Love in the Time of Apocalypse: Craig Zobel on Z for Zachariah and the Benefits of First ADing

Craig Zobel began his career as an assistant director, production manager and co-producer on such films as David Gordon Green’s George Washington, All The Real Girls and Undertow.

In 2007, his first feature, Great Wall Of Sound, not only made it to Sundance, it was picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures. His second film, the unsettling drama Compliance, returned Zobel to Sundance in 2012 and made an indie splash with film critics. It was a breakthrough moment for a guy who’d been working in the industry for more than a decade. Zobel’s followup to that success is the screen adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s young adult novel, Z for Zachariah.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future and filmed in lush New Zealand, the film focuses on the complicated relationship that arises between a young but tough survivor named Ann (Margot Robbie) and John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the scientist she rescues. Though of different ages, races and faiths, an intimate bond forms between them. He also may be the last man alive…that is, until a handsome young stranger (Chris Pine) shows up.

Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): We live in a time where thoughts of an apocalypse loom large, and that’s certainly reflected in television and movies. What do you think of the genre? What did you want to do that was different?

Craig Zobel (CZ): I always liked the post-apocalyptic movies I grew up with: those Cold War movies like On The BeachAlas, Babylon and stuff like that. There was a movie called Testament that I loved a kid. I always thought those were cool because they were about why we should go on. They were a little more philosophical. These days it seems those movies are more about fighting against some evil state; it’s less about the internal. If you were around after a nuclear events of some sort, wouldn’t you be reflecting on it all the time? It just seems weird that people who believe in religion wouldn’t be talking about that at the end of the world. The whole kind of shebang of the Bible is the end, right?

MM: What’s interesting about Z for Zachariah is that the same story could set on a desert island.

CZ: This is totally a desert island movie. This is the apocalypse and this is the last oasis. It felt like the right thing to explore was that each of the characters comes from different places: being man or woman, being black or white. Culturally we think we know how to negotiate the difference, but I don’t think people talk a lot about it. It’s like a nonbeliever hanging out with a believer. Both sides don’t have a lot of sympathy for the other side, which is weird to me. You’d think there would be more curiosity. If the only other person in the world were someone like that, I think it would be an interesting thing.

MM: Is it better to be with the one you argue with for the rest of your life? Or would it be better to be with someone you would agree with for the rest of your life? Which one would be the richer life?

CZ: That’s a great question. Amazing question. I guess I have an answer. Clearly that’s what I decided with my film.

Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor star as Ann and John, respectively

Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor star as Ann and John

MM: You shot Z For Zachariah in a remote part of New Zealand. Talk about the challenges of something like that.

CZ: The interesting thing about a place like New Zealand is that they’re very sophisticated, as a crew base. They’re used to being in weird places because that’s why people go to shoot there, in order to get that magical look, so the crew was very skilled at that. There was a massive amount of logistics at the beginning. Just finding places for people to live seems like not a big deal, but it was kind of a big deal. We were that remote. Once we got everybody here, there was this attitude that doesn’t necessarily exist in the states, I think. There were backups of everything. Everybody knew to have backups of everything, because they were used to working in like the middle of nowhere.

I would Skype with Bob Buck, the costume designer, on a daily basis, but I didn’t meet him in person until very late in the production, because he was like, “I’m never going to find what we need here.” So the costume department was literally not on set because they were out running around in the real world trying to find the things we needed.

The easy side, compared to, say, when I was a production manager in NYC, is that you can park your stuff anywhere. There’s room all over the place, which is a really big logistical hurdle where I come from. One of the most fascinating parts of all that was that we found a lot of things that we liked that were near each other in a really practical, easy-to-shoot way. Except for the waterfall. We had to travel about two hours to go to the waterfall, which was hard to get in to. We ended up having to hire a rugby team to lug gear in. We actually needed to helicopter gear in, which sounds really expensive, but it was pretty standard on the southern island of New Zealand. I was just like, “What?”

MM: Starting at the casting process to all the way to on set, how do you work with your actors so that you’re all on the same page?

CZ: Being able to make sure that the actors feel like they have agency and it’s their movie too is a really big thing. Especially for this movie, these people are all way more experienced at filmmaking than I am [laughs]. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first movie was with Steven Spielberg, you know what I mean? Instead of being the imposing puppet master director—when I was first AD, I saw a lot of that person and I don’t wanna be that person.

MM: As a former AD, what do you expect from your ADs?

CZ: I think that my ADs find me to be a terror, because I have some experience with it, you know? I’m pretty unforgiving if, at the end of the day, things were out of their control. I think the role of that job is to be an all-department communicator. A good AD understands what’s going on and can read a person and say, “OK, today the makeup artist is slow. But yesterday the makeup artist was totally freaked out because we were trying different makeup effects. That scar on so-and-so’s face, or whatever it is, it’s hard to do.” Or to let folks know that “props is going to need more time this morning, because they have this other thing they need to finish first.” You need to know a lot about a lot of different departments. I’m probably not a very fun director for other ADs to work with.

Chris Pine joins the post-apocalyptic love triangle as Caleb

Chris Pine joins the cast of the post-apocalyptic love triangle as Caleb

MM: How has being an AD informed the way you deal with the rest of your crew as the director?

CZ: I think that the experience of ADing has definitely made me a better director, absolutely. A lot of directors are unsure why a grip or why electric might be taking a long time to do something and might be like, “Why hasn’t this happened?” I understand what I’m asking when I ask to put the camera on a jib arm, or a boat or whatever. I know it’s not a fast thing to do. Being a former AD and also being a production manager, which is in the same family, teaches you to respect all the departments. Not just the department heads, not just the creative keys, but everyone; knowing what the loader is doing, what sound tech is doing.

MM: To move from crew positions to being a feature director is a big leap. And then you got into Sundance with Compliance, your second film. Now, you’ve helmed an even bigger film with an exotic setting and A-list cast. How do you navigate that kind of career development? What were the key steps? Do you feel like you missed some opportunities along the way?

CZ: The truth is directing is complicated. Emotionally. Not everyone wants to do it once they really start thinking about it. I was on my way to being a guild AD. Then I just kind of freaked out. I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I thought I would go back to graphic design or something. So I made a list of things I wanted to do: make a film. Go to Sundance. Get a distributer. And with my first film [Great Wall Of Sound] it worked. I did go to Sundance. I did get a distributor. And that was pretty cool.

But yeah, I do feel like I missed some things along the way. You know, there wasn’t a lot of time between this movie and Compliance. But between Compliance and Great Wall Of Sound there was a lot of downtime, five years. I got kind of lost and really depressed, because I hadn’t planned farther along. I went to Sundance but wasn’t ready to be doing another movie. I moved to New York and worked on a script that for one reason or another wasn’t hitting well with people. Eventually, while I was pitching, somebody asked if I had anything like a thriller. I mentioned the real-life story that became Compliance, and they said, “We would totally would do that.” A month later I had the script and then we were making it three months after that conversation.

MM: That’s an amazing turnaround.

CZ: Friends of mine, like Joe Swanberg, just keep working on new projects. I would like to think of myself as that guy that works fast, because that is the thing that I admire. But I’ve sometimes struggled to figure out what I want to do. Compliance was a pretty scary movie to make. A few years earlier I might have chickened out on making it. But doing all those complicated things was a process I really enjoyed. When it was over. I was looking for that next [challenge].

You know, this is a conversation I have with peers that are in the same, like, universe or on the same level as I am. We joke about how we try to pace our career. It is not easy. You can’t really do anything else. When you’re trying to be a filmmaker, having a day job is, well, not impossible, but it’s tricky. I finally feel like I have worried about it so much that I can’t worry about it anymore. But it’s the thing about being a director that doesn’t get talked about, you know? MM

Z for Zachariah opens in theaters August 28, 2015, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

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