The Juan of the Dead director discusses realising his dream of bringing zombies to his native Cuba.
Zombies have overtaken the world of film in recent times, going from cult curiosity to mainstream television success. Somewhere they’ve never cropped up before is Cuba. Director Alejandro Brugués has changed all that with his madcap comedy, Juan of the Dead, which follows the breakout of a zombie apocalypse in downtown Havana. LWLies sat down with the director recently for a chat about the making of the film.
LWLies: Your first movie, Personal Belongings, was more social-realist in tone. Why the about turn into horror?
Brugués: Yes it was completely different and a social drama. I think Personal Belongings will be the strange film in my career because I like genre films a lot. I had two scripts and it was just a matter of which one would be easier to fund.
Is there a structure for filmmakers to seek financing with film councils in Cuba or are you forced to go it alone?
There’s nothing like that. The way I work is as an independent filmmaker and I have a production company with others and it really depends on the film… we’d have an idea and then see the best way to get it funded.
There’s a nice subplot about a father reconnecting with his daughter. Was that interesting for you to work that into a genre picture?
That wasn’t in the script at all at the start. There was a love story and I realised every film has a love story and thought it was more interesting to do the father-daughter thing. Let me try and explain without going into spoiler territory… sometimes in Cuba when things are difficult, families grow apart and some go to live outside of Cuba and that’s a tough decision for them to make, so I wanted to explore that a little bit.
Have you screened the film in Cuba yet?
Not yet. It will screen there and hopefully it’ll be fine. I don’t want to have a preconceived idea of what the audience will say or react because if it’s different from what’s in my head it’ll be hard for me. But I hope they will like it.
What’s the attitude towards censorship in Cuba?
It’s always been relaxed. I think there’s an image of Cuba that’s not exactly what my personal experience is. It’s never been like that. It’s not like the authorities will see my film and tell me what they think, nothing like that. Well, that hasn’t happened to me yet. It might have happened to somebody else… I’m pretty sure it has, but it’s not my experience. I don’t know… they read the script before I shot it and didn’t say anything.
Does Juan work on two different levels: for a Cuban audience and an international one?
I think the international audience will also realise I’m saying something and [react to] more than the silly humour. Obviously Cubans will get more from the subtext but the point I’m making goes through to all audiences.
Were you a fan of zombie flicks before you made Juan?
All my life.
It was a lifelong ambition to make this film, then?
It’s not how I work. I don’t know say 'I’m going to make a zombie film because I love zombie films'. I never thought about it then one day I had an idea and thought 'this could be a cool zombie film'. I watch so many zombie films and for every good one you see there’s always a disappointment so I said this could be my chance – and only chance – to make a film that had everything I ever wanted to see in a zombie film.
The central premise of Juan starting up a business killing the living dead because family members cannot bring themselves to do it is a fun concept. Where did it come from?
Once I have an idea I start thinking about that world and things will come into my head and the characters, scenes, dialogue before I start to write. One day this phrase came into my head 'Juan of the Dead, we kill your beloved ones'.
Where did you shoot the film?
Apart from a couple of scenes everything was done on location. The rooftop stuff was an accident. There were a lot of rooftops in the script but not as much as in the film. When we were scouting locations to find Juan’s apartment, because in the script he lived in one and he also used his rooftop to look through his telescope, we couldn’t find a building with all the characteristics written into the script and one day my art director said 'What if he lives on the rooftop?' and I loved it because in my first film, Personal Belongings, the character lived in a car. It’s funny because we had to design the rooftop space for the film and the tenants asked us to leave it like that when we finished.
How did you cast lead actors Alexis Díaz de Villegas and Jorge Molina as Juan and Lazaro? They’re a great double act.
I wrote the film for Alexis… well, both of them. When I was thinking about casting, I saw Juan with his paddle and it kind of reminded me of Alexis so I had this Don Quixote image and if I had Don Quixote, I needed a Sancho Panza.