Slack Jaw Punks: When it comes to the horror genre (or any genre of film really) it’s almost impossible to do anything truly original. That said, when approaching Dead West how did you go about trying to set the film apart from the herd?
Jeffery Ferrell: From day one, the idea was to do something different from what I had seen in the serial killer genre before. Usually, serial killer films are from the cop’s perspective, or they are slasher films, and often very gory. I didn’t want to do any of that. So the idea was to make a film that was really all about exploring the psychology of the killer, and what made him into what he is now, and why he does what he does. And to try to keep most of the violence off-screen; to let the audience use their imagination to fill in the blanks, and to focus on the before and after, instead of the killings themselves. That’s the approach I took to try to create something unique in this genre.
SJP: I was able to pick up on some “nods” to other great serial killer flicks. What movies did you draw from to help shape Dead West.
JF: There are only a few films I’ve seen that are truly from the killer’s perspective, with MANIAC and HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER being the main ones. And while I wasn’t intentionally trying to emulate those films, they certainly had some degree of influence. And of course I featured the original MANIAC on the drive-in screen in a key scene in the film. Other films I talked with my crew about in regards to the look of the film were PARIS, TEXAS and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. And you’ll also see the influence of spaghetti westerns, 70’s road movies, and the films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. So there are all sorts of cinematic influences on the film.
SJP: Let’s talk anti-heroes. The Lady Killer (Brian Sutherland) is a horrific human being, who does truly awfully things, but in his own twisted way has a moral code and is just looking for love (like all of us). When creating and shaping a character like this do you ever worry that he might come off too sympathetic? As the director Is there a certain level of responsibility you feel towards keeping this character grounded and not elevated to full on hero status?
JF: I always wanted to create a character who was neither a hero or a villain. I love anti-heros in film, for example: Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant, Zoe Tamerlis’ Ms. 45, and the list goes on. I’ve never been interested in what are usually referred to as “likeable” characters in film. What I care about are INTERESTING characters. Characters with a lot of gray areas in their personalities and actions. And that’s what I wanted the Ladykiller to be. I wanted to show the horrific sides to his personality, but also the good sides, and explore what happened to him to drive him to commit these horrific deeds. We all have good and bad qualities in us, sometimes to extreme degrees. I wanted to present both sides of the coin and let the audience make up their own minds as to how they feel about him. But hopefully, you do feel a certain amount of sympathy for him, and a certain amount of hatred or disgust. But I think all interpretations are valid. And of course, the movie deals mainly with his character’s search for true love and connection, which I think everyone can relate to on some level, even if his actions are horrific and misguided.
SJP: Brian Sutherland is an actor who can change his entire delivery mid-smile. He goes from flirty and charming to psychopath in blink of an eye. How did you come about casting him in the lead?
JF: The idea for the film was born together with Brian while we were filming my first movie GHOSTLIGHT, which he also starred in. So he was always the only guy to play the part. And since there was a couple of years in between projects, we had a lot of time to develop his character and really flesh him out together. I’m really proud of Brian’s work in the film. I think he did a great job of bringing the Ladykiller to life.
SJP: Dead West has a fantastic score. Who was the composer? Did you have a hand in helping?
JF: The score was composed by Semih Tareen, who has worked with me on three films now: My short Edgar Allan Poe film MORELLA, my first feature GHOSTLIGHT, and now this one. Semih is one of my closest collaborators. We have the same taste in film and music, so it makes working together a joy, and we are almost always on the same page artistically. The music was composed entirely by him, although I am often there with him listening to cues as he composes them, and then we talk about it and make any changes if necessary. So I’m very hands on with the music, being a musician myself, but Semih is the mastermind behind it all. He went for a hybrid of an almost 80’s style synth/electronic score, mixed with orchestral elements and even electric guitar. So it’s very eclectic, much like the film itself.
SJP: When it comes to on-screen violence against women it seems some audiences are ready to “attack”. How would you respond to people who may feel Dead West is misogynistic?
JF: My goal with this film was always not to make the female characters faceless victims, as they often are in this genre. So I really took the time for the audience to get to know each woman before they meet their end, so the violence has actual emotional impact when it strikes. These women all have a story and a life, and I wanted it to be tragic every time he takes it away from them. I was also fortunate enough to have great actresses in all the female roles in the film, and they really gave the characters their heart and soul. I think if you talked to any of those actresses, or the several women who worked behind the camera on the crew, they would all tell you that the film isn’t misogynistic. The idea behind the film was to portray someone who commits these horrific crimes, which happen in the real world every day, and to explore the psychology of both the killer and his victims, and what makes them do the things they do. And really it explores the consequences of abuse, and the endless cycle of violence it can perpetuate. So in a way, it’s a warning against that, and a plea for more kindness in the world. That’s how I see it, anyway.
SJP: Dead West seems to be like an intense shooting experience (judging from the finished product). Any stories or moments from the production that really stand out? Stories you may want to share?
JF: Well, we shot the whole movie in only 12 days, which for a film of this size and scope was really ambitious. There are over 30 locations and 30 speaking roles in the film. So every day was a struggle to get what we needed in the can before the day was out. But I had an amazing cast and crew who gave it their all and made it happen on a very tight schedule. One day, we had to film a murder scene in a public park on Easter Sunday, and there was a huge Easter egg hunt going on with 30-40 kids running around. Another day we were filming inside a real gas station while it was open for business and people were constantly interrupting takes while buying things at the counter. And another day we were filming scenes with the actors speeding down roads in the pouring rain while I was in a follow vehicle listening via a walkie talkie, since I couldn’t fit into the car they were in. So every day was an adventure, and I loved every second of it.
SJP: What’s next for you? Any projects you got coming up?
JF: Next up, we are doing Dead West 2, which I’ve already written. It’s going to be a very different film from the first one, and I’m really excited about it. I’m also co-directing a horror anthology film with some filmmaker friends of mine, and I’ve got 2-3 other features I’m planning to shoot in the next year or so. So be on the look out for plenty more films from me in the near future!