Tracking Down Grief With The Head Hunter

Filmmaker Jordan Downey on a monster movie with a fractured heart

The beast that haunts us: Grief and vengeance swirl in medieval fantasy The Head Hunter

Grief is a monster, and vengeance is its bastard spawn that will consume you. That's the message of The Head Hunter, the dark and emotionally brutal fantasy movie by Jordan Downey.

In some ways, it's a far remove from his earlier films, the gory comedy horror ThanksKilling and its ultra-meta sequel, ThanksKilling 3. But in other ways, it's still a close kin: A micro-budget indie flick that makes incredible use of its effects budget. However, The Head Hunter is really driven by the story of an unnamed warrior (Christopher Rygh), a blood-covered champion charged with slaying the creatures that rampage through the land. He is disconnected from society - even more so since one of those beasts took his daughter. The row of heads on spikes he keeps in his home can never fill the void she left, and the question is whether finally taking her killer's head will provide any solace, or leave him even more tattered.

If that sounds like a change of pace for a filmmaker who gave the world a chainsaw-wielding fowl named Turkie, that was pretty much the reaction when Peter Jackson followed up splatterfest Dead Alive with the introspective true crime character piece Heavenly Creatures.

“We’ve seen dragons, and we’ve seen monster battles before, but what we haven’t seen is how a character responds to that stuff.”
But Downey wasn't necessarily planning to make a much more serious film. "We didn't have the idea first, we just had this drive to make a movie," he said. He and cowriter Kevin Stewart had worked together before on multiple projects, and they both get antsy with nothing to do. "So we just sat down, to see if we could come up with something that we could shoot for a low budget."

They had one secret weapon: they already knew their location. Stewart's family was from a tiny village in Northern Portugal called Soutelo Mourisco: its remoteness was ideal for creating a mythical Europe, filled with woodlands and plains and old stone buildings, but without power lines or modern roads clogging the skyline. "We reverse engineered by knowing that we had this place that we could go, and so we just started throwing out ideas," said Downey. They were all horror-thrillers, but not period pieces, he added, "But the medieval horror idea came to us out of the blue."

The key element was a mysterious moment: A warrior stumbling into a room, carrying a sack with a head in it. "Once we thought of that scene, it encompassed all the elements that we like. There was a medieval viking, and who is this guy? He has this wall of heads, and he has a head in a sack, and he has this magical potion. There was just something really, really cool about that scene, and that was our starting point."

So with a $30,000 budget, and the entire cast, crew, kit, costumes and effects crammed into one car, they took off to make their fantasy-horror.

Austin Chronicle: You strike a balance of making a monster-fighting movie where you never really see the monsters or the fight – instead, it's all about the lead-up and the aftermath, so it's all about the father dealing with everything that comes from the fight.

Jordan Downey: Early on, we knew it wasn't going to be a big film and it wasn't going to be a big cast, and we weren't going to be able to show a ton of these monster fights. But, that said, I also love movies that are more visual. I'm not crazy about tons of dialog. I don't think we need to be told everything, so I have always been drawn towards that kind of filmmaking, and scenes in movies that are purely visual, but telling me the same things you could say with words.

So as we're starting to write it, that's what we started to embrace, because that's also more effective for horror films. That was one of the things that was important, that we were going to be showing medieval times and the Dark Ages and castles and forts, and all of those elements that we know from Game of Thrones and Braveheart, but it wasn't going to be that kind of movie. He wasn't going to be swinging swords, and jumping off stuff and attacking people. It was not going to be an action film, it was always going to be a horror film, and horror films work better if their centralized to that character, and his struggle.

There were times that, as we went on, we realized, oh, we can can probably carry off this effect practically or digitally. Like there's a dragon that flies by, and we debated a lot that we could put a digital dragon back there. But we didn't want to. It was more important to stay on his face. We've seen dragons, and we've seen monster battles before, but what we haven't seen is how a character responds to that stuff.

Christopher Rygh as the unnamed father in The Head Hunter
AC: This all hangs off Christopher Rygh, as he's really the only character here. How did you find him, and what was the process of developing the character with him?

JD: Chris is fantastic. This was his first lead role in a feature film – his first lead role in anything. He was really know to acting, and he'd only done some commercials and shorts and music videos, so as much as it was a very big deal to us, because the whole movie relies on him, it was a big deal to him as well. I think that actually helped, because we needed each other.

We didn't want to get an American actor, or an actor that was going to put on some kind of Nordic or Norwegian or Swedish accent that's not appropriate to the time period. We didn't want to fake that, we didn't want to fake a wig or a beard, and we didn't want to be specifically target a look. Kevin was just on a casting website online, and Chris was just one of the first people that he came across. He sent it to me, and I was pretty skeptical. "Oh, there's no way that we're going to have found somebody that looks great that fast, within a quick Google search. It can't be that simple, right?"

But that's who we ended up going with, and it wasn't just based on that photo. We had a conversation with him, but to be honest, we didn't screentest Chris, we didn't do a formal audition. There were a couple of video snippets and a couple of photos that I remember seeing – call it gut instinct – and I felt that he could do it. Because his dialog wasn't that prevalent in the movie, so it was much more about, did he have this certain body language and expressions? And there was enough that we saw in him, and just talking to him and knowing that we all spend time together, making the movie.

AC: There's been a long history of fantasy films that just didn't work – the Seventies and Eighties are littered with them – but now we're in a time when Game of Thrones isn't a low-budget SyFy show, but HBO's prestige title. What do you think has changed about the genre?

JD: I remember going to see The Thirteenth Warrior in the theater and being disappointed, only because I wanted the cannibal characters to be real monsters. But it did feel lived in. You have to fully buy in to the world, and believe the props, and believe the actors, and believe the costumes. Even though we're not trying to make a historically accurate movie, you have to buy into that.

I think also it's the details. Like, we spent so much time making sure that there's all this stuff in the background. There's a quick glimpse when he's in his hut of a little hand that's crawling in a cage, and it's the details of expanding this world that's happening off-screen.

The Head Hunter is available on VOD now.

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