Director and owner of the Guelph-based film studio Black Fawn Films (established in 2007), Chad Archibald is a graduate of Humber College's Multimedia Design and Production program. At 22, he co-wrote and co-directed his first feature Desperate Souls (2005), which was picked up for distribution by Lionsgate Films and Alliance Atlantis. After a stint of working on seven episodes of the Canadian television series Creepy Canada (2006), he took what he'd learned from that experience and applied it to making his next film Neverlost (2010), which won the Audience Award at that year's Fantasia. In 2014, he returned to Fantasia with The Drownsman, following up this year with Bite.
Please be forewarned that my conversation with Chad Archibald is not for the spoiler-wary!
* * *
Michael Guillén: You consider your Black Fawn team to be a family?
Chad Archibald: Yes. We spend so much time on set together and are so close with everyone. Our films are made with pretty low budgets, so we rely on a lot of people working very hard for much less than they deserve to be paid, and with fewer resources. We really work hard at treating everyone with respect. We've been on sets before where we've seen people unhappy and how sour it can get and people being miserable. Luckily, we're blessed that we haven't had many situations like that.
Guillén: You trained in multi-media design? What exactly is that?
Archibald: Web design and stuff like that. I went to school for multi-media design and had one film course. Basically all they taught you to do was how to plug a video camera into your computer. It wasn't really part of my program, but I managed to get in the course so I could use their cameras and make movies on the weekends with my buddies. I'd always made home videos and stupid little shorts and stuff, but that was the first time I could actually plug something in. I had edited from VHS to VHS, trying to cut scenes together. They were fun to do. I grew up in the country and had nothing better to do. My folks got a video camera so I was like, "Okay!" I'd create little movies to pass the time, I guess.
Archibald: When we made that movie, I'd never been on a set before. I had no knowledge of what to do. We found a scriptwriting program online and me and Philip [aka Gabriel Carrer] started writing it, and we called all our friends and buddies and said, "Let's go! We're making this movie this weekend!" We didn't even know how long it would take to shoot stuff. We thought we could shoot a movie over the weekend, maybe a few weekends, something like that? But it ended up taking years to finally get it done and we made every mistake in the book. We had to re-record every piece of dialogue in the entire movie! [Laughs.] But it's those mistakes that make you a better filmmaker. Now I understand sound. Now I understand editing.
Archibald: It's so hard to come up with original ideas. I never really got that until this year because there have been a lot of comparisons between The Fly and Bite.
Guillén: I hope that doesn't bother you? It's meant as a compliment.
Archibald: No, no, no. I feel humbled by the fact that it's being related to such an awesome movie—if anything, it feels a little intimidating—but, no, I'm super-happy with it. I love horror movies and there are so many great ideas that go one way, but you think, "What if they went a different way?" The idea for Bite wasn't to try to do anything like The Fly. With The Drownsman, however, it was intentional. There were these movies that I had grown up that I had loved watching that had that supernatural bad guy that breaks all the rules. That's fun! We set out to make the character of the Drownsman one of those guys, for sure. We wanted The Drownsman to be a throwback. You just don't see movies with those characters anymore; villains that you can make toys from! Ry Barrett, who played The Drownsman, was in Desperate Souls, the first movie we ever made. He was my best-looking friend and I told him, "You look like an actor; c'mon!" We've been making movies together ever since.
Guillén: I'm intrigued that both The Drownsman and Bite feature female-centric ensembles. Can you speak to that?
Elma Begovic, who plays the lead Casey in Bite, as I enjoyed working with Michelle Mylett who played Madison in The Drownsman. We write scripts and send them in and work with the studios to see what's going to work and what they like or don't. Some of our scripts are male-centric as well, so I don't think it's on purpose that The Drownsman and Bite have female-centric casts. I've been asked that many times. Basically, we love strong female characters. I just read an article where they interviewed several of the actresses in my films [Jeff Fountain's CGE piece "Black Fawn Films: Women Who Kick Ass"]. Gender equality is such a major issue in every industry pretty much, but this article brought it to the forefront and had some great things to say. There's nothing better than a bad-ass girl kicking ass. I don't think I would naturally write female characters who just run around in bikinis. I never look at women that way, so I would never write them that way.
Guillén: Your lead character Casey is refreshingly complex. She's due to be married, but she's not really ready or committed to the idea, so while vacationing in Costa Rica she acts out and fools around with another guy and even carelessly loses her engagement ring in the process. That sexual abandon and excess becomes the segue to her being "stung", with all its horrifying repercussions, and moral insinuation.
Archibald: There are some characters who are extreme in Bite, like we have one scene with the mother before things get out of control.
Guillén: She deserved everything she got.
Archibald: But that's it, we were like, "Good. Let's just make her horrible." Let's not beat around the bush here. We've got this fun scene: let's make her horrible. People who are going to watch this are going to say, "I can't wait to see her get her's."
Denise Yuen's performance as Kirsten, Casey's good friend. She was likeable. Where we could say we wanted the mother to get her comeuppance, I really didn't want anything to happen to Kirsten.
Archibald: That's important. People aren't good or bad. People are generally right in the middle, y'know? Nobody's perfect. People make mistakes. But it's more relatable when it's someone that's real. Casey screwed up, but she's not a bad person. That's the key with making a character like her's. You want to go far enough to make them real but not so far that the audience goes, "I don't like her. No. I don't care about her. I want her to die."
Guillén: Many years ago Kiyoshi Kurosawa attended the screening of his film Doppelganger (2003) at the San Francisco International Film Festival. In that film, the protagonist's doppelganger breaks the law, causes a lot of trouble, even murder, and gets away with it. During the Q&A after the film, someone wanted to know where the police were? How this guy could get away with all this? Kurosawa seemed very bemused and admitted his movie was never meant to be "real." Movies are not real, he argued, even if they try to appear real. His movie was set in an alternate world, in which there were no cops, precisely so that the doppelganger could create chaos. That was the core of his film. Ever since then, I've paid attention to what directors leave out of their narrative worlds and the conventions they ask audiences to accept.
In Bite, as Casey transforms, she turns her apartment into a webbed nest of eggs. There's a brief complaint about the smell; but, then that's never brought up again and I got the feeling that in your movie's world, there were no neighbors. That's why nobody else was complaining about the stench and why the nest just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Can you speak about that?
Archibald: Yeah, sure. Some people have watched Bite and reviewed it as a horror comedy, while others have watched it and said, "It's a serious film." We were aiming for the middle. When you make some movies that are a little more fun, there's more leeway with your audience. If Casey had just gone to the doctor right away, it'd be a different film, she'd be in the hospital. That's not the film we wanted to make. We tried to play it in a way that these series of events happened so quickly that her instincts took over before she could actually end up in a hospital. Another example, when they walk into the room, anyone who would open that door would go, "Hell no, I'm not going in there" and back away. But our characters have to go in. Otherwise we don't have a movie.
Guillén: It's the infamous "don't" factor.
Archibald: Exactly. Why are they running up the stairs? There's a back door. It's just the suspension of disbelief. That's where the craft of filmmaking comes in. Hopefully you make a film where the audience gets drawn in and they don't think about those things so much. They enjoy it as is. It's so true, though. You can watch any movie and ask, "Where are the cops? Why don't they do this? Why don't they just call 911?" Or it's the classic: "Oh, all our cell phones don't have reception." That problem's solved. It's so hard because we're living in an age where everyone's connected all the time through cell phones. We talked about that a lot with Antisocial (2013). There's not a moment when you can't get help.
Targets (1968) with Boris Karloff.
Archibald: It's funny you bring that up because so did the studio when we were making Antisocial.
Guillén: Well, the thing about Targets is that it's about a sniper in a drive-in theater and everyone's trapped in their cars and can't call for help. That would be unheard of today in a contemporary setting and who even thinks of drive-in theaters anymore anyway, let alone not having a cell phone?
Archibald: It can be interesting to play with period pieces, with films that take place in the '80s, when everyone wasn't connected. I feel like people are such wussies today, including myself. I imagine myself going back to the '70s and '80s when you had to find a land line to phone someone. Especially kids who are growing up now have had cell phones all their life, almost as soon as they've learned to talk. They can't even comprehend the idea of going on a trip and not having a phone. Or using a map to find directions.
Guillén: One of the things I've enjoyed about my time at Fantasia is that I don't have an international calling plan so—to avoid roaming charges—I just keep my iPhone in airplane mode and don't use it for anything but a camera. It actually feels comforting to be a little old style and out of touch.
Archibald: You just put it away? So nice.
Archibald: Jason Derushie, who also did The Drownsman, worked on this with a team of assistants. For her make-up effects, Elma would get in super early before the crew or anyone. She'd show up and basically have to strip down and stand there for six hours and get covered in special make-up, and then another two to three hours to get it all off. She would be in make-up for nine hours out of 12-hour shifts. Whenever we got her on set, it would be, "Go, go, go, go, go!" She had some really long days and was such a trouper about it. She's very beautiful and it's interesting to watch the movie and see her transform into this creature at the end. It's only when they're looking back at found footage of them in Costa Rica that you remember how beautiful she is.
As for the actual set, we had buckets and buckets and buckets of goo. We had a room that was full of buckets of goo. Every day I was like, "More goo! More goo!" [Laughs.] Because it would dry out. We had a very small budget and one of our biggest challenges was, "How am I going to fill up this apartment with eggs?" What the hell would we actually get that would be like eggs? I was looking online and found this website that makes what they call spitballs. They're little pebbles that you put in water and they absorb the water and turn into little jelly balls. Kids spit them at each other. I bought a pack of them and took them into my bathroom and put them in a big bowl of water, went to sleep, and the next day they were overflowing. I ordered like 30,000 of them! We had buckets of them and put them in a mixture of coffee and maple syrup. We had endless eggs and had people filling ping pong balls with silicone, anything we could to figure out more and more how to create the illusion of all these eggs.
Black Fawn. Why that name?
Archibald: A Black Fawn is a rare creature and exciting to see! It started from there. Me and Cody Calahan own Black Fawn, and then we have Jeff Maher and Chris Giroux. Jeff's just directed Bed of the Dead (2016) for us, but he's been our DP on pretty much all our films, almost. Chris has been producing with us for a long time as well. We've been in operation since 2008. Right now we have a slate of films with Breakthrough Entertainment. We signed an eight-picture deal with them over two years, which is a challenge.
Guillén: How did you negotiate such a lucrative opportunity for Black Fawn? Did you go through the market here at Fantasia?
Archibald: No, we went into the studio. They were nice enough to sit down with us, and Cody actually pitched the idea of what if Facebook started turning people into zombies? They liked it. In all honesty, the industry is looking for content, but good content. For anyone, if you have something good, you can get it found. The only real problem is creating great ideas. That's what got our foot in the door: a good idea that they loved. Did it matter to them all the stuff we'd done in the past? We obviously brought that to the table to show them before we made the movie and started working with them.
Archibald: Good advice. We have the eight-film deal with Breakthrough but we don't even know all the films that we're doing and people say, "Oh, it must be nice to just go out and make whatever you want"; but, for every 30 ideas that we put into treatment and really work on and try to get them in, only one goes through. Content is king. Content is currency.
Guillén: Do you depend on the studio to handle distribution for you or do you self-distribute?
Archibald: I've done a lot of films over the years and have always worked closely with sales teams and whatnot. I also own Black Fawn Distribution, which was created (again) because we had gone through the wringer with so many films and had been screwed by distributors in the industry. We'd give our movie to people and they'd sell it across a country and we'd never see a cent from it, which is so common these days. Back in the day, like when we sold Desperate Souls, we sold it to Lionsgate and Alliance Atlantis. I couldn't give this film away, it was so bad, but we made a ton of money off of it because every film is guaranteed to have those sales to outlets like Blockbuster. You just have to put a cool cover on it and get it out there. But there were a lot fewer movies being made back then. Since the industry's gotten so saturated, distributors have closed down. I ran statistics and there are only about 13% of the distributors left that were around in 2000 that are still around. All the rest have either been bought up or gone bankrupt and closed down.
Guillén: Who distributes for you in the U.S.?
Archibald: Breakthrough is our sales agent there as well. Tim Brown organizes everything. We make the films, hand them over to Breakthrough, they go to all the markets, and sell them.
Archibald: Yeah, the distributor usually does that. For example, with The Drownsman—which sold to Anchor Bay, U.S. and Canada—they put it on iTunes and Blu-Ray / DVD.
Guillén: How important, then, is a theatrical run for you?
Archibald: In all honesty, it's very hard outside of festivals without a huge advertising budget for a small film to do well in theaters. We go through the festival circuit and that's how we get a film out and it gives people an opportunity to see it on a big screen as well. We've traveled all over the world going to festivals and pushing our films that way. We've done short runs in theaters in Toronto. With Neverlost we actually traveled right across Canada. Cody and I went to Vancouver and from Vancouver to Montreal and just rented out Cineplex Odeons for one night.
Guillén: That must have been hard.
Archibald: It was very difficult to get people in seats. Some places were fantastic and some places were total bombs. Filmmaking is a difficult industry to survive in, especially as an indie filmmaker. It's very saturated; but, making films is like a drug. I love being on set. I love what I do. Every day I wake up, there are times when I'm like, "I can't wait for Monday."