Jonas Govaerts on Debuting ‘Cub’ at TIFF & Casting Kids for Horror
“The traps were like Goonies gone horror,” explained Belgian director Jonas Govaerts. Only blocks away from the theater where his debut feature Cub would soon premiere, Govaerts was easy-going but likely ready for his movie to finally screen for audiences. “It’s daunting,” he said of being at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival with his first feature, a Flemish-language horror film about a troupe of Cub Scouts being stalked by a psychopathic huntsman and feral child who have set up elaborate, deadly traps in the woods.
What was the initial conception for this project, why did you want to make this movie?
Well I was a cub scout myself, and two things actually: one thing, I learned in film school is write what you know, and that’s kind of hard when you’re doing horror films. I’m not a killer or a serial killer. But I was a cub scout, I have an arena there. I know the world, and I remember being 12, being a scout and being incredibly fascinated by whatever my leaders would come up with. I thought this is interesting because if you mesh a real horror story with whatever your leaders, they’re pulling your leg basically. And if those stories are converted, I thought there was something there, so that’s what the film is basically, a scout camp gone horribly wrong.
So is this a story that’s been with you for a while then? Have you been thinking about it since you were a cub scout?
Yeah, actually, I think some scenes [came] from when I was 12 and being there like, “what if this is real what they’re telling me?” Yeah, so the idea of it sitting there has been kicking around for a while, but to actually get a real story out of it… Around 2011 when I was co writing with Roel Mondelaers, also a director from Belgium, but he co-wrote ‘cause I couldn’t do it alone. Because I had wild ideas and ideas for killings and traps, but to make an actual construct.
The film feels similar in ways to some American films, whether it’s Deliverance or Home Alone even, I was wondering if there were any films in particular that influenced your movie?
Yeah, but maybe not the obvious ones. There’s a little known, it’s Japanese, a film called Evil Dead Trap. It’s from the 80’s, it has like a rip-off Dario Argento soundtrack, but it has traps that are amazing, and they’re amazingly staged, and it has like that Argento/Brian DePalma fetishistic kind of thing. I definitely wanted that in the film.
Then I’m also a big Guillermo del Toro fan, and what he does with the sounds, the way he directs kids like in The Devil’s Backbone. Usually kids are like the cute sidekicks, or the evil one in horror. Either one of two, but no, if you find the right people, they can be the main characters, and carry the story. So that gave me the idea to actually tell it from the perspective of a 12 year old.
I feel like that must have been one of the big challenges, finding the appropriate kids to portray this kind of stuff, what was that casting process like?
Yeah, Belgium is a very little country as people probably know, so when writing I thought this is hopeless, we’re never going to find… I mean, it’s hard enough finding one kid that’s good, I needed 11 of them. And then I was shooting something with the cameraman, some music video, it had to render, so we were doing nothing. He said come take a look at this, I did a video called “The Gift,” and a kid showed up, and I was like “who is that?” He looked like River Phoenix in Stand by Me. So I was like, “ok, if he can act.” And he could act, we brought him in, and sometimes you don’t need to look, it comes to you. We mixed and matched for the rest. It was easy once we had the protagonist in place.
So what’s it like directing children in material that gets so dark and mature? Do you have to explain what’s going on to them?
Well, it’s not that different. Actually I asked for some advice before I started shooting there’s a director from Belgium who works with children a lot. I was like, “what’s the trick?” and he said to think about it. Acting in Flemish is “spill.” Which means “kids play,” so actors are big children basically, so keep it simple, give them a metaphor that they can think, “ok, this is what I’m supposed to be doing”. It’s not that different from directing adult actors, if anything it’s easier.
Make it about playing pretend?
Yeah, I had in my head, I was thinking I should scare them on set, and play the Suspiria soundtrack. But then, there’s no time for that. They know what to do if you find the right people. There’s nothing worse than a bad kid actor.
So the score felt very influenced by Carpenter, I was wondering an intentional homage?
Well, I wrote the script and I only played three albums and those were all by Zombie, the band leader, Steve Moore did the score, and they are very influenced by Goblin who did the all the Dario Argento soundtracks. It was so in my head that this should be the music for the movie that it thought lets find him on Facebook and send him a message. He was like, “Yeah, cool, I’ll do it.” He’s doing The Guest as well, which is playing at TIFF as well, and it’s interesting to compare scores when you put it next to each other, and he’s a huge Carpenter nut, and I really wanted that sound.
So you mentioned all those traps also, so how do we go about designing them? Was that a lot of your work?
That’s why I was saying I needed a co-writer to get a decent story out of all this, but the traps were like Goonies gone horror basically, so that was the fun part. I just woke up in the middle of the night like “what if there’s a wasp nest and a crossbow?” I mean, that’s in my head anyway.
Is that your favorite one?
No, that’s got a little bit of CGI, I wanted to do practical. I like the opening one, because it’s such a horror cliché to have a girl running through the woods and then have the headlights come on. So we played with that idea a little bit, hopefully that pays off.
The production design has certain elements that are really interesting too, the villain’s lair in particular, how did you go about that design?
That went through a few stages. A friend of mine who’s a playwright, he wrote a play [that took place] in the underground bus systems, and I asked him where did you get the idea? He said it’s real, there’s something called the Ark or the Ark 2. There were some nutcases in the 80’s who made a fallout shelter made from 40 school buses buried underground, and they had a dentists chair in there, it’s very creepy, it was closed down by the government, you can find it online. I don’t know how much I can give away, but there’ an extra layer to the buses where the final fight is, and that was a rip from Phenomena, the Dario Argento film, there’s a pit full of maggots, I kind of pulled from there.
So the ending in Cub leaves a few things unresolved, what was your intention with that? Why did you go for an ending that didn’t feel as clean?
I wanted a bleak ending, for some reason I’m attracted to those, and there’s a glimmer of hope in it, but I thought it was the most interesting journey for the little kid, who you think he’s just going to be the hero, but it turns out a little differently at the end. It was just a way of getting there. I had that final image of them walking, I had that in my head, and I just needed to get there in writing, so it was never, for me, if you want, there’s a little glimmer of hope, but to me that’s just a beat in the story.
This is your debut feature, what’s it like to be at a prestigious festival to debut it?
It’s daunting. I was hoping it would play a week in Belgian cinemas, and now it’s premiering here. I was at a Q&A for Tusk by Kevin Smith, and I remember in film school, they asked us to redirect a scene from a movie, and I did 37 dicks from Clerks. To be on the same stage as him, is just, how did this happen? I’m sure it will be more daunting when we premiere.
You mentioned you went to film school, but at what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Well, there was the fun of films and watching films actually came in the cub scouts, my leaders were always talking about Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, but my dad wouldn’t allow me to see them. And I didn’t have a VHS player, so in my mind, those films were way more gruesome and out there than they actually were. So that kind of kicked it off, and then when I was 16 or 17, I found Evil Dead II, and what’s great about that film is that it’s not only a fun film to watch, but you can tell they’re having fun making it. And that’s when it clicked, you go get some friends together, you go off in the woods, get a 2 by 4, I didn’t know what it was but then I found out that it’s if you don’t have money for a steadicam, you get a beam. And just the fun of filmmaking is so clear, when watching a film you just think, oh, this is a job, ok let’s do that. It took a while for me to get there but…
So you’ve always been a horror nut, really into the classic scare films?
That’s where my love with cinema started, but as you grow up, you do realize that if there is one genre with a lot of crap in it, it’s horror. So you kind of broaden your perspective a little. I’ll watch any movie, any genre, but that big kick in cinema, I usually find in good horror.
You mentioned Evil Dead II, but any other particularly big influences?
There’s one in my head that’s like everyone’s favorite film, but it’s not that well known it’s Dellamorte Dellamore, or Cemetery Men. It’s an Italian, mid-90s. It’s actually a rom-zom-com before Shaun of the Dead. It’s set on a cemetery, it’s got Rupert Everett, and the most beautiful woman in Italy called Anna Falchi, she’s like a model. It s a weird film that doesn’t really work, but to me it’s perfect. But that one, its like Italian Terry Gilliam.
So what are your future plans? Are you already considering a follow up?
I’m just beginning to write something that we could do in Flemish, and that’s also got a very Flemish subject. And there’s one comic I found, but I can’t say too much about that we’re trying to get the rights to that would be very dark and very interesting. I’m staying in the genre for now.