Luke Kenny talks about zombies, music and imitating Michael Jackson!

The blue-eyed boy of music in the 90’s, known to his fans as the ‘Brad Pitt of India’, Luke Kenny talks about his recent zombie movie, dodging typecasting in Bollywood, inspirations in gore and Chiranjeevi…

You’ve known him as the face of Channel V when it was brilliant, seen him in Bombay Boys as the lead musician, and later in Rock On!!! playing a musician yet again. The handsome, blue-eyed ‘Indianised Angrez’, as he calls himself, Luke Kenny was so tired of playing a musician that in his most recent film – his big mainstream debut as a director – he switched roles radically! From playing Rob Zombie songs to turning into a scary, flesh eating zombie himself in India’s first ever zombie origin film, it has been a wild adventure. Luke chats with BollywoodLife about the quirks and rough edges of the movie business and the road ahead for independent cinema.

Why didn’t you enter movies earlier? Right after Rock On!! was a good time…

See, our industry has been the victim of typecasting for 20 or 30 years. If one particular character looked a certain way, or was accepted in a certain way, then that particular character was destined to play the same person for the rest of his career in the industry. I mean – we had Keshto Mukerji, Shetty Sahab, and even the big stars, who had to be themselves in every film. You know, Anil Kapoor was always Anil Kapoor in every film! He never became the character he could be. So these are the trappings of Hindi films, and that’s the way it has always been. So after Bombay Boys, all the opportunities I got were to play a foreigner or a musician, which I didn’t want to do. With Rock On!! an opportunity came to play a musician, but not a foreigner, so I took it at face value. Also, it was a parallel story of four people, and not the story of one person with three hangers on. So it was very well done, and it rolled very well. But in spite of it, after that all the offers I got were to play a musician, and a white one too! I thought that if I’m going to sit around waiting for another Rock On!! to happen, then I may be waiting for long. Plus, with the scene (independent cinema) opening up and a lot of people being ready to invest in cost effective projects that can be made ‘coz technology allows it, it looked like a good time. You don’t need 35 mm cameras to rent where you’re paying Rs 20 grand a day! Now you can buy your own 5D cameras where you can shoot on your own and put it up on the screen. So technology has made projects more cost effective, where you can really be true to your story. And the investors, won’t be too shy of you whoever you may be, because you don’t have any track record and know they won’t lose too much money…if they lose any at all. So if you pick a genre, and pick a story that caters to some target audience, you know you will recover your investment. So you back-budget and you make your product viable every way!

That’s great! So what’s Rise of the Zombie about?

It’s a drama. Because we’re following the story of this one character, this wildlife photographer who is so passionate about his work that he doesn’t really bother about anything else, be it relationships, friends, family, etc., and during one impulsive fall out with his girlfriend he just takes off without informing her, and then things happen to him. So you’re moving along with him, seeing him change and deteriorate. Very, very bad things happen! So you are feeling repulsed, but at the same time you are feeling sorry for him. It’s more like a human drama/zombie origin film.

Human drama with a lot of blood and gore and guts spilling out…what was that like?

I will tell you all about it, but then I may have to kill you! (Laughs) there’s a lot of stuff that’s there in the film that you kind of have to see. But it’s just the right amount so the audiences in the film won’t get too repulsed, yet at the same time they are intrigued and kind of drawn into the whole situation.

What about your own zombie movie inspirations?

When I was really, really young I saw Evil Dead. And then I saw Night of the Living Dead, which was George Romero’s 1968’s zombie flick. And these were the biggest films that intrigued me. Because I was like, what is this? I had seen the other supernatural horrors like Omen and The Exorcist, and that was the time when horror began to break into the mainstream as well. And then, of course, Michael Jackson’s Thriller happened. And I was like, I’ve just seen these guys doing something similar in a black and white film, and here are these guys dancing with Michael Jackson! And that was the time with all the 80s zombie films, and the 90s films, and now of course they’ve become such extravaganzas.

Being the first to make a zombie film – what does it feel like?

I think filmmaking is still a learning process, no matter how established you are. With every film comes its own learning process, ‘coz you’re working with a different story, different budgets, different crew, different locations, etc. Particularly in this case, we were going to shoot at a remote location in the jungles of Uttarakhand. And our pre-production reconnaissance figured out what was available and what wasn’t. So everything comes with its own logistical nightmare, and you’ve got to work around it. But yes, you do have a certain background of guerilla filmmaking, about how to get the most out of the least… So yes, those were great lessons as well.

You’ve been in the music scene a long time now, and a lot of folks owe all the great song programming to you. How did you deal with the music in your own project?

Since the film has a very international aesthetic and outlook, even though it’s a Hindi film, I wanted the soundtrack also to be different from what has been done in the other Hindi films up to now. So there is no one music director who composes six songs and hires a lyricist and singers to come in and sing. Also, I have been a part of the music scene, and I have been an independent musician myself. And I wanted to tap that demographic, since there are a whole lot of musicians out there who are writing and producing their own music. So why not have a new beginning where you say you’re making a Hindi film which is a new genre which also has a new musicality to it? Its India’s first Hindi zombie film soundtrack. And I tapped in a lot of independent musician friends, some of whom are also in the Hindi film playback scene. And I know their songwriters well also. Besides that, I contacted Suraj Jagan, I asked Caralisa, I asked Aditi, I contacted Biddu; and I told them, give me a song which you guys will write, produce and sing and I will put it in the film. So it’s like a compilation soundtrack that features in the film at poignant moments as well. Finally, there are 12 tracks in the film, and some of them have two language versions. There’s a Swedish folk song by Sofia Jannok, there’s a club number by Biddu which is being re-mastered by Ray and Brotherhood. There’s a punk song called Tripwire. So it’s a complete collection of all that is indie today on the music front.

Since Rise of the Zombie is an out and out independent film , how did you make sure that the indie spirit was not compromised?

The two key things to maintain when you’re making a film like this are, (a) your story, and (b) pace. Because traditionally Hindi films have been two and a half hours or more, that doesn’t mean you have to fix that time bracket. You need to make the film as long as you want the story to roll out. So if the story rolls out in 80 minutes, it is an 80 minute film. You don’t want to lengthen the story for the sake of adding commercial elements. Audiences are smartened up to that now. They can tell when they’re being taken for a ride. So you got to keep that integrity well controlled.

Talking about Thriller, have you seen the Indian version of that music video?

(Laughs) The one with Chiranjeevi! There are two actually – one with Chiranjeevi where he does the exact same dance as Michael Jackson did in Thriller; the second is from a film called Samri which had Jagjeet in it, with music by Bappi Lahiri. So that is a real fun take on Jagdeep doing the whole Michael Jackson dance… completely taking the piss!

And was there anything Indian to fall back on in terms of influences?

Well, this is my second mainstream venture. And about precedents, there was nothing! Because we are telling a zombie origin story, there was nothing. But if we were telling a zombie survival story, there are 40 years of zombie survival films to see who did what, and what we could try to do differently. But a survivor film – you can only set it in a different place, ‘coz at the end of the day it is a bunch of people surviving a whole bunch of zombies; the location keeps changing and the setting keeps changing. In this case, there was no precedent; there has been no zombie origin film ever been made. There is no story that has ever been written that tells you the story of this one human being and what happens. So it’s absolutely made up from plot point to plot point!