon. It eats away at your confidence and your passions, your will to live. It’s an emotional horror thriller.

What has the process of making this movie been like?

It has been very surreal, almost unbelievable when I look at where I was only a year ago. It’s extreme highs and extreme lows. There is so much that goes into a film and if your crew consists of five people max, it’s compounded exponentially. This film has been a master class in filmmaking. We’ve been shooting on and off from July. It’s difficult to keep a production afloat when everyone on board has a day job on top of supporting this film. It’s a testament to their sheer willpower that they have all stuck by my side! Even the lows are worth it though because shit, I’m making a fucking movie!

What are the biggest challenges and biggest thrills?

The biggest thrills have been the major attack sequences, especially the last one we shot on October 3rd. I had a lot of fun shooting a major attack/fight in one of the character’s Kindergarten classrooms. On our last day we had 20 demon extras on board and we had to shoot in the pouring rain, which was a day of weather change. It was both the most challenging night and the most rewarding.

I wanted this crane shot so we rigged some rock climbing gear and hung me off a bridge as demons chased after the protagonists. It was definitely a moment I will never forget – having to climb the rope over and over in the cold downpour, my camera hanging off my neck and getting soaked. I earned every shot that night.

Another one involved me riding on the back of a motorcycle tracking a car as it was driving around the city and over bridges. It was nuts. But we got the shots. And I’m still alive.

You’re writer, director, and actor for this film, and also doing makeup/special FX – is it hard to balance it all?

No… not at all…. If you’re fucking Clint Eastwood. I regret having to act in it as well. Initially I was looking for someone to play that character but there was no one who fit. I love the craft but I won’t be doing both again soon. It’s enough work to have to direct everything. It’s another thing to have to suddenly focus on your role. I’d rather write the character out next time.

Being the writer and director on the other hand is a joy because it’s one less chef in the kitchen and you are ensured that the vision in your head permeates the screen. I got a close friend, Cho Young Hwa, on board for the special FX work. I had some experience and I showed her some things and very quickly she picked it up. So it was easier to just make her in charge of makeup effects. She has a strong fine arts background as well so I knew she wouldn’t let me down. She’s rocked with the budget and time restraints I’ve given her this whole time.

What is the best part about dreaming up these creatures, creating the makeup and effects, and seeing it all come to life?

The best part is just that. Seeing it all come to life. Something that you have had in your head for months, sometimes years. And to finally see it come to fruition and take on a life of its own is pure joy. Creating the look is great fun because you can be artistic and creative as well as technical. It takes a great deal of research, trial and error to come to a design that you love and is appropriate to the film tonally and logically. It was all fun. I love practical effects and special effects makeup. I can’t wait to create bigger and better monsters and creatures later, I really want to work with animatronics as well.

What makes you unique as a filmmaker and artist in general?

I think that’s a hard question because every artist and filmmaker technically is trying to be unique or just ARE unique. But what MAKES me an artist and filmmaker is my desire to express my inner world through moving pictures. I love to draw because it sets your mind free. I almost became an illustrator before I came to my senses. You can draw for your film. So the bigger picture is to make a film that includes all the things you love like drawing, design, acting, music, photography, storytelling, special effects, etc.

What/who are your influences as a filmmaker?

My strongest influences are Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Sally Menke, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino. I grew up loving their films and I’m always anticipating their next projects. There are so many influences. I love pieces of everything and everyone. Any genre, any style. I can find something that inspires me from almost anything.

Music is the second single influence on my life. It guides me through everything the universe throws at me. Whoever dislikes music is just lying.

What are your favorite films?

Jurassic Park for its concrete sense of awe and wonder, pure spectacle with perfect visual effects work. Kill Bill for its awesome style and epic storytelling of a woman who endures it all. House of Sand and Fog is just the saddest movie I’ve ever seen and I think it always will be. The Matrix is another film that I hold next to Jurassic Park for sheer badass awe and spectacle. Misery for its performances and writing. 500 Days of Summer is how I feel about life most days. Memories of Matsuko is an amazing look at its fictional character’s incredibly beautiful and sad life. Monsters Inc. is just wonderful. Pan’s Labyrinth for its unreal art direction and use of practicals, I love you Guillermo! When Harry Met Sally is brilliant and has not dated for the last 20 or so years… The Dark Knight is my favorite superhero film. Monster is awesome. That movie made me decide to go to film school; it came out when I was applying for a college major… The list goes on and on.

How do you feel about the recent crop of horror movies being released? Hits/misses?

Recently, there have been enough amazing horror films to keep me excited for the future. I don’t think there should be more than a few amazing horror films every year anyway or else people will grow tired and numb to what’s supposed to be good or blah.

Recently, Paranormal Activity and REC (the original) have broken my spirits down. I started sleeping with the lights on again after seeing those both. Easily, my two favorite horror movies of the past decade or so.

The Crazies, The Descent and its sequel, The Mist, Hostel Part II, Let The Right One In… There’s been a good slate of beautiful and truly horrifying movies. I’m excited to see what’s next as well as becoming a part of the next.

I’m not a fan of the trends in horror. Like Asian ghost girls and torture porn or even vampires. Zombies are an exception. They never go out of style. There’s just something about the dead coming back to life and walking the Earth that is just right up my alley.

Why has the horror genre always stood out to you?

It’s what I was first exposed to and I relate to that darker aesthetic. If I were to label my style, it’s definitely dark in tone. I’m a pretty happy guy and my friends can attest to my laughing at everything maybe even too much. So my darker energy has to be released elsewhere. It comes out through my films and art.

What’s next for you and Fear Eats The Seoul?

The post-production process comes next. It’s my absolute favorite part. Because when you write it things will change in production. When you go into production things will change in post. But when you’re in post you are there making the final film, what will actually be up on the screen. It’s taking all the elements from the visuals to the sound and music and mixing it together into a coherent, fluid work of moving picture art.

In my high school art classes I hated collages. I was so bad at cutting and pasting shit together and I always wished to be good at it. Turns out I am good at collage, just not with paper and paint.

Why do you know this is what you’re meant to do?

Because I can’t even fry two eggs without burning the shit out of them or walk and talk on the phone at the same time. There’s only one thing in this world that I can do and want to do and want to get better and better at doing. It’s film.

It started with film and it will end with film. And I’m not wasting anymore of my time on this Earth NOT making films.

What is YOUR greatest fear?

Growing up I was so scared of the dark. What I couldn’t see in the dark frightened me because my imagination would run wild, it didn’t help that I was watching Nightmare 3: Dream Warriors at age 4.

In my adult life, failure has been my greatest fear. It was the bleakest moment of my entire life last summer. I had gone home for two months before returning to Korea. I went home thinking of finding work in Hollywood and when I went there I didn’t feel it was my kind of place at all. Not at that time anyway. And when I went home to New York, I sat in my old room and I thought, “Maybe I’m not going to make it. I’ll be thirty and forty and I’ll be working somewhere not too bad, but just living to live.” That threw my heart into the pit of my stomach. I had never known a moment like that before it and it probably will always be my greatest fear, not becoming a filmmaker. Before leaving the school environment of college I had always said that I was going to be amazing and all this crap. But I had someone constantly leading me in that direction in the form of mentors and homework.

The moment I left college there was no one to push me forward anymore. It’s a very isolating feeling. It’s a very sad and disconnected place to be in one’s life. It took me two and half years to find myself and take charge. Some people take ten or twenty years and then it’s too late.

Fear eats the soul.

Very special thanks to Nj Calder and the cast and crew of Fear Eats The Seoul! Stay updated by adding/liking/subscribing to Nj’s Facebook, Fear Eats The Seoul’s Facebook, Kinetic Film’s blog, and Nj’s Vimeo account.

And never let fear of anything keep you from LIVING, especially living your dreams.

– audrey leopard

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