I was a big fan of David Gelb’s critically acclaimed documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi that follows an 85-year-old sushi master in Tokyo and his two sons who are also sushi chefs. The last thing I expected next from this director was a low-budget horror film starring Olivia Wilde. But the visual sensibilities Gelb displays in his documentaries are on full display in The Lazarus Effect, a film produced by Jason Blum (responsible for franchises such as Paranormal Activity and Insidious as well the recent Oscar winner Whiplash) and his Blumhouse Company.
The Lazarus Effect follows a group of researchers led by Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde) who’ve achieved the unimaginable — bringing the dead back to life. After a successful, if unsanctioned, trial on a recently deceased dog, the team is ready to reveal their breakthrough to the world. But when the authorities learn about their underground experiments, their project is unexpectedly shut down. Frank, Zoe, and their team (Donald Glover, Sarah Bolger, and Evan Peters) take matters into their own hands, launching a rogue attempt to recreate their experiment, during which things go terribly wrong and Zoe is killed. Fueled by terror and grief, Frank pushes them to do the unthinkable: attempt to resurrect their first human test subject. Initially, the procedure appears to be a success, but the team soon realizes that Zoe is acting a little strangely…
I sat down with David Gelb following a terrifying screening of the film in the mortuary building of a Los Angeles cemetery.
David Gelb: It’s a great question — I think it’s just the thrill ride. Why do we love to go on roller coasters? Of course only some people like it and I wonder about it, too. There’s just something exciting about being scared but knowing that it’s just a movie.
I recently watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi again and just loved it. I heard Jason Blum talk about how imagining the director of that movie doing this film was a hard sell for him at first. How did you win him over?
Persistence! One of the producers of this film, Matt Kaplan, is a friend of mine and he was a believer that I could do something like this. He played a big role in convincing Jason.
Was it a specific goal of yours to direct a horror film?
Oh, absolutely. I grew up loving them. When I was six years old, my dad brought a copy of Akira home with him from Japan. He thought it was some kind of Disney movie! My parents put it on and there was some really scary stuff right at the beginning so my mom grabbed the VHS tape and hid it.
Uh-oh, turning that movie into the “forbidden fruit!”
Exactly! Little did she know that by taking it away, that film would become the object of my obsession! I found the VHS tape about a year later and I watched it a million times. So, yeah, it’s something I always wanted to do.
God knows this town is always ready to put people in a box whenever they have any level of success. Was part of the reason you wanted to make this to prove you could do other things than classy documentaries?
(Laughs.) I didn’t really think that hard about it. For me, it was just like, “I want to make a scary movie!” And for my first narrative film, I really wanted to do something with a low budget since I’m learning as I go. I think Jason makes these incredible films that feel really big but are quite small. I learned so much. But I did come in very prepared — I had my storyboards for the whole thing, I had all my visual references, and that was very important in winning him over.
To get so many actors of that caliber must have been a Godsend for someone making their first narrative feature.
Absolutely. I’d always ask them, “Does this feel real to you?” If something wasn’t working, they’d let me know, they wouldn’t just go through a scene where they didn’t believe in it. We’d find a solution pretty quickly because they are all so talented and experienced and used to improvising.
I’m such an Olivia Wilde fan and I have to say I was even more terrified by her scenes where she’d just be looking at someone in that scary way rather than when she was wearing those ghastly contacts!
I know! A great film that I really enjoyed that she was in recently was Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies. She is so magnetic in that movie and you immediately fall in love with her. This was a really cool opportunity to take the persona of someone who’s so funny and so likable and even the fact that she was a doctor on House trying to save people’s lives and turn that completely around by the end of the film. I think it was an interesting script for her since she starts out as the protagonist of the film and then things go terribly wrong and she becomes the monster. Olivia is able to play both sides of that so masterfully.
I love the part at the beginning when she and Mark Duplass are just starting to record those videos for their project. We so immediately empathize with those characters.
They would nail scenes as scripted on the first take every single time so then we’d have some time to try different variations . Mark and Olivia are so creative and have this incredible rapport so they were able to just kind of mix it up and do it differently so we had a lot of choices in the editing. They are both excellent performers but also great writers and thinkers.
Did you come to the film with certain opinions about the afterlife?
Sure, I was always fascinated by that topic especially since I was watching all these supernatural horror films when I was little. Jeremy Slater and I worked on the script to come up with a new take on hell. We were influenced by Flatliners and wanted to explore that maybe hell isn’t a place where you go, but more about the demons that exist in your own mind. Olivia’s character has this traumatic past. What if when you die you get stuck in the worst experience of your life — what would that do to you?
Was it a constant challenge to try to make the “science” believable without weighing the script down to much?
Yes, plausibility was always an important factor. It’s a real tightrope — we wanted a concept that the audience could hold on to. In this case it’s “serum in the brain plus electricity.” We created rules that the audience could understand without being too pretentious about it. So we mixed in a few kernels of real science with all the stuff we made up. I hope that the real biochemists out there might get at least a few chuckles from the film!
Was it nerve-wracking showing the film to an audience for the first time? Were you worried about the laughs and scares being in the right places?
Oh, yes. The first time you screen a film like this in front of an audience is terrifying. The worst thing is when you’re trying to do a scare and people are laughing — inappropriate laughter is like a dagger in my heart! But at the first screening we did pretty good — people were jumping when we wanted them to jump and they were scared. Some of it was off and that’s when you fine-tune it. I’m not so arrogant to think that I know exactly what the audience wants, I just know what I want and I like. It’s my job to guide them through the story and when that is really working, it’s the best feeling.
The other docs you’re working on sound fascinating. Do you hope to continue to do both?
Yeah, I’m open to any opportunity to make something that I’d be interested in watching. It’s fun to have the chance to do both nonfiction stuff and fictional films. They’re very different, they require different parts of your brain, and I hope that the skills that I’m building in both fields will complement each other.