Science should never mess with life after death.
“The Lazarus Effect” follows a small group of scientists in an illegal experiment to prolong life or even perhaps revive the dead. An accident with one of their members created a situation in which revives her from death, but possibly granting her evil powers against the group.
The movie starred Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters and Donald Glover. It also make the directorial narrative debut for David Gelb.
Latino-Review had an exclusive phone interview with the director. We discussed on making a low budget horror, narrative versus documentary films, life after death and the dog.
“The Lazarus Effect” is out on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital Download today.
Latino-Review: Why were you attracted to this project?
David Gelb: Well, I guess I always wanted to make a horror film ever since I was little. I just loved it. I know “love” is a strong word. As a kid, my older cousins would show me scary movies when I was way too young to watch them. I was sort of traumatized by that, but always had fun on dealing with being scared.
My career found its way in doing documentary work to this day, but I always wanted to make things I wanted to watch. It’s been a goal of mine to make a horror film. Even though I do documentaries, I do love narrative films.
I thought for my first narrative film will be a horror film. It’s very fortunate to come across a script that I found it very interesting. And it’s to convince the illustrious Jason Blum to get behind me to help make it a reality.
Latino-Review: That is very interesting. For “The Lazarus Effect,” what made this so interesting that it had to be your very first horror?
David Gelb: I liked it because it was a manageable size. It was contained. For my first narrative film, I didn’t want to do something that was kind of big budget. I wanted to do something that was smaller and contained in this space. I loved the idea that it was a team research group that they’re all there together. The movie “The Abyss” came to mind about a team of researchers who were trapped in this really crappy situation. There was a phenomenon that and they started to distrust each other. I appreciated that they had elements of that in there.
I also wanted to look at the question on what happens when you die. That’s something that humans will never know, because we don’t get to experience that and come back. Or at least not yet. I appreciate there are some scientific breakthroughs involving extending the mind beyond their lifespan, using younger blood and other neurological advances. We start to blur the lines of life and death with certain animals.
I think it was kind of cool to tell a story that’s a classic archetype. It’s very much an homage to “Flatliners,” “Frankenstein” or even “Re-Animator.” It had this realistic nod towards science in a certain degree.
Those are some of the things I’ve considered for this movie. What I really liked about it was that a protagonist at the beginning of the movie takes a very traumatic turn as the movie goes on. That would be a really great role for an awesome actress. We’re very fortunate that Olivia Wilde responded to it as well. Her performance in the film was one of the favorite things in this movie.
Latino-Review: I was going to say that we’ve done this before with “Re-Animator,” “Frankenstein” or even “Flatliners.” You’re telling me that “The Lazarus Effect” is slightly different due to the extra research involved?
David Gelb: Yeah, we tried to make it feel more realistic or grounded. Now on how realistic it really was since there was still some supernatural phenomenon that happened. We tried to do is to try to create doubt in the audiences’ minds on whether the phenomenon that’s occurring is something that’s supernatural or is it because of the science. The science is completely beyond their control. It’s unlocking blatant human abilities that we all have, but we have no control over or never manifested itself.
It’s to turn on parts of the brain that never had been working before. It’s a real comparison with “Lucy.” We had written this film and completed before “Lucy” came out, but that movie beat us out to the market. So it was an idea we both had at the same time. It’s an interesting take of looking at the phenomenon of this movie, which is the scientific take of it.
We do want to patch some doubts in the audiences’ minds if it’s just a serum or she actually went back to hell and brought a supernatural force with her. And this leads back to the question of “What happens when you die?” A person would be haunted with the bad experiences and the bad decisions that were made. It’s a nod to “Flatliners” in their experiences when they come back.
It’s homage towards a lot of our favorite things. Just with very cool modern tasks and set pieces that we have never seen before.
Latino-Review: I thought it was kind of funny that you brought up “Lucy,” because it’s all about using one hundred percent of your brain to gain powers and telekinesis. I’m glad you made the point that technically your movie completed first or at the same time—except that they beat you to the punch in the theaters.
David Gelb: Oh, yeah. When I saw the “Lucy” trailer, I said, “Oh, shit.” [Laughter] “Lucy” isn’t the first movie that explores the idea of the brain being used to its full potential. There’s a lot of language that was very similar. So I went, “Oh, man. Oh, well.” [Laughter] All that I can do is make the film and I can’t control when they come out.
Latino-Review: This is a Blumhouse picture since you’ve mentioned that you worked with Jason Blum regarding the production of this. He’s very well known for low budget horrors. How much constraints were there in terms of the production?
David Gelb: It’s all in the tradeoff. In this situation, we were working on a very limited budget and a very tight shooting schedule. There are certain limitations that come with that such as you have to shoot things very quickly. You have to know exactly on what you’re doing on set and you have to execute it. There isn’t any extra time. There are certainly challenges involved with that.
The benefit of that with low budget is that we have to be more creative and we were freer from the studio oversight that comes into play with a larger budget movie. We were left to our own devices for a film that we wanted to make, but had to do it with a more limited resources.
We did have on our side been with an experience crew that worked on a lot of Jason’s movies. They were very experienced in these situations in having to shoot very quickly. We also had these incredible actors that they were so good that they would nail the first take every time. That took a lot of pressure off us since they came in and knew exactly on what they were doing. They would just nail it. Then we could do some improvisation and do some variations on it so I have more choices in the edit.
It’s liberating that I don’t have the same kind of scrutiny and pressure than those larger budget films. But, you do have less toys to play with. So we had to rely a lot suggestion to the audience. It may be a more effective technique. It was certainly a lot of fun to do. I learned a great deal from this. These actors are so experienced and they all have this incredible body of work. Mark Duplass, being a director himself, was incredible helpful on set. There was a very collaborative spirit between myself and all the actors.
Latino-Review: What was the greatest challenge for you since you made the move from a documentarian to a feature film?
David Gelb: I think my greatest challenge going from a documentary to a narrative is not only on how the story is captured, but also on what is actually happening on screen. When you’re making a documentary film, you’re filming real things that are actually happening. When you’re making a narrative film, you have to make up things. There are so many decisions and considerations to made and there’s a much larger crew that needs to have direction.
When you’re making a narrative, I used to be worrying about the cameras, the lenses and on what angle I was going to capture this story. There’s also the worry about the set, the production design, the hair, the makeup and the wardrobe. There are a lot of decisions and preparations to made in advance.
In a documentary film, I could shoot a bunch and go into the edit room. I could take some time to see what works and then go out to shoot more. You can’t really do that with a narrative film. In a narrative film, you really need to know on what you’re doing. Many narrative films get to do some pickups and reshoots in the end. It still differs from the documentary film that you really have to be prepared. In the documentary, you can discover things as you go. So with this movie, there was a lot of pressure to get it right the first time.
Latino-Review: Tell me about working with the dog. You had an excellent actor there.
David Gelb: [Chuckles] Casting the dog was one of the most fun things. We wanted a dog that could be both cute and also scary. We came across Cato who played the dog Rocky in the film. Cato was originally found in Mexico City as a street dog. They brought him into the United States and gave him a home. It turned out to be an incredibly smart dog. He’s very expressive, especially with his eyebrows.
It’s very interesting and it’s one of my favorite shots in the movie—the dog was being pushed into this MRI machine. He had to be very non-motional, but still looking around with his eyes wondering, “What is going on? What is happening to me?”
The biggest challenge with this dog is that the dog was so sweet, so cute and so eager. It was difficult to make him look ferocious. This dog didn’t like growling and barking that much. He was just a very happy dog that rarely get aggressive.
Our trainer came up with genius way to turn on the primal part of his brain. He would put this piece of stake on a wooden pike. It’s like a rib-eye attached on a string on the end of a wooden pike. Cato would be chewing on the steak and be perfectly happy. The trainer would pull the steak away and pull up a werewolf’s mask.
Cato would think that this werewolf was trying to steal his steak. He would growl and bark at the werewolf. [Laughter] It’s really funny to watch off camera. For the movie, I thought it was kind of effective to see this snarly and scary side of Cato.
Shooting with a dog definitely takes this extra time. We had great trainers that did a lot of preparations beforehand.
Latino-Review: Being this your first feature film, would you like to do this again? And what are some of your future projects?
David Gelb: I would absolutely love to do more narrative feature films. And documentary projects as well. I do have this show on Netflix called, “Chef’s Table.” It’s sort of a sequel to “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” my documentary debut of the world’s greatest sushi chef. The series on Netflix is about chefs from around the world to show their being as visionary chefs. It’s available on Netflix now.
I also did a documentary on the Ford Mustang. It’s an incredibly story about its inception. It’s on a how car that nobody wanted to make at the Ford Motor Company. It later became one of the most successful cars in history and on how it became one of the most important cars in pop culture.
And I do have a couple of narrative projects that haven’t been announced that I can’t talk about it just yet. My hope is to continue to make both narrative and documentary films.
Latino-Review: Sounds good. Do you believe in life after death?
David Gelb: I think I’m more on the scientific side of it. You’ll see this in “The Lazarus Effect.” Olivia Wilde’s character said that she believed in some sort of afterlife. Mark Duplass’s character said that it’s not really. You’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a hallucinogenic that your brain produces to help you deal with the trauma and pain. No one really knows why the brain does that.
I’m kind of at the party of that people who have near death experiences are actually hallucinating before death. Is there an actual afterlife? I don’t think we’ll ever know. I’m skeptical.
Latino-Review: [Laughter] I appreciate this interview. I do wish you good luck with projects, David.
David Gelb: Awesome. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
“The Lazarus Effect” is out on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital Download today.