Jonathan King for “Black Sheep”

New Zealander Jonathan King makes one auspicious directorial debut, with Black Sheep having been the talk of last year’s Toronto Film Festival. Now at last American audiences will see the horror flick which has liberal doses of black humour sprinkled throughout for good measure. The film also recently screened at the prestigious Sydney Film Festival prior to its August release in Australia. King talked to Paul Fischer.

Question: Black Sheep has been getting quite a bit of attention. What kinds of expectations did you have when you started putting this together?

King: Well I didn’t expect this much attention, and of course that’s been really great. I kind of had the idea and the idea made me smile and I kind of worked at the best version of script I could of the idea and we were lucky enough to get to make the movie. I was lucky enough to get to make the movie. And, you know, I hoped to get it out there and I hoped for people to see it but I guess, certainly profile-wise, I guess I imagined that it would creep out over time much more than kind of go out as widely and as quickly as it has. Which is very cool.

Question: What was the genesis of this, because in some ways the film almost satirises New Zealanders’ love of the sheep industry.

King: Perception of New Zealanders’ love for the sheep industry.

Question: There is this image I guess of New Zealanders and sheep. Is that part of the thinking that went into doing this?

King: The initial thought didn’t come together in a kind of calculated way. It literally kind of popped into my head and, you know, what popped into my head was a New Zealand horror film about sheep and I think the title, Black Sheep, and I think the first kind of slogan I was thinking of was kind of ‘There’s something baaaaad down on the farm’. And it straight away said what kind of movie that was going to be. Which was hopefully some sort of scares and some splatter violence and laughs as well. Because sheep are funny. And that juxtaposition of things is funny. But straight away I knew, almost literally the second thought was ‘Wow that’ll work as an idea for a movie but it’ll also work as something that people will get’. And so it means that the more I thought about it, you know, I only had to kind of look into the idea to find cool stuff and the genetic engineering was probably the next thing, which I did think about and then add, you know, as a reason why the sheep are eating people. Because I had the idea that sheep were eating people. Why? OK, genetic engineering.

But other than that, everything else came from within the story and all the kind of New Zealand stuff I got to have fun with came from within the world and I knew that New Zealanders would enjoy it and smile but I also thought definitely the rest of the world, and particularly Australians and the English would get what we’re doing and enjoy laughing at what they know about New Zealanders really.

Question: How much science did you incorporate into this otherwise very fanciful tale, and how much research did you do to try and do that?

King: Very flimsy indeed. At the end of the day it’s sort of Star Trek theory science. We kind of played with what that sort of techno babble would be but there’s a little bit of, I can’t remember what it is now, the cellular transferral we’ve been trying to achieve or something. But it kind of, the science is much more closely related to zombie movies and werewolf movies than to real genetic science I think.

Question: One of the things about this movie is it does have a great New Zealand kind of comic parochial sensibility to it. How surprised are you that it’s been able to travel outside of the country as much as it has?

King: I guess I always kind of followed my instinct along the lines of the more specifically New Zealand it was, people in the rest of the world could enjoy that if you know what I mean. It therefore would show them something they haven’t seen before. And so there are New Zealand expressions in there, which I mean perhaps Australians would understand, I mean things like ‘rattle your dags’.

Question: What about Americans?

King: Well they don’t I don’t think. But you can recognise those things as specific without even necessarily understanding them I think. Does that make sense? It’s why we watch a film, when we watch a film from Ecuador or wherever, you know, it’s the things that make it uniquely Ecuador that make it interesting. So the more generalised it would be, the less it would appeal to people in a way but the more culturally specific it is, that’s what makes it a horror film unlike, I guess, other ones you’ve seen before.

Question: That’s my next point. I mean the horror genre is such a broadly accepted genre now, so what do you do to try and make it different and interesting?

King: Well I guess you’ve got to find a new way in. And at the end of the day, culturally my kind of touchstone as it were were zombie films and werewolf films and kind of splatter movies. And finding that the people are paying their money to hopefully see some of those gags that they’re hoping and expecting to see, but I guess you’re wrapping them up in a new way and finding a new way into them and giving them a new framework that kind of carry them on I guess. And then when they get through those gags by an unexpected route, hopefully they’re more kind of delighted by those and they’ve had a fun ride along the way.

Question: It has been quite a while since the film was premiered in Toronto. Are you kind of glad that it’s finally getting out there?

King: I am. I definitely am. I mean Auckland and New Zealand, it was funny because there was Toronto and then there was that whole, you know, with the southern hemisphere summer coming up so it wasn’t going to open down here for them and nor was it kind of a Christmas movie in the northern hemisphere so there’s that whole kind of December, January, February kind of thing goes and then it was March. It opened end of March in New Zealand then they kind of lined up when they wanted it to here so it didn’t feel, it certainly didn’t feel like it was on the shelf or anything. And it’s been in festivals constantly all through that period which has been really great for me and to even get word for the film about. But yeah, I definitely saw it as a film for real audiences to see, you know, general audiences to see it. So it’s great that it’s been released in New Zealand and obviously very exciting for me that it’s coming out in the States now yeah. And then Australia. I think Sydney Film Festival this week and Melbourne at the end of July and then released in Australian in August I think.

Question: Do you want to continue doing this genre? Is it a genre you want to continue to develop or are you interested in other things now?

King: I’m definitely interested. I think I always want to make fantastic films and films that transport you to somewhere else. I mean it’s interesting, you know, what we were just talking about. The New Zealand specificity of it, I couldn’t go to that well again, you know. I couldn’t make a New Zealand horror film or a splatter comedy. So yeah, I’d love to keep making scary films and I want to keep making fantastic films.

Question: You’ve written the script which has gone into production, for The Tattooist, is that right?

King: That’s right, yeah. Which I’m about to see in twenty-five minutes in fact.

Question: How different a script is that for you?

King: That’s really very different. It’s more of a straight horror film come sort of supernatural thriller, I think it’s actually ended up. And that was something I co-wrote with a writer called Matthew Grainger, and that was for somebody else who had an idea. We actually had a treatment and we ended up throwing everything out but we kept sort of four words from it really which was Samoan tattooing horror movie. And so we went into that and I don’t know if you know much about Samoan tattooing but it’s quite hard core – done with like hammer and chisel and that’s sort of based on that. An American tattooist comes to New Zealand to try and find out about it and he ends up unleashing this vengeful ghost. And that was even inspired to some extent by some of those Asian, sort of the The Ring and The Grudge and kind of creepier things. But it’s ended up a bit less creepy than that now I think.

Question: Obviously another director took this on. Having directed now yourself, were you a little bit wary about writing a script and allowing somebody else to direct it?

King: I was already well in train with Black Sheep when I was offered this opportunity and so it was never really on the cards for me to direct that one. So it was strictly a writing job. So it was a really interesting exercise. But yes, definitely, at the same time I was writing and directing my own film I was writing one for somebody else and, yeah, having seen my own thing through all the way, it is a funny experience doing that. And I look forward to seeing the film. But I say at the end of the day I guess I feel less personally involved and that it was for somebody else and there are inputs that come in which are, other people have their opinion of what the story perhaps means and things. So yeah, it was a really, really interesting and quite fun experience for what it was but nothing beats kind of keeping control of your own material.

Question: So what’s next for you then?

King: I’ve got a project which I’m developing again with Matthew Grainger which is called Under the Mountain which is a scary sci-fi horror adventure kind of thing for say the younger viewers, which is based on a New Zealand novel. But kind of in a sort of The Thing / Body Snatchers kind of vibe in a way. So we’re trying to finance that at the moment and otherwise developing some new original things.

Question: Has Black Sheep helped you in getting financing for your new film?

King: Yeah it’s certainly opened channels, opened doors that I could never have otherwise. And I’ve got representation in LA now and a lawyer in New York and yes, absolutely as a calling card – there’s a line of communication now with a film already out, absolutely. At the end of the day nobody hands you money your next thing unless they like the next thing.

Question: Do you hope to work in the States? Is that a goal?

King: Yeah it is one day, I think. You know, I don’t want to kind of disappear into work for hire straight away but you look at what obviously someone like Peter Jackson has done or even, you know, the guy who made Wolf Creek and stuff. There are people making interesting films from this side of the world and then getting international money back into their own projects in this end of the world I think is really exciting. So you don’t necessarily have to just go off and work for Hollywood straight away. Though I would love to work with Hollywood. And absolutely I’d love to work there one day too. I’ve got big ideas that I would love to do.