Of monsters and men by Alessia Belsito-Riera
Kiwi filmmaker Scott Walker is thrilled to be back in New Zealand doing what he always dreamed of: making scary movies about monsters. His newest film The Tank (2023) was made during COVID in collaboration with Richard Taylor, Wētā Workshop, and an all-Kiwi cast and crew.
Walker and his whānau were back in NZ renewing their USA visas when the borders closed. “We bounced around from friend’s place to friend’s place and one was an old beach house that was built on top of an old water tank. We ran out of water and so I had to climb down into the tank,” Walker says. “That’s what led to the nightmares about creatures eating us and being killed (which we weren’t), but those nightmares turned out to be good inspiration.”
What started out tough ended up being a silver lining for The Tank writer, director, and producer. “It just became a perfect opportunity for Richard Taylor and me to do something together while we weren’t sure what was going to happen in the world,” Walker continues.
I caught up with him to get the lowdown on The Tank before it hits cinemas on the 8th of June. Though he says it isn’t a hard-core horror and his 13-year-old had no problems watching it…
I was terrified.
That’s the point of it, I guess [laughs].
What sparked your interest in film? Did you have an ‘aha’ moment?
When I was eight, I found a Dracula annual with Christopher Lee on the front that was all about horror, and I just loved it. It was the one thing I used to carry around. I liked the idea of stories and monsters, whether they’re real or made-up, so that kind of sparked it. But that was at a time when New Zealand’s film industry was very, very small, so it wasn’t a viable career option. It never really occurred to me that you could actually do this properly, so I came back to it after moving to the UK and to LA.
I started in advertising, and I had my own agency in London. I was really interested in story, so I started doing mythic story structure courses and weekend workshops. I would still run my agency during the week but knew that’s really what I wanted to do; it was a matter of making the leap, which I did. I threw myself into researching a true story about a serial killer, which became The Frozen Ground (2013). Then I went on a rather long road of writing projects, getting them set up, having them fall over, writing more projects, getting hired to write other projects, and really getting close, close, close, but each time something would happen. The last thing that happened was COVID, but being stuck in New Zealand led me to here.
There’s a deeper message in The Tank about our connection to the environment and greed. What inspired this choice?
When I did The Frozen Ground, I became really interested in what is more wild: man or the wild? And it’s us. Then with COVID, I think subconsciously – or very consciously – I had this feeling that what we do to the planet is eventually going to come back on us. The idea of Mother Nature in some way attempting to rebalance us was sort of the feeling.
At the time, there were two worldwide ways of dealing with the pandemic. One was more American and British, which is more male-led, and that was ‘everyone will be fine, just get on with it’. The second, and sort of more female-led version, which New Zealand had, was a bit more caring and nurturing. I think there was a real feeling of Mother Nature, again, being feminine, and rebalancing this masculine need for greed and destruction. That’s why in The Tank, it’s a father who finds this pristine location and drills an enormous hole into it. Then the son comes along and does the same thing. It’s almost like a total disrespect for the environment, for nature, and for our place as part of it as opposed to separate to it – versus the creature, which is feminine and a mother.
That’s the deeper aspect and in the meantime it’s more about character, how to keep the ball rolling, and scaring people.
How did you make the creature?
I wrote a pretty detailed brief about what I thought it was and what it wasn’t, which came about from a load of conversations with Richard Taylor mostly. We used this amazing lady, Regina Hegemann, who works in Wellington as a circus performer and contortionist. She could hold herself and had the muscle strength in ways that normal people just don’t. We had her doing all sorts of stuff to work out the movements and at the same time were refining the creature suit, which is this enormously heavy piece of synthetic rubber. I think it was the first time Wētā had ever done this type of 3D printing, and it’s the first time it’s ever been done anywhere in the world in order to create this suit that could go underwater and have this range of animatronic heads that can do all sorts of snorting, grinding, biting.
It’s so rare to see practical effects now, so I thought it was just the neatest thing.
[Laughs.] It’s hard and it’s exciting. I really wanted something physical that the characters could interact with and literally be attacked by. To shoot it in a more verité, live style meant we could move faster. For a film with a super low budget you need to think of ways to get the effect, create the creature and suspense in audience’s minds. There are a lot of nods to horror movies from the 80s and 90s that I love. I really wanted to go back to those days.
Was it nice to bring a project home?
Yeah, that’s what I wanted to be able to do. Bring projects here, make them here, and with foreign distributors. So it was actually great to be here. It wasn’t the time, it wasn’t the plan, but it became the plan, and it was terrific. I’m a big believer that there’s a New Zealand horror audience out there. We don’t traditionally have one, but I’m hoping that we’ll get some younger audiences coming to this. And it’s great because it’s made in New Zealand and it’s all New Zealanders involved.
Hobbit Beach is a real place in Oregon. Someone 100 years ago must have seen the similarities to Tolkien's Middle Earth, which, obviously, was then made in New Zealand. So, when I came across Hobbit Beach, I was like ‘it has to be there’. The photos look like you’re in New Zealand.
What a great connection, it was meant to be!
Exactly, that’s what I was thinking at the time.
New Zealand has a long history with genre films. How does it feel to have become part of that Kiwi legacy?
Yeah, well, I guess I fit into that! It’s cool to have done something that I grew up in New Zealand dreaming about. I think one of the coolest things was working with Richard Taylor and Wētā, who started out making those films that you’re talking about with Peter Jackson. Richard particularly loved it as well because he gets involved in so many big Hollywood productions that he loved the opportunity to go back to the early days where there’s not going to be a CGI fix later. It was really cool to see it and work with him on that level. I just wish there were more of these being made here. And maybe there will be in the future.