Interviews Shudder

Head Hunter director on how to make a $30,000 movie look like $100 million bucks

In Canada, you can do a lot with $30,000. You can buy a decent used car. You could pay off a chunk of your mortgage. You could even treat yourself to a large Tim Horton’s coffee every day for the next 41 years.

What would be very hard to do though is make a fantasy/horror movie that rivals most Hollywood productions yet director Jordan Downey did just that with his film The Head Hunter which just debuted on the AMC horror streaming service Shudder this month.

With only that miniscule budget, a cast of two and a very, very, very small crew, what Downey has created is nothing short of spectacular.

Downey sat down with Binge to not only discuss the making of The Head Hunter and what other projects he has in the works.

John Powell: First of all, congratulations on your film being picked up by Shudder.

Jordan Downey: “Thank you so much. That was one of the goals for us at the very start, to get the film on Shudder because as a horror fan that is the nook where you want your picture to live right now. It is so awesome to have it up there. The response has given the film a new life. A lot of people are discovering it on there now so that is great too.”

John Powell: In this day and age, it must be great for a filmmaker like yourself to have the streaming market also be a place where your work can be recognized. What is your take on the emergence of this digital marketplace, what are the positives and negatives?

Jordan Downey: “The old debate of course is simply there are more opportunities for film-makers and there is more opportunities for these small indie films to get exposure but because there is even more things to choose from, it is harder to get noticed. What I kind of appreciate is that it provides some room for movies to be a little more riskier, a little but more edgier and bolder in their ideas and their concepts because everyone is vying to get that placement, their banner above everyone else’s, to have your project on the Recently Added list. It gives a chance for stuff like Mandy to just stand-out, something more risky than what people might have invested in or supported in the past.”

Christopher Rygh in The Head Hunter. Courtesy: The Head Movie, LLC.

John Powell: Coincidentally, Mandy is also available on Shuder. Jumping back to your film, where did the inspiration come from? Did you play Dungeons and Dragons as a kid? Did you read a lot of fantasy, sword and sorcery novels growing up?

Jordan Downey: (Laughs) “Funnily enough, I didn’t grow up playing Dungeon and Dragons. I did play a lot of video games growing up and still do occasionally but I have never played Skyrim. I did play some of the God of War series. So, as far as where did that medieval or fantasy lore come from, it is weird because I don’t have a specific answer.”

“I never thought that this would be a story I would tell. As a filmmaker, if you were going to make this kind of movie it would be later in your career as everyone expects a medieval movie to be a $100 to $200 million dollar epic. Once we came up with the idea, it inspired me to want to make this film, story even more because nobody really touches these big, epic concepts on a really small scale, to strip it all back to something really basic and focus just on one character. You don’t see that being done very often. That was exciting!”

“The actual idea of the movie came from wanting to shoot the movie in Portugal because the co-writer, Kevin Stewart, had grown up there. His grandmother lived in a village where there was this really awesome location where the main character eventually lived. So, we knew we had that location. It looks very medieval so we started to come up with ideas and we just had this idea of a medieval Viking who would carry the heads of the monsters he has killed in a burlap sack. That is where it started and we started to come up with the story.”

John Powell: We have all heard the stories of filmmakers like Roger Corman and his film crew jumping fences, filming on locations they weren’t supposed to and then splitting the scene as fast as they could. What were some of the obstacles you encountered while filming The Head Hunter on such a small budget?

Jordan Downey: “There is a ton of them. (Laughs) The weird thing is, because I had done that for the past couple of short films, I was kind of used to that. Not being able to ask for help has just been a part of my filmmaking upbringing, all the way back to being a kid.”

Jordan DowneyKevin Stewart and Ricky Fosheim. Courtesy: The Head Movie, LLC.

“On The Head Hunter, it was just the little things. That costume is very difficult to get Chris (Christopher Rygh) in and out of every day. He couldn’t go to the bathroom in that thing and it was hard to wear it to lunch, to just sit down in a chair was hard for him. Everywhere he turned he was poking things and knocking stuff around. We didn’t have a specific costume person on set with us. We had someone build the costume and André Bravin did a great job with that, but we did not have an actual wardrobe department. So, that all fell on the producers, me Kevin or Ricky Fosheim, the only three crew members who were there, to help Chris in and out of that costume every day. The dirt and make-up on him is something I had to do every day. I had to do the special prosthetics and the gore make-up as well. Those things were not difficult in terms of craftsmanship. It was just always difficult to always have to that stuff and then be responsible for the story, the filmmaking, the scenes, the performances and all the other things we might be doing that particular day. That was the trickiest part. The cumulative effect of all the craftsmanship, prop-making, the hair, the make-up, the costume, making sure all of that stuff is good knowing there is no other department to oversee or help with any of that plus balancing the story, the shots and all of that, wearing all of those hats.”

John Powell: The interesting thing about The Head Hunter is there are only three actors who make appearances so the film really rests on the shoulders of the main character Christopher Rygh. How did you end up casting him?

Jordan Downey: “Not only did we need someone who could carry the movie but on top of that because we have this Nordic-Viking character that needs to be in physically good shape but someone with a beard and physique that could really sell that story and identity to the audience. Once you start to put on things like a fake beard, a wig and all of that kind of stuff, something is going to seem off based on the budget you have to work with. We had to check a number of boxes with this character and finding the right actor. We got incredibly lucky that we found Chris. Not only did he fit everything we needed but he blew us away.”

“Kevin wanted to cast someone who was already living in Europe. Kevin was looking on a casting site that you have to pay a monthly fee to stay on the site. Christopher hadn’t gotten any pings or contacts so he was almost ready to leave the site. Chris’ photo popped up and Kevin sent the photo to me. We contacted him and started a conversation. He had done a lot of movies but he had never been the star of anything. I had a really good gut feeling about him from the start. We knew that he was going to work. There was something in his eyes.”

John Powell: How did all of the special effects, the armour, come together with the budget that you had because there is no hint of that in the final product.

Jordan Downey: “It is all in knowing what to avoid. The key is knowing the limitations. Every creature effect, for example, has a special angle that works the best when it comes to being shot. Head Hunter is a horror film lit mostly by torch light so you can use a lot of that to your advantage. We were able to always let the effects guide us on how to shoot them.”

“We also used a lot of old school tricks. There are fishing lines on a lot of stuff. It is how we got the head sack to wiggle on the ground. We would just put a stick inside of the sack and then fishing line would be attached to that stick and then go along the ground where we could hide it. It was a simple, old school technique.”

John Powell: The thing is a lot of those tried and true, old school techniques still work today.

Jordan Downey: “Exactly! It works! That’s the thing. I love the feeling of practical effects. There are some things we just shot in reverse. It is rare in the film but there is a little bit of movie magic where we had to remove a wire from a shot or the glimpse of a hand, something like that. A lot of the monster heads were just old Halloween masks we found on eBay or Halloween stores. The hero’s sword is real but some of the other stuff is just plastic that we would age or let it exist as a silhouette. Our film was a ton of do-it-yourself effects.”

John Powell: I was going to say, one of the most iconic masks in horror is the Michael Myers mask from the Halloween series and that’s just a re-purposed Captain Kirk, Star Trek mask.

Jordan Downey: “Exactly! And the great thing about today is some of those old effects still work. You can also use today’s technology to erase something digitally if you need to. It just means that you can animate the creatures with the touch of a person and that is almost something that is impossible to replicate.”

John Powell: Tell us what it was like shooting that climactic scene in the water mine.

Christopher Rygh in The Head Hunter. Courtesy: The Head Movie, LLC.

Jordan Downey: “That was a huge pain in the butt. (Laughs) We were intending on shooting that in one day as none of us wanted to be in there doing it. It just started to take longer and longer. I think we ended up shooting in there for three days. In the script, we knew he was going to have a final showdown with the monster. We needed a finale that fit with our tiny, little budget. We had to cut some vines and clear a lot of the weeds and brush out just to be able to film in there. When we did though, it was so incredible. If you look, you can actually see the marks where pick axes were trying to cut through the rock all those years ago. It worked perfectly because this monster is smarter than the others he has encountered. If this monster was ever going to have a chance against this armour-clad bad ass Viking, it would have to use its intelligence to lure him into a trap. It wasn’t just a cool location. It also worked well with the story. The Viking cannot swing a sword in there so he is more vulnerable.”

“We had to go in out of there in single file. If we were shooting Chris, he would have to go in first and then the camera. Every time we wanted to change an angle, the camera was bumping against the wall. It was pain to work in but it looks awesome in the end.”

John Powell: If you had a bigger budget to work with would you ever remake The Head Hunter?

Jordan Downey: “If I was thinking of going back into this world I don’t think my first thought would be to remake this movie. It would be a film about who this guy was before this movie or who he is after this movie. I certainly don’t think it is over for him, although it seems that way. Depending on what the story is, I would love to see more of this guy so we can show more the monsters and the fights.”

John Powell: Are you looking to stay in the horror genre or do you want to branch out?

Jordan Downey: “I grew up loving horror but I watch everything and love all genres. I would love to make a romantic comedy one day as silly as that sounds. In the future though, I want to hover around the horror space. What I would like to do is more horror / science fiction. The first Terminator, The Fly, The Thing, those movies that have a tech element to them but are terrifying and are treated like a horror film, I love that stuff. I am dying to bring that back because I don’t think there has been a lot of stuff like that in recent times. I am more interested in that than ghost stories.”

John Powell: If could remake a classic movie what would it be?

Jordan Downey: Well, my favourite movie is Critters. If you took away the bounty hunters and the other elements then it would be more of the survive-the-night-monster-on-a-farm-trapped-in-a-house kind of movie. When you add those characters that are almost out of a Star Wars movie that is what I love. I did make a Critters fan film that is on YouTube.”

John Powell: What are you working on now that fans should know about?

Jordan Downey: “There is nothing I can announce but I have been writing a lot and The Head Hunter has gotten me a lot of attention. We are chugging along on a kind of sci-fi horror military sort of a script and that is what I would love to do. We will see if we can get that made next year but I don’t think it will be too long before people see me behind the camera again as I just want to keep working and telling stories.”

The Head Hunter can be seen exclusively on Shudder.

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