Writer and producer Hilton Ariel Ruiz talks about his upcoming movie Zombie with a Shotgun. Learn how he used social media to connect with his audience.
Hilton Ariel Ruiz: Zombie with a Shotgun
My questions comments are in bold, Hilton's follow in plain text
How did you get started?
I've been in filmmaking for about ten years. One of my biggest projects is Zombie with a Shotgun. Basically, it’s something I started six years ago as a web series. Web series were popular at that point, and I thought it was interesting. As a filmmaker, we do a lot of projects, a lot of short films, sort of like exercise films. So, six years ago, everybody was doing web series, and I wanted to do my own. Which led me to create Zombie with a Shotgun.
Horror is one of my favorite genres, and it felt like a lot of filmmakers who are well-known in the industry had their own interpretation of zombies. I felt that I'd like to have my own interpretation of zombies.
I wanted to do a different take on it, a point of view. I basically wanted to do a sort of love story take on it. And, I wanted people to follow the zombie instead of following the human. We always see the humans running away as this sort of victim of flesh-eating zombies that are after them. So, I thought, why don't we switch it around and see that maybe the zombies are the victims and they’re these guys who are just trying to get cured.
I began looking at and reading a lot of stuff to find inspiration for such a story. I'm a guy that grew up in the '80s. A lot of the '80s had the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and I felt like during that time, people had treated those victims sort of like zombies. Nobody wanted to go near them, they didn't want to touch them, they just wanted them to be cured. Those suffering from HIV/Aids wanted people to help them, people to take care of them and, just to be loved liked everyone. That became a big inspiration for doing Zombie with a Shotgun.
The thing is the title comes off very differently than a lot of other zombie films. And, a lot of people love the title, and when they watched the web series, they felt like they were going to get something that was just the whole Zombie with a Shotgun title. Maybe that had a lot to do with the Hobo with a Shotgun and a lot of people thought it’d have that sort of flare of a shoot 'em up kind of film. But it didn't.
It was the first episode that got a lot of people interested in Zombie with a Shotgun. I think especially with the very last 15-20 seconds of film when you see my main character, who is Aaron, played by Braeden Baade, going out and kissing Rachael. He gives her a big kiss. Sort of like a make-out kiss. And, I think that’s the first time we’ve seen something like that. We've never really seen that in zombie mythology. And that sparked a big conversation online. People were like, “Hey have you ever seen this precept of Zombie with a Shotgun?
It's amazing. But, wait a minute, he kisses a girl, that doesn't make any sense. And, that sparked a conversation I thought was really interesting. Also, it helped a lot with building the brand from scratch. It got so popular with sparking a conversation because people saw a different take on it. It was something like, “Whoa! What is this?” And it just got really fat from there.
From there we started going to the graphic novel and then making illustrations and posters. Two years ago, we did crowdfunding for a feature-length film and right now we are about two months away from it finally being released out into the world. Now, when I say released to the world, it may take a little bit of time because right now we're looking for festivals to premiere it and possibly the distributor thing. Even though it's ready in two months, doesn't mean it is going to be released. Maybe the distributor says, “Hey, hold back. We're going to release it next month.” And film festivals may also be premiering in January, February, so make us wait. For the fans out there, the film will be completely done in about two months.
I didn't realize how much is involved in planning film festivals.
Absolutely. Yeah, there are so many things to it. I suggested to myself, and people suggested to me, to maybe not have a festival premiere, and just maybe premiere it here in New York myself. The fact that it has some fans and people who already know about it would help. It's not like a feature film that no one's ever heard the concept of or the idea.
So, I have this fan base, which maybe I can turn to and just say, “Hey, we're going to premiere it in New York” That's still not out of the question. But at this point right now, we're trying to weight out all the different things we can possibly do with the film. And, I think as we get closer to the end of the year, or basically, when we have the film in our hand ready to be screened, I think we'll have it figured out by then.
Zombies are really hot right now. What are some of your thoughts on the state of zombies right now?
You know, it's so true what you said. I never expected Zombie with a Shotgun to get popular. Again, I look back six years and think how the hell did this thing get so big. As I told you before, I wanted to do a web series which was more of like an exercise thing as a filmmaker. To go out there and show my work and see what I can do. And, you know, possibly do another project and submit concepts to get funded for by investors and stuff like that. So, Zombie with a Shotgun was never ever on the radar to go as far as it is now.
That said, when I figured out that there's no looking back after Zombie, I mean, wow, now I have a responsibility to cater to these fans that appreciate what I created. With a lot of us filmmakers, we try to do something and then when we get to a point and think, wow, I've caught all this attention, and then you start to say, “Well, now what?”
I felt a responsibility to take on the project and grow it more, because, hey, it's already hard enough to get attention as a film, especially if you don't have any backing in the industry. Zombies are very popular. Sometimes it’s a downfall. The whole saturation of the zombie industry thing. There are so many zombie films now that when I went out to look for investors for the feature-length film, it was a problem.
A lot of people were like, “Ah, a zombie film. Anyone can do a zombie film. It’s saturated. You know, you've got Walking Dead, I'm not sure we want to put money into this. The business is getting saturated with too many zombie films.”
In my pitch, I would go in and say hey, just go look online. See all the articles on this project. Look at all the fan base it has. But even with all the stuff I had, it was hard for someone to come on because they were like, “It's about to die out! It's about to die out! I don't know if we're going to go in there, Walking Dead is taking all the attention from the zombie genre and every single month you have a zombie film.
It was difficult to find investors. There was a lot of interest. Trust me. There was a lot of attention, but, there was this whole back thing of like, hmm, I'm not sure if I want to be the first guy to jump into the pond or be the first penguin to jump into the pond where everyone follows. And, I think that was a hard thing for some, they just didn't know if there would be another investor that would come in because everyone in the industry feels the zombie genre is saturated.
You have a unique perspective that's totally different, so it's cool.
Yeah, yeah. As I said, I tried to explain it to a lot of people, but it's very hard. Look, I'm not reinventing the wheel here or anything, it’s just with zombie films I think you have to do a little spinoff now to make it a little different.
I'm pretty surprised people still haven't evolved too much with zombies. I get a lot of people complaining to me saying, “Hey, you're ruining the mythology of zombies. Zombies are not supposed to be smart. Zombies are not supposed to kiss. Zombies are not supposed to think.” And, I say hey, that's just what you feel about the zombie mythology. If you really feel like that, do your own film. This is my outtake on how I think the zombie's film could evolve.
My favorite thing is replying to people with, “Hey, how can you say that? In the early '80s, Michael Jackson was the most kick-ass zombie in the history of zombies! He knew how to dance. He knew how to move. He knew how to think.” And, I think how can you say that I've come to ruin this mythology?
Unfortunately, no one ever looked at Michael Jackson, what was it 1982, 83, 84, I'm not sure, and took it from that point and evolved it from him. I think that he did it so well that people are like oh this guy just created his own thing. Not realizing he gave us the opportunity to evolve it! But no one did back then. So, that's sometimes in my reply to some people.
Well, more people are having fun with the zombie thing too. Z Nation has lots of fun, such as Murphy and hybrid zombies and stuff. in World War Z, zombies are fast now. So, I think there's more room, I think, for interpretation.
Yeah, everyone has their own thing. I'm surprised people haven't taken it much further. But I think that's where I'm at a little bit. Why I stuck in it. A lot of people have not taken me seriously just because they felt the zombie industry is so saturated.
You have a huge social media fanbase. What's your social media strategy look like?
I tell people you have to work on this. It's a job night and day. I’m often asked in interviews what my strategy on social media is, and I've given points to a lot of people. But I'm not sure what's going to work for everyone.
I think the number one thing though is to pick a genre. Horror, of course, is huge on social media. So, I'm not sure my crowd would work if I was in drama or romance genre. So, I think for me it’s big that we're in the horror genre. And, number two, zombies, as you said, are very popular. Yet again, I have a lot of friends that have done zombie films, and they can't believe why they're not popular, and mine is popular. I don't understand.
But, what I tell a people is that I did have a strategy. I felt that everything needing to be tweeted had to be eye candy. It had to be really appealing to the eye if anyone was going to look at it. I figured if you're just going to put tweets out saying things, it wouldn't work.
So, what then really helped was creating the comic book. I first gave it a kind of behind the scenes view about how the comic was created. So, that was probably one of the biggest helps for growing the following. That I gave everybody – the fans, a behind-the-scenes look of what it’s like to create a comic and how the comic was created.
Every single day I tweeted out the beginning stages of creating the comic book – the graphic novel. Me and the artist had to agree on this because we shared followers and stuff like that. So, he would sketch a page, and I'd go boom, here's this here. And, don't forget it's 20-pages, so we weren’t tweeting the pages itself, we were tweeting panels.
So, if you did a page, I would tweet some of the panels of the page, and I would say, “Hey guys, look what's going on. Here's a sneak peek of a panel with a sketch.” Boom. Boom. I show it. Then we would Tweet another picture the next day and another picture the next day. And, what I would do the next day, is repeat it again from the first, second, third sketch, in case people missed it. And, I would keep on doing that until we had like twenty sneak peeks.
I’d let people know I'm was going to repeat myself and put those twenty same sketches out – “Hey, just in case you missed it, boom, boom, boom, boom.” And, people had missed it. You know people did miss it, but then they’d see the repeat and go, “Wow!” So, then we got involved with the coloring, the penciling, the ink, and it kept on. And, even the artist realized we were getting a lot of attention.
Then, boom here's a poster, here's a cover. And simultaneously, what I would also do is say hey guys, just in case you don't know what Zombie Shotgun is, here is a first episode of Zombie with a Shotgun, please watch it. Then, I'd take stills from the first, second, third, then fourth and fifth. I'd take the best stills out of them – get a freeze frame, and I would also tweet that.
That's how I did it daily, and I would get a lot of attention. I would tag people, horror magazines, horror writers, I would tag them and say, “Hey, did you know about this? Did you know about that? Did you know about this?” And, people were tweeting this and that about it. And that's how it just went boom!
The audience just kept growing and growing. Then when I announced, “Hey, we're shooting a feature.” people went, “Whoa! My God!” When we were doing the feature, we did a whole big crowdfunding thing, and that also gave us so much attention. Fans were happy to help us.
Since we crowdfunded the film, Zombie with a Shotgun, when we started shooting we would send out stills and videos of the daily shoot we were doing as we were shooting the film. So, everything was eye candy.
Giving the audience what they like and what they want to see and then they talk about what is going on. That's basically how I grew the followers, and I tell everybody, it's like a 9-to-5 job. I had a Twitter account started four years ago, but I did not think Zombie with a Shotgun was going to be that big.
I didn't realize the zombie genre was really so huge, I don't know, I think it's part of American pop culture now. We can say that now, eh? You've got hamburgers, whatever, cheeseburgers, milkshakes, wrestling, and zombies, right? Part of the whole American pot now, we have to put zombies as just being there. It’s some phenomenon we can't explain. It's the million-dollar question, “Why do people like zombies?” I can't answer it.
That's awesome. Are you on Instagram or Facebook as well?
Yes, I'm also on Instagram. It’s interesting with social media, I've noticed the Instagram person is not a Twitter person. And, a Twitter person is not an Instagram person. But yes, I do have Instagram for Zombie with a Shotgun, and, I have a Facebook page for Zombie with a Shotgun.
Can you give us a little sneak peek of the film? Is It a standalone or continuation?
You can say it's both. They have the same lead, Braeden Baade, who plays Aaron. In the episodes, we just gave a little glimpse, a little snippet, of what you might expect to happen if we continue the series or if we were doing it as a feature. And yes, of course, we have the feature.
So, it's almost a continuing. Basically, there was not too much given and detailed in the web series. Which I thought was really surprising given the fanbase of people who loved and caught on to it. But there was not too much there really, I think it was more atmospheric – this whole eye candy kind of feel to it. It felt refreshing and different. That’s what I get from a lot of people who’ve told me what they felt. That’s their feedback after watching all five episodes.
Any advice for anybody looking at trying to launch a project?
Yeah, the advice I'd give is to take one idea, one concept, one project. Take that project and ask yourself, if you really believe in this project so much that you can grow from it and take it out to the masses, to the audience, or build off of it, maybe a launching point of a career.
I tell people that you have to believe in it so much that when you bring people along to your project – because it is a team effort, you can't do this whole thing by yourself, filmmaking is a team effort – they will start believing in it. It brings this whole big synergy to the project, and it will grow and be what you want. Because you believe in it and you made everyone believe in it. And, just keep on going. That's what I would say. I mean, like myself, you know I just kept on going. You've just got to keep working at it.
What is your top favorite horror film?
I would say Exorcist is probably my top favorite horror film.
I think in that film, you could see the two horrors. You have the spiritual element of this demonic, supernatural, whatever you want to call it demonic takeover of this girl, which is one of the horror elements. And, I also think one of the biggest horror elements is the priest. How the priest's life was a horror itself.
We have this priest after his whole entire life, he's questioned his faith, and he's questioned himself of why am I a priest? And, there's nothing like you growing up to be in your 50s, I think he was like in his late 40s or early 50s where you say to yourself, dude, I wasted my whole life. This is not what I wanted to do. And, to me, that's a horror.
That's a cool perspective.
That's what I love about the film. The film handles two aspects, and you can see both. I felt those two horror elements were amazing.
Thank you for taking the time to talk, I really appreciate it!
Thank you, Hilton for sharing your success story.
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Michael launched Your Money Geek to make personal finance fun. He has worked in personal finance for over 20 years, helping families reduce taxes, increase their income, and save for retirement. Michael is passionate about personal finance, side hustles, and all things geeky.