Alex Casey talks to director Scott Walker and Wētā Workshop’s Sir Richard Taylor about The Tank, a locally made horror that brings an everyday nightmare to life.
Many New Zealanders who grew up in certain regions, or during a certain time period, have a scary water tank that haunts their memory. For Scott Walker, the origin of his tank phobia is relatively recent. At the start of the pandemic, the writer and director found himself stuck in Aotearoa with his family after what was supposed to be a quick Christmas trip home from the United States. Forced by visa issues to move between houses for 18 months, a stay at a friend’s house built on a large old water tank spawned a brand new nightmare.
When the taps began running low one day, Walker found himself climbing into the unnerving darkness of the water tank to make some repairs. After that day, the nightmares began plaguing him, night after sleepless night. They involved a fluid creature, jet black and goopy, oozing out of the taps of the house. Once released from the drains, it would take its monstrous final form, and would proceed to eat him and his whole family.
“That became the script,” Walker says, rather cheerily, over Zoom. “And then I sent it to Richard [Taylor] and said ‘I’ve had these horrible nightmares, and I’ve written the script, would you please read it and tell me what you think?’” Having worked together on previous projects, the Wētā Workshop founder was more than happy to take a look – especially given he had his own cursed experience with a creaky corrugated water tank looming behind his childhood home.
“One day the water started tasting foul, and Dad wanted to investigate,” Taylor recalls. “He lowered me through a very, very small opening and the top of the tank and then let go.” With his Dad’s body blocking the only source of light, a young Taylor splashed around in the darkness. “This was a long way before waterproof torches, so I am swimming around in this freezing cold water, trying to grab some rancid possum or some decomposing goat.”
It turned out to just be a black bird, but the incident has stuck with Taylor for nearly a quarter of a century. When he received Walker’s script for The Tank, he read it cover to cover. “I had a connection to the sort of nightmare that Scott was describing,” he says. It was also the brief description of the “very plausible” creature that had him hooked. “I found it amazingly compelling, and immediately had a desire to build it with our team [at Wētā].”
From there came an “extraordinary exchange” of creature ideas, says Taylor, shared everywhere from the back of napkins in Thai restaurants to late night texts containing photos of hagfish. Would a creature in a water tank have eyes or no eyes? Slime or no slime? How would it hunt? How would it walk? “Whatever it had, there had to be a reason behind it,” explains Walker, who produced pages and pages of notes and reference photographs fleshing out the “ecological plausibility” of the monster.
Beyond ecology, there was another factor that limited what the creature could do. Walker was adamant he wanted to use practical effects in the film, committing to a style of “old school creature feature” instead of turning to big budget CGI scares. “The main thing was actually being able to have a physical creature in the room, rather than something imaginary,” he says. “If you can create a great creature that actually looks like it’s alive and it’s slimy and it’s scary, you get a terrific performance because the other actors have something to respond to.”
After finding contortionist Regina Hegemann to embody the creature, the Wētā team got to work designing a full, wearable suit. “In fight scenes we didn’t want to see someone’s bare foot – the creature had to be the creature the whole way through,” says Walker. The result was a 3D printed suit, which Taylor posits might be one of the first of its kind in the world. “We made a 3D core of her, and then 3D printed the moulds from which we ran the silicone,” says Taylor. “She had to be in silicone, not foam, because of the water content.”
The result is a drooling, nostril-flaring, teeth-baring aquatic monster that tears people limb from limb, sprints across the forest floor on all fours and scratches at doors with sharp, knife-like fingers. For Taylor, the creature is in keeping with a wider return to practical effects. “We have definitely seen a swing back the other way,” he says. “For about 10 years, our animatronics department almost fell fallow. We could barely pull the work together and we were starting to do more location based experiences, just to try and keep our robotics and animatronics alive.”
But in the last year, Taylor says Wētā has done more animatronic work than in the past decade. “Young directors are coming back to the idea of using practical effects,” he says. “If the creature is in the world, that director is having an immediate and connected relationship with the scene, with the creature, with the actors, and they are able to manipulate, to the micro level, the different components of their film.” He also believes that audience perception is evolving, and that people can “subtly sense” the differences in performance in CGI-heavy scenes.
Representing another wider trend, The Tank also joins a glut of horror movies produced in Aotearoa since the pandemic – alongside Pearl, M3GAN and Evil Dead Rise. Walker says the trend reflects the psychological impact of the last few years. “It’s all about providing escapism, and I think that need has only enhanced due to Covid,” he says. “Horror gives us something that’s totally made up to be afraid of, after a lot of people experienced very real fear of what we all thought Covid was going to do and was going to become.”
Taylor has his own theory as to why the horror boom. “Peter Jackson started his career in splatter horror, and there was a misconception that he was what was called back then a gore-meister,” he says. “But if you watch his early films, it’s entirely evident that they were vehicles to grander films yet to be made. With horror, there is the potential for very low budget films to reach genre level fandom. I don’t really believe there’s any other form of filmmaking that has the potential, relative to budgets spent, to reach a core fan group like that.”
Regardless of whether it’s psychological, economic, or both, Taylor says it is heartening to see a return to lower budget genre filmmaking in Aotearoa. “New Zealand has always made highly impactful, low cost horror,” he says. “And you know, New Zealand deserves to have this new wave of horror coming out because we, as a country, are just really good at it.”
The Tank opens in cinemas nationwide today.