March 27, 2018 Interview – Travis Zariwny
Working in film is a dream many ambitious artists would love to live out one day, but it is not quite the glamorous experience some believe it to be. As a matter of fact, it can actually be very daunting and far from fitting for the faint of heart. With over 20 years in the industry, working his way up through the ranks, Travis Zariwny, sometimes known as simply Travis Z, has had his share of the minutiae involved in making movies.
Recently, the filmmaker sat down to not only discuss his newest film The Midnight Man, but also the finer points of filmmaking and the detrimental effects that the internet can have on the genius and overall success of a director and his or her films.
CrypticRock.com – So, Travis, you have sort of emerged in this industry as a jack of all trades; working your way from production designer to art director, and then producer, writer, director, and so forth. What was it exactly that steered you down this particular career path?
Travis Zariwny – You know, it’s almost tripe to say it now, but it literally was Star Wars (1977); I saw it when I was eight, and I almost want to change that because it is everybody’s response. No, but what really started me down this path was my dad. My dad took me to see movies at the drive-in when I was a kid, and that was always kind of my dad, my brother and I who would go to drive-ins and movies on the weekends. And R-rated ones too! I saw Mad Max: Rogue Warrior (1981) and it like blew me away and I was like 11, so really young to see Rogue Warrior and really young to see Conan the Barbarian (1982) and just films like that; even Alien (1979). Those were all serious movies in the theater that I was allowed to see. So, that really fired up my imagination and I could draw.
CrypticRock.com – Was there a particular occurrence or event that made you realize that filmmaking was more than just a hobby to you, but that it is what you actually wanted to do with your life? Or did you just go into it knowing that that’s what you wanted to do?
Travis Zariwny – I think that last one is the right answer. I actually went to school for Political Science and Ancient History and then discovered that I dropped out of Political Science, because I felt that I was studying stuff that people had already studied before and nothing had changed. I think it was first cognitive that I was studying something that I had no control over was when people were trying to stop children in Uganda from stepping on landmines, but they’re still stepping on landmines. So, it was like, wow, Politics are a total waste of a lifetime. You can spend 20 years on one topic and someone can come along and just change it or reverse it or whatever; all this work for nothing!
I had always been involved in film, even when I was younger, my mom introduced me to public community access cable, where they would give you free cameras to go shoot stuff for public access; and so I used those things to make movies while I was also studying real life stuff, academics – but then I just gave it up and went for movies because I felt like dragons and laser swords were better than politics. I had so much fun with the imagination and creativity, because I was always drawing. I wrote for my college newspaper and drew political cartoons and stuff, so I found a job where I could get paid to do that stuff.
CrypticRock.com – So how did you get started? How did you work your way up from being a member of the crew to now creating your very own films?
Travis Zariwny – I started in camera because it was my in; as a camera assistant we would go to a set, setup the camera, and do the work. I was all about lenses and gear and framing during that time, but I was always staring at the art department team building the sets, like “How the? What the? Where am I?” The art department just sucked me in.
Now, officially, I’ve only been directing for five years but I’ve been in this industry since 1991. I’ve been on set my entire life, and here I was building beautiful sets for everybody else, I was framing and filming for everyone else, and finally I was like, “I can do this!” And my one big chance was Cabin Fever (2016), and I thought it was going to be awesome; I just poured myself into it, and it just flopped, theoretically.
I think nowadays, I mean, anybody can make a film with a small crew. You always could, but taking away the element of developing film, acquiring film, cutting film, the science involved with crafting film was such an exclusive club. I grew up with film but became a director in digital. I made tons of films with 35mm film as a crew guy, but digital just made it easier because you could get a couple of buddies together and can think creatively, outside the box, with no resources, and make a film.
CrypticRock.com – That is awesome. It is always fulfilling being able to do what you love. So, did you get a lot of support from your family for making that leap into filmmaking?
Travis Zariwny – Absolutely 100%. Actually my mom was like, “You know what? I don’t want you to work in an office,” because she worked in an office and that was just her main thing. She didn’t want me to go to an office. So I was like, “Okay! Great!” So I don’t have an office. It’s always different, and for me, I like that.
CrypticRock.com – It is always amazing when you have the support of those closest to you. Starting out though, especially as a filmmaker, mistakes are bound to be made. What do you feel are some mistakes you’ve made along the way that have actually led to some of the most important lessons you’ve had to learn the hard way, which have had the biggest, most beneficial effects on your movie making?
Travis Zariwny – One of the mistakes that I made was that I took advantage of every opportunity ever given to me; but I think you need to push yourself further and be open to even more stuff. I was always open to failure and projects I didn’t like, but I just wish I was just open to absolutely everything. Now at my level, or age I should say, I wish I would have just never ever listened to anybody else, and done exactly what I wanted to and kept making my own shit.
It’s the internet that killed me, honestly. That’s the real lesson I learned: to never read the internet. The hardest lesson I learned and I learned it by myself, was to totally trust myself and my art, be happy in the moment, and make movies because I love it and not because of what viewers might think or say.
I probably shouldn’t even go down this path, but the internet is a cruel place. There’s so much that goes into making a film, and so many people see it before it even gets released; that’s why I’m not a critic and I see everything, you know what I mean? We kind of make good movies for the audience, but also, nowadays, we do it for the art. It takes like 9 months to make a movie and that’s with money. Some films take 2 years; just don’t read the internet.
I responded to one YouTuber once who bashed my movie and then apologized and said that he really liked it, but he just did that for likes. Like, completely thrashed the film because that’s what the audience likes. As a Horror film fan, before I became a Director, I read all the blogs and all the stuff – as a fan you do that – but to make a film and just have it, Cabin Fever in particular, have the audiences just jump on this crazy-train of hate was incredible to me. It validated a lot of things for me.
CrypticRock.com – When it comes to being a director then, what, in your opinion, are some personal attributes that you feel make for a great filmmaker?
Travis Zariwny – I would absolutely say you have to work well with others. I totally take a Spielberg comment that I read when I was super young, and he said that, “I surround myself with people smarter than me,” and I thought that was so brilliant. I have seen such cocksuckers and asshole attitude directors and crew that think they are better than everybody, but none of that matters. We’re all people and we’re all here to make a movie; and I have to listen to ideas and fight for what I think is right and let go of what I’ve been convinced is wrong. So, I’m susceptive to other people. You also have to be very knowledgeable and smart enough to be able to say, “Oh shit. I was wrong and that’s a great idea.” I’m just a very low-maintenance director because I started in crew, so I saw them get abused and that will never happen to anybody that I work with. You just have to keep it super fluid and super respectful with everyone you are working with.
CrypticRock.com – So, what films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and your style throughout your career?
Travis Zariwny – I’ve literally evolved with the new films and new directors over time. My favorite directors when I was growing up were Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. Then I transitioned to Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg.
I really went after Ridley Scott and his filmmaking because his camera was so serious, the art department was so serious; like Alien and Blade Runner (1982) just blew my mind. Ridley Scott just directs atmosphere. Before I made The Midnight Man and even before I made Cabin Fever, I watched two videos on YouTube; I watched James Cameron making Aliens and Ridley Scott making Alien. So much attention to detail these two directors focused on.
CrypticRock.com – What about your love for Horror: when did that really start? Is there a specific film that you feel sparked that particular interest?
Travis Zariwny – You know I once did see, on VHS, it was the Horror section, and you could go look at the back of the boxes and I remember one movie, Videodrome (1983). I saw the Friday the 13th movies and I loved them and I got it, but Videodrome was so weird and creepy. David Cronenberg blew me away. That’s when I really started sneaking into Horror; well, not sneaking in, but I remember being at the drive-in, in the van, and there would be one screen in front of us that would be a PG movie and the screen behind us was the R-rated movie. My brother and I would turn around and watch that movie with no sound. Videodrome was definitely the beginning, and the first movie I can think of – and that was kind of like Sci-Fi/Horror too. And then, you know, as a teenager, I guess scary movies were super cool when I was growing up, like Freddy Krueger and all that; but it really didn’t transition for me into super gore until James Wan’s Saw movies.
I really went into Horror because: (A) I saw a lot of Horror movies and I love the genre period, but (B) because it was technically the easiest subject for me to make a movie on.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting. So with that said, do you have a favorite Horror sub-genre you really like?
Travis Zariwny – You know, I really like all movies. I suck. I watch every single kind of movie; I watch B-Movies, C-Movies – I watch every single film because I know a crew is behind it. Somebody’s behind making a film and I don’t care if it’s ten people or 500. So, my sub-genre would be, well, I like monsters; I really like monster movies.
CrypticRock.com – Speaking of monsters, let’s talk about The Midnight Man now. Initially it appeared to be a remake of the 2012 Irish film, Midnight Man, but isn’t it actually a remake of the 2013 U.S. film, The Midnight Game?
Travis Zariwny – No. No, that literally is – you’re right, and um, I would never say this word, but wrong. You’re not wrong, but when Cassian Elwes told me about the project and that he’d acquired the rights to the Irish film after seeing it at a film festival, I went and did research and watched that movie you’re talking about, The Midnight Game. There was a goth girl in it and I was like, “Holy fuck! This is my movie!” because I already wrote it, so I took out the actual goth girl. That’s the most terrifying thing as a filmmaker, is while I’m writing a story somebody else is making the movie that I’m writing – and it always seems like that. But I’m not really into drunk teenagers having sex in movies or girls running through the forest. For me, I grew up with Wes Craven’s teenagers and John Carpenter’s teens, and I just wanted smart kids because that’s what they are now.
CrypticRock.com – Wow. It is understandable what you saying about having smart teens; ultimately, didn’t their curiosity seem to be their undoing, as it typically is with teens? So what about you? Would you be the type whose curiosity would get the better of him and have play the midnight game, or would you be the cautious type to put it back?
Travis Z – I would absolutely play it. I yearn – and I don’t want to use that word because I hate that word – but I literally would love to see a ghost, monster, or alien in my real life. I would love it! That would be amazing.
CrypticRock.com – So did you ever dabble with Ouija boards and things like that then?
Travis Zariwny – I’m a believer in the higher concept of ghosts, aliens, and monsters, and I want them to exist so badly that I don’t ever fall into the trap of Pop Culture alien or monster discoveries. So, no, I never Ouija-ed, man. I never tried to call ghosts or séance because everything’s been so disproved; I’m kind of that guy. So, even when I make movies, I want it to be as real as I possibly can, I guess.
CrypticRock.com – And if the Midnight Man ever came to you, what form would he take? How would he manifest himself, do you think?
Travis Zariwny – I don’t know, I mean, I’m scared of sharks but I’m also a scuba diver; so I embrace the fear. He’d probably pull something out of my mind that I didn’t even know that I was scared of, to be honest.
CrypticRock.com – And your incredible cast? What was it like to work with Robert Englund and Lin Shaye?
Travis Zariwny – It was magical, it was awesome. I met with him in L.A. and we had a great meeting when we were getting this thing going on, and I was in the position of a Director; so as Director now, I was right in front of Robert and we were talking about something I had written, art that I had made for pre-visual stuff, and I just remember him being so professional and cool, and I had always followed his career. I wanted his character, and to direct him in a serious piece and have no Freddy Krueger or traditional Robert Englund kind of choices. Like, one of his first things was that he said, “You know, I’m a classically trained actor, Travis.” I was like, “Perfect! Let’s go down that road, let’s go down Shakespeare. Let’s go down this way.”
It was great working with him: he was just super intuitive, receptive, and just a professional; even with things he wanted to especially integrate. He had some ideas about his costume, and I just spoke to him about it. He also wanted a moment where his character is sipping on some scotch and I just didn’t want any alcohol in the movie, so I just said, “No, ya know? Let’s not really do that. I don’t think your character drinks. You’re just there, waiting patiently.”
It was just great working with him and Lin Shaye, and having them trust me but also bring up the appropriate questions. It was really fun to work with such seasoned and receptive actors who neither of them had an attitude, and they certainly could have; but they were just normal, beautiful, calm people. I always wish I had more time to talk about character development with my actors because it’s the funnest part of the process.
CrypticRock.com – Were there ever any particularly challenging or interesting moments that happened during the filming of The Midnight Man?
Travis Zariwny – Actually, we lost a full day of shooting in Winnipeg, when the U.S. dollar crashed and the Canadian dollar went higher than the American dollar; we ended up losing like 80-grand or something. So my producers came to me and were like, “We have to cut a day off of the shooting schedule,” which, I mean, my God that was insane because we were already shooting so fast; but I figured it out. I mean, I’m like, “We’re not gonna crash this plane because an engine went out, let’s figure it out and land this thing.”
CrypticRock.com – Your drive to work in the face of difficulties is admirable. What can people expect from you moving forward? Do you have any upcoming project that you’re excited about? Or areas of film you would like to tackle?
Travis Zariwny – I do, yeah. You know, all directors are looking for funding, so it’s either (A) I’m doing a documentary right now, or (B) I literally have five scripts I’m trying to get rolling. You know, I made Intruder for $40,000 and in 10 days. I know it wasn’t the most solid film, but that one took 2 years to get made because we had no money. That movie actually got me Cabin Fever, and Cabin Fever got me The Midnight Man. So, much like David Lynch, you can bounce back and forth from a million dollar film to like no budget once you know how to make a movie. I definitely have stuff brewing; I just never know what’s going to click. I mean, I wrote a prequel to Cabin Fever and I would definitely love to try and get that one made.
I’d definitely like to crossover into television. I see on Amazon and Netflix all these beautiful little series that are like 30 minutes long, so I would love to transition into that and do some kind of Amazon or Netflix Horror series. I would just love that as a writer and director; a longer format, time to explain stories longer and push characters further – or kill them in one episode; doesn’t matter to me. But I would love to do episodic Horror.
Interestingly enough, my background is in Sundance, so I would really love to make a Drama film as well. I totally like Dramas and the rich characters and stories, and that’s what I brought to the Horror genre. I actually shot a trailer this weekend for a story I wrote about two little boys who are being raised by their grandma and she has breast cancer, their mom is in jail, and their dad has committed suicide – I mean, these are hardcore things – but I really want to make that. I also wrote another story about a kid whose parents kill themselves and he has to deal with this, meanwhile people are dying all around him. So, it’s like a Horror Drama. That one’s called Ordinary Monsters, and the other one is Warparty, but those are my two projects right now; and then I would love a Horror TV series.
CrypticRock.com – Okay, and finally, what are some of your favorite Horror films?
Travis Zariwny – I just love Trey Edward Shults’ 2017 film, It Comes at Night – as an original script and film, and even the tone, it was great. Just like Bryan Bertino’s 2008 film, The Strangers, which did it for me too; the sound design was so brilliant and small that it freaked the fuck out of me. I also thought Robert Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch was just gorgeous. Poltergeist (1982) was another really big movie for me, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) was just flawless. I’m also a big fan of Korean Horror, Japanese Horror, and Foreign Horror like 2008’s Martyrs and 2003’s High Tension, in addition to films from directors like Mario Bava and Guillermo Del Toro – whom I actually love.