In the 2013 zombie short Cargo, a man (Andy Rodoreda) bitten by a zombie during an outbreak must find a safe haven for his infant daughter before he succumbs to the infection and turns bitey. The film was a viral sensation that scored over 14 million views on YouTube and was a finalist at that year’s Tropfest short film festival. Now, five years later, it’s been adapted to feature length by original filmmakers Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, with Martin Freeman as the doomed and determined protagonist. We caught up with Ramke ahead of the film’s Gold Coast Film Festival screening.
What was the process of expanding your original short to feature length like? How did it change along the way?
Well, when we first conceived of the short film our thinking was definitely just in the realm of the short film. Obviously, we were aware of Tropfest and recognised that that was a really huge platform to launch a film from, so we set out to make something especially for that festival. We weren’t thinking along the lines of features at that point – I don’t think we thought that was within the realms of possibility, and it wasn’t until the short started getting some traction online and eventually went viral and got the right eyes on it overseas that we started having people reach out to speak to us about feature ideas. We kind of felt that was the concept that we wanted expand, that it still had legs and there was a lot about it that we hadn’t had a chance to explore.
Then, I guess in the process of expanding it, we traveled over to LA a few months after the film had gone viral with a treatment as to what that could be, and we met with some producers over there and ended up having some American producers attached to the project. Then it was kind of a process of developing that treatment with them, and then the usual development process from then on, But in terms of creatively how we looked to expand it, I guess it was trying to think about what our version of an Australian film in that genre would be, and how we could bring our original spin to that, and I think what we definitely felt in response to the short was the human element and the parent-child aspect of the short that had resonated with people all over the world. So that was something we needed to hold onto and dig a bit deeper on. And some of our favourite films in that genre try and touch on an element of social commentary and add some layers there, so that was something that we were also seeking to do.
The original short is incredibly tight and contained, like a piece of clockwork. Is that a quality you’ve tried to carry over in the extended version?
I think the feature’s quite tight. There’s definitely not a lot of fat in there, that’s for sure. Obviously there’s a huge difference going from a seven page script to a hundred page script, and in the process of that things naturally have to evolve and you have to find other levels and other layers you can access and explore. We have a few more characters in the feature version of course. But the film moves at a bit of a clip and that was deliberate in that you want to carry people along on this ride and keep that momentum going and keep the stakes high, so I’d say we did carry that over.
These days, we all kind of have a set of collective assumptions regarding what a zombie apocalypse might be like, and the 2013 short leans heavily on those. Is the feature version the same, or is the world-building more specific?
I think in a way we took quite a similar approach. I think for us there is an element of assumed knowledge and I think the films that Ben and I have enjoyed the most are those that throw you in the deep end a little bit and you have to do a little work to catch up. We didn’t ever want to over-explain things, we didn’t want to have to scientifically justify this kind of outbreak. That kind of thing just wasn’t interesting to us – we felt like we’d seen that done and it wasn’t territory that we wanted to rehash. In terms of the jumping off point for the film, it is that we’ll throw you into the middle of something and you’ll piece things together as you go along.
It’s a constant push-pull, I think – you’re depending on certain conventions of the genre as a kind of shorthand and you’re expecting and hoping that the audience will have that kind of knowledge going in so that it gives you the freedom to not waste time setting all that stuff up. But at the same time you’re also trying to bring some element of freshness and some little sparks and visual ideas about this particular outbreak that maybe do feel different to those other things that we’ve seen before. It’s just that fine line you try to walk of bringing something new, depending on what works, and never dipping too far one way or the other, if that makes sense.
The Cargo feature of course stars Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock). How did he come on board and what qualities did you see in him that made him a good choice for the role?
Martin had been a favourite of mine for years – I think he’s such an interesting actor. He’s so subtle and playful and makes really intriguing choices, and there’s just a lovely quality about him. We knew when we were casting the film that we didn’t want to go down the path of casting an actor that brought any kind of action hero baggage with him – we felt like we’d seen that and we wanted to cast somebody who could seem a little bit more relatable and a little bit more put upon in this environment. That line of thinking in combination with some of the thematic threads we’re exploring in the film works with the character being English – that became a really interesting prospect to us as well, in terms of enhancing that fish out of water quality. On a story level, the idea of a character like that seemed to serve the story more readily, and we thought Martin seemed like a good fit for that. We feel very lucky to have managed to bring him on board for the project.
You’ve co-directed both films with Ben Howling. What’s your creative dynamic like?
A lot of the work was done beforehand. We had about three years’ development on this project. We developed the story together and I went away and wrote the script, so we were both very across the material throughout that process, which was super helpful because we knew what we were trying to achieve and the tone we were trying to strike. From there it was just communicating and trying to get as much predetermined before you step on set. I think we were both pretty conscious of the fact that we do have two individual brains and there will be times when we do disagree on things, and there will be times where we are totally on the same page and it’s about trying to present that cohesive front on set when you’ve got people asking questions about what it is that you’re looking for. Certainly, when working with the actors you’re trying to not give any mixed messages and trying to keep it as unified as possible.
What challenges did you face as a first-time feature director that you weren’t expecting?
It was a steep learning curve, no doubt about it. There’s a huge difference, going from making a DIY film with your friends over the weekend to a fully fledged feature. On one level there’s an element of stamina required that you logically know is the case, but the physical and emotional process of experiencing that is a really different thing, so I think that was a big thing for us.
I think probably the biggest challenges though were external. We shot in South Australia in the winter, which generally would have been a really great idea, except this particular year that we shot, back in 2016, they had their wettest winter in 70 years and a once-in-one-hundred-years storm. There were tornadoes in the northern part of the state – it was ridiculous. That kind of wreaked havoc with our schedule – we had challenges with wet weather and floods and just the general obstacles of working outdoors. The majority of the film is exterior, so you’ve only got so much wet weather cover you can hide behind.
So, the weather was a challenge, and also the nature of the story we were telling – we’ve got a 12 month old baby and an 11 year old girl as two very prominent characters in the film, so working with children and the process of that was also challenging at times. Those were the big ticket items, but it was a very ambitious concept from the get-go and we knew that was the case, so we just kind of had to muddle on through, and luckily we had a really great team to help us get over the finish line.