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Exclusive: Director Justin McConnell Takes Us Into 'The Collapsed'

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The Collapsed is a new kind of post-apocalyptic horror. This ultra-low budget film focuses on a family of four desperate to survive a mysterious and disastrous event. And there is not a single zombie anywhere to be seen. We chatted with writer/director Justin McConnell about what it takes to approach the apocalypse without the living dead.

Tell me how you got started with The Collapsed.

Well, we were trying to get a movie called The Eternal made. We've been trying since 2008 - it's a much bigger film. While we were getting that ready, we wrote four other films that are all kind of tied together in the same universe. So we had written all these films in this universe, and we were shopping The Eternal and this whole slate, but we couldn't get the money together. So we decided to pool the money we did have and make a feature. We wrote something new, existing in the same world, but that we could shoot for cheap. It was only about $40,000 up front. We made it really quickly. 

I don't want to give any spoilers away, so can you tell us what The Collapsed is about?

It is a post-apocalyptic film about a family of four, trying to survive the end of the world. We patterned it around a 1970s survival thriller. It's violent and it's gory, but it's not what you would expect from a post-apocalyptic film. It's a bit more meditative, more about atmosphere and suspense and build-up, then finally the big pay-off. I don't want to say anything more than that... but I will say there are no zombies. It is a bit more supernaturally-bent than that. We'll leave it at that.

The focus here is really on this nuclear family. Were you trying to show the breakup of the nuclear family?

In a way, yes. The title demonstrates that - it's a bit of a double entendre. The collapse in this case isn't just the world, it is the collapse of the family. I wrote the family from a position where some of the stuff is semi-autobiographical. I pulled some stuff out of my past, people I knew, stuff like that. We put together a family who, like any family, has a history of conflict. When the end of the world comes, some of that comes to the surface. If you are going to die tomorrow, what do you say to your father? That's where a lot of the dialogue came from. I know we've had mixed reviews because of it. There are scenes where people sit down and talk to each other [laughs]. Some people are much happier with a head being split open by an axe. We went the other way - in some cases. 

Do you think audiences are more comfortable with heads being bashed open, than dealing with familial truths?

I think it is really a question of what you are expecting out of a film. Like the poster and DVD cover make it look like the movie is going to be like 28 Days Later. It's a little quieter than that; a little more subtle than that. At the same time, we had to shoot it so fast - 14 days - so its cadence at times might be a little bit different than what you get on a larger budget or Hollywood film. I could see some people not identifying with it as much as [a big-budget film]. If you are throwing blood at the screen every five minutes, it's easier to look past certain things.

Did you have any input as to the marketing campaign?

Oh yeah. I have been right there with pretty much all of distributors, discussing what angle we need to take with the marketing. The people who are putting it out know what is best for each territory, but for the most part, I've been right there.

What were some of the surprises that you had, shooting on such a tight budget and schedule?

We did really, really thorough pre-production, so the shoot actually went pretty smoothly. For example, there is a scene where the family goes into an abandoned subway station. In order to do that, we couldn't start shooting until 2am, when the trains stopped running, then we had to stop shooting by 6am, when the trains started running again. They told us we could have the station, but we couldn't turn the lights off unless we hired a three-man electrical crew for this high price. We found a way around it and shot all those scenes in four hours. We really couldn't afford to lose a day on this shoot. If we had to add an extra day into the shoot for another scene, we would have had to scrap the subway scene entirely. So it went pretty smoothly. They were long days, especially for me because I also catered the film. I couldn't afford a caterer, so I would be up until 4am cooking for the entire crew, then I would leave for set at 6:30am for about 14 days straight. But in general it was a pretty smooth shoot.

It is rare to hear than any film is a smooth shoot, let alone one with such a small budget and quick schedule.

Every shoot always has problems, but nothing big stands out for me. They were all little things -  for example,  there was one scene that we shot in an open parking lot. We had permission to be there, but no permits, and everything around us was operating: a wood shop, refrigerator trucks... it didn't sound like it was dead at all! It sounded like everyone was just going about their day. So we shot that scene without any dialogue or sound, and rebuilt the sound in post. Things like that are a hurdle you get over, but nothing that threatens to railroad the production.

How did you go about finding a new take on the post-apocalyptic, survivalist horror?

It kind of already existed in our other films. I don't want to spoil it, but we have this element in our other films that ties it all together. Originally we were going to make a small, quiet serial killer film. Then we decided to be a little more ambitious. So we decided on an end-of-the-world film, but we didn't want to do zombies, and we didn't want to do a big catastrophe, so we thought, "What else could we do that doesn't require us to down a plane in the background?" Then it hit us - we've already got it. I don't want to say it wrote itself, but it was easy at that point.

What is the current status of The Eternal?

We are still putting together our financing, but since The Collapsed has expanded like it has, it has opened a lot of doors. We've got some pretty interesting attachments on it - I honestly couldn't see it not getting made, with the talent we have attached. I'm just not in a position to make an announcement yet. I'm not sure if we are going to start shooting at the end of this year or next year, but it is coming.

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