Interview: A.T. Sayre, Writer / Director – ‘The Song the Zombie Sang’

Written and to be directed by A.T. Sayre (write/director of the award winning feature film ‘Whatever Makes You Happy‘), ‘The Song the Zombie Sang‘ is planned as a low budget independent production, to be funded primarily (if not exclusively) by its Indiegogo crowd funding campaign, in partnership with Indiereign. Principal photography will occur at the end of the campaign, between late in 2014 and the spring of 2015.

The film evolves around Nils Bekh, who was once the world’s greatest living musician and composer. With the ultracembalo, a musical system that uses a neural interface and data gloves, he created and performed some of the greatest compositions in history. He died an icon, his name and music deeply etched into the story of humanity.

But Bekh the musician continues on. He is reanimated nightly to perform for an adoring public. In death, Nils Bekh has the immortality that before only a man’s work could achieve without him.

Outside the circles of wealth and privilege that flock to his concerts is Rhoda, a gifted young music student in the infancy of her own career. Driven to the point of obsession, she has few friends other than her doting and supportive boyfriend, who is determined to stand by her. Most everyone else sees her as arrogant and self-absorbed. But Rhoda doesn’t pay them any attention; both slave and master to her art, the only things that matter to her are the melodies and compositions that constantly swirl about in her head.

On the verge of an enormous creative breakthrough, her academic career crumbles around her and she lashes out at the few friends she has. Feeling frustrated and hopeless, Rhoda is determined to meet and confront Bekh, whose performances she finds soulless and whose success she envies.

With a daring and dangerous plan, she breaks into the hall where he lays, awaiting another call to his half life, another call to perform. When she finally comes face to face with the great composer, their meeting turns into a pivotal night for both her and the legendary icon.

David Teich spoke with writer/director A.T. Sayre about the crowdfunding, the origins of zombie folklore, and artists’ all-consuming drive for immortality.

Learn more about “The Song the Zombie Sang” at the film’s website.

What drew you to the short story by Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg? And what does this story bring to the zombie genre that we haven’t seen onscreen before? The title notwithstanding, is this really a traditional “zombie” premise?
I have been infatuated with this story ever since I first read it in high school more than twenty years ago.  Whenever I read something, I always play with how I would make a film of it–I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember.  A vast majority of the time it never lasts long, often before I’m finished reading.  The way the prose works is unfilmable, it’s too long, or just otherwise doesn’t interest me for some reason.  But this one has stuck with me for over half my life.  The ideas I’ve seen in it about struggling with the pursuit of a lofty goal, from two very different ends of the same road, speaks to something very personal to me.  I think it would to anyone with ambition.

But no, it definitely isn’t a traditional zombie film, or more accurately the kind of ‘zombie’ story as they have been since George Romero started the current cultural image of them.  When this story was first published in 1970, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ had only come out about two years earlier.  So zombies weren’t in the social consciousness anything like they are today.

I suppose what this film is bringing to the zombie genre is a bit of a throwback to an older, more historical take on zombies.  Originally zombies were not monsters, they were victims.  Zombies originated predominantly as a part of Haitian folklore, basically as people who were possessed after they died to come back into a lethargic, walking coma type existence to mindlessly do the bidding of whoever summoned them.  They were still a frightening thing, but also very tragic–the comparisons to slavery are pretty clear.  And as much as I love the modern depiction of zombies metaphorically and otherwise, in this story the older way of seeing zombies is more appropriate.

What does this story have to say about musicians, or artists in general, and their drive for immortality? More broadly, what are some of the themes and metaphors in this story that you find particularly fascinating?
The drive for artists is a singular force, and oftentimes to the detriment of almost everything else in life.  Family, friends, loved ones, all that can take second fiddle to the pursuit of greatness.  It’s never easy, even if you manage to reach the lofty goals that you aspire to.  Yet, knowing all this, you do it anyway, because it’s an inner drive to succeed that you don’t have as much control over as you may like to think.  I don’t think this kind of drive is limited to artistic or creative pursuits.  I really see it as something that anyone from any walk of life who has a lofty goal can understand.

This is the major theme from the story as I’ve adapted it.  Maybe its not the most uplifting idea, but it’s true and that’s what’s more important.  The other idea in this that I am a little tickled over is the instrument used, the ultracembalo.  I’ve altered that from the original story into a set of gloves connected through a neural interface directly into the performer, to create music through mental control and hand gestures.  Which I think is going to be my favorite image in the story: a solitary person standing on a stage, literally creating an entire symphony–magic–with a flick of their fingertips.

Can you describe Nils Bekh and Rhoda, your two main characters? What are they like? And, if it’s possible to answer without spoiling too much, can you describe what their dynamic is like, and why their meeting is such a pivotal moment for them?
Rhoda is a young prodigy, extremely talented, very focused on her goal to be a great composer, and, just as I said, at the expense of everything else in her life.  She’s very introverted, and socially disinterested.  Many people see her as arrogant, but I’d say it’s more of a by product of her single-minded obsession with the music than any sense of ego.

Bekh is far more calm, serene even.  He has already had his whole life full of accomplishments and landmark achievements, so he has nothing left to prove, nothing to strive for.  His whole existence is to perform on stage, and beyond that he has nothing.  He exists in a sort of limbo, and seems resigned to it, going through the motions with a certain kind of stoicism.

Even as different as these two people are, they have the drive for music in common, being on the same path of life, just at different ends of it.  And that commonality is far more binding for them.  Their meeting is indeed very pivotal for both of them–Rhoda confronts a legend, in some ways the embodiment of what she is trying to achieve, and learns some hard truths about it that she will have to deal with.  And for Bekh, he finally gets the chance to free himself from his existence and to be understood by someone he considers a kindred spirit.  That’s actually my favorite part of their whole interaction–the way they both have such a level of mutual respect for each other, almost like equals talking shop.

What has been your approach to crowdfunding? How does raising money for a sci-fi/zombie film like The Song the Zombie Sang differ from raising money for a non-genre film—for, instance, a drama like your film Whatever Makes You Happy?
I have been very active on Twitter and Facebook, as well as reaching out to as many media entities such as yours to try and get as much coverage as I can for the campaign and the project in general.  Earlier the project was voted Indiewire’s Project of the week, and right now there is voting going on for Project of the Month.  I hope everyone who’s reading will consider voting for my project.

It’s a long slog, certainly, and the results have been mixed.  I funded my previous feature film on my own, so this project is my first foray into crowdfunding.  And I have learned a lot from this first attempt.  While it doesn’t look right now like this particular goal is going to be reached, I have taken away a great deal of understanding to take into my next attempt at this.  And whatever resources I do get on this campaign will be utilized into that one.  I’m not giving up on this project, it’s meant far too much to me for far too long, and I am going to keep working on getting this film made till I’m told I can’t do it anymore.  And then for probably a month or two after that.

What have been some of your challenges in turning this story into a film? What are some of the tougher adaptation choices you’ve had to make?
It really wasn’t as much of a challenge as I thought it would be, if I am going to be totally honest.  I went from first scribbles in a notebook to a finished first draft of the script in just under six weeks, and there weren’t a great deal of problems or sticking points in the whole process.  I think that has a lot to do with having thought about writing this script and making this movie for so long that I had already worked out all the kinks and problems ages ago in my head.  Deciding to focus on Rhoda and her struggles more than Bekh, changing the nature of the ultracembalo, the characters to expand and add to the story–it all was just clearly the way to do it.  I’ve never had as easy a time writing anything in my entire life.  Perhaps it’s fate.

Have you even begun to think about your post-completion game plan? Do you plan to take on the festival circuit? Are there any specific audiences or demographics you’re particularly hoping to reach?
I’m trying not to think too much about those plans, as I need to focus on getting the movie made first.  But I have a general understanding of how I plan to proceed at that point.  Running the festival circuit is what I see as clearly the first move after the film is finished.  Then looking for a legitimate distributor of some kind.  If I can’t get one, then self-distribution of some kind.  Like I said, I really haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking about this yet, because I have a long, long ways to go till I get to that point.  And I want to keep it open for now as to how to proceed, so I don’t risk comitting myself to any particular approach before I have to.

Interview conducted by David Teich

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