WAMG Interview: Kerry Prior, Director Of THE REVENANT
By Joe Vanourney
Director Kerry Prior’s new vampire-horror-comedy “The Revenant” opens in limited theatrical release today as well as on Video-On-Demand after a successful film festival run over the past two years.
“The Revenant” stars David Anders (“Alias,” “Heroes,” “Vampire Diaries”) as Bart, an Iraqi War soldier who returns home in a coffin but awakens to discover that he is a revenant—a decomposing living corpse who must drink human blood to survive. He enlists the help of his slacker friend Joey (Chris Wylde) to help him acquire that blood—and their adventures are humorous, thrilling, sad and terrifying.
Prior, who started in visual effects (“The Abyss,” “Starship Troopers,” “Phantasm III,” “Phantasm IV:Oblivion,” and “Bubba Ho-Tep”) before making his writing/directorial debut with “The Revenant,” sat down with WeAreMovieGeeks to discuss the film, the casting, and the frustrations of finding distribution for a film that people who have seen it seem to love.
WAMG: Start by talking about the “concept” of a revenant vs a zombie vs a vampire. This is the first time I have heard of the term revenant before in a film.
PRIOR: I think there’s a little latitude in terms of what a revenant is because I’ve heard people say that they’ve heard that a revenant is completely different than a vampire. I think a revenant predates the idea of a vampire. A certain amount of it is conjecture. For me they sort of cross in the same type of universe in that a revenant is “I was dead but hey now I’m not” and how do we address this. So I try to go from the point of what’s the reality of the situation. This is not the Anne Rice thing or the Bram Stoker thing—we’ve got to go back before fictional vampires –go back to the folklore to the time where people really believed in vampires—and then things get a little vague in what’s the difference between a revenant and a vampire. I think a big chunk of it is domestic or regional. I think regionally in terms of what the rules are, as far as the legend– things change. In general, zombies in their current form the way we understand the culture, I give full credit to George Romero. He essentially created the backstory of the term zombie He is responsible for how we see zombies in their current form today. And similarly vampires as we know them today are pretty much a construct of Hollywood. Turning into bats, driving a stake through their hearts, all that stuff. So if you go back to the time before cinema and before vampires were fictionalized, then what you end up with is a revenant. In a practical sense It is a dead person, who at night, inexplicably wakes up, somehow gets out of the grave–a lot of times it could be nailed shut or have a stone on top of it–and they wander about in a decomposing state and harass folks and then go back to sleep during the day. Eventually, the body would be exhumed and if it was uncorrupted, or not rotting, then it was deemed a vampire and they would lop off its head or stake it or burn it.
WAMG: In reading up on your background, I see you grew up in a small mining town in Ohio and you say your family worked as revival tent-preachers. Was filmmaking or film-watching even a part of your formative years?
Prior: Well I did not live very close to a movie theater near when I was growing up. So on the rare occasion where I could a hitch a ride or con somebody into taking me to a movie theater, it was a big event.
WAMG: What were some of the films you saw back then that impacted you?
Prior: The earliest one I can remember—I was just a little kid—and my dad took me to see “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” And that just blew me away. You had the giant squid, the submarine, the whole deal was outrageous. And then “Star Wars”—my parents wouldn’t let me see it. You know Star–WARS. Violence. Doesn’t sound like something you should be seeing. So the movie had been playing for like a year or year and a half before I was finally able to sneak into a theater and see it. And that just transported me into another world—robots and spaceships and Wookies—it just blew my mind.
WAMG: You left home and came to California on your own in your late teens. Was getting into the movie business always part of the plan or did you accidentally stumble into it?
Prior: No, it was pretty much always part of the plan.
WAMG: So you have an art background. You start working in visual effects. You work on some big projects—“The Abyss” and “Starship Troopers.” You work with Don Coscarelli on a couple of “Phantasm” films and “Bubba Ho-Tep.” At what point do you say to yourself “Hey, I want to write and direct my own movie”?
Prior: I think when I started working in visual effects I really started doing it because I wanted to make my own movie. And every film I worked on absolutely inspired me in to be like I should be making movies. I might be working on something, like say “Starship Troopers” where it just rocks your world, or something like “The Abyss”—either way it’s inspiring. Its like you work on this thing and I actually contributed to this iconic piece of storytelling and that makes you want to direct or conversely you work on something that’s just a colossal waste of time and you’re like “I should be directing.”
WAMG: So you come up with this idea for “The Revenant.” How much time passed from when the idea popped into your head to get the script written and then get it into production?
Prior: I probably wrote the first draft of the script over the course of six months or something like that. But that was easily fifteen years ago. And then, it got rewritten. And I’d pick it back up and put it down. I’d write something else and then I’d get an epiphany and spend all night reworking it. And then sometime in 2007, I picked up the script again after having a big writing epiphany and I said “You know, I’ve got to just get this movie made.” So I rewrote the whole thing. Then I hired a casting director. Hired a line producer. Budgeted the thing. Got some stars lined up to try to finance it. Reworked it yet again. It was a long process.
WAMG: Let’s talk about casting. When did David Anders come on board?
Prior: David originally came in and auditioned for the role of Joey. The thing about David is he has charisma. And he has this great look to him. He has a nice shaped head. Take a look at it sometime. See if I’m not right about that. And I said well maybe this guy would be right for the role of Bart instead. So I asked him if he would come back in and he came in and auditioned again. And again, he had charisma. So then we had to rearrange it and start recasting the other parts. Then it became a domino effect and became about the charisma and the relationship between the characters. You might like one guy for Joey but he doesn’t match your Bart and then it’s not going to work. Things started falling into place. And then it became a thing where we had two blonde white guys and maybe that’s not the right thing. Maybe we should have it where it’s a “Ponch and Jon” thing from “CHiPs.” So we had David. So now we have to cast Joey. And I thought before we go through and do a whole new casting call for Joey, what about that Chris Wylde guy? He had come in and auditioned before and had put in a good audition. So let’s meet with him again and see what he can do. So one of the producers and I went down and met him at a bar in Hollywood. And Chris—he’s a character. He’d talk and tell jokes and in the midst of it, some guy comes up to the bar and walk to our table and say “Hey! Aren’t you Chris Wylde, the comedian?” And Chris said “Yes I am.” And the guy says “Can I have your autograph?” So Chris signs an autograph and they chat it up. I find out later that it was a plant. Chris had his buddy sit at the thing and wait for a cue to come over and ask him for his autograph. So we left the bar and about halfway back I turned to the producer and said “That’s the guy, right? That’s Joey.”
WAMG: So let me ask you—The film’s been on the festival circuit for a couple of years. It has won numerous awards for Best Film and Best Director as many of these festivals. I saw it over two years ago at the Omaha Film Festival where it won an award and was very positively received. It played well at CineVegas and Fantastic Fest—the list goes on and on. Was has it been like for these two years knowing that you have a film that everybody seems to love, and yet, for whatever reason, it’s just been sitting there, without distribution? And conversely, how are you feeling now knowing that it’s getting out into theaters and onto the Video-on-Demand platforms and that people will FINALLY get a chance to see it?
Prior: Well let me work backwards: I guess we’ll see what happens. Maybe people will eat it up. Or maybe they won’t get it and the studios were right. But going back, when we first were getting into the festival circuit. I didn’t know what kind of response we were going to get. I thought it was a good movie. So when we started winning awards and getting positive reviews, I thought “Well that’s great, we’ll be able to get a distribution deal without any problem.” And the fact that a distribution deal eluded us for so long—I didn’t quite understand it. I thought it was a commercial movie. There’s got to be something about “The Revenant” that’s a bit off-putting. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe there’s one too many F-bombs in the movie. Or one too many dildo scenes. Or the racial commentary is too dicey and that’s why the studios didn’t want to touch it. We got shut down by all the big guys. Paramount Pictures would much rather do that whatever-it-was Devil movie. Lionsgate wouldn’t even look at us. So there’s something about the movie that they don’t get. I don’t quite understand it. So we’ll see what happens. Maybe it will come out and flounder and everybody will forget about it. Or not. We’ll see.
“The Revenant” opens in select cities (Phoenix, Portland, Columbus, OH, New York City, Omaha, Austin, Denver and Durham, NC) today. It is also available on various Video-On-Demand platforms.