“A geeky, terminally ill loner goes from utter insignificance to becoming humanity’s last hope for survival after the zombie apocalypse.”
I was recently sent a link to a short film called Super Zero. It stars Umberto Celisano as Josh, a young miserable man who finds out that “basically, everything in my head is floating in cancer”, just as the zombie apocalypse starts. He runs into three survivors; Page, his schoolboy crush (Giselle Gilbert), her cousin, Nate (Tyler White), and Gary (Al Bernstein), a man trapped in clown make-up after a kid’s party. The film had a low budget, but writer/director Mitch Cohen uses the budget in all of the right ways, producing a movie that is full of heart, laughs, and even a few scares.
The special effects were much better than I had expected, and all of the blood and guts you expect from a zombie film are there, and quite over the top in the best way possible. I don’t want to give too much away, as the film follows the interview below for your viewing pleasure, but this is no typical zombie film. Sure, there are zombies, but the origin of the virus is done in an inventive way, and even warrant a Bobak Ferdowsi cameo for authenticity.
It isn’t a perfect movie by any means, but over all Super Zero is an entertaining character piece that is more than the sum of its parts, with a funny yet heartfelt story, some decent acting, damn fine cinematography, and a hero you really want to root for in the end. I can’t wait to see what Mitch does next.
I was honored to have the chance to chat with him about Super Zero, his love of film, and his influences.
I saw the film, and really enjoyed it. I was wondering if this was a project for film school, or just for fun?
I am not a student and I never went to film school. I have a love for filmmaking, and at the core I absolutely did this for the fun and the reward of the creative process. But when you dedicate an absurd amount of time and energy to make something that requires so much of you physically, mentally, and emotionally, it’s more than just having a good time. This was to be a calling card piece for me to try and get to the next level. I’m building my resume towards a career as a filmmaker and doing what I had to do to get this made with the production value and the expertise to required. It was a calculated risk. But at the core if it was not the joy of just playing make believe, not sure why people would go through the pain of doing this. Making a movie, no matter what scale, is totally insane.
You did a great job, for what I’m assuming was a pretty small budget. For a film like this, what’s the budget breakdown? I’m sure you got pretty creative with effects shots and whatnot.
The producers, Devon Byers, Alex Moran and Bryan Hwang really were the catalyst for making the little money we had work. And in any normal situation that is a difficult task in itself. But this film wouldn’t work unless I surrounded myself with a certain caliber of experienced professionals. And for the effort and precision it requires for these craftspeople to do their job at the best of their ability, the audacity to ask them to do it simply because you want them to believe in the project was almost insulting. But from day one the vision was this is a film I thought could be different and its not my film, its our film. And I was amazed by the response I received. Really it was an embarrassment of riches having a team above and beyond any expectations of talent and have them wholeheartedly work for just the hard costs of what it would take. I still can’t believe the producers did what they did.
The special effects in the film were pretty great. How much was practical versus computer generated?
One of my philosophies of filmmaking is that it should never be about one thing. Balance. Performance doesn’t work without lighting them correctly with proper make-up and wardrobe. You lose your audience because when you make a shot about something in a singular sense it stands out as unnatural. So as far as the effects go, we had always talked about practical and VFX working together to augment each other to maintain the organic nature of the film, but at the same time feel larger than life. You can’t do that unless the two work in harmony, Ben Bosteter, our practical FX guy, and Steve Han, our VFX supervisor, felt the same. Their work would look better if both departments helped sell the moment instead of putting the onus on one or the other.
It seems that this was a fun film to shoot. What was the atmosphere like on the set?
It was pretty remarkable. I’ve been on a lot of sets and I can honestly say I don’t see how it could ever be that good again. Everyone was there because they wanted to and they were passionate about what we were making. I think the highest paid person on the set was the craft service guy. It felt like we were kids at summer camp putting on a show together. When something had to change, everyone instantly adapted without error or hesitation. I asked the world of everyone there because I had to, and since day one of this project I truthfully never heard the word “no” that something wasn’t possible or that I need more money. Our Cinematographer, Connor O’Brien, was great for a million reasons, but he would never let me settle because I didn’t think it was possible. I believe that our set is the one everyone on the crew is going to compare every film they work on for the rest of their lives against. Even in post, our Editor Dan Myers and our Sound Designer Shawn Duffy made it fun. The work was laborious and I asked a lot of them. Hanging out with those guys in dark rooms for hours on end was a total joy and I already miss it.
The main character, Josh, seems like the perfect geek hero, and I know writers tend to write a bit of them self into their characters. And I also know you made a big push for the film around SDCC. How much of Josh’s character came from your own life experiences, and are you a geek/fanboy?
Why I think the character of Josh worked is for a couple of different reasons. First yes, there is a certain degree of Josh that is taken from me and my life. Trying to be an artist in a professional manner can be soul crushing and I can’t count the amount of times I felt I was worthless and a failure and I had nothing to offer. But those feelings are universal to everyone and I always thought if you like Zombie Gamer Geek stuff or not, you could relate to this character and you would come along for the ride. The other thing that I always wanted to show that I think I took from me is the honesty that comes along with the pain. I’ve always been pretty matter of fact about stuff and try to find humor in some dark times, and again its that honest humility that Umberto Celisano brought to his performance that made the character real and not a caricature.
As far as the fanboy aspects of the character, I wanted to add something I knew well and present it to the audience in what I hoped was a really authentic way. Most of the time in film the culture is lampooned or made someone’s entire identity. I thought if I can win people’s trust by trying to portray aspects of them accurately they would be more willing to follow the film to some unexpected places. So I think the whole “Geek Culture” is pretty well ingrained in who I am. I tend to be more of an observer and limit my passions to a finite number of things, but my love for the community as a whole and the celebratory spirit that comes out of it is a pretty big part of my life.
You had an awesome cameo from Bobak Ferdowsi in the film, lending it a bit more scientific credibility, and geek cred. How did that relationship come about?
I met him at Comic-Con 2013. I was hanging out with another writer friend of mine, Brian Lerner, who had been developing something with Bobak. We ended up all hanging out that night and I got to geek out a bit with Bobak. Super Zero has been in development for years and until about 6 months ago I never thought about Bobak playing the Mars expert in the film. As soon as I thought of it, it was like, “Holy shit! Why haven’t I thought of this before?” It was meant to be. It now appears as though I wrote the cameo for him, but it was always in the script and there was even more that didn’t make it into the final film that made it even more perfect.
Anyway, the guy is obviously super busy rocketing billions of dollars worth of equipment around our solar system. But, Brian put me in touch with him and I pitched him what I was doing and he said yes. We worked out a time he was free and I ran over and we shot the scene. He was willing to do anything as long as it was true to who he was and didn’t violate science outside of a little bit of creative license for what would be accurate. It was a ton of fun to do and to just get in the film.
I found the script to be quite funny, and tonally perfect throughout, with some great dialog. Do you write things other than films?
Not really. I am known to write some pretty epic emails and texts. I’ll take the most mundane information and format them like a story to be funny, or to say something I wouldn’t say to someone in person. I use those like people use twitter or some personal blog. Except half the time its like a work email, and people that don’t really know me and are like WTF is this? But some people I regularly send things to seem to get a kick out of it.
I see from your IMDB page that you’ve written, directed, and produced quite a few short films. What is your ultimate goal, as a filmmaker? Do you have any plans for a feature length film in the future?
I want to start doing features. Super Zero is going to be a long form project either a feature or a series depending on what makes the most sense. I have a whole ecosystem designed for it with a lot of different touch points I think are pretty cool. I’ve been writing feature screenplays for years and have a couple projects I hope I can work towards actually getting made. I really want to do this Sci-Fi Horror film after Super Zero that I’ve been playing around with for awhile that I think is pretty rad. Its the future, deep space, other planets, all my favorite things.
I’m guessing you are a true film lover. When did you first realize you wanted to be a filmmaker, and what was the film that did it for you?
I first realized I wanted to be a filmmaker when I didn’t want to get a job. No. I was in college going to business school and I took an elective for a video production class. I had no sense of any creativity I possessed and just took it because it seemed fun. Anyway, I made a video that was a horrible and amateurish piece of crap. I had no idea the whole class would be watching it until the day it screened, and I never even thought about what I was making beyond some idea that popped into my head. So as I was cringing that these other students are going to see this thing I made, and the oddest thing happened. People laughed.
They liked it. And instantly I got the bug. I wanted that to happen again. As far a touchstone film for me that put me on the path towards making movies would have to be Fargo. That film showed me you can do some pretty unorthodox things, but if you execute those ideas in a way that feels grounded in reality you can make it work without question. Also The Road Warrior. That film has a lot of awesome insane things going on and at the same time felt incredibly real and actual. High concept meets simplicity. I bought into that world wholeheartedly.
Who were your biggest influences starting out, and have they changed/evolved as you’ve grown as a filmmaker?
My biggest influences were The Coen Brothers and PT Anderson as contemporary filmmakers. I loved how they used everything at their disposal to tell a story and no matter how novel our attention calling the devices get, everything had a purpose that made sense for the narrative. I’ve always been a cinemaphile and I’m a big fan of Sidney Lumet and Sam Fuller. They brought independent spirit into films that could have gone in totally different directions. I think my tastes change as I learn more about the craft. I still love the same people, but I’ll find something I may have overlooked in a director because I wasn’t seasoned enough or aware enough to understand what made them amazing when I first saw their work. Liking films is like making them, its an act of discovery.
What’s next on the horizon for Mitch Cohen?
Try and share Super Zero with as many people as possible and then work towards the original intent of the short. To make it something much larger and expansive that people not only get, but want to get behind.
Do you have any last words for our readers?
Its always too early to give up and at some moment your time will come.
Written/Directed by Mitchell Cohen.
Starring: Umberto Celisano, Giselle Gilbert, Al Bernstein, and Tyler White,
with a cameo by Bobak Ferdowsi.