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Scientific experimentation on innocent New Zealand sheep goes wrong, but his debut feature goes right, as Jonathan King explains to Andrew L. Urban his relief at getting Weta to do the FX.

Jonathan King arrives for our interview with an entourage of two females, an omen of his filmmaking potential, perhaps, rather than his credits to date, since we are about to talk about his debut feature film, Black Sheep, which has not yet had time to turn him into an overnight sensation. Though it might. It’s been picked up by Mel Gibson’s worldwide distribution company, Icon, and had its premiere screening at the Melbourne Film Festival in July, where the comedic horror of weresheep was much appreciated.

As we settle down at a window table in the lobby bar of Melbourne’s Marriott Hotel, his mobile phone goes off and he excuses himself to answer it. It’s a call about an urgent matter he’d just been discussing with his entourage ladies, about the DVD of the film. He’s keen to include the concept art; he’s emphatic as he talks into the phone: “It’s great stuff and it hasn’t been seen … it’s a Weta thing … the geeks especially will love it …”

It’s been a year since King finished shooting Black Sheep in New Zealand, and he’s glad he’s had that time before recording the audio commentary for the DVD, which he did in the amiable and entertaining company of his male lead, Nathan Meister, who plays Henry, the younger brother horrified to discover that his older brother Angus (Peter Feeney), is experimenting with genetic engineering on the family farm’s sheep, with the help of a small band of scientists. When a couple of animal activists, Experience (Danielle Mason) and Gavin (Kevin McTurk) inadvertently release a mutant lamb into the farm, the ghastly little thing spreads a nasty bug which turns all the sheep into bloodthirsty predators. Henry, Experience and farmhand Tucker (Tammy Davis) find themselves stranded among the herd. As Tucker discovers, one bite from an infected sheep begins a metamorphosis that turns humans into weresheep.

King is not making The Birds with sheep, thankfully, but he has cottoned onto the Hitchkockian premise about normality perverted being more terrifying than the naturally bad big wolf. The experimental science of the lambs is thus more shocking for its corruption of animal innocence. “Hitchcock and The Birds did indeed float through my mind,” he confesses, “and I even had some references in the film, but they got edited out.”

The key to making Black Sheep work was first class special effects and his first step was to send the script to Richard Taylor at Weta Workshop, where the digital wizardry in Peter Jackson’s dreams and nightmares come to life. “He loved the script which was amazing because we had HOPED but weren’t sure … and the FX had to work really well…They’re like a star attachment, too,” he adds. Having Weta attached immediately put the project into orbit.

"Kiwi splatter"

Inspired by Peter Jackson’s grand tradition of Kiwi splatter using physical effects, King’s collaboration with Richard Taylor and his Academy Award-winning team at Weta, lies at the heart of the film. Devising everything from conceptual art to buckets of gore, sculpted body parts and sophisticated prosthetic makeup, a highly experienced crew came together to build King’s distinctive vision of Kiwi bucolic bliss turned monstrously on its head. A flock of over one thousand animals, a small number of trained sheep and animatronic puppet creatures, created by Weta were captured in camera to bring the rampant underbelly of ovine rage to life on the big screen.

“Weta invested a lot of care in this film,” King says with evident gratitude. “They ensured that the dollars went as far as possible – and they had faith and trust in us.” In the process, King learnt “that special effects is very hard, and I learnt why it takes so long, and why you have to have so much footage to get just a few seconds. The FX and the animals were the greatest source of anxiety. You’d be waiting for the sheep to make that one, split second move you wanted, but you’d have to shoot a lot of film to get it.”

King says “it was exciting to discover how readily sheep could be transformed into monsters by exploiting their natural features. They’re actually powerful beasts with sharp hooves, splayed teeth and black, lizard-like eyes. It’s only a small imaginative shift to see a sheep as a scary and dangerous animal – and when you have tens, hundreds or thousands, acting as a flock, the effect is terrifying. I worked closely with Weta Workshop on some incredible concept art that took the sheep into terrifying new dimensions. The next part of the journey was discovering what happens when sheep meet humans in the lab – creating our spectacular ‘weresheep’!”

But above all, King “felt strongly that this film should be grounded in the world of practical, physical effects rather than CGI. I think that there’s a suspension of disbelief and a drawing into the experience that you get from physical effects that you just can’t get from CGI and, from the start, physical effects really felt the way we had to go.”

Watching the rough assembly of the film, gave King the horrors. “That’s when you want to kill yourself. But then we began the editing and finding the right tone … after six weeks we were ready to show it. But then, the night before, I said let’s cut this bit out … we chopped about 90 seconds from the beginning, to speed it up a bit, and it worked. Then we test screened the film and it was great to hear the audience laughing … but after that we cut another three and a half minutes out.”

His mother and stepfather came along to an early cast and crew screening, “intending to be politely positive, you know, saying well done, but they really enjoyed it – more than they had expected to.”

"I learnt that genuine scary is very hard to do"

Now, King is considering something else for his next film. “I learnt that genuine scary is very hard to do. Gore, jumps, frights and gross stuff you can manufacture – but to get that scary tone is really hard.”

Published August 16, 2007

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