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Ryan Lieske Puts Abed To Film [Interview]

Several months back, I heard from Richard Raphael that the story Abed by Elizabeth Massie was being made into a movie. I thought I would see if Abed would make for a good review here at The Zombiephiles. Not only was it the most gruesome zombie tale I’ve ever read, but I wondered how in the hell they were going to pull this off for the big screen.

You see, Megan is a young widow kept prisoner by her mother-in-law in a post-apocalypse situation. They live in a rural area, making the walking dead numbers easier to control than in the bigger cities. Apparently, everyone is a carrier & any death – accidental, natural or by suicide – will result in reanimation, but the walking dead appetites can be appeased temporarily with live animals…thus giving the illusion of zombies that can be controlled. The undead also retain memories and remember how to perform basic tasks. However, the walking dead are not nearly as frightening as the crazy mother-in-law who still expects Megan to give her a grandchild.

I seriously thought I was going to throw up on my Kindle…Massie has real talent for delivering large amounts of terror with just a few choice descriptions, and I wondered how director/screenwriter Ryan Lieske was going to be able to bring Massie’s creation to film. It took us a while, but we were finally able to get the interview done…

Ryan Lieske is true zombiephile!

Thanks for chatting with us at The Zombiephiles. We were very excited to hear about a new zombie flick in the works. How did you get involved with the making of Abed? I know you’re the director and the screenwriter…have you contributed to this production in any other way?

Thanks for allowing me to chat with you about Abed.

This project came to be after I met producer Philip Nutman at the 2010 Buried Alive! Horror Film Festival in Atlanta, GA. He was a big fan of my short film Clean Break, and programmed it into the festival. I got into a conversation with him about all the writers he knew, like Jack Ketchum, Skipp & Spector, Edward Lee, etc., and me begin the horror-lit geek that I am started asking him about the old Books of the Dead anthologies. His short story Wet Work was in volume one. I told him there was this story in one of the books I was interested in making into a short film. I couldn’t remember who had written it (it had been twenty years since I’d read the collection) but he told me to look it up when I got back home to Michigan and to let him know, because if he knew the author, he might be able to work something out for me.

I got back…emailed him that it was the story “Abed,” by Elizabeth Massie. He said he was good friends with Beth, so he emailed her, asked her if she would be interested in optioning the story to me. She and I corresponded on Facebook for a bit and she expressed her concerns to me about the story, I assured her I wanted to treat the material with respect, and shortly thereafter we made the deal. I wrote a couple drafts of the screenplay and after the third draft, Phil was pleased, so we sent it to Beth and she gave her blessing on it. And now here we are.

Horror fans are always concerned about book-based movies staying true to the original story. In this case, with Abed being a novella, some expansion had to be done. Can fans of Massie expect this film to follow the storyline that the book laid out? Will the additions change the story too drastically or stay relatively familiar?

Mama (Vicki Deshaw-Fairman) is mother-in-law from hell

“Abed” is a six page short story, and it is told through one character’s point of view. It’s very internalized. Meggie is a young woman, alone in a room, remembering things, hearing noises, praying to a picture of Jesus … and when the other characters do enter her space, it’s still seen through Meggie’s eyes.

When I initially spoke with Beth about my approach to the material, I wanted to make sure I got her blessing on expanding the story. There are several moments in the story where Meggie has memories of things that came before the present-day events. I did my best to flesh those out, or alter them in a way that served the narrative. I also fleshed-out the romance between Meggie and her husband, Quint.

I would say the story definitely maintains the core of Beth’s original piece. I changed very little of what goes on in the bedroom. What I did was expand Beth’s world, introduce a couple of peripheral characters, and draw out the narrative a bit more. I was adamant about maintaining the integrity of Beth’s story. In turn, she was very gracious in letting me play within her world and tell my own little stories within hers. I think it’s a very good mesh of her voice and mine. And I would like to think the audience won’t know the difference. That’s my goal, anyway. I certainly don’t think fans of the story will be disappointed or offended by any alterations or expansions that I have done.

I’m assuming some of the actors had to perform some extremely challenging scenes. How did you go about casting for this movie, knowing what would be required? Is it more difficult to direct the graphic parts, or is it the same as shooting any other sequence?

Meggie (Rachel Finan) and Quint (Daniel E. Falicki)

Well, for the lead roles of Meggie and Quint, there was never any question of who I wanted. I had seen Rachel Finan perform on stage with the Super Happy Funtime Burlesque, and in my friend Dan Falicki’s movie, G.R. 30K. She blew me away in that movie. Her face is incredibly expressive; you just want to watch her onscreen, to try and read the thoughts behind her eyes. She is a very powerful presence. Right away I wanted to work with her. Luckily, she expressed interest in working with me, too. So when I began writing “Abed,” I immediately thought of her. She read an early draft of the script, liked it, and agreed to be in it if I was able to make it happen.

I first met Dan Falicki when he came to Collective Studios to work on G.R. 30K. He played a small part in Clean Break for me, and after that we became really close friends. I was acting with him in Jacob de la Rosa’s feature Break Glass in Case of … He was playing a real comedic role in that, and for some reason, I got it in my head that I should cast him someday in a dramatic role. So, as with Rachel, as soon as I began writing Abed, I immediately thought of Dan. He proved to be a very malleable actor, and gave an extremely moving performance for the film.

The role of Mama was very difficult to cast. We had several actresses express interest, but most were afraid of the disturbing sexual content of the film. So it was a long, frustrating process. It held up the production for weeks. I met Vicki Deshaw-Fairman at the premiere of my short, Down to Sleep. She was impressed with the film, and I was impressed with her personality and look. I casually asked her if she was an actress, and she said yes. She was completely fearless, and threw herself 100% into the role. This is her first movie role, so I’m taking the liberty of telling the world that I discovered her. She is going to blow people away.

I couldn’t be more proud of my three leads. Three very challenging roles played by three extremely brave actors. If this film has any gravity it is because of them. I can only hope they enjoyed working with me as I much as I did with them. They taught me how to be a better director.

My approach to everything on a movie is the same, be it graphic violence, graphic sexuality, etc. My previous movie, Down to Sleep, dealt with incest, and Abed, without giving anything away, goes even further into taboo territory than that. I don’t even think about it in terms of it being any different than anything else in the movie. It’s all part of the story of the story I’m telling, and I refuse to ever judge my characters in anything I write. That’s not my job. My job is to tell the story, to let them live and breathe and speak, even if what they are doing is absolutely heinous. I approach all content in my stories with candor and fearlessness, because if I show fear, the cast and crew will, too. Or worse, they won’t trust me.

Could you tell us a little more about your cast & crew? Have you worked with any of them before? What did they think of the zombie aspect of the movie?

Quint (Daniel E Falicki) is having a real bad day...

Most of the crew I worked with on my previous short, Down to Sleep. That’s where I first worked with Leah Vukovich, my first AD, production designer and costumer. Also, Jenny Lasko, who’s producing Abed, along with Philip Nutman. She worked as script supervisor and Jill-of-all trades on Down to Sleep, and impressed me deeply with her dedication, so that when it came time to do Abed, I immediately asked her to help me make it happen. The FX team – Jarrett Taylor, Sarah Johnson and Paul Bosen – are all friends I’ve known for several years. Nikki Kelly came aboard towards the end of the production and her work really impressed me. They all did a great job with the limited resources we had.

Most of the supporting cast were friends of mine, or people I’d worked with on other films here in Grand Rapids. Lisa Mueller, Jeff Goodrich, Stephen Grey and Joseph Scott Anthony all came out and played small roles for me, and they’ve all acted in my previous films, Clean Break and Down to Sleep. I’m thankful to have such a large group of friends and colleagues that are willing to support me and come out and play with me when I ask. I love them all.

Composer Tom Ashton came to the film via Philip Nutman. They were friends, and one day Tom asked Phil if we needed any music for the film. Phil calls me up and asks if I’ve ever heard of The March Violets and I’m like, Phil, I may not look it, but I’m a big-time Goth-rock geek. And he tells me that Tom Ashton is interested in scoring the movie. I was giggling like a little Goth-girl watching The Cure’s “Lovecats” video, man. Tom’s music is brilliant and absolutely vital to how well this movie works. I’m completely honored to be working with him on this. And I idolize his voice. I’ve asked him to record my voicemail message for me.

Are you a fan of the zombie genre? Have you worked on any other zombie projects in film or writing?

(Marci Stembol)

Yes, I’m a fan. But I’m not gonna lie: I’ve been very unimpressed with a lot of what’s happened with zombie films over the last decade or so. I say this half-jokingly, but I totally blame the Resident Evil movies. They’re all action movies now, the horror is gone. All that “let’s be badasses during the zombie outbreak” nonsense. It’s just tiring. I don’t begrudge anyone making a zombie movie, but after awhile they all seem to blend into one loud mess. Same tropes, recycled over and over.

Filmmakers don’t seem to be trying anything different; they just figure if they can get a bunch of extras to wander around in ripped clothes and Halloween makeup, and then have some dude with a gun running around shooting them, that they have a zombie movie. They aren’t using zombies to tell an actual story, they’re only using them because they’re “cool” and fun to kill. And before you ask, no, I don’t watch The Walking Dead. I would, I just haven’t. I’m open to any kind of zombie movie. I’m no purist. But just because I’m a zombie fan doesn’t mean I’m gonna like everything that’s out there. I know this might make me sound like a snob, but seriously, go back to Romero. He used zombies to tell a story, not the other way around. Go back and really WATCH the Romero classics, and then you’ll see why most filmmakers are doing it wrong.

If there was a zombie outbreak in Grand Rapids, Michigan, do you have a survival plan?

Lieske is ALWAYS prepared.

Oh yeah, I’ve been thinking about this since I was 12 and I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time. Since then I’ve been a sucker for a good “siege tale.” No matter where I am, be it an open field, warehouse, hell, a Burger King … I’m always looking around, mentally indexing all the possibilities of how I would escape or barricade myself in the event of a sudden zombie outbreak. I sort of approach dating women the same way. I mean, you never know, right?

Where can our viewers find out more about Abed? Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Our Facebook page is the perfect place to stay updated on all things concerning Abed.

I’ve just rebooted my production company, Familiar Productions. Abed will be the first movie released under that banner. Next up, I’ll be finishing the script for Daniel E. Falicki’s brutal, medieval epic, The Dwarfhammer, and probably writing a slasher script for director Rick Reed. I may write and direct another short, or just take the plunge into a feature. At this point, I’m just trying to get Abed edited and released, take a couple days off to sleep, and then figure out what I want to do next. I like to think the possibilities are endless. At least, I like to tell myself that every morning when I wake up.

Zombies moan. Zombiephiles moan back.

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