‘Z’ Director Brandon Christenson Talks Terror & Imaginary Friends In Our Interview

August 30, 2020

Written by Kelli Marchman McNeely

Kelli Marchman McNeely is the owner of HorrorFuel.com. She is an Executive Producer of "13 Slays Till Christmas" which is out on Digital and DVD and now streaming on Tubi. She has several other films in the works. Kelli is an animal lover and a true horror addict since the age of 9 when she saw Friday the 13th. Email: horrorfuelinfo@gmail.com

One of the best indie horror films of 2020 is writer-director Brandon Christenson‘s Z which premiered on Shudder earlier this year. The film, which we scored as a 5 out of 5 in our review, is haunting and downright unnerving.  Of course, when I had the opportunity to pick Christenson’s brain I couldn’t resist.


The film, co-written by Colin Minihan, follows a family whose son has become dangerous. He blames everything on his invisible friend Z, but it doesn’t take long for Elizabeth, the mother (Keegan Connor Tracy), to come to the realization that Z may very well be real. Once she realizes that her son is being influenced by a dark entity she reaches out to a psychiatrist played by Stephen McHattie, leading it to be revealed that she’s faced the entity before.





Christenson made waves in the genre before Z was released with his 2017 breakout film Still/Born which follows a new mother who lost one of her twins at birth. She comes to believe that an entity has set its sights on her surviving son and will stop at nothing to get him. Is it postpartum depression or is something really after the baby?


Horror Fuel: “I absolutely love Z! It actually left me spooked, which is a miracle these days.”


Brandon Christenson: “Great.”


Horror Fuel: “It’s so different. That’s a great thing by the way.”


Brandon Christenson: “Yeah, it’s kind of strange.”


Horror Fuel: “How did you go about making it so unique, but at the same time, about something we are all familiar with from childhood, imaginary friends?”


Brandon Christenson: “I think creepy kid films have been around forever. I think The Omen started that whole thing, Village of the Damned, Children of the Corn. Kids are always used as a staple in horror movies because there is something so creepy about kids that aren’t acting the way you are supposed to. So I think having that as a starting point, it’s not a novel approach or anything. Trying to figure out how to take the idea of an imaginary friend, like the one terrorizing this family, and make it unique to the family where it unveiled certain things about the family and these characters, things they need to explore. And look inward to deal with. The unique part is that this isn’t just some creature feature about a beast, of course, you need characters to learn about themselves and how they are going to deal with specific things. It becomes more of a personal and emotional story.”


Horror Fuel: “Speaking of “the beast,” can you tell us about the creature design of Z? Boy, he’s an ugly  thing.”


Brandon Christenson: “In a movie like this you can’t really afford to pay a concept artist for a bunch of different drawings. I kind of said, ‘Draw Z for me, something that will really scare the kids.’ People were looking at me asking ‘What does Z look like?’ You stare back at them and go ‘He’s scary!’ I looked and tried to find something to influence him online. You look up the Babadook, which is something similar. You see the very theatrical look it has with the hat, you go ‘That’s way too cool.’ And you can’t do anything like that. So you strip the clothes and go fully naked. The big thing that we did was – from a design perspective – was we gave him that sick smile. The idea behind that was Josh had to see this thing first and was friendly and something he could play with. We gave him a Joker-like appearance with this big smile that goes from ear to ear. The idea was that he is just pretending, so the smile was strained and behind the smile was this mouth full of teeth like a pirana. When he would lash out that’s when you’d see it. That was kind of the design aspect of it. We used visual effects a little bit to enhance the makeup a little bit to make it a little more childlike in certain parts. In a low budget thing like this, it’s always less is more. How do we show him as little as possible because every time we do you have a chance of losing the scary aspect of  the unknown.”


Horror Fuel: “I think it was very clever to limit the moments that you see him. Often we see too much of the villain in movies and it does, as you said, often lose its terror.


Brandon Christenson: “I think it goes back to when I was a kid watching horror movies with my family, I was young, seven, eight, nine. My mom would always grab me and cover my eyes during the scary parts and what you imagine happening in those dark periods with a hand covering your eyes, you’re hearing the reaction and things happening on screen. It’s often scarier than what’s on the screen. Letting the audience fill in the blanks is oftentimes a lot better and scarier.”


Horror Fuel: “Another thing I must compliment is your choice of cast. They were fantastic.”


Brandon Christenson: “Yeah, we got really lucky with them. It’s not a movie where we could throw money at them at giant stars, so. We got super lucky with people like Keegan and everyone. It was a situation where the stars just kind aligned. The movie could have been made at another time with other actors and it would not have been as good. They brought so much to it.”


Horror Fuel: “It’s definitely a must-see movie. How do you feel about all the love it’s getting? It’s getting a lot of it.”


Brandon Christenson: “Any time you make something like this, especially when you’re part of the writing process and you direct it, edit it, you’re so close to it that you don’t really have an objective viewpoint. You just the thousands of hours you put into it, two years of your life. It’s really hard to know what it is. You show people and you see it in an audience setting and when you get the reactions you hoped for it’s super gratifying to have people enjoy it. I think, love it or hate it, it’s just nice to get some reaction. The worst is when someone just shrugs it off. You’re like, ‘I just spent two years of my life, at least hate it. When you see reviews and that it connects with people, it’s great because you put so much of yourself in it. It’s a vulnerable position to be in.”


Horror Fuel: “Well, I honestly loved it. It’s clever. In that scene, you know the one, it involves the stairs, that scene freaked me out.”


Brandon Christenson: “I don’t know if you’ve got kids but as a parent, that’s basic fear number one, is stairs. Being able to take that fear is just fun to take things like that – as a parent, you’re always scared of the what-ifs more than what is actually happening – and exploit it for those nightmare scenarios. It’s a ton of fun.”


Horror Fuel: “It was a great moment. Even though it’s really brief, it has a lasting effect. You’re in shock and asking yourself ‘What the hell just happened?’

So, where did the story come from? How did it come to be?”


Brandon Christenson: “Anytime you’re dealing with something supernatural, going with an imaginary friend or something like that, you have to find the aspects of reality that you are going to blend into the story to keep it grounded. The imagination is so big that you have to reign it in so that you can apply it to something. If it’s just like, ‘Oh, this is a family dealing with an imaginary friend and then they meet it at the end, it’s not very interesting’. If you can tie that to the history of the characters or one character, in particular, you can really create something. The imaginary friend isn’t just some monster, it’s like she really needs to understand it before she can deal with it. You look at something in someone’s childhood that they might want to forget or they might have dealt with and you try to apply how the current predicament might blend. I think narratively for the audience, that is satisfying so that they can put the pieces together. It’s not just an A to B narrative. There’s a lot of jumping around the alphabet before your hit Z.”


Horror Fuel: “Z, I see what you did there [laughs]. If you had to describe the film to someone who hadn’t heard about it in three words, what would they be?


Brandon Christenson: “The stair scare [laughter].”


Horror Fuel: “[laughter] That’s good. I really like what you did with the ending by the way. Don’t worry I’m not going to give out any spoilers. But it surprised me. It was a great choice.”


Brandon Christenson: “Definitely. There’s some ambiguity there as to what has happened and what is the ultimate fate of Z, but I think there are some markers left early on in the film. You can apply some of the things we tried to teach you as an audience member to the ending. There’s a hedgehog in the movie and there’s a scene where they discuss it and I think that that scene is important to help the audience understand what the ending is.”


If you haven’t seen Z we strongly recommend that you watch it immediately. It’s now streaming on Shudder and you can pick up your copy on Blu-ray or DVD on September 1 (review).


Be sure to follow Christenson on Instagram for updates on his projects and more. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!




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