Writer/director Jonas Govaerts talks Cub, authentic boy scouts, and yes, the dog scene [INTERVIEW] [Fantastic Fest 2014]

As you might remember from my review of seeing Cub at Fantastic Fest, it was one of the most satisfying film experience I had the whole festival. When a lot of other movies are experimenting with combining lots of different genres to try to stand out, Cub was a straight-forward, brutal story of kids camping in the woods. It also featured some of the best cinematography and original music in any horror film in recent memory, making the film highly enjoyable in many different respects. Unfortunately, I felt like Cub didn’t get as much appreciation out of the festival as it deserves, specifically because of a scene involving violence towards a dog that was too intense for audiences to judge it from its many other strengths. I got to chat with the film’s writer/director, Jonas Govaerts, about his first feature length horror film and to let him address some of the issues audiences might have had with the dog violence. He also sent over some exclusive behind-the-scenes shots from the making of the film from photographer Erik De Cnodder.
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Jonas Govaerts on set
WolfMan: The experience of watching Cub both felt unique in comparison to most contemporary horror movies but also had a sense of familiarity to it, like it was combining a lot of elements of horror movies I loved. What were you influences or inspirations when developing Cub, both aesthetically and narratively?
Jonas Govaerts: That’s a tough one right off the bat! There are definitely some conscious visual references in there: our ‘death pit’ was inspired by the climax in Dario Argento’s Phenomena, for example, and the idea to use these ingenious death traps came from a little-known Japanese film called Evil Dead Trap which I’ve always adored. But once the movie was finished, I started noticing other influences, that must’ve sprung from my subconscious: I suddenly remembered reading a comic as a child called “Alinoe,” in which a little boy befriends a strange feral child. And the father of our lead Maurice Luijten pointed out a scene that he thought was ripped off from Alien: again, not a conscious nod, but the similarities are striking. Narratively, though, we’re not really paying homage to anything: we just took a very simple premise and let the events flow naturally from there.
WM: The setup of the film and the stories about the monster in the woods told by the scout masters felt like they could have been based on real events or real stories. Were there any real world inspirations for the events in Cub?
JG: All the scouting stuff you see comes from my own experiences as a boy scout: the den yells, the songs, the night games, the camp stories made up by the leaders to scare us… Even all the different whistle signals you hear are correct. I’ve seen a lot of summer camp horror movies, but never one where the camp stuff felt real, at least to me. The lair of the bad guy was inspired by something called the Ark II: in the eighties, some crazy Americans built their own make-shift bomb shelter out of about forty buried school buses, which was later closed down by the government. You can still find some pictures of it online. Of course, the horror elements are all fictional: those were the kind of things I fantasized about when lying awake in my dark tent at night, listening to the sounds of the woods… There’s a reason the scout totem given to me was Imaginative Toucan.
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Govaerts with a masked Gill Eeckelaert
WM: Having these horrible things happen to such young children was a bold choice. They’re old enough to be developing their personalities, yet young enough to be considered “innocent.” What was the process like of deciding how old the children would be, especially considering the traumatic things that happen to them? What was the casting process like for the kids?
JG: For me, having Sam and the other cubs be about twelve was perfectly logical: it’s a time when your imagination runs wild, and you don’t know enough about the world yet to separate fantasy from reality – thus it’s the perfect age for a horror story like this. Adults will often underestimate kids, which is what happens in the film as well: I remember some very dark thoughts going through my twelve-year-old head, yet I was perceived as this little innocent boy. Children are more complex creatures then we give them credit for, especially in movies.
The casting process was a combination of luck and very hard work: I found my lead pretty early on, in a short film called “The Gift” (pretty accurate title, now that I think about it!) by Ralf Demesmaeker. Then, I brought in an actress friend of mine, Joke De Bruyn, who’s very good with kids: we started mixing and matching until we had the perfect scout troupe. By the way, Joke also provided the creepy guttural sound the Feral Child makes in the movie, and she appears as Sam’s ‘mother’ in the photograph he carries around.
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Cast and crew behind the scenes
WM: A highly controversial, highly talked about scene involves violence towards a dog. You don’t have to convince me why it’s integral to the story, but what is your message to anyone who might be turned off from the whole film because of it? Were you ever pressured to tone that sequence down?
JG: It’s an odd one, isn’t it? If all the events that occur in the movie would take place in real life, I’m pretty sure no one would even mention the dog! Yet for some reason, in cinema, we value animal life more than we do human life. I certainly knew the scene had the potential to turn off certain viewers: that’s why I chose what I considered to be the most non-sympathetic, evil-looking breed of dog in existence. Not that it helped: some people still find him adorable! All I can say is that for me the scene has a very specific narrative purpose: it’s a key moment in the film, not just a cheap tactic to shock a jaded horror audience. Visually, it was toned down a bit in the end, but only for practical reasons: I originally wanted to do some things to that dog that just weren’t possible! Now, the sequence is a little more suggestive, which seems to make it even more disturbing to some people.
I should point out it seems to be a cultural thing as well, though: in Belgium and France, the scenes where we make fun of Walloons (French-speaking Belgians) seem to cause more outrage than the dog scene!
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Evelien Bosmans behind the scenes
WM: Tying back into that sense of the familiarity would be the heavy synth score from Steve Moore. How did he get involved in the project? What guidance, if any, did you give him for what you wanted the music to be like?
While writing the script, all I listened to was Zombi’s Spirit Animal, just to get me in the right mood. So when the time came to find a composer, I only had one guy in mind, and that was Steve Moore. Luckily, he was on Facebook, had some time on his hands, and didn’t cost a fortune – though I’m confident that that will soon change! All the stuff he sent me was great, but his first themes were sometimes a bit too Carpenter-esque: more cool than actually truly scary. Then, my editor Maarten Janssens suggested Steve should listen to the music they used in True Detective, and that seems to have really triggered something within Steve: he sent me an email with the header ‘Revelation!’, and attached was what is now the opening theme of the film. Just. Fucking. Perfect.
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Behind the scenes of Cub
WM: What’s up next for you and where can people see Cub?
JG: I’ve only just finished Cub, and severly underestimated the toll filmmaking takes on your body and psyche, so I’m gonna take a breather – but I would definitely like to stay within the genre, and get better at it, much better! There is no distribution deal in place (yet) for America, but we’re playing a lot of festivals all over the world, so I hope your readers can catch it there. Just don’t download my film: if you do, I will release my hounds on you…
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