SPIERIG, PETER AND MICHAEL: UNDEAD
The young Spierigs’ debut feature, Undead, breathes life into the neglected horror genre in Australian filmmaking, the work of twins Peter and Michael who are like clones in synch, thinking and working as one, as Andrew L. Urban discovers when he meets them.
Film directors the world over will go green with envy when they learn of Peter and Michael Spierig, the twins who made Undead, Australia’s first zombie/sci-fi/splatter movie. Like a single split cell, the Spierig twins work together like clones, thinking the same way, imagining the same way, and with pretty well equal talents in all aspects of film making. That means there are two people to share the load and it’s almost like ego is egone . . .but not quite: conflicts do arise.
Sitting around a table with the Spierig twins takes getting used to; they’re not identical, but almost. The stubbly reddish beard on both faces is no help to distinguish one from the other, but the black jacket sorts out Peter from Michael, who is in a dark olive denim jacket. And they sport slightly different haircuts.
"they are both individuals"
Clearly, they are both individuals, and they admit that sometimes they see things a little differently. “Oh it’s impossible not to have differences,” says Peter, “when you’ve got so many elements that have to come together to make a film. But our differences are slight…Michael’s idea might have an element that’s really good, and an element of my idea might be really good. We’re pretty brutal with each other, and we’ll tell each other, ‘that’s f***ed’ …
“Basically we’re very pragmatic guys and we like to plan things through thoroughly. We don’t like to leave things to chance, or to say I have this idea and when we get to the set we’ll figure it out. We storyboarded every single frame of Undead.”
Undead has all the elements of the horror genre, delivered with gusto. The small Queensland fishing town of Berkeley is hit by a shower of meteorites, bringing with it a deadly infection. The dead have risen to life and are seeking human flesh. While attempting to flee an unhappy past in Berkeley for life in the city, local beauty queen Rene (Felicity Mason) is trapped in this nightmare of marauding zombies. Shotgun-wielding Marion (Mungo McKay), who believes the source of the infection is alien, is regarded as a lunatic by the townsfolk, rescues Rene from the living dead and takes her to his isolated farmhouse. When four other survivors arrive, the group bands together to battle the undead.
They were single minded about their vision for the film – but being twins is not the most notable aspect of the Spierigs as filmmakers; it’s their belief in genre filmmaking –especially horror - which is rarely approached by Australian filmmakers. “No, we don’t make a lot of genre films in Australia, which is incredibly unfortunate,” says Peter, “when you look at the great genre pictures that come out of Asian or European cinema, and obviously the US, but more world cinema, and on fairly limited means at times. Perhaps the best horror films come from low budget filmmakers, which are inventive, and they start careers . . . Australian budgets can definitely support genre pictures. Look at Cube – great little picture, made for nothing, and could definitely have been made in Australia. Dog Soldiers could have been made in Australia . . . even if you go back to things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They’re innovative, they’re risky, they’re all the things that we’re not doing. It’s a real shame.”
Michael tentatively suggests a reason: “I tend to think that the Government financing bodies don’t have any history of [Australian] horror films to look at and see why they worked. We seem to make dramas or quirky comedies and that’s it. Perhaps they think it takes a lot of money to make genre pictures . . . to compete with the US.”
"pragmatic about the outcomes for filmmaking"
Needless to say, the Spierigs are also pragmatic about the outcomes for filmmaking. Says Peter, “It’s all about the box office; a film has been either successful or not successful.” Michael agrees: “We’re at a really bad point in Australian cinema because no Australian film seems to be making any money at all. Why is that? Is it because we keep making the same type of movie over and over again? Is it because we’re not taking risks any more?”
After a packed preview in Sydney on the night before our interview, during he Q&A with the Spierigs, one man stood up and thanked them for finally making “a film like this in Australia – we’ve been waiting a long time.” Over 100 people were turned away in disappointment, suggesting the Spiergigs may be right about the popularity of horror films (comedy dressed in blood splattered black, really), the Spierig twins don’t understand why it’s been ignored here.
The first film they saw as kids was The Empire Strikes Back, and Peter recalls being amazed and inspired. “I wanted to know how they did that!” At 10 they started making shorts, and by high school, Peter’s work was gaining awards and recognition. In 1997 Peter and Michael graduated from the Queensland College of Art in Brisbane. Peter graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Television while Michael graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design. While at university, they produced a number of short films, including The Garden, a science fiction action adventure which Peter directed and Michael production designed. The film won three major Queensland New Filmmaker Awards including Best Producer as well as the Bronze Student Award at the Houston International Film Festival.
Michael's and Peter's most recent short film entitled The Big Picture was the brothers' first attempt at not only continuing to write, direct and produce but also to take on the role as Directors of Photography. It led to them multi-tasking on Undead.
With the festival attention and early buzz that Undead has generated, the Spierigs are working on future films. But they won’t try and write, produce, direct, edit, etc, etc. “We consider ourselves directors first … directors and editors,” says Peter, “and we’re glad we did everything on this film [but they don’t recommend it] so we have a good overview and know the processes. And we want to stay with this genre, but I don’t believe we’ll do splatter as our next film, but we’re interested in horror and science fiction. Sure we’d like to do a great drama, too, but it comes down to finding the right story. And to getting the money: I don’t know whether people will give us money for a very serious drama just yet.
"we like having fun"
“At the moment we don’t consider ourselves as very serious filmmakers; we like having fun and we’re good at audience participation films. But we’d like to do a reeeely scary movie!” Can’t wait.
(Undead releases in Australia on September 4, 2003.)
Published September 4, 2003
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Michael (left) and Peter Spierig