Jordan Downey on The Head Hunter

Talent, dedication and smarts, that's all you need when you want to beat a micro-budget. While director Jordan Downey is hardly the first director to put this theory into practise, it's always fun bumping into a film that proves talent trumps money. Downey was kind enough to answer a couple of questions, explaining in detail how exactly he managed to create The Head Hunter, a stylish and challenging genre film that throws out all the preconceptions you might have about low-budget cinema.

Jordan Downey on The Head Hunter

Niels Matthijs: I'll just come out with the most pressing question right away. Just how do you make a film for 30.000 dollar?

Jordan Downey: Well, the short answer is this - a few people have to do the jobs of many, and do them well. During the production, it was only myself, Kevin Stewart, Ricky Fosheim, and for a short period Chad McClellan, on the crew. That was it. We had to do everything from directing to cinematography to production design to makeup and effects. For months before shooting, Kevin and I worked around the clock making monster heads and medieval props, which we shipped to Portugal where we filmed. Once we got there, we then had to dress the entire set, including landscaping around the yard and in the woods to make it look lived in and appropriate to our world and time period. I always tell people that this is a handmade movie because we literally touched every prop in that movie. Every single thing you see on screen (minus the incredible costume which was made by Andre Bravin in Sweden) had to be either created or positioned by one of three people on set. Thankfully we have been making films like this for years, so we’ve built up skills in all departments of film production. But that’s how you keep it cheap... labor and supply costs are kept at an ultimate low, camera and lighting packages.

It may be an unfair comparison, but the fact remains that with the budget of Avengers Endgame, you could make, give or take, 10.000 The Head Hunter films. I understand the complexity is incomparable, on the other hand I can't escape the feeling that big cinema must be spending its money irresponsibly. What's your take on these immense differences in budget?

I mean, $30,000, is ridiculous but I do think there’s far more room in the film industry for lower budget movies that still maintain a high production value. I can’t pretend to be an expert at how that money is being allocated at the level of Avengers Endgame, but I do think blockbusters have expanded in scope to a degree that actually has a reverse effect on my senses. I really don’t feel much of anything for most characters engaged in a massive CG battle, where physics and stunts have no weight and consequence. I just don’t connect with most action sequences anymore. Just because you can show everything, doesn’t mean you always should. I love spectacle, I just wish it was reigned in a little more in most cases. Those tentpole movies are so massive and have to appeal to such a broad audience that I think they tend to lose a bit of edge and originality in the process as well. I appreciate when action movies narrow it down and remind you of the little things at play amidst chaos around you. All that to say, I definitely think there's room to make big, fun, energetic movies, that don't have to be quite as massive and expensive, yet can still appeal broadly enough to make money.

While watching The Head Hunter, I got the feeling the film wasn't good despite its budget, but because of it. Many decisions didn't just end up being cost-effective, but actually gave the film a very unique flavour. Was this a very conscious process, or did it happen because there just wasn't any other way to get the film made?

Yeah, absolutely. I don’t care how much money we would have had, there are certain choices that would have always remained the same, like not showing every single creature in this kingdom. The intent was never to make a monster action movie, we were always making a horror movie set in medieval times. And horror movies work best by controlling what you see, building up to something, and creating suspense. We’ve seen dragons fly overhead a million times prior, we’ve seen CG Van Helsing style medieval action, but what we hadn’t seen was a very intimate and narrow view of one guy who lives in a world surrounded by these elements audiences already understand. So that was our goal from the start. That’s not to say that with more money, I wouldn’t have loved to go bigger with the final fight. That’s where I would have put the money. Because I do like movies that deliver and don’t leave you hanging, so I think the appropriate time to have used more resources would have been on the final monster encounter, although I think we pulled it off just enough to tell the story we wanted to tell.

The Head Hunter is a clear blend of horror and fantasy. That's not a mix of genres you see very often, even though it looks like such an obvious combination. What prompted you to bring these genres together and why do you think this combination is so rare?

Kevin and I sat down pitching each other ideas from any genre and time period when we were looking for a script to write that we could produce ourselves. It was happenstance that the idea we liked best was set in medieval times. As you say, horror and fantasy haven’t been explored nearly enough and that was a huge selling point for us wanting to make this movie. I sometimes get equally excited about the business aspect of a movie, meaning do I believe there’s a reason to make a movie beyond it being a really cool concept or story. I have no idea why it hasn’t been done more, but I suspect it's somewhat because the time period and setting seem to be such scary territory when it comes to lower budget productions. When we told people we were going to make a medieval movie for $30,000 they thought we were crazy, so I imagine others have had the same reaction over the years. Not only do you have to nail the horror aspects such as make-up and creature effects, but you also have to nail the production design and costume aspects of a period piece. For a lot of people, that may be too much to try and juggle, I don't know. One thing’s for sure, after making The Head Hunter, it's only made me think about how much further you can go with the concept and how we haven’t yet truly seen the ultimate medieval horror movie yet (Army of Darkness may the closest in my opinion).

The Head Hunter did remind me a little of Sauna (Antti-Jussi Annila - 2008), a little known Finnish horror flick I don't think many people are aware of. Any films or directors that directly or indirectly influenced The Head Hunter?

I’ll have to check that out! Many films influenced us. I’d say The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in general might be the biggest influence on me for The Head Hunter. The camera movement, zooms, and overall grime in the production design was something heavily referenced from that movie. Quest for Fire was another one in terms of how to tell a movie very visually with grand locations. We looked at Game of Thrones and The Witch for how dark and risky they were with their lighting. Oddly there’s this old book I liked as a kid called The Tailypo that was very influential for some of the story aspects. There’s a POV inside the helmet that was my nod to John Carpenter’s Halloween. A lot of people mention seeing traces of The Evil Dead which wasn’t intentional but I do love Sam Raimi and early Peter Jackson, both of which used this kind of wide angle handheld look which we did some of in The Head Hunter. As with any movie you make, it’s really a love letter to many things you’ve seen and loved over the years.

Genre fans are a very loyal and excited bunch, but when you're doing a genre film and you deliberately keep genre elements off-screen, you're sure to piss off part of your audience. Were you worried about that?

We knew before shooting a single frame that it would piss some people off, yes. What I always bet on however was that we could pull off enough of a surprise and enough of a climax that it would make you realize the movie was never about those earlier fights... it was always about setting up all the little clues and details that would pay off in enough of a final battle to please horror fans. One thing I will say is that most horror movies neglect the heart and soul of their main characters so that was something we also wanted to put time into early on. When I watch movies, I’d rather care about someone and get invested in their life before the heart pounding starts. The goal was really to make a character driven mood piece with just enough action to balance out the art house aspects.

Did you spend much time detailing the elements you didn't include on-screen, or did you prefer them to be somewhat vague and undefined for yourself too?

We didn’t detail them too much, but we did know the main ideas of what was happening. For instance when he rides off after the second horn in the movie, we knew he was encountering a werewolf like creature that would kill his horse. Some kind of struggle took place that led to the death of his horse, and ultimately him having to walk a great distance to get home. It was one of those things where we didn’t NEED to know everything that happened because a lot of it wasn’t important to the story. We just had to make sure that what you are shown is important to this specific movie’s story.

Soundtracks (including sound design) are one of my biggest pet peeves. I think they're criminally underused by most directors, luckily The Head Hunter was a welcome exception. How did you meet up with Soole & Wegener and did you give them any particular instructions?

Well I completely agree with you. To be honest, and maybe not everyone agrees with me, but I genuinely think the difference between me liking a movie and loving a movie is often the soundtrack. So I put sound design and score at such a high priority in terms of all the elements that make up a movie. Eric I’ve known for a while... we went to film school together, and he’s done the last three movies we’ve made. Because they’ve all been somewhat low budget he’s always had his work cut out for him, often having to completely replace most of the minimal production audio we recorded on set. Eric saw a really early cut of The Head Hunter and had some terrific suggestions and notes - for instance it was Eric’s idea to add the creature saying “Father” toward the end of the movie. One of the most rewarding parts of film making is when you’re surrounded by very talented people who think of story and character first. So Eric really not only did a terrific job from a technical standpoint but also contributed a number of great ideas to the story through sound.

And Nick, what can I say about the score other than it’s something I’m incredibly pleased with. Nick and I think very much the same way, and he gets very deep when thinking about the subtext of a movie. He had this great quote that really stuck with me which was “what if we approach the score like it’s on a medieval planet”. What he meant by that was the idea of giving this movie a sense of otherworldlyness. So we talked a lot about how the sound for this movie could feel off and wrong. It needed to feel accurate enough to the time period, but also broken and lonely. He really had to balance a number of emotions with the score, but I think he did a phenomenal job.

The cinematography too played a big part in the success of The Head Hunter. It's must not have been easy to create this entire world on such a small budget. What's your relationship with Kevin Stewart, who also has writing and producing credits?

This was our 9th time making a movie together, so we’ve been at this for a while. It’s very rare, almost unheard of, for a cinematographer to also be an accomplished screenwriter and producer but that just goes to show Kevin’s abilities as a film maker. He's a storyteller first and foremost, and perhaps the harshest - and I meant that in a good way - critic on set. We may each have different titles and responsibilities but it really is a collaboration unlike most. We’re discussing and debating every aspect of making this movie, down to the final poster design. For instance, Kevin designed the main poster for the movie, but we wanted to get a sword on the cover. So we pulled the costume out of storage and set it up on his front porch, so we could take a photo of it and photoshop it onto the back of the costume for the key art. That was an all day thing between the two of us taking the photo and sitting there nitpicking it on the computer. Cutting it out perfectly, blending it, lighting it, rotating it, etc. Take a story like that and extrapolate it over two years of making a movie together and you can imagine all the trial and error, experiments, and attention to detail we put into making movies together.

Music and cinematography can cover up a lot, especially in genre cinema, but when you only have one actor, and he's on screen constantly, you really need something great. I read you saw Christopher Rygh for the first time on set though, how stressful was that?

That’s correct, we only met for the first time in person a day before we started shooting. Although we had all talked via Skype, text, and email for months prior. Chris had to carry this movie, plain and simple, but I wasn’t really all that stressed like you may expect. I had a good feeling about him, we all did, and I tend to trust my gut when it comes to actors. But yeah, we could have the greatest monster effects, cinematography, or score in the world and it wouldn’t have mattered if we didn’t get the performance right. Thankfully, he’s a natural and really understood exactly what to do with the character from the start. There was one specific scene, when he's just spiked his first head on the wall, and he steps back to look at the wall with a sense of wonder in his eye, that we had to work on a little bit. It was very subtle but it was just about getting the right grin and pleasure from the act. If I was nervous about anything, it was the scenes at the grave site because they’re more emotional and tend to be harder for actors and the crew who have to be sensitive to the moment. Chris is a father in real life and grew up in a very remote sort of isolated town, so between the two of those experiences he was really able to connect with this lonely man on a deeper level.

Imagine some crazy do-gooder walks up to you tomorrow and gives you a blank check and all the creative freedom you desire. What kind of film would you love to make.

I’m dying to do a Sci-Fi/ Horror film... something like The Terminator, The Fly, Aliens, or even RoboCop, that sort of thing. So with a blank check I’d go big in scope like Mad Max: Fury Road but with a genre twist. If you haven’t seen Phil Tippett’s Mad God shorts, check them out. A live action version of something like that, sign me up!

Any news about future projects, or are you still too focussed on getting the word about The Head Hunter out?

Right now I’m very focused on what’s next. It feels great to get back to writing, after being in promo-mode for so long. There’s a Sci-Fi/ Horror script I’ve written with my brother that I’m really excited about, and we’re just about to get that out there and see what comes of it. Kevin and I have been discussing a return to fantasy horror and there's a few other scripts I’ve started developing. So it’s just a matter of which project gets the right momentum and ultimately which one sticks. I don’t like to sit around for too long, so I suspect I’ll latch onto something sooner than later.

Directors are given the chance to ask a question they've been dying to see answered, which I'll answer to the best of my ability. Since there's so much one-way communication happening between creators and audience, I figured it would be interesting to see what would happen if the tables were turned.

It’s sometimes hard for film makers to discuss “their style”. I’m influenced by everything from movies to books, video games, action figures, paintings and real life people. So my question to you is - in your opinion, what’s my style? What movies or film makers do you think you see in The Head Hunter or any of my other films?

Niels Matthijs: First of all, I'm going to stick with your work on The Head Hunter, because it's been ages since I last saw ThanksKilling 3 and I feel both films couldn't be more different from each other, so it would be quite difficult to find obvious overlaps between the two. I'll start by saying that there probably isn't just one "Jordan Downey - the director", but multiple personas that do seem to share a love for genre, but are willing to take it in very different directions.

As for liking your film to the work of others, I think Antti-Jussi Annila's Sauna is the closest I could get. The Head Hunter also reminded me of Christopher Smith's Black Death and TV series like Vikings (although I've only watched scenes in passing of that one). In other words, films with a gritty setting, featuring an earthy and dirty look through muted color palettes, recreating that barren, medieval feeling. Interestingly enough, it's a setting I'm usually not to fond of because it tends to lack a certain sophistication, in an attempt to make it even grittier. The Head Hunter on the other hand is still quite refined in the way everything is styled, so even though it all looks harsh and barren, the film still manages to capture the beauty and appeal of that world.

As a director, I'd put you in that small overlap between arthouse and genre (with a stronger pull to genre - which happens to be my personal sweet spot). That makes it a little harder to compare you directly with other directors, as it's a niche where people tend to explore more personal styles, but Pavel Khvaleev's III and Yayo Herroro's The Maus definitely reside in that same neighborhood. Based on The Head Hunter I think you make sure that the styling of your films isn't too derivative and expected, yet doesn't contain too many elements that are out of place either. While it's difficult to find many direct comparisons for The Head Hunter, it still feels like a very obvious, tight and streamlined package, where all the elements fit together and support each other. Plotwise you seem to be taking bigger risks, unafraid to challenge the audience and let them work a bit to figure everything out. That's not easiest route to take when making genre films, so I think you make a bigger distinction there.

So, to summarize, what I see is a director who can take from other people's work, but fits it together in such a way that it feels fresh and new, without the need to do weird or crazy things. Someone who can challenge genre conventions while still sticking very closely to the rules of said genre. In that sense, it hardly matters what you're inspired by or what you take from others, as the result is something that is very much your own, not a collection of inspirations.