Filmmaker Tony Jopia Discusses Independent Filmmaking and ‘Dawning of the Dead’

Tony Jopia is an independent filmmaker whose latest film Cute Little Buggers is now available and the upcoming Dawning of the Dead is soon to release. We had the chance to ask him about the films and his passion for making movies. Here’s what he had to say. 

Tony Jopia
Dawning of the Dead, 2017 © Andrew Laenen

Hello Tony and thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I’d like to start with a little bit about you and what got you into filmmaking. Could you share some background on who you are for those who don’t know?

Hi, I’m Tony Jopia and I’m the director producer of Cute Little Buggers, Cry Wolf and DEADTIME … and the soon to be released zombie flick Dawning of the Dead. Originally from Chile then, as a young boy and after political problems in my country, I moved to Liverpool in the UK. Decided to become a film director at the age of 9 after watching Airport 75, Poseidon Adventure and Damnation Alley with George Peppard from the A-Team. Have loved creature features all my life, at least from the days my father used to wake me up at midnight on school days to watch on TV the classics such as Tarantula and THEM! Started making films at the age of 12 and went on to be influenced by great directors such as Sergio Leone, (Steven) Spielberg, (Francis) Truffaut and of course kings of horror (JohnCarpenter and (DarioArgento. I had to take a break from filmmaking when I reached 22 to commence my career in television branding, which led me to a successful life managing global TV brands and broadcasters. In 2008, I made the decision to make a micro budget film in 2 weeks for £6000 called DEADTIME, a massive and extremely challenging venture which resulted in making a flick that was released globally but most importantly introduced me to many of my crew I work with now that have gone on to produce 4 feature films with me and are about to make 4 more in the next 2 years. We have also become the best of friends. I make micro budget films with a lot of passion and dedication. We do the best we can and always drive to achieve watchable movies produced as professionally as possible. It’s always hard to please everyone with our films because we never quite have enough money or time to perfect them to Hollywood standards but we give it our best shot. We often create movie magic with almost no budget, something as a director I embrace and thrive with the challenges.

READ MORE: Our full review of Tony Jopia‘s Dawning of the Dead

You work primarily in horror, producing and directing a number of popular films in the genre. What draws you to horror?

Have always loved horror films, at first it was the classic US and Mexican creature features of the 50s and 60’s such as The Black Scorpion which caught my imagination. I remember going to the cinema to watch Empire of the Ants and loving it. This was all fuel to my desire to cause chaos. As much as I loved movies like Star Wars and Superman and The Blues Brothers, there was always a horror themed movie like Jaws to draw me in further into the genre. Then came classics like Halloween, The Shining and The Evil Dead. Once they materialized, that was it. My path was set. The Thing just blew me away, but it was films like An American Werewolf in London that really caught my attention with the soundtrack, humour and horror all beautifully combined to make a new kind of terror. I guess this really influenced me and subconsciously I was more drawn into the lighter side of horror.

Your films always seem to have a little tongue and cheek feel to them, even as they remain committed to the premise. Would love to get your thoughts on that balance and maybe your intent when making these movies.

I really believe that horror has so much more impact when its preceded by an unrelated emotional distraction, a sort of emotional smoking gun, it’s about giving the audience a false hope or a diversion from what is coming. Sometimes it’s a line or an action or, within reason, a daft visual gag, it’s about the tension, the buildup, the situation to distract you from the WTF moment that hits you between the eyes. Each film had to judge carefully how the play the distraction and what’s appropriate for that moment. At the beginning of the journey every director has a vision and tone for the film they want to create. The script of course depicts most of the approach but as a director you can’t avoid adding a little of your soul into the creation. I guess in my case, certainly with the first 3 films, I’ve set out to make fun slightly ridiculous movies that don’t take themselves too seriously. Budget, time and resources all contribute to your aim, particularly with micro budgets, you have so many compromises to make you have to sometimes bite your tongue and let things pass. Overall, I always set out to make the best I can with what I have. Once I know what’s achievable, then I carve out the path for the film and its production. When you watch my films, you can tell we are all having a laugh behind and in front of the camera. I know they are a little rough around the edges but because of this I made the conscious decision to make them over-the-top (OTT), sadly they still get criticized for their weaknesses, but that’s fine as hard and painful it is to read. You can’t please everybody. But with CLB it’s been amazing. Globally, we have received so many emails and reviews saying it’s fun, crazy and daft … that’s perfect for me as that’s what I wanted to achieve.

You’ve got a couple of new films to talk about. And since you’ve already mentioned it, let’s start with Cute Little Buggers, a horror film set in the English countryside. Could you give our readers a little summary?

When hostile aliens crash land on local farmland the villagers at the summer ball get suspicious when young women start going missing. The villagers soon band together around our hero Melchoir to fend off the invaders and bring back peace to the sleepy English countryside. I’ve always loved creature features and deep in my heart I knew I would make something crazy like CLB. In one day I caught on TV, Gremlins and one of my favourite films, It’s a Mad Mad Mad World, a chaotic comedy that just sang out to me. Along with my love for classic Hammer movies and monster movies from the 50’s lead to me falling for the concept of something cute going bad.

Tony Jopia
Cute Little Buggers, 2017 © Andrew Laenen

Later I remembered my grandma used to breed rabbits and wondered one evening … what if … and literally said to myself they had to be Cute Little Buggers … and the rest is history. I called my writing partner Andy Davie to pitch him my idea, and after he called me ‘Stupid Little Bastard,’ he warmed to the idea and the first draft was born. Andy is a fab horror writer and we both agreed we needed more comedy so heard about another awesome writer called Garry Charles; sent him our draft and he came on board to do a version. We shot a teaser to convince the Executives such as Fabien Muller and he loved it and we went into production with having enough budget to shoot CLB in 21 days. It was one of the best shoots I’d had ever been involved in and having co-producers such as Jeremy and Andrij Evans at Brainy Monkey look after the post, it meant we achieved wonders with almost nothing in an incredible amount of time.

The movie feels like an homage of sorts to some classic 70s drive-in type horror movies. Are you influenced by these films?

For sure, I so wanted it to be a farce, a comedy horror that is mad, OTT and just simply NUTS. The subject matter was so silly I felt necessary to take it as far as I could. It’s like The Evil Dead, the plot just gets bigger and crazier as it moves along. I am a massive fan of a little known movie called Damnation Alley. I loved it because I was only 11 when I saw it, even then I knew the effects were a little ropey but it didn’t spoil the enjoyment of the film. Films didn’t always have to be well produced to be liked, films and cinema are about escapism, if one can connect with it and join the journey then production values can be put to one side. I remember watching Empire of the Ants – a terrible film but just lots of fun. I loved the old Hammer Films and to some extent I think there’s a lot their tonality and character in CLB.

Speaking of homage. You’ve also got a zombie film coming out called Dawning of the Dead, which was originally titled Apocalypse. Aside from the title change, there are a lot of lines here that can be drawn to George Romero’s original films. Any thoughts?

All filmmakers get influenced by other works. Look at (Quinten) Tarantino, I accept he adds his own characteristic to the films but his films are packed with throws to other movies. I does not worry me at all. The film was made not to been seen as a copy of the other movies. I’d like to think there’s plenty of Tony Jopia in the film. The title was changed by the distributors which I trusted and totally respect.

I liked a lot of Dawning of the Dead, especially that aspect. Your film has both a confined claustrophobic feel to it while having a global presence. I’m curious about trying to tell such a large story with the budgetary constraints of being an Independent filmmaker.

It’s very hard to create convincing scale but I always wanted to ‘push the boat out’ as we say and create a sense that the world was losing control but to give that scale more credibility I wanted to focus on a small aspect of a situation, create a sense of being trapped and as you put it claustrophobic with no potential escape…this in itself would then enhance the scale of the outside footage. I knew it was a super ambitious project but when you are limited with funds you have to dig deep to find solutions. My solution to the scale was to reach out to other up and coming film makers in key global locations and ask them to shoot a few shots we could breakaway too, as news channels do. Although I only needed a couple of shots, I wanted them to be there in the country and place they represented besides Zombies are global and people love being zombies regardless where they are based. We could have faked it but I didn’t want a green screen world. After the CGI CLB rabbit hell I wanted everything to be real as much as possible. Getting the shots from Greece, LA, Iceland etc., all really makes a difference. I did have to give in to visual effects with the destruction shots but this was unavoidable and again we did the best we could with the budget we had. Back in the studio I really wanted to make it feel like the crew could not get out, they were trapped behind closed doors and it was going to take a special person with real dedication to break out and Katia has this and achieves it.

READ MORE: Our full review of Tony Jopia‘s Dawning of the Dead

I noticed a few themes at play in the film, including some timely social commentary on women and abuse in the workplace. Any insights?

That’s right, people in all businesses get abused but sadly they are just too scared to bring it to the open because they don’t want to lose their jobs etc. I’ve heard about it. A lot of the characters are not based on any actual individuals but caricature of people out there being this way, it really does take a strong person to risk everything and speak out and when they do I really salute them. Many are really vulnerable and from a scripting point of view it adds good drama for the character to have this disadvantage and then push themselves to new height, help us get behind them in their quest.

As an independent filmmaker working in a genre already crowded with many films already, what are some of the greater challenges and advantages you face in trying to tell your stories?

The biggest challenges of course are budgets and production time. Unfortunately, I have a day job, which I adore, but fitting everything in is very difficult so often the amount of preparation time is almost zero. Although I know what I want to achieve and I want to push the boundaries with every film I make, every scene I create, every shot I compose I always want it to be as great as possible but lack of time means we have to work super-fast, often sacrificing shots and forced into accepting certain take that in your head and heart know that the actor could do better. I’ve shot all my films in 2 to 3 weeks because that’s all we could afford, I know one could say, do simple achievable film but that’s just too easy. When you’re in the zone you can’t beat it. I have an amazing team that support me incredibly with their talent and dedication but I do the same for them. A film doesn’t just stop when you shout, ‘it’s a wrap’. Usually everyone goes home and we put a further 12 months or more time in to make the finished product be as good as possible so that everyone’s hard work is justified. I wish I could have better visual effects, I wish I could have more time but that’s not always possible.

On our website, we dedicate a lot of content to great moments in film, discussing their impact and influence. Are there any movie moments that have had influence on you?

What a great question! The opening to Once Upon a Time in the West is incredible, the composition of the shots and build up is exquisite, the sound is haunting and when the harmonica kicks in …I’m there hooked. The scene in E.T. -The Extra-Terrestrial when Elliot first encounters ET in the shed. The mystery of who’s throwing the ball, what will they look like, will it be a friend or a foe…the direction and cinematography is divine. There’s so many moment …this is painful. I guess I have to mention the tainted blood scene in The Thing too.