JESSE BLANCHARD Interview, Nightstream 2020

Gavin Schmitt Interviews Jesse Blanchard

Creator Jesse Blanchard was kind enough to chat with me about “Frank and Zed”, and our conversation is here!

Overview: Two reanimated corpses, dependent on each other for survival, live a life of solitude until a power-hungry magistrate tricks a group of villagers into attacking their lonely castle, fulfilling an ancient prophecy: The Orgy of Blood. My review of FRANK AND ZED is in another post. The too long, didn’t read version: it’s an absolute must-see, and if you don’t like it we can’t be friends.

Gavin Schmitt: Let’s go all the way back to the beginning… Many people want to be filmmakers, but not many enter the business through puppetry. Why puppets?

Jesse Blanchard: I actually came to puppets from a film background. And believe it or not, at the time, it was a completely pragmatic decision: the stories I wanted to tell couldn’t be done with people and my limited resources. Puppets were just the way I felt it could be done. So, I did a short film to test the process and then fell in love with the medium. I haven’t looked back since. 

GS: Beyond being a writer-director, you’re apparently also an inventor. Is it true you patented a special 3D camera, and was it used at all on FRANK & ZED?

JB: Yes, I like to make stuff! We shot the first 20% of the film in 3D on my camera system, the Robert Rig and it’s AMAZING to see this world in stereo 3D. You can actually see into Zed’s head! However, it added a layer of complexity that was ultimately affecting the story. Just dealing with twice as much 4K raw data was a huge strain. So, ultimately, I made the shift to 2D so that I could more closely focus on the story. 

GS: “Blanchard’s unique puppet films have earned the praise of George Romero, Neil LaBute, Drew Barrymore, and … Ray Harryhausen. ” First of all, that’s an impressive variety of names. But second… Drew Barrymore??

JB: Yeah! That’s a bit out of left field. Early in my career she saw some of my music videos and picked me to be part of a TV show for young directors. The kind of surreal thing that just happens every once in a while. Romero picked a short film I did about running zombies to be included with the DVD release of Diary of the Dead. That was such an honor and a shock as he was pretty vocal about not liking running zombies. But really, getting praise from Ray Harryhausen was completely unbelievable. That he even took the time to watch any of my stuff was dumbfounding. 

GS: The balance of humor, gore, action, and fantasy is flawless. How conscious were you in making this balance, or did it just naturally work out this way?

JB: First of all, thanks! I’m so glad you liked that. I make my films for the audience – they are so important to me. So, for tone, I don’t want anyone cut out. I’ll never make a joke that I feel will make someone feel bad about themselves. That said, the process was more about what wasn’t  right for the film. That’s what I really had to be diligent about. My job was to make the sandbox and then let everyone go crazy within it. But, I did have to be very protective of potential ‘cat turds’ – jokes, props, story beats, et cetera that did not work, that would pollute the tone. The world for me is like a precious bubble; my task was to fill it to the absolute brim, to stretch it to bursting but… it could not pop or else the entire film would fail. I’m sure there are ways that I didn’t achieve this goal but it was an absolute priority at every stage of production. 

GS: One of my favorite running jokes is how anything that dies gets the cartoon-style X’s over their eyes. Do you recall what made you make this choice?

JB: Again, thank you! This was another one of those things that I just felt was the way to go. It was never even an ‘idea,’ it was how it was from the very beginning. It’s funny, I like to get a lot of feedback and see what’s working and what’s not for people and I always give it careful consideration. But, I had one guy who said he didn’t like the X’s over the eyes and I just thought to myself, ‘Well, he’s dead wrong. There is NO WAY I’m changing those eyes!”

GS: Asking for a friend… Do blood orgies have loopholes?

JB: Frank & Zed is at least 15% fantasy film – so, loopholes are just about required! If you do find yourself in an Orgy of Blood, I suggest finding a real jerk. They won’t get killed till the end (probably) but they’re guaranteed to die so, use them for a shield for a bit…then RUN!

GS: The end credits show some great behind the scenes on the puppets come to life. I’m curious about a simple but important aspect: what went into the blood? (I ask because if the blood stains, it would add a great deal of time between takes, and I wonder if you found a way around this.)

JB: Excellent question! Getting the blood right is hard because the consistency changes – sometimes you need a slash and sometimes a deluge, and you have to tailor the recipe accordingly. Because I firmly believe that too much blood is barely enough, it was a HUGE task resetting and cleaning the puppets between takes. We literally had a kiddie pool that the puppeteers would sit in to contain the vast amount of blood that was shooting out. The poor puppeteers would walk around with their shoes soaking wet. It was ridiculous. 

GS: Despite the extra time and work involved, you’ve championed practical effects over CGI. For those of us who grew up admiring Chris Walas, Steve Johnson, Rob Bottin, and so on, do you see a future for those who want to pursue creature effects or is there no turning back from computers now?

JB: I think there will always be a place for practical effects for several reasons: One, it’s super fun and people who make stuff like to have fun. But also, it’s the limitations of practical effects that can elevate them. In the film, I had to make a God of Death puppet that was completely practical yet still scary. It was really hard to do BUT I am really happy with how it turned out. most people think it’s CGI when it’s not 100% real. The practical effects forced me to come up with something more interesting; I couldn’t just rip off someone else’s demon because I didn’t have that ability. I had to be creative. So, limitations can be liberating. At least, that’s how I feel. 

I have so much respect and admiration for Chris Walas, Steve Johnson, Rob Bottin and hundreds of others — Billy Bryan, Rick Lazzarini, their work completely holds up. My daughter loves Gizmo and I can’t wait to show her The Thing or Hellboy II and I have no concern that the movies won’t hold up. The work is stunning and, I think there will always be a place for that. 

Lastly, practical effects are performed. Even doing something as small as blood is done by an artist. When it’s done for real that person can put themselves into the work in a way that’s different from what you can express with a computer mouse. That adds to the experience in a tangible way. On Frank and Zed we had a guy who was the Goo-Ru because he did the slime with such artistry. He was born to do slime! And, whenever we did slime, I was like, ‘Get Jeremy! Get the Goo-ru! We have to have him on this.”

Also, I have to give a quick shout-out to the Stan Winston School of Character Arts; it’s a phenomenal resource for anyone looking to learn this craft. 

GS: Back in 2017 you said, “I have my next project formed in my mind. I have the next two or three. I mean there’s really a backlog.” FRANK & ZED focuses on two characters, but you’ve created an entire world. The stories to tell could be endless. Are you returning here or do you expect to diversify?

JB: I absolutely want to explore the world of Frank and Zed more! There are more monsters lurking in the shadows waiting to be called out. I also want to know more about both Frank and Zed and the Moroi. I’ve written the first of a series of five comic books about Frank’s origins. A huge challenge with the film was cutting out stuff. There were tons more and sometimes I worry, as it is, the film is too saturated with story.  But, yes would love to return to the Frank & Zed universe. Also, it would be surreal in the best possible way to see what others might do with this strange little world. 

GS: I hate to ask… but I must. Given your experience in the creative arts, do you think the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland?

JB: I’m glad you ask because, in my opinion, the dream is alive but evolving. There’s a dedicated group of artists who want the open playing field of the nineties but are combining that with absolutely stellar craft and focus. That is my dream, can I combine the wide-eyed wonder of the nineties with the discipline required to create things at the highest level. Can I make a ‘Hollywood level’ horror film with puppets where people forget all that. Can I make it good enough that the world and the story are what people see first – not how it was made. That’s my dream. Bringing the characters to life without an asterisk.

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