The World Premiere of Howard and Jon Ford’s The Dead 2: India sold out in record time at this year’s Film4 FrightFest. So in an unprecedented move the organizers added another mop-up screening, taking place two days later on Saturday August 24th to cope with the ticket demand. It seems the massive outpouring of admiration and love that the Fords found the first time around with THE DEAD is showing no sign of abating, and it’s the reason why they decided to make a sequel so fast.
“THE DEAD enjoyed international praise and a flood of fan support since its 2010 release,” says Howard Ford. “And Jon and I knew we’d get around to making a sequel one day as there was plenty of scope to where we could take our idea of abject horror and emotional devastation presented against a stunning natural backdrop. But it was while we were escorting THE DEAD to various fantasy festivals around the world, listening to the overwhelmingly positive feedback and reading all the Internet comments, that we felt compelled to make another film pretty quickly to satisfy the demand we knew was out there.”
Jon Ford continues, “Although making THE DEAD was a total nightmare in terms of locations and logistics, I still felt our creative itches hadn’t been scratched and that we needed to continue our adventure into the living dead unknown. There just seemed to be too much talk and anticipation about us making another zombie movie we couldn’t ignore. So we thought let’s do it, and let’s see if we can have a better time making it on this occasion! Consequently we sat down and decided to make a few notes about where exactly a new story could go and what it could achieve.”
Those notes became a creative avalanche remarks Howard Ford, “We wrote it frighteningly quickly at Jon’s place in the South of France and tapped into every comment and piece of advice we had been given to make a film we feel we owe to all the people who supported THE DEAD. There are much bigger scenes contained within it. There are a couple of large-scale action sequences we couldn’t do in the first one and a few extra scares too. But we haven’t lost sight of the little details that made the first so original. It was the contrast of scale with intimate practical survival moments that excited us the most.”
If THE DEAD was the Fords’ ALIEN, then THE DEAD 2: INDIA is definitely their ALIENS because it ramps everything from emotion to action up a number of epic levels. A ship from Somalia docks in the port of Mumbai. On board is one feverish employee, apparently bitten by some ‘mad woman’ just before embarking on his journey back in Africa. Walking into the melting pot that is the fourth most populated city in the world, he is the contamination seed that causes the flesh-eating outbreak to spread like wildfire throughout the densely packed environment. For British turbine engineer Nicholas Burton (Joseph Millson), the contract to work on the wind farms of Rajasthan is a dream come true. He’s doing a job he adores in a beautiful setting and constantly thinking about Ishani Sharma (MEENU), the pregnant girl he loves waiting for him back in Mumbai. But when news of the mystifying living dead disease reaches his remote corner of the subcontinent, and the national alarm is raised, Nicholas must trek from one side of India to the other and face unimaginable danger if he is ever to see Ishani again.
While many distributors and even major studios wanted to be part of any DEAD sequel action, the Fords took the decision to produce THE DEAD 2: INDIA again themselves. Jon Ford explains, “It became very clear we could never retain the control over the project we wanted with any outside parties involved so in the end we said thanks, but no thanks. We made the decision to finance the movie ourselves. No one yet has bought the rights to THE DEAD 2: INDIA, we own everything. It’s exactly the same situation as THE DEAD only this time we are coming into the market place as a known quantity.”
The Ford Brothers credit their work travels as the main inspiration for choosing rural West Africa as the location for THE DEAD. It was while shooting several commercials there they began to realize the appeal of relatively unseen landscapes to offer something fresh to the zombie genre. So where could they set their companion piece to fulfil that exacting brief once more?
Howard Ford points out, “It wasn’t a case of any old exotic location would do. There had to be a reason to place this epic love story somewhere equally beautiful where it could resonate with subtext and meaning. We researched India and every location we looked at seemed to have astonishing landscapes, dramatic natural features, spectacular flora and fauna and dazzling light. We decided on Rajasthan because it comprised the vast Thar Desert too, all offering ideal locations and shooting opportunities.”
Jon Ford pronounces, “Rajasthan had what we needed to increase the visual aspects of the story. It was even more of a wonderful counterpoint between the exotic and toxic that worked so well for us before. There are 1.2 billion people living in India and that scale was reflected in the script. If an outbreak of anything ever happened, it would move like lightning though the population as they live cheek-by-jowl there, with lavish, expensive mansions situated in the closest proximity to the slums. Plus there were fabulous temples and faded hotels that could provide us with extra terrific production values. Again, here was somewhere the genre hadn’t gone before, and we were going to capture its charismatic magic in all its enchanting glory.”
American actor Rob Freeman snagged the lead role in THE DEAD completely by accident after a chance meeting with the Ford Brothers. This time it was an old friend from the past that became their star after a fateful chain of events. One of the leading stage actors of his generation, Joseph Millson appeared in CASINO ROYALE and on British TV he’s well known for the ‘Holby City’ soap opera. But back in 1996 when he was just starting out he appeared in the award-winning short film LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI BY JOHN KEATS directed by Jonathan Glendening and crewed by the Fords.
Joe Millson gives further details: “We lost touch as you do on movie sets but then two years ago I was helping a director produce a movie now titled THE REST. But he was originally going to call his project THE DEAD. Hang on a minute, I told him, I’m sure there’s already a movie with that title, and sure enough after checking, I discovered there was. By the Ford Brothers. Hey, didn’t I used to know those guys? I got in touch with them and said, Look you won’t remember me, but can we have your title? Almost instantly a reply came back saying, yes we remember, no you can’t, and what are you up to?”
Howard Ford says, “Joe’s email was a complete surprise, a bolt from the blue. We’d followed his career up to a point and I turned to Jon and said, You know, he’d be quite good as Nicholas Burton. So we grabbed the bull by the horns and asked Joe to come with us to the Cannes Film Festival. We were driving down in our vintage Gran Torino car so we asked him to join us in the passenger seat, our hidden agenda being the fact we were auditioning him en route.”
Millson continues, “So there we were driving over the Pyrenees and by this time I’d seen THE DEAD and adored it. I saw it in terms of a picaresque French road movie except with zombies and felt the Fords had invented the art zombie genre almost. Then they started regaling me with all the horror stories about the making of it in West Africa. I was enthralled and told them they should write a book about it. The car screeched to a halt, they opened the boot, and inside was exactly that, Howard’s ‘Surviving The Dead’ memoir. I read it in three hours and when they told me THE DEAD 2: INDIA might be happening I actively begged them to become involved. It’s not that I’m a horror geek or anything, but I did love scare movies when I was a kid.”
Some of the action-packed sequences Millson would have to be involved in included a spectacular car crash, riding through the streets on a classic Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike with zombies trying to pull him off, jumping off a roof and paragliding over the slums shooting at the living dead. He remarks, “I thought we wouldn’t be able to film half the script as written. Either because of scope or budget but obviously I hadn’t contemplated the Ford Brothers’ steely resolve or creative imagination. Every day they pulled off the impossible and managed one amazing coup after another. The problems seemed insurmountable at the beginning of each day, then come the end it was, Wow, we actually did it.”
The Asian actors were either hired in Delhi or cast from The Barry John Acting Studio in Mumbai. Howard Ford continues, “Barry’s school has produced a number of Bollywood stars and Danny Boyle discovered Freida Pinto there for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. So if it was good enough for Danny, it was certainly good enough for us! The more people we cast in India the more names came through. Actors would suggest their friends in the profession and in the end we built up an incredibly strong cast. We chose Meenu to play Nicholas’ love interest Ishani because, out of all the girls we saw, many of whom were very talented indeed, she had a very natural quality. The others read brilliantly but they felt like big city girls, I could imagine them owning a Prada handbag, whereas Ishani had to be from a humble home and Meenu nailed that and the vulnerability perfectly. We also saw loads of experienced and inexperienced actors for the role of her strict father. But it was Sandip Datta Gupta by a long chalk. Although it was his first movie, once he got into the protocol he was truly brilliant adding a nice sense of gravitas. Anand Goyal was another real find. He plays Javed, the street urchin Nicholas befriends on his way to Mumbai, and came across like a mature man in a kid’s body. It was his first movie too. We were so lucky with our cast and I am incredibly grateful for their hard work and amazing support. They got behind the movie in ways I could never have imagined”.
THE DEAD 2: INDIA did get filmed entirely on location in Rajasthan during the month of April 2013. “We just jumped in our minivan,” says Howard Ford. “Led our five-vehicle caravan into the heartlands, paid cash to everyone as we went along and hoped the authorities wouldn’t catch up with us. We kept joking we were the reverse of the Oscar-winning movie ARGO – we were trying to pretend not to be filmmakers to get into a suspicious country! We all had tourist visas but when we went under the radar alarm bells must have rung as people from the ministry would consistently turn up at the hotels and bed and breakfast places where we were staying. However, we always managed to stay one step ahead of them as we were travelling 300 miles every other day. On one occasion we could see the flashing lights of police cars in the distance coming for us, but we still managed to escape in the nick of time.”
Not that it was meant to turn out that way but the final scenes were filmed in a genuinely haunted place as Jon Ford details. “We found this amazing hotel that looked like The Overlook in THE SHINING. It was a grand looking place that was supposed to be fully booked out with tourists but we never saw one single person there during our stay. There was a room in the basement without any doors or windows, it was like a spooky tomb, and that’s where we shot the chilling climax. This cellar area hadn’t been opened for 50 years according to the staff and had been covered up by carpets and a table. When we opened up the boarded hatch, the hackles on our necks rose, you could feel the dank atmosphere. I’m not making this up – everyone was terrified of going in there. No one wanted to be the last person out. Because there was no light down there we filmed with paraffin lamps that made us woozy and open to all sorts of frightening thoughts. It inspired us to improvise some spooky stuff but I’ve never before felt the tangible presence of evil as I did in that chamber. There was a real feeling of bad spirits wanting to escape. It added a genuine nightmare element to the nerve-shredding climax.”
“Looking back I have to pinch myself that we did indeed get as much fantastic footage as we did,” recalls Howard Ford. “Every night after 17 hours of arduous shooting we’d go back to our hotel rooms to plan the next day’s schedule taking sharp intakes of breath. Jon and I resolved at the very beginning of this journey to go for broke and never take no for an answer. If I heard someone say, You can’t do that, I strived to do it even more. It’s not that we thrive on this way of filming, but you do reach certain peaks of achievement working the way we do in the most uniquely arduous environments. After our uncompromisingly horrendous, and disastrously toe-curling experiences on THE DEAD making THE DEAD 2: INDIA was a relative doddle. Tough but not too unpleasant, and at least the food – curry three times a day – didn’t put us all in hospital. True, conditions were rough, but we knew from experience we’d get through it. So many of the situations were similar. Only this time we could see what was coming, so rather than be scared of them, it was a case of ‘whatever’. On THE DEAD I kept thinking, if only I’d said this and done that. On THE DEAD 2: INDIA I got the chance to say what I meant and actually do it so it was very cathartic. On THE DEAD we were tearing pages out of the script because the walls were coming at us relentlessly, but on THE DEAD 2: INDIA we shot everything we had written despite the grand scale. Our know-how in Africa set us in good stead for India and nothing was going to phase us this time.”
Jon Ford adds, “THE DEAD 2: INDIA is definitely a quintessential Ford Brothers movie in every respect. Howard and I swapped duties when needed and while we were initially shell-shocked and overwhelmed by the bigger ambitions we had set ourselves, we took it all in our stride and eventually got what we wanted. More to the point we got away with wanting to do it the way we wanted. And through it all was our shining beacon Joe Millson who couldn’t have been more brilliant as our lead actor and friend. He stepped up to the mark for us and we’ll never forget it. He elevated our film and gave us something special. I hope it does something special for him in return because he has real charismatic star quality.”
Howard Ford observes, “They told us we’d never be able to enter India. Tick. That we would never be able to film in the middle of a bustling city where millionaire mansions stood next to slums. Tick. That we would never manage to paraglide off a roof away from hordes of zombies. Tick. That we would never be allowed to ride a motorbike through the slums shooting the dead. Tick. That we would never get the army to cooperate or get guns for the battle scenes. Tick. That we’d be banned from filming in ancient temples. Tick. That we could get hundreds of extras for our major sequences. Tick. We did it all and we did it our signature way. THE DEAD 2: INDIA is how fearless professionals should want to make a movie and I couldn’t be prouder of what we have accomplished. Now onto THE DEAD 3 – Thailand, Acapulco, the Arctic Circle?”