Interview : Jonathan King

Drew Turney talks to the “Black Sheep” writer/director


A rural New Zealand locale? Blood-splattered horror? Laughs aplenty? In-camera, DIY effects? Are we in a time warp, watching the young, future Oscar winner Peter Jackson wrangle ”Brain Dead”? Not quite, but Jonathan King owes more to his fellow kiwi director than inspiration to direct an ultra-cheap horror-comedy. Jackson’s Weta Workshop head Richard Taylor loved the idea of ”Black Sheep” so much he signed on after his first read of the script. Drew Turney asked writer/director King more about 2007;s unlikeliest horror movie…

Why the decision to make comedy-horror rather than just a straight horror?

Well, the idea popped into my head for a horror film about sheep and as soon as I had that idea I knew what kind of film it was going to be. I mean, just the juxtaposition of those ideas is kind of funny.

And sheep are funny anyway, you know? There’s just something that makes you laugh and smile about them. Plus there are a lot of jokes about sheep – The Australians have jokes about New Zealanders and sheep, the New Zealanders have jokes about Australians and sheep. The English have jokes about the Welsh and sheep.

So, it’s a bit more universal than people would immediately assume?

The basic idea is. The best ideas ring enough bells for people so they know what to bring to go along to it, and then they get stuff they weren’t expecting kind of thrown at them. That’s why I think Black Sheep works.

The comedy was all about the idea, the movie itself wasn’t full of in-jokes like a lot of horror-comedies are. Was that conscious?

Yeah, I always wanted you to be laughing with the movie, never laughing at the movie. Nobody in the film is smarter than the audience or smarter than the movie itself. As I always told the actors, It’s going to be funny when you play it straight, play it for real. If you’re trying to be funny or you’re going ‘isn’t this wacky?’, you diminish where the comedy’s coming from instead of improving it.

So did you ever weigh up the alternatives in playing it straight or playing it for laughs?

It was a goofy idea that always made me laugh so that was definitely the way I wanted to play the film. Having said that, we sometimes played with the balance of when you want to laugh and when you kind of want to be scared. It’s great when people tell me the horror stuff fits as well.

Even when we were editing the film, like the were-sheep for example – when can you laugh at him and when do we want you to be scared of this monster? But if there was a joke there, I wasn’t going to pass it up.

Richard Taylor’s a big name to have on your side, how did become involved?

I live in the same town as him so I gave him the script and told him I’d love him to have a look. He read it, said he loved it and that he wanted to be involved, which we were really, really grateful for because they were in the middle of King Kong at that stage. We couldn’t have made the film without their help, really. And for them to vouch that they wanted to be involved and were going to help us do it was hugely important in financing the film and giving overseas business confidence that we could do it.

So how hands-on you were at Weta with the designers, animatronic artists etc?

They obviously brought a huge amount of experience and talent and imagination to it. I got to go in there and talk about what I was after and we did a lot of concept art, so it was fantastic for me to be able to give feedback to such experienced people.

There was definitely some backwards and forward working out how they were going to work. Because of the amount of money we had, we couldn’t build 10 models and then choose one, so we had to plan carefully and talk about things a lot, constantly giving feedback along the way. I also storyboarded and shot the film quite closely, so if we were only going to see something from the waist up, we would only build it from the waist up.

The horror debut is an auspicious calling card for a lot of directors. Is it your way of getting Hollywood’s attention, or would you prefer to stay at home?

I love making movies and they make a lot more movies in the rest of the world that they do in New Zealand, and even Australia, so I’d love to pursue some of those opportunities. I have an agent in Hollywood now, and I’ve been reading a lot of scripts. But I want to make films that I can be deeply involved in, I don’t just want to go and do work for hire for any old person.

Your next film is going to be a sci-fi horror. Are you a fan of other genres?

I like good films of all kinds but I’d be least likely to make a straight drama or something. I want to be making unusual films that transport you somewhere.

You kept the effects mostly in-camera. Have you got a kind of natural aversion to CGI or was it a budgetary thing?

I don’t have a complete aversion to it. I think it was the wrong thing for this kind of film, but budget was also part of it. If you’ve got CGI, you’ve got to do it really well no matter what your film – cheap CGI looks like shit. So we talked about it and realised we couldn’t really afford it, so the way we did it was really great, embracing filmmaking the old-fashioned way. It’s the best thing for this kind of film because it gives the audience an experience. They have to come some of the way but when they have, I think they’re going to enjoy it more.

Do you think it’ll fly in the US with so much distinctly Antipodean humour?

I think there’s an outrageous sort of humour and we go to places Americans may not. Here and in England, we’re definitely different than America, and it means you get films with a different flavour from the straight-down-the-line kind of American approach. Black Sheep would have been a weaker film if we’d had diluted the New Zealand-ness from it.

So, it’s kind of a paradox. The more specific you make something to a place, the more it can appeal widely. It has kind of a charm. People around the world get to laugh about what they know about New Zealand, whereas if I had made it about some bland nowhere, it would be less interesting.

You’re obviously following in the footsteps of another notable Kiwi with a DYI history. Did you meet him?

I didn’t meet Peter Jackson in the course of filming, but I have since screened the film for him and Fran Walsh, and they seemed to enjoy it, which was a real thrill. Peter said ‘I don’t know how you did some of the effects’ and I thought ‘Well, you’ve done some pretty amazing things. I would have thought you’d know.’