[Interview] 'The Head Hunter' director Jordan Downey Sits Down to Discuss Monster Hunters and Killer Turkeys
Writer/director Jordan Downey has long been a favorite of mine. And an underrated one at that. If you have any knowledge of the talented filmmaker, than you know that, whatever you may think of his past work, the guy knows how to do quite a lot with what very little has been available to him. His latest work, The Head Hunter, proves that and then some...
...Most of you are probably familiar with Downey's first feature film, Thankskilling, but after roaming the festival circuits and receiving critical praise, Downey's latest horror flick, The Head Hunter, has released on Shudder and already has fans talking it up as one of the best of the year (you can read our review here). Directed by Downey and written by Downey and Kevin Stewart, the film stars Christopher Rygh as a medieval monster hunter searching for the creature that killed his daughter so that he may have his vengeance.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jordan to discuss what the road has been like to get to where he is with The Head Hunter, and where that road may be taking him.
WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE HEAD HUNTER AHEAD
Killer Horror Critic: How are you today Jordan?
Jordan Downey: I’m good, how are you?
KHC: Good. So, it’s been ten years since you made your first feature film, Thankskilling. Are you surprised at all with where you’re at now, with your latest feature, The Head Hunter, having just released on Shudder?
JD: I mean there’s been little surprises along the way but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t always what I had wanted and thought I was capable of and all of that. I sort of think of it as I was always The Head Hunter, more of that kind of a filmmaker, that happened to make this weird killer turkey movie. It’s made by college students and it kind of just has that ridiculous batshit crazy schlocky sort of tone to it and that was all part of the fun with where we were at that point in time.
It’s funny, I can watch Thankskilling now and I totally sit down and laugh and enjoy it, and it’s weird because even though I can tell the stories and remember being there, it’s almost as if I wasn’t, like an out of body experience. I hope that doesn’t come across as me dismissing it as, oh well, you know, Thankskilling is this so bad its good movie and I’m not that anymore. That’s not the case. I’m proud of what we did with that for what it is. It’s more just that what people don’t realize is that all the while…we’re writing all kinds of stuff, science fiction and horror, and stuff that’s typically much more serious in tone, but those weren’t the things that were getting made. So, it took a little while to the point where we just decided let’s go and make The Head Hunter.
KHC: So, this is who you’ve always wanted to be as a filmmaker, making stuff more similar to The Head Hunter?
JD: Yeah absolutely. Of course, I love Troma-esque and James Gunn kind of stuff that have that comedy bite to them. I was always…maybe I have a split personality and I like both…this was kind of always who I was and am deep down. That said, I never once thought I’d be making a medieval movie, so that was also completely unexpected that that became something we ended up doing.
KHC: The Head Hunter is a huge departure from your previous work. So, what made this the next project where you said okay, this is what I want to do? We’re you looking to prove that this is more the type of filmmaker you want to be?
JD: I mean I think a little bit of that started to happen after we made Thankskilling 3, which is even crazier than the first one.
KHC: I love it.
JD: Thank you! That one, because it was such a departure from the first one and so different…look we learned our lesson at a young age when we did that. From our perspective as the filmmakers, we didn’t want to just repeat the same exact thing. From the audience perspective, they wanted a repeat because that’s what they enjoyed about the first one. And we just thought that we would do something different. After Thankskilling 3, I think that was when it was like all right, it’s time to probably do something that’s closer to what I am genuinely really passionate about, and that’s not to say that I wasn’t excited about those movies because we were and had a lot of fun making them.
We made a couple of short films. There was the Critters fan film and another short film that’s kind of like True Detective in tone, it’s called Techno Western and it’s on my YouTube channel. Those were I think maybe as a filmmaker the process of me recalibrating a little bit as far as doing the stuff that’s a little more serious and darker in tone. But really, I’ve been very passionate and drawn to science fiction horror and that is very much the kind of stuff that I want to do and that I’m dying to do as a feature in that realm. So, the Critters short was very much like that, some of the visuals that I really wanted to do.
The Head Hunter came about because I had this script, this science fiction horror script that I had been writing forever and ever, you submit it and you try to get the financing together and it's difficult. Eventually, that frustration led to Kevin Stewart and I saying all right, let’s go make a feature film. It’s going to be horror because that’s what we love, and we weren’t really limiting ourselves to anything, any part of the world or any genre, any sub-genre in horror.
I sort of think of it as I was always The Head Hunter, more of that kind of a filmmaker, that happened to make this weird killer turkey movie."
Kevin grew up in Portugal, and he went back on a holiday and took some pictures at this village where his grandmother lives, which is kind of out in the countryside. And there’s this little stone hut that used to be an old mill and that hut is the location in The Head Hunter. He took some pictures that were these kind of foggy, gloomy, cold pictures and he showed me that. So, as we were actively trying to come up with an idea, he showed me that picture and we thought okay, well this is a really cool location, let’s see if we can come up with something for the location. So, we were kind of reverse engineering the whole thing by just saying well, we have whatever little bit of money we can scrape together, and we also have this location where we can be left alone in the middle of nowhere. And the location looks very ancient, very European and old. There were certain storylines that didn’t make sense, and that one just felt like we should be making a period piece. We had the idea of this awesome, badass Viking warrior covered in armor with a sack and a head inside. That scene in the movie where he kicks through the door and he rolls that head across the floor, and then puts on the tar, rips all of his armor off and falls down to the ground and puts it on and screams? We had the idea for that scene and built everything around it from there.
KHC: So pretty much the entire story formed from that location then?
JD: That’s it. It started with the original location and a general desire to go and make a feature film.
KHC: Correct me if I’m wrong, the budget for this was around 30 grand, right?
JD: Yeah. What you see on screen probably cost around 20 grand.
JD: Yeah. (Laughs).
KHC: For me, that’s one of the things about The Head Hunter that is most impressive. In my opinion, you did more with twenty grand than most studios do with a hundred million. What would you say was the key element in making this film look bigger than it is?
JD: Kevin did a fantastic job as the cinematographer and that’s a very rare combo, having a writer and DP hybrid because the DP knows the film so well and the writer is already thinking about the shot and that kind of stuff, so we have a good relationship in terms of that. And a lot of it is from the Thankskilling movies or our short films, where we really started to build an eye for what to avoid. We used a lot of plastic props and cheap swords and rubber masks and things that we would sort of age and cut up for the head hunter. That stuff sometimes would not hold up for a close-up, so it was a lot of understanding what to avoid, or from Kevin’s perspective, how to light it. And then, for how we kept it so small, there was no crew, which you can’t get away with it on a bigger thing. So, in this case, I did all of the prosthetic special effects, all the makeup effects, because I had experience doing that in film school for horror short films and stuff. So, all the wound stuff I did. I did the makeup on Chris, his dirt and scratches. I was the one getting him into the costume, or we would all help get him into the costume. There was no actual production designer. It was just us doing it ourselves, building the sets and assembling furniture and aging things. So, we kept it incredibly small.
And then from a story standpoint…even as we were writing the script, we agreed that if we even had double the budget or a million dollars or something, let alone a hundred, we weren’t really interested in making the Van Helsing version of this where you show all the monsters in broad daylight and you use CG, whatever it is that we would have at our disposal. We just thought it was more interesting to see our guy’s reaction to that stuff. With Game of Thrones, it was the biggest show on TV, we just felt, we’ve seen dragons before, we’ve seen some of these mythical monsters and that kind of stuff, so one, we would just be competing with who could do the better effect, and two, it just didn’t seem as interesting as keeping it really small and focused on that guy’s reaction to things flying around him.
KHC: So, there was never a thought that the monsters would be anything but subtle in the film so that you could focus on the father?
JD: Yeah exactly. There was never even in the script, there was never any of the monster encounters that he has leading up to the final one. We weren’t ever going to show any of that stuff. It was all about building up to showing the final monster as much as we could so if we did have more money we probably would’ve put it towards the final monster and battle.
A little anecdote is that the script…we didn’t really have a location for the final encounter with the monster. It was going to be in the woods, kind of like a thorny brush area or something that we just wrote, because we weren’t imaging that we would have that cave.
KHC: How did you come about the cave?
JD: It was on the property. Like a mile from the hut location. Kevin’s cousin lived in the village…and his cousin said, well I have this water mine, is what he referred to it as, because it was in the side of the slope of a hill. The older villagers would dig into the hill to hit water and then it would stream out of the cave and irrigate the crops. So, we were like, what’s a water mine? It was all covered in ivy and moss and all kinds of stuff, some of which was good, but it was almost un-walkable. We had to go in with a chainsaw and clear it out. But what ended up being great about that and why it ultimately was the right choice to use that location, is that, and this was something I was always concerned about, was that if we succeed in making this Viking warrior seem incredibly awesome and badass and unstoppable, then how are we going to be afraid for him in a final fight, or how is there ever going to be a risk that he could potentially lose?
The concept of the main monster would be that it’s strength would be its intelligence and that it could lure him into a place that would force him to tear his armor down and to lose his sword because he couldn’t swing it and ultimately once it has control of the girl’s body, that it could mess with his psyche. And those were the ways that this guy would become vulnerable, and so the cave was just perfect. That cave, if you had a hundred million dollars would look no different, because it’s a cave, so it was the great claustrophobic location that we needed to end the movie.
KHC: As far as the subtlety with the creatures goes, was part of that because it was important to you to establish the isolation of the father and make him seem as if he’s the only living human in this world?
JD: Yeah totally. We spent the most time worrying about the heart and soul of the movie and the loneliness of the whole entire thing…it was just more about the guy who was grieving for somebody or something and absolutely utterly lonely and that the only people he would have to talk to, or the only people he would feel comfortable talking to, are dead people. Which would be someone in the grave and then later on he comes to the fire and talks to the bones that are there by the fire. That’s the only conversation and companionship that this guy would get. So yeah, that sense of him being isolated and not showing anybody else out there was intentional and the only other times that we event hint at other humans out there was when we see the archer in the distance, but we liked the idea that, well, our guy is so scary and intense and basically unfriendly that they keep their distance to the point where they’ll fire this thing over to him, they’re not going to come knock on his door.
KHC: Yeah, they don’t exactly want to be his best friend.
JD: No. And you can see why, because he’s on the outskirts of the castle while there’s the sound of partying taking place, some sort of medieval festival in there, and he’s on the outside of the castle left to clean up all the monsters and basically be the garbage collector of this world.
KHC: Considering the budget, was there anything specifically that you found to be difficult while shooting this film?
JD: The cave. That was definitely the hardest location to shoot in and the hardest couple of days. It was as claustrophobic as it looks in the movie. You could only go in and out of this thing single file, so imagine if the camera is filming Chris walking up or down, he had to go in first, and if there was anyone behind him lighting him, they had to be hidden in the deep part of the cave, so we had to constantly come in and out of the cave to try and figure out how to get people in. It was cold. I got a freak, one day flu from being in there and I had to take a day to rest.
So that was really difficult in trying to then maneuver the puppet, because the final monster was just a hand puppet for getting close-ups, and then the rest of it was just a dummy that was attached to the bones, the corpse, of the girl, so trying to maneuver that stuff was a huge pain in the butt. It would get frustrating at times because it was just not looking how we wanted it to look, and we had no flexibility, but at the same time those constraints also forced us to not have to try and pull off some kind of effect or something that we would never be able to do. We wanted to have the girl running around, or crawling, so once it became impossible to ever do that kind of stuff, it let us keep our minds at ease that we wouldn’t be able to do anything too excessive.
KHC: It is interesting, because as much hell as it sounds like you went through, I think it makes it more effective with the claustrophobia and this very personal final battle between the Father and the monster. Do you find that you thrive with limitations like that?
JD: I guess ask me when I do a Star Wars movie? (Laughs). But no, I know what you’re saying and I do actually like the limitations. It reminds you that if you’re feeling limited, chances are it’s going to be because of some effect, or lighting, or massive shot that you want to have and I don’t get turned off or afraid of that because it reminds me that at the end of the day, those aren’t the elements that make me come back and watch a movie again and again. It’s the actor, it’s their eyes, it’s the face, it’s whatever they’re saying with their body language.
I’ve always been much more interested in visual storytelling and just removing as much dialogue as you can to say the same thing and that isn’t expensive. The limitations I think are helpful and necessary, and getting notes on cuts of the movie or on drafts of the script are important and necessary as well. I think that if anything, when bigger budgets come along, I think that having that as a part of my backstory on just doing these smaller films, I think it’s going to help a lot because I’m not going to be afraid to go build a prop myself or do whatever is required.
KHC: Oh, for sure. From what I can tell from your work, it seems like you know how to make every dollar appear on screen.
So, I have to say, Christopher Rygh is amazing in this film. What were you looking for in casting an actor to be able to carry The Head Hunter, and what brought you to Christopher?
We spent the most time worrying about the heart and soul of the movie and the loneliness of the whole entire thing…it was just more about the guy who was grieving for somebody or something and absolutely utterly lonely..."
JD: That was pretty stressful, us trying to figure out who we were going to get to do this because you’re never going to get any sort of name actor and I don’t even know if you could point to a name actor that would have the same look or qualities that we needed. That was tricky. We knew that that guy had to carry the entire movie and he had to do it without saying a word. But we weren’t shying away from the challenge once we had the script. We started by thinking that we were going to find an actor in Europe somewhere. Maybe in London, maybe in Portugal, but probably European because we didn’t want to try to get an American to do a bad accent, even though there’s very few lines.
So, Kevin was on some sort of a casting website and had plugged in a silly search for Nordic actors. And Chris’ picture popped up on there and Kevin sent me the picture and was like, this guy looks great. He has the right look, his hair, the beard, his intense eyes. But he hadn’t done a lot of stuff. On this casting thing, he maybe had some clips from some music videos or commercials or short films he had done, but none of them were speaking parts. So, we wrote Chris and just asked if he would be interested in talking more. He didn’t do an audition for it. At that point, it came down to a gut feeling that this guy’s gonna work…He was really interested in doing this, because he had never been a lead in a film. We knew that he would be gung ho to take it seriously, and we were taking it seriously, so we all had something to prove.
KHC: Is there something stressful about casting an actor who hasn’t had speaking roles before to carry a feature film?
JD: I don’t know, maybe I’ve been lucky, but I’ve done it a few times now, from student films to short films, working with non-actors or kid actors, maybe I have a knack for it, maybe I’m getting lucky, but I just get a gut feeling about somebody. An audition video, it’s not even as important as just seeing a video of them and being themselves sometimes, and I can just kind of get a feel for it.
KHC: You just want to know more about who they are as a person.
JD: Yeah, exactly. You want to know a little bit more about the person and you want them to feel comfortable with you and you want to feel comfortable with them, and I think you get the best out of somebody at that point. I think that sometimes the casting process and the auditioning process and that stuff can be a little overrated because I think a lot of times you just know it or you don’t. You look at someone and just get a gut instinct, yes or no, and a lot of times your gut is probably right either way. We just knew it with Chris. But that being said, none of us were prepared for how good he was going to be.
KHC: From now on, you should just trust your gut on everything. What do I want for dinner? Well, what does my gut say? Your gut seems to be getting a lot right.
JD: (Laughs). He was great and ultimately had a blast doing it. He had the tough job. He had to put that costume on the entire time and get covered in dirt and mud. The thing that sort of goes unspoken about Chris, although a lot of people have given him credit for it, is the way that he conveys so much through his body language and his facial expressions, but especially under the armor. Two of my bigger references that I had sent him and talked about with him early on was Peter Weller in Robocop and Boba Fett because they were two very famous suit performances and both of them were just fantastic at isolating body parts to move first, like the head turning and then the body turning. You can feel the presence of what’s going on under there. We looked at a lot of that stuff and talked about how to still feel like there’s a human inside of the armor when the full helmet and everything is on.
KHC: As I’m sure you’re aware, a lot of us journalists sometimes read a little too much into things, and I’m no exception. There seems to be a thematic element of disease in this film. You have the Father dealing with infections, peeing blood, and the main creature is a thing that takes over the body, so were you going for something like that? Did any of this come from a personal place, or were you looking to explore those sorts of ideas?
JD: I’ve got to say no, there wasn’t really anything about disease per say and how that connects the dots between different elements. The motivation with him peeing out that black stuff and coughing and hacking was more or less this guy has been doing this a long time and its taken a toll on his body, so he’s not in peak form anymore.
See, this is the fascinating thing, because like you acknowledge right up front, I love seeing people reading into different things and I myself will feel…like a script I’ve been writing lately, my brother and I are just starting to realize the themes that are in there, and I think…all I’m trying to say, is that stuff there, sure, but can I take credit for it? No. But I don’t even sometimes know what’s coming through, you’re just kind of going for a mood.
The theme stuff with The Head Hunter that was more conscious was a theme of change. Because I felt like the movie was kind of a change for me as a director from some of the stuff that people might have known me for. So, that’s why there’s a lot of stuff in there like shots of the water, and the wind, because the wind is always changing, and blowing, and ultimately affecting the window. But then there’s the change of the head, body hopping, and changing identities. That was the thing that I was maybe more conscious about is just those earth elements and how that means that this guy might be in peak form and the monster hunter of the week right now, but he won’t always be that way and at the end of this, there’s a new monster hunter in town.
KHC: I love that. It’s nice looking at the film that way, because I love all of your past work, but you can really sense all of your passion and hard work that’s going into this.
Out of curiosity, have you been offered any projects with a bigger budget in the past ten years?
JD: No. No one has come knocking prior to The Head Hunter saying here’s whatever budget, go do whatever you want to with it.
KHC: Fools, all of them. They should be knocking your door down.
The theme stuff with The Head Hunter that was more conscious was a theme of change. Because I felt like the movie was kind of a change for me as a director from some of the stuff that people might have known me for."
JD: (Laughs). Well, things have changed a little lately. Leading up to The Head Hunter, to be totally transparent, no, it was the exact opposite. We were making the Thankskilling films and doing all kinds of other jobs. I was working as a grip on Hallmark movies for a long time, and Funny or Die videos, and Kevin would do this or that or I’d go and do graphic design work. We never got into the sort of standard nine to five. We were always doing freelance stuff and trying to scrape by and pay the bills however. It was the exact opposite of people coming and trying to throw money at us. It was usually us trying to go to people and scratch and claw with them to get them to read a little treatment or script or something. And there’s plenty of people, not to dismiss all of the people that are there to help us and guide us along the way, but no. The Head Hunter has changed things a lot.
I think the Thankskilling movies are hard to look at and say, try to figure out who or what these people are that are making this movie. The reason I made the Critters short film is because I really wanted to go and direct the web series for that. I didn’t know what it was, I was just reading about it online as a fan, so that was sort of an attempt at getting the attention and getting a bigger gig or whatever, and that didn’t work out either.
The Head Hunter has changed everything. I got an agent out of this, and a lot of the scripts that I’ve been working on with my brother have started getting a lot more attention. We’re looking at ways to expand The Head Hunter possibly into something else and just starting those discussions of, is this something we would want to do or not? So, there’s been a lot of more exciting things happening now recently that hopefully, yeah, sometime next year there will be more of an announcement or something that is confirmed in the pipeline.
KHC: That’s fantastic. The reason I ask is, I was watching Thankskilling 3 again recently, and it really is very surprising to see how much you can do on such a small budget. You’re an impressive filmmaker. So, it’s surprising to hear that it’s been that way for you up until The Head Hunter, and it’s good to hear that things have been picking up lately.
JD: Thank you. Absolutely. And none of it made me want to quit, you know? I love making movies. I love telling stories and doing effects, and editing trailers and whatever, all of it. I love it all. I hope it doesn’t come across as me complaining or anything, because none of it ever really got me down. It was all fun and yeah, Thankskilling 3 was the hardest thing we shot. That was almost impossible with the puppets and all of that stuff. But yeah, it’s all just part of the ride.
KHC: I have to ask, can you go into what’s possibly in the future for The Head Hunter at all?
JD: It’s not even so much that there’s like, oh next week there’s going to be an announcement, can’t spoil this. It’s more that we were talking about this on the making of the movie, is there something else here to do with this idea? And the interest with it being online and on Shudder has rejuvenated all of that stuff. We would be crazy to not consider what that is. But at the same time, I’m also just cautious of wanting to go spit out mediocre The Head Hunter 2, 3, 4…that kind of stuff doesn’t interest me. The key ingredient to making a sequel I guess is that the original people involved still feel like there’s something left to do, and we all do. Chris does, Kevin does, I do, we all feel like there’s still something you can do there.
KHC: So, at the very least, the interest is there?
JD: From us, yeah. I mean we’re certainly interested to keep talking about it. It’s not one of those things where maybe you finish and you’re like oh my god, I need to get as far away from that as possible. It’s the opposite. I’ll always be grateful and indebted to The Head Hunter and what it has done so far.
KHC: I’d be bad at my job if I didn’t ask, do you think there will ever be a return of Turkie?
JD: (Laughs). It’s awesome and flattering that people would even want a return of Turkie. I would never say never. I mean we talked a lot about it at the time, like should we just milk this and make another one of these every year, but we wanted to do it in an interesting way where we could create this franchise where we could be on part nine by now, but each year, we would go to a film student that was around the age we were when we made the first one, and give them a small budget of whatever amount of money and let them go and make a sequel, so that it would be sort of like this bizarro introduction to the film industry thing, where we could work a lot with younger filmmakers and they could learn about distribution and poster design, all the while making this ridiculous movie where errors and mistakes are sort of a part of the movie.
KHC: That’s a great idea.
We’re looking at ways to expand The Head Hunter possibly into something else and just starting those discussions of, is this something we would want to do or not?"
JD: We thought a lot about that. Why we never did it is that it just would’ve required so much of our time, and at the end of the day I’m a very obsessive person. If I’m doing The Head Hunter or I’m doing Thankskilling, it’s got all of my attention and nothing else matters. I think we just felt like we gotta go and do other things and maybe we’d loop back to it when we wouldn’t have to be as involved. So, I would never say never. I would love to see a Thankskilling on a million-dollar budget where you could have crazy Turkie effects. Go back to the woods and just keep it simple and keep it very horror with less of the Jim Henson, acid trip kind of stuff.
KHC: That would be amazing.
JD: I can’t imagine doing anything anytime soon but again, who knows. In this age of remakes, why not?
KHC: Exactly. So not out of the cards completely, then?
JD: No way. Turkie’s in a storage unit a mile from my house but he could come out in a quick, car drive away.
KHC: Thank you so much Jordan, I really appreciate your time today.
JD: Thank you and no problem. Have a good one.
KHC: You too.
The Head Hunter is now available on Shudder.
By Matt Konopka