Three years ago Alexandre Philippe brought his The People vs George Lucas to New Zealand to open the Documentary Edge Festival. This year he returned with zombie-themed Doc of the Dead and a presentation on pop culture docos.
“9/11 brought the idea of apocalypse to our doorsteps,” Philippe observed before a segue into zombie culture and the changes it’s undergone in recent years. They’ve started to move faster, they can actually catch us now. He reckoned the zombie movie was currently a healthy genre because it continued to evolve. In recent years it’s expanded into romcom, kids movies and comedies.
Around five years ago, Philippe settled on zombies as a topic for a future film and a way to satisfy his “fetish for popular culture”. He tracks trends and had become convinced that the zombie apocalypse was the coming thing and, therefore, the perfect subject matter for a film.
Having made the decision that the zombie horde wasn’t going to lie down, Philippe had to wait to get started on the idea. Completing The People vs. George Lucas was a more immediate priority.
Philippe followed that with The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus, “the world’s most beloved and scorned cephalopod” who had a far better run at the last Football World Cup than the All Whites. In all, Philippe had to wait three years before he was really able to get his hands dirty on Doc of the Dead.
As it happened, that was a good thing, because a couple of other major undead-themed productions came along during those three years and pushed zombies very much out of the genre pigeonhole and into the mainstream. The delay also allowed what was left of the sparkly vampire obsession to run its course.
One of those major productions was Marc Forster’s feature World War Z, which did just over US$200 million at the box office. The other was The Walking Dead, the show that put zombies in living rooms in primetime. With a fifth season on the way, its popularity shows little sign of dying off – even if core characters regularly do.
Walking Dead creator and Executive Producer Robert Kirkman became one of Doc of the Dead’s key contributors, along with actor Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) and the filmmaker more associated with zombies than anyone else, George Romero (Night of the Living Dead).
But all those references come at a price. Philippe shared some of the challenges of making documentaries about pop culture, and the difficulties of using film-footage to make documentary commentary.
“The licence fees for footage are $8,000 a minute in the USA and are sold in whole minutes. That makes you think twice about including 10 seconds of a film in your documentary.”
Aside from the cost, rights have to be cleared by the Director’s Guild and the Writer’s Guild. Each actor appearing has to give permission, or the use has to be negotiated for a further fee. This can be a challenge with old B Movie footage where it can be difficult to find the actors, and when agents demand the SAG rate of $859 for an appearance in a documentary.
Lately, Philippe has invoked “fair use”. If it’s OK for theorists to quote a certain percentage of books, why shouldn’t documentary film-makers be able to use a certain percentage of film in their documentary which is also providing a theoretical critique?
One reason – for a film with international potential – is that fair use provisions vary considerably from country to country and are usually worded in (legalese alert) very woolly language.
Fair or foul, Doc of the Dead is on a roll. Its festival selections span documentary and fantasy festivals as well as ‘normal’ ones. Premiered at SXSW, its international premiere was at HotDocs. Doc of the Dead also played up and coming US horror festival Stanley – as did Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, Gerard Johnstone’s Escalator feature Housebound and Paul Glubb & Nic Gorman’s award-winning short Here Be Monsters.The night before the Screen Edge Forum opened it was announced that Doc of the Dead will have its European premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Outside of festivals the US distribution will be done through Epix, which was the production’s funder. Rights for Canada have also been sold, despite the suggestions that taking zombies to Canada might seem like taking coals to Newcastle.
A distribution deal is done for Taiwan, which has had its own zombie challenges of late – blamed in World War Z as the origin of the outbreak, suffering through Jen-Hao Chien’s Zombie 108 and awaiting Joe Chen’s Zombie Fight Club.
Since pop culture is Philippe’s interest, he doesn’t restrict himself to making films about it. He’s also the co-creator of Fried Comics, which he describes as “not for everyone – it’s an equal opportunity offender”. At the screenings he’s attending of Doc of the Dead, Philippe does a bit of cross-promotion by giving away codes for free digital downloads of Fried Comics’ Western/zombie-themed story Deadskins!
Philippe closed his Screen Edge session with a story of the fan reaction to changes George Lucas made to Star Wars.
“Fans reacted like he was changing a sacred text,” Philippe said. “The film was so much more than a movie to them. That’s what I’m interested in: when pop culture becomes contentious.”
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An abbreviated version of part of this article first appeared in the Screen Edge Forum daily The Knowledge on 30 May 2014.