Exclusive Interview with “Detention of the Dead” Director Alex Craig Mann

– by Gig Patta

DetentionoftheDead It’s definitely the year of the zombies.

After “Warm Bodies” and “World War Z,” a fun zombie comedy sneaks into the theaters with “Detention of the Dead.”

This is a small budget zombie indie film that is a cross between “The Breakfast Club” and “Shaun of the Dead.” It follows a group of high school students stuck in detention as the zombie infection spreads outside the hall.

Latino-Review caught up with “Detention of the Dead” director Alex Craig Mann in person to discuss about the approach with the John Hughes-like story and the traditional slow moving zombie hoard. Mann also even discussed a little about possibly adapting it into a television project.

“Detention of the Dead” is in select theaters today. It is now available on-demand and digitally purchas on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes and Xbox 360.

Read the full interview transcript below:

Latino-Review: Where did you get the idea for Detention of the Dead?

Alex Craig Mann: It was a play. By the man I wrote the screenplay with and his name is Rob Rinow. It was brought to me at a theater company I work with, which is the Beverly Hills Playhouse. I teach acting there as well. So they brought me the play and we had a lot of fun, but I saw a lot of potential as a first film. The business model for horror/horror comedy is doable nowadays. The genre fans are so supportive.

Latino-Review: When I first watched the movie, I did thought to myself that this seems like a play to me.

Alex Craig Mann: And you’re correct! The play is vastly different. It was very much campy comedy. And I brought my love of John Hughes and let’s try to tie down that wacky comedy. We tried to tie it down to the love triangle that John Hughes love so much like the outcast nerd, who has his outcast friend, the goth chick. And all he really wants is the really hot cheerleader. But, he really bellows with the other outcast.

Latino-Review: Did you do a lot of John Hughes or zombie research for the film?

Alex Craig Mann: Yeah, my whole life.

Latino-Review: Are you a big John Hughes fan and a zombie fan at the same time?

Alex Craig Mann: John Hughes, definitely. I was a fan of zombies, but I don’t think I was a fanatic exactly. In my research for preparing the play and film, I had to watch as much as I can get my hands on. Believe it or not, I had a friend who did his master’s thesis on zombie movies. It’s all about conformity and such. So he was about to guide me in my education.

Latino-Review: Wow, what did he specifically taught you about zombies then?

Alex Craig Mann: First off, he taught me about the history of conformity. [We] started off with “Night of the Living Dead” to the modern day and straight horror version of “28 days.” Of course, [we studied] “Shaun of the Dead,” which is the classic of comedies now. We looked at what they’re supposed to represent. Their standard structure is that the apocalypse hits [so] they’re on the run and then they hole up some place.

There are always standard things that happen in all of them. One of them will decide to go outside and breaks free of the fortress. Now everybody is at risk. There’s a lot of different things that are standard in a lot of the movies.

Latino-Review: Yeah, I noticed that you used some of that into your movie.

Alex Craig Mann: 100 percent. There are bits in it and certain things that I do that I think are unique. I try to be “original” and to my vision. Let’s just face the facts. There’s not a lot in this world that is totally original. Being on a lower budget, I wasn’t looking to reinvent the wheel. To me, it was a love letter to all the films I loved, like the John Hughes movies. It’s a homage.

Latino-Review: Speaking of that, there are a lot of zombie movies this year alone. “Warm Bodies” just came out earlier this year. “World War Z” is out this month. Last year, we had “Resident Evil.” What will make this one different from the rest?

Alex Craig Mann: My budget is probably their weekly catering budget. And that’s the truth especially for something like “World War Z.” Even for “Shaun of the Dead,” which had a budget between $8 to $10 million, we were probably one twentieth of that.

So the biggest difference if you see “World War Z” and then sneak into the next theater to see mine is that all of our effects completely practical. I mean at least 95 percent anyways. Everything is hand made.

In the opening sequences when the first zombie appears as a student in the classroom, you see that hand breathing. That is literally just off the frame, Dan Phillips, my special effects guy had a hose attached underneath the skin to a little balloon just beneath that actor’s hand. He just going like this [makes breathing noise]. So it makes it look like it’s pulsating.

Everything is practical! That’s probably unique, because I don’t think it’s done very often. CGI is too popular now.

Latino-Review: I was going to ask you on why you diverted away from CGI. Was it just too expensive? Or did you felt to go with a more traditional route.

Alex Craig Mann: A little of both. I knew I couldn’t raise that kind of money. I once worked, as an actor, with a director named Henry Jaglom in “Festival in Cannes.” One of the expressions I learned there was that “the absence of limitations is the enemy of art.” Because I had no money, I had to figure out creative ways to tell the story and with really cool effects.

It turns out that genre fans, at least in my research, they really love the practical effects. So I said, “Great! Let’s embrace the lower budget.” So we not try to run from it. Let’s embraced it. And we tried to really incorporate low budget effects into my concept. We had a lot of fun with it.

[Since] because of this campy comedy, I think it worked like with the rat. It’s a puppet. We know it’s a puppet, which echoes the 80s films like “Critters.” I couldn’t afford the animatronics and CGI, so we just embraced it and had fun.

Latino-Review: What was the most challenging thing on the set with all these special effects?

Alex Craig Mann: Physical blood. For example, we had the running gag in which we shoot Janet with blood. We didn’t have time for resets. We literally had one costume change for her. We didn’t have many costumes. We didn’t have the budget for it. So what we had to do is to line up the shot, we had this plastic bag essentially and had to shoot it exactly where it had to land…..like 20 times. She had to be a real trooper and a pro. If she got hit with blood and laughed or something, then that would really be a problem for us. We had to get it right on the first time. There’s no time for resets. There’s no time for cleaning up. That was the most challenging feature for the film.

Latino-Review: Where was this filmed at? Did you get an actual school building?

Alex Craig Mann: Pontiac, Michigan. We got three schools in a way. All the stuff you see, in fact the school is called Lincoln, and the uniforms were literally lying on the ground. It was great. It was like a scavenger hunt for the stuff that we needed. It was sort of a commentary on the education system, but also the economy in Michigan that is still going through a rough time. That time was horrible. Even when we left, they closed 70 schools. I mean 70!

Latino-Review: That is a lot.

Alex Craig Mann: When I did location scouts, the first school we looked at literally looked like a zombie apocalypse hit and the kids just ran. Not only school uniforms, there were books and musical instruments just strewed about. There were dead rats and copper wiring pulled out of the walls. It was really like a horror show. My first location was burned down by vandals.

Another location was a storage used by a high school. You would see in the behind the scenes, floor-to- ceiling and wall-to-wall, of just junk. [There were] desks, musical instruments, books, uniforms, clothes…..just piled to the ceiling. The gymnasium was just crazy.

So when we point the cameras, everything looks pristine and beautiful. And behind us in the room is just…..junk!

We had a few schools there for production. One of the reasons we went there was for that very reason. The other reason is because of the location costs. Here in Los Angeles, there’s a lot of permits and all of the unions—we couldn’t afford it.

Latino-Review: I read on your web site that you’re planning to adapt this into a TV show. Could you discuss more details about that and how that’s progressing?

Alex Craig Mann: We did. We have a pilot that’s loosely based on the movie. It’s sort of a re-imagination of since that it’s small spoiler that most of the cast don’t make it to the end of the movie. It’s sort of a science fiction version of “Buffy.”

We’re really pleased with the pilot we wrote. And now we’re just waiting to see if anyone is interested, which depends on how the movie does. And it’s over on how I’m received; how the cast is received; and on how my co-writer is received. And we’ll see if anyone is interested in seeing that.

Latino-Review: Did you also directed the pilot or have someone else do it?

Alex Craig Mann: We haven’t. It’s just a script. For TV, it’s hard to do it independently. That’s a lot of money.

For this, you can do it as a one thing and sell it. For TV, you really need a company or studio that says, “Let’s do this.”

Latino-Review: For that, you almost are following like the Amazon.com’s “Zombieland” route.

Alex Craig Mann: Exactly. We’ll see what happens. It’s there. We’ll show it to people as we go. Right now, it’s simply a pilot.

Latino-Review: Most of your directing came from the stage, how was the transition from stage to a feature film like this? What were the greatest challenges for you specifically?

Alex Craig Mann: My strength is working with actors. I teach professional acting. My whole history is being an actor and working with actors on stage. There’s the understanding on how to create life and tell a story. That’s where I am most comfortable.

I try to do a film by being smart and humble. I must hire people around me. I had a great cinematographer like Nolan Rosenthal. I had a great producer in Brooke Anderson and who were able to help me as I educate myself as I went. I’ve done some short films. As an actor, I’ve done some TV and films.

So I’m not completely ignorant. I was able to use my vision to describe of what I saw and acted out for them. They would obviously figure out the best way to shoot that. It’s to translate my vision into something concrete.

The challenge is supposed to be an understanding and staying in the mindset that I don’t know everything. Just make sure that I keep learning every day and trust the people around me.

Latino-Review: Did you try to contact actual film directors for advice or guidance?

Alex Craig Mann: That’s a good question if I did that. I think going into it—I had always talked to directors and had communication with them. I worked in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” a little while. I was in touch with Terry Gilliam. I was in touch with Henry Jaglom.

Any time I was on a set, even before I wanted to be a director, I watched. I never left the set. I wasn’t somebody that hung out in my dressing room. I was always watching. I was trying to absorb what I could.

So going into this process, I didn’t talk to anybody specifically about this [project]. In a way, I was always learning and observing for years.

Latino-Review: Do you miss acting? Would you like to go back to acting or do you want to proceed into producing, writing and director?

Alex Craig Mann: My passion has definitely transferred to writing, directing and producing. I like being responsible for the whole vision. I very much love actors and helping them be the best they can be. That’s why I teach professional acting.

But, I never said I’m just done with acting. It’s not something that I’m looking to pursue actively as a career right now. With any luck, maybe I could do it like Quentin Tarantino by having that juicy role in just a couple of scenes. So I would like to do that.

Latino-Review: I also understand you have another TV project called “Herc.” Is that also in the same boat as the TV project for “Detention of the Dead?”

Alex Craig Mann: Same boat. The early drafts are written. We are constantly revamping it. Part of the game when you have your first film coming out is to have as many things on the burner. But like with everything else, it basically requires somebody to say, “I like that idea. I like you. And here’s money.” That’s the catalyst for all that to happen.

I like that project a lot. It’s basically like “Grimm” with Greek mythology.

Latino-Review: You’re talking about the TV show?

Alex Craig Mann: Yeah, like that except the focus is about Hercules and brings Greek mythology into it. It’s a modern day Hercules story. I think it’ll be great. But like anything else in this town, somebody has to think it’s great.

Latino-Review: I’ll give you one more question to wrap it up. Let’s say the zombie apocalypse hits today. What are you going to do for survival? What would you think you would do?

Alex Craig Mann: [Laughter] First, I run. Grab my family. [Laughter] Get to safe ground and hole up with as much survival gear possibly could. I definitely look forward to something like “World War Z,” so you can imagine what a [zombie apocalypse] would be like. I think that’s what it would be.

[Laughter] I’ve never been asked that question. I just get a baseball bat and start swinging. What else can you do?

What’s scary about it, as a side issue, is that with all the variations of mutations of diseases—it seems like it’s almost possible. Almost. Somebody could go rabid and go crazy. And all of the sudden—who knows?

I think that hole up and hide. And hopefully you have a lot of friends with guns I suppose. And I don’t have any.

Latino-Review: In my personal opinion, I hope the zombies are like yours where they are slow.

Alex Craig Mann: [Laughter] Right. Funny side note is that I couldn’t afford those zombies, because if they move too fast they’ll cast my actors. Literally, I would have to go up to some of the extras and say, “slow down.” If they caught them then it’s like the movie’s over. [Laughter] It’s almost by necessity that they have to be the slow and stumbling kind.

Latino-Review: Thank you very much.

Alex Craig Mann: Thank you.

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