Interview: Isaac Gabaeff

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Originally published on The National Student on 27/10/15. 

Debuting this week on VOD through the brand-spanking new FrightFest Presents label is Isaac Gabaeff’s ultra-fun survival horror The Sand – the story of several hungover teens trapped on a beach by, you guessed it, killer sand. 

We had the pleasure of catching up with Isaac, who has also worked on huge Hollywood productions like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 andMen In Black 3, to chat about the ridiculous-nature of his first film, and the state of horror films in general. 

So to begin, this is such a unique and crazy idea for a movie – how did you come up with the idea for killer sand?

Well, to be totally fair I have to give credit to the writers Ben Powell and Alex Greenfield who came up with that concept.

When we started to look at scripts and try to figure out what was going to be the right project, that script emerged as a clear winner and I feel like that had a lot to do with growing up in the 80s, and watching horror films from then – in particular Creepshow 2 which had a vignette called ‘The Raft’. To me reading the script it felt very familiar because of that vignette, which was a similar premise. I knew every story would have a unique challenge, and I picked this one in particular because the premise seemed like such a great place to start. 

It is such an interesting premise, with a definite cult-movie vibe to it – other than Creepshow 2were there any other inspirations you looked towards when you were making the film?

Without directly referencing a particular movie, I feel like there’s a slew of horror movies that were kind of in that vein – Tales From the Crypt, that was something I watched a lot. But you know, you can pick on some obvious cult films like Re-Animator or Hellraiser in a sense that they have these outlandish ideas and they’re just throwing out all this bizarre imagery and stuff and those were definitely in some part an inspiration for this.

But at the same time each film wants to take on it’s own life and I didn’t want to directly copy anything with The Sand. If you respond to the material you want to find your own spin on that, and hope that that works, and that it’s not something that people will fucking hate. 

Talking more broadly, what connected you to the horror genre, and this more specific cult-side? 

I’ve worked on a wide-variety of different types of films, in different capacities. Where I know that some people are only die hard about horror, I would say that horror is one of my many favourite genres and types of films. When we set out to make this movie there were a number of scripts that went different directions with the horror genre and I felt like this film felt like a throwback to me, to something that I was familiar with, something that I understood, and when I read it it felt like I could make something out of this because it’s coming from a place of films that I really love.

There are sub-genres of horror that I like but I don’t love, so I felt like it was a good idea to go for something specific. If someone who was a horror genre fan felt like this movie was made for them, then that was pretty much a win right there for me. 

Talking of horror genre fans, the movie showed for the first time here in the UK at FrightFest this past summer and proved to be a crowd pleaser. How was the FrightFest experience for you? Did you manage to travel with the film?

No, I wanted to actually. The truth is that I had a family member pass away and there was going to be a plan – an indication to come – and I had planned to come. Jamie Kennedy who is in The Sand,and someone I’m in touch with, called me up and asked if I was going, and I said that I wanted to, and he told me that he was going to be in London at the time, and that it would be great if we went and did a Q&A together. So that was kind of the plan, that was what was supposed to happen. But when my family member passed-away, I felt like it was more important for me to be with my family, although I very much wanted to be there. 

The family member who passed-away was my grand-uncle, my grandma’s brother, and he was an entertainment lawyer, he led this very extraordinary life, it wasn’t a very sudden or horrific thing that happened to him – and as an entertainment lawyer, I weirdly think that he would have probably urged me to go to the festival and promote the movie. But that was my decision and for my family, I wanted to be there with everyone.

So that’s what happened, but on the day of the service I was reading the reviews as they came in from the night before, so it was kind of this strange effect. You just don’t know what’s going to happen – you hope that people are going to enjoy the movie and are entertained and excited about it, but you have no way of knowing that before it happens, so there’s always this nervousness which, in a strange way, got sort of relieved as I was reading the reviews coming in. I really wish I could’ve been there, but it’s okay. 

It’s such a crowd-pleasing movie, but in the UK you’ve opted for VOD distribution, which a lot of smaller films are going for nowadays  – do you feel like your film might miss out on not having a wide cinematic release? 

You know, I feel like the traditionalist in me would probably say ‘yes’. It really would’ve been a top notch experience for me to have the movie be in a theatre so that I could’ve gone to see it – that was really one of my disappointments about missing FrightFest. If you’re going to watch it specifically in the theatre with people and you really get to hear where people reacted and what they thought was funny, or what they didn’t think was funny; just to hear people’s reactions is a pretty amazing experience in general when you make a movie. Given especially if people are responding well to the movie. 

But that said I think that there’s a big change that’s happening in movies and it’s really unclear to people how content is reaching people. So I did feel like there is this machine in place which has very little to do with my input about what happens. I felt like I should just accept how things are going with it, and hope that it does do the best that it can through VOD. 

There’s people watching movies on their phone, and their iPads and just watching movies wherever they are so. I’ve been trying to keep up with stuff like this; I’ve just been reading about what’s happening in China where they really seem to be ahead of the curve a little bit in the ways people seem to be receiving content, so not everyone is sticking to this older model of it having to be in the theatres for it to be a legitimate movie. It’s more like if it can reach people it can be a legitimate movie. 

That said, why would you ever pass up wanting to see your movie at a film festival? Where people are already wanting to go see something; wanting to be entertained or enjoy something. 

So do you think this VOD, non-cinema trend is one that is going to continue into the future and maybe spread wider into more mainstream cinema? 

My feeling is to say yes, although I’m definitely not able to predict the future. But it seems logically that being able to find things on demand wherever you are, whenever you want them works. It maybe includes a theatre, but you look at the proliferation of social media and phones and all this stuff, and I think back to when I was a little kid and people just had landlines, you weren’t even allowed to call your friend after 8:30 or 9 o’clock at night.

Or you would just leave your house and be gone for hours and no one would even know where you were. And then now, people are up in arms if you don’t respond to a text within five minutes. So if you have access to all this stuff: movies, and internet – anything you want to know all there at your fingertips – I don’t see why movies wouldn’t get in on that in the best way that they could. 

A lot of low budget films have opted to use digital effects over practical ones which has caused a pretty big debate within the horror genre recently. Your film opts for digital too, was there ever an option for you to use practical effects? Was it something that you wanted to do but couldn’t?

Absolutely it was something that we talked about, but I think that would’ve really required finding the right person, and making sure that that was inline with what the budget was. With any movie there’s always a bottom line with what you’re doing and The Sand is not a gigantic studio pic – which is pretty apparent when you’re watching it – and so there was no need to be auteurish in the sense of a director saying “we need to shoot this on film instead of video”.

We needed to find out what was going to be the best thing for the movie and what was going to work the best, and I think that the digital effects were something that allowed there to be a proper conversation. If things had been different with our schedule or the budget, that might’ve been a conversation about what’s right for our movie. 

I mean, I love the fact that the new Star Wars movie is being shot on film, and that they were creating things practically, and that they had the space and the money to do that, versus whatever they did with The Phantom Menace where they sort of created everything digitally, which I actually didn’t think worked that great for those particular films. You have to make a decision and stick with it too, so I felt fine about what we were doing digitally, and you know when you’re making something, you have no way of knowing if it’s going to work 100%, you want everything to add to the film or at least not be distracting, and I felt thankful in the sense that the effects came out the way they did. 

Lastly just to wrap things up – especially considering your incredibly varied career-path, do you have any tips for anyone who might want to get into the film industry? 

I think my main tip would be to look for any opportunity anywhere, because even most of the people I know who work in film doing anything; whether you’re a prop person or a director, whatever it is, no two people have the same story. Everyone can tell you their story about what particularly happened to them, but I feel like if you’re looking for your opportunities in life, you’re going to find them somewhere, and then that’s up to life to either help that along or not help that along. 

If you love film and you’re interested in film, you’ve got to keep searching away to get to where you’re going, and find that opportunity, and take it when you get it. That could be going to school for film, that could be if you met the right person who offered you a job somewhere and you take that job and see where it leads. I would say that I had a version of both of those things. I went to school for animation, and I worked on a movie, then I was working in hotels but then a different opportunity arose for me to actually make something for myself which lead me to meet someone, which lead me to get a job.

Isaac Gabaeff’s The Sand (2015)is released in the UK by FrightFest Presents and can be found on many different VOD services now.

You can find more information here.   

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