Director's Chair: Henry Hobson — 'Maggie'
Issue: May 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Henry Hobson — 'Maggie'

Director Henry Hobson recently completed work on his first feature: Maggie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic world where vegetation has died, electricity is out, and teenager Maggie (Breslin), along with many of her neighbors, has become infected with a deadly virus. Her father (Schwarzenegger) must deal with his family’s disintegration, as well as with the leaders of the small town, who are rounding up the infected and casting them into a mandatory quarantine.

Hobson is known for his design work, including that for The Oscars, and for opens that include Snow White & The Huntsmen and AMC’s The Walking Dead. As a first-time feature director, he called on many of his connections to help achieve his vision for Maggie. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Hobson talks about the shoot, visual effects, editing and sound decisions that went into making this uncharacteristically-human zombie project.

POST: Was it your work on The Walking Dead that lead to you to direct a zombie-apocalypse feature?

HOBSON: “I was working on The Walking Dead after I first got Maggie. The script came about five-odd years ago and I was immediately intrigued. I love the genre and the depth of the characters that can be built up around that genre, and then The Walking Dead popped up afterward. I had a lot of fun with it. There are similarities in the concept. It’s more about people rather than zombies and people. I thought there were some interesting parallels.”

POST: This may not be the type of film that audiences expect when they think of the zombie genre?

HOBSON: “It’s rare for a film to come out that surprises you. From the post side of things, the trailer was cut by me and an editor with Rock Paper Scissors. We worked together to cut the trailer. I work with them quite a bit. I designed The Oscars and I coopted them into helping me. When I saw the first trailer from the studio, which was god awful, I had a mini panic attacked. [I] asked Angus Wall, ‘Can you and your company help me out?’ I showed him the first trailer and he went, ‘Absolutely.’”

POST: You shot in Louisiana, but the film does not necessarily reflect a specific region of the country? What was the set up? 

HOBSON: “I think there were about five houses used for the family house: the upstairs bedroom is one, the bathroom is another, the family bedroom is one, the outside wide shots are another one, and then inside kitchen and downstairs is a fifth… It was a complex editorial process of building the structure that we can shoot in a non-consecutive way, that would still play out in a very continuous film.”

POST: Tell use about the editing?

HOBSON: “Jane Rizzo, the editor, works independently. Her style of filmmaking is so restrained and beautiful. She has a great eye for the shots that I also love. Like the atmospheric moments, where the mistakes are made… It was all Avid. I would have preferred Final Cut, because then I could have jumped on the box every so often, but it was all Avid.”

POST: The feature has a film look, but you shot digitally?

HOBSON: “Me and Lukas Ettlin, the DP, had a discussion. They were offering deals on 35mm at the time and the discussion was that I like to work quickly. It came to, ‘Can we, based on our very short turnaround, work on film?’ For me, Maggie is about film. It’s about that organic, analog feel that comes with film. Everything that film brings is this very soft, beautiful, organic feel, and it was a natural choice, but the fact that we were working on something [with a] tight timeframe meant that we were hand-strung. We worked with the Arri Alexa. We didn’t work at Raw — we couldn’t afford the hard drives to do the Raw format. But I have worked with the Raw and native, and found not too much difference. With the slightly lower resolution, it might not feel as sharp and not as digital, and not as processed, which I was very happy about. And then we shot with old lenses, old glass. I think they were Zeiss Super Speeds? We wanted a degree for the mistakes to come through and not feel so crisp and clean. And then the final process was color.”

POST: Who handled the color correction?

HOBSON: “The Mill colored it for free! Adam Scott at The Mill (in Los Angeles) came in. I am a long-time fan of The Mill, and helped start their design department when they moved to Los Angeles. I was brought in to help curate the team and help start up their content design department… Because I took the Oscars to them three years ago, I used that as a bankable favor. ‘I’m going to bring you the Oscars, and you can use that to start your department, but I am gonna call in a favor at some point.’ I was working on Maggie and knew I was going to need visual effects or color or something, and the budget had disappeared. I said, ‘You can really help me out here.’”

POST: How did you achieve Maggie’s stylized look of an apocalyptic region?

HOBSON: “It happened in two ways. The world is meant to have died and gone into a place where vegetation wasn’t growing. I started looking at that and thought, ‘How can we make it interesting?’ I didn’t want it to feel too withdrawn. I wanted to embrace this hopelessness and embraced it with the DI. We started pulling the color out - the brighter colors - and used the costumes and used the location, and really played with that. I added grain because I wanted to give that hand-made textural feel. Not so much as aesthetics, but more symbolic. Maybe not the first time, but if they watch it the second time, [it] reminds the viewer that we are dealing with a world where electricity [doesn’t] exist anymore. We went back and forth with how much. There were a lot of processes that went into getting that color.”

POST: Who ultimately establishes that look? You, the DP or the colorist?

HOBSON: “With the DP, we had sent out a look. And I had done some tests in Photoshop as well, and I know all DI guys would kill me for doing that, but I wanted to have a short hand. We only had three weeks in the DI, so I wanted to make sure it counted.”

POST: This isn’t a visual effects-heavy film. Where are they used? Is it the zombie flashbacks?

HOBSON: “Those are some of the scenes that don’t have any of the visual effects on them. Those shots are split — we put some lens elements in front of the glass and created that very stylized, hyper look and feel. But there are in fact 255 visual effects shots in the film — considerably more than you usually get in a dramatic film. 

“We haven’t got any big stunts, but the body of it was makeup enhancements. Cinesite came on. I approached everyone under the sun and was pleading, ‘Please, please, please help.’ And Cinesite came in and Courtney Vanderslice-Law and Aymeric Perceval just were so gracious and open and eager, and did it for next to nothing. And I hate that way in which the visual effects industry does that. I’ve been on the receiving end, where people say they’ve got no money and would you mind helping out, when it’s a big studio project. 

“I know we’ve got no more money here and this isn’t a big studio project. Lionsgate, at that point, had no involvement. I think I managed to negotiate some way in which they would benefit from it later on. It was a heartbreaking thing to have to do, but without it, the film would have lacked. It’s a testament to the quality work that they did — you can’t see it. It’s a lot of shots throughout the film where Maggie’s makeup is being enhanced or brought down to even it out. There’s a lot of stuff in the beginning with matte paintings. They are a little bit [easier] to spot because they are a much larger scale. There were screen replacements that were done.

“There is some landscape stuff that was done by A52. They did it as a favor to me, and I had to return the favor by doing work with them, which in the design world, is actually fine. I’m fine with doing that stuff. And I did some of the visual effects stuff myself. I opened up After Effects, which I hadn’t done in years, and went into the files and started working on stuff myself. Maybe a dozen shots, by hand, myself. They are not big shots, but they were the kind of thing where I couldn’t add another 12 shots to anybody. A52 did fifty — Cinesite did just under 200. And I got another friend - Troy Barsness, he’s got a little shop called Hill Lake VFX. He did about a dozen himself too. He did a couple of zombie shots in the hospital in the beginning. He did a couple of landscapes. The whole post side of things was a smorgasbord of favors. That’s where it really came together.”

[Editor’s Note: Elefant in Switzerland also tackled a handful of shots for the film for free. Hobson points to Vincent Frei’s work.]

POST: Ultimately, that should pay off down the road with future collaboration?

HOBSON: “Entirely! Entirely, without a shred of hesitation, I would be back for the next project at Cinesite. I started working with them on commercials and that allows for a small amount of payback, but the way they work and how beautifully integrated they are — the fact that I am on the other side of the world — [and the] software that enabled me to view in a really easy way. Everything was really ironed out, and the pipeline was so clear. Revisions were very easy to review. I’ve worked with dozens of visual effects companies, but their attitude and they way they work, [I’d use] them in heartbeat. As a first-time director I am definitely looking to relationships to keep on with. I will return these favors. A52, I returned almost instantly. The Mill, I took a huge commercial to afterwards. For me It’s about the relationships.”

POST: Music and sound effects both play important roles. Music builds incredible tension, while the sound effects help reflect Maggie’s deterioration.

HOBSON: “For me, if you’ve seen any of my commercials, sound and sound design is up there on the importance list. With a film that’s small, I wanted the sound design to be the fifth main actor who is telling you what to feel and what’s to come when you are not having Maggie say, ‘I’m feeling sick.’ You can see it and you can hear it and it’s the sound design I wanted to play that out.”

POST: What was your approach?

HOBSON: “The key things I wanted to do was, I stripped away all of the wildlife. If Maggie is outside, there are no birds. There’s a fox that appears, but there’s always a sense that the atmosphere is changing. There’s the wind or a distant storm. I was very particular… I wanted the generator always running when they were in the house. You can always hear a soft hum. It’s all metaphorical for the film: something is coming, but it hasn’t broken yet.

“There were scenes where I didn’t want any sound design, I just wanted music. And I’d get to the mix and the mixer would go, ‘What about that car door opening or the feet walking on the ground?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t want it. I don’t need it because the scene never played out with that.’ It was much more atmospheric rather than deliberate. 

“David Wingo’s score complimented that. He built these American landscapes with sound that are dramatic yet evocative and have a touch of sci-fi. He did the score for Take Shelter and for me, Maggie almost plays as a kind of bizarre sequel.”