When Robin Aubert was working on another film in the north of Quebec, he often cheered himself up with memories of his friends Bonin and Vezina.
“I was missing those two guys because every time I see them, they are making some bad joke — it’s hilarious,” recalls Aubert. “I was a little bit homesick, so I put those two guys in the zombie film that I was writing and as I continued to write this apocalyptic world, those two guys who know that life changes [when the world is overrun by zombies], but they want to continue to make jokes – bad jokes – it was funny for me.”
You indeed get to meet Bonin and Vezina at the start of “Les Affamés,” although the chuckleheads are portrayed by the actors Marc-André Grondin and Didier Lucien, and carrying rifles as they tease each other with doctor jokes. They aren’t about to let the fact that they’ve just set fire to a corpse get in the way of some laughs, although the genius of Aubert’s post-apocalyptic thriller is the acknowledgement that as survivors of a zombie plague they need the distraction, confronted with their own mortality at every turn with no idea what the world will look like even if they do manage to fend off every flesh-eater they come across. To drive the point home, Aubert populates the living with the most eclectic group of rebels to find themselves in such a situation onscreen, including a machete-wielding, Mercedes-driving businesswoman (Brigitte Poupart), a musician who has to insist her leg wound isn’t a zombie bite (Monia Chokri), and a seen-it-all middle-aged couple (Micheline Lanctôt and Marie-Ginette Guay) whose farm becomes a sanctuary of sorts, all of whom literally see their past come back into the present with the reanimation of people they knew before.
Setting the film in the Quebec countryside where everyone knows everyone, Aubert makes every action in “Les Affamés” deeply personal, even if the living know they aren’t dealing with the same people they knew before after they’ve been infected and has a great deal of fun watching the locals come up with homespun solutions to put the zombies to bed, shocking in both its sense of humor and the expertise with which the filmmaker stages the kills. Shortly after its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, Aubert spoke about literally shooting “Les Affamés” in his backyard, as well as how embracing what came his way during filming led to one of the most interesting moments in the film and using the opportunity of a genre film to speak to human instincts.
When I wrote this film, it was in my barn in the country and I was thinking about people that I know. I put them together to be the survivors of my film, so it’s inspired by some people that I known but then [once they] became characters, it’s not the same person any more because you change some stuff and there’s some twists. I’d been wanting to do a zombie film for so long and for me, it was an opportunity to talk about humanity and to have some character who talks about life because there is a crisis. As a director, it’s very difficult, but also thrilling to direct a scary [movie]. It’s difficult for an actor to be really scared, but it’s fun to reach that kind of emotion.
Is the area you shot in actually where you live?
I shot lots of stuff in my woods, back in the backyard of my barn. When you see the three horses, they are my horses. Lots of places in the film I knew already because when I write, particularly for this film, I walk a lot in the woods and it inspired me.
The film opens with a really striking image of an empty chair, which you build on both literally and figuratively throughout the film. How did that image come to you?
When you see an empty chair, it’s straight [and unremarkable]. But when you put five or six empty chairs [together], you can see history of what was before. You can see that some people were sitting on those chairs before and a chair for me explained lots of things [about the past]. That’s why I wanted to do a chair pyramid.
Another striking image that comes later in the film is during a zombie attack when your camera lingers on an undead woman who stands still as you see others running. How did that scene come about?
Julie Charland, who did the costumes on the film, and I wanted something different than old zombie films [or] “The Walking Dead.” we wanted color, vivacity, brightness, something that contrasts with the greens that were there [in the forest]. The green is very aggressive. And when [this actress] came [to the set] in pink, she was not able to run, so I said, “No, just stay there. [The scene is] going to be stronger.” And I’m pretty happy that you noticed this moment, because for me, it’s one of the best moments in the film. It’s fast, but you remember this lady staying there and that emotion. Sometimes somebody not moving and watching you is creepier than somebody running at you.
One of the great things is how you give the characters the space to think and show them making calculations and reasoning things out. Was that difficult to achieve either on set or in the edit without becoming tedious?
The editing of this film was of huge importance because you have a script, you have a film – and those two things are pretty much separate. It’s not the same thing and you realize when you’re editing that some stuff [you think] doesn’t work [on set] that maybe the image is powerful enough to not have words. I pretty much edited [a first pass of ”Les Affames”] and after, I took a break and one of my best friends came along and changed everything. I said to him, “I don’t have any more perspective on my film. Do what you want to do. I’m going to come back in two or three weeks.” When I came back and saw it, I realized some stuff that I forgot was good because you have [lost your] judgment. An editor comes and says “No, no, this part was good,” and I had lots of time in the editing to think about this film. This film was like a horse, and I was always on the break with it. One day, I realize, “Okay, you want to go there. You have to let it go.”
I realize you’re referring to the structure and not the pace, but it starts off strong and doesn’t let up. Was that a tricky thing to get at the very beginning – to introduce this world and keep it a bit mysterious while moving at a fast clip?
It’s always difficult to start a film and finish a film. When I started the edit and also when I wrote this, I had this idea to have lots of sound and color at the beginning, [using] the drag cars. It’s in your face, and then to have okay, you set some stuff. And I knew I wanted a hopeful ending, even if it’s not [completely] realistic because we’re doing cinema, so I wanted to have some fun.
Is having a bunch of zombie extras as fun as I think it would be?
So fun. Every minute is a pleasure with people who come to play zombies. It was just big fun to make this film.
What’s it like being here at TIFF?
I’m pretty happy actually because [the premiere] went very well. I finished the film last Friday [before the festival], [doing] the mix and I’m happy to be back at TIFF because I have a good relationship with them since I began 20 years ago. I worked a lot on this film, but when you do what you like, it’s no longer work.
“Les Affames” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at Fantastic Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse North Lamar in Austin, Texas on September 23rd at 11:30 pm and September 28th at 1:15 pm and at Beyond Fest at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles on October 6th at 9:45 pm.