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Interview with John Harrison, Executive Producer of Diary of the Dead

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Most of you probably don't need an introduction to John Harrison. If you are a fan of George Romero, and you are on this site, then you already know all about him and his place in the Romero family tree. And if you don't, then you should have a screwdriver shoved in your ear!

Mr. Harrison was nice enough to take time out from editing his latest film, Book of Blood for Clive Barker, to talk about his involvement with George Romero's newest zombie project.

The obvious first question is, how did you come to be involved with Diary of the Dead?

    Well over the past 5 years, more maybe, George and I and his partner Peter Grunwald have been talking about trying to do some television, trying to get some ideas done. We've had a couple of false starts at different places. George had this idea at one point - you know those frustrating days we all have when nothing is going on and we can't get anything off the ground - "you know man, I'm just gonna go down to the film school and I'm gonna get a bunch of kids together and I'm gonna go back to my roots and I'm just gonna shoot a film on video". He had this idea, which I always loved, and I thought maybe it could in fact be a cool t.v. series or a web series, because that was all starting to happen. That was the origin of Diary.

    What you see now in the movie was always the general idea of what he had in mind. So the three of us kept talking about it and talking about it, and I kept trying to use my connections to get something going with it. I was in South Africa doing a mini-series and George and Peter were in Toronto doing Land, so we kind of put it away and we didn't do anything with it. One of their producers on Land introduced them to a small company called Artfire, which was trying to get into the independent film business. Art Spigel, who runs the company, and his partner Dan Fireman, who is part of the Reebok fortune, had this small company and they wanted to invest. Apparently they were introduced to George...and Diary came up.

    Peter, very tenaciously, put together a terrific deal - you know I gotta hand it to Peter, he organized a really fantastic way of doing this movie. It was low budget, so we said yeah let's do it. We went to Toronto, where George lives now, and we made it in 23 days...and there it is!

I was lucky enough to be on set the night they filmed Greg Nicotero's cameo. I was wearing a Steelers hat and we talked about Pittsburgh...

    Oh right! Yeah man, now I remember (laughs)! You saw what it was like. We were huffin'!

How did it feel to be working with George again?

    It was kind of like going back to the old days, you know. George, Peter, and I would spend hours in his apartment talking about it. We wrote back and forth every day, which I'm not saying we made the film up as we went, because George sure had it in his mind. I gotta hand it to him, he really copped to that style and got it and did it. I really had to admire him because it was unusual for him, in terms of not only the shooting schedule, which was really tight, but the kind of hand held, all POV kind of film making. He did it better than any of the ones that have been out, as far as I'm concerned. I don't want to trash other movies, if you know what I'm talking about.

    But it was great man. We're friends and we had a lot of laughs. It was a good collaboration again. We can talk openly about "well, why don't we try this...why don't we try that". As always he came with a very clear vision of what he wanted to do, but he was open to "well how do we solve this problem" kind of stuff. It was just great fun.

George has no qualms admitting that he is slow to embrace technology, yet this film is shot in a way that he has never tried before and deals with the subject of the internet. It also has a cast of young people. What do you think made George tackle these topics now?

    Well first of all, he wanted to do it because he wanted to go back to the kind of roots film making that he had when we were all in Pittsburgh, which was get a bunch of kids together and just do it. He was a kid then too, more or less. He's got a daughter who's in college at NYU now. I've got a son that's in college. So all of that stuff seeps in. I helped him with some of that, in terms of taking care of stuff on the computer when they're editing in the warehouse, stuff like that. I don't think that George is ever going to be a computer whiz, but he certainly understands the influence of it and the cultural impact of all of it. You would have to be living in a cave not to.

    The interesting thing is it started off very much as a kid with a camera running around just documenting what was going on. The more we talked about it, it evolved. For example, we talked about, well if we only have one camera, what are doing? Is it all single takes? How do we edit? How do we cut? So we decided they have to get another camera. So they find one in the hospital and they start using that. But we've been editing all along, how is that happening? Well then we introduce the notion that what's been happening is Jason has been cutting it on his computer the whole time, unbeknownst to anybody. Alright, so why? Well, he's putting it on the internet. So all of that stuff just kind of evolved, it just happened. There was a practical reason for it as well as a commentary reason. It allowed us to have multiple cameras...all the normal film making stuff!

What about re-shoots or additional shooting? I read somewhere that the introduction of the Amish farmer was a re-shoot.

    Well it wasn't a re-shoot, no. That's a misnomer. It was additional shooting. There were scenes that we had always thought about. What we did was we wrapped the film and said, do we need them or not? The only way to know was really to cut the film and see how it was playing. After looking at a rough cut we decided, yeah you know it probably would be a good idea to have this. So we went back and we shot those scenes for a couple of days. But they were always scenes that George had in mind.

The marketing strategy by the Weinstein Company has been heavily criticized by the fans online. It opened in only a limited amount of cities and there was no t.v. advertising. Do you know why they decided to go the route they did?

    No I don't, because I was not in Toronto when it was sold. Peter (Grunwald) explained it to me, but I don't really know. What Harvey (Weinstein) said, and I can only take him at his word, is that he has always wanted to find a horror film that he could treat like the art house movies when he and Bob (Weinstein) first started the company. Sort of platform it, build it slowly, play it out. But you need a certain kind of movie to do that. You don't do that with Saw or Hostel. He thought Diary had the right kind of stuff, whatever you want to call it, that warranted treating it like that. Make it a hard ticket, something that people really had to see and had to go out of their way to see. I think also he felt that trying to open it wide in 2000 theaters, against whatever else was opening wide, gave it a whole different kind of feel. Box office wise, it did well per screen. I don't know how much wider they are going to release it. That was the strategy, for right or wrong. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I'm not saying that it hasn't worked. I think there are people who are frustrated, like my son for example. He goes to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He can't find it unless he drives to Philly, so he's pissed! (Laughs)

How important was it to have Greg Nicotero on board? And was it difficult to get people like Quentin Tarantino and Simon Pegg to do voice over work?

    Well we wanted Greg involved in the project, first of all because he is great at what he does and also because the fans love his work. So that's a no brainer. He loves George and he's been a part of the "family" for a long time. As far as getting the other guys involved, it was just a matter of a phone call. They all wanted to do it right away.

Can you talk about your very own cameo?

    (Laughs) Well that's kind of a running joke with me and George. He had a project once, called The Assassination, with Ed Harris. Richard Nixon plays a role in it and he wanted me to play Nixon. He thinks I'm always good for those types of government roles and corporate guys. So when the thing came up about doing FEMA, he said "well you're going to be the FEMA guy". (In the film, John's image is featured on a news broadcast as the head of FEMA) That was second unit stuff. All that stuff that's on the t.v., the stuff on the computer when Jason is editing it, and the phone with the Japanese woman, and all that other stuff. We needed to have that stuff pre-made so that it could play back on the day. In the first couple of days of film making, I went off and did all that while George was shooting. When it got to the point of we need the FEMA guy in the t.v. insert, well I was there. (Laughs) So I put a tie on and they took my picture, and that was that!

Are there definite plans for a sequel? If so, will you be involved?

    There is talk of a sequel. I can't tell you more about it now, there's not a lot to tell, so it's a little premature. It would depend on when it is. George, Peter, and I have talked about it. They've asked me and I would love to. Yeah man, if I have the time and it can work out, I would love to do it again. But I honestly can't give you anymore. There's not much to say and I would hate to start spreading rumors. You can say sure the idea would be great, but there are no plans at the moment.

And finally, how do you feel about how the film turned out?

    Oh I love it. I love it. It's very clever. I was really proud to be involved with it. Like any film there are little things here and there, little winces maybe. But at the end of the day, it is the movie we set out to make and that George set out to make. I was just really happy to be a part of it. I think it has something to say. I think it really is of the times. I think it's got great humor. It's got a couple of really great kill gags thanks to Greg, George, and Peter, who had really terrific ideas. We were always like, we can't just do gun shots and head splatters forever. What are we gonna do that is clever and new, and that we have not done before? It was a real collaborative effort. George creates the environment where he encourages the best to come out of everybody. I was thrilled to be a part of it and I'm proud of the movie.


Conducted February 2008. Interview by Lee Karr - Special thanks to Michael Felsher for helping this interview happen and of course to John Harrison for his time and graciousness.

( Homepage of the Dead, February 2008)
Hits: 6254 since 28-Feb-2008

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