Nightstream 2020 Interview: FRANK & ZED Director Jesse Blanchard On His Joyous Puppet Horror Comedy
Frank & Zed enjoyed its world premiere as part of the virtual film festival Nightstream. It's an irresistible movie, a cocktail of horror, gore, humor, mythology and values, such as friendship, starring puppets.
A couple of centuries ago, a castle and the evil Moroi emerged to terrorize the inhabitants of a town. Getting rid of the danger came at a very high cost because their king made a pact with the God of Death. At the present time, the royal line is dangerously ending, which would mean the consummation of an "orgy of blood" as dictated by the agreement.
Legend says that in the ruins of the old castle, something is alive. We know that two monsters are there, Frank and Zed, whose origin is directly linked to The Moroi. Frank is a character derived from Frankenstein's monster, while Zed is a zombie. For about 200 years they have managed to survive, helping each other. Frank often goes out into the woods to hunt squirrels and then takes out their little brains, which is Zed's food. The living dead, on the other hand, is vitally important for Frank's heart to be recharged by means of a lightning rod. Even though there are obstacles to performing this routine, such as the zombie losing one of his hands, Frank and Zed are there for each other.
Writer and director Jesse Blanchard revealed to us in an interview that the original idea for Frank & Zed came about 10 years ago. “Frankenstein’s monster and a zombie that depended on each other to survive, that part kind of just jumped into my head. The other part that jumped into my head is that Frank’s dome would be glass and you would see his brain and the zombie would kind of chew on it like a dog would chew on a bone, which is in the film but it’s not that clear. Very shortly after was also that the Frankenstein’s monster was afraid of humans and so he only fed the zombie squirrels. Then of course, if that’s the idea you’re like, well, the zombie is going to have to eat a human, and what happens when the zombie eats the human?”
Frank & Zed mixes different tones, giving us genuinely sweet moments and then revealing an emotional background. It also explores the unshakable nature of its monsters, for example, when Frank, having suddenly remembered his past, coldly beheads a young man and Zed devours his brain, even licking the plate! “What I love the most about the Frankenstein monster is that it’s a monster that also does bad things. That’s what is so amazing about Mary Shelley’s monster, it’s really complex and interesting, it’s very different from what you see in a lot of movies, certainly different from James Whale’s stuff. I have a much stronger connection to her book. I think that was the most important thing for my film: I didn’t want perfect monsters, cute things that just look a little different, I’m not into that. I wanted to have monsters that really do bad things, they do monster things, but hopefully you will still love them”, said Blanchard.
As the real antagonists – a lord and a priest from the village who want to destroy royalty and shed blood to avoid the "orgy of blood" – carry out their plan treacherously, Frank & Zed heads to that classic denouement when the likable monsters end up being chased by a violent horde. Blanchard always sought for the relationship between these creatures to have “this deeper connection to achieve the most meaning. For me, Frank and Zed are very much the 'Other', they’re this thing that you kind of blame for problems. It’s like, if we just go kill those guys, everything will be fine. The most exciting thing is to see people respond to the heart of the film, which is a really important part of horror that doesn’t get talked about as much as I would like. Frank & Zed is very sweet, it shares more with The Muppets than it does with Meet the Feebles, it just happens to have a lot of blood and gore.”
Frank & Zed doesn’t shy away at all when it comes to meeting the expectations of that rampant and bloody climax. The appetizing menu: more zombies, possessed characters, dismemberment, fire, guts, blood gushing, heads shattered in half or crushed. And all with puppets, which of course makes it especially joyous. According to Blanchard: “With the orgy of blood, I was like, these are the things you have to see. Why am I making this movie if I’m not going to do these things? This is what I want to see as a fan. I had a very long list of the things that I felt someone has to see in a puppet horror film, that’s one of the reasons the orgy of blood got to be so absurdly long. I didn’t take any shortcuts. This is what I think my audience deserves.”
It’s well-known that filming with puppets is not a task for everyone. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were exhausted and mentally shattered after Team America: World Police. Blanchard and his core team – puppeteer Jason Ropp (whom he met while making the short Shine) and sculptor and painter Erin DeBray – spent around six years to complete Frank & Zed. “I wrote the film specifically to not be a puppet film. There’s a forest, a graveyard and exteriors; normally, you would never have that in films like this. I wanted to feel like it’s a whole world, so in the castle we’re going through halls and tunnels. It’s detail-rich, there’s no digital effects. In terms of the world building, I’m doing my best to try to pretend I’m Peter Jackson, outside of Meet the Feebles. Of course The Lord of the Rings [was an influence].”
Blanchard continued: “It takes a lot of rehearsal, a lot of work and coordination. You could have five people working together to make a character come alive. Where it gets scary is that if I make a mistake and a puppet gets destroyed, there’s no going back, there’s one of each puppet. With the orgy of blood, I was like, when a puppet gets destroyed it needs to be completely destroyed, ripped apart. So you shoot the whole thing, just really going, like, I hope I got all the shots. If you miss a shot, you’re dead. You have to be super-precise, because I think there’s like 1,500 shots in the orgy of blood. The climax was very difficult, the whole orgy of blood was drawn, everything was storyboarded, every single shot.”
Despite these complications inherent in puppet cinema, Blanchard, unlike Parker and Stone, wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. “I love it, I had a lot of fun. Even after such a long a time I still like it, though there’s definitely periods where it’s really frustrating. But there was always something that would pull me back, like the characters and the world. I’m dying to go back, there’s many more interesting monsters that I want to see, like the Baba Yaga”, he concluded.