Interview with Matthew Collins and Define Paolini – Creators of Heart Land

I received an advance copy of the movie script for “Heart Land,” which I reviewed earlier. I was lucky enough to land an interview with the creators of “Heart Land”, Matthew Collins and Delfine Paolini. “Heart Land” is unique to the zombie genre – a movie starring only children who are the only survivors of the zombie apocalypse. Matthew and Delfine are partners in Center Mass Studios, and are bringing this story to life.

Matthew A. Collins wrote the script for “Heart Land.” He is an award‐winning independent filmmaker who has been lauded for his masterful storytelling ability and visual style. Known for his insightful imagination and meticulous attention to detail, Matthew has won awards for both directing and screenwriting for the multitude of short films he has made, including Jury prizes for “Fragments” and “A Parliament of Rooks,” (both of which are based on feature scripts) judged by the likes of Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and other legendary film luminaries. He has since held the top‐rated spot out of thousands of filmmakers on the contest website

The movie is being produced by Delfine Paolini. Delfine began studying at the Pratt Art Institute at the early age of 15, and graduated with honors, receiving a BFA in both creative writing and fine arts. She has experiences in opera and modeling, appearing in such publications as W, Visionaire, Luomo Vogue, Interview, V, and Italian Vogue, and has been photographed by a number of famous photographers including Craig Mcdean, Steven Meisel, Mario Sorrenti, Kelly Klein, Donald McPherson, Guy Aroche, and Terry Richardson. Following the modeling, Delfine decided to continue her education on the graduate level and was accepted into Columbia University’s prestigious MFA program for creative writing. In between opera and other interests, her childhood friend, director Matthew A. Collins insisted that she also try film acting. She became the muse of a series of short films he directed. They took it further, realizing a creative kinship, and soon began collaborating on screenwriting as well. They created their production company, Center Mass, LLC with 3rd partner and producer, Ryan Daly, and began writing and producing narrative fictions, amassing a collection of short films that displayed their unique vision as storytellers.

Matthew and Delfine agreed to an interview to discuss the movie “Heart Land,” and what follows is an interview that was conducted through email during the past week. Matthew and Delfine’s interview gives us insight into the making of the movie and what we can look forward to.

Q. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule and allowing me to ask some questions regarding the “Heart Land” script. I found the script to be unique to the zombie genre, and I believe the movie will be fantastic and well-received. It’s been years since I’ve read “Lord of the Flies,” , but that was the book that came to mind as I read the script for “Heart Land.” I noticed several similarities between “Heart Land” and “Lord of the Flies.” Was this intentional or is it just what happens when you leave a bunch of children in charge in a perilous situation without any adult authority?

Matthew A. Collins (Writer/Director): Without a doubt, one can’t tackle subject-matter like this in any meaningful way without being at least aware of its predecessors.  When I first came up with the idea for “Heart Land,” in mid-2007, which was some time before I finished the original draft of the script, it was certainly not: “I’d like to remake ‘Lord of the Flies’ with zombies.”  It came from a much more subconscious place, a dream in fact, and it was only in retrospect that I attributed the story to William Golding’s classic novel, one I’d been a fan of since I’d read it in 7th grade.  Over time, as the script developed, I found myself wanting to make more and more allusions to the novel, some vague, some not-so-vague, but surprisingly enough, I was quite a bit more directly inspired by J.M. Barry’s “Peter Pan.”

I ended up making that a bit more readily apparent with the characters of Wendy and Pete, and their diametrically opposed desires between wanting to return to the comforts of civilization and wanting to live free, endlessly as children.  This is the central conflict that the main character Jonah, becomes trapped between, a surrogate mother and father wanting different things for him. However, since that story is often attributed to children’s fairy tales, it is difficult to immediately associate with a story of this tone.  One thematic parallel that stands out is that the zombies themselves are, like the Monster in “Lord of the Flies” and the Xenomorph in Ridley’s Scott’s “Alien,” (one of my all-time favorite films) is the idea that the common threat is in fact not the most dangerous element, but the true danger lies within themselves and their inability to cope with their desperate situation.

So I suppose the short answer is, a bit of both.  It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation, since who’s to say what inspired the dream I’d had that kicked this whole thing off.

Q. Wow Matthew, there were a lot of influences that helped you mold “Heart
Land.”  Now I can see “Lord of the Flies,” “Peter Pan,” and “The Alien” at work in the script. Brilliant! The psychologist Carl Jung came up with four archetypes that are based on his observations of people, and the one that comes to mind is what he called “The Shadow.” I have my own idea, but which character in the script would you consider to be “The Shadow”? Or is there more than one?

M.C.: Most of my influences were subconscious and it was only in retrospect of the first draft that I could identify them and shape them into further tempering the narrative.  It is never my intention to necessarily replicate past works, but I can’t help being influenced by them of course and I tend to end up embracing that.  A good example is the “Piggy” reference.  Initially the kids call the cop “piggy” as a derogatory term, but it also doubles as a reference to “Lord of the Flies.”  A lot of the references and homages are actually an interesting meta-conundrum since these things exist in the world of the story.  Wendy actually reads “Peter Pan” to some of the kids at one point, so it’s curious to wonder if the characters themselves are at some level aware of the strange coincidences.

It’s funny that you bring up the Jungian archetypes since that’s also an allusion to “Peter Pan” and his mischievous shadow.  There are several characters that could fall into this archetype, but I’d rather let the audience speculate on such things rather than reveal too much at this stage. Several of the characters start out as one thing and arch into something else entirely.

Q. What went wrong in your childhood that allowed you to create the child characters in this movie? Is there a character in the movie that you created from your own past? If not, where did you get the life experiences or what did you draw upon to get these child characters so realistic?

M.C.: Ha!  What went wrong, eh?  Well fortunately not a lot.  I had an embarrassingly nice childhood.  I wasn’t raised in any ghetto and my upper-middle class family didn’t seem to struggle too much or wallow in poverty.  I suppose an early trauma of mine that introduced me to the cruelty that children were capable of was, when my family moved from the UK to the US, when I was about 7, I was beaten up at school for “talking funny”!

It was also around then that I remember myself and my peers beginning to use “adult language,” as they say, and an interesting psychological trait that I wanted to get into in this story was the creative one-upsmanship that occurred at that young age when that kind of vocabulary is introduced.

When adults weren’t around it was almost an overzealous game of “who can say the dirtiest thing possible.”  But of course, language is only the surface of what makes some of these characters tragically realistic.  I suppose I have a vivid memory of when I was in that age group and how I seemed to act, but I also went back and made sure I wasn’t mis-remembering things, talking to childhood friends, mine and their parents, and watching documentaries like the “7up” series and the ill-reputed CBS reality show “Kid Nation,” which, while an exploitative piece of television, is also a fascinating look into how kids are actually not as different from adults as one might imagine or perceive right away.

A few of the characters in the film are directly related to kids I knew when I was young, or experiences I remember having, re-tailored to fit the story of course.  Ultimately though, a lot of the characterization came naturally, and aside from one major structural point, the latest draft is very similar to how it first came out on paper.

Q. Matthew, I would call that a ‘mostly’ normal childhood – being beat up
for talking funny never happened in my normal childhood. This helps explain your talent for depicting the children in the story so realistically – only a direct experience with bullies could explain the way you made the main character, Jonah, so real. I felt sorry for him. It seems like none of the children in the story had ‘normal’ childhoods – they all had dysfunctional stories to tell. Did you know or hear of children growing up with seriously troubled lives?

M.C.: In a word, yes.  Without going into too much detail, Wendy and her demons, as well as her ability to dissociate is based on someone I’ve known for a long time, including the dark, unresolved tension between her and her father.  Also, Mikey and Jonah are based on the relationship between myself and my best friend from childhood.  I vividly remember the first time I started to see my father as human rather than the infallible being young boys imagine their fathers to be.  That was a big influence on Jonah’s character overall, his grandfather being his surrogate father-figure.  Also the much younger Spencer’s constant insistence that *his* soldier father is going to soon come home from the Middle East and rescue them all single-handedly, is a look at the other side of that equation.

Q. As I picture these children in my mind, I think I have an idea of what they look like based on their behavior in the film. Obviously, the actors that play the children must look the part to make the role believable and fit our image of that role. How much power or choice over the casting will you have, and do you think the casting will be one of the harder parts of making the movie?

Delfine Paolini (Producer): I find that the duality of being a complete storyteller, from page to screen, is such a rare talent amongst directors. In my opinion, what sets Matt apart is that he has this unique prowess, a dual capacity to tell a story. His fluency is truly unmatched. What you read on the page is so rich, visceral, and visual, that it allows the reader to imbibe the atmosphere prior to the story going to screen. There then grows that attachment to his characters, perpetuating the desire to see them come to life. Thankfully, the script lends us these tangible images for casting, and as you mentioned, casting will indeed be one of the most challenging aspects of making “Heart Land.”

Speaking as a producer, the casting is always one of the most important things to get right, but when you’re dealing with a cast that is mainly children, it must be pitch perfect. We are resolved to take as long as is necessary to cast each role immaculately. Patience will be the key, as with a 5 million dollar budget, it is truly an independent film, therefore we need to cater to some of the actors’ busy schedules, and hope and pray that the totality of the schedules can even then line up.  Certainly, there are always drawbacks with an independent budget when approaching A-Listers, but we believe strongly that the script will continue to inspire enthusiasm from actors as we continue to cast. We are incredibly grateful to have “Heart Land” represented by CAA, and we thank them for their continued efforts towards bringing it to the big screen.

The power and choice over casting comes down to many factors. As I mentioned, timing and money do come into play, but we intend to take as long as we need to in order to cast this appropriately. We have an incredible casting agent that we will work closely with every step of the way. Ultimately, the director will have the most power in this decision, and I trust Matt’s instincts. The fans are attached to these beloved characters, and we’ll make sure they’re not disappointed.

Q. Well Delfine, sounds like you have the casting issues well in hand. Speaking of the casting, I have seen many of Center Mass Studio’s films, and I noticed that you star in quite a few. You have a very young and beautiful face, so I suppose you could play the role of Wendy, or if not, you could be part of the Army. Do you plan to act in the movie? If not, this may be difficult for you – won’t you want to jump in and play a part?

D.P.: That’s very kind of you to say, thank you! I tend to be cast in many of our productions, that’s true! Interestingly enough, Center Mass formed due to a chance encounter that snowballed, alerting Matt and I of our creative similarities, and subsequently led to my becoming an actor. In 2006 Matt had come to NYC from LA to see me in an opera recital. I had never thought of acting in film, only on stage for opera, and my schooling was in Creative Writing and Fine Arts. It was after that recital that Matt asked me to be in his next film. We often describe our relationship as rather intuitive, as actor/director, producer/director, and even sharing the same intuition as writers. We are very fortunate in this way. When our projects began to gain attention and support from industry folk we were encouraged to work even harder. Luckily, we have an alacritous partnership; it’s what makes us an efficient company. Our motivations have always been to reach people through honorable storytelling, even if we make no money.

While I enjoy and appreciate acting, I feel more satisfaction from creating the stories and producing them. Maybe it’s the challenge I like to place on myself, but being part of the conception and watching its metamorphosis is what inspires me.  On a more global level, I feel lucky to have learned from my grandfather, who was a remarkable businessman. Observing his interpersonal skills has been an invaluable tool for me as a producer.

In short, we will serve “Heart Land” by casting the best 14/15 year old girl for Wendy that we come across in the casting process. So far, we have our eye on several A-Listers, as well as a few unknowns, and they’re incredible actors. Of course I would love to play a role like Wendy, but she must physically teeter on the edge of innocence, just before reaching full puberty…But I thank you for your compliment all the same! Ha! As you know, there are barely any adults in this film, however Matt has asked me to play Jonah’s young mother. It’s my little cameo! Otherwise, I will happily be consumed with my production duties, and we’ll watch these talented children as they bring “Heart Land” to life.

Q. Without giving too much away, did you think of more than one ending to the movie or did you have the story’s ending in mind all along?

M.C.: The ending was definitely something I wanted, something bittersweet was the goal.  It was a really tough balance to keep it teetering on the edge and also keep up the tension.  However, there is still a lot of debate regarding the specific events of the ending, and whether or not we should film some alternate versions of it.  Rest assured there will most likely be some interesting bonus features on the eventual DVD release.

Q. Realizing, of course, that there are many variables at play such as casting, shooting, etc., approximately when will we be able to see the finished product?

D.P.: A safe estimate is late 2012/early 2013. This is due in part to the extensive nationwide casting, which we expect to take no less than six months. However, we have several exciting treats in store throughout the pre-production/production process. We are filming a teaser trailer in early November, as so many of our fans are anxious to see the overall aesthetic of the film. It will be released and posted on the “Heart Land” IMDB page when we launch it in late November.

 Following the teaser we will be releasing extensive behind-the-scenes photography and video clips from the documentary being made about “Heart Land,” from pre-pro to completion.

We are fortunate to have the talented BTS team of Stephen Fry and Brandon Ashur working on this. It is important that Matt and I give the fans a close-knit relationship with the film, giving them the ability to trace it day by day. The zombie-genre has some of the most dedicated fans, and we wanted to show just as much dedication to them. Furthermore, we will post links to all of the interviews and press, in
 addition to setting up a forum for the fans where we will answer any questions they may like to ask.

Q. I want to thank you both for allowing the zombie community to get a sneak peek and some insight into this great film, and I know I can’t wait until it is ready for release. Hopefully you will send us an update and a few set photos as filming progresses!

D.P.: Thank you for the insightful interview, Bill. It was our pleasure. We will certainly send you updates, moreover, we are happy to extend an invitation for you to visit the set and take photos for the amazing WeZombie fan-base.

M.C.: Yes thank you very much!

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