Interviews · Movies

Jeff Barnaby On Bringing ‘Blood Quantum’ to the Screen and the Relevance of Zombie Movies

We chat with the filmmaker about the 13 years that went into making his zombie thriller and where he plans to go next with Indigenous horror movies.
By  · Published on May 5th, 2020

It starts with salmon. In Blood Quantum, Jeff Barnaby‘s gorefest that centers on a First Nation reserve in 1981 where the Indigenous inhabitants are the only ones immune to the zombie plague, the salmon are the first to come back to life. Freshly gutted, they flop around, an uncanny primer of the true horror to come when the virus reaches the nearby white settlers.

But what many non-Native viewers might miss is the exact significance of these salmon in the context of 1981. In real life, this was a time when the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation saw their home raided by Quebec Provincial Police, who aimed to impose fishing restrictions on the Mi’gmaq people. One of these people was a young Jeff Barnaby. The filmmaker has cited these raids, and Incident at Restigouche, a 1984 documentary about the events directed by Alanis Obomsawin, as being hugely influential.

Barnaby emerged as a major voice in contemporary Canadian filmmaking with his 2013 feature debut, Rhymes For Young Ghouls, about the horrors of the residential school system. His latest made waves at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and is currently streaming on Shudder. With Blood Quantum, Barnaby utilizes his firsthand experience of growing up in a First Nations reserve to reinvigorate certain horror cliches. When the Native inhabitants realize their immunity, they’re faced with both surviving growing hordes of non-Native zombies and protecting their families and resources from outsiders.

After the film’s release on Shudder, I had a conversation with Barnaby about crafting a gnarly-as-hell horror movie, how he revived zombie tropes, and the need for Indigenous filmmakers to tell their stories.

You’ve spoken about the personal significance of this time period. When developing this project, when did you decide to approach it as a horror movie, and why zombies specifically?

I think the answer’s in the question. It never really occurred to me that the politics I was injecting into the film wouldn’t meld with the zombie aspect. It started because I wanted to do a zombie film, and when I came up with the initial conceit of Native people being immune to the zombie plague, the politics presented themselves so explicitly. It became more a matter of how to present them so they weren’t blatantly obvious. I think if you look at the tradition of the zombie film, it just made sense for the subject matter. The parallels between zombies consuming everything in front of them and colonial capitalism consuming everything in front of it, those are really short lines to draw.

The gore in this film is pretty gnarly. One of my favorite effects is the one guy who falls out of the window and hangs by his guts. What were those practical effects like, in that scene but also just in general?

That was the hardest thing to shoot! I said it as a lark at first. “What if we throw a zombie out of the window?” We were doing the tech walkthrough and decided to make it happen. It was a combination of a few things — we had to mechanically hang the stuntman, we had to put some guts there and then add some later. It was complicated. We ended up shooting that for 16 hours. The poor guy got thrown out over and over. It was like 50 takes — not quite, but a lot. And we had to reset every time we did a new one. It was an exceptional effort on everybody’s part. But it works!

Yeah, it’s worth it! Lately, I’ve been reading about David Cronenberg’s early struggles getting his films financed in Canada and it got me curious about your experience. How was the process of getting funding for this movie?

It depends on how you look at it because the journey really started in 2006. I had just finished a short film that was well-received and I felt confident enough to do a feature. I really wanted to make a zombie movie. John [Christou], my producer and everybody else was like, “Why would you want to do a zombie movie? The market is oversaturated.” For me, that was a challenge.

So, initially, everybody was blown away by the idea and then it was a matter of writing it. The first draft was 140 pages. And it was like, there was no way I would get the $10 million needed to make that version. That was when Rhymes For Young Ghouls came about. That was actually a calling card to get Blood Quantum funding. Even then, with Rhymes being kind of a hit, this didn’t really take off. I don’t really know why, to be honest.

I started working on it right after Rhymes debuted. It took a few more years and then Todd Brown from XYZ films finally said, “Where’s that script?” And he said he wanted to do it. I think Rhymes had started to find an audience and it helped my reputation, and that’s what triggered the money. But that still wasn’t enough. We actually filmed some in the spring, spent the summer raising money, and then went back and filmed the rest in the fall. Looking back, it feels like it blazed by, but in the summer we really didn’t know if we would get that money.

It’s billed as the biggest budget for a Native film in Canada. People are citing this as, “Look at us and how well we support Native filmmakers!” And that’s true… but that being said, there are other Native stories told by non-Native filmmakers that were exponentially better funded. So, make what you will of that…

Yeah, that feels like a very bittersweet statistic.

You look at Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’ film [The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open], they made that for peanuts. I don’t know how they did it. And then it ended up being the big hit of last year. So, at this point, Native filmmakers have proven themselves. And when you throw Zach [Zacharias Kunuk, director of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner] in there, the consensus is he directed the best Canadian film ever made, that just so happens to be a Native film. This small group of Indigenous writers, directors, and actors are so representative of so much Canadian content. So, maybe we should start following the New Zealand model and start supporting our Indigenous filmmakers more. Our filmmakers are getting so little, and it’s reflective of every other cultural disparity.

It also feels like there is so much potential for more horror films from Native filmmakers. I was wondering if you have more in mind and where you want to go with this?

I’m doing a cosmic horror movie next. There’s nothing that could grasp the existential dread that everyone is feeling right now like cosmic horror. I’m working on the outline now. I think the main obstacle at the moment is the question of how to make a film scarier than what’s going on right now.

Blood Quantum is now streaming on Shudder

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.