Black Sheep director Jonathan King speaks out

Black Sheep director Jonathan King looks nervous as he walks in to greet Total Film, he’s new to this after all, but the New Zealander soon settles in, talking animatedly about Peter Jackson, politics and why sheep are scary…

Can I just start off by saying thank you for giving the world mint sauce as holy water! Where did the idea for all this come from?

Well it just popped into my head as an idea about four years ago and I thought gosh, that’s an idea for a movie. Then I spent quite a while toying with the idea before just thinking, yeah, I’ll have a go at writing that. So then I had the first draft done in about a week and spent the next three years re-writing it. The shape was always there; I read the first draft a while ago and it was funny that it was all there but at the same time wasn’t. I could see all scenes there and how they would work and all the weird possibilities of how the things would happen were all the ideas I had from the beginning.

How did you get funding?

Well it wasn’t easy, but the New Zealand Film Commission got on board quite early on and it moved along quite steadily. Then Weta Workshop got involved, which gave us more confidence that things could happen. It’s interesting because the New Zealand film Commission had a development arm and a sales arm and while the development arm was helping us to get things off the ground, the sales arm was talking about the film all around the world and after a while it became apparent that there was interest in the film.

Did you have to make many changes to please Weta Workshop?

Not significantly, but I had to rationalise it sometime, because they were worried we were relying on too many different creatures. When we got to filming and were talking about how things would actually be done, there were moments where they wondered if certain things would work, like how we film the massacre scene without it looking too over the top. So decisions like that, because there couldn’t be like a medium moment with only 15 sheep, we couldn’t really achieve that. But that’s all part of the fun of the project and what makes the film what it is really. But you see these huge budget films that have enough money to whatever they want and they make the wrong decisions and throw too much stuff into it. So yeah, that kind of added up to the flavour of what kind of film it is really.

How much of the effects were CGI and how much of it was camera work, because it does look quite old school?

There’s one shot, where a sheep rolls down a hill and that is CGI, but everything was officially puppets or prosthetics and make-up and stuff.

Was that your decision from the start or was that to do with the budget again?

It was a very early decision that if we were going to do anything CGI, it was going to be the most amazing CGI shoot you’ve ever seen, so no way could we afford to do that, so we thought great lets forget about that and go down this road. I think, ultimately, for the movie it was better. It was a lot of fun to do and I think it’s really important for the audience to see something that actually happened that day in front of the camera, a real scene.

How was it working with real sheep? People say don’t work with animals…

We had amazing sheep trainers and there’s a lot you can tell a sheep to do, more than I thought! They come when they’re called and the stop at the right spot and look where you want them to and jump about and things like that. But then there’s what they won’t do and things that you try to get them to do but they lose interest and they look away or they start to chew some grass or they look really dopey when they’re doing it and when you’re whole film is based on sheep, you think ok maybe having 500 sheep snarling and fighting people…how you gonna do that? So it’s a little creative problem. I will never do it again!

How were they actors? Did they complain about it?

No they were really great sports actually they were very patient. I’m sure they were fed up but they knew the film that they were making and they knew what they had signed on for and they knew how good it was when the sheep finally got there and that it was important. And they knew that I would make them keep going until we got there! So the ones who were in the film and even the ones who just auditioned, knew what the film was about and they brought the realism to it.

How was the film received world wide?

Well it’s gone really well and people are laughing in the same places, which is really great. I guess visual humour travels really well and even though there are some verbal things that some people don’t get, they add to the texture of the film.

And at Cannes?

Yeah, yeah it went really well and at the box office, only Mr Bean beat it!

Is the film political?

Erm…no, it’s not! Ultimately the film is a holiday from all those political issues. I think a lot of the time, even though people agree with them; it’s like, give me a break!

I can see a lot of 70s and 80s schlock-horror, is that the intention?

Yeah, well we always wanted to make a really big movie but a big movie about what we wanted – so yeah, it’s a silly movie, but we were always kind of serious about making a big silly movie. Those 70s and 80s films really relish in being kind of crappy, but we are influenced by films like Evil Dead and things we grew up with so we were inspired by that style of filmmaking.

You’ve been compared to the early work of Peter Jackson, how does that feel?

Well, that’s obviously good, but I was more influenced by films like Evil Dead and Dawn of the Dead but I was very inspired by how Peter Jackson made his early movies, so it gives you some inspiration that filmmakers can come from making that kind of film to what he is doing now.

So no trilogy in the bag?

No, I think my trilogy days are a little in the future! I’m not that comfortable with the comparison, I find it a little embarrassing, I don’t think it holds a lot of truth, because what he does is so unique and there’s a whole load of different factors that got him to where he is now and I don’t think it’s a simple equation.

How did you get the balance between comedy and horror right?

I think very often I just followed my instincts really, with when I wanted to laugh and what I thought was funny and then the horror stuff and the gory parts just flowed. I’m really happy at how ready people have been to laugh and how much they have been laughing, I was quite anxious about that. There was a point when we were developing the film when Shaun of the Dead came out and that really helped. It gave people something to peg us on to, but the downside of that was that Shaun is a very funny film to start with and then the horror stuff comes in, whereas in Black Sheep, the humour comes from the gruesome-ness: it starts quite straight and it could almost be a coming of age story on the land and then it just gets goofier and goofier as things go mad. I learnt that frights are easy and gore is kind of straightforward. Real scares are actually a little bit harder than I thought they would be, you can’t get people laughing but also feel dread, it’s not that straightforward. But from the start I knew the humour had to be part of it because it is funny and it did make me laugh.

When did you first think of sheep as a potentially lethal creature?

I come from a big farming family and we used to stay on the farm and one night when we went to stay, we were driving up the hill and the headlights were catching all the sheep’s eyes and I was like, wow, what a terrifying animal! When you see them far away they’re just little balls of cotton wool on the hillside, but when you see them up close, they’re bigger than you expect them to be and they’re stronger. They’re pretty weird looking creatures!

Did you have any bad experiences with the sheep while filming?

Well, the only thing really was that when we would stop for lunch, we would eat in the wool shed, where they sheer the sheep and we’d just sit on these slats and they would crap on the floor and there’d be that sheep shitty smell and the general smell of sheep so lunch wasn’t that enjoyable!