LONDON - Juan Carlos Fresnadillo says he was "very surprised and a little scared" when the British team of director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald (Trainspotting, The Beach) asked him to direct the sequel to their international hit 28 Days Later. After all, the 39-year-old Spanish director had only one full-length feature to his credit, 2002's Intacto, which had won him Spain's Goya Award for Best New Director. But despite his relative inexperience, Fresnadillo, whose 1997 B&W short Esposados was nominated for an Academy Award, not only jumped at the chance, but ended up co-writing the script.
The result is the harrowing new Fox Atomic release 28 Weeks Later, which takes up where the first film left off — its apocalyptic tale of a virus that infects carriers with a murderous, incurable rage. It's now six months after the rage virus has annihilated the British Isles, and the occupying US Army declares that the war against infection has been won, and that the reconstruction of the country can begin. But there's one problem; the virus is not yet dead, and this time, it's more dangerous than ever as the cast, including Robert Carlyle, Rose Byrne and Catherine McCormack, fight for their lives. Here, in an exclusive interview, Fresnadillo talks about making the film, and his love of zombies, post and visual effects, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch.
POST: This is a very visually ambitious film, with all its crowded chase scenes and the spooky vistas of a London that is totally deserted. How did you pull that off?
JUAN CARLOS FRESNADILLO: "A lot of planning, since there are so many rules about shooting here [laughs]. It was a very hard shoot. Developing the script and preproduction was a year, and then we were based at Three Mills Studios in the East End. We shot for 10 weeks all over London.
"It's a very intense journey, and every day was a different location. I tried to shoot it sort of like a horror documentary, with lots of handheld cameras. When they first asked me to direct, I thought, 'Why me?' I don't know London that well, even though I live here now. So my approach was to be this imaginary journalist who reports on what he sees, and I wanted to make it all as real as possible, and do it with Super 16 and have the camera shake, as if you're right there in the middle of all the action. And I discussed all that in detail with the DP, Enrique Chediak (Boiler Room), who understood exactly the look I wanted. It also helped that I'm a big zombie movie fan, and I loved 28 Days Later and the way it felt like a home movie."
POST: Is it easier for you as a director when you've also co-written the script?
FRESNADILLO: "Yes, which is why I need to be involved in the writing, otherwise the story is too far away from me. I need to be able to imagine all the images of the movie and what is possible in post and with visual effects, so I can link what I see in my mind and what I feel in my heart. I think the combination of brain and heart is very important for a film like this."
POST: Where did you do post?
FRESNADILLO: "We did it all in Soho, London, over a three-month period, at various places. What's so great about Soho is that everything's so close together. Chris Gill, the editor, cut 28 Days Later and was on set for some of the shoot, [where] he began cutting on an Avid [rented from the UK's Gearbox]. We'd discuss it while I was shooting, and then in post we worked intensely for two months together."
POST: Do you like the post process?
FRESNADILLO: "Very much. My favorite parts of filmmaking are the writing and then the editing and post processes. When you're writing the story, you have total freedom to just travel around in your head. Then in the editing and post, it's very exciting because you have all the pieces and you can just play with them and mess around and combine anything you want. Sometimes a really crazy idea becomes a fantastic idea in post, and it reminds me of the writing process, except that your freedom now is more limited in terms of your resources."
POST: There are a lot of very striking visual effects shots. How many total?
FRESNADILLO: "We ended up doing over 400 shots and some were very complex, so it was a big job with a huge number of artists and compositors involved from all over the world. I think we had over 100 effects people in the end, and about eight companies.
"Sean Mathiesen was our visual effects supervisor, and he's very experienced. He worked on the Oompa Loompas for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and he also worked on all three of the Lord of the Rings films [as a camera technical director] at Weta in New Zealand. He did a great job of coordinating everyone since we used quite a few visual effects houses, including LipSync in Soho, Rainmaker UK and Rainmaker in the US, Prime Focus, The Senate VFX, Animal Logic and Rising Sun Pictures in Australia, who were all fantastic. We were all connected digitally so they could send their files to us in London. That's the amazing thing about post today — it's all so global. In fact, a lot of Prime Focus's CG work was done at their place in India, which is a big new market for effects work."
POST: Do you like working with visual effects?
FRESNADILLO: "I love it as long as they follow and serve the story and help improve it. I'm not a fan of those movies where you feel it's just full of big visual effects shots for the sake of it — the sheer spectacle of lots of explosions and bombs going off. But with this movie, I felt all the visual effects are there to really underscore the sense of reality, and all the effects places understood this. I wanted it to look like it's really happening to all the characters, like a horror documentary."
POST: What was the most difficult visual effects sequence you did?
FRESNADILLO: "It was the whole bombing sequence, without a doubt, where the jets come in over London to firebomb all the infected people. It was very hard to do because we had all the people running in the streets and then all this fire and napalm, and that was all done by Prime Focus with a lot of compositing work.
"Also the scene where the helicopter tries to land to rescue the kids, and the rotor blades start hitting the infected people chasing them, that was tricky. It's so difficult when you're dealing with people running, because you need to work with real people with bluescreen and then all the CG effects. So we used a lot of dummies and special effects combined with some CG work, and I think the result is pretty realistic."
POST: How important is music and audio for you?
FRESNADILLO: "For me, especially in this film where you're dealing with this kind of war situation between an infection and human beings, the sound and music are so important, and it really delivers that sense of menace.
"The other important element in the mix is the silence and the big contrast between that and the soundtrack. That's very important for me, and all that really helps draw the audience in and create the right atmosphere and the eerie feeling of a huge city, like London, being completely empty and deserted. We did all the audio at Pinewood and they have a fantastic crew there, including our supervising sound editor Glenn Freemantle and sound effects editor Niv Adiri. To be honest, this is the best audio work I've ever been involved in, and I love the mixing room. When you see all the visuals together with the sound for the first time, and all the visual effects are there and the music — it's so exciting because the movie suddenly comes alive at last. The last day in the mix is the best day for me, always."
POST: Did 28 Weeks Later turn out the way you originally saw it in your head?
FRESNADILLO: "You try and sometimes you get it just right, and sometimes you feel a big disappointment, because there are some images you can never quite translate into reality. But you have to get used to that and play with it, and sometimes at the end you find that the real scene is much better and more effective than your fantasy. So it's a sort of game, a dance, that you have to share with all your collaborators, and the best thing for me is all the feedback you get from the crew. So you must always stay open to ideas, and for me, a director is someone who should listen to people and be able to soak up all the ideas floating around."
POST: It's interesting that so many of the current Spanish and Mexican directors like yourself and del Toro have this highly developed visual sense.
FRESNADILLO: "I know! Maybe it's part of the Latin character or personality, to have this very surreal sense of imagery. But I consider myself to be very eclectic. I remember when I was just 16, I was a huge fan of Hitchcock, and from him to David Lynch has been a natural trip for me. I don't know why they're connected or why I love both so much, but they do share a lot of similarities: they work with characters and they work with surreal images, which I love. Kubrick is another icon for me, and Orson Wells and John Ford, of course. I love directors who print their signatures on their films, so when you see just a few frames you instantly recognize who it is."
POST: A lot of people are saying that film is dead and that soon everything will be shot digitally. What's your take on it?
FRESNADILLO: "I shot this in Super 16 because I wanted that very grainy look, and to shoot in 16 is so easy, especially when you're dealing with a documentary concept like this. All the cameras are so portable and you can shoot with multiple cameras. But I shot the whole ending in Paris in HDV, because I needed something really fast and I chose the HDV format because I literally needed to run with the camera, and I love the look. I don't know about the future of film, but HDV is a fantastic format to shoot with, especially because it's so easy to work in and so for me, it's the future."