French Zombies Ahoy: A Look At THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD

Director Dominique Rocher unleashes zombies in Paris.

The French get in on the zombie craze with The Night Eats the World, the feature debut of co-writer/director Dominique Rocher. The movie follows a lovesick musician named Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie), who wakes up after a wild apartment party to find the streets of Paris overrun with the living dead. Rocher’s focus here, however, is not on postapocalyptic horror, but more on the nightmare of loneliness, as Sam struggles to deal with both the flesh-eaters outside and the solitude inside.

In the following post-Tribeca Film Festival (The Night Eats the World made its North American launch there) interview, Rocher talks about shooting his first movie in a cinematic and TV landscape already swarming with zombies. Blue Fox Entertainment releases the film in theaters and VOD on July 13.

Q: Here we are at the Tribeca Film Festival, where three all-different zombie movies are playing. Why are these films still so popular?

DOMINIQUE ROCHER: When I started working on this film, I already knew there were already too many films in this genre, so it was more of a handicap than something I could exploit. It wasn’t a good thing. But the story was great, and I realized that I could make something out of the zombie genre that was personal. I started working on the film five years ago, so it was already after World War Z and the others. I knew I had to do something very different to get to the audience.

Q: What sets The Night Eats the World apart from the others?

DR: It’s French [laughs]! It takes place in Paris. It is a very personal film. The story is more about isolation. Most zombie films are about men fighting each other. My movie is about a man struggling with himself. This is a character-driven story.

Q: What appealed to you about the original Pit Agarmen novel?

DR: The original book is in diary form, and I felt I could transform it cinematically. The diary is about isolation in huge cities and the feeling of loneliness. I knew I could translate this feeling to the screen. What’s interesting about the book is that it was nominated for a literary prize in France, which is very unusual for a genre and horror book. 

Q: What changes were made from book to film?

DR: Since the novel is in diary form, I had to put the narrative voice aside and try to tell the same story without words. The main character is a writer in the book, and I made him a musician. We took the best things from the book, but I tried to tell my own story. The writer saw the movie and he liked it because I made it very personal. I made my own story out of his book. Either way, his story still exists in the book. The beginning of the movie follows the book closely, starting with the party, but then drifts apart.

Q: Were your main inspirations Richard Matheson and George Romero?

DR: There was inspiration, but no references. I loved [Matheson’s] I Am Legend. I liked how the main character realizes he’s the monster at the end. Everyone else may be a vampire, but they are the new normality, and he is the monster killing them. I had the same kind of feeling in my film. With Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, I loved the social subtext of the zombies in the mall. I wanted a subtext in my film too, one of loneliness.

Q: Was this a daunting project—“zombies in Paris”—to make as your directorial debut?

DR: Of course, because it was my first. I wanted to make a good first impression as a director. That is why I chose a minimalist story, with one character and one set. I could manage that, but it was still challenging.

Q: What were your location days like when you had zombies in the streets, as opposed to those minimalist days?

DR: I wanted the film to play like an electrocardiogram. Flat and silent in some scenes, then you have a peak of action and violence. Those scenes were very important and in opposition to the everyday quiet scenes, which were just me and Anders on the set, mostly. Then I had to go to 150 zombies in makeup. I loved shooting the action, though [it was] very technical.

Q: How many difficulties were added to the production by shooting two versions of the film, one in English and one in French?

DR: It was just for the dialogue, and the film doesn’t have that much dialogue! The actors were able to go from French to English very quickly [snaps fingers]. We would do three takes in French, then two in English. We would find new ideas during the creative process, and then do more takes. It was a very positive thing on the set.

Q: What did you want to do differently with the look and behavior of your zombies?

DR: First, I wanted everything realistic. In every zombie film, why do they make sounds? They have no life or breath in them, why do they make noise? So my idea was to make them silent; all you hear is the noise of their bones and flesh. I thought it was scarier to have silent zombies. Then everything in this realistic treatment followed: the zombies had the same strength they had when they were humans. No more, no less. A little girl would be not threatening, but a huge guy would still be a real danger. They don’t have super powers.

Q: How did you create the sound effects of the cracking bones? I loved that touch.

DR: It’s all vegetables, like celery. We didn’t break any bones for real.

Q: What made you cast the Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie as your lead?

DR: I discovered him in the Joachim Trier movie Oslo, August 31st, where he has this very special melancholic presence. He was going to be in every shot, so it was very important to find an actor who could give the feeling of what I was looking for, with just his presence and not a word. Anders could be that person. Then I met him and found we had the same interest in how to tell the story. I also learned he was a musician and other things about him, which we put into the script.

Q: Tell me about Denis Lavant, who played the zombie in the elevator.

DR: He’s a very famous actor in France, who comes from the circus. A dancer too, so he’s very physical. He was my first choice to play Alfred, the zombie stuck in the elevator, because he is a very physical and creative actor. The script didn’t say much about the character or how he conveys emotion. I was thinking of [Tom Hanks and the volleyball] Wilson in Cast Away, that kind of connection between a man and an object. Denis was very creative, doing subtle things to get across the emotion, like when his face is stuck in the bars of the elevator.

Q: What’s next for you? More horror?

DR: I don’t know. Right now I’m taking my time to find the right story. I do want to stay in fantastique film.